I’m in Science (Careers).

I was interviewed by Carrie Arnold (@edbites) for this Science Careers (@ScienceCareers) article ‘The Stressed Out Postdoc’.

It’s a compressed version of my experiences with depression (and there are several other people quoted that have some fantastic insights; even greater than mine in the piece, in my opinion). I’m a plant biologist, not a botanist (not that there’s anything wrong with that– I would actually like to branch out and do something in another plant species), but other than that, it is representative of my experiences that I am still coming back from to this day.

I hope the article helps someone out there who might be struggling. I say on here a lot that my story is about how not to do a postdoc (and hopefully my blog is a way to help me and others do it better); and if the stress of your academic experience is negatively affecting your life, then definitely seek help. Or as the article puts it: don’t forget to dance if that’s what you love.

Surveys (yes, I know I’m being lazy by not linking to a survey; but they are all over) have shown that the mental health of grad students and postdocs, hell, probably amongst academics period is not in a great state. Most of us probably are functioning rather well, considering the pressures. That said, this is still a problem and we’re not doing our best work because of it (I know there’s a lot more to doing good science than just a healthy brain with a productive mindset towards work– necessary, but not sufficient).

The reaction I’ve had to my interview has all been positive; which is good, for sure. My fear with talking about depression is that it’s just whining and no one else actually relates. I’ve talked to enough people that I’m confident (p<.001) that this is real, that academia requires a lot of us and that in a lot of ways is a breeding ground for mental health problems.

Science is powerful. It’s incredible. It requires an engaged mind (at least while you’re actually doing science; it’s OK to not be doing it 24/7/365; brains need space to process ideas, down time and just time away to come back to things with a fresh perspective). And a stressed out, depressed, anxious mind is not engaged– it’s distracted. Scientists spend a lot of time overcoming our human cognitive biases; in a way, depression can be categorized as just that (it’s more, but it certainly is a distorted and limited perspective on the world that can be hard to break out of).

Being a scientist is quite difficult. No, we don’t work in a coal mine (maybe a little; always wear PPE & do practice lab safety protocols!) and I am very grateful that I get to use high tech equipment/techniques to explore the world, to help educate people about the things I learn, and to get to interact with really brilliant people.

I’ve been told it’s bold to just say that I suffered from depression out loud, under my own name (in fact, if you talk to me in person about this, I do have a really hard time with it still; I make a lot less eye contact). Nearly everything good that’s happened to me the last few years has been because I started talking about this out loud. The silence, the isolation was killer, nearly did, kill me. So I tried something different. I went against my depressive instinct and started talking about it.

I think I’ve learned to talk about it better over time. And of course, I’ve had many positive voices to help me along the way (but not false positivity– the well grounded kind).

Thank you for reading. I hope by being open and talking about my struggles, it will help someone else with theirs. I don’t get why it’s so hard to realize that all humans suffer and struggle (Shout out to The Buddha for popularizing this notion thousands of years ago). Productively dealing with struggles is challenging. In fact, it’s probably why the economy exists. And science.

I just hope I haven’t gotten my brain into a better mode too late to do me much good, career wise. Besides getting help/talking to someone, the best thing I think I can say is be self-aware and the sooner you can get through struggling with depression, anxiety, impostorism or perfectionism, the better.

ISsignature12607crop

 

 

 

 

pre-Plant Biology 2014 (#PlantBiology14) post.

As I prepare to head to a conference with my newer mindset (as in not as depressed, experimenting with life more), I’m thinking about conferences, what they are for, who they are for, and what it is I’m trying to get out of attending this one (#PlantBiology14).

Even though I’ve been going to a conference or two every year for my whole scientific career, I’ve almost always felt out of place, not like I belong (hello impostorism!). And like I haven’t really been present enough to take advantage of what is on offer there.

I largely thought that conferences were for PIs (‘real’ scientists; those could certainly be grad students and postdocs) to get together to swap stories of funding, writing, ideas for new or old collaborations, grants, and things like that. PIs always seemed to be writing furiously at their computers between sessions, presumably writing grants? Furiously emailing? Perhaps updating their talk? Getting the latest dispatch from their labs? Analyzing ALL the data? It did seem largely specific to PIs to my eye; not as many postdocs or grad students doing that. I guess that’s why PIs earn the big bucks. Paid to always be (look?) busy and exhausted constantly? I’m sure any PI reading this will laugh at just how wildly inaccurate my projection of what it is they’re up to is; even though I’m a postdoc, I don’t get that great a sense of what actually goes on in a PIs mind.

Poster sessions were the worst. I sometimes would wonder exactly what I was doing there, taking up space, that someone else could actually use to do something actually productive and contribute to the world. I’m strongly introverted. I was (& still can be) shy and anxious. My history of being depressed doesn’t help either; a combination of not wanting to spread my depressed thoughts to anyone else and feeling completely unworthy of existence. I tended to not think highly of myself– still don’t very often though I’ve gotten better at acknowledging that I too, can do decent work sometimes.

Other people do great things (I now count myself amongst the doers, creators and builders of the world; one reason I started blogging– of course that means I am always striving to do more than I have done); I will continue to try and find the good in what others are doing and help them improve their work if I can or help them learn a new thing about the world or point them to a place they may not have been aware of.

Of course, I can discount connecting people to ideas these days because we all have a fire hose worth of information coming at us constantly now and the key skill is to be a good filter for all that information– the conference environment can be overwhelming. Maybe the best I can do is try to ask good questions when people are talking about what they are doing, even though I imagine most things I would ask are probably naïve (but maybe those are valuable too).

That said, it’s hard to be a connector of people to ideas if you aren’t actively interacting with people; especially at a conference where interacting and building community is the main reason for the event (Introversion does not mean aversion to people, FYI). A place where grad students and postdocs can land jobs (or at least start that conversation) and maybe get out of their own narrow confines for awhile. Outside that one conference at the end of my Ph.D. where I found my postdoc position and on that same trip met a girl who I dated for 8 months, conferences have mostly been drab affairs where I become a zombie, not really actively engaged and kind of put off by the crowds of people at booths and feeling largely isolated and not just because of exhaustion; because I couldn’t push beyond my largely mental barriers.

I’m trying to re-frame the conference in my mind. More as a place where good things can happen to anyone (me included). Where you can meet new people and find your ‘scene’ as entertainers like to call it; your group of people you come up with, learn from and bounce ideas off the wall, get feedback, etc. (this happens in science too; clusters of scientists that grow and succeed together in their independent careers; I’m sure these are fascinating Venn diagrams). Where it’s not perfect, but in the chaos, interesting ideas come out, new people are well met. I started Tweeting a few years ago and last year, tweeted up a storm which was a lot of fun for me and I plan to do it again this year. There’s now a more formal social media framework for the conference: the iConnect with Plant Biology team. We’ll be extending the meeting beyond the meeting with The Internet coverage from attendees and interacting online with anyone who’s interested. I met people last year because of Twitter.

I posted a fill in the blank elevator pitch based on the opening of Star Trek the other day. I think it’s not a bad mantra to take into a conference either:

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.00.56 PM The full text, if you don’t know is (no worries if you’ve never seen this before):

“Space, The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”*

Conferences are a place to expand your mind, push your comfort zone, grow some new brain connections with new ideas, systems, scientists and thoughts and importantly, to build the community of like-minded people; plant scientists in this case. While my research contribution is small, I fully intend to connect people, find new places and avenues I haven’t really looked into before and to cover my experiences on Twitter. Of course, I’ll catch up with old friends too. One good thing about going to the same conference for years in a row is just this; you see the people from your ‘science scene’ again and again and catch up (and perhaps incorporate new people into that scene– if you see someone standing alone, invite them into your conversation or just say hello; sure, it may go nowhere, but you don’t find out by ignoring people; cultivate curiosity).

There’s a notion that I even joked about above, that PIs with their heads in their computers kind of takes them out of the conference. I don’t fully subscribe to that; I think that tools like Twitter and other digital media (even just note taking) really are game changers for conferences and scientific ideas to spread beyond the confines of the actual attendees. And even for attendees, digital coverage can help them have a richer conference experience, as one person cannot attend all things.

Mindfulness is kind of a buzzword these days with some good reason. I am going to try and not be blindly mindful, but really actually notice what’s there in front of me and then tweet and photograph (within the rules) the entire thing to help others have an enhanced experience. I am also going to try and manage a blog post or two during the conference, as Twitter is great for some things, but not for longer form thinking like this.

Conferences are for germinating ideas, a starting point for new growth, for interacting with the forest, and pollinating ideas. They’re a leaping off point to new places.

Here’s to a good Plant Biology 2014 (#PlantBiology14) and may we all boldly go where no one has gone before (just know my boldness more likely will show up on Twitter rather than in person).

ISsignature12607crop

 

 

 

*Yes, I forgot the ‘strange new worlds’ clause in my version with blanks. I’m a horrible nerd, more impostorism.

What kind of lab? What kind of PI?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the ideal environment is for scienists to operate in. Obviously, it’s probably not one size fits all, but I think there are some general principles to operating that any scientist might appreciate, get behind.

@mwilsonsayres is starting her new lab at Arizona State soon and is recruiting postdocs (and Ph.D. students). She put out a tweet saying what kind of PI she is (going to be/is?) saying 1) Asking research questions we care about asking and 2) Making a safe place to say ‘I don’t know’.

That first one probably reads to most scientists as a no-brainer; of course we have to ask questions that matter to us and are curious about, otherwise we wouldn’t be very productive. Being passionate about seemingly trivial things is exactly how progress is made (sometimes it’s just picking on someone elses’ data and asking ‘really?’).  And of course developing and coming up with those questions is important, however that happens (these questions might occur to someone away from lab while in the shower or out hiking or doing something besides science; brains need rest from the lab, after all).

The second item in the list is also extremely important and possibly trumps the first one. That’s the impostor syndrome, dealing with uncertainty and being able to talk about it openly. It’s something that doesn’t exist in too many places in academia currently. It’s starting to get better, even Neil Tyson on Cosmos has emphasized the point saying that there’s no shame in not knowing something, it just means it’s there to be figured out.

Here’s what I’d add to the list– The kind of culture I’d want in a lab or to create in a lab if I ever get to that stage of having one of my own:

  1. The first rule of Street lab is Don’t talk about Street Lab! (Just kidding)
  2. Learn something new every day (at least part of a new technique, a new result, reading a new paper, a productivity tip, a new supply source, something!)
  3. Do something for someone else routinely (share what you learned, teach someone something new, send that draft of a manuscript to someone else so they can hone their editing/feedback skills, clean up a common space in the lab).
  4. Growth mindset!
  5. There will be a master list of supplies, reagents, primers, a style sheet, and a list of software tools used by everyone to keep track of things well. There will be a data/content management system.
  6. Schedule an appointment ahead of time with an open calendar with a note about the subject of the meeting noted so we can all prepare.
  7. Lab meetings will not just be research reports/updates. They’ll be learning opportunities too.
  8. Everyone has a plan we work out together and adjust over time (for research, career, etc. with so called SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). Some meetings will be regarding these goals.
  9. Everyone writes, edits and reviews. This may not be formal scientific manuscripts, but blog posts or other informal writing to help everyone build a writing habit. Of course lab notebooks are important too.
  10.  No interruptions when people are working/concentrating except in case of emergency. Everyone will have a sign they can put up at their desk/bench that says ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ (or everyone will have a public habit that signals ‘no interruptions; like headphones on or wearing a certain hat).
  11.  Experiment hard.
  12.  You will fail. And be uncertain. Learn to be comfortable with both, have a sense of humor about both and move beyond it. Learn & do better next time.
  13.  No one person is your sole mentor. If you need something from someone ask, discuss, etc. (Twitter, email, talking, text…however you do it, just do it, ask for specific things, not vague guidance!).

That’s a lot right there. This is just a draft list from the top of my head over a few days of thinking. Obviously it still needs some refining and isn’t the be all end all list; it’s not one size fits all. However, I do like the idea of having a lab guide to hand new people when they walk in the door to set the tone for what’s expected, what they might expect from colleagues and from you, the leader of the lab. Of course, it can’t be a book (or maybe it can? the first month of working in a lab may not be strictly benchwork; it takes time to get the lay of the land there).

Some questions to leave you with:

What would you add to the list? What would you take away? Does anyone write these now? Would anyone want to collaborate to write one of these with me?

ISsignature12607crop

 

 

 

 

I get to.

update this blog.

wake up and get going each morning.

live in the present.

be enough.

learn something new.

enjoy my coffee.

stand in a power pose.

be a scientist.

push my comfort zone.

read a book.

                                                                                    take a nap.

                                                                                    explore.

*This is me experimenting with a new way of updating this blog. Playing with formats is fun, no?