Flatter Me Silly


Ever since I was a child, I have lived in fear of being labeled as 'smart'. My pre-college years were spent attending relatively small schools with a relatively low number of advanced students. In grade school, I was teased mercilessly whenever I scored well on an exam, and my only high school boyfriend dumped me when I was announced as valedictorian (he admitted that it would "look bad" for him to associate himself with someone of such academic success). Subsequently, I always enjoyed attending Public Undergrad and Grad Universities, where I could satisfy myself by attending prestigious programs, but there was blissful anonymity in the university name.

Working at Brilliant University is another story. Ever since making the move to my new city and academic home, I am often asked about my occupation by new acquaintances/complete strangers/etc. Something along the lines of, "So what brings you to New City?" I then tell the questioner that I have recently started a position as a postdoctoral researcher at Brilliant University. If the person is not an academic (as most random people are not), s/he will almost always reply with some variation of, "Oh, my! You must be so smart!"

Given my life experiences, this comment makes me cringe every time. How to respond? I submit to the reader the following options:
"Oh, no I'm not!"
"Yes, I am very smart."
"Actually, I am f%!# brilliant. I will win a Nobel Prize by the time I am 30."
"Thank you."
Here are my corresponding opinions:
This is my instinctive answer. To plead, "Don't hate me, I'm just like you!" Unfortunately, this answer is false. And I am anything but a liar.
This answer is true, but I don't like it. I think it's rude to talk about being smart, especially around people who might not be as smart.
This is how my Most Arrogant Colleague at Brilliant University would respond. I would have to be drunk to even consider giving this patently asinine (and false) answer.
At first, this seems to be the most gracious reply. However, by accepting the compliment, I would feel that I am really answering with Option #2.
In reality, I have found all of these answers to be unsatisfactory. The only solution, I decided, would be to invoke Humor while also being completely truthful. Now, when someone says, "You must be so smart!", I simply smile and reply, "My husband tells me otherwise."

Low-Lying Fruit Flies High


I have attended N useless meetings during my first two months at Brilliant U., where N is greater than my age (in years). Usually, I am brought into these meetings (that have nothing to do with me or my research) because I am an expert in sub-subtopic X, and I may be able to lend a fresh perspective on what someone considers to be an interesting problem.

Typically, these meetings have two things in common:
1. I never have any idea what the hell is going on. The main players make such a show over their jargon-filled language, they may as well be speaking 13th century Icelandic. A scientific meeting with my grandmother would be more interesting.
2. There is always a discussion about pursuing "low-lying fruit".

It is the ever-present fruit comments that give me pause for further thought. I can't help but to imagine a giant tree of research, too large and dangerous for most people to climb. Suddenly, an enticing cluster of {fantasy fruit of choice} comes into view, just beyond the reach of my grabby hands. Boy, does that fruit look tasty.

Come on, people. This is Brilliant University!!! For as smart as you all think you are, SOMEONE must be able to get to the high-flying fruit. And for the love of God, why are we talking in terms of fruit???

Donors Choose 2010: I Need Your Help!


I’m really excited this month to be a part of a science-blogger challenge taking place through a do-good organization called Donors Choose. DonorsChoose.org provides a mechanism for public school teachers in poverty-ridden areas of the U.S. to ask for help in acquiring classroom resources. So many of our children in the U.S. are at a learning disadvantage because they live in a school district and come from homes that cannot afford to provide educational supplies. Imagine trying to do advanced math without a calculator or learning about temperature without a thermometer. Due to a lack of supplies, many disadvantaged children grow up without knowing the joys of science, the discovery of engineering, and the power of mathematics.

Through Donors Choose, we can help.

I have created a giving page at DonorsChoose.org where I have selected multiple projects that teachers have submitted for funding by philantropists like you. Together- you, my readers, and any other donors who take an interest in these projects- can bring science, math, and engineering alive in classrooms across the U.S.

For example, Mrs. D, from a high poverty area of Oakland, CA, is requesting funds for a “Learning with Frogs” classroom project for her 7th grade students. She tells us,

My students do not have many chances to engage in scientific investigation and experimentation. The students enjoy learning science but often ask how and when they are going to get a chance to engage on hands-on science.

Mrs. D. would “love the opportunity to promote the importance and excitement of science education through dissections”. As such, she is requesting donations for 60 preserved frogs, which will help her students discover the wonder of anatomy- specifically, the digestive and circulatory systems. This project is currently partially funded, with $234 needed to fully fund the frogs. Together, let’s make it happen!

Many science bloggers will be participating in the Donors Choose challenge in the coming month (Oct 10-Nov 10). We are engaging in a friendly competition to see whose readers can support the most classroom projects. So I am asking for your help! Please consider donating something today to support our school children. Every denomination helps- do not worry if you only have $5 to spare. I congratulate you all the more for your generosity. To sweeten the deal, HP has agreed to match the donations given through science blogging giving pages- so your money will go even further.

To sweeten the deal, I will be offering an original CE oil painting for a randomly selected reader who donates through my giving page. W00t!!! Alternatively, I can send you some of my ahh-mazing ginger cookies. Whichever you prefer! Feel free to leave your real name or a pseudonym on my giving page when you donate, and we will work out details at the end of the challenge.

Thanks in advance for supporting a wonderful organization and the many children who deserve an opportunity to fall in love with science.

Miss You


I like the commenters over at my new home, but I miss you guys. It's not the same without you.

Come over and play.

Candid Engineer Gets Traded


Just in the nick of time prior to the Monday morning 6am EST trading deadline, Candid Engineer has been traded to the new scientific blogging community of Scientopia. Click on the link for full details on the Candid Engineer scouting report and trade.

W00t!!!

My love and appreciation go out to Scicurious and MarkCC, the masterminds behind the Scientopia community, for including me in this interesting and diverse mix of science bloggers. Once you're over at the Scientopia site, take a look around at the new digs. It will make you totally happy.

You'll have to update your RSS feed over at the new blog- there's a little "Grab the Feed" button up in the top right corner where you can subscribe to the new feed. Sorry for the inconvenience! You know I love you!

See you on the other side...

The High & Mighty


Here is something I ponder: How fair is it to judge those within my scientific area of expertise with a heightened level of scrutiny?

My lab has a revolving door for postdoc candidates. They come in, and they go out. Another week, another postdoc candidate interview. And we get all different flavors, you know. Biologists, chemists, material scientists, and a whole assortment of engineers.

Short of noticing GlamourMag pubz on these candidates' CVs, I have no fucking clue as to whether or not most of them possess scientific merit. This is because they've written dissertations on topics that are by and large unfamiliar to me. Yes, I can ask them cursory questions about their work. They will satisfy me with some hand-waving and claims of greatness, and then I'll move on to the questions they're more likely to fuck up- such as why-do-you-want-to-work-here. In any case, I just can't really judge them based on their science.

But we do get some candidates that have worked on Mangoes as graduate students. And, of course, I am in a much better position to ask them probing questions about their experimental approach, downstream applications, and next steps. These lucky candidates are fully subject to my preconceived notions of what is Hot and Not in Mango science. It's very easy for me to tell whether or not their work is of the Me, Too variety. And it's easy for me to know whether or not they've been asking the most efficient questions.

For a variety of reasons, my lab is in a position to do top-notch Mango research. I like what we do; I respect what we do. But I also completely appreciate that not everyone has the money or the connections to do awe-inspiring Mango slicing studies. So, I try to give some of these candidates a break if it's clear to me that they've done the best they can with what they've been given.

Recently, I interviewed a candidate who was doing a Mango slicing Ph.D. project. Afterwards, one of my colleagues explicitly asked for my honest opinion of the candidate's work, and I gave it to him- I thought the research was uninspired and less-than-thorough. There was nothing really wrong with it, but nothing particularly eye-catching, either.

His response: "Well, aren't you high and mighty."

Sigh.

And so, when I'm in this position to judge, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. Am I supposed to be kind to my own kind? Or am I supposed to be honest? How can one maintain honesty without appearing snobbish and over-privileged?

Sometimes the ivory tower feels more like a prison.

Lab Safety FAIL


Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I decided to go back and peruse my early-blog archives. I was surprised, I have to say, to read my former self. I was so damned spirited and wrote with an easy, breezy, (beautiful) style.

Gosh, when did this blog get so heavy? Today, let's try to shake it off.

A month or two ago, I was outside enjoying lunch on a scenic patch of grass. I slipped off my flip-flops and, without delay, stepped into a rancid mound of what was presumably dog shit.

Awesome.

I spent the rest of lunch keeping my foot as far away from my nose as was humanly possible. I've got to say, nothing better than being disgusted by yourself.

Now, this shit was really ingrained into my foot, and I didn't know exactly the best way to handle it. Debating: the ladies bathroom with some paper towels and girly foam soap? No, I decided, that just didn't seem like it was going to cut it. I opted for what was clearly a far superior option:



Figure A: Candid Engineer deftly employs a bottle brush and potent glassware detergent to literally scrub the shit out of her foot.

As luck would have it, one of my good pals would enter the lab and capture me engaged in this impressive display of balance, flexibility, and personal grooming skillz.

So I thought that was the end of that. But today, my labmate informed me that, apparently, he had shared this candid photo with one of his friends who is a lab safety person at another university. Said lab safety person found my acrobatics to be hilarious yet ill-advised, and has subsequently begged for my permission to include this photo in his safety presentation of things NOT to do in the lab.

I permitted it, of course. But I still maintain that lab safety people are just too frickin uptight for their own good. Because- in my opinion- revolting, shit stained feet are a pretty valid cause for lab supply improvisation.

UPDATED to add: There is some name-that-yoga-pose going on in the comments. Any other suggestions? I'm looking to introduce a new move into my routine, and need a good name for it.

Do Your Best and Forget The Rest


Last fall, I had a crystal clear plan for myself. I had several exciting projects underway (2 that were tres novel, 1 that was low-hanging fruit), and I was going to push, push, push myself experimentally. I was going to have 3 manuscripts submitted by this June/July. I was going to have CV in awesome shape for TT applications this fall. I was going to be a WinnerTM.

But the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

Those of you out there with more research experience than me know that good research usually requires some amount of luck. I'm not sure how much luck, exactly. I'd kind of like to know. 20% luck? 50% luck? In any case, I haven't had any. I've worked hard, I've pushed on different angles of this project, I've had a student assisting me experimentally full-time on these projects. There has been absolutely no lack of effort.

And here we are, without much of anything ready to submit. Without anything for my CV.

--

For the last 4 months or so, I've been engaging in a challenging workout system called P90X. This shit is intense. It is hard, even for people who are in good shape. And it's common enough when you're doing these workouts to not have what it takes to accomplish the "move" in question. It would be easy to get discouraged when, for the 15th week in a row, I cannot do a push up and clap my hands without applying rugburn to my face. But at least in the context of my ridiculous physical maneuvers, the trainer offers a mantra, which he repeats, repeats, repeats.

Do your best, and forget the rest.

--

How much relief do I feel when I hear, when I say, when I write those words?

If you do your best, you can live without regrets.

So instead of continuing to wallow in misery over my lack of accomplishments (yes, I've been wallowing), I have now decided that I need to make a concerted effort to bring that phrase to other parts of my life. I've been trying to bring it to the lab, to bring it to my office, to hold onto it and to own it when I otherwise feel like an experimental failure. Things haven't gone my way this year- it's true. But I've done my best. And if luck is just a matter of probability, my best can keep my head held up until it's finally my turn in the rotation.

Getting Help


So, I was quietly sitting in my PI's office, and he was bent over in his chair, hand pressed to his forehead, thinking.

I had scheduled this meeting with him to ask for help. I was trying to write up a manuscript on some really tasty mangoes that I had discovered over a year ago. But I didn't have a reason why my mangoes were so tasty, and everyone (everyone) wants a mechanism. I'd been searching for a mechanism for a year and a half to no avail, I was at the end of my rope, and I was trying to write up without it.

After briefing my PI about the situation, he said he'd prefer to see a mechanism in the story, and he felt confident that we could find the answer. I told him about what I've already considered, and asked him, "What else do you think it could be?"

And that's when he paused, thinking heavily, and I sat nervously in my chair.

After a minute or two, he looked up at me and said, "It could be anything."

--

Such was my concern with meeting with my PI. He is a busy man, and he is far-removed from the experimental details of my life. Why should I bother him with a problem that he probably won't be able to fix? He has enough to do.

Mostly due to the encouragement I had received after a previous blog post, I had decided to ask him for help. He is my academic advisor, busy or not, and I needed some guidance.

I'm so glad I asked. Even though he wasn't able to help with experimental details, he made it abundantly clear that he cared and that he wanted me to succeed. He brainstormed with me other people in my lab who might have the expertise to shed light on my problem. He encouraged me to reach out to them. He also offered to make phone calls to collaborators who might have the ability to help.

He asked me why I hadn't come to him sooner with my problem. I told him that I knew he was busy and that I didn't want to bother him. He did not like this at all. He said, "I am here for you. You can meet with me every week if you want. Don't be afraid of my secretary! Just tell her you want to schedule a meeting."

Little did he know that I am plenty more afraid of him than of his secretary. People in my lab have so few one-on-one interactions with our PI that (at least in my mind), I'd prefer to save those interactions for when positive things happen. I want/need him to think of me as a winner, not as someone who can't get her shit figured out. But, given the situation as it is, I'm hoping that this interaction will help him to know me better, and perhaps give him the impression that I persevere. Who the fuck knows.

The funny thing is that ever since the meeting, every time I see him, he wants to know what kind of progress I've made on finding my mechanism. This can be slightly comical, as sometimes there is as little as half a day in between his questioning. And as you all probably know, research is slow. But his mild harassment certainly does serve the purpose of compelling me to work on it when I'd rather put it aside. I figure this is just advisor tactic #227: Hound the shit out of your trainees until their goal is accomplished.

Good enough for me. I'll take what I can get.

An Interactive Interrogation


It's that time of year, folks. DrugMonkey et al. have whipped out the annual Who-are-You meme. This kind of thing isn't usually my thing, but I'm feeling festive today, so what the hell.

So, discerning readers, I ask you:

1) Tell me about you. Who are you? Do you have a background in science? Are you an academic? Are you a student? A postdoc? A member of industry? A professah?

2) What brought you here and why have you stayed? What do you like about this blog? What changes, if any, would you like to see?

3) How do you feel about post quantity vs. quality? I post about once a week- would more frequent (but perhaps less inspired) posts be a good or bad thing?


Talk to me.

Now, I know there are hundreds of you out there who subscribe to this magazine. Some of you comment, but most of you are lurkers- now, that's cool. I'm cool with that if you're cool with that.

But just this once, I'm going to ask YOU to do me a solid. Answer at least one of my questions in the comments. You just might find that you lurve commenting!!!11!!

xoxo CE

Loving the Bench


Years ago, when I was a wee graduate student, I loved going to the lab every day and getting my hands dirty. I loved DOING the science. I loved being the one who, despite all of the failures, would be the first to know when something finally *worked*. I loved the hands-on-ness of it all.

And so does my current visiting student. She is so wonderful to have with me, because in addition to being smart & talented, she just loves being at the bench. She loves it so much that, until recently, I hadn't really done a bench experiment in months.

Last week, I had collected some blood samples and was about to run my own assay. I got out some reagents and set up at the bench.

Visiting Student (VS): "What are you doing?"
Me: "Running assay X."
VS: "I can do it."
Me: "But you're busy with another experiment. I don't mind doing it."
VS (eying me as if I am a the biggest liability ever): "I will fit it in. Go sit at your desk."

Ahahaha!!!

She won't let me do experiments! I later asked her why she didn't want me to do any experiments, and she expressed the same opinion that I used to have: that she loves being the one who does the science.

She then went on to say that, despite wanting to go to grad school, she is pretty sure she doesn't want to continue in academia beyond the Ph.D. because she just loves doing the science so much and she can't imagine ever not being at the bench.

Being young and into the benchwork, I remember once asking my grad advisor if he missed doing experiments. His response: "Hell no." I didn't understand it at the time, but now I do. So I wonder if my student will always feel the way she does now- possessing of that unbridled passion for the pipet, that unquenchable thirst for the cell culture hood.

For now, I heartily support her in that, from atop of my paperwork-filled desk.

Oh, Won't You be My Mentor?


Now, I try my best not to be a woe-is-me type person. I am definitely more of an acknowledge-what-you-don't-like-and-do-your-best-to-change-that-shit kind of person. And along those lines, I've always dug the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Now, I'm not the praying type, but that is one hell of a prayer. Those words sum up everything that I believe I need to be happy. Acceptance. Courage. Wisdom.

So what does this have to do with today?

Today, this week, this month- I've been trying to acknowledge, to get a handle on the limitations of the lab in which I work. In my last post, I spoke of my frustration with having done a crapload of experimental work in the last 2+ years, yet having no submitted manuscripts. A couple of the ensuing comments struck me:

GeekMommyProf writes, "Taking on high-risk projects is admirable, but you need to balance them with bread-and-butter work. You advisor should help cultivate in you how to strike a balance."

PhysioProf chimes in, "It sounds to me like you need more and/or better guidance from your mentor(s), who certainly have better developed senses for the relative impact of different projects, the relative likelihood of success of different projects, and the relative time/effort that is going to get sucked up by different projects."

Well, shit guys.

Thinking about it, I totally get it. I'm a postdoc, not a PI. I'm doing my best to get there, but I could use a little help. The problem, you see, is that there is little mentoring available to me in my lab.

Aside from meeting with my direct supervisor ~ once every 2 months, the only real "mentors" I have are my fellow postdocs. The lab system of which I am a part cultivates many positive qualities in the independent, collaborative researcher. I don't really think I'd want to be part of another lab.

But the thing that is lacking, of course, is guidance. The more I think about this, the sadder I get, and then the whole "woe-is-me" thing starts happening. Which is retarded, because I cannot inherently blame my lack of publications on my lack of mentorship. But I can wish that I had a real mentor.

The problem is that wishing for something won't get me jack shit. I mean, even the serenity prayer doesn't tell you to wish for something. It tells you to screw your head on straight, and then to accept or to act.

So what do I do? Anyone who knows me would tell you that I'm not very good at accepting things, so let's assume, in this case, that I need to act. Options (that I can think of) include:
  1. Trying to meet with my PI. I have had 2 meetings with my PI since I joined the lab, each of which has run approximately 10 minutes. I have doubts about the willingness of someone this time-pressed to give me the attention I'd need to help sort through my 5 projects. I know some people in my lab actually go to him. But there is something in me that is loathe to consume his time for anything other than A) a serious problem or B) a serious success.
  2. Trying to meet more/get more out of my relationship with my direct supervisor. I am in regular email contact with him, and have frequent enough meetings with him that he is generally kept abreast of my experimental accomplishments and failures. However, he is in charge of a lot of people, and he simply cannot afford to devote much mental energy to me and my issues.
  3. Calling up my grad advisor and trying to get him to mentor me. But, oh, how I don't want to do this because it's just not his job anymore. I still ask him for advice on stuff that isn't directly related to my research (aka- should I write a review for Journal A? Which topic do you think is better for my TT research statement?). But I don't want to ask him for advice on my current research. It's not his area of research, and it just reeks of neediness and incompetence to me.
  4. Asking my grandmother, or possibly her cat, to step in as my advisor.

What do you think, internets? If you are an advisee in a large lab, how do you find mentorship? If you are an advisor, what are you willing to do for your past and present mentees in terms of project advice?

The End of Another Notebook


I'm assuming most people like to gauge their productivity at work in some way or another- maybe certain people like to look at manuscripts published, grants submitted, money awarded, or maybe people just like to acknowledge the passing of time (aka I've been here 2 years, so I must have done something useful?).

I measure my productivity in notebooks.

I am a bit of a lab notebook freak. I keep a beautiful notebook- well laid out, informative, attractive, thorough, and easy-to-follow. My notebooks offer hypotheses, detailed experimental procedures, results, and conclusions for each experiment. Let me be immodest for a moment and tell you that I often receive compliments on my notebooks.

My notebooks are 152 pages each. They house approximately one experiment per page. This morning, I came to the end of my third notebook. So that's a good 450 experiments. For those of you who aren't doing work in biology- that's a shitton of experiments because we're talking about multi-day operations here.

Notebook 1 = 16 months
Notebook 2 = 6 months
Notebook 3 = 6 months

So, I've got all of these notebooks, stuffed to the motherfucking nuts, and I've got *zero* submitted manuscripts. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

What motherfucking good is it to be this productive when you don't produce coherent, reproducible stories?!!? And so, with the end of my third notebook comes serious depression, and maybe a bit of a kick in the ass.

WHY do I have three notebooks worth of data and no submitted manuscripts?

1. We've got a lot of funding here, and I make a point to work on high-risk projects. I figure that if I can't do it here, then I can't do it anywhere. And, as it turns out, I often can't do it. Often, the shit just doesn't work. And of course I persevere tooth and nail because that's the way I am, which just draws out the long and painful path to failure.

2. The shit I work on is not particularly reproducible. I get big error bars and redo certain experiments many times in order to feel confident about the data I'm presenting.

3. Sometimes, I am so focused on the short-term goals of the project, that I forget about long-term goals and do experiments that are unnecessary and/or inefficient and/or unable to answer the questions I am asking.

4. Sometimes, I bite off more than I can chew. I am not a molecular biologist, and neither is anyone else in my lab, so I really didn't have any business getting involved with Western blots, PCR, etc this past year. Should it really take 6 months to figure out why your Western blot isn't working? No, it should not. Fuck.

And so, that is how I manage to be productive without being productive. I promised myself that I would submit 3 manuscripts by June of this year. Fail.

Fail, fail, fail.

Lately, I just feel like a big failure.

I need to pull my head out of my ass and figure out a way to turn at least some of this data into a couple of stories.