Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The relevance of my research

The other day one of the undergrads in our lab said that ze didn’t get what the relevance was of the research that I am doing. At first I was kind of annoyed by this, but later I started thinking about the relevance of my research and how to better convey this during lab meetings perhaps. Not to go into too much detail about what I do, I think it’s enough to say that I use animal models to study aspects of psychiatric disorders. And to be honest: on a daily basis I find it much more interesting to find out little pieces of information about how the brain works, then to find the cure for depression for example. But I do realize that to the large public, most funding agencies and to the undergrad in our lab the latter is more important.

But some days I realize extra how important it is that we do research. One of those moments was when Glenn Close talked at SfN in 2010. She talked about how several members of her family were suffering from psychiatric diseases and how this affected their lives. It may have been because I was pregnant, but I was very moved by her presentation and the fact that all those thousands of neuroscientists were there realizing what they are working for. (I know this sounds extremely cheesy, but remember people that I was pregnant and very easily moved to tears).

Yesterday night was another one of those moments. A couple of colleagues and I went to a psychiatric hospital to play bingo with the people who live there. This was initiated by the church that one of my colleagues goes to, but we are planning to do it more often with the lab now too. Before we went we were all kind of nervous; what was it going to be like and what were the people going to say or do? It’s awkward realizing that you can talk about psychiatric disorders on a daily basis, and write in papers what a devastating illness it is, but almost never see an actual patient.

I got there kind of early yesterday and the psychiatric hospital looked a lot different than I thought it would: it was more like a college campus with small buildings here and there instead of a real hospital. It started to get dark and it was quiet and kind of eerie. After everyone had got there and we went inside, the place looked a lot like the psychiatric ward in “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. It was a pretty old building and we gathered the people in their dining hall, which had very simple tables and chairs. The people were very happy and excited that we were there, and immediately it wasn’t scary anymore; we started talking to some of them about normal everyday things. Other just sat and stared. 

The reason that we were playing bingo with them is that it is an excuse to give them simple things. Apparently if you are in a state psychiatric hospital, you don’t get toiletries other than hand soap (so no shampoo, no deodorant, no tooth paste) and you barely get any clothes. Many of these people didn’t get a lot of visitors to bring them these things. So we played bingo with them so that they got these things as prices. And we ate cheese puffs with them, because many of them didn’t have enough teeth to eat other snacks. It was both great and sad to see how happy they were with tooth paste, deodorant and our old clothes. And it made us realize that this is what we do our work for: to understand how these people develop psychiatric disorders, and more importantly to maybe one day develop a cure for them.

Friday, September 21, 2012

In case you were wondering…

Dear readers of my blog,
I love it that you read and comment on my blog and that I can ask you questions about science or life in general. I realize that I don’t always keep you informed about how things ended up, so here’s an update:

A while back I asked whether I should go for Lab A or B when I go back to the home country. I had already sort of made up my mind, but still felt that I should write down the pros and cons before making a ‘real’ decision. As expected, I choose Lab B. This morning, I called for an hour with Lab B PI and we talked about aims for the grant that I am submitting in January. I am so excited about these research plans! I am starting to pilot some things soon, so they can hopefully go in as preliminary data! Yay, science! 

Then you may wonder how things are with the experiment that has to work in order for me to be shared first author on this paper that I talked about. We’re still doing the experiments, but so far (two thirds of the way there) it looks promising! But keep crossing your fingers for me please!

And for those of you wondering why I haven’t been complaining about being tired on twitter lately: BlueEyes is finally sleeping a bit better. It was pretty bad when he had just started his new class in daycare a couple weeks ago, because he would wake up every 1-2 hours en instead of easily fall back asleep he would be awake for a couple of hours. Right now, he wakes up twice, only to nurse really short and fall back asleep immediately. Two years ago I would have laughed at myself saying that this is great, but it is. I feel relatively rested again!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Learning to manage people

As we grow in our careers as scientists, we start to do less research ourselves and instead we start to manage other people to do our research. Eventually, all of our research is done by other people’s hands, but we rarely receive real training in how to interact with these people. 

Currently, we are having quite a situation in the lab that involves me and the technician that works on my project, but because I can’t think of a more anonymous way to write about the problem, I won’t go into any more detail. I emailed my PI about it yesterday and we’re going to talk about it today. 

I do have a question for all of you: do you have any recommendations for books about managing people that I should read? Because right now I feel that I’m just doing something…

Monday, September 17, 2012

The right amount of thinking before doing

The lab that I did my thesis work in was a lab where the motto was to shoot with hail in order to find something interesting. Not only because the lab did a lot of screening work (like microarrays and other high-throughput screening), but also because we started a lot of different experiments without thinking too much about feasibility (yes, it’s so much easier to see that now than back then…). Looking at my thesis, I think I did about twice as much as there is in my actual thesis. Most of these experiments either prove to be too difficult (lesson: behavioral paradigms that work in mice don’t necessarily work in rats) or just didn’t work (lesson: translating shitty RNA into shitty cDNA will give shitty microarray results). 

So now I realize that I have to do some more thinking before starting to do an experiment (although this comes from a person who just realized that her post-doc project is way too ambitious and has to be downsized a bit in order to have something publishable in a year and a half). Now that I’m starting to think about my next big grant (3 years of money for research back in the home country) I have the good resolution to REALLY think about what I’m going to do and how feasible that is. It feels like I can use my experience from grad school and my post-doc and finally get it right!

But whenever I think too long about an experiment I realize a) how much work it is, including work during inconvenient times like weekends, b) all the pitfalls, c) all the things potential reviewers may say about it, and I barely dare to start an experiment any more. During grad school I felt that it was good to NOT think about an experiment too much, because then I had already started a lengthy, boring or tedious experiment and there was no way back, so I had to finish it.

So I’m still searching for the right amount of thinking before doing an experiment. Maybe it will help if I pretend that it’s not me who is going to do all of the experiments?