27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: January 2011

Random thoughts. Thought #1

If you’ve known me for a while you know that I am a very random person. But since not many of you know me in real life, you didn’t know that, right? I’m very random. The way I walk, the music I listen to, the way I start or end conversation, my thoughts. All have a certain degree of randomness. Since I have so many of these thoughts I’ve decided to start sharing them with y’all.

The first one is … do PIs fart in their office?

I know, right? You’re probably looking at the screen right now thinking, WTF? Where the heck did Dr. 29 come up with that?Who thinks about that stuff? Me, alright? Me.

One of the thoughts that pops into my head sometimes is, well, you know, that PIs are human, they have a life outside the lab, their offices, the department. This means that they have the same needs, wants and bodily functions as other living creatures.

I fart. And so do you. And don’t deny it. After you’ve had too much Tex-Mex loaded with beans. After eating from that dingy place down the street. If you have a stomach ache or some sort of intestinal problem. We all fart. It’s a biological function. Yes, even girls fart. I’m sure Paris Hilton farts. Obama? Farts. Glenn Beck? Farts. The Queen? Farts. They all do. And so do you.

What brings this to mind is that, as people who work under the wing of the PI, we have to go into his/her office a few times a week, or maybe a day. When I was in grad school I probably went to the boss’s office 2 or 3 times a day, especially during crunch time or thesis writing-time. Lucky for me, it was never stinky, even when the boss was eating while we were discussing a new research-strategy or debugging a script (boss always brought homemade, vegetarian/vegan food so it was never stinky, plus I don’t think boss ate tuna, yuck). Boss’s office was also a closed-door one and separate from the lab. Because we had so many computers and backup equipment, the lab was noisy, so any “funny” sounds were muffled.

My current boss’s office shares a wall with my office. I can hear if a pen drops, if paper is shred, and when he comes and goes. Which brings to mind …. if the boss had stomach/intestinal issues, and needed to fart, would I hear it? Is he mindful enough of the lack of insulation that he keeps them inside? If so, does he ever release them? That would lead to a serious stomach ache. And what about “leaking” gasses? No seriously. Because my office is always open and it is shared with students who need to hand reports and grades back, I’d never even dream of farting. A former student admitted to going to the cold room and releasing the intestinal pressure there.

So, if I may ask, have you ever pondered the same? If so, was it because of something you or a labmate or PI did? Have you ever had the “privilege” of hearing your boss or immediate supervisor fart? To me it would be a bit uncomfortable. I remember that hon was visiting once and had to go to the bathroom. He said that just as he was about to wash his hands one of my committee members came in and released some of his inner-most noxious gasses like it was just business as usual. Hon couldn’t look at the guy’s face for the longest time. I guess that the PI didn’t realize that the BF was still there or something … but it was awkward for the BF and super hilarious to me. I wonder if I’d lose a bit of respect, or at least, inability to keep a straight face in front of the boss for some time. What about you?


Why I did a PhD and why I may not become a faculty member, like, at all

A day or so ago I had an interesting conversation via DM with a lovely girl I met at one of my previous schools. I am protecting her identity, but suffice it to say that we’ve known of each other for a while and connected via Twitter not so long ago.

This conversation was very empowering, because I found someone who shared similar ideas about a) being a woman, b) being a woman in science, c) liking our former school, d) loving science, and last, but definitely not least, e) knowing that a careers as a PI may not be the best fit for us.

Why is this important, you may ask? Well, it is because, as I’ve shared before, I may leave science, or at least science in academia if things don’t go as planned. In my last post I said that I’ve done whatever type of science I wanted for the last 10 years. When I wanted to do cloning, I did it (thinking I’d end up with a baby-sheep, my own cute little Dolly, by the end of my summer internship, only to be greeted by a bunch of stinky bacteria and tons of plates, oh, I miss being that innocent. This gives you an idea of how I hadn’t taken an advance molecular biology/techniques class at that time, nor looked at my biology book in too much detail). When I wanted to work with translation, I did it. When I wanted to work with what I did for my PhD, I did. You get the idea. So, in part, my postdoc has been less than thrilling because I’m still not drawn to the topic. Sure, cancer and memory research are cool, and extremely important. But my heart is not really set on it. This, coupled with the fact that I admire every one of my previous (and current) bosses lives, but can’t bring myself to having the kind of life they have, and doing what they do, that I think being a PI is not right for me. I feel like it would be a disservice to science.

You may be asking why would I be doing a disservice to science by entering the TT. I’m sure you might say something like, “oh Dr. 29, don’t be so hard on yourself, we all have moments of doubt.” But hear (or read me) out, OK? Even though I have a good publication record, pretty and shiny research skills and enjoy talking about science, research-wise I’ve never really had a wonderful, life-altering idea. Sure I did help test the boss’s super cool ideas. But, none of the projects were really conceived by me. I didn’t have a problem with that because it meant that there was a plan I could follow, troubleshoot if needed and it would be smooth sailing. And in a way, it was. I did have to suggest things here and there, but in my opinion those weren’t really huge, life-altering decisions.

When it was time for my qualifying exam, one of the main reasons I was scared out of my mind was the possibility of choosing a topic that no one had explored. I needed to dissect it, rip it apart and then design my own way to prove or disprove whatever I had chosen.  And I wasn’t sure I could do it.I did, and the committee thought it was cool, but it wasn’t really something glamorous or sexy. I didn’t mind the grant-writing part …. but the testing, the thinking on my feet, the defending of my points. That scared me. This coming from a person who a) love to talk, b) loves to do presentations (I LOVE IT!) and c) isn’t that scared anymore about thinking on her two feet.

To some people, like all of my previous bosses, researching on a topic and going into a new direction are THE thrilling part of research. This is life, this is the air they breathe. For me? Not so much. I like the manual labour, not so much the designing part. I can’t design my own experiments. Well, not really. But I’m afraid of doing something stupid, like mixing CaCl2 in a phosphate buffer, just 100X worse. Don’t get me wrong, I can think about how I would do something, and suggest a thing or two to try.  And I know that some PIs didn’t start in their TT paths being all awesome and Einstein-like …. but after 10 years to trying my hardest, it’s not coming to me naturally in the way I see it emanating from others. This may not seem like a huge obstacle to some. But to me, it means the world. To me, this is my kryptonite. I am more of a follower, not really a leader. And when I am a leader, I can be a bit Sheldon-like.

Thinking about interesting questions to ask by the end of a talk, even in my field? Hasn’t happened. Not because I am scared of asking the likes of Sidney Brenner or Paul Greengard about what they’ve done (I am less than shy on a personal level …. like when I asked Eric Kandel if I could have his sandwich or what he and his wife did in their free time. I did have half of the sandwich, only because he offered and the rest of the audience was shy. I let him have all his fruit. And he and his wife play tennis). But, I simply cannot formulate something interesting, smart, kick ass, to ask. I attribute it to not being too smart (though people think it’s silly, since hey! I have a PhD proving that I’m smart. Whatever!), or maybe I’m easily distracted, or really didn’t understand the talk. Or maybe I’m afraid to even dare to think outside my box, and look way stupid in the meantime. But I like my box, it’s pretty, secure. I feel comfy in it. I am a type A. I am a control freak. If I don’t see a promising future, and I know I need to take charge of it to happen, I get a bit less than thrilled. The TT, with all of its unknowns and ins and outs, and papers and grants, and mentoring 10 students, is not appealing to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m Jenny McCarthy dumb. Sure, I cannot derive the quadratic formula, but I can think of things from a structural biology point of view. I can ask little things, but I cannot design, nor formulate these convoluted concepts, ideas, and questions that PIs, even young, budding, ones ask. I simply cannot. Sure, I could practice.  But I feel like I’ve tried it, and failed. Failure is something  that makes me very afraid. And I feel like pursuing a career in the TT would make that failure not only a real possibility, but an immediate one. I can’t bear to do that. I like science. But I’m simply not willing to go that way. Sure, it could happen in any other role I take in science …. but, if I have a sounding board, a boss, a leader, I can do marvelous things. Like I did for my two previous bosses. I need a strong mentor, and I like having a boss. I’m OK being in a technical/supporting role, and not being the main show (ie. the boss).

Hence, why bother writing a grant when once the reviewers see it they will be ROTFL? Seriously? Why try to take away the spot for peeps like Dr. Becca? Peeps who are genuinely invested in this, who will most certainly succeed, who want it 100%? Why then, when I know I’m not a good fit for it, why push myself to do it? Really? It’s like putting myself through an eternity of my current situation. I’d be better off learning French! This is what my postdoc has taught me. It has given me the certainty that the TT is not for me, and that really, I don’t think I’ll find a fit in it.

With this comes the inevitable question of why, then, did I enter grad school. Sure I could go all philosophical and shit, that’s what a PhD is for, right? You develop and fine-tune the ability to think, to philosophize, to question. But I won’t bore you with that. Suffice it to say that I’ve wanted to do cool shit for a while. I wanted the freedom to “play”, in a controlled environment, with kick ass stuff. I had heard of the technique and critter of choice that I ended up doing my PhD in, and I thought it was super cool. I was barely 22 when I started my PhD, and thought that I’d eventually develop a love for academia. Even at that stage I was in doubt about the TT. Fast forward to 2009, when I completed my studies and got my shiny, new diploma with the “Doctor of Philosophy” title and my name on it, and well, it was well worth it. Honey always says that if I was so sure about not being a prof, then why on Earth did I continue with the research? Surely you couldn’t put yourself in the position of being in school for almost 6 years to then run away from becoming a faculty member. I loved collecting the data, filling up computer after computer with data.Processing the data, overheating computers with that, buying RAM to make it bigger and better. And in the end, pop-up those programs and contemplate the data, see it improving … in the end, seeing the structure of something that wasn’t seen before. Proving to the big guys in the field that I had done that beauty, and that it could be done.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I wanted to be a scientist. I knew that not all scientists needed to become profs. That my success in science didn’t necessarily come with a TT position. I wanted (and still very much like it) to become a teacher, partly because of some of the good one I’ve had, because I wanted to inspire people, to draw them to science, to help take something convoluted and apparently terrifying and make it accessible, understandable. To tell them that as much as that shiny picture on the cover seem hard to get, they could do it too. That was my driving force.

As you know, the job search right before my defense wasn’t the piece of cake I thought it would be. I ended up with tons of debt due to my own lack of control, and now I am stuck in a place I don’t want to be, yet trying to make the most out of it. I’m beefing up the parts that need to be beefed up, and looking elsewhere to try to do some science, even if it’s a little. Somewhere where I am not a postdoc and can enjoy doing science once again. Some  poeple say it’s industry, others say it’s community college, others think it’s by becoming a tech or staff somewhere. So, I am looking at those places, and beyond, to see if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not entirely sure of what I’ll become. But I am sure that becoming a PI is not what I want.

And then, I had this conversation with dear friend. She put some things in perspective. Like, how being a PI doesn’t seem like the ideal fit for us. But most importantly, that there are areas I haven’t considered,where scientists or people with an advanced degree and the brains for it can be of good use. We all have had good teachers, who inspired us to get where we are. Some of them are retiring, and we could try to fill in those shoes. There are peeps who runs cores, facilities and labs in non-academic settings. Sure, grant-writing people are needed, but also the hands to do it. People are needed to accredit those facilities. People with advanced degrees. Regulatory agencies, like the FDA, have people with our degrees. They may not all be doing the sexy science they did at some point. But they are putting to good use the literature, evidence and advances created and developed by bench science to make sure that devices are OK. Or that a medicine or treatment is approved and won’t turn you into a rabbit (though, if you’re cute I’ll consider adopting you).

So that, my dear reader, is why I don’t want to become a PI. I am OK with being a follower, and not a leader. I am perfectly capable of doing some aspects of science. Friend and I seek fulfilment in something other than the TT. And quoting a part of our convo: “The fact that a different path is better for you makes you no less.”

I think we are all one in this, whether we are PIs, students, techs, whatever. I know I wouldn’t be happy as a PI, and I’d rather know that now and accept and embrace it than turn into an embittered person who keeps a student for 9 years in the lab and is an ogre all around. I know I couldn’t bear kicking people out for lack of funding, let alone, lack of securing even my first grant. I can’t understand how all my PIs have done it. They have my utmost respect and admiration. They are my heroes. Because they keep doing science despite all the difficulties, fucktardery, cuts in funding, Kerns, and all that. I know I’d explode under that pressure. I know it is not for me. And I admire those who seek to enter it because they will inspire and train a new generation in way in which I may not.

So, for all these reasons I think I am not fit to become a PI. It’s been a long road of asking, of looking for validation elsewhere. But, with all the soul-searching I’ve done, especially during the last year, I think I am finally ready to accept that I don’t want to enter the TT, and that my talents may (hopefully) be put to use somewhere else. That I am no less for it, and that I have some good in me to offer.

For further reading:

What’s up?

I know, I know. One of my NY’s resolutions was to write more often. Looking back at my archives I realize that I usually post once a week, and during rough times or when I was doing a gazillion things, it may be once every two weeks. This semester is no exception. By the time undergrads are heading home I’ll be out of work. I’m struggling with the decision(s) of staying in science and doing another postdoc closer to what I know, or attempting to go back home, and hope I can get a job there. But this is no easy feat. I’ve  been looking and looking and looking. I’ve contacted profs, got on mailing lists about job posts, written to department heads. Nothing. I did have an interview while I was visiting the family. The prof was impressed by my previous work and didn’t even bother asking why I wanted to leave my current job. He’s looking for someone with a background in biology to help with a project that’s combining engineering and biomed research (he’s an engineer with some kick ass results in treatments for cancer). The thing is, this type of project is cool, but again, not around my alley. It would pay well, have awesome benefits, and it would be stupidly close to my folks. But based on how bad I’ve felt during this postdoc, this constant worry about not being competent enough (despite my previous boss’s assertion that once you have a PhD you can learn and teach yourself anything), away from what I know and love, I’m not sure I have enough emotional strength to try it. What is I fail like I am now, and I am out of options? I’m also attempting to get in touch with the head of my UG department and see, if by any chance, there’s an opening or a way to get in even if it’s just teaching.

On the other hand I’ve signed up for a few workshops throughout the semester to keep me busy and current with some of the programs I know but haven’t used in a while; continuing-ed or professional development if you will. I figured that since the cover is almost 0,  and things run until a week before my contract expires, I’d better make the best use of what’s available. I’ve attended one of these already and it was rather refreshing. I think that, as much as keeping up with literature, blogging, tweeting, etc, the best thing a scientist, of heck, a professional for that matter should do, is to every now and then refresh his or her mind and step away from all the sciency stuff and go back to the basics. I went to a communications in science workshop and it was very cool. I brushed up on changes in grammar and sentence construction (last time I took a language class was in the winter of 2000), and on how to do better while writing, especially abstracts and sections of a manuscript. Next in line is one on the new Office and then one about project management. I figure that it never hurts to be current on these things, and as much as I like the new software and know how to do with the new one what I mastered with the old software, I may as well see if there are any tips, tricks or shortcuts, or heck, options I haven’t explored. Since I can’t enroll in an UG or MS program at this stage of my life here, I’d better make use of whatever is available.

The last “surprise” is that I may be a guest lecturer in a structural biology course offered to grad students (MS and PhD) in my department. I got in touch with one of the profs here and told him about my former area of expertise. I told him a few things and tricks I knew and turns out he liked the idea (and taking off that burden off of his shoulder for 1 week). I got the syllabus a few days ago and I’ll be doing a lecture in a couple of weeks. You have no idea how exciting this all is. I am attending the class as well and have learned about some techniques or combinations of techniques I’d never seen before.

All these things and more are (hopefully) in store for this semester. I’m very excited, but also cautious because I don’t want to jinx it; hence my silence for the last couple of weeks (and why very few people in my lab know about it). I’m also learning a couple of programs on my own and using a very tiny amount of the stuff I did in grad school to apply to my current project. I’m not sure I’ll finish something meaningful on my project. What I have are scattered pieces which will, in all likelihood, not be included in a paper. So, to compensate, I’m trying to beef up other parts of my life (and resume) and keeping my eyes open for any chances I see in the horizon, regardless of whether they include science.

A few days ago I had a sort of epiphany. Hon had mentioned, in a very heated discussion we had a few months ago, that it seemed as though I was idealizing my experience in grad school and that it all had a beautiful glow and I had no memory of the nights I was too stressed to sleep. Or when I had to answer to the drunken ramblings of an overbearing postdoc from another lab complaining about our use of a shared facility. Or when I logged on from whatever part of the world I was in to schedule jobs, or answer to emails from our IT people regarding a chunk of cancelled stuff. Hon said that is wasn’t all peaches and cream and that I had my bad days. To which I reminded him that I loved my area of research. I loved collecting  the data and showing the stuff at meetings and being proud of my work. Now, well, not so much. But that attitude has definitely had its impact on my current position. All this brought to mind that I’ve done what I loved and truly interested me for 6 years. I studied biology because I liked it. Sure, I wanted a career with a respectable pay, but I liked it. I loved learning how my body worked, how and where things originated, what types of reactions and changes happened all over the place so I could taste, smell, see. And when I did my PhD I did in something that caught my attention as an undergrad. I wanted to do it from the first day of grad school, and I didn’t even know that my former boss had a lab working on the exact two things that I had my eyes set on.  It was bliss. In the purely scholar way of thinking about academia and education, I have done what I love. It is done and over with. I can’t repeat my grad school years.

I hear postdocs and sometimes profs say how much they hated their masters or PhD work and how glad they are they switched fields. I am so happy I did my undergrad in biology and my PhD in one of the many branches of structural biology. But, from a purely capitalist point of view, I feel like an artist who has chosen passion over what really puts money on the table, regardless of how boring or dead-end it is. All these things have led me to the point of being open about moving away from science and consider other areas where I can combine some of the transferable skills I learned and have a better pay and benefits. I am trying to find something related to what I did and loved, but if it doesn’t happen, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel, admits it’s enough, that I’ve fought the good fight and move on. Maybe I can do a master’s in something else that allows me to reach that level of peace, in which I can help get my family out of the hole my dad dragged them all in due to bad financial decisions, help pay off my debts, start a retirement account, take care of my aching feet, be close to all of my family, and help pay for the rest of my dreams. It may or may not be this way, but if I have to kiss science goodbye for help achieve that, then maybe that’s the way to go, and that’s OK. So dear reader, in the next few months I hope we find out whether I can stay in science or not. I hope you don’t think I’m betraying my (possibly former) field or my love and interest for science. I have truly loved what I’ve done. I’m proud of my publications, my covers, the citations and the excited looks I get when I explain what I used to do. I look at it fondly. But maybe, this is it for me. I hope I can live (happily) with that decision, if/when it comes to it. Care to stay tuned?


Resolutions: 2011 edition

Good day y’all lovely readers. Happy 2011!!! I hope this year brings to your life much success and joy. I’ve been back for almost 1 week and I am having a hard time adjusting.  It’s not that I don’t love being close to honey and a shielded from my parent’s money woes. But I really don’t like what I’m doing at work, and though I am trying to focus on the positive and be proactive and think that by sometime this summer (if not earlier) I may be in a different job, it is hard to keep my focus and stay positive when all my being screams is “I want to be free.”

Anyway. Current lack of love for my work apart, I am trying to set a series of goals to hopefully end 2011 on better ground. I have to say that I don’t have much love for new year’s resolutions, but in a way I think this helps me keep track of goals (because I am a list whore) and also be accountable at the end of the year. I was looking at some of the goals I’d set up for 2010 (here) and I am pretty pleased with how things look and how I did manage to achieve some of those goals.

So, without further ado, here’s the 2011 list of goals for Dr. 29:

  1. Find a job that a) offers some sort of financial stability and pays better than current one … and possibly allows me to be close to all my family, parents, sis, nephew and of course, the boyfriend. DONE
  2. Sell my car so I can free up some cash for the move, wherever it ends up being. I love my car, it works well, it’s reliable, but I may not be able (more like willing) to drive to where I hope to relocate, so if I can manage to sell it for as close to its current value as possible it will be a win/win. Need to fix papers, and such. Hopefully will happen in 2012.
  3. Finally get to  150 lbs. No excuses. This may involve a visit to the gym and a serious improvement in the diet. So I hope to report on this as the year goes by. At my highest of 195, I’m at 186lbs right now (December ’11).
  4. Increase readership of the blog and hopefully be more upbeat on my posts. I hope to post more frequently (and yes, I still owe you the 29 and a PhD guide to Spain). In the works
  5. Decrease, in a significant manner, the amount of my physical possessions. Be either by throwing away useless stuff, free-cycling, donating or selling. I want to make a move to more conscientious living, starting with a dramatic de-cluttering session (or sessions) and a simpler, more environmentally friendly living. More of less done, due to the move.
  6. Get the 2nd and 3rd tattoos. I have a few clues and hopefully these will be my last. I want something small and cute, and nerdy. I’m leaning towards a character from Mario Bros. …. as I adore these games and the instantly bring a smile to my face, no matter what.
  7. Eliminate debt #4 from my list once and for all. I am so very close it’s not funny y’all. Will happen by December 31st of this year. I’m only 21$ away.
  8. Be a better friend and keep in contact with my loved ones by calling or emailing more often. Always a work in progress
  9. Take kitty to the vet and have her checked out for everything. She hasn’t been to the vet’s office since we moved. I know, I am a bad mother and I hope to improve on this. Done!
  10. Get the DSLR I want for my birthday, no excuses allowed. This point-and-shoot business is tiring. I can’t do anything I want anymore as I don’t have as much freedom as I need. Hopefully better photos will help handle the stress of all those other 9 resolutions. Not happening since my trusty 3 yr old P&S died and had to get an emergency replacement.

As always, I hope to report as soon as I can and I may be adding or adjusting as needed, so do check in often. Best wishes to you. Now back to work!