27 and a PhD

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Resolutions 2014, almost on month #4

Back in January I made my usual list of resolutions, which besides featuring the usual stuff of weight loss and debt management, had a couple of other things, including wedding stuff. Let’s see how I’ve been doing:

Years ago I thought doing resolutions was pure BS. I still have my doubts. But I sometimes like to challenge myself and see how I do. Here are in no particular order 10 things I’d like to accomplish by the end of 2014:

  • Not drink soft drinks (Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, etc) for the entire year. This was something I wanted to do as part of my 30-before-30 and I never got the nerve to do it. So I’m willing to take a shot and see how long I can stick to this. – not happening, I started strong, but with the lack of sleep (as usual), this is not going to get done. Fail.
  • Have a stress-less wedding. Note, not stress-free, but stress-less. Thus far things haven’t been too complicated, the people at the reception hall have been very nice, I finally got a wedding dress I can fit into and I got my sister’s dress. While I was home hon an I ordered our flowers and my sister and I ordered the cake. We should be husband and wife for the second time in less than 2 months! As mentioned in the previous post, this was accomplished. We hit a few snags (like my  mom finishing fixing the zipper on my dress less than 24hrs before the wedding, and a tiny hiccups with some of the flowers) but in the grand scheme of things, our wedding was better than expected.
  • Pay off one of the credit cards. I have about 3k in it. It’s one of the smallest debts I have (I know, I’m terrible), but I’m going to try my best and wipe off one of those babies ASAP. The next one is ~$600 behind it, so I hope to tackle that one next.
  • Save about 1k by the end of the year (after paying off for the wedding, and erasing one of the cards).
  • Have a no-new-clothes month. I’m thinking of doing this next month since it’s the shortest one and I’ll be all busy with all the wedding prep. Wish me luck. Didn’t happen in February, or March. Hoping that it will get done in April.
  • Be 10lbs thinner by December 31st. I started 2013 at 206.4. I’m down to 198, which I’ve been consistently at for months. We’ll see if I can achieve this. I didn’t gain all the weight in 2 days, and I won’t lose it in 2 days either. So long as I can keep going down and maintaining it, I’ll be a happy camper.
  • Get a kick ass haircut after the wedding. I’m hoping to chop off a few inches before the summer! So very done!!!! And I effin love my hair. Currently I’m still dragging my feet to donate my hair, but I have over 12in of hair ready to be made into a wig (I’m donating it to Wigs for Kids, not Locks of Love. WFK doesn’t charge kids for the wigs).
  • Fix up an issue with my car. I already bought the part, now it’s a matter of having the time and money to take care of it.
  • Save some money and get a new lens for the camera (more than likely this will happen towards the end of the year).
  • Be an author in at least 2 publications. I appeared in 2 new ones last year, so I don’t see why not, with all the effort and data I’ve collected for a few labs. There’s one manuscript in preparation. I hope to have another by year’s end.

Job-wise, I’d like to have a good 1st year end review. Even if I do, because of money constraints at school, I don’t anticipate getting a raise, though that would be cool. This one is happening in April. We’ll see if I get to keep my job and how well my bosses think I’ve been doing this year. I’m not counting on a raise, since the Uni is looking to cut costs everywhere they can think of. And although there’s not a raise freeze in place, I don’t know how my department will deal with the funding cuts yet.

So. Much. Work

Seriously. So much to do. And I’m only one person.

This month has shown me that my poor former supervisor in NYC had it (and still does) tough when trying to get actual research done. This month has been crazy in terms of the amount of work and the amount of admin stuff to do. I’ve had to arrange for a meeting, get the data put together for it, email and call people to make sure they can all attend … all while trying to collect data for 3 projects and  also fixing broken things in the lab. It is a lot of work. I’m having to just say no or book things for other days so I can get some pieces of software functioning. And the days where one of my superiors comes to collect data and calls me a grand total of 15 million times … it’s really exhausting.

But I’m happy in the sense that people (students, postdocs and (hopelly too) their PIs) are seeing what I do and get to see the value of it. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, I’ve managed to increased productivity of one of our toys by more than 50%. And I’ve got a good relationship with the guy who fixes it, so I feel confident in asking him for tips and little things to extend the life of our toys. But I’ve also got two other toys I need to tend to, yet other stuff in the lab seems to be chewing off most of my time. I guess my problem is time management. I feel like sometimes I’m in damage control mode, trying to get the bigger toys to continue churning data day and night, and the poor little guys get neglected. But I’ve got to practice the art of saying no and of saying ‘you know what, today is the little guys turn to get dusted off and have my entire attention … so shush it and let me work on my thing.’ It’s tough though … I feel guilty when I’m not tending to the bigger instruments, then I look at the pile of little things to do and I wonder how can one person do it all.

I did accomplish one great thing today, which will (hopefully) add to the capabilities of our lab. I’m very excited and by the end of the month I’ll have a user meeting to show how this thing works and how can people start using it. It took me a lot of effort and a lot of emails, but I feel confident that we’re in the right direction. And all because of me. Phewww. If I don’t have anything else to feel proud of during the rest of the year, this is the one thing I’m most proud of work-wise.

That’s what’s going on in the life of this lab manager. What’s new with you?

If you dress nicely …. and other gems

This week has reminded me that there are things, besides being smart and doing awesomesauce science, that appear to matter more, in order for people to take you and your job seriously. First, I saw a former classmate who’s migrated to the clinical side of things and is doing some sort of special clinical postdoc and wears a robe and everything at the beginning of the week. Said classmate (let’s call her Suzy) looked great and very different from her days in grad school, you know, no ragged jeans, Old Navy basic tee, running shoes and a ponytail with a pencil hanging around. Suzy finished around the same time I did and then decided to do a clinical postdoc (didn’t even know these existed) and has been here since then. Apparently she sees patients because her work is related to epidemiology, so she wears a lab coat, has her name embroidered on her coat and gets to wear cute dresses, nice jewelery, make up and lots of Tory Burch flats. I’m happy for her and in a way I sort of envy how she gets to meet patients and dresses like a resident of internal medicine. On the other hand, I do pretty awesome research in structural biology and get to come to work in casual wear, unless I’m presenting or have to meet a high up in the organization (almost never happens).

Suzy greeted me warmly on Monday or Tuesday … can’t remember, and asked why I was back in school. She remember I was doing a postdoc in Canada and we hadn’t seen each other since that time. I summarized what I’d been doing since graduation and mentioned that I’d been head hunted to be a lab manager. She congratulated me and then decided to give me the up and down look. I admit it, I was dressed even more casually than ever (jeans, a teenage looking hoodie and pink sunglasses). Then she questioned why the casual look … as if to say, ‘girl! you’re a lab manager now, get your act together.’ I was so surprised that all I could muster was a ‘great to see you Suzy, we’ll catch up later’ … and quickly walked away to have lunch.

Since that day, her comment has been in my head, on repeat, every few seconds. I remember her being so well put, and me looking so frumpy, and I realize that yes, I am a lab manager … so what? Don’t I get to dress to work in whatever way I see fit to do my job? If my job allowed me to wear a cute dress and flats, by God I would wear those … but I’m in a lab with machines working every day, churning data at all hours and said machines break down. I have to get on my knees and look at stuff. Measure stuff, clean stuff, oil and grease stuff. I have to polish things and dust off others. I have to clean the lab at certain times and in certain ways, so as to not upset the equipment (or risk my life doing it … well, not that serious, but you catch my drift). I don’t see patients. I live in a basement, in a lab, shut off from everyone. I see the light of day when I get out to have lunch and that’s it. Windows covered, doors closed. That’s how I conduct my science.

I’d mentioned before that I do feel bad for dressing like a soccer mom, but at the same time, I feel like I can because I need to get on top of things, crawl on all 4 behind machines, use water, alcohol and nitrogen to work … and I don’t want my nice clothes ruined, or worse … to put my life at risk because I’m afraid of staining something or because I’m wearing something that is not safe.

I do believe that nice clothes help you feel better,  look put together. And trust me, I do clean up nicely. Then I look at my PIs, who wear clothes just as casual as mine … and no one is questioning their science or talent! Not a single person (well, at least that I know of). Is it because I’m a woman (though I do have a female overlord, and she dresses casual too)? Is it because I’m hispanic? Or is it just another way of showing your superiority and that of your discipline? I dress like a peon, you work with patients, thus it’s OK to question my commitment to science based on how I look?

I do have a closet full of nice clothes. Clothes I mean to wear someday, yet when I think of the day ahead and who I have to work with or what samples I’ll face that day and whether or not I need to pH something or make 3 gallons worth of a buffer, I just shrug it off, dust off my jeans and put them on. I don’t mean to say that you can’t dress nice for the lab. I admire people who look put together and get to wear cute AND functional clothes … but in my case, I prefer not to risk them. I do wear a lab coat, don’t get me wrong … but I’ve been known to get stains even when wearing a lab coat … and I hate stains, let me tell ya.

What made me sit down and devote a whole entry to the subject of dressing for work …. what really pushed my buttons was this .. a PI saying to her students that if you dress nice, you won’t be taken seriously. Seriously? I mean, that’s the other extreme of my situation. And I especially dislike said comment because it implies that you have to look like a mad scientist, with you pocket protector and big ass calculator and crazy hair to be taken seriously. What I consider even worse is that a female PI is telling that to her female students! Seriously!! With how fucked up this world is and you have do drill into your minions that if they dress nice they won’t be taken seriously? In Dr. Isis’s wise words … it makes my ass twitch.

Just as bad is when you have to dress in a particular manner because you work with say … human tissue and good God you have to protect yourself from getting infected with whatever … and when you mention you’re done with your work session and your scrubs are covered in yuck, you get assholes saying that that’s not very sexy sexy (check this). Do you mean to tell me that ladies should stay out of the clinic/lab/field because when they need to wear work clothes to ensure safety in their jobs, that wearing less than anything showing skin, or pretty or sexy, those work clothes make them look less than a hot piece of ass? Seriosly?? I’m just throwing my hands up in the air.

I think we all need to reevaluate our priorities and realize that in order to move forward, we just can’t keep judging people based on the way they look, whether they dress nicely because their job requires it or because they can, or whether they need to wear less than “sexay” attire to get down and dirty and do their stinkin’ job, whether that involved removing and replacing pump oil, or collecting lung samples for their research. Please be mindful that comments about what you wear (or not) should have no bearing in your capacity to produce science. We shouldn’t look down at people based on their clothing choice (unless said choice involves offensive messages), whether it’s well put together or “frumpy” … especially when you don’t know the kind of science and effort they have to put it, or the kinds of situations they face every day to get to do their research. So back it off … it’s not nice.

Le job

So, a little while ago I wrote about being a lab manager. For personal reasons I decided not to divulge too many details of what I do to earn mah moolah. But I figured it doesn’t hurt to give some info as to some of the tasks I have and get to accomplish in my new position.

You may be asking yourself, well, how is your life as a lab manager different than as a staff scientist? I find that most days my tasks and responsibilities aren’t too different from when I was in NYC. I get to sit down and talk to users/trainees. We talk about their projects, what they hope to accomplish, what they’ve done, their workflow and whether they want to get their hands wet or rather have me collect data and hand it off to them. This is similar to how things were in NYC, except that there were more hands to hand over a project (including those of my former supervisor) and we met as a group with them, all staff scientists and supervisor, plus our PI. Here I mostly work for a handful of PIs, and it’s just me (for now), so I sit down with the PI, discuss general things about their project and they send me off to talk to their student or postdoc and see how we want to collect data. Most people have had some sort of training before we meet, and they know how to use the instrumentation. But sometimes they’ll say they feel more comfortable with me in the room, or with me collecting the data. I also have newer users who have no idea of how to collect data, and they’ll often sit and observe and take notes, and once the data collection is done, they’ll see what’s up and determine whether more purification is needed or they need to do a different type of column or filtration to get what they need. We also evaluate whether we have is a single population of their entity or if things are falling apart or (sometimes worse) there’s aggregation. Aggregation sucks and we can’t do shite with the protein … so back to the drawing board for my user.

So far I’ve collected quite a bit of data for all the PIs I work for, along with a couple of PIs who want preliminary data. It’s been fun and I like their projects more than I did some of the ones I worked on in NY. Don’t get me wrong, I worked on some pretty cutting edge stuff over there, and a lot of the users were doing a combination of approaches, from X-ray and NMR, NMR and cryo-EM, cryo-EM and X-ray, and sometimes all 3, plus some mass spec and even EPR. But, the topics the lab were studying weren’t as exciting as the ones I’m working on here. I get to work with things I learned as a grad student and in pathways I’m interested. I do try to distribute my time evenly amongst the projects, so I don’t neglect people.

I do my share of admin-type things, from generating instrumentation time use and availability, to meeting with head honchos to decide how to operate the facility and attract new users. So far we haven’t had much luck with the attracting new users thing, but I try to go to talks, approach PIs or their trainees and alert them to my presence so they know they have one more local resource to use.

I try to keep the lab tidy, so I’ve done my share of disposing of really old samples from a couple of grad school generations ago. I found stuff in a freezer with my new on it … WTF!!?? I also have to certify users, make sure instruments work and things are properly calibrated. Thus, once a week I get on the different instruments and perform said tests and report those results to my bosses.

I get to hear complains about people not being able to use something or how something is out of whack. I’m the first line of defense here, so I try to calmly say that the user must be messing up with something and that they need to get their filthy paws out of my babies (not really). But I do get to sit down and talk to people about different processes and how they can more efficiently use instrumentation time. In general, I just try to keep my instruments happy and my users busy with data processing. So far I’ve been very fortunate that things have gone that way. But we’ve had a couple of engineer visits, so they can check when someone messed up, or when a board on a computer died (ugh).

Finally, I get to answer emails and texts before I even make it to school and sometimes on my lunch break. Things seem to go out of whack just as I enter Chipotle. Oh well. This is what I signed up to do. I just hope my bosses are happy and my users churn out papers (with my name on it, of course!). I like being a manager thus far, but the level of responsibility can sometimes feel like it is too much. We’ll see how the coming months go. I may have a 6-month evaluation coming up this fall, but I don’t know. We’ll see how that goes and then I’ll share my outlook on things. 

Thanks for reading!

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.