Friday, April 27, 2012

The inverted U shaped curve of productivity

Over the years I discovered that there's a inverted U-shaped relationship between how many things I need to do and how productive I am. With almost nothing to do I also get nothing done, because I'll be procrastinating forever before I do that one thing that I need to do. The past few weeks I discovered that having too many things on my To Do List is also not beneficial for my productivity, because I just don't know where to start. When I am trying to write I am constantly obsessing about all the other things that need to happen in too little time... And running three experiments at the same time makes it hard to not get sloppy. I'm trying to go back to the optimal amount of things on my to do list to be super efficient again!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ‘mommy wars’ – about the hardest decision in my life

We make decisions every day: some are small and have little consequences; like what will I be wearing today? Others are more life-changing; like are we going to move to another country? Other people often make different decisions than we do, and that is usually fine. We are rarely criticized for the majority of the choices that we make (well, unless you have a very improper choice of clothing perhaps). However, when it comes to deciding how to raise your children, there are lots of people harshly criticizing other people’s decisions, which the media called the ‘Mommy wars’ (why not at least the ‘Parent wars’, since fathers need to make decisions about how to raise their children too, right?).  

So why is it that these decisions about raising our children, like sending them to daycare versus staying at home cause such conflict? I don’t think it has that much to do with whether you have the money to make any decision that you would like, even though the recent discussion started by Ann Romney made some people think that if everyone had as much money as they needed this conflict wouldn’t exist. I don’t think that is true, because even in circles where people have enough money to choose whatever they want (or in societies where government has more programs to allow parents to stay at home longer) these conflicts exist.

I think this is such a sensitive subject because to me the decision whether to send BlueEyes to daycare so that I can work was one of the hardest decisions in my life. Many decisions that we make are relatively reversible: if you’ve chosen the wrong clothes you can change, if you’ve married the wrong person you can get a divorce and if you’ve moved to a country you don’t like you can move back. However, the choice to stay at home or not seems less reversible to me. Not only is your child never going to be a baby again, but the stress of being in daycare may alter your child’s brain for the rest of his life (although this doesn’t need to happen when children have one caregiver who they can bond with). On the other hand, deciding to stay at home for four or more years will most likely severely disrupt your career, which is why to me it made sense to work for nearly nothing since most of my paycheck goes directly to BlueEyes’ daycare. So not only does this choice seem irreversible, it's also not about money at all. It’s about whether you put your own needs before your child’s needs (and not in a straightforward way, because I think I’m much happier at work than as a stay-at-home-mom, and a happy mom hopefully makes BlueEyes happier). And because it’s the hardest decision in my life, it’s hard to imagine that other people do it different than me.

When we see people in clothes that we would never wear ourselves we can be polite and not say something about it, so why not act the same way when people make different decisions about raising their children?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Turning lead into gold and coffee into words

Back in the days before there was chemistry, alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold.

Nowadays scientists turn coffee into words, money into data, and data into papers.
image source

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is it okay to have a relationship in the lab?

When I say relationship I’m not talking about your average mentor-mentee relationship here, but I’m talking about intimate-living together-type of relationships. Let me start by saying that I met Dr. BrownEyes in the lab where we both did our PhD work, so maybe you would think that I would answer this question with ‘YES’, but I don’t. Because at that same university there was more than one PI that had a relationship with his grad student and I surely think that that is not okay.

There are three types of relationships between people in the lab, with in my opinion various stages of acceptability.

First, let’s talk about two people at the same ‘level’ (so two grad students, two technicians or two post-docs) having a relationship. As I said before, I’ve been there, because Dr. BrownEyes and I started dating when we met in our PhD lab. I think this is okay, as long as it doesn’t bother other people. We made sure not to be annoyingly close in the lab, and we also made sure not to be talking about work too much when we were at home. Luckily, our graduate advisor worked on a whole bunch of different topics, so we had different daily advisors, and we made sure to both go our own way by moving on to post-doc positions in different labs and work on different topics. Even though I think it is okay to have a relationship with someone from the same ‘level’, I wouldn’t necessarily advice it to other people. In my current lab, a rotation student had a relationship with a grad student, and I actually advised him to go to a different lab, because I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to spend the next 4-5 years in the same lab as your significant other. (He didn’t follow that advice though, so now they are both working in our lab).

The second option is when a PI has a relationship with one of the people in his or her lab. This is what happened in my PhD University; the PI started dating his graduate student, and to make matters even worse, she stuck around and to this day still works in his lab as an associate professor (the system in Europe is different, and one full professor will head a lab with multiple assistant/associate professors). Yes, it is weird that this is even allowed and it happens more than once at that university. I think this is just wrong on many levels, because even if the PI will not favor his significant other, people will think that that happens, and that the significant other did not get her position because of merit.

The third option is when two PIs have a relationship and run both of their labs together or have one lab together. Even though Dr. BrownEyes and I like to talk about work every now and then, and ask each other’s opinions about ideas, papers and grants, I cannot imagine running a lab together on a daily basis (running a household together sometimes already stretches our ability to not become too annoyed by the other person). However, there are examples of people who successfully run a lab together, and during my Master’s I’ve worked in one of those labs. I think this is okay, although when 2 people that live together argue during labmeeting, it does make the rest of the lab feel like kids in the back seat when their parents are having an argument…

So what do you think: is it okay to have a relationship in the lab?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On eReaders

I still read old fashioned books, and it sometimes seems that I’m one of the few people left on this planet who don’t own an eReader of some kind. (It seems like Word doesn’t know what an eReader is yet. It wants me to change it into ‘eraser’.) Until two years ago I said that I would never get a smart phone because I didn’t want to check my email everywhere I went, but since I then succumbed to my iPhone that has been attached to me from the day I got it, I’m not going to say that I will never buy an eReader.

But I like regular books; because you can have the pages flip through your hands, and see how far you are towards the end. I like how people have thought about the cover, the font and what kind of paper it was printed on. I like to look at my bookcase and see what books I have read. I especially like my collection of Lonely Planets that show where I have been and that sometimes even have beach sand or tickets and receipts falling out of them when you open them. Along that line; I like to see what kinds of books people have in their bookcases when I visit them. I think that when you only have ebooks, you should at least get a projector and project a bookcase with all the ebooks that you have on your eReader on the wall for people to see when they come to your house. Also, I like browsing through second hand book stores (or I should say Dr. BrownEyes loves browsing through second hand book stores and I’ve come to like it over the years). How is that going to work when everyone only reads ebooks on their eReader? And I like to see what people read on the train; I like to know whether they read a book that I really like or if they read some crappy news paper, and when they have an eReader I cannot see that (similar to the book case-projector, people should announce what they are reading on the back of their eReader I think).

But ask me again in two years and I’ll probably own an eReader too…

Friday, April 13, 2012

A pain-free society?

Before I moved to the US, I never realized that there were so many small cultural differences between my home country and the US. I mean how much can two first world countries really differ from each other? Back home we have the same McDonalds, MTV and lots of other American TV shows. However, one of the most striking examples of cultural differences in my mind is the different outlook on pain, and especially on pain during child birth.

I’m from that country in Europe where about 30% of women have home births and where until very recently anesthesiologists were only in the hospital during office hours, so women were only able to get an epidural if their baby decided to be born between 9 and 5 (I couldn’t find a link in English, but it says that in 2004 only 26% of hospitals had an anesthesiologist on call for 24 hours). I personally know many people that had their babies at home, and no, those were not just granola hippies that decided to eat their placentas and refrain from vaccinating. They are my sister in law, my colleagues, my friends and my mom (I was born in the hospital, but my little brother was born at home too). I know that if you take a child birth class back home, you mostly learn how to deal with the pain; you learn different positions you can use and how to breathe and basically how to get through it. So to me, having a baby without pain medication seemed like a normal thing to do. I figured I would get an epidural if I REALLY couldn’t take it anymore, but until then I didn’t want people sticking needles near my spinal cord. 

In the US, having a baby without pain medication is called a ‘natural birth’. And when I went to a natural child birth class, I was mostly struck by how afraid everybody was to give birth. Of course, having a baby is not the safest thing you will do in your life; a hundred years ago it was the thing most likely to kill you as a young woman, but it seemed weird to me to be afraid of something before it has even happened.

And after the fact I can say that yes, having a baby hurts, but for me it was very do-able, also because I was able to choose whichever position I wanted to be in and relax enough to have lots of endogenous opioids released. I don’t look back on BlueEyes’ birth as being particularly painful. I’d choose the pain of childbirth over a migraine any day.

So why is it that in this country that on the other hand values hard work and some degree of suffering to attain a goal (‘no pain no gain’) so many people seem to be afraid of pain? Why does the dentist have to numb you before giving you an injection with a local anesthetics? (I had never have that happen before) And could this fear of pain be the reason of the high C-section rate?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Alice in NIH-land

As you can read in the “About Me”, I’m from Europe, and the idea is that we’re going to stay here in the US for the duration of our post-doc and then move back to where there are free babysitters in the form of grandparents our families live. And since NIH doesn’t allow people that aren’t citizens to apply for grants like the NRSA and most K awards, I never paid much attention to how applying for grants really works here. When people were talking about their program officer I always thought that was something that other people had, but not me. And even though I’ve been following DrugMonkey blog for a while, I always read his posts about how NIH-things work like you read the news from another part of the world: it’s all very interesting, but it doesn’t concern you directly.

However, it seems like the only way to get a tenure track-like job at a university back home is when I manage to secure a grant from my home country’s scientific council, and those are not that easy to get (~10% funding rate). And on top of that Dr. BrownEyes requires the same grant to get a TT position (yup a two body problem here too ). The alternative when we want to move back is when either or both of us accepts (another) post doc position. 

So even though we’re pretty sure that we will eventually move back, I’ve started to look into applying for grants here, and recently asked the people on twitter advice about applying for a K99, since this is one of the few grants that you can apply for as a non-citizen. And then @Neuropolarbear  suggested that I could call my program officer to figure out when would be a good time to apply. And all of a sudden I realized that I was part of that foreign world of people talking about eRA commons accounts, program officers and study sections. 
So I started to read here and here for good advice about how to put together a K99/R00. My current strategy is to start to write a proposal for my home country grant application and use the same science for a K99 at the end of the year, which is when I’ll be entering my fourth year as a post doc. And I’ll call my program officer, like a grown up US scientist!
Any other advice or suggestions?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Does everyone suffer from Imposter Syndrome but me?

This post is part of the Diversity in Science Carnival on Imposter Syndrome hosted by Scicurious.

SciCurious wrote an interesting post today about Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people can't seem to feel that they are good at something, that they deserve to have their job or that promotion or what have you. It may sound really minor at first, but imposter syndrome can be insidious, pernicious, and prevent you from trying to get ahead and promoted, and even make you think you should leave your job.
 Reading the comments there, and on Dr. Isis' older post about the same subject, made me realize how many people suffer from Imposter Syndrome to a larger or smaller extent. And that surprised me a bit because I rarely doubt whether I should be where I am. It’s not that I am very exceptional: I did pretty well during my PhD (4 first author papers, of which one with IF>10), but decided to switch fields a bit to become a slice electrophysiologist during my post doc. I love doing electrophysiology experiments, but to say that I actually know what I’m doing? Not really. I never paid much attention to math and physics in high school and am deeply regretting that now. If my PI asks me to do a Nernst equation I have to google a Nernst equation calculator online because I cannot figure out how to do it myself. I cannot program in Matlab or R, and am kind of afraid to learn it even though it would make my life easier, and I get really nervous when I read papers that have equations in them. It’s been almost a year that I have been trying to read and understand the classic Hodgkin and Huxley paper about the action potential and I still haven’t finished it.
And two years into this post doc I still haven’t got a grant or fellowship for the project I am doing (I am currently waiting to hear from fellowship application #4). That might be because the project I have thought of for myself is pretty high-risk and very laborious (however, I am slowly getting data that make me believe it will actually work!).

So why am I not insecure about my place in science even though I’m only a post doc and I am a long way from being able to say that I made it? I can think of a couple reasons:
First, I’m generally an optimistic person. I have my fair share of panicky moments, but overall I usually have the feeling that things will turn out fine (and they usually do).  Second, my mentors have not been afraid to show that there’s a lot of struggling and rejection in science. When my first attempt at getting post doc money was rejected, my PI told me that he only got funded on his fifth grant as a post doc. And realizing that despite that initial rejection he’s still in science was a big eye-opener for me. Last, I think I’m pretty good at being happy when things work out well: experiments that work, papers that get accepted, travel awards that I got. And I often think back of how I felt when that happened. It’s embarrassing to say but I still sometimes sing the song in my head that I sang when my first paper got accepted. The only lyrics are the title of the journal it was published in….
Also, that’s what I love about electrophysiology: the instant gratification of patching a cell and seeing its membrane potential go to -70mV. It’s already a good day when that happens!  

Monday, April 2, 2012

What I love about pumping milk

Expressing breast milk; it’s probably the least sexy thing I do on a daily basis, but I do it, just like I brush my teeth and do the dishes at night. It used to be in the category of things that just need to happen. And there are only few things as awkward as undressing halfway in an office at work, and walking around the university with your own bodily fluids in a jar on a daily basis. But now that BlueEyes is almost 9 months, and I think I can go from pumping twice to pumping once during my work day, I have come to realize how much I like it. 

It gives me the perfect excuse to sit in a quiet room for 15 minutes and relax. I don’t bring papers to read because when I relax I’ll pump milk much faster.  It gives me the opportunity to gather my thoughts, plan my experiments, think about my day, or just sit and fall asleep (okay that only almost happened once). And the release of endorphins when I’m pumping makes me feel even more peaceful.

Of course when I don’t need to pump milk anymore I could try and have those two small breaks in my day when I can sit and relax, but I just know that when I don’t need to do, I probably won’t do it. Normally I’m running around all day doing experiments and what not and the need to pump milk just makes me sit down, which I would otherwise probably not do.

It’s funny how I’ve come to love something that I used to dislike so much.