Accelerating Expansion.

I know I’ve been absent from the blog for a while. Other writing projects have kept me busy and lab has heated up quite a bit as well. I’m back and going to try and write more about science, rather than my own brain (fascinating though that is for everyone, I’m sure). I will continue to write about my brain and my journey from depression to productive, optimistic and expressive person. It will just be intermixed with scientific stories I find interesting.

 Accelerating Expansion

 NPR hosts a Cosmos and Culture blog, 13.7. I don’t read it nearly often enough, but it presents some philosophical issues about living in the universe.

I read Alan Henry’s post on Lifehacker this week about stepping out of your comfort zone, which is something I’ve written about before. For some reason, the idea of the expanding universe and expanding one’s comfort zone leapt into my head.

As nature seems to work and as much as we live in an ‘ideal’ universe, life (that is, in the human sense of the word, not strict biological definition) should ideally follow that track as well. I know that Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of saying that the universe is trying to kill us; it is an unwelcoming, unforgiving place- also filled with stupid design….’putting a pleasure palace right next to the sewage outlet’ as he has said.

However, the universe is expanding in an accelerating fashion, pushing itself apart, in a sense pushing its comfort zone.

I would like my life to be more like the universe. Accelerating expansion. Creating a bigger world every day. Learning new things each day. Working on a molecular and grand scale.

I don’t know if that’s too idealistic- and it is certainly anthropomorphizing nature (which scientists must be careful about), but I’d like to think that it’s one more connection I have- we all have- to the universe. Not only am I made of star stuff, perhaps in some way I can behave like it as well; changing over time, moving onto fusing helium when my hydrogen supply runs low.

Was the original symmetry-breaking event (my basic understanding of how the universe started) a risky proposition? Was the result of the present universe inevitable when that happened? That’s not even the point, in some ways. Something new was attempted. How’d it go? Well, it resulted in at least one curious species wanting to know how it all works and sitting in awe at the scale and composition of it all while trying to survive and thrive.

So the next time I’m doing something that pushes my limits, I’m going to think of it as communing with the universe. I’ll be attending a conference in 11 days. There will be multiple opportunities to push my comfort zone, I’m sure. And I’m trying to do new things every day that push my notion of what my limits are, while returning to where I’m comfortable regularly.

My friend Johnna just wrote a blog post about not being a science panda; a scientist who stays in one specialized niche all the time and doesn’t practice to become a kung-fu fighter. I will become an extremely disciplined kung-fu panda scientist, and pushing my comfort zone is one mechanism for doing just that. Though i still feel I have a small comfort zone,  I’m going to start where I am.

Ever on and on.

 

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Contagious.

A dark mood gathering.
A dark mood gathering.

I ran across the idea of the Framingham, MA long term population study where scientists found that social connections could determine the likelihood of obesity in a population. Just being socially connected, you are apparently more at risk of gaining weight because a close social connection gains weight. This is apparently true of other things as well; including good things like exercise habits. Though I haven’t read it (yet), this comes from Kelly McGonigal’s book, ‘The Willpower Instinct’.

I was thinking about it in terms of depression and anxiety amongst postdocs and Ph.D.’s, where both of those things seem more prevalent than the general populace. Some of it is that the current reality of Ph.D.’s and postdocs is not the sunniest picture, though I realize we’re in a better position than most- we’re smart, after all, and if career advisors are to be believed, qualified for many potential career paths.

Getting hooked up with those career paths is another story of course, a black box that I’m trying to figure out as I really don’t think the straight academic path is for me any more; I can’t swear it off completely yet, but it just seems like it’s not where I want to be the more I think about it. Part of the problem is hitting upon a new path that I could be enthusiastic about- as enthusiasm is one of the things that shines through when you’re writing to someone at a place you might like to work (as opposed to just needing a job).

Being reminded of ‘social epidemics’ made me think that perhaps we could be spreading negative moods to each other in our social circles- and we do talk to one another a lot (even if it’s just locally). In thinking about my interactions with colleagues, I can’t say that I’ve always been overwhelmingly positive; it’s always being worried about career (never good news on that front it seems), or getting negative results, worrying about competitors, dealing with lab politics (luckily not too bad where I am), and other stresses that come with life in the lab.

During the worst of my depression, I hope I didn’t spread it to anyone else; I certainly tried not to, but I can’t help but wonder just how much the moods/temperaments of others affected me and I them- one reason I isolated myself so much was just that, not wanting to spread my mood to anyone else.

I know I’ve written quite a bit about social research in order to figure out how to rewire my brain to become less isolationist, more interactive, positive, risk-taking, pro-social, engaged, and getting to a place where I can dare greatly.

Basically getting to a place where I show up in the world as opposed to feeling invisible, as I do all too often. It has gotten a lot better this year, at least. I’m taking the slow steps to Ian3.0. That’s a large part of why I write here; to get my voice out into the world in some small way, and to learn what I think. 

These ‘social epidemics’ are undoubtedly complex and never the full story, but something I am becoming more aware of is just how I interact with the world and I am a lot more careful to put constructive things out rather than things that tear people down (even thinking hard about exactly how I am speaking to people and how I can do that better in the future).

I don’t think anyone who’s depressed intends to put negative vibes out into the world, but that can be the result. The frustrating thing is it’s not something you can ‘just snap out of’. It’s taken me at least two years to really feel like it’s a diminished presence in my life, but it’s still there. I can feel it kind of waiting in the wings waiting to pounce in a weak or isolated moment.

The good news is that individuals can help themselves and indeed, friends, family, colleagues, the internet (seeking out positive voices that resonate really helped a lot), therapists and anti-depressants have all played a role. That’s the upside of connection; good things can spread too. Even in a community like Ph.D.’s and postdocs that doesn’t see a lot of good news on our radar screens in terms of career advancement, continued funding, career alternatives, etc.

I’m sure most people are decent, but it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of how we’re interacting with the world and each other. To use the words of a movie from my childhood: ‘Be excellent to each other’.

Ever on and on.

Grimey.

Frank Grimes and Homer Simpson. ‘The Simpsons’

Set up

This episode ‘Homer’s Enemy’ has been on my mind lately.

In the episode, Homer is put up against Frank Grimes, a man ‘who’s done everything right’, taken all the right steps and moved up into a steady job at the nuclear power plant in Springfield. And Homer sort of lucked into being the safety inspector in sector 7G. If you watch the show, Homer has also had any number of crazy experiences in his life, including winning a grammy when his singing group, the B-sharps, hit it big.

Living in the moment

‘Grimey’ is a very straight arrow, stays on the pre-laid path. He does what’s ‘expected’ by society- education, get a decent job and just do that. Forever. There’s some comfort in that.

Homer is the opposite. Living in the moment, doing what feels good for him in the moment, pursuing what he wants, leaning into the uncertainties of life- in large part because he doesn’t know any better.

I am much more like Frank Grimes. Standard. Straight. Narrow. And decidedly not a risk taker. I wish I was a bit more like Homer- a more competent at his job, perhaps, but someone who lives more in the moment and enjoys his time more…spending more time blogging perhaps, doing more creative things with my time. Oh, and Homer, of course has a family….Frank Grimes doesn’t. It all suggests that leaping in with both feet, while no guarantee, means interesting things will happen to you if you take the plunge. I don’t plunge enough.

Nick Offerman, Ron Swanson himself was on The Nerdist this week and talked about what it is to be a man (really, just a decent human being). Hard work. Empathy. Being authentic. Be humble. Be a lifelong student. And apologizing when you’re wrong. Being comfortable with yourself. Feeling like your work is a privilege. Owning your story. Something I’ve talked about a lot before.

Plunge in

I am trying to plunge in more in my life and enjoy the adventure, rather than hiding myself away. I don’t fully know what that means. But it at least means forcing myself to do the things that I am uncomfortable with. In the lab, in teaching, in life. Which is a lot. Venturing out when I’ve kept myself closed off for so long. It’s hard making it out of the dark forest. I have taken some steps in the right direction I think, though they seem so small and insignificant that I am still feeling like a failure at life. I know I’m still relatively young, but there’s a point where I have to say ‘I’m not where I want’…I just don’t know what or who to ask to change it all. But I’m asking my bumbling, stupid and slow questions, challenging myself in stupid ways and writing…which I’m told is a great way to learn what you think and find solutions to problems.

Bias.

Self talk.

PAST.

I’m no good. I’m embarrassed to even be walking the Earth. I want to get run over by a bus. I want to crawl under a rock and stay there. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Or make eye contact. Or talk to them. Or declare my presence.  I am an impostorAnxiety boils over in my head. I am extremely perfectionist. I am neurotic

Why bother investing in myself? Nothing will work out for me no matter what I do. I question and ruminate on every decision I make no matter how insignificant. 

I don’t love myself. Rationally, I know there are people who care about me, but I don’t  know why. I know I’m better off than many, but still feel awful about it. Truly, the world would be better off without me. I don’t matter. Or count. I’m useless. 

Things can’t possibly change. I’m too…old, set in my ways, don’t know what I’m doing, uncertain, indecisive, asocial…I am wrong. A mistake.

PRESENT.

I am doing more. I am in the arena a little more often. I have accepted my my introverted nature and understand more that it’s not a flaw, just a part of who I am. I am inching my way back up to feeling like it’s OK for me to live life. Doing something. Or at least trying to. I still don’t have a good direction to go in. I am trying to prevent career burnout by doing things for myself that are novel and new. And enjoyable. I am exploring slightly more. And through this blog, commenting on things through Twitter (my tweets made it onto the #Sciquester home page the AAAS had!), emailing people and asking for the things I need more often. I try to do something that will make me uncomfortable every day…I even succeed sometimes.

I am much more open to feedback. A friend of mine- @MalaChakraborti- who has been a huge support to me when I was in my deepest depression wrote this to me recently: 

“You have a pretty strong tendency to qualify your sentiments, and sometimes you go pretty far at the self deprecation part. The reason I’m pointing it out is because I think it no longer really represents your true opinion of yourself in that situation, but has become a habit from a time when the sentiment was stronger.”

I have noticed this myself. When I write, or speak to people, I still come from a perspective that I don’t have a clue and am not confident. While it’s true that I don’t feel I have a ton of confidence, I do try to have a more confident voice. I go back and edit things I write when I see equivocations in my writing whenever I see them. I’m sure I do a lot of that here in this blog (I’m doing it right now…), but this is meant to be fairly quick and informal writing. 

I am taking enjoyment in things a bit more. However, I am not engaged in my work. The idea of doing something else is still strong in my head (this economy scares me still- no more middle class apparently…). I am slowly being swallowed and stifled by my scientific career and feel I need something else to lead a meaningful life (having a significant other is a long standing goal of mine still). I just feel largely lifeless when I’m working. I like science, but the career prospects to stay in it are absolutely dismal. It keeps me up at night sometimes.

I am having more compassion for myself as well. Not that I feel like everything I’m doing is OK, but being kind to myself helps me recover from set backs.

Things I have done so far that make me uncomfortable are actually looking more into my finances, setting up a newish home network, learning and trying new things in the lab, talking more (even though my voice sounds weird when I am more extroverted…and feels like someone else talking entirely), I am using more tools to help organize myself- like doing a weekly review, using Evernote (awesome!), and Unclutter to keep my desktop clear.

I am continuing to learn about myself- reading about High sensitivity (pretty sure that fits me well) and learning more about will power/habit formation and trying to learn good ones. And continue to be more mindful. 

FUTURE.

I want to be bolder. Take more chances. Make more mistakes- and hopefully learn more from trying rather than reading theoretically about how something works. Not over thinking, which is still very much a habit of mine. I would love to just decide something and do it. Right then. And not be so afraid to spend money on things I want because I fear buying stupid things. And of course, I hope a major life change comes soon and I can truly announce the release of Ian 3.0.


Engage.

Engage is the command Captain Picard gives when a course is laid in and things are ready to go. Usually at warp speed. Warp speed is what I’m thinking I need to get to to get all of my things done that I want to, work wise. Of course, that won’t really happen. A guy can dream.

I’ve talked before about how this blog is in part what not to do as a postdoc. Which is as much for myself as for any Ph.D./postdoc I can help not hit the floor (or if they do, how to bounce back quickly & be resilient). 

And something that’s been on my mind lately is being engaged with your work. 

Feeling like your’e doing something that matters. Feeling like you’re advancing something greater than yourself. 

It seems particularly important in a time when postdocs are having a hard time finding work. Academic jobs particularly. 

Being truly engaged and passionate about what we do is more important than ever. The postdoc who finds what they love will more likely be successful. 

I haven’t been nearly engaged enough in my postdoc and besides getting depressed about my work and my life, I think lack of engagement has been a big issue for me. 

Choose your field/project well. And carefully. Based on what you love in science.

I love science. But I haven’t found my thing or so it seems anyhow. Is it too late? It appears so some days. 

You also have to carve out time for things outside the lab that you enjoy. It will make being engaged with your work that much easier.

I’m starting to do this. Finally. Enjoy the present. Getting some space is good. Other people is good. Being an adult (and a scientist) shouldn’t mean ‘I don’t spend time with friends, family and significant others’ (I don’t have a significant other, but do have friends and family).

I’m reading @ShaneMac’s book ‘Stop With the BS’ which is focused on the business world, but has a lot of good things for scientists in academic labs to keep in mind too. Work beyond your title, network, pitch ideas w/o fear, push your comfort zone. 

I have been struck by the parallels between business, art, and science worlds; sometimes jobs are 9 to 5, but if you’re creating new things, it’s very similar (science and business cross all the time. Art and Science are starting to more and more- which is why STEAM (Science, technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) ought to be the acronym; we have a lot to learn from one another. 

Learning is of course the key to success. Never stop. Learn by research, learn from others, learn from your errors. It can be uncomfortable, but one good thing about being a scientist. We experiment, try things and see if they fit a hypothesis. Bring that ehtos to your life as well. Try, see if it fits or works. Change your mind if the evidence suggests the opposite of what you thought (like me w/ Twitter for a long time- I didn’t see the point. Now I think it’s amazing). 

I want to be in a place where instead of answering ‘how am I doing?’ with ‘I’m OK’ I say ‘I’m f*cking great!’ (a phrase from the documentary ‘I’m Fine, Thanks’).

Work hard. Know yourself. Accept yourself. Don’t beat yourself up too much. And don’t give up. You’ll land somewhere (even if it’s not a TT position at Awesome U.).

Things I’m trying to keep in mind.