Being serious.

A lot on my mind lately. Figuring out my career and life foremost among them.

I’ve been guest writing more. I had a post at the Research Whisperer a few weeks ago that seemed to do well about building a portfolio career and using that to try to transition into a new job. Partly gaining experience.

I did some guest science writing too, both for UK based websites/publications. One was a collaboration with my PI, and then other was for the UK Plant Sciences Federation on flowering time. I even emailed a flowering time scientist to get some quotes. That is pushing my comfort zone.

People have been passing job ads and opportunities along to as well, which is incredible and part of why I am so grateful to platforms like Twitter. Which brings me to the #seriousacademic hashtag after The Guardian posted a short piece from a grad student that could not see the value of social media and how it distracted from the real world in front of people as well as taking away focus from actual academic research.  

As much as I love Twitter, I never tell anyone they have to be on it. I also legitimize most uses of the platform…I suggest people start out just by listening in/following things they are interested in and checking in once in awhile. Finding things serendipitously can be great sometimes. And if you feel like responding/joining a discussion, then great.

My community is almost entirely online…I would love to have a more consistent real world community of people I see regularly, but that is part of why I need a new job in a new place, something new. I tried being a serious academic. After years of trying, I’ve concluded I’d rather be a serious something else– ideally in the writing/editing world where I can draw on my scientific skills as well.  

Twitter has been great for me to get my blog(s) out to the world…for those interested in plant science and my writing about mental health here. My goal has been to be a one person broader impact for the plant science community– Twitter is my way of giving back and it has fed back into my science in great ways too. I consider it education/outreach, though I also am writing about things I find interesting or am curious about. I’ve made genuine personal and professional connections because of Twitter. I hope I’ve contributed something and not just taken away.

I’d tell the “serious academic” grad student that building a network takes time, and if it’s all an in real life/email chain of networking and that works for them, then awesome. No social media needed. However, I think social media has made me a better scientist. It’s instilled a love of learning that I had lost. It’s opened my eyes to some things, like inclusion/diversity. I really want to learn new things and do better science, and live up to the amazing things I hear about people doing on Twitter every day.

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Something that becomes more possible when you take your ideas seriously and have a community  as a backdrop to accomplish your goal. 

I try to be a supportive ear and celebrator of successes and pitch in when opportunities arise to do something specific that I can do (organizing a conference panel for instance). Or being a digital media coordinator for the conference I attend most years. Trying to stay on top of Twitter activity at a >1,000 person conference is hard, and I do think is valuable as a record of the conference. Twitter is a good way for me to take notes and to listen to a talk as well, but there is definitely a balance to be struck with attention and tweeting– however, Twitter really shines as a 6th sense at conferences and as a networking tool. More people visit posters that presenters tweet about.

That said, lately, I’ve felt really exhausted. Everything seems to take gargantuan effort and little feels light anymore. Some of that is taking on more ambitious projects, and trying to make things better than I’ve done before. Some, though, I fear is feeling burned out with all the extracurricular things I’ve been doing to try and figure out what’s next. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong? It’s hard for me to know.

Last, Serious academic reminded me of this essay by Sarah Cooper on Medium about why taking your ideas seriously is important. Like her, I didn’t take my ideas seriously for years. Starting my blogs, engaging on Twitter, discussing real things there, has gotten me to take my ideas seriously. However, I don’t take myself too seriously and do have fun on Twitter too. Twitter is great for having fun– that is part of how serious communities are built.

Twitter has gotten me connected to people and I’m not sure that would have happened in real life in the last few years. It has, in many ways, saved my life. Are there plenty of people that can live without it? I’m sure there are. Even I need breaks sometimes. And having built my community online that has translated into the real world in many ways and I feel a lot better taking those social media breaks.

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This 21st century scientist’s life & learning.

Building on the platform. 

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve built over the last few years as I have made my way out from someone that wanted to just leave the world to someone who wants to contribute in real ways, in positive ways (don’t we all?), and meaningful ways.

Coming out of the dark and into a world of wonder can be complicated. Being flat and feeling divorced from connecting to the world to being vital, more engaged, can be a scary process. I realize just how much I’ve missed out on, not going deep into any particular subject because I didn’t feel much in whatever I engaged in. I’ve written before about just what depression takes away from learning and it’s hard to describe since plenty of successful people have depression (perhaps they succeed despite it), and I can still read and write (perhaps not well, but it is something I work on) and do basic math. I feel I can learn things. But I have tended to lack an emotional connection to something that can boost learning. Depression feeds into the fixed mindset as well, rather than a growth mindset too— with constant rumination and the voice that says ‘who do you think you are? You’re nothing, no one, and don’t matter’.

Eiffel Tower under construction 1888-1889. Source: Yale Libraries.

This blog has really documented that process for me. I hope I’ve been building a platform on which to build even better and greater things. Beth Buelow an entrepreneur, coach, and introvert in her really good book talks about an image series she got of the Eiffel tower being constructed. They built the base quickly, and then progress appeared to stop for a long while before the tower was completed. During that apparently fallow time, the construction workers were doing a lot of reinforcement of the structure, adding rivets and doing the preparatory work to build the tower. Building a strong base to create what was one of the tallest structures in the world at that time that persists to this day.

I hope I’ve been building that kind of base. That I’ve gotten better in some key ways to start the next phase, to really get out into the world visibly for the world to come and see. I do need reminders of how habit change can be most effective like this from James Clear. And it helps to be reminded to surround yourself with people that help you be your best. Though I find myself overdosing on ‘Lifehacking’ lately (it can be great for ideas, but easy to overdo it or to be constantly trying new things). I’ve built up a system that kind of works, I think, that’s healthy for me. And now I need to mold it into output that helps me grow more and gets me out into the world, being mindfully productive.

And as James Clear points out, prioritizing matters, and taken further, and perhaps scarier/harder is the idea between finding the distinction between should/must and choosing the latter. And continuing to learn, grow, and retain new knowledge/experience through a system that works and is evolving. And that also means being able to make decisions more rapidly than I do now, and act on them and being guided by what is truly important to me.

What is essential? 

I’m going to write an ambition of mine: I want to be a science writer in some way, shape or form. I love transmitting knowledge between minds. It seems to drive a lot of the decisions I make. It’s something that is more important to me than the research I do now. It’s an ambition that’s scary, but also seems deep-seated. I love science. I love writing, art, and popular culture. I love learning and teaching/communicating. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to one to many podcasts and read one to many amazing writings about science that I’ve gone out of my mind, but why do I gravitate towards those things in the first place? And how to get from where I am now to a new place? That’s not easy to answer.

Being a scientist now means having to wear a lot of hats, being seen as competent and amazing at many things that Ben Lillie (partially) listed, including having a public face to engage with non-scientists. It seems like people are expected to do more and more every year, to sacrifice our lives for our work, to produce ever more value. And whatever we do has to be quantified and standardized, even if that’s not the best or is too narrow a measure.

With the digital tools most of us have access to, we are expected to do everything ourselves, to produce more, always learn things flawlessly, and basically be perfect. And yet, that is unrealistic for any individual human. Not all of us are skilled at everything, but the 21st century world seems to demand that in an era of impatient teaching and exclusion if you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd from early on. And there is infinitely more to learn. And of course, digital tools allow for tracking of productivity more than ever.

Many circumstances can keep us from trying things that we’re truly suited to do. There’s a story Mark Twain tells (attributed to him, anyhow. I can’t find a source) talking about a man seeking the world’s greatest general only to die and go to heaven to find that a cobbler would have been the greatest if given the opportunity. Did he just live at a time with no war or was it that there was a crucial moment where he didn’t take a leap into the military life? If it’s the latter, hopefully there’s still time for me to make a leap. Maybe by not having an alternative, it’s possible.

Coding is something I am just starting to dabble in…and we’re all told it is the essential skill of the 21st century. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly seems handy to any citizen of the Internet where many of us spend out time. And if not having a full understanding, at least knowing some of the theory behind the gorgeous websites we see each day is important. And it’s important to know that the people who build them are not perfect either; and often have biases/problems. And I don’t think this idea applies to just coding. To be in demand seems to mean being good at all the things and not needing a learning curve. Of course, that might be my warped perfectionist perception speaking.

A lot of science news is dedicated to reporting how we might all live better, parent better, be healthier, do more for the environment, and basically be better people if only we’d all behave, spend money, or act differently. Only that is vastly unrealistic. And the recommendations often wrong because of flawed science. Science really is the last word on nothing.

What can we get wrong?

Phil Plait, in a post on his Slate blog, wrote about response to a picture he tweeted about actresses that have a passion for science (great!). The problem comes with Mayim Bialik (w/ a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and her anti-vaccination views; which are scientifically indefensible as this NPR story on a documentary about the effects of not eradicating polio demonstrates. Keith Kloor addresses this with Dr. Oz and similar and perhaps not as dangerous are Bill Nye’s anti-GMO views; if only because Nye, an engineer, does not have as informed views about biology and doesn’t seem to be strongly anti-GMO as yet, just highly skeptical. He could change his mine yet. Bialik and Dr. Oz must know better/be more familiar with life sciences and medicine.

The process of robust science dictates that any ideas or technologies supported by science (e.g. climate science, gravity, evolution, smart phones, vaccines, current GMOS) are in fact safe, work, and that is the final word (of course, each product needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis). Selective application is not acceptable. There are areas of science that are still debated and the above ideas continue to be investigated and tested by science to test new methods of delivery, to explain parts of these ideas we don’t know the answers to yet, or to improve them in some way (or create vaccines to viruses we don’t have vaccines for as yet). And of course, scientists are never absolutely certain; we’re taught to critically examine our ideas and design experiments/seek data that challenge our ideas (that may happen less in an era of hyper-competition, tight funding).

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In today’s world, it really appears unacceptable, especially as a public figure/celebrity to say ‘I don’t know’ when pressed about some question that’s out there in the world (uncertainty being a perceived sign of weakness?! I would argue that it’s the opposite). I am not a psychologist, social scientist, or neuroscientist, only a sufferer of depression and anxiety who has learned what I can about them and write about my own solutions (some scientifically grounded, others likely less so). I’ve tried to strike a voice of not barfing rainbows magical positivity, but of grounded optimism. I routinely say that I do not know, and feel uncertain about most things and this can be paralyzing. Who would do anything given the potential repercussions of getting something wrong? Phil Plait seems to have changed his mind after hearing from fellow bloggers about Bialik’s anti-vax views. I don’t even know where her anti-vax views stem from (is it a case like Dr. Oz where his spouse seems to have opened the door to pseudoscience views?).

Some of these views may be caused by hastiness and shorthand/lack of time to think. In an era where we’re awash in information, it is impossible to be informed about everything and yet we’re also too quick to be aghast when people don’t have views or don’t know something. At best, it comes off as enthusiasm you want to impart to someone about a topic. At worst, it’s used as an identity marker to exclude people, even if they’re new enthusiasts for something you’ve been into for years…and get turned out because of newness to something and simply don’t know as much. While I agree enthusiasm only takes you so far, it’s a spark that can carry you into new and unexpected places and shouldn’t be discouraged whoever has deemed themselves a gatekeeper of a community.

There is demand to specialize and yet be a generalist at the same time. And to instantly able to learn and absorb new things. I’m willing to work hard to figure things out, but if I’m given insufficient time to learn what I need to, I’m much more likely to make a mistake (and learning time seems shorter and shorter…and unexamined learning can lead to problems). We’re all encouraged to learn how to learn, and yet that seems hugely insufficient somehow. I am nearly paranoid of missing something critical or leaving some citation out. Of course, it’s not all about what we’re informed about. It’s also true that we develop identities around shared beliefs (‘people like me have this belief, I must think that too’) that can become quite entrenched in communities in which case information alone cannot change someone’s mind, as work by Brendan Nyhan and other’s has shown.

Hard at work reflecting.
Hard at work reflecting.

It may be that I’m just worried about something I feel exists but isn’t actually as bad as it seems. However, everywhere I look, there are demands to be up on the latest everything and if not, you’re falling behind the times! Keep up or go away, you can’t compete and so shouldn’t even try. The world is complex and crazy and there is likely more awareness of that than ever. Being humble in the face of that is a virtue in my book. There is likely always more to a story. And just because we’re not always completely informed does not mean we can’t act or put our voices to an idea, but we need to listen to feedback and accept evidence contrary to what we think is going on. All of these mental gymnastics should underscore just how hard it is for scientists to come to strong theories about how the world works and when a scientific consensus is reached, it’s a big deal, and more credible than an individual report alone.

I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup

Good coffee takes time.
Good coffee takes time.

I am an academic scientist right now, trying to contribute to my field in a meaningful way and not add to the noise of wrong/hasty information that’s out in the world. Patience isn’t a virtue we hear a lot about anymore. The world seems to be more about speed and getting to something first. Instant may be good for some things, but I like to think of it like sources of coffee. I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup (not always). And perhaps due to my (highly) introverted side that likes reflection, writing, and learning before speaking up. And I hope any job I do hold will allow me to do just that, within reason, of course. I am determined to add value wherever I work, and I hope that the skills I gravitate towards/have developed are valued somewhere in the world.

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Let it Go.

Note: Slight trigger warning here. I talk about depression and suicidal thoughts herein. For those who could care less about such things, read on! 

This post was inspired after reading Adam Rubin’s latest ‘Experimental Error’ column in Science Careers. I think it’s one of the posts that makes me nervous to post. I worry that disclosing my (largely) past issues with depression hurts me (even while feeling that literally changing my brain required enormous fortitude and determination on my part). I worry how I probably come off as a whiny and overly sensitive human in a world that does not value sensitivity in any job; I hate feeling like I’m one of those so called ‘orchid’ people…needing fairly specific conditions to thrive (The dreaded response: empathy? compassion? People first? Listening? Learning/education? HAHAHAAHAHA! Most ridiculous things we’ve ever heard of. Get out of this office, we’re about the dollars! //Note: I too, am about dollars on some level, just not to the exclusion of other things; maybe where I differ is wanting to build for the long-term, not the next quarter…something else no longer really valued it seems to me). I realize that the world is full of decent people too. I hope you enjoy this rather experimental essay 

Let it Go.

I want to let go. I want all of us to let it go.

The cold will never bother us if we do. I’m pretty convinced.

Read this and this from Sarah K. Peck and Andrew Rubin, respectively.

We exist in a state of terror as young scientists (or a lot of us do, perhaps some even unaware– the terror can be hard to distinguish from the air we breathe).

We’re frozen with fear.

With the pressure to be perfect.

With the fear of making mistakes.

With the fear that anything but the tenure-track is ‘failure’.

Fearing we’re not one of the super-humans that can ‘make it’ in science.

Vulnerability isn’t allowed (The beginnings of change, innovation, learning, and purpose– not necessarily fabulous wealth/success, but deeper satisfaction in work, definitely).

I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes scientists able to produce high quality work.

The conclusion from my anecdotal experience is a combination of effort, space/time to think, permission to make mistakes, an iterating growth mindset, some autonomy, and an open environment where learning from one another is encouraged and people aren’t afraid to ask for things they need (no, that does not mean always getting them).

And my own watchword here: Don’t become clinically depressed. Learn the signs and if it seems like your emotions have been flattened for a few weeks straight, seek help, nip it in the bud quickly. Believe me you don’t want the feeling that you & the world would be better off if you were dead (in part because you functionally don’t fully see the difference between being alive and being dead), hoping a bus will run you over. That’s not a brain space for doing good science; you can do science, but you certainly won’t be firing on all cylinders. Even now that I’m a lot less depressed, my mind still has those thoughts sometimes. It’s a mental habit I’m trying to get out of still.

Chris Hadfield talks about fear and danger and how to take risks and be prepared.

15-20 years of training in every possible scenario and then you can launch yourself into space. Get started learning the whole system you’ll be working in and you’ll be ready to take chances and put yourself out of this world.

And yet, today’s academic system doesn’t instill that very well (or doesn’t allow the time for that to happen; the long learning phase seems to get clipped off even as experiments get bigger, more technical and more complex).

The work has to get done and yet there seems to be ‘no time’ for training people to do it even though we’re labeled grad students and postdocs; both considered ‘training phases’.

Fantastic mentorship exists and there are people that thrive, but I’m sure we can do better, do better work and improve the scientific enterprise without making a sizable population of participants within it mentally ill (again that does not mean it shouldn’t be hard; science will always be hard work and take effort).

Feedback is often judgmental and harsh, instilling a fixed mindset, believing learning isn’t possible, but that our talent/intelligence is a fixed trait.

Pressure and uncertainty can be paralyzing. One misstep and we’ll be unemployable forever. Nothing but academia is acceptable. Don’t tack against the wind. If you’re not in the lab, you must be wasting time.

And if you can’t do it on your own, don’t bother. Collaborate and be a good citizen, but stand out. Work alone, but as a team.

Being able to learn, problem solve, ask good questions, and perhaps be unleashed to do grow and do great things somewhere won’t happen because you’re convinced you’re an impostor.

Never enough. Ever.

There’s a fog that settles over your mind. You have dead eyes. Helplessness sets in.

I’ve felt all of these things and I’m starting to get to a place where the cold doesn’t bother me anymore.

There’s a space for me somewhere; either in science or not, I don’t know, but it exists and I can rule there, even if it is just me writing for a small audience on my blog.

Let it Go. We’re all human. Fallible and ridiculous creatures.

Take the work, but not yourself, too seriously. Try stuff. Figure out how to do it in small scale first if it’s something new to you that will be big later. And write. Write it all down– take notes.  And don’t be afraid to get your work out there or toss out ideas (guess what, vast majority will be terrible and probably wrong, who cares?).

Always feeling like I did the rational thing hasn’t worked. So I’m trying irrational (to me; often that means leaping without 100% certainty of outcome…obviously I still try to be as informed as possible ).

I adopted a cat a month ago. That makes no logical sense for my life, but I think it was a good decision for the most part.

My joke about this blog has been that it’s about what not to do as a postdoc/academic. I hope it’s helped a few people, mainly me, of course, because I write for myself too (and it has helped me).

Success is not a straight road. It’s a maze with lots of blind turns and dead ends. We won’t all end up in academia, but I’m sure most of us will find satisfying work somewhere, some how.

Let it go. All of us. We’ll likely do better work, help each other more, give better feedback, and not always act so terrified of everything and everyone. Funding is tight, work/life balance doesn’t exist, we don’t know enough to advance to the next phase since you only get hired to do something someone needs done, who can demonstrate they’re awesome in a loud way (never mind if they’ve hastily published crap papers in high profile journals…it’s out there, so they must be good somehow).

I feel passionate enough about studying the ideal knowledge worker that I’d be willing to switch fields and make a study of just how to optimize humans to do science. It’s certainly not a one size fits all formula (e.g. it’ll likely be different for introverts and extroverts), but as with depression, there are likely hallmarks of it as well as individual level manifestations.

Keep going. Get out into the cold. It’s not as bad as you think/feel, we’re wired for survival (take that from a former near-suicidal person). Expose yourself to small ‘dangers’ at first and watch yourself grow. It won’t be pretty. Winter is always coming. Staying in a warm cocoon leads to mere survival whereas the science enterprise not only must survive, but thrive as well (advancement & knowledge is our business). I’m sick of mere survival for myself. Let it go.

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I call BS on you, Jean-Luc Picard

I had opportuntiy to go to a social event a few days ago that I’d learned about at the last minute. To Boldly go….

Except I didn’t go in. I got there and didn’t step through the threshold into the room. I just….couldn’t. I wasn’t feeling up to it. My introverted and/or shy/anxious self just couldn’t go in

Picard face palm.

Face palm indeed. Picard’s an introvert too & I failed to boldly go…

As I was walking back to my car, I got to thinking about a browser tab from Susan Cain’s website about how introverts can better push their comfort zones, better get their work out there.

Despite the progress I’ve made, it’s hard for me to overcome my introverted tendencies still. I keep to myself, I try to laugh about my aloneness, but at the same time I’ve taken it as a prime directive in my life to do something. Particularly in science or another creative field or exploring the galaxy, putting yourself out there is at the core of those pursuits.

Introverts especially seem to have trouble putting our ideas out there…we take our time to think things through and slowly create them on our own before seeking feedback. Uncertainty is something we seek to quash.

And yet, there’s Picard, introvert Captain of Starfleet’s Flagship.

Captaining.

Exploring the galaxy in a starship, even a fancy one like The Enterprise D (&E) must be enervating, dealing with all those people, all the time not to mention the aliens you run across every week.

There has to be more than just the event.

Of course, Picard is a great Captain because he has a very strong sense of purpose about what he’s doing, namely exploring the final frontier, seeking out new life and new civilizations, etc. And I think that that is a huge thing for introverts. If there’s a strong purpose behind doing something, a larger driver, we’ll put up with nearly anything to explore, uncover, create, whatever, even deal with other people. As Susan Cain points out, introverts can be more effective leaders of groups of self-motivated teams; like people who crew The Enterprise and have The Captain’s back (though to be sure, he’s not really friends with his crew).

So I skipped that event last week because I didn’t feel a strong sense of larger purpose in being there. I’m not sure what my larger driver for being alive is right now, I guess my major driver is to find that think I’d be willing to go through the level of travails traipsing around the galaxy would take. I know I’m old to not have found my thing, or at least given myself permission to find my thing. But I think I’d add that to my list from Susan Cain’s blog; a project you care about will help an introvert get it done, no matter what the problems with the warp coils might be, you’ll find a solution.

An introvert without a deep interest they feel free to explore may be more vulnerable to depression and feeling like their introversion is a setback, not an asset (at least that rings true for me; I realize introverts are on a spectrum and quite diverse as a population). I do have a better sense of humor about myself and the world as this interview with Jonathan Rauch points out; after all, generally speaking, being human is kind of ridiculous. I am at least a lot better about finding time to recharge my batteries even if I wish I were able to boldly go* more often than I do presently. That said,

Even Captain Picard needs his down time.

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot. In my Ready Room. Alone.

As a scientist, I want to boldly go into the undiscovered country…what larger driver motivates you to keep going despite obstacles?

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*For any grammar nazis out there, it’s 100% OK to split infinitives. Some dude 300 years ago got all uptigtht and said that English should be more like latin where split infinitives are verboten. English ≠ latin.

 

 

Tomorrow.

I recently re-listened to the ‘On Being’ interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht author of the book ‘Stay’ that I read about on Brain Picker. It’s all about making a non-religious based argument against suicide. And there really are reasons to stay. Be assured, your absence will be noticed. I won’t go into all the arguments why here, but it’s true.

Watching the latest episode of ‘Cosmos:ASO’ last night, Neal Tyson walks through the fact that we’re the legacy of all those organisms that struggled for survival on Earth before us. That’s one reason to stay. There are many, many others.

Last week, I casually wrote a Gchat away message talking about an important experiment I had to set up the following day. And it led to this idea for a reason to stay:

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It’s something I’ve told myself the last week or so and it’s good to remind myself that life, in part, is about keeping on trying. I am doing things now that I couldn’t have possibly done a few years ago and it’s because I stayed; there was a time I didn’t want to.

The future isn’t really written in stone, as much as scientists try to do predictive work; it only applies to rather narrowly defined experiments, nothing like life. So it’s not only saying ‘Stay’, but also to crib one idea from science: to try new things and find those that work; discard those that don’t, and to keep creating, tinkering, interacting, acting, thinking, insert favorite present participle here– we’re only here once.

There is problem within academia surrounding poor mental health of too many people in it– particularly amongst young Ph.D. career path people. The reasons vary, but the added pressures of the highest career uncertainty for Ph.D.s and postdocs now surely is  a contributing factor.

Tomorrow is an important experiment to do, find something new that might work for you and even if things don’t work out, you’ve at least fought in the arena,

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PiPC2: Tomacco.

Tomacco.

‘The Simpsons’ is one of my favorite shows. And it brings me to the second in my series on plants in popular culture. See my first post in the series here (spoiler alert).

In the episode from Season 11 ‘E-I-E-I-(annoyed grunt)’, Homer creates a plant that’s a hybrid between tobacco and tomato.

In addition to the plant-centered theme, this episode is also great because it’s the one where Homer sees a movie with Zorro in it and attempts to emulate Zorro by challenging people around town to duels after slapping them with a white glove. After the first incident at the movie theater where Homer defends Marge’s honor, he takes a ketchup bottle and squeezes out a red ‘H’ on Marge’s dress as Zorro would make a ‘Z’ with is sword.

After a lot of glove slapping, Homer is finally taken up on his offer to duel by a Southern Colonel who’s in town. The Colonel chooses ‘pistols at dawn’ as the dueling method. Homer goes home despondent and talks to his family about it. Through some very funny dialog, The Simpsons escape the Colonel who is camped out on their front lawn and flee town, apparently never to return.

Now before getting to Tomacco, there are some interesting things set up early on in this episode. There’s ketchup and southern culture (also associated with tobacco) in the form of dueling and the Colonel (I know dueling is not specific to The South)- a foreshadowing of what’s to come. There’s also a set up of what is basically horribly processed food at the beginning of the episode- Buzz cola (advertised by WWII soldiers on D-Day…), milk duds soaked in movie theater butter (someone must have tried this in real life…), and ketchup.

So The Simpsons take up residence on Grandpa Simpson’s old farm to lay low. Despite the rustic home, Homer decides he’s going to become a farmer and the family sort of enthusiastically follows despite raccoons- er, cats with rabies- on top of it all.

Seeds to grow things are essential to a farmer and so Homer goes to the local farm shop to get some farm equipment and seeds- and Gummi bears where the initial implication is that he’s going to plant them in the soil to see what they grow into. The fact that Homer initially gets a handful of Gummi Bears to potentially plant is also a statement about how most of us are pretty divorced from where our food actually comes from. This is also another example of a processed food in the episode.

The locals tell him he won’t grow anything at ‘The ol’ Simpson place’, but Homer wants to prove them wrong despite apparent high soil pH.

Back on the farm and a month after planting…nothing is growing. By comparison, the neighboring farm has corn literally grown up to elephant eye height. Desperate, Homer calls his friend Lenny at the nuclear power plant to ship him some plutonium (yes, that’s radioactive) to use as a soil supplement, to grow large plants- overnight (I love the way cartoons show radioactivity with things glowing visibly- in reality, you don’t see the deadly kind of radiation).

Giant plants don’t grow (not even invisible ones- not a reasonable hypothesis, Homer, but keep trying) but Lisa discovers a tiny seedling buried underneath the soil. And the family discovers a whole bunch of seedlings growing underneath a layer of soil. What are they? Did the Gummi bears magically become seeds and sprout? One thing is for sure, you’d likely get one, maybe two depending on your population size of seeds started with that would turn out to have a similar set of mutations and thus create the same kind of plant.

When the plantlets bear fruit some time later- they look exactly like tomatoes- this happens:

Bart: Bleh!  Tastes like cigarette butts.

Marge:[takes the half-eaten “tomato”] That’s odd.  The outside looks like a tomato, but the inside is brown.

Lisa: Maybe the tomato seeds crossbred with the tobacco seeds.

Homer: Oh, great, I’ve got a field full of mutants.

Bart: Gimmie.  I want more.  [grabs back the tomato and eats it]

Lisa: I thought you said it tasted terrible.

Bart: It does.  [grinds out the remains of the first tomato] But it’s smooth and mild.  [grabs another] And refreshingly addictive.

Homer: Addictive, eh?

Homer calls this new ‘mutant’ Tomacco and sells it on the side of the road to passers by (as Ralph Wiggum takes a bite- “It tastes like Grandma”). Marge is trying to sell home-made mincemeat pies (where she got the ingredients for it is not explained), but doesn’t have any takers because the addictive tomacco is so, well, addictive. This series of scenes suggests we as a society are addicted to our modern food products (read: sugar) that are the result of science and reject the home made, the local, the healthier. While science is partly responsible for this, there are also societal reasons for it as well. Although it is a little ironic that Homer is essentially a small scale farmer in this episode.

Tomacco is so successful that Laramie, the cigarette company, comes and makes an offer for it of $150 million which The Simpsons decline demanding 100 times that amount which gets them kicked out of the Laramie limo. Back on the farm, there are other problems; namely neighboring farm animals have gotten into the field and nearly eaten all of the tomacco crop! And they’re addicted to it too. In the end, the last tomacco plant is destroyed, and the Simpsons return to 742 Evergreen Terrace and resolve their issues with the dueller- with a mince meat pie (Of course, they do have a duel first).

What’s the reality of the science behind this episode (hint: not much, but it’s still fun)?

Based on This analysis of the family that tomatoes and tobacco are in (commonly called the nightshade family), they are distantly related; sharing a relative some 25 million ago. Given that the definition of a species is typically ‘a population that can interbreed’, tobacco (Nicotiana tobacum) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) likely can’t pollinate one another, despite still having similarly structured genomes (diploid chromosome number = 24 in each). However, one person did graft a tomato shoot onto a tobacco root stock and created a tomato like fruit that had tobacco in it- or nicotine, suggesting that nicotine is being produced and transported from the tobacco root into the tomato shoot system.

As for Lisa’s assertion that tomato and tobacco seeds must have gotten mixed together and the plutonium radiation must have brought them together- it does not work that way. Radiation can definitely mutate DNA. The Sci-fi writer, Neal Stephenson, told a story (sorry, I don’t remember where) about when he was a kid where his Boy Scout troop grew maize seeds exposed to the core of a nuclear power plant to see who could grow the weirdest plant. Radiation that your body is exposed to can cause single nucleotides to change (may or may not be consequential) to inducing a so called ‘double-stranded break’ which is what it sounds like; a chromosome (a double helix of DNA millions to billions of nucleotides long) breaks in two (or more) segments and the cell’s repair machinery can’t always fix that kind of damage correctly (which end goes together with which end?). Higher radiation usually means more damage done (radiation has effects on cells besides on DNA too).

As for the assertion that the tomacco plants are ‘mutants’, well, yes they are. But in science, a mutant is defined in less pejorative terms. We all have different DNA in our bodies and so we could all be considered mutants in some way. Individual genes have different versions called alleles that float around in a population (that’s how natural selection works- it needs variety to select and at the base of physical variation is gene variability). Geneticists talk about ‘The wild-type’ that can be defined as the most common allele of a gene in a population and anything different is considered ‘mutant’. Alternatively, it’s not necessary to designate a ‘normal’ and a ‘mutant’ and just give the frequencies of an allele within a population. Basic researchers also use a reference called a wild type too that we compare intentionally made mutants (often meaning complete loss-of-function of the gene of interest) and expose both to a condition to see if the mutant responds differently from the wild-type. This is how we often figure out what a gene’s particular function is within an organism (yes, it’s more complicated than this, but it’s the basic idea).

After treating with plutonium, there’s a whole field of tomacco plants all of a sudden. In reality, as noted above, radiation wouldn’t affect each seed the same way so it’s unlikely to produce a combination more than once or twice that will result in the tomacco plant. Now it is possible that tomacco is vegetatively apomictic- sending out roots (called ‘runners’) that pop up elsewhere and become new shoot systems (though clones of the original). Potatoes can do this, as can many grasses and aspen trees. Or Homer made cuttings of one plant that regenerated into whole tomacco plants. Some plants can be propagated that way as well.

It really is true that alkaline soils (or basic soil, pH>7) make it hard to grow most plants. It’s what would be called ‘marginal’ farmland until it can be rectified (which may involve growing other plants to remediate the soil).

Although The Simpsons is one of the smartest shows on television (employing many former scientists, mathematicians, etc.) they are there to tell good stories and be funny. Not necessarily get science right. The larger issues this episode brings up, that foods heavily modified by humans may be inherently bad for us. However, the story is more complicated than that. Humans have been selecting traits and modifying plants ever since we started agriculture. We can now extract sugar and put it into forms like Gummi bears or butter soaked milk duds that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of, and that may be highly addicting- the sugar craving that many of us struggle with. However, genetic modification (either traditional or modern) is not necessarily all bad as increasing production of agriculture will be necessary to feed the world.

It is largely not how we modify the plants themselves, but how we process them after harvest that’s the issue. Laramie could be a stand in for Monsanto- wanting a new plant technology to sell to farmers, but Monsanto isn’t all evil- far from it. They want to make plants that require less input of resources and increase yield- to soften the footprint that agriculture has (and they are still that crop- whatever it is- Monsanto is not in the business of producing combination species like tomacco as far as I know- even a desirable one). Now any institution as big as a Monsanto will have things that are problematic which can happen when making money is as important as fulfilling a scientific mission. I don’t think it’s worth Monsanto’s time to try to create GM crops that are smaller in scale than soy beans, maize, cotton and rice, though I can’t divine what Monsanto’s next projects are…they are rather secretive about what they work on.

2% of the US population are farmers. That leaves 98% of us that are mostly clueless about how or food is grown, where exactly it comes from (solanacious species of plants are distributed all over the world with the highest diversity in South America which is where potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and tobacco originate). Do we plant Gummi bears? I hope most people know that we don’t. But a larger point of this episode is that when we’re cut off from where our food comes from, we’re also ignorant of agricultural and environmental issues in growing it, the footprint it has, and whether a few large companies really do run the show in producing things that aren’t the healthiest of products.

Connecting to what nature produces, where food comes from, how it’s farmed, what problems farmers face, what is seasonal (even if you still buy it year round), what environmental impact that crop has, and avoiding overly processed foods all has a lot of potential upside for individuals’ health and well being. Studies show that connecting with nature is good for the human mind.

This turned into a long post! Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Time for some Milk Duds soaked in butter…

Ever on and on.

Jobs.

Jobs. This is a post about the new academic job application season. Is it even worth bothering? I don’t even know any more. Every job application expects an active research program when that is very hard to get started and do these days and it may even get worse. So why should I bother? I still don’t think I’m the best candidate, but I’m working on it. This blog is about my journey to get my brain tuned into a active, thinking, creative, world-interacting machine (coming from a place of anxiety, depression, and all the life-stalling thought patterns that arise because of those things. Or as I’ve called it before, this is a blog about how not to be a postdoc and I hope I can help others as well as myself through my writing). 

Start

What are the features of my ideal career? What areas does it involve? Here’s my list of features, in no particular order:

  • Education– particularly around science as well as figuring out how people effectively learn
  • Improving mental health/preventing problems before they arise– whether minor tweaks to life or major interventions. While you can live with depression, I don’t recommend it- you always risk being a shell of the person you are.
  • Science– This seems like an obvious one. I do love science and what it can do to transform the future, solve problems and generally stimulate the mind and spur someone on to learning new things. What question do I have that you’re passionate about? What does it take to answer them? I seem to gravitate towards environmental/sustainability/resiliency issues, so maybe there’s something there; after all, a lot of those things are plant dependent.
  • Quiet– I’m an introvert, without question and would need an environment where I could think, read, process, and then spit something out when I’m ready. I’ve always been deliberate about things I do- painfully so in many cases- but I hope in some ways that’s a good trait that is advantageous in some jobs somewhere. I do like people; I just need my alone time to recharge so I can be fully present when I do socialize. I can literally ‘break’ and freeze when over-stimulated (thank goodness for the internet- it’s a game changer for us introverts to be heard).
  • Entrepreneur- This is a new one for me and I’m not sure what it means to me yet, but I do feel like someone who wants to build things and put them into the world to help other people. What is it I’ll be creating? My science? Some fancy software app? A piece of art? In many ways, I’m not even equipped to carry these things out, but I am willing to learn. The first thing is getting an idea for something that doesn’t exist now that I wish did because it solves a problem the world needs solved. Resilient/sustainable coffee farms are one thing on my list because I work on plants and I love my morning coffee. And of course, I do like to write, but I’m not convinced that that’s a real job (for me just now, anyway).
  • Reforming the (science funding) system– I’ll almost surely be science adjacent in my work. The current system is failing in many ways it seems to me. Or a bubble is bursting and in the US, there might be a whole generation of lost scientists who would do great work that won’t because they look at the mess of the science enterprise and say ‘F#$k no’. It’s bleak out there. Any shred of good news comes from new discoveries and breakthroughs that still get made. It’s never good news about careers in STEM or good funding news. How do we prepare current postdocs and Ph.D.’s to go on to have good careers? Both training and cultural changes will be necessary. And more money isn’t the exact solution; competitive funding works well, though my feeling is that it’s too competitive now; so much great science gets left unfunded. So funding would help with that. But the closed, isolationist (both from society & other disciplines), single-track career culture that exists now has to change. Anything a STEM trained person goes on to do ultimately is a boon to the science enterprise and should be treated that way.
  • A personal life- I don’t have much of a life outside my work. I want one. So any job I have will have to have room for me to carve out a life to meet new people (maybe even a significant other), spend time with friends, possibly travel & learn new things not related to my work that I just want to learn. I know that no employer actually cares that their employees have this in their life, but I imagine it does make for happier employees.

How do I achieve those things in my life, in my career? And does obtaining an academic job make any of these features more or less likely?

One step at a time. Breaking things down into smaller steps.

Here, I’m assuming I get my dream job at JKL University and what I envision that looking like- I am completely aware of how unlikely it is to actually happen. But this is my space, so I’m going to dream out loud a bit.

I will be putting together at least a few applications for academic jobs this time around. And I think I would still love working at a small liberal arts university. My ambitions beyond research and teaching (yes, even at liberal arts schools, they’re in that order no matter what they say) would be to work with as many of that school’s learning center and other faculty to develop excellent learning environments that work for both students and professors. I feel like that’s where entrepreneurship comes in. Building something beyond the department. Perhaps this goes on already, though I don’t observe a lot of it at the universities I have visited. The other big challenge is integrating my research program and my teaching into one as much as possible. I’m not sure exactly how that’s achieved, but it is a synergistic interaction; both research and teaching get better. As would my own- and hopefully the student’s communication skills, since writing/talking about work in language everyone can understand would be necessary.

I know a lot of campuses have focused more on mental health lately. That is a good thing. As a professor, I am uncertain as to what my role in that framework is; perhaps just referrals to counseling or actively listening and paying attention, though any student asking me about anxiety, depression or impostor syndrome would get an email containing some resources/voices that have helped me get out from under those particular clouds. The thing about getting help is that you have to find the exact voices that work for you- that resonate and they may not be the same ones that worked for me. Medication can help in some cases, but isn’t the only thing. Exercise is greatly therapeutic too. A social support network is key. Developing one of those can be difficult, but it’s worth the effort; and that will ultimately help with almost everything else in life; and ideally having a diverse social circle.

I’ve noticed that successful entertainers often come in clusters. Each individual does distinct things, but a group comes up together and they keep helping each other, cheering each other on. Their sensibilities are similar enough that you’ll like a whole raft of them. It doesn’t have to be a strong tie either, it can be a weak tie and it still works. But that social network is always important. If I can successfully conflate my work and personal life in that way, I think I’d be happy with that; loving what I do and being around people I like who do similarish (yes, I made up a word) type things as I do. I don’t know if it’s too late, but I am trying to develop a stronger network of people to enable my work and my life generally. I think scientists and entertainers share a lot of DNA as both are creative endeavors and so I think there’s a lot that can be learned from each other.

Finally, at JKL U., I’d likely have my own office. I could shut the door and work for a few hours and schedule times my door would be open for visitors.

Something else?

 I get hung up on this still. What else to do if not academia? What’s my dream outside of the academy? What else is out there? I don’t even know. My academic labs haven’t prepared me to even consider looking for things that aren’t Tenure track. The river of academic culture all sweeps downstream towards that one goal. And anything else is considered failure- even if individual PIs in academia don’t think that, that is the overwhelming culture. On one level, to work in an academic lab, it takes that level of focus/ambition. However, these days, students and postdocs are ill served by that system as almost none of us will end up in faculty positions. Again, competition is a good thing, though I think there’s something that can be said that it’s too fierce; and you’ll lose people who are great, but just aren’t comfortable staying in that environment.

However, making the leap out of the academic bubble is difficult; maybe it’s not a bubble and is more like a glass wall?

On top of the academic jobs apply for- with my newly minted Ian2.9 brain that is healthier, more upbeat, more interconnected, more whole, I want to explore other things that might meet my ideal career characteristics.

Jobs aren’t easy to apply for these days. It requires a multi-media, fully integrated package that really wow’s a key decision maker/committee of decision makers. Time to continue the work of finding my ideal life. With coffee.

Ever on and on.