Archive for: May, 2014

Losing the 'baby weight' US vs EU

This morning I read this article posted by @wandsci describing a woman's struggle journey to become and stay a size 0. I had never really thought about this much, but apparently in the eyes of some men "taking good care of yourself" as a woman means being skinny to the point where it's no fun anymore (unless you really enjoy running 8 miles every morning and exclusively eating iceberg lettuce for dinner. I wouldn't enjoy this much). Also: yikes. I have never been a size 0 but I also have never really struggled to be the size 4-6 that I am. I do however, have some observations to share regarding how easy it was to lose the ~10 extra pounds (5 kilos) that I had gained during both of my pregnancies.

While living in the US when BlueEyes was born, it took me about a year of normal eating and breastfeeding to lose those 10 pounds and fit back into my old jeans. While living in Europe for the past two months (Little Brother is almost 6 months now), I am already almost at my pre-pregnant weight AND I fit in all my old clothes. I could have written a funny blog post about how a stressful transatlantic move is an excellent, but very expensive, weight loss strategy, but instead I think there are three important differences between the US and EU in terms of how difficult it is to lose weight.

1. Added sugar. The first morning back in Europe when I drank orange juice from the supermarket, I could almost not keep a normal expression on my face:"oh my god this was so sour!". This made me realize how much added sugar the supermarket orange juice in the US must have. Same goes for most bread and a whole range of other products. Nearly everything you buy in the US tastes a lot sweeter than in Europe (yeah unless you buy organic super foods at Whole foods, but as a post-doc that means your entire paycheck turns into food).

2. Food availability. On the campus where I work now, there is 1 little supermarket, 1 restaurant (that is too expensive to eat lunch at on a daily basis) and a bunch of cafeteria's that have mostly soup and sandwiches but nothing fancy. The building that I'm in now, does not even have a vending machine! I bring my own lunch every day, because it is just too far to walk to anywhere I can buy food. Also: no free cookies/pizza/lunch or anything with meetings (I would be lying if I said I don't miss that..). But my point is: it is much harder here to find food, and there's much less of a culture of buying food for lunch.

3. Exercise. In the US, I would drive to work, park my car and have a 5 minute walk to daycare and the lab. I could bike to work, but I deemed it too dangerous to bike with BlueEyes, so only one of us could bike at a time. Here, we COULD drive to work, but we would have to park much further away from the lab. Also, because of traffic in the afternoon it literally takes an hour to get home, while it's a 20 minute bike ride. So we bike to work everyday, with BlueEyes and Little Brother in the cargo bike. But also in general, you usually have to walk just a bit further to get to a parking space from a store or to go to the downtown area of most cities. It's a lot easier to get 'free' exercise.

I'm not saying one is better than the other: I love the infrastructure in most US cities that allows you to park right where you need to be, instead of some European cities where taking your car to go pick something up from a store means trying to find very expensive parking for hours (and I realize this is very different between US cities too!). But it does make me realize how a bunch of seemingly small changes make such a big difference (at least for me) in how easy it is to lose weight without having to resort to long daily runs and eating iceberg lettuce for dinner.

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Have we reached peak publication?

May 28 2014 Published by under ideas, life in the lab, postdoc, science

Peak oil is when "the maximum extraction of oil is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline". This, of course, won't happen to papers. There will probably always be papers to be written and things to be discovered.

But back in the days, you could get into Science with a smart experiment that you had already published and add a model and some equations*. Nowadays, getting into C/N/S requires an almost endless amount of experiments and an even more endless amount of control experiments. You can argue that this is because reviewers and editors require people to do more and more, but I think it is also because fields move forward and questions become more complicated and more narrow. In my field** it's clearly more complicated than just measuring glutamate levels in the accumbens and saying that that drives any type of motor output. It's necessary to figure out exactly which cells and which inputs onto these cells are involved in a behavioral output (or even better: which synapses from which cell!). And not just if they happen to be involved, but rather if these cells and the inputs they receive are necessary for this particular behavior. And then obviously a boatload of control experiments that don't even end up in the actual paper***.

This makes me wonder if someday soon, it will no longer be possible within the duration of one PhD project or one post-doc to gather enough data for one C/N/S paper? Is this a bad thing and do we in someway need to reset the criteria?


* not to say that this wasn't a very important Science paper, but just to illustrate the amount of work necessary to get into Science.

** I realize that illustrating which field I am in may make it even easier for readers and followers to deduce who I am. This is a choice that I've made because it just takes me too much time to come up with bunny hopping analogies to what I want to illustrate. And also because if you've followed me here and on twitter it's really probably not that hard to figure out who I am anyway. Which I've decided is okay. Hi mom!

*** Did you know that nowadays we call Supplementary Data "Extended Data"?


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Cultural differences in grant writing

After just having spent 4 years in the US where most, if not all science is very hypothesis-driven and people tend to work on a specific question it is interesting to see how different that is in some labs here in the homecountry. The other day I witnessed a conversation between a scientist and hir department head. The scientist works on individual differences in bunny hopping (to steal this analogy from DrugMonkey) and was planning to write a proposal studying individual hopping preferences in relation to food collection since that follows nicely from  what this scientist had been working on for years. However, since this scientist is not a department head, ze cannot submit this proposal hirself (yes, let's not even go there to discuss this…) so the dept head has to submit. And the department head thought that perhaps what reviewers are interested in now is not bunny hopping but giraffe running. And not in relation to food collection but in relation to the giraffe's circadian rhythm. The scientist was unhappy, as ze wanted to pursue the questions that ze had been working on for years. But since the dept head was the one submitting the proposal there was really not that much ze could do here.

And you might wonder: wouldn't the scientist and the dept head need preliminary data on giraffe walking and circadian rhythms? Apparently not. I have seen people get grants working on something they have NEVER done before just because their question apparently sounds interesting and the reviewers for some reason have faith they will be able to do it.

So when this scientist gets funded, ze may need weeks, months or even years to set up a paradigm to study giraffe walking and characterize its circadian rhythm. Or frantically look for a postdoc who is experienced in doing this. But apparently that's fine by the funding organization.

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It's been a while since I wrote about sleep

It's 1 am and I wake up because Little Brother is stirring and wants to nurse. Since he sleeps in the co-sleeper right next to me, I can just pull him towards me and breastfeed while I'm still half asleep. Normally I would fall back asleep but now BlueEyes wakes up too: "Mama miiiiillk!!". So I turn over, because he sleeps  in between me and Dr. BrownEyes and nurse him too. More for show than for real because he only takes two sips and then tries to sleep. But he stays awake and can't seem to manage to fall back asleep for the next hour and a half.

That whole hour and a half I lay awake wondering if this attachment parenting is screwing up my career or at least my ability to make smart remarks during lab meetings or while meeting new people. I wonder if I would have gotten more sleep had we trained our kids to sleep in their own room. Or if I would get more work done at night if it wouldn't be necessary to stay with BlueEyes until he sleeps in the evening which sometimes takes more than an hour. Or if I wouldn't need to pump milk at work twice a day.

These are the things that seem important at night. But then in the morning I realize that I'm really not that tired (perhaps because of this?) and that there's really no way of testing this hypothesis because there is only one me and only one time that I get to parent small children. And then I'm glad that I only read a two 'parenting' books, the most important one being "Our babies, ourselves" (If you're the parent of small kids: go read it!!).

And to conclude this post I will quote the second sentence my new (German) department head said when I first met hir:"Good, back to work then!".

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Repost: Spending your emotions wisely

Every now and then I lay awake at night wondering if I will be able to secure a grant or fellowship before my current post-doc position (that is just a year and 3 months 2,5 months) runs out. Or if I need to spend this time trying to find a job outside of academia. I worry about this. And then the other day someone tweeted a link to one of my blog posts that I almost forgot I wrote. So mostly for my own sake I will repost it here (there's some blabla about a meeting a went to, so you might as well skip to the sentence I highlighted below):


Recently, it seemed like every conversation I had was about how hard it is to get grants and how little money there is for science. At SfN this year it was all I talked about. But the awesome conference that I’m at now is completely shifting that. It is great to be here in so many ways:

First, I get to sleep and relax. Last night I decided not to go out and drink, but to go back to my hotel room at 11 and sleep. I slept in a whole stretch to the next morning. That hadn’t happened in 2 years and it was great. Also, there is some time to relax and I just spend an hour and a half at the pool reading a book. Anyone who has a kid realizes that that too is something that only happens every 2 years or less. 

Also scientifically this meeting is great. There are many good speakers and sessions, but what this conference also makes me realize is that I am someone who works in a certain field and knows things. For example, I know who the people in my field are and what they do. I realize what the questions are that the field has at the moment and I’m starting to think of ways to answer those. But also, other people are starting to know who I am. Yesterday, the most awesome science-thing ever happened, where I was talking to someone I hadn’t met before and at some point this person realized that ze was familiar with my graduate work. But not only that, my graduate work had “inspired the work that ze was doing now” (hir words). OMG this still makes me so excited and happy!

This meeting is also really interesting because there are so many senior scientists who show genuine interest and share advice. Not only did I get assigned two mentors because I won a travel award but I have also been talking to numerous other senior scientists. Talking to them does sometimes make me wonder if I’ll be able to pull it off to be a rock-star scientist when I grow up. The morning I left for this meeting I kind of broke down under the pressure of writing a paper and a grant in the same month, and worrying about funding situations and about Dr. BrownEyes’ paper and grant and on top of that trying to clean the house and do laundry in the 2 hours I had before leaving for this conference after a pretty crappy night of sleep. I cried and said I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I heard all these stories about women whose kids got sick or who went through the trouble of adopting a child from a far-away country. Would I be able to take anymore load on top of this? I don’t even dare to think about what would happen when BlueEyes would get sick in times like these when it is so busy. 

And that brings me to the title of this post. Because at the women’s lunch at this meeting the speaker was talking about how you can only use your emotional capacity once in a day. There is only so much energy you can spend on emotions, that you’d better spend it wisely, she said. So her advice was to use your analytical scientific brain to determine whether something is word worrying about, and if not, stop worrying about it immediately. 

So I am going to walk in the sun and spend my emotional capacity on being happy about all this exciting science, instead of on worrying about funding rates of such and such percentage!! And did I mention how glad I am again to spend time with people I met on twitter?!

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Finding my niche

I just started my new job* and the labs here are huge. Well that's maybe not true, but the hierarchy is much different than in the US. Every big lab is headed by a professor that has a couple (usually) assistant professors that work within that lab with their smaller labs. Meaning that there are lab meetings of both the big lab (full professor + assistant professors) and lab meetings of all the individual assistant professors and their lab members. And since my project is a collaborative project between two PIs that are not in the same big lab, I can literally go to multiple lab meetings every day of the week. Also, this means that almost every technique I can think of  is available, and could be used by everyone. To my US readers: this explains why there are usually so many authors on European papers, at least in my field. But that is not what I wanted to talk about.

What I am currently struggling with is that while thinking of new ideas for the fellowship I am applying to next, I need to find something that a) is in line with what the people around me do, so that it makes sense that I want to do this here b) is in line with what I did in my previous post-doc so it makes sense that I bring whatever awesome stuff that I do to this new place, c) is something that involves a thing that I can learn here, so the fellowship pays for me to learn a new (and cutting-edge) thing. And then I also need to make sure that subject-wise I am not too close to any of the assistant professors that work in either of the big labs that I am associated with**. It all feels like a difficult balancing act, but low and behold: I have a great new idea that includes all of the criteria above. Now I have to find the time to write it down in between finding my way around here and setting up all these new and awesome things I am going to do here...


*For those of you who haven't followed my blog for very long: I was a post-doc in the US, then I became a Research Associate in the US, and now I am a post-doc in my homecountry.

**First day at work and this senior scientist tells me:"We need to sit down and talk about what you are going to do here". Turns out, ze is planning to do something very related to what I had proposed in one of my unfunded grants...

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Being self-employed in academia

May 09 2014 Published by under grant writing, life in the lab, new job, postdoc, science

No, this post is not about crowdfunding your own research, rather it’s about the feeling that YOU are the only person responsible for your own success in academic science. And how that can make you feel lonely sometimes.

I just started my new job, and am working on a collaborative project which means that I’m employed at two different departments and affiliated with a third department. All those departments are full of lots of new people that I need to get to know. And even though my post-doc lab doesn’t really exist anymore after my PI left academia, I miss my old lab-family. I miss the jokes we shared and the conversations we had. I guess it just takes time to build that again. Perhaps this is why this article in the Guardian about feeling overwhelmed and isolated in academia resonated with me. It made me think about how in academia, perhaps more than when you work for a company, it really is all about you. It’s almost like you’re self-employed in a way. You need to get YOUR papers out, and write YOUR grants. Sure, there’s other people on those papers and your grants may pay for other people, but in the end YOU need to make that happen. And in my case, my contract here is only for one year and 3 months, which kinda puts a lot of pressure on me to get those things done RIGHT NOW. I’m fighting the “deer in the headlights”-feeling again…

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Grant writing for love and/or for money

May 06 2014 Published by under grant writing, ideas, life in the lab, postdoc, science

The question that's been on my mind a lot recently is what exactly to put in the next grant that I'm writing. My current position will end in a year and 3 months from now and before then I need to find my own money somewhere. I have a bunch of review comments from previous (rejected) grants so I can modify those previous proposals OR come up with an awesome new idea (no pressure right?!). The end result will probably somewhere in between I guess.

The other day I was unpacking boxes that we stored for the previous four years and I came across a notebook from when I was doing my Masters in neuroscience (and a whole bunch of other things like my old Walkman. I'm not a hoarder though). One of the assignments that I had written in the notebook was to write a fake grant proposal and my first idea for a research question was "How does the brain work?". First I laughed at my 10-year-ago self but over the next few days it did make me realize that writing grants isn't just about what to put in to persuade the reviewers and/or committee but it is mostly about doing the science that you love. This seems like the most obvious thing in the world but I realized that in my frantic quest for money I had almost forgot about it.

So I thought a bit about what I really wanted to know science-wise and what the questions are that I would like to answer. I'm still very much in the process of doing that so I talked to one of my new bosses who has been very successful getting grants recently. The first thing he said when I asked about grant writing was: "Nowadays reviewers love genetic models. You should put in some genetic model and people will love it." Mmhh that sounds a lot like something else I've often heard: "You need to put in something with optogenetics for people to love your proposal". What I had in mind as the question I wanted to answer neither needs a genetic model nor optogenetics... But should I try to modify it in such a way that I can add one (or both!?)? That to me feels very artificial but perhaps it's necessary to obtain funding...? How do you write a proposal, dear readers: choose the question that you'd love to answer or choose the question that you assume reviewers will like? Or do those usually overlap for you...?

7 responses so far

Everything is new today!!

May 02 2014 Published by under blogging, moving, new job, postdoc

I have started my new job today, so my whole day is filled with meeting new people (and lots of them, I just attended a lab meeting with maybe 50 people in the room), learning about new science, finding out where my new milk-pumping-room is, aaaaaannd (drumroll please): a new blog here at Scientopia! I promise I will make it look nice around here soon, but just like my house is still full of unpacked boxes and curtains that still need to be hung, this blog will be kind of like that for probably the next couple of days too. But I was too excited by it not to tell you!

5 responses so far