Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Redefining Myself

It seems fitting to ease back into writing after a break of over two weeks - wow, time did fly - by writing a response to FlickaMawa’s question for this month’s Scientiae Carnival, “How have your views of yourself and your career changed over time?”

I could write a book on that.

Ten years ago, I had a completely different career – one that had nothing to do with science. I had been trying to “make it” as a professional dancer and choreographer since I was a very little girl, and I was still making my peace with the decision to listen to my damaged body and waning motivation and move on. I went back to school planning a change of course – I started by taking the science courses I would need to get into a physical therapy program. After all, I had plenty of first-hand experience with PT. At first, I worked hard for the grades. And the grades came. One day I had a chat with one of my professors about my plans, and he told me that, judging from my work in his class, I would likely become bored with physical therapy. He suggested that I aim higher. I started looking into medical school – I thought I’d make a great sports medicine specialist. I discovered that I am fascinated by the kinds of things that gross some people out – surgical tools and how they are used, how the body works and what happens when it goes wrong, rare diseases. In retrospect, I don’t think that’s what he meant, and if it was, he was wrong. I’m not really cut out to be a doctor. But I love science. And so, I have spent the past decade redefining myself as a scientist.

What does that mean, anyway? For one thing, it has meant an incredible amount of “book learning”. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know nearly enough, but every now and then I find myself talking about something that I remember not knowing anything about before. For one instant, I can see how very much I have learned – too bad it doesn’t last! I have also had to purge a lot of annoying little voices from my head. People often assume that artists are not smart – especially dancers, who only need to know how to count up to eight. And I bought that message whole, even as I took AP science and math courses in high school, took apart and rebuilt radios just for fun, and nearly set fire to the kitchen experimenting with invisible inks. I’ve always been into science. I just didn’t see myself as a scientist. I still sort of stutter on the word when people ask me what I do. I’d rather say I’m a graduate student. This is an ongoing process, I guess. Ten years ago, I had no idea what I would look like as a scientist. I couldn’t really fit myself into that box. Instead, I’ve taken up the challenge of creating a different box. It needs to be a pretty big box, since I like to dance around in the lab while doing experiments.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I woke up this morning

in a cold sweat. I had a terrible nightmare about lab work. I know, this really makes me a certifiable freak, but it's true.

I need a certain reagent for my experiments that is difficult to make. In fact, I spent a few months troubleshooting the protocol for making this reagent, and have only managed to make it correctly once. I will pat myself on the back here, because I am the ONLY person who has done this, to my knowledge. I have been using the one good batch that I made for my experiments, which are yielding some interesting data. But I will run out before long, and a post-doc that I work with would like to use this reagent, as well. So I am supposed to teach him how to make it. And this is what spawned the nightmare.

In my dream, I suddenly realize that I really can't make the stuff. It was just a fluke. I open the tube that held my one successful batch, and there is nothing left. I feel the horror rising up in my chest as I look at tiny droplets clinging to the side of the tube; not enough for even one experiment. My PI is looking over my shoulder as I do this, and he begins to yell at me, "How could you let this happen. You'll never be able to write a paper now!" He is telling me that I should have planned better, I should have been more careful, etc. And I feel paralyzed because I know that I can't make any more.

It's funny, but it was the yelling that clued me in that this was just a dream, so before I woke up I knew that it was a projection of my own anxiety about trying to teach someone else something I don't feel that I know all that well myself. My PI would never yell at me like that. And if he did I certainly wouldn't just stand there all frozen like I did in the dream - I'd yell back! BTW: this is why I knew I had to choose a PI who either never yelled, or who would be comfortable with a student who would respond in kind. Anyway, I still felt the tightness in my chest and the clammy hands that come with a nightmare. What a shitty way to start the day.

But this reminds me of a conversation I had with a fellow student, about how to talk to your PI about the things that sometimes make your work go slower than you'd like without sounding like you are just making excuses. I told him that I usually begin our meetings with a brief, matter-of-fact recap of what has happened since we last talked - what experiments I have done, which are still on the to-do list, what data analysis is pending and how much longer I think it will take, and any equipment problems I've had and how they have been or will be resolved. Finally, though I always let him know when I have to be out of the lab, I remind him if one of the kids was sick, or if there was a school holiday, or any of the other reasons that I may not have had as much work time as I planned. I don't think of this as making excuses; it's just setting the stage for our discussion. I suggested to my fellow student that he try doing it that way. And I commented that, since our PI is a pretty nice guy, he's not likely to rake you over the coals as long as you're not bringing in a sob story every week and you actually are getting some shit done.

Then, my fellow student asked the million-dollar question: why are some PI's nice and reasonable, but others absolutely nasty-assed, unforgiving jerks. Wow! I had to think for a minute or two on that one. Finally, I said that I think it's because that's how they were treated when they were students. Or, maybe it's because they think that being unreasonably demanding is a good way to get someone to get a lot done, regardless of how soul-destroying it can be to a student to feel that they are always coming up short. But really, I don't know. This is a real problem, because it means I don't know if my PI is likely to end up going to the dark side...

Monday, April 7, 2008

I'm Back

It’s been over a week since I have simultaneously had both the time and inclination to write a post. I feel like I have been riding some white-water while building the raft along the way.

About a month ago, I decided to repeat some of my experiments because I was not satisfied with the quality of the data, APA (Against PI Advice). I had wanting do this for some time, but my PI had been, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about it because he felt we were “close” to being ready to publish, and this would only cause a pointless delay. But I felt I knew better, having lived in close quarters with the data, and decided to do it anyway, and try to smooth any rift this may cause by making sure to have the experiments done and at least partially analyzed before meeting with my PI. I also designed a test of the data, using criteria that we had agreed upon, which showed that the new data set was of much higher quality than the initial set. Happily, the new data was still consistent with our hypothesis. So, when I presented this to my PI, he was only slightly miffed, but suggested that, since I was repeating things anyway, maybe I could try changing just one thing…

This time, I took my PI’s advice, but when I started analyzing the new data, I realized that while most of it was still consistent with everything I had seen before, there was also a small population within the dataset that did not seem to fit into our hypothesis. Outliers? At first I thought I had a new problem, and was dreading my next meeting with my PI. Forget about the fact that it was my turn to present at the next group meeting. I kept analyzing data, and realized that it wasn’t just a few outliers, but over 10% of the measurements! So I looked at that 10% really hard, looked over my background literature and came up with a new hypothesis which could both explain its existence while allowing for the overall consistency of the majority of the data. And, after discussing this with a post-doc in the lab, came up with a couple of tests for this hypothesis that were direct, and relatively easy to do. So, that’s where I was at the time of my last post, and why I was so happy to be analyzing data next to a feverish Thing 2.

But my group meeting was scheduled for Monday, and I could only discuss this in a qualitative way on Thursday. Besides, I was chomping at the bit to take the next steps. So, I talked hubby into staying home with a nearly all better Thing 2 on Friday, so I could try to get something ready to present. I chose to spend Friday doing the simpler test of my hypothesis, foolishly thinking that I could have everything ready for Monday. Oh, I am so, so foolish. Saturday, I pulled an all-nighter, trying to finish analyzing the data with all the outliers AND the test data from Friday. Not humanly possible. I walked home at about 5:30 am, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before the kids got up. I still needed to put together a coherent presentation for group meeting, but at least I had as full a dataset as possible to support the discussion of my hypothesis. Hubby took the kids out for brunch, and I dragged out my laptop to try to finish up. It wasn’t happening – by the time they got back, I still had a LOT to do. And there were still the demands of the regular Sunday preparation for the week to come. I finally got everything together late Sunday night, after the kids had gone to bed.

The presentation went pretty well. Discussion was lively, and the general consensus was that I am on the right track, and that this new development is, in fact, interesting, and not just to me. I spent the rest of the week picking up all the things I had dropped the week before, while trying to get the new data, since the experiment I did on Friday was not conclusive. Of course, this is when everything began to fall apart. My experiments began to fail, necessitating repetition of things that shouldn’t need to be repeated. Thing 2 became exceptionally needy, crying at the drop-off for daycare and clinging to me in the evening at home. Thing 1 had two doctor appointments, one a check-up for her asthma and the other an eye appointment and fitting for contacts - turns out it's really hard to learn how to insert and remove contacts. Plus, the condo association has decided to hire a plumber to repair everyone’s radiator valves, and it has to be done NOW and in the presence of the unit owner. And of course, hubby can't do any of this stuff, for various reasons. This week, I have to figure out how to win at Catch-up. I’m losing really badly right now.