27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: April 2014

K3rning and the token latina

I just found out today that, in more ways than I thought, I’m the token latina at work. I’m still in shocked and confused. I’m very disappointed, at being silly enough to think that at some point in my life I’d stop being looked at as more than a token. I need to think a bit more about this, but with cuts happening left and right, my job may be in jeopardy even with the token latina tag on me.  I know a lot of this doesn’t make sense. Like I said, I’m still processing things. I learned many things today about one of the people high above me and it has a direct impact on me. I’m not sure how to handle it. All I can say is that it became clear that if I do not conform to being more “American” and less uppity, I’m getting canned, and fast. I’ve been deep in thought since the news this morning (try getting that instead of a good morning when you first come into the lab). That, plus some family problems, and my poor hubby’s bad luck on the job front, have made me realize that perhaps I haven’t deviated as much as I’d hoped for from academia. That whatever love and respect I had for my institution and some of the heads above, is be forever lost. To the point that I’m finally ready to accept that my link with academia may be severed for good. And that I don’t need to be deep in academic research to be of value and to feel like I have value to myself and to the society at large. My job and what I’ve done in the last 10 years cannot define me. And I have a year or less to make peace with it. And I may be facing economic hardship by this time next year. And while I had lots of fears and doubt about what I would do, I am not my job, I am not my publications, I am so much more than that. It is sad the way things have transpired, how things have changed in just a few hours. It saddens me, but my mental well being and my ability to take care of my family, without being judged, without invoking the token latina tag, take precedence over my job. I am not made for academia, and the news this morning only served to cement that knowledge.

Finally, I may at some point close the shop here and on the Twitts. I love you all very much, but I am tired. I am tired of a system that sees in me $$ signs, and that the moment I raise my voice, or say ‘hey, this is not fair’ the “safety” of my job is threatened. That is not kosher with me. Forgive me if I’m silent … I’m not brave enough to call bullshit and out people for being unfair. What I fear is that the women behind me, the younger generations, will see me as a quitter, not as someone who stood up for injustice. I’m sorry. I’m just not powerful enough, american enough, and brave enough to make a statement. It’s bad when the ripples of doubt finally hit you. I’m sorry.

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On not being good enough, my response to @edyong209

So, over the weekend, the much beloved Ed Yong tweeted this. That’s why we don’t put people on pedestals. Undoubtedly, they always end up falling (remember Borazgate?).

I want to take a few minutes and write to Ed, and to however out there reads me. I may be considered a failure. If I was being judge by the standards of 2003, when I entered grad school, I’d be (or am) a total failure in science. A waste of a PhD. Why? Because I’m not a tenure-track professor, or at least a postdoc on her way to PIdom. I am a lowly lab manager.

In 2001, after finishing an internship, I took Physics 101. I hated every second of it. Physics didn’t make any sense. And I was pretty sure I was going to grad school to do a PhD in mol bio or biochem. Truly, physics would be useless for those two, right? I got a B, and I hated the class. Plus the prof was a misogynistic ass who was always being accused of harassment, but was never actually prosecuted. Every time I went into his office, I cringed. Luckily for me, I was not his type. I was not blonde, I was average and had short hair. Lucky me. When physics part deux came about, I hated it even more. Optics? Magnetism? What in the world? I got a D. I had to take it again. I aced it. I don’t know how, probably it was because the prof was young, knew what he was talking about and was enthusiastic about teaching physics. He helped me achieve the impossible, enjoying physics. But still, I was pretty sure physics were useless and I’d be a damned biologist for the rest of my days. Oh ignorance is bliss.

Come 2004, after finishing all my rotations, and I ended up doing 3 of them in a biochem and biophysics department. I joined what could be considered an applied biophysics lab (VERY broadly speaking) and off I went. I failed my qualifying exam. I eventually passed it. Oh, and physics was pretty important here. I sucked at my defense (or at least that’s how I felt). I went to do a failed postdoc in biochemistry. I went back to my field of study and joining a lab as a staff scientist. I was most definitely out of the tenure track for good. And I was (am) to this day, eternally grateful that I got out.

I’m not smart enough or clever enough to write grants. I suck at reviewing papers, and I still suck at discussing them (unless they’re in a subset of very specific techniques and even then, some of them go way above my head). But I am good at collecting data. I’ve kept a lab running, and people doing for over a year. And I am enjoying it. I’m trying to learn a lot of things that I only skimmed when I was student, thinking that I wouldn’t stay in the field for long and that there was no use learning stuff I’d soon forget.

I just had my first year review and it went well, considering some of the obstacles I’ve faced throughout my first year as a lab manager. I still consider myself a pretty dumb biophysicist. I still roll my eyes when I see derivatives and currents and all that stuff. I still don’t understand much of the math. But I understand well enough how to collect the data, process it and prettify it make a compelling story, a story that helps my PIs craft scientific poetry around it, and make it a storybook.

I am happy and fulfilled with what I do now. I don’t know if or how long I’ll do it. But I am happy knowing that I’ll never be a PI. I was never interested in being one to begin with. And it took me a LONG time to open up to people and show them my true colours. I’m still in academia, but at the fringes. I have a PhD, and I could very well try my luck at being a PI, but I don’t want to. I don’t feel like putting myself through that. I’m happy being in a supportive role, to PIs, to students and postdocs. I still get my chance at mentoring them a bit, and that is OK with me. And I teach them, one-on-one, my favourite form of learning.

By old standards I may be a failure. But since I’m content with what I do and the TT was never my dream, I ask you Ed, am I really a failure?

Review, one year and passion

It’s incredible to think that just a year ago I left everything in NYC, new hubby in hand, and moved back to grad school city. I remember lots of details, like the interview and how excited the faculty was at the prospect of seeing me again. I was really happy because, to be honest, I’d missed them too. I was scared, very scared, because I was taking my first job as a manager and I wasn’t sure if I would click with the whole managerial thing. I never envisioned being a manager of anything, not even a soapbox, and here I was, being thrown into the whole managerial business. Scary, I tell you.

Luckily, I’ve made pretty decent choices, mentor-wise, and my mentors here didn’t fail (some were a little too detail oriented for my taste, but there’s always a type-A everywhere we go, no?). And just today I had my review. Like my performance review. Like, my first ever manager-type performance review. Shizzle. I’m still in a daze. I’ve been sleeping bad lately, and the review was one of the reasons why. I was sweating and nervous before my meeting and it took over an hour. Overall is was very positive and I got lots of great feedback. The boss and struct bio labs are happy with my performance. That was a relief, because the impostor syndrome is still here and it makes me doubt all the decisions I make from making small repairs myself, to calling the big guns when something goes wrong. I get along with all the labbies and all the PIs I’ve interacted with so far, same with service people from the instruments who do PMs and come and rescue us when we’re in trouble. I do have areas to improve but the research output of the lab has increased quite a bit since I started and I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing, just better and with more confidence. My fave moment was when we were discussing time response when a repair is needed and my boss smiled and said they were very pleased with how that’s been going and how I keep everyone (boss, uberboss and labbies) updated on instrument times and availability. It was cool.

This all brings me to a point, masterfully captured by Hermitage on their blog. If you’ll remember, a few years back a fella named something Kern, got all high and mighty about how multimillion dollar buildings sit empty on weekends, while grad students and postdocs and even PIs do things like, you know, take care of their families and relax, when, you know, there’s cancer to cure. Because you know, cancer will be cured if all of us scientists get off our lazy asses, and miss the first steps of our kids, or not support our spouses when they’re in the middle of a depression and spend a night at the psych ward, or if we get sick. F that noise.

I have worked a lot this year. Like, more than when I was a grad student. I have collected a fucktillion data points that have gone into proposals, posters, and heck, one is already in the publication pipe! I have had to come to the lab to do a weekend fill on instruments (because that’s they day we do them), I have cut my hands, bled, burned myself with liquid nitrogen, consoled grad students, edit papers, been to seminars. I have also dealt with the loss of my BFF to cancer, my husband’s job and emotional crisis, broken instruments, broken parts, and I still get to take time off every weekend, I drive places with my love, we got married, he’s applying to jobs. But I won’t spend a night in the lab. No sir. I have not spent a night in the lab since 2007 or 2008, the last two years of grad school, and even then, I never came to work on weekends. Sure, I did submit jobs to clusters, did fills every now and then. But even now as a manager, when my job description has a line that specifically says that I’m a first line responder for the lab, still, I refuse to (in fact, I’m not supposed to) spend a weekend in the lab. I’ve been known to leave the lab late during data collection binges with inexperienced grad students. I get how important these projects are to them and the livelihood of their bosses. If their bosses are happy, they will (somewhat less reluctantly) pay the fees that keep my lab running and food on my table. This is a cycle. I am an important part of this chain. And I will gladly work with you to make sure that at the end of the day we’ve done everything to get you and your lab the data points you need. And I am no less committed to science than when I was a student. But my commitment to science is not directly proportional to how many late nights I spend in it.

I am thankful for my job. I love what I do. I love the lab, the instruments. I appreciate the people that brought me here. But I am sick and tired of this mentality that you have to sacrifice everything and everyone, including your self, your sanity and your loved ones, to make a project work. I get it that I may be perceived as being in a cushy position, that I don’t have to feed cells, or count progeny, or have proteins that degrade the moment they come off the column. I know what it is to have to come on weekends to purify proteins because every single Akta in the lab is booked from 6am to midnight every regular working day. But I didn’t get to where I am because I’m pretty and nice. I got 6 papers out of my PhD and a few from my time as a staff scientist in NY and I’m well on my way to being in a few here too.

I don’t need to justify to Kern and the likes that I love to spend time away from the lab. That even when I love what I do so much, I still dread a bit Sunday night (mostly because it means that I won’t get to sleep in the next day). But I am opposed to sacrificing time with my hubby, my kitties and our marriage to be a science’s bitch. There’s a lot of science out there that shows that it is beneficial to step away from work, take a break, spend QT with family, friends, significant others, or at least doing something other than pipetting and writing papers.

A lot of times, the discussion about time away from a lab is framed by bringing to the conversation people with kids, or sick parents. But there are those of us too far from ailing parents, or without kids, who love to spend time alone. People that value time away from the lab. Time spent hiking, dancing, taking pictures, going to the mall, etc, etc. But I haven’t seen that many of us raise our voice and say, “I too am a scientist and deserve time away from the lab to recharge.” One does not need to have a family or kids to just take time off and enjoy life like any other regular person out there.

I am passionate about what I do. But so I am about photography, Twitter and knitting. And while science is what brings the beef home, I do treat it as a job, with my time focused on doing good while I’m in the lab. I will always be one for more free time away from the lab. Cancer hasn’t been cured for lack of passion, and passion isn’t directly proportional to hours spent in the lab. Cancer hasn’t been cured because each type is different and required a different approach. And there are many types of it out there. And just like families of cancer patients deserve a break from all the intensity that treatment for a loved one brings, so do the people that are doing their damn best to find a treatment to eradicate this terrible disease.