27 and a PhD

Home » 2013 » April

Monthly Archives: April 2013


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.

Be kind to those who stay behind … and those who come after you

This business of being a lab manager? Yeah. Real tough here, real though. I feel close to the students (in age and, sometimes, maturity) yet I’m not one of them. I can hang out with them when I’m outside the university walls … but I cannot badmouth their asshole PI(s). Just to be clear … most of the students (and the occasional postdoc) I’ve dealt with thus far, and their PIs seem pretty sane. But there’s this PI (who I mentioned in my previous post) who will give me headaches … and this person is the reason behind trying to set some boundaries for myself so that I don’t give them the impression that a) I’m slacking off because I decide NOT to work on a weekend like people in their lab do, and b) let this person understand, very clearly, that  I’m not one of their students or postdocs. Things have gotten a tiny bit better, but for every step forward, we go 3 more backwards. It’s a work in progress.

Besides that, one of the tasks at hand now is to make sure that when we open the lab, it is ready to receive people and be in good (safe) conditions. This lab I’m working on used to be BSL2 lab. Some pathogens (mostly inactivated ones) were worked on here, and while the previous group cleaned up some stuff, it seems as if every time I open a shelf or drawer, there’s some … “surprise.” I went looking for some hazardous material tags the other day … and all of a sudden I find some corroded shelf with bleach and some other stuff, and no sign of the bags … well, they were there, but there was a mess. There’s also a mysterious (and kinda scary)  -20 freezer that has samples from the early part of this century ie. from more than 10 years ago.

It had been my understanding that when the previous tenants of this lab were here, they had cleaned up everything, disinfected surfaces and gotten rid of all the samples and crap. Pretty much no one paid attention to freezers and other sample storage area, just to pumps and other mechanical stuff that other labs were eager to get their hands on. And now I’m stuck with a bunch of machines that don’t work, that environmental health has to cart away, and I have a couple of PIs over my shoulders, saying that it is my responsibility to clean up the lab and make it pretty for when they new users come. Yeah, that in addition to preparing samples, writing standard operating procedures for everything that has a switch or a light of some sort and stock it full of pretty little things for their trainees to play with, I need to clean up the lab. Now, I probably sound like a baby … but it is a lot of work that I have to get done … and it must be done by myself alone as no one else will pony up time to help or sort through things. I know, I know, I signed up for this … but it is truly a pain that the previous tenants only cleaned up the surface of things and left everything else to be taken care of by the new tenants. I think it’s pretty inconsiderate. Also, it makes me wonder why environmental health (or if) they have some sort of procedure for situations like this. If they’re supposed to certify labs, then I wonder if someone is slacking off somewhere.

This business is tough, and I’m the face of my lab, according to all sorts of letters and emails circulating amongst my gazillion bosses. I’m glad to make this lab look awesome, but it takes time. So, I beg you dear reader, should you be a PI or fellow lab manager and are about to move elsewhere, take time to walk around the lab and make sure that everything has been properly disposed of before you leave. Make sure things are bagged and tagged. I don’t know if you get charged or not, but please don’t leave your previous lab space looking like a pig pen. It is not a nice, or safe practice, especially for those before you. And for the love of all that is good and wonderful, have some policy as to what happens to reagents and crap people need to make to get their science done and they leave. Whether is not signing off on their thesis until they’ve bagged and tagged stuff or have at least left some record of where the samples are and are mindful of stuff they may leave behind .. have something in place to take care of the insane amounts of buffer or reagents that accumulate through the years. There’s nothing better than seeing a semi-legible tag on something and find out that it’s from 4 generations of grad students before your time. NOT!

Now, off to clean and cart stuff off. Ugh

Boundaries and priorities

I’m feeling much better, compared to when I posted this. I went to my initial visit with a new PCP in new job city and it went well. In fact, I didn’t want the visit to end. The doctor is about my age, female and explained everything in detail and in a reassuring manner and tone which was super helpful. She asked about all meds I’ve taken and what I needed refills for and I’m happy to report that I’m back on my PMS med and, while still adjusting, I feel like it’s making a change. I know, it’s a bit too soon to celebrate and it could all be related to having my period (which usually sours my mood even more a few days before and once I get over the initial cramping, it’s all smooth riding). But I am glad I’m back on my med. I’m also seeing her in about a month to get my annual pap-smear and I just learned that school offers free mammograms to staff, so maybe I should take advantage of that … even though it’s not necessary at my age, I would still like to have some sort of baseline and just check that everything is normal.

Thinking back to how I felt on Thursday and Friday night, I felt so defeated. I’d spent Monday, Thursday and Friday working non stop trying to get some preliminary data for a project. One of my many supervisors (I have more than one, all with similar opinions on some things but most definitely different priorities) needed some data and I agreed to give it a shot. What I should have said and remembered based on my experience from NYC, was that this would really be very tough to work on, especially with only a month to really evaluate things. Little by little I became more aware of the mounting difficulties and finally on Friday, something broke in the lab, and that was definitely the end of trying to collect the data for said grant. My next supervisor in line is somewhat of a nazi. In the month or so I’ve been at work he’s already caused problems that have found their way into my ears and I’ve really come to know that this will be a very difficult person to work with (I already told hon I regretted coming back based on the bit of drama this person initiated). My other PI is very chill, though can be demanding. This person is also very hands off and seems to have respect and trust in my abilities. As long as they intervene I can keep doing my job just fine … but who knows how much this person can protect me and how long they can be that way without getting their asses in trouble.

Here’s the thing … in NYC my immediate supervisor absorbed a lot of the heat if my coworker or I got in trouble. But here I am all alone and I am in the same position as my supervisor, and the lab I’m working in is in worse shape than I thought. And there are things I don’t know how to do and I’m learning … but nazi PI wants them done yesterday. And that has caused a lot of trouble and stress I wasn’t ready for.

Now, my husband is kind of a genius, but sometimes can say things too bluntly and in his interest to preserve my sanity and well-being, he can get riled up. So he’s trying a new strategy of communicating his concern for me,  and it’s sort of working. On Friday night we were talking about how much of a frustrating day I’d had. Not only did I have to see my PCP and try to work on the prelim data, but I also had to work with nazi PI and make sure that some plant services people fixed something in the lab. In other words, I was being stretched to my limit .. and I was running low on patience, plus I was feeling a little (or a lot) out of it … I was out of my mood med and I didn’t know it, but my period was rearing its ugly head. It was the perfect storm. I spent exactly 12 hours at work trying to fix problems, either on the phone, in person … hell, I even emailed a coworker to place an order while my doctor was getting some paperwork done outside of the exam room!! In what world is that acceptable? Couple that to the fact that I’m supposed to have a 40-45 min break during the day (by law, if the uni found out I didn’t take  it I could get in trouble) … all while trying to remain sweet and competent.

By the end of the night I was shot. I was looking at my blog stats and saw that more people kept coming, that more people were following on Twitter … and that while both the blog and Twitter are great outlets, I just didn’t have time to sit down and write my story …. this, plus all the bullshit at work, plus the PMS combined to make me feel down, depressed … like I was out of hope. My incredible super husband came to rescue, reminding me that I had to set boundaries and rules, that it is OK to take time to enjoy these outlets, that I’m better and more relaxed when I take time to focus on myself and that if my PIs have my best interest at heart, they’ll understand that you can’t keep going 24-7. And that yes, I have a laundry list of things to do to keep the lab running … but it’s not a sustainable model to stay in the lab for 12 hours straight, most days of the same week, having worked for 13 days before that non-stop. The way he said it sounded different than other times. Other times he’d let his frustration out and I felt like he was picking a fight, rather than being supportive. He said that talking with his mom had given him the idea to approach things differently … and it did go differently and it did sink in.

In NY my lab stayed open from 9 to 6. Sometimes we’d stay late and I did stay overnight one time. But, it wasn’t the norm, and I didn’t go to the lab on weekends. There were clear boundaries for the times I was expected to work. Here, since the lab is getting off the ground, there’s a lot of stuff to do and make happen … lots of things I’m trying to figure out … all while keeping 3 bosses (and counting, I’m sure there are more to come) happy. This is tough and it gets frustrating, because I feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to get everything done (I’ve been texting my supervisor in NY, telling him how much more I appreciate all he did for me and for the lab). But now that I’m starting, even if I can’t do everything the overlords want when they want it … to keep some sense of sanity and normalcy, I have to set ground rules as far how much time I can spend at work and what gets solved while I’m there. One of my new job resolutions is to let people know that they can expect to have me present from 9:30am to 6pm, 5 days a week. That I am more than happy to help, but they have to let me know, I have too many things on my plate to just dump everything and come to their rescue at the last minute. I will try my best not to work on weekends, while keeping my cell phone at hand, should someone encounter a problem. I realize that I’m the first line of defense when it comes to instrumentation breaking. I promise to get things done and crossed off my to do list as often as I can, and to ask for help. And also to confront nazi-PI, should things ever get as nasty as they seemed to get this week. If I am to make this place work and people be happy and productive, they need to know that I need to have some control and that there are ground rules … otherwise I’m just their pawn … and then the resentment and frustration takes the best of me.

I also plan to stick to going to the torture chamber (g-y-m), eat a bit better and listen to the hubs when he tries to help out. I’m feeling much better, despite of the coming challenges I’m facing this week. We shall see how things go. Thanks for staying put and for your encouragement.

What a month

I’m looking around and there’s still stuff in boxes in my house. I got my moving expenses reimbursed and between registering the car in the state and sending payments to my credit cards for the expenses I went into to get here, I feel that whatever momentary riches I got are already gone (not all of it, but sheesh, moving sucks, and not only physically, but the actual cost). At least I’m fed and clothed. Some of the money has been spent on updating my wardrobe, even though I haven’t gotten to the point of actually wearing the clothes because I’m at my fattest once again. And then I read this in the morning, and all I can do is nod in agreement and almost cry because I feel the exact same way. I know that as director of my lab, I need to play the part and act like it. In fact, I’ve been gently reminded that I am not a trainee anymore and that I must look and act professional, because I am one of the first faces PIs, students and postdocs (not to mention all the MDs that hang around my neck of the university) see. But I’m tired as hell and I don’t feel like ironing. And I have to get on my hands and knees a lot, and change pump oil and dust stuff and install stuff and move stuff. And slacks just don’t cut it for that. So, between being fucking fat (trademarked) and not having time (or inspiration) to iron, my new managerial acquisitions are just sitting pretty in my closet.

Besides that, I’ve started going to the torture chamber (aka, g-y-m). I refuse to say the g word for fear of sounding like I’m training for a marathon or something. And for fear I’ll give up. I’m sure I will. I always do. I’m pretty sure I’ll also be fired from my job because I just have too many things to do, too many expectations to meet, and not enough hours in the day. In fact, after spending almost 12 hours at the uni today, training and helping collect data non-stop since 10am, as I sit here in my chair, at 10pm, I don’t feel anywhere close to being accomplished or done. Yet I have to project a confidence and a light that will attract new people to my corner of the struct bio world. Maybe I’m just tired, or frustrated of being fat, or missing my husband too much while he’s somewhere else for 1 more week, or maybe it’s the lack of PMDD medication … or a combination of all. I feel trapped, like I left this cushy place in dreamy NY, to come to bible-carrying folks territory, while having to meet everyone’s expectations and also keep sweet while doing it. It is hard. Being a director of lab is tough stuff, especially when you’re supposed to be working on your own on 15 different projects at the same time. I now understand my poor previous supervisor and why he took 30 minutes as his lunch break on most days, why his eyes look tired and why he tried to smile, even when he was facing too much stress and too many demands. This job is fucking hard, and I am all alone doing it. And it warms my heart when grad students come and visit and when they see what I do as the greatest help and training they’ve ever had and the individual attention I give them … but it is tough people. And because of all this I barely tweet … even when I consistently get new followers. I’m amazed people still come and read … even when it is rants like this one … I guess there’s an interest in seeing how your next door lab manager falls apart not one month into her new job. Maybe I’m too close to my period to feel happy … or maybe I just need to let it out somehow. Dear God, when I look at the mountain of work ahead of me all I want to do is cry. And I also want to ask other lab managers and directors … how do you do it? How do you stay sane and meet expectations? Is there such a thing as balance? How do you handle the stress and not feel down when you can’t seem to get ahead on things, no matter what you do?

Sorry for the sad note … good things have happened, I guess I just want a bit of the weight off my shoulders … and to let you know that this is tough stuff. Being a lab manager is the biggest, scariest battle I’ve ever faced … and I don’t know if I’ll make it through it while staying sane and providing consistent results.

PS I’m seeing my doctor tomorrow to perhaps rethink my PMDD medication or adjust dosage. I’m being a total wimp and also a bitch and I don’t like it. And I know that something’s off and I need to fix it, so tomorrow I will see the doctor (not only do I promise I will, I have an appointment confirmed and a reminder set on my phone). Despite the guilt I feel about not being in the lab for more than 10 hours a day, I try to make time to take care of me, of eating a bit better, going to the g-y-m and seeing a medical professional about my emotional issues. Perhaps with the right dose and treatment I won’t feel as down and my judgement won’t be as clouded by mental bullshit.