For the first time in over 3 years I opened the folder on my computer that contains the grant and fellowship applications that I submitted during my postdoc, including one that was still work in progress. By the time I left academia, I had submitted 10 applications, none of which got funded. The reason I opened this folder was to share one of them with someone, not necessarily because I wanted to read them again. But as these things go, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of reading my old applications. And something struck me: they lacked the spark of really wanting to discover something in science. They all read a little like: “look I have an okay CV, I can do a whole bunch of things and collaborate with a whole bunch of people. Oh and then I’m going to do this project”.
And I remember a conversation I had with 2 more senior scientists in the process of writing that unfinished application that revived that spark. They asked me what the question was that I really wanted to answer and what it was that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place. But by then I had already made up my mind about wanting to leave academia, so we will never know if rediscovering the spark would have got me funded.
But it did make me realize once again that I got so caught up in chasing funding that I nearly forgot what it is all about: studying something and trying to find answers to questions that fascinate you. And it also made me realize that except for those 2 people, none of my advisors or mentors ever asked me that question: what it is that I really want to study and that really gets me excited to understand further. And more importantly that I forgot to ask myself that question as well.
The first year after BlueEyes was born, I vowed to myself never to take any important decisions in the first year postpartum. I was too tired, emotional and just not myself to be trusted to do anything else than do the work I had thought out before that year and take care of my baby and myself. It was even difficult to decide whether to work during naptime or take a much needed nap myself.
A little over two years later, Little Brother was born and I completely disobeyed my own order not to take any decisions during that first year. We moved, I briefly started a new post-doc job and then decided to leave academia. I still believe that was a really good decision by the way, but I wish there was a good way to figure out if you can be trusted to take decisions at a particular time.
I notice that there are differences during my cycle in terms of feeling confident to take a decision (or not at all), and then there's prodromal migraine phases during which I feel sad and completely incompetent. Usually I only figure out that this brain state was there after it has ended. It makes me realize how nice it would be if there was a little light on the inside of your wrist that would switch on if you are good to make important decisions, or something like that. Or is that what mindfulness is good for...?
What about you? Do you know when your brain can be trusted to take decisions?
Years ago I went to our annual PhD retreat and one of PhD students from a different lab presented data from a screen they did. They talked about the model and the screen and just when we thought things were getting excited and they would talk about their findings, they showed data about "protein X". They described some of the features of said protein, but did not want to disclose the name, in fair of getting scooped.
I thought this was overly cautious and unfair to the audience, but the other day I heard an even more striking story of someone who was this vague about their data in a labmeeting of their own lab. For months they presented data without wanting to tell to their lab members the identity of a protein that was at the center of their project. It makes me wonder: is the lack of input you can expect from your lab mates when you hide critical information worth the reduced risk of getting scooped by someone close to you?
The other day, someone asked me:"So, why do you blog?" and I didn't have an answer immediately. I started blogging to practice writing: I'm not a native English speaker* so I figured it would be good to write something on a frequent (or less frequent) basis.
But why do I write about the things that I write about? I share bits and pieces of my life mostly to get my thoughts clear - and putting them on paper helps. And I share things because I feel they can be helpful to others, for example how I found my job outside academia.
Also - even though I rarely do this - I like going back to read my own old posts. I realize that sometimes I would have entirely forgotten about things if I hadn't written about them here.
For those of you that have a blog: why do you blog?
*I do appreciate edits and comments that people sometimes send me. Although I feel that most improvements to my writing have more to do with me being a sloppy editor than me not being a native speaker ;-).
One of the things that seems mentioned the least in the training of PhD students and post-docs is what I would call "your scientific gut feeling": this intangible feeling for what topics will be important, which questions will lead to important answers and which unexpected results can lead to important discoveries. I actually wouldn't know how you would train this in somebody, but I think it can be very important in somebody's career and for science in general.
I seem to have the reverse scientific gut feeling: the first time I heard about LTP in the hippocampus when I was in college I had some type of unexplainable aversion against the topic. Later, I had to admit that when this was the basis of learning and memory in the brain, I guess I had to start liking it a little bit.
Similarly, the first time I heard about a project I got involved with in my post-doc lab, I was extremely skeptical about the mechanism that we were studying. So much, that I started to look up evidence to disprove my PI's hypothesis. In the end, I had to admit that perhaps they were right, and the paper about this ended up in a pretty good journal, which I honestly had never expected the first day I heard about it.
So now, when I sit in a meeting and somebody talks about a method or results that make me feel annoyed, skeptical or even almost angry, I stop myself from asking skeptical questions, but I realize that this might be a very important topic and that this feeling may actually indicate that it is important.
How is your scientific gut feeling? Or how do you identify important topics or results?
Earlier this evening I was driving home. BlueEyes, Little Brother and my husband had fallen asleep in the car and I was listening to the Mars CD from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium album. I realized that the first time I listened to this album was when it had just come out in 2006 and I was cutting a zillion brains on the cryostat. I remembered that this was just around the time that I started realizing that perhaps the grad student in the lab that I liked having coffee with might be a better match for me than the person I was living with at that time.
I also listened to this album a lot driving through California before going to the first ever SfN meeting I would attend in San Diego in 2007. The grad student I like hanging out with had now become my boyfriend.
I also listened to this album after the next SfN in San Diego when we drove to San Francisco. The grad student that had become my boyfriend was now the father-to-be of the baby I just found out I was pregnant with.
I looked around in the car at the grad student that had become my husband, that unborn baby that was now a 4-year-old and the sun that was setting outside.
I had just read in the paper about how a nursing home had people with dementia listening to songs from when they were young and how that comforted them. And I pictured myself there in the future, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers once more and I realized all the more how ridiculously fleeting and fragile everything is. And as The Red Hot Chili Peppers sang that "the thing we need is never all that hard to find" I realized that all of that was in that moment right there sleeping in the car with me.
When I just started as a grad student I got annoyed and upset when receiving feedback. For example, when I wrote the first draft of my first abstract for a conference, my advisor rewrote it almost entirely. There were maybe a couple words there that were still mine and they were probably "the" and "rats". Otherwise, the abstract was completely different. And with different I mean better of course, but then I found it hard to admit that back then.
Now, when I write something and I receive hardly any feedback or none at all, I get annoyed and upset. Over the years, I have learned that feedback means that people care and they want you to help improve the thing you wrote. No feedback means they either don't care, or don't have enough time to look at it.
I miss data. In my current dream job the small non-dreamy part is not being in the lab myself anymore. So I don't pipet 96 wells plates anymore, I don't do western blots anymore (my favorite molecular biology technique because of all the playing with water), I don't do surgeries anymore and I don't patch cells anymore. As you can see, this isn't really about data (cause I do get to play with other people's data), but rather about performing experiments. And these past couple vacation days during the holidays I found a reasonable alternative to the focused-but-absent-minded state that doing lab work can bring: I taught myself to crochet.
So next time someone asks: "how do you handle missing data?" I will answer: "I crochet."
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"?
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.