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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Superstition.

I was re-listening (yes, I do this sometimes w/ things I find great) to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts “Good Job, Brain” (it’s about pub trivia, and trivia, and knowledge and the hosts are amazing, if your’e done w/ Serial…it’s different than that, but give it a listen).

Gathering storm leading to superstition and other things in science?
Gathering storm leading to superstition and other things in science?

This episode was about the circus. One of the hosts talked about how people that work in the circus and other performing arts were highly superstitious and cited a researcher saying that the people most likely to develop superstitious thinking are those in fields where the people have little control over what happens to them. There are a lot of things that could go wrong at a circus even if you do your own job perfectly. Same with sports, acting, comedy, mime, all that. And it suddenly occurred to me: uncertain environments, little direct control over our futures, funding, and just the chaos of doing research itself might mean scientists are prone to superstition, especially early career ones.

In the life sciences, we pray to PCR Gods, take our pipette tips in certain patterns, and I’m sure more. Of course, scientists don’t like to think we are superstitious perhaps, but it seems like something we may well be prone to given the pressures academics are under these days. Dealing with such seems to result in risk aversion, becoming more insular (i.e. less inclusive of diversity), less willing to ask for the help we need, less willing to leap into the unknown (a problem if you’re trying to figure out a plan B,C,D or E career path), and more obsessive compulsive than usual. So we may evade superstitions, but the same environments may make us more prone to these other issues. I’m not a social scientist so I don’t know how all of these thing interrelate or if they’re separable, but it does make logical sense (or perhaps that’s just confirmation bias).

So let’s do a yes/no/haven’t noticed poll. Reflecting on the current academic climate and how you behave, have you noticed yourself or the scientific community being superstitious?

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Blogging, National Academies postdoc experience report, et al.

Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) put in his application for Full Professor recently and wrote about how he described his blogging activity and tried to put it into context for the review committee and describing the benefits he gets out of it, most of which are not tangible, or really “count” by traditional academic metrics. He’s a teacher and a scholar. Productive includes syllabi and publications for the most part.

And I agree that locally, blogging probably has no impact or is seen as a slight negative on the campus where he works. I try to keep my social media and blogging activity under wraps too. I don’t talk about it at work at all.

Except. Here’s the thing with my blog. It’s saved my life.

I don’t have 4,000 hits/month like Dr. McGlynn does, nor have I been a good scholar and published as I should. Though Katie Hinde (@mammals_suck) does nicely lay out the argument for why publishing fewer “real” papers with more rigour and less status-chasing on her own blog.

Ottoline Leyser (@OttolineLeyser – a great plant scientist, btw, auxin!) published a post today about the state of the academic environment and the effects of hyper-competition and chasing prestige on academics and why it’s problematic (specifically in the UK).

Also issued today was a National Academies report on the postdoc experience and suggested reforms. There are two posts about it in Science careers here and here (and I’m sure a lot more coverage elsewhere– it’s a big deal for the science world).

Publishing matters. However, I have refused to play the game of chasing prestige. I’d rather do good work that’s correct rather than overhype some result. Of course, as I’ve written, I haven’t been productive. Failed projects, perfectionism, crippling impostorism, clinical depression, have all derailed productivity. Some of that is completely 1000% my fault. Some of it is the system of academia though and the mental health problems it can cause as Melonie Fullick writes (@Qui_oui). Largely, I have managed my mental health problems the last year or so and am in a much better place to actually do something. And this year, in ways that academia would say don’t count, I have.

What has my postdoc experience been? Getting over depression, but also blogging. I don’t have a lot of hits each month, but blogging has helped me build a writing habit and given me opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It’s helped me build out my network (mostly on Twitter). It was a way to put my voice out into the world that had no other place to go. If I hadn’t started writing, I honestly think it’s quite likely that I’d have gone the way of Stefan Grimm.

Because of my blog, it’s made me want to stay. To do better. To write more, to learn, explore, connect, and yes, do good science (a manuscript I’ve written will be submitted soon!). None of these things really count in academia though. I know that and beat myself up for it still sometimes that all I do is what anyone else can do: start a blog and type words on a page (the bloggers/writers I follow in fact, by and large all do it better than I do, in my opinion). Blogging has brought me back from the ledge. Perhaps I could have achieved the same ends with a personal journal, but at least my blog is something I wrote, publish and maintain and made a commitment to write on at least once a week.

The National academies report seems useful for anyone just entering grad school or is early on in their postdoc time. For me, it’s cold comfort, but glad it’s out there to further the discussion of the postdoc experience and how it can be better for everyone involved.

So no, my blog doesn’t count, except that it does. It’s the most important thing to me. And I know that no one else probably cares, but it’s an archive of writing samples that I can trot out for discussions I see on Twitter. It’s also led me to new small projects like this:

see plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more plant advice to scientists.
See plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more advice from plants.

My next goal is to write more about actual science (I don’t tend to say I want to be a science writer because currently, that seems outlandish somehow– I want to help the enterprise of science, but am still not sure if or where any talent I might have lies). I’m not sure if I’ll do it here or someplace else, but if my “alternate career” can involve writing, count me in.

 

And even if not, I’ll still find a way to keep writing online about things that interest me like the Twitter discussion I was in earlier today that set off the horrifying thought that any image of a plant and a DNA molecule now signifies GMO, not just a plant (because some may not realize plants have full genomes unto themselves as living beings). Perhaps that’s my next post.

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Academic Riff Raff.

Academic Riff raff.

The current academic system (like present day academia, it assumes no 'alternate' career paths exist). Science Goddesses and Gods leaving us riff raff down below except a rare chosen ones (the rest will be left below...).
The current academic system (like present day academia, it assumes no ‘alternate’ career paths exist). Science Goddesses and Gods leaving us riff raff down below except a rare chosen ones (the rest will be left below…). Yes, I know it kinda looks like XKCD…call it an homage.

The President of the ASBMB had an essay talking about how academic, low quality riff raff (now are in charge of making (poor) funding decisions for who gets grants these days and how that’s a problem. Here’s how I understand it: NIH/NSF/DOE/USDA. A wretched hive of scum and villainy…Reviewers/submitters must be cautious (#SciWars).

Drug Monkey and Dr. Isis (and I presume many more– just look at the comments to ASBMB post too) have very good posts all about it.

As a member of the postdoc riff raff that coincidentally Drug Monkey also addressed a few days after his post cited above (I acknowledge I have not been a very good postdoc, I needed to work harder, get past my own psychological issues better/faster and just produce papers, period- I will submit one this month!). My PI has been better than I have a right to hope for. I have some thoughts below.

So what is it I’ve done in my science career (as I see it)?

I started this blog (the running joke is that it’s about exactly how not to be a postdoc and hopefully guiding myself to a more productive way of thinking– slow process), writing about depression, anxiety, and other things that really seem to plague a lot of academics (some succeed despite/with these things, others, like me…still trying to figure it out because I suck?!). I’ve published as middle author on a few papers, I’ve served on committees for some things, I got the ASPB to adopt a conference hashtag/incorporate twitter at conferences and live tweeted their annual meeting twice (though really, they were probably already thinking along these lines).

A lot of what I’ve done is try to get past my own mental blockage of perfectionism (the bad kind), the fear of judgment, paralyzing anxiety, feeling like I am lesser than every other human on the planet, trying to please other people ahead of myself, adopting a growth mindset (<– Can’t stress this one enough), not doing nice things for myself (maintenance, sure- exercise, eating mostly right, but all in service of trying to be a better scientist), struggling to have a life…get out from under shyness and actually do something in this world (after all, according to everyone I see on the internet, doing things is easy…you just do them…and you’re done). In some ways, it’s remarkable I’ve been as productive as I have. I do blame my brain, but then it’s me…there’s an idea in Buddhism that the first external arrow that hits you causes pain, but after that, everything else you do in reaction to that arrow, you do to yourself– usually not for the best.

Moe Sizlak had a line on ‘The Simpsons’ “I’m better than dirt…well, most kinds of dirt…not that fancy store bought stuff, I can’t compete with that”. A few years ago, I would routinely say that about myself (I know, scientifically, dirt is not insulting and quite fascinating…soil too). That I was an embarrassment of a human being taking up space on the planet someone else could use more productively than I ever could…

And I got close to acting on those feelings. I prayed to get run over by a bus or truck or have a piano fall on my head. Why didn’t I? Well, because there were always people I felt that cared about me and I couldn’t do that to them. Needless to say, great science doesn’t come when you’re in that mindset.

Since that low point, I’ve steadily improved and feel better than ever (I made a cartoon…would never have happened a few years ago)…but still all the success is in my own brain. I don’t have an amazing career (may never have one, eep!), I’m still not particularly good at getting my ideas out there (though I’ve gotten better about speaking out about mental health…that some say is courageous…but I started doing it because I felt I had nothing else to lose by doing so), I feel way behind in every conceivable way possible, and basically otherwise am not enough. I don’t always feel so bad about how I’m doing in the world,

How do we measure success in science?

For me, it has been merely a surviving, not thriving. And I think usually, the first has to come before the latter can occur. And publications is one way, a great computer program, a startup, perhaps even teaching and communicating can count, perhaps this blog counts as helping scientists be better themselves somehow (at least some of them).

That’s my hope (the basics; if you feel like you’re getting depressed, nip it in the bud, fast; if you are depressed, address it; it’s treatable. Adopt a growth mindset of improving over time, be curious). Blogging for me was also about building a writing habit (so is tweeting in a way, though that’s been about finding like-minded, interesting people and networking– Twitter in a lot of ways really has helped me hang on and I’ve met a ton of great people).

This whole thing over whether scientists should or shouldn’t tweet is partly about scientists figuring out how they can stand out more– to have more metrics they can add to their CV (Science, Nature Cell, AND 40,000 Twitter followers! I rule MOAR than the other person with only the first 3!!!!). Because it is about standing out these days in an era when hundreds of qualified candidates go up for every position out there (note, I do not count myself among them…my great accomplishment that doesn’t really help with my career materially- it doesn’t ‘count’– is treating my depression effectively so I can go live life, maybe).

This is partly the income inequality argument our society is dealing with too (see cartoon). Better to be on the PI side of the gap that seems to be widening each year the funding agencies struggle to fund science each year (and of course just pure cash money isn’t the full solution).

One in 10 or 20 of us will get chosen to be a PI for reasons possibly unclear to anyone (why that person?! They may not know exactly themselves, they just know they were and good for them (perhaps the Science Gods and Goddesses bestowing PI status/funding were beneficent that day, or perhaps there’s a higher purpose for that person). The fact that it feels natural to discuss this in religious terms belies just how opaque and mysterious becoming a PI is to me at least (yes, I know, publications, funding, engagement, networking, a startup founded, popularity, amazing idea after amazing idea…but plenty of candidates have those…though not really me).

How to split responsibility for my lack of career? Probably 90% me, 10% the man/the system/whatever, it’s mostly down to me (even my self-flagellation in this post is me being very unhelpful to myself). It’s possible I’ll make a great PI someday…there are diamond in the extreme rough stories I suppose, but probably not. My hope now is to just remain science adjacent. Science is amazing and I do think it’s a golden age for it in a lot of ways, just not particularly good for the actual scientists that practice it.

I like science because I like to think I’m helping someone somehow. I like mentoring undergrads, I like teaching, I like doing the research/coming up with ideas, I like to write (obviously), edit, and explore ideas.

Science is creative. And as a creative field, it is very hard to do, particularly when resources are extremely tight. It also relies more and more on collective creation, many minds coming together to solve a problem. Most PIs and PDs are not trained managers (research matters, people skills…less so, though that too seems to be changing a bit), we learn on the fly, and so the getting great science out of someone is not an easy equation to solve sometimes (both PIs trying to get the best out of their lab personel and PDs getting the best out of their PIs)– in fact the I think there are some things about the structure of science that get in the way of that goal too.

I hope I’ve learned some tricks and tips about managing/interacting with other people that will serve me well in the long run. For now, I need to get back to work…on something. My middling manuscript, perhaps.

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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.

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Barfing rainbows & power of positive thinking.

Science Careers published a story this week about a study of 200 postdocs that concluded that postdocs who think positive thoughts handle stress better.

The study in question: Relationship Among Positive Emotions, Coping, Resilience and Mental Health. 2014. Gloria CT, Steinhardt MA. Stress and Health. DOI: 10.1002/smi.2589

I kind of made fun of it when I read the article and sent out a tweet about it:

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@SciTriGrrl made me aware of @doc_becca’s post on it, which explains better what I was going for in my tweet. Postivity is one of those things I just can’t stand a lot of times; it rings very false to me.

I had a discussions about it on Twitter with several people, including Jim Austin, the editor of Science Careers. I also took the time to go look at the study; I’m not  a social scientist and so am not really qualified to review their data/results in any detail (the figures kind of enraged and confused me though). So if anyone qualified wants to enlighten me as to how to read these results, feel free.

I’ll give the authors credit in a few places:

1. This is a study of a postdoc population which is not very common and in the introduction, they do seem to understand the problems postdocs face and that it’s a good population to study stressful/depressive/anxious responses in. I hope for more (and hopefully Science Careers will doa  better job writing them up; I think the headline really was what rubbed me the wrong way earlier today).

2. The conclusions are nothing revolutionary or Earth shattering: having positive coping strategies is probably a better way to live/deal with life. And that’s what they conclude. So good job confirming past research. Being resilient is a good trait to have. Positive coping strategies: planning, exercise/hobbies, family/friends/support, these are all good things.

3. They gave out prizes for postdocs who filled out the survey: $5 Starbucks gift cards and “inspirational quote cards” (this detail just made me laugh- sorry to bury the lead).

Now, here’s the thing. I was a highly depressed postdoc. I still have vestiges of it. More often than I like to admit, I mutter to myself something like “just kill yourself” or “You’re worth nothing” or “I hate my life”. I can dismiss this more now, but I don’t think well-adjusted humans content in their lives say stuff like that to themselves on a regular basis.

And while I think building resilience is a good thing, the Science Careers piece read more as “Just think happy thoughts and everything will be fine, or at least you’ll be good at dealing with it”! I don’t buy that. And the other thing is that I was that messages to ‘think positive’ and ‘be resilient’ aren’t messages that are helpful with a depressed person. I know because friends and therapists tried giving me that message and it always rang false; all positivity did was make me feel worse, especially the false positivity peddled by things like ‘The Secret’, etc.

I had to find a different way of thinking, a more positive way, but it took YEARS to find them. It wasn’t a simple switch. And look, all the planning and positive coping strategies in the world aren’t helpful in the current job environment, the level of uncertainty alone is higher than it’s ever been. I’m not sure how to plan into it.

Positive thinking (or at least not outright depressive/negative all the time) is necessary for success in science, I think, but not sufficient in a lot of ways (maybe you’ll have a better life, which I guess is good too).

So what is it that ended up helping me? (self-help is often said to not work; I don’t fully agree- yes, there’s a lot of garbage out there, but part of it is finding the quality stuff from a voice that resonates with you):

1. The Nerdist Way– A book by Chris Hardwick (Nerdist podcast host) was one of the early books that started to turn my mind around. And podcasts of many types also have helped me a lot to realize I’m not alone, but also help me laugh and sometimes cry at other people’s stories.

2. Lifehacker.com– a website I read to this day. So much good stuff like this today on going to graduate school (seems solid to me; probably too late for me to make much use of :-/). Easy to go overboard and overdose, so be mindful, but it’s a fantastic resource.

3. itstartswith.com– Sarah’s an entrepreneur, trying to figure out how best to get things done; her voice really worked for me. Yes, she’s very positive/upbeat and all about positive thinking, but is also well grounded.

4. Twitter & starting my blog: I had nothing else in life, so I decided to start a blog. About depression and the fight against my own brain. It’s been a good journey and is actually providing me with some opportunities I am truly grateful for (thanks for reading anything I’ve written!). And twitter is an amazing networking tool.

5. Quiet- by Susan Cain. This book helped me identify my nature better than any other…I’m an introvert and that’s OK (as opposed to how I thought of it before- there was something truly, fundamentally wrong with me).

6. Brene Brown. This was another one where I had to say ‘really’? But then I saw her TED talk, it dove tailed well with research I’d been hearing about from Carol Dweck about Growth Mindset and Kristen Neff on self-compassion. ‘Wholeheartedness’ (I do kind of barf at this term; but it does have real meaning) is not easy, it’s hard work, but it’s also a better way to live in my mind.

7. And more. Go find things that work for you if you’re depressed. But also do things that challenge you regularly, talk to people out in the world. Listen, then see if you can assist. Growth mindset, exercise, meditation, compete (but celebrate other’s successes when they have them), and get out of the comfort zone/capacity zone more (I wish I did this better than I do).

There is a way to do positivity that works well and it’s much better than being an isolated negative person (which I was; and still can be at times, which I still find tragic…).

Go read other posts in my blog if you want to know more: this is what I write about a lot. Not positivity per se (‘Winter is coming’ is an apt way to put how I feel a lot of the time), but how to be productive in the face of uncertainties of the academic (postdoc) life. If I were better at networking, I’d gather other postdoc’s stories here too. Better we postdocs try to figure our way out together as opposed to tearing each other down. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope my writing helps a few people out there.

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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).

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