What is the purpose of Brakes?

The intuitive answer is so we can slow down and stop.

Less intuitive is that brakes let us go fast. The better the braking system, or the more trust in it, the faster it’s possible to go (credit to Sarah K. Peck for this idea).

While literal brakes operate this way in cars and other vehicles, permitting slowing down and going fast, the brakes in brains don’t work the same way.

I’ve been thinking about brakes in my life and how I might ease off of them to go fast- possibly achieve flight, basically thrive– career-wise and personally.

I wrote two articles about mental health in the last month. One for Bitesize Bio and one for the The National Postdoc Association Newsletter that will be out sometime this summer. It’s what I’ve written about for years here, and it is good to see that I can write for platforms that get a wider readership than a personal blog.

I’ve maintained my writing on The Quiet Branches as best I can with one of my more ambitious posts published last week. And doing it has lead to opportunities for me, and I really like doing it still, though my feeling is research is still a challenge. I read other science bloggers/writers and am constantly impressed- and I’m not comparing myself to the best/most successful science writers I know of- Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and Jennifer Ouelette, for instance. I still haven’t joined the NASW. Or the Genetics Society of America, or many of the several other professional societies I might be a member of.

There are deadlines I have made at work, a conference I attended, The AAAS meeting, where I networked like a pro and even got a decent opportunity out of it for a new job, that may or may not pan out. I’ve had people send me job ads that might be of interest to me as well and I’ve applied to some of them even. Despite the last few weeks where I’ve felt pretty worn down and burnt out, this has been a year of accomplishment in many ways.

There’s a direction I’d like to take my career in- away from the lab bench and in the world of science communication, publishing, editing…the more I learn about that world, the more fascinated I get. It’s incredible that they are all a key part of translating raw results into final reports, write ups, releases, and popular articles, videos, and books for audiences beyond other scientists (though it’s for them too– who likes science….scientists– well, OK, we at least sometimes like science…OK, perhaps not even sometimes, but we do it because we believe strongly in studying the natural world to understand it and ideally make it a better place).

I just finished attending Beyond the Professoriate (#beyondprof) where there’s a lot of good advice for those PhDs and other academics seeking to make it out into the world beyond academia and broadening the career ideas/paths that PhD holders might take. And trying to get the idea into our heads that we have skills that are in demand out in the world if only we could speak the language of the employers that want them.

All of the above are mostly good things and here’s where the brakes come in. The brakes in my brain are keeping me going slow, from punching the accelerator. It’s like my parking brake is stuck in the engaged position.

I am slowly learning to speak the language of editors, science writers, and communicators/public information officers/digital communications professionals. I still have a long way to go I feel (but thanks to two opportunities this year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an editor). Though I write my blog, I feel like it could be better. There are content marketing and design elements I’d like to implement, but haven’t. My blog is due for a redesign. I could track my numbers better, but still have an academic philosophy about that- namely that numbers aren’t the most important metric– does my writing resonate with one person and their day is better for having read it? Does it spur some new project whether I’m involved or not? Is it evergreen and there if someone wants to refer to it (i.e. is it an archive for someone to stumble across)?

I want to start trying to record audio clips talking about each new post as a way to play around with podcasting as a medium. I love podcasts, though I know it’s not a career unto itself for most people (in that way content creation is like many careers these days it seems- the middle is getting hollowed out and you are either poor and in the masses or lucky/good/fortunate enough to make it into the elite of the profession). I think about doing it. I have the tools to experiment…and yet…nope, haven’t done it.

It’s been a slow process and one that I seem to have the brake in place for. I’m trying to learn new skills. I’ve adopted R and tried to figure out how I can take advantage of some of the massive amounts of data available out in the world, but haven’t made much headway there yet– finding a hypothesis to test isn’t exactly easy. But I can do and more or less understand what an ANOVA is in R and plot some data, so that is good.

I have tried learning more about Illustrator, Photoshop, and other digital tools that I just really like (& can use and figure things out in, it’s just something I’d like to get better with). And yet, the brakes are there too. Time is limited. I’m exhausted at the end of the day and learning new things just doesn’t happen as often as I think it needs to. Again, it feels like the brakes are there.

In my personal life, well, I haven’t really been trying much…I’ve been focused on networking and trying to figure out what’s next for me in life– or perhaps more fundamental than that…figuring out how to network most effectively still.

Until I figure out where I’ll be living and what I’m doing, it’s really hard to create any sort of dating life. Of course, this is another instance where the brake in my brain feel strongly applied. I know most postdocs are married, have families, date, meet significant others, even in the face of career transitions and other life backdrops. but my brakes are firmly in place to not explore that part of life until my career is more figured out (of course the question is, when will that be- more and more the answer is seeming like “never”, so may as well start trying now, right?).

I had the honor of curating the @realscientists Twitter account in March. And as a social media experience, it was intense and immersive. One of the things I started that really took off was #AcademicSelfCare, which echoes some of the things in the mental health articles I wrote about how academics seem to take terrible care of themselves.

I try to take time to take care of myself, but that has been harder and harder to do lately it seems. Injury and pain keep me from running far, time to join and make it to a gym are scarce, sleep has been elusive, and making decisions and moving forward rather seem more difficult. Cleaning, organizing life, focusing on the present, eating well…have gotten elusive as I try to spend all my time getting to what’s next, with my parking brake in place.

It’s spending a lot of my time in deciding rather than in doing– analysis paralysis? Distraction from real things? Some of this comes down to perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and the latter especially can feel like a weight that slows me down too often still (another form of braking- just weigh it down). Will I ever feel like I’ve “arrived”?

Am I still moving in a direction and not drifting? I don’t know. Some of the issue is that I’ve been doing the things I have been doing and haven’t had much chance to step back and think much. Enforcing reflection time would be a good thing, and something I need to do more often. And perhaps say “no” more.

There’s more to say, and yet I am also self-conscious about going on and on…




I turned 37 this week and I guess it’s time to think about my last year and just how I’m doing in life.

In a lot of ways, I’ve built momentum and life is getting a bit better.

I am getting myself out into the world more and slowly bringing projects to fruition even though it’s frustrating at times. I’m getting really impatient with having ideas, wanting to do them, but then thinking about them so much that they just never make it out of my own brain.

I have had my writing posted on blogs that are not my own. I have moved further into the digital realm of learning some of the graphic design tools like Adobe’s cloud software (very expensive, but fun). Speaking of, I’m investing in myself a lot more; I’m giving myself permission to access tools that I find useful.

I’ve been trying to learn statistics and R a lot better…with some small successes. I don’t have the chance to really do a lot with it, but I’ve discovered the Swirl package that teaches you how to use R within R. And there are lecture slides associated with it that explain the statistics models in detail even though I haven’t been able to follow them much…still learning.

I am taking steps to market myself more, getting the ideas I have out into the world. I have ideas. Things I want to help build. Like the best platforms for the scientific community to best get our ideas across to each other (across disciplines) as in mentoring, fostering collaborations, but also to educate people into the process of science. I’m OK with the fact that there are a lot of people who already do this and do it better than I do. It really does take a large village. Science succeeds over time as a collective…most of the individual contributions made are small pieces of a whole and often not fully correct.

There’s been a lot of trial and error, it hasn’t been easy, and I have a long ways to go still. And that’s scary since I am starting to feel old. However, My imperative is to do my best to do things now. Not delay and simply put myself out there in the world, not inside my own brain all of the time.

So there you go. I acknowledged my birthday. I have no idea what my next trip around the sun will mean for me (I’ll sit down and make some goals/plans for myself soon), but the fact that I feel ,my brain is operating without the oppressive cloud of depression really is something amazing. Something I probably couldn’t rightly say last year.







Statistics, computer biology and the future. R!

I have been attempting to learn R. And biostatistics and how to analyze large datasets…not having been traditionally trained in these things (at least not in a super formal way).

It’s going slowly in fits and starts. @ALoraine205 suggested I document what I’ve been tryign to learn. That won’t be pretty as I haven’t been able to devote my full attention to it, so it’s easy to forget what I’ve already learned.

So, why do I want to learn to do all of this? Because I want to push myself, but also prepare for the future when statisitics, computers and large datasets are all that will exist in biology in terms of data.

So here’s the inaugural post of an Idi  Ian learning R.

What do I know now?

1. I can load my data into R and am familiar with R studio and some packages.

2. I can do basic arithmetic, and t-tests as well as make very basic plots.

3. I know how to do some very, very simple manipulations of data to format it properly.

4. I know what packages are, but still am very unclear on what most of them actually do in any detail.

What are my stumbling blocks? 

Too numerous to count. Main = Main?! Yes, but in R Main = Main…the mains are different, some how? huh?! Still don’t fully grasp that one. And the help files for the various functions are gibberish to me. It’s English (my native language), but make no sense words do in help file. Googling things isn’t much more helpful.

Some of this blind spot is lack of education in statistics and in handling large datasets; but maybe I’m getting there. I know at least most of the software tools that people use to analyze these large datasets, but still have trouble running them myself nad am not sure how they all fit together with one another.

I am also not a computer programmer, so the command line thing is a little challenging too.

What are my goals?

1. Biggest one is that I want to do all of my statistics and data analysis in R, if possible; I think that’s possible. Most of what I have are continuous data measurements, qRTPCR data and other things like that that R should breeze through. And I would love to be able to better mine published large data sets (microarrays, RNAseq, etc.) as well as design and analyze my own.

Anyway, I hope someone finds my path to learning enlightening some how or can help me along the way; for years, I was terrified of saying I didn’t know something or how to do something (oh, then I’ll just pass this off to someone who does– since taking time to learn something new isn’t something anyone has time for any more…at least that’s how I sense the culture around me). And it’s showing vulnerability- possibly weakness at some level. Hopefully this will help me learn, help teachers figure out where student’s stumbling blocks are (if they’re not aware already) and hopefully we’ll have some fun too. This should become a regular feature on the blog. Let me know if it doesn’t.