Sunday, July 29, 2012

How much is a baby worth?

Recently, I wrote about how fertility-wise it might be a smart idea to try to have a baby while you’re a post-doc or a grad student but how career-wise it may be smarter to postpone having a baby until you have landed a tenure track position (or any other type of higher-income and securer job). 

The past week I came across two interesting articles that talk more about how much a baby is worth in terms of career perspectives:

The first one is an article that asks “how many papers is a baby worth?” which is an interesting question for example for funding agencies if they want to compare publication output compared to opportunity (a euphemism for having a baby for example). I have thought about how many papers BlueEyes may have cost me and decided it’s impossible to answer. If I would have been sure I didn’t want kids or was sure that I wanted them much later I would probably have chosen a different lab to do my post-doc in. From the offers I had one lab was very high pace and published a lot higher than the laid-back lab that I decided to work in. I made that decision with the wish to have a baby in the back of my mind. So did that cost me papers? Probably.

The second article was discussed by Nicoleandmaggie and talks about how delaying having a baby leads to higher income. Nicoleandmaggie nicely discuss whether this is a true effect or whether this is caused by something else. Go there and check it out, because they can explain it way better than I can!
And thinking and talking about these kind of things always makes me realize that as much as you can try to plan having a baby, it’s never a given that it will actually work, and that it will work with the timing that you had wanted.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Who writes the papers?

Writing my first paper as a grad student was quite an ordeal. Even though I had written research reports for both my rotations as a master’s student, I struggled finding the right tone and get to the point. And I was very eager to get it submitted, because my PI only allowed me to go to my first SfN when my manuscript was submitted. So I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I harassed my advisor to read it, but in turn was pretty disappointed by the amount of red ink on my manuscript when I got it back. I remember being sad that the final version of the manuscript probably only had about 5 of my original words in it. 

Writing this first paper was kind of a rite of passage and writing all the subsequent papers seemed like a breeze compared to the pain of getting that first manuscript ready. So I’m always surprised when I hear people tell that their advisors write their papers for them. Sometimes it makes sense that this happens: I’ve seen situations where grad students weren’t staying in academia and didn’t really care if their stuff got published or not. In that case I can imagine that an advisor will write the manuscript and submit the paper. But is also happens to grad students AND post-docs who want to learn how to write a paper. I’ve heard several stories of post-docs who were either told by their advisor that he read their draft but decided to re-write the whole thing himself or who were told not to even bother writing a first draft, because the advisor would take care of it. I can kind of understand this from the advisor’s point of view: that you don’t want to go through a couple rounds of writing and editing with someone who doesn’t write as good as you. But as a grad student and as a post-doc you also need to learn how to write a paper (or a grant proposal for that matter), so in my opinion it is just very bad mentoring if you don’t allow people to write their papers.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How homeopathy has worked for me

As scientist, we are taught to be skeptical: we ask questions about how things work and we only believe things when we see scientific data from properly executed experiments. We want to understand how things work and often don’t believe that it works if we don’t understand the mechanism (although a lot of current day medication has been found serendipitously and was prescribed before science understood its mechanism of action). So I was surprised when about 10 years ago one of my undergrad professors (a virologist) suggested that I should go see a homeopathic doctor when I was suffering from migraines and allergies that modern medicine could only relieve but not prevent. I had 2-3 migraine attacks each month that I could most of the times treat effectively with an injectable triptan, but whenever that medication didn’t work I would lay in bed nauseous for about 72 hours. When the medication did work I was still pretty drowsy and sleepy for another day because of that medication. I was also allergic to pollen, dust and animal dander and took antihistamines every day.

So I found a kind lady who was an MD but specialized in homeopathy. She had bookshelves full of medical books and a cabinet full of homeopathic pills: little sugar balls that contained substances that were diluted so much that there was probably not a molecule left but sugar. She took the time to get to know who I was and what kind of things I did and liked. Unlike the average family doctor that spent about 5 minutes to diagnose and write a prescription, appointments with her lasted 30-40 minutes. She was very attentive and tried to figure out why I was suffering from these migraines and allergies. At the end of every session she gave me one of the tiny sugar pills that I had to melt under my tongue. She always looked me in the eye and said that she could see in my eyes that she choose the right pill. I never really felt anything and was skeptical that she could see something happening. What struck me though, was that I also got small patches of rash at different sites on my body after every session and she could usually predict where the rash would be next time.  

After about a year of seeing her about every 2 months I didn’t need to take antihistamines every day anymore. I still have allergies, but it’s by far not as bad as it used to be. And before I started seeing her I had at least one migraine attack every time I had my period, and after that year the miraculous thing happened: I had my period without having a migraine attack. I visited her less frequent and until I moved to the US I only occasionally went to see her if I felt like my migraines were getting worse again.

So for the past ten years I wondered how this is possible: did I just ‘outgrow’ my migraines and allergies? I doubt it. Or did I learn to live a more balanced life which caused me to have less migraine attacks? Maybe. Does it just help if someone pays attention and listens to your story and could I just as well have gone to see a therapist instead of a homeopath? Perhaps. Or was it all placebo effect? Possibly.
I know that in science an n=1 doesn’t really count. And whenever people review the literature on homeopathy they find that it doesn’t work. But I can imagine that it is extremely difficult to find study the effect of homeopathy because it requires every individual to get a different treatment based on their complaints and their personality. Similarly, antidepressants and antipsychotics often hardly work better than placebo, because some work for one person but not for the other.

I guess I should add a disclaimer here saying that I don’t encourage people to go to a homeopath instead of to a regular doctor.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Musings on pseudonymity

Today I got an email asking if I wanted to write for the Guest Blogge at Scientopia, and I was really excited about that. I haven’t been blogging for that long and it’s really cool to me that people read my blog and apparently like it too. When I first started blogging Dr. BrownEyes said that it was all nice that I wanted to do that, but that I was probably going to stop blogging after a couple weeks. He said that because I usually don’t finish stuff; my parents’ house is full of unfinished crafts projects and in that respect it’s a small miracle that I finished my PhD. I also really didn’t feel like finishing child birth but it seemed like there wasn’t really any other way at the time.

So I was almost as excited about this email from Scientopia as about an email saying that a paper is accepted, but quickly realized that I couldn’t dance on the table in the lab because nobody here knows that I write this blog. So I told Dr. BrownEyes who (to my knowledge) is the only one who knows who I am and he was happy for me.

But both this occasion and the impending SfN meeting made me think about using a pseudonym. Because if I want to go to a tweetup at SfN what am I going to say to the people that I am with? Anyway, so I asked on twitter how other people handle this and how many people know who they really are. The answers varied from zero to lots and lots, so different people handle this whole pseudonym thing quite differently. This in turn made me realize again that obviously I can think that nobody knows who I am, but maybe people do. And I guess that’s the lesson for today: that I shouldn’t write anything that I don’t want to say to someone’s face.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Things I did while pregnant: grow a baby

I think by now we all now that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo is pregnant. On twitter, this started the #ThingsIdidWhilePg hashtag, in which women were telling all the awesome things they were doing while pregnant. I for example wrote 2 grants (one of which I didn't get, the other one I still haven't heard from), submitted 3 papers from my PhD and did a lot of experiments. The reason that I did so many experiments was not just because I wanted to get them done before I had the baby, but also because especially in the first trimester I felt so tired and nauseous that I had to keep doing something in order not to throw up/ feel incredibly sorry for myself/ cry or all of the above.

However, I think that all this bragging about the things that we can do during our pregnancy doesn't really send the right message. Because when you're pregnant there's a tiny little person growing inside you, and I think it's your responsibility to treat that little person the best you can. And we all know that you shouldn't smoke and drink while you're pregnant, but it's also bad to be stressed the entire time. So to me, that was the priority; I made sure I exercised, did prenatal yoga, was eating well, went to bed early, and I took a nap during the day on most of the weekend-days. So I don't think it's necessarily good to work like a crazy person because we think that that's what society demands from women: that we can only have babies when we prove that we can still work hard enough. When you decide to have a baby, realize that you're going to have to take care of that baby, and that starts when the baby is still in you.

(okay one confession to end with: I did go to this awesome conference in the mountains in Colorado when I was 17 weeks pregnant and I snowboarded all the days I was there, but I was obviously very careful and had read that by 17 weeks your uterus is still below your pubic bone, so it's not that risky)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Worse than discussing politics or religion?

Etiquette tells us not to discuss politics or religion during dinner, and I don’t think I always follow that rule, but I have found another topic that is about as sensitive as politics and religion and that is parenting.  

Yesterday the AttachMode family went to another family for dinner. We don’t know them very well but met through a mutual friend and they invited us to their mansion (yes, they have ‘real’ jobs and therefore earn real money) for a barbecue. And as you probably know from reading this blog, BlueEyes sleeps in our bed, is being worn in a sling and drinks my milk. You can call this attachment parenting, although I don’t necessarily want to be associated with people who think their parenting style is superior and who are needlessly spreading diseases by not vaccinating their kids.

Anyway, the dad of the family that we visited proudly announced that they started the “Cry-it-out method”. Since I didn’t want to be judgmental (and since I was at the same time trying to persuade BlueEyes not to throw wooden blocks at a huge flat screen TV) I didn’t say anything but just asked how that was going for them. He said it went well and that the night before it only took 15 minutes of crying before the kid succumbed to sleep. At 5 they decided the baby was sleepy and they put him in bed. He immediately started crying and they set the timer for him. After 5 minutes one of them went upstairs and came back within seconds, only to leave the baby crying for another five minutes. At 6 the baby was brought downstairs again to drink some milk, but after that he was immediately placed back in his crib and continued to cry. When we left at 8 the baby was still crying but the parents didn’t go upstairs every five minutes any more, but only occasionally and they always came back really fast and left the baby there crying. 

The whole thing broke my heart, and I’m not sure if this is what the CIO method is about. I don’t think crying for 3 hours straight is still considered self-soothing… I didn’t dare to say anything about it yesterday, and today I’ve spent the whole day wondering whether I should have. And that’s why this made me realize that talking about parenting is an even more sensitive subject than talking about politics and religion.