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27 and a PhD: the lab manager

At this time last year I was returning to NYC from visiting my parents, my (then) boyfriend (now husband), and celebrating my nephew’s 2nd birthday. I was happy to be back in NYC. But sad to leave my heart behind. It wasn’t in my mind that one day I’d be working away from NYC as a lab manager.  NY happened and I couldn’t have asked for more. I met top-notch scientists, and I worked along them and their groups to try to elucidate structures, or sometimes make sense of what was happening with their samples. I spent almost two years in the city that never sleeps. Some days were busy, others were meh, but I learned so very, very much. And I couldn’t know it at the time, but the contacts I made and the people I helped would be of great impact at my current position.

I moved from NYC almost 3 months ago. It seems like forever, though I can still feel the city, the people, the streets, food and everything in my mind. I hope to be back, even if only to visit at some point. But this is my new life and I’m slowly getting into a new rhythm. I wake up at 7:30, get my sorry ass to the gym (or as I call it, the torture chamber) and get to the lab before 10am. Most days there are lots of issues to tend to, from broken equipment, meeting new users .. but mostly I’m collecting data for other people … something I did quite a bit in NY. I have to check on the instrumentation once a week and do some performance tests to check that everything is in order. I didn’t do that in NYC, my former supervisor did and I’ve been texting him every now and then to check that I’m doing things fine. I have various bosses, at different levels, and most weeks I meet with one or a couple of them, to go over things like usage, instrument performance, data collection for different groups … etc.

Overall I’m pretty busy, especially now, when it seems as if all of my PIs want data now. It’s not bad. I’m just trying to be cautious and always check in with them to see if my methods of data collection align with what they know and expect. So far the feedback has been positive, and one of my bosses made the comment to one of their trainees that it was a relief to have me here to help collect data. That feels awesome.

I also get to hunt down the people who provide us with quotes, so I can send those to the powers that be and have them place orders. I’ve done my fair share of cleaning, both floors and lab fridges. I’ve tried to do some mingling when I can, as that is part of what I was brought back … to get more users into the facility. I haven’t had to do a journal club yet … since technically I’m part of no one’s lab .. but I do attend some of their lab meetings (and even practice talks) to get a feel for what it is that I am collecting data for. Some people argue that it is isolating, but I actually like it, as I am not bound to a single lab, yet get to work on a variety of projects and samples, which I believe to be a positive thing for my CV and my careers.

In general I really like what I do. But I am scared to death of making big decisions. And though I am not shy about voicing my opinion, it is weird to be though of as an expert in my discipline. That is still shocking to me.

That’s it for now. Do you have any questions about being (or becoming) a lab manager?

Finally had time to write

Not much. Just popping my head to say that I’m alive and well. Have dropped 10lbs in 8 weeks, which is good. But I have a loooong way to go. And it’s getting harder to get out of bed and get my lazy ass to the gym. It’s even harder avoiding snacks, such as brownies, my favourite, since there’s a cafe that sells them just down the lab. Grrrr. Trying to stay strong.

I may have mentioned it on Twitter and perhaps here … my mind is currently all over the place, but a second (and possibly the last) paper out of my previous position is coming out soon. It’s in a journal with a big name, though not a C/N/S one. It’s so exciting to see the fruits of my labour, along with those of the first and senior authors who worked really hard to get a compelling story out the door. I was happy and humbled by the publication, given my not so stellar record during the postdoc. That makes this my 8th publication. Or I should say, the 8th publication in which I appear in the list of authors. I definitely did something good in my first iteration as a staff scientist. And each and every paper, or poster or whatever that comes out and bears my name, makes me happier and more convinced that my postdoc experience was something out of the norm and that though I may take my sweet time to accomplish certain things, I do get it done and do make valuable contributions to science. My hope is to be in a 9th paper, at least in the works, by the end of this year. I was told by my bosses that they hoped I’d be an author, should I help them collect data (which I have … tons!), since they believe it’s important for my name to keep getting out there, for people to notice me, and us and my place of work. We all hope to make this lab a known (and respected facility) .. to attract more talent, and funding and to make sure we can afford the service contracts on our toys.

I hope to write some more about my impressions as a lab manager in a few weeks. Stay tuned! And have a great weekend :-)

The day I almost died

Another year passes, another accident anniversary.

You see, 9 years ago, while I was in my first year of grad school, I almost died in a horrific accident. I came out of it walking, conscious and well, only some minor bruising and whiplash. But it was hard to believe I made it out alive when people saw pictures and video of the event. It was Mother’s Day 2004 and I was on my way back to my PhD lab from visiting my family. I’d spent a good week with my loved ones, nursing a broken heart. I’d seen my ex, the guy who broke my heart not once, not twice, but three times. I was broken and I wanted to die. I was pleading with God to kill me, or to align the stars so I’d be in a horrific accident and would not survive. I wanted the pain to go away. I was tired of crying myself to sleep for weeks. I think I went to bed crying every single night, from February to April of that year. I lost weight, it felt like I’d lost my reason to live … or what I though was my reason to live.

Eventually I resolved to live and rise from the depths of my depression. Millions of hearts had been broken before. I was not exceptional. I was going through a rough period that a lot of people go through when they’re in middle or high school. But since I wasn’t allowed to date until I was in college (and with restrictions!), I was experiencing my first heartbreak in all of its glory. It was awful.

Seeing my family gave me some energy. But seeing my ex and his new conquest fueled my resolve to do kick ass science. To move forward, to publish, to get my name known by important people in my field. And it definitely fueled my desire to live.

And then there was the accident. And my life changed. I remember as everything was unfolding in the longest minute of my life, asking God for forgiveness. Asking God for a chance to prove that I could do great things. I was afraid to die. I was only 22. It was not my time.

And live I did. I only went to the hospital to get a neck brace and some potent pain killers. All X-rays showed no issues or broken bones. I was embraced by my family, with tears running down their faces. They’d seen the news reports of the accident. They could not believe I was alive. They were happy to see me. I was in shock. I felt like God had listened to me. And now I had to face the pain of the broken heart, and the survivor’s guilt and I needed to move forward.

And I went back to school. I dumped all my anger, my rage, my frustration and my despair into working my tail off. And half a dozen papers came out of that. Some with lots of effort and tears, some with seemingly no effort. I eventually went to therapy to deal with some of the survivor’s guilt, with the feelings of anger I still harbored towards my ex, of the feelings of inadequacy, of the imposter. I’m pretty sure I had some PTSD, judging by the bouts of fear I had for about 1.5 years after the accident. They uncontrollable crying and lack of sleep I got moments before facing the same situation that had almost killed me. It was tough. I’m still dealing with the remnants.

I lived through a rough time when my self-worth was shot. I found love again. I found my calling in science. I found two amazing jobs after one bad postdoc. I am married. I’m an auntie. I’m healthy and I’m working on becoming physically strong.

Now, 9 years after, I am happy and thankful for being alive. I’m happy that I didn’t die on that dark day in May. I’m happy to have a family that loves me, a job that needs me and fuels my interest in science, and I am happy I have a better man, a best friend, a wonderful murse ;-). I am resolved to not go down without a fight.

Sometimes life changes in an instant. And what we thought was our happily ever after becomes a nightmare. A broken heart, a cheating ex, an accident. They all happen at once and you’re left considering the what ifs, and now whats. It is worth going forward. It can be one hell of a transforming experience. And I am happy to be able to tell it.

Hang in there …. it does get better. I am living proof of it.


Four years ago, coming this summer, I had my thesis defense, quickly followed by the start of my postdoc. I remember that around this time 4 years ago, I was sick, writing the second to last chapter of my thesis and still processing data. I was also excited about joining my then boyfriend, now husband, in Canada and *finally* being together. My life seemed to be taking some shape, after being a student for the last 5.5 years. The future looked promising.

But in the back of my head, I still had some lingering doubts. I’d done two postdoc interviews, got an offer out of one, which was in a completely different discipline than the one I’d been trained in. The second interview went well, but I never got a second call. The PI phrased it as, “it’s not you, it’s me. We’re going in a different direction.” I also think he didn’t agree with all the methods we’d developed in my PhD lab to acquire and process data 10X faster than he did. Whatever the reason, I was leaving my PhD discipline behind and embarking in something new and completely foreign to me.

From the start there were signs that things were not going to go well. Most of my labmates had offices in a totally separate part of the building, and it took time to click with some of them. Others embraced me quite easily. I tried not to bother people too much and was flexible when it came to booking instruments. For the first few months I was eagerly learning how to do things and set up machines, mostly from grad students. I don’t remember the boss walking in once to check in on me. He basically left it all to everyone else to show me the ropes. And while some people would be OK with that, I wasn’t. I’d developed what I felt was a good working relationship with my PhD boss and we got along pretty well. I found myself longing for the talks we had about data and coming up with strategies to solve problems together.

Eventually I sort of  grew into the rhythm of things. But I still longed for a lot of the things I had before, not only boss-wise, but lab-wise. I was stuck with a relentless bully. I was having to work on most Fridays later than everyone else, so I could work alone and not justify or be questioned by everyone and their neighbour as to why I was loading my gel like that, or why I was preparing the buffer this other way. I was tired, listless. And honey recognized the depression, the feelings of desperation, anger, frustration. The imposter syndrome was kicking into high gear.

I was able to escape that situation and found my first job as a staff scientist in the wonderful city of NY. It wasn’t easy at first. I was scared of the city, but mostly of whether I could do science after a horrendous postdoc that ended in 0 publications. I felt like a failure. Who goes into a lab and doesn’t even get into the acknowledgements, all while her fellow postdocs and grad students are publishing left and right? What was wrong with me?

I’m still looking for some of those answers. But last year, I realized, that perhaps I wasn’t THAT much of a failure after all. After collecting data for a prof in NY, a paper came out, with my name included in the list of authors. Granted, there were about 10 different authors, mostly because the project had switched hands at various points. But that little paper published in a GlamorMag-type place (well, one of its offshoots) started to give me some of my old confidence back. I felt that I was doing something worthy and that my efforts had landed me in that list of authors. That those days spent in the cold, looking at a screen for hours, waiting for results and then the ensuing long sessions of data processing, landed me there.

But that was only the start. Late last week I got an email from another Glamor-type Mag, in which again I was in the author list, notifying us that the paper had been accepted, no corrections, no third reviewer crap about this ONE more essay the MUST be conducted to maybe accept the paper. I was reading that email on my way to work and a little happy scream and dance ensued. I’m sure people thought I was nuts. Whatever. I finally felt vindicated. In the two years I’d been in NY, TWO papers had come out bearing my name. Countless other projects there had also my touch on them, most which would never make into a publication … but those two, those beautiful papers, have given me so much hope that maybe there aren’t that many things wrong with me. That perhaps it was a combination of multiple factors that led to me having 0 papers out of postdoc-land but that in the same length of time I was in that lab, I got two papers out of my previous position. I was glad, and humbled. And I was pinching myself. I felt, I feel, vindicated.

I should remember this feeling in the future, when equipment breaks, or when I’m having a hard time training someone. I am enough and I can do great things … if I’m in the right environment. Cheers!

Life lately

The days are busy. My mornings usually start around 6:45, when the alarm sounds. I tend to stay in bed until 7:15. After consuming breakfast, I pack my things and drive to work. I usually stop at the torture chamber, aka the gym, and try to sweat for 30 minutes. The uni has this initiative to get you moving, so I’m trying to log in my workouts and such, and hopefully get a wellness credit, which will go towards lowering my health insurance deductible.

Every week I have no less than 2 meetings and tons of great seminars to attend … none of which I ever get to go to, because usually something poops out in the lab. The joys of managing a lab. I usually have lunch late, or wherever I can fit it. Today is the first day that I haven’t felt guilty about taking 30 minutes to consume lunch in some time. I could complain to HR about the times I get to bite into my sandwich once, only to be greeted by emails from someone in the lab who ran into some trouble. But I won’t … I usually just take care of it after eating, something, anything.

I also started taking the stairs at work, well, the ones in the parking lot. I haven’t taken the elevator up in almost two weeks!

I’m trying to eat better, and for the 4th straight week, I’ve bought lettuce. I’m finally used to eating cucumbers and after slicing them really thin, I eat some with breakfast and also with my usual dinner salad. Even honey, who’s a GREAT eater, is joining me in this endeavour to a) fit in my wedding dress and b) lose a lot of the weight I put in between 2006 and this year. But it is a lot of work. My weight fluctuates, and in the almost 5 weeks I’ve been going to them gym and being mindful of what I eat (at least during breakfast and dinner), I’ve only lost 8 pounds. Granted, I wasn’t expecting to pull a Biggest Loser type weight loss … but I’d like to get into a rhythm where I see steady losses each week. I know it takes time to undo 7 years of crapping out my body. The good things are that, by virtue of waking up early and trying to stay active, I’m sleeping a tiny bit better (not great, but a bit better) and also, the pain on my knees is almost gone. My feet are doing better, but I do need a new pair of shoes. I tried running on the treadmill the other day, but I’m still not in good enough shape, feet-wise, to endure the shock that running does to my feet. Perhaps I should see a podiatrist.

I also got tested for allergies and turns out that pollen is not a biggie, but pups and kitties do a number on my skin and respiratory system. I’m on medicine for that now and it’s possible that I am indeed asthmatic, contrary to what my PCP in NYC said. Since starting to take the medicines I’ve been feeling better and I definitely sneeze less. But I’m also cautious of not being overly affectionate with my kitty (so sad).

I’m still adjusting to getting paid once a month, just like I was in grad school. Thankfully I haven’t gone without food or gas. And I got a parking pass in the faculty side of the lot, which means I won’t need to take (as many) stairs anymore … but I will, even if it’s 7 floors less.

So far so good. That said, I do miss NYC and I do miss my labbies … they’re the best (though most of my users here are on the sane side, and even the difficult faculty member I mentioned before is behaving a tiny bit better).

And now, to continue the lab cleanup.