How I feel today about being a scientist

August 16, 2011 - 2 Responses

It’s a funny thing. I stand by what I wrote recently about the painfulness and lack of reward that often characterises the life of the research scientist. With a new beginning, new lab, new projects, I am feeling hopeful now, but I know I will visit those dark places again – if I choose to continue on this path. And yet, I still want to do it.

What do you make  of that? Crazy, perhaps, stupid, some might say, hopelessly optimistic, probably. But for now I am going with it.



August 6, 2011 - Leave a Response

My first week in my new lab has gone well. One thing I am enjoying is that I need to learn various new techniques, as well as getting familiar with some projects that I’ll be involved with, and since I am free to organise my own time, I have this sense of being in a grown-up, scientific playground, where I can go from room to room choosing to learn about things. I am really enjoying remembering the sense of exploration, discovery and creativity that research can entail. Everything is new, everything is fresh, everything has potential. It is still possible that something amazing will happen (in contrast to the situation at the end of my previous position where the best that could be hoped for was to scrape together enough data to get past the bar of the reviewers of my papers). Sure, in time there will be disappointments, ambiguities, fatigue, tedium, frustration and disillusionment. But for now I am enjoying this time of promise, and hoping that, even in the dark times, I will not completely forget.

Then again, maybe I won’t (stop blogging)

August 2, 2011 - Leave a Response

I feel good about my first day in my new lab. It’s a smaller department where everyone knows each other and seems to be friendly. Most important, I feel really positive about my new mentor. She’s organised, she’s in touch with all the data being generated in the lab and she has a plan for how I can use the next couple of years to my advantage: what projects I should work on, how tasks will be fairly and clearly divided among lab members and what grants I can apply for. I feel so relieved to know that someone else is thinking about this stuff, and I don’t have to figure it all out by myself. It is a refreshing novelty for me to feel so supported.

I have the utmost admiration for my previous mentors, but I am also aware that my mentorship could have been better. I did my PhD in a big lab, run by one of the country’s top scientists who, although I know she cared about me and my career, was so over-committed that she parceled out her wisdom in pre-scheduled 10 minute meetings and one-sentence emails. For various reasons there was never really a postdoc I could rely on and so I spent much of my time feeling like I was on my own. (To be fair, I also had a tendency to feel that I could and should do everything myself, without help, and that I was somehow better for it, a belief that is also reflected in the rest of my life and that I am slowly unlearning.)  My recent mentor was much more available but, to my measured and logical mind, scatterbrained and disorganised. He came up with creative new ideas that I would never have thought of, but missed seemingly basic details and couldn’t remember the experiments I had spent days and hours slaving away at just a few months previously. I learned a lot from him, but sometimes I felt like we were on different planets. He encouraged me and put a lot of opportunities my way but did not seem to have an overarching plan for how my time in his group should progress my career.

So now I wonder how much difference this new style of mentor will make to my success and productivity. Could this be the piece that was missing from my career thus far? Was imperfect mentorship really holding me back? I have more than my fair share of self-doubt but even I realise that there are many indicators that I am a smart and capable person with an aptitude for scientific research – and for sure I have worked hard and with dedication – and yet I so far I do not have a lot to show for it. No first author publications. No grants. No breakthroughs.

In my more fatalistic moments, I think of my career as a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ kind of scenario. I had one chance at a PhD and one chance at a postdoc. If I can’t make a go of my second postdoc, it’s probably a sign that this is not the right path for me, and it’s time to call it a day. Then again, in my more optimistic moods I think, and I hope: third time lucky?

Small Exit

August 1, 2011 - One Response

I’ve let the blog slide for a while, partly because I’ve got better at saying things out loud, face-to-face, to people around me. But today I am feeling a need to put my thoughts on paper (figuratively, at least) and this seems like as good a place as any.

Today was the last day of my current postdoc position. I mean the very last day; you may have noticed that it is Sunday, 31st July. My supervisor’s funding runs out at the end of this month, and with it my job. Thankfully I was fortunate in getting a position in another lab at the same institution, in the same field. Very fortunate, actually. I start tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it, although I haven’t had much time to contemplate it until now.

I had hoped to spend my last week revising my papers, updating my lab books and organising all my things, but of course I ended up doing experiments until the very last minute. There was one really key experiment that a reviewer wanted that, because of the timing, I couldn’t finish until today. So, there I was in the lab on a Sunday, finishing this experiment and finally starting to let it sink in that I was leaving. I threw away reagents, washed up plasticware for the last time and packed my radio and desk lamp and tea bags into an empty box of printer paper. I dreamed of a big exit for myself, a happy ending where I would get this last piece of great data, rejoice in the fact that I hadn’t been chasing a dead end all this time and that my hypotheses were correct, gleefully share it with my supervisor, resubmit my paper and waltz off into the sunset finally feeling good about myself as a scientist. After all this time, I should know better, right? The result was negative. I looked at it a million ways but there was no avoiding the screaming lack of any positive data whatsoever.

I was disappointed, but not really surprised. It fit with the pattern of most of what I have done for the past several years. I put my heart and soul into a project, work my ass off, believe that I have something, and then am let down. I say this not with bitterness, but with a dawning acceptance that this – it seems – is the way it goes in this business. Science takes all you’ve got in terms of effort, dedication, persistence and cunning, and gives you very little in return. Perhaps everyone, except the few who are lucky or blessed with genius, comes to terms with this at some point. When I think about this reality of the life of the scientist, I feel an intense sensation of pain deep inside me. It is a painful truth. I do not mean to be melodramatic when I say that there is something inherently tragic about the whole thing. I wonder if there can ever be a happy ending.

So it is with mixed feelings – of relief and regret, of pride and humility, of hope and resignation – that, late this evening, I finally pick up my box, shut the lab door behind me and walk away.

What would it take?

October 18, 2010 - Leave a Response

I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems with a traditional academic career, the reasons not to do it. This is fine but at some point I feel like I should answer the question ‘do you have a better idea?’. After all, we need good academic scientists and we don’t (in my opinion) want them all to be obsessive, single-minded workaholics with no connection to the rest of the world. So I have been thinking about what it would take for me, at least, to stay in academic science and maybe even still wind up as a PI.

Idea #1 is to extend my lifespan as a postdoc, including some years when I would go part-time in order to be a good parent to my (future) kids. Ideally, this would be mostly done in one lab, where I would establish a long-term partnership with the PI and benefit the lab with my greater knowledge and experience, both in my own research projects and in day-to-day mentoring of students and more junior postdocs (which many PIs do not have the time to do in extensive detail), as well as the consistency of my presence (how much work gets repeated in labs because no one knew it had been done already, or could find the data?). If I do say so myself, I could probably contribute more to the lab working 3-4 days a week than some postdocs I’ve encountered do working full-time. Eventually, when my kids are older, and with the benefit of a less ageist environment and one more open to different kinds of career structures, I might start my own small lab.

Great, but what about making it easier for people to become PIs without jacking in everything else that life is about?

Idea #2: Why can’t PIs jobshare? Instead of one PI heading a lab, you could have two people working as a team to bring in the grant money, provide direction to the research, supervise lab members and fulfill teaching commitments. Each PI would probably end up with a workload more appropriate for a single human being, and be more creative, innovative and productive (not to mention happy) as a result.

Idea #3: Take some of the pressure off PIs. Increase research funding so that people who are doing good work don’t have to submit ten grants to get one funded. Award grants for longer periods so the PIs have some time to think about science. Reduce teaching requirements by hiring people who actually want to be teachers to do that job (a good use of some of those highly educated and trained grad students and postdocs who outnumber faculty jobs 3:1). And… create permanent positions for researchers (the ‘Permanent Postdoc’ theory) who can stay in their labs long-term managing people and projects (see Idea #1).

Idea #4: Scrap the current structure altogether and come up with something new and more effective. More research required on this one.

The moral of the story

October 13, 2010 - Leave a Response

I’ve been searching for some kind of positive spin to put on my recent experimental ordeal, some message to take away, and I think I finally found it. Friends had said to me, well at least you understand this technique better now – but I have been doing this technique for nearly 10 years and in my previous lab I was considered the expert on it, so that was not much consolation. From a scientific standpoint, all I have managed to do is get the damn thing working again. I still don’t have the data that will hopefully say, drug X has effect Y and we can save the world. I had sighed and said jokingly, I guess whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Well, today I realised that was true. I am stronger. I was talking to Fellow Postdoc #2, who is struggling with a project that would be challenging for anyone, let alone a new postdoc with limited experience. She was feeling pretty discouraged about it all. Don’t worry, I told her. It’s a process. You’ll get there. I was able to say that with one hundred percent honesty and conviction, because I’ve been there and it’s true. I think for the first time in my scientific career, even though I was on the brink of despair, I pushed on through until the end. Science brought me to my knees, but I just kept crawling. And now I’ve been through it once, I will never be so afraid of it again. I have a deeper sense of self-belief. I have been saying this to others for years, but this really is the nature of research. It’s incredibly hard and it takes a really long time and sometimes it doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. We are all grappling with this, not just me. As we left lab meeting today, I heard Fellow Postdocs #1 and #3 discussing a problem they were having. ‘There’s just no reason’, FP#1 was saying, ‘for it to have stopped working now when it was fine before’. I smiled to myself, knowing that they will work it out, just as I did, just as we all can do if we persevere and keep the faith that we can make it.

This is your brain on success

October 12, 2010 - Leave a Response

It’s amazing what a bit of success will do for your brain. Mine has been crackling with activity ever since getting back into the lab on Monday morning. Even though I have not been managing to get any more sleep than usual, and I spent all of my Sunday off doing things (fun things, like going for a bike ride and playing music, but nonetheless I did not stop all day), I feel awake, alert, focussed, motivated and am full of energy!

Although I am elated about overcoming my experimental block, all I have actually achieved is to get myself back to square one. Now I have to get the data, rework the manuscript, send it to the other authors for comments and submit it, within the next three weeks. Oh, and there’s the other experiment the reviewers asked for, which also needs some work. So, in typical Human Scientist style, yesterday I ran a double batch of the newly-working experiments, and am ploughing through part two of them today.

I also got excited about the idea of submitting a feature to one of our University magazines, based on something I wrote during my nonfiction course. I spent some time identifying the best publication to go to, trying to write a ‘query letter’ and figuring out if and when I would find time to do the interviews I would need to complete the article. This is a plunge into the unknown for me; the process of pitching an article idea to an editor is a completely new challenge, with its own formats and conventions that I have no experience of, and I feel the terror of that plunge. But I also relish it, as more and more I find that opening unfamiliar doors leads to new and exciting outcomes that I could never have imagined beforehand.

With all this brainstorming, I was glad I had my yoga class last night to remind me to keep breathing.


October 9, 2010 - Leave a Response

It worked!!!

Thank you Universe 🙂

I am going home now.

Two days in the life of the Human Scientist

October 8, 2010 - Leave a Response

Good day

Yesterday, I wandered out at lunchtime and sat on a bench in the middle of campus to eat my bagel. It was a perfect sunny autumn day. I noticed the way the light fell through the leaves on the trees, which were just beginning to turn, and made patterns on the path. I observed the people walking by, tuning into snatches of conversation, and I thought, we need this. We need these pauses, these spaces in between the things that are our lives. We are such reductionists, we scientists. We know that spending time in the lab and performing experiments lead to results, publications, and all good things that we desire, so we assume a linear relationship and think that the more time we spend, the more experiments we do, the more results and publications and recognition and success we will have. But it doesn’t work like that. Our capacities are not limitless. We are not machines; we are so much more than that. Of course hard work matters, but I say what matters more are those moments of clarity, of inspirations, when we think ‘I wonder if…’ These are the things that true progress is made of, and it is no use expecting them to come when we are overworked, stressed, exhausted, burned out and want nothing more than for the next day, week, month to pass. We must take a more holistic approach, taking good care of ourselves physically and emotionally, to be ready for these insights to strike.

Bad day

Apparently, things have been too easy for me lately. (For details on just how easy things have been, see previous two blog posts). With only one of the two key experiments needed for my resubmission in a state of abysmal failure, I was dangerously close to actually being able to submit the manuscript some time this year. To rectify this state of affairs, the Universe decreed that the CO2 tank for the cell culture incubator should run out shortly after we all left for the night, and that the inner door should be accidentally left just a crack open so that all the CO2 would escape and we would arrive in the morning to a screaming alarm and an incubator full of dead cells. There goes my work-plan for the weekend. My only consolation is that with everything that has happened lately, there really can’t be many things left that could go wrong… can there?

The human scientist admits she is human

October 7, 2010 - Leave a Response

I was talking to my housemate in the kitchen this morning about my frustrations over my work and how my experiments are not working even though there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t, and how I might reluctantly have to hand it over to one of my coworkers to have a go. She smiled and said maybe that’s the whole reason for this – you have to let go control of it. My immediate reaction was that this was a pretty stupid hypothesis for why my experiment doesn’t work. But then I thought, well, at least she has a hypothesis.

Partly inspired by this, I did something that doesn’t come easy to me, and asked for help. I swallowed my pride, stubbornness and incessant need to do everything myself (it was quite a mouthful, believe me), and asked my most trusted/experienced fellow postdoc if he could try running one of the experiments for me next week. He very kindly agreed to fit it in around all the other stuff he has to do. Even this made me feel comforted – I am still working on fixing the problem myself but now I have a back-up plan. Plus, it’s good to feel that I have someone who is willing to help me out like that.

Cross your fingers for me!