The answer to life, the universe, and everything (not really).

I’ve been quiet here lately. But I’ve had things going on. Go check out my other blog The Quiet Branches where I write about plant science each week– it’s been a fun project. Then it has also been a crazy few months in the lab trying to meet several deadlines. And I’ve been taking more online classes. One in learning R and statistics…it’s only going OK on that front. The time it takes to concentrate and truly internalize everything is probably more than I actually have, but I think I am picking up a few things at least. 

I need a career and to feel like I have a life. It’s been really hard to sense that I do have a life even though I know the mere passage of time that I am aware of is life.

I realize I’m not entitled to anything. I am grateful for what I have. This is a call for more humanity out there. It may be there. I just can’t detect it because of where I am or maybe I have faulty sensors. I find it sometimes though.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work and how I really want to carve out a space to not make it all of who I am anymore. In fact, it cannot be all that I am anymore. That will kill me. I am more than my work.

Setting that boundary is difficult and doesn’t seem all that acceptable in the world of work today. Companies/employers are not your friend. And will basically take whatever they can get from you of value. And they don’t care what your life is outside of work so long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice the blurred lines of work and life in modern times. And it seems like there is little slack for life events these days as a lot of us try to do as much as possible to prove our worth. At Tenure She Wrote, @SciTriGrrl wrote a post a few weeks ago about time management and carving out time for people that priorities at work that are truly important.

Prioritize until it hurts is something I’ve heard entrepreneurs say.

Hustle.

Everything will be OK…unless something goes wrong.

Perhaps it’s possible to work through that fever.

The science must go on.

In the entertainment/creative/pro-sports industries, they work sick all the time I hear. Unless you really can’t get out of bed, your’e at work. At least in those industries, they have brief periods of intensity and then they’re off for a time until the next job comes along and it’s intense again for a period of time. I’m not sure science is quite like that.

 

If you can’t get out of bed due to illness for a day or two…maybe you’re not cut out for being in that industry.

Now let’s say it’s not the flu, but depression or other mental illness that you’re working to manage. Or imagine a sick kiddo and need to stay home with them. I fear the mantra of “you only have value if you work” is the only acceptable way to have value in today’s world (at least in the US). It’s OK until some challenging thing happens and knocks you out of the game, no matter how resilient a person you are.

It’s like species being able to adapt to climate change. Some species undoubtedly will be fine and adapt quickly enough to the rate of change.

Others. Not so much.

Internal value doesn’t matter. The fact that I am enriching myself by reading ,writing, learning stats/R/coding at some level despite the fact that I’ll never likely be a master of any of it, trying to socialize more, being a decent person, helping friends do things. I hope these things are valuable. But fear they’re not. In and of themselves, they don’t produce money and therefore are not valuable.

I am exploring career options beyond academia and it’s really jarring to deal with the fact I feel like I’m basically killing all the training I have and starting completely over again. I know I’ll bring something of what I’ve learned to whatever I go on to do, but worry it’s not enough, never will be, and that basically ,I am useless. I really try not to think that way because obviously it leads nowhere good. At the least, it makes me beat myself up. At worst…

It is a hard mental habit to break.

I have to find evidence to reject the null hypothesis that I am not lifeless.

If the goal is to prove your’e so valuable and in demand that you never have to worry about anything ever, do you get to take breaks? Ask for help? Or is asking for help saying you can’t do things on your own, acknowledging humanity, and there’s just not room for that in the world. Humanity is not valuable.

Except that it is, of course. Why are we working except to keep humanity going. Even for-profit industry has a component of providing a service to the world.

Look like your’e interested, but not too interested, you don’t want to seem desperate, but also not completely aloof either. Where’s the right line? When do you cross it?

All the above thoughts indicates that I probably need to socialize more with close friends. Vacation. Something restorative I haven’t had in quite awhile. Being human in front of another human, not a robot.

I want a pub trivia team to go out with and have fun. And I haven’t been able to build one so far. But it will be a part of my life some how. Until then, I have Good Job, Brain at least.

What is it I do that no one else can? I freely admit my struggles on the internet…that I’m human. I don’t think I’m alone or remarkable for that. I hope I’m not alone in my thoughts. I have learned to manage my depression, which is not nothing, but again, I don’t think anyone actually cares about that.

I can write a lot of words.

I can listen. I can synthesize ideas, edit writing, and think about the bigger picture as well as sweat details. Perhaps sweating details way too much. I think things through and am deliberate (which I honestly do not feel is of any value in the fast-paced world of today).

I can take a lot of punishment and push myself hard when needed, but certainly need recovery time too. I’m human. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for the world.

Just where do I fit? What exactly do I need to get there?

I’m in the science-verse (but note, not at the center):

The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it's a horizon that doesn't feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven't explored either.
The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it’s a horizon that doesn’t feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven’t explored either.

What is beyond? I am trying to see and navigate that way. I just hope I can land there, realize there’s some slack in the line where I can work hard, but have a life outside too (my cat demands it…and having time to do taxes is important too). Heck, even staying somewhere in the vast science-verse would be OK with me. I just feel my value lies not at the bench, but in helping others do great work.

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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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New England Biolabs.

New England Biolabs sign.
New England Biolabs sign.

I had opportunity to visit a company I’ve been a fan of since I started my Ph.D., New England Biolabs (NEB). Their support is pretty much responsible for teaching me the ropes of molecular biology and cloning generally. I’ve liked their support systems because they were the most intuitive to learn. They were one of the first companies to devote a part of their catalog to a technical reference guide for how to do molecular biology, devise cloning strategies and otherwise manipulating DNA.

My Ph.D. advisor used the NEB catalog as a textbook for an undergrad lab course on DNA manipulation and cloning, and the students did indeed like having it as a reference. Teaching people hands-on science is complicated and expensive. NEB made it simpler, without a doubt. Their markers for DNA, RNA and protein are some of the most useful and easily useable ones out there.

I also appreciate that NEB thinks about sustainability and environmentalism. They prominently talk about conservation and preserving our environment on their website, as well as devoting pages of their catalog to it. And in the last 5 years, they have recently moved to a much greener campus in Ipswich, MA.

My first impressions driving in were that I was driving into a whole other world. It’s offset from the highway a bit, and you drive through a windy drive that then opens up onto the campus:

As soon as you drive in, I noticed the art installations outside that are somewhat odd, but also seem to fit well. My favorites were all the statues of ravens they have around as well as a bronze rhino that sits behind some brush in the distance.

I walked into the main building noting that there was a big greenhouse as you make your way to the main entrance. The main lobby opens up into a high-ceilinged room with the reception desk on one side, the multi-story greenhouse off to the other (that I learned was the NEB founder’s private green house). There was a cafeteria on the first floor along with other doors. Sunlight pours into the lobby. It was extremely bright in there.

Panorama of New England Biolabs lab building.
Panorama of New England Biolabs lab building.

I met my guide, Tanya Osterfield, their head of digital marketing and she first took me into their wastewater treatment facility that is state-of-the-art in terms of the kind and degree of water recycling in a sustainable way (using plants to help cultivate bacteria that process wastewater and sending things through lots of filters and then onto watering soccer fields that the community uses; my understanding is the goal of all of this is to reduce the amount of solid waste as much as possible and produce clean water after treatment that can be returned to the watershed).

Water treatment plant on New England Biolab's campus.
Water treatment plant on New England Biolab’s campus.

I got to see one of the labs, where I got to talk an NEB scientist a bit about NEB’s approach to discovering, designing, and modifying restriction enzymes. The only sort of remarkable thing: the labs at NEB look like the lab I work in. That shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, but I guess I expected something else from an industry lab? For obvious reasons, they don’t allow pictures within the labs, but I could put a picture of any bench in any academic life sciences lab and you’d get the picture.

I got to see beyond the labs into offices in a mansion that was already on the campus when they built their new building called Mostly Hall, where a lot of the accounting, marketing, and customer service offices exist, along with event space, conference rooms with old-style furniture, and a library.

Last, I was shown some of the shipping and production facilities. It’s impressive that a lot of their orders are processed by hand.

And last, I got to have lunch with Tanya and Andrew Bertera, their executive director of marketing and had a great discussion with them; both are interesting people to engage in conversation with. I think I was just trying to process everything I had seen/was seeing. Even though it’s not a large place, it was a lot of take in.

The thing that struck me the most about NEB were the contrasts. The fusion of the old and the new (a traditional New England estate with a modern biotech laboratory building, hand processed orders/shipping of modern DNA/RNA modifying enzymes), art and science (NEB does science and is also a rather large art gallery), between basic and applied science (Tanya told me about half the research NEB does is basic research, the rest is applied/product development), between the natural and synthetic (the campus itself is very natural and they do rational design of the enzymes they find in nature to make them better), and just how much they really do put sustainability and environmentalism upfront. It’s a company where I don’t question that they want to be part of the green future. It doesn’t strike me as ‘greenwashing’, but part of the DNA that is the template for NEB. They use and sell nature and are ecologically conscious as well; they are keenly aware that a world with less nature is one that means fewer potential products for them to derive. And so they’re trying to have as light a footprint as possible.

In my own world of plant science, I’m well aware of the controversy that can surround for-profit science (Monsanto is the embodiment of all evil according to some). The ‘evil’ interpretation is that I visited the lair of a Bond villain (think Drax from ‘Moonraker’ or Hank Scorpio from ‘The Simpsons’; representing change gone wrong/technology taken too far). I don’t fully believe that about Monsanto and I definitely don’t get that impression from NEB (it might also help that NEB is a smaller company). And of course, I’m never going to eat anything NEB makes because they don’t produce food other than what looked like a community garden on the campus.

The other way, the better way to interpret my visit, is that I saw a company that is trying to be a force for good in the world so that everyone possible wins (and that’s not always true in the business world). NEB customers get good products, NEB makes money, and the environment is not harmed and hopefully even helped by their being an NEB. Education, art, and culture are served as well, all as part of a company ecosystem. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the ideal conditions are for scientists to do their work. NEB struck me as a place designed to help scientists do just that (though it’s hard to say as 2 hours isn’t enough to fully get the grasp of a culture).

I’ve compared NEB to Apple in the past (in terms of user friendliness and quality of products), and in some ways, I’m more convinced of that comparison now; they have their ecosystem of products that if you use their system, will work well. Most labs combine the products of many different companies because some are just better (has anyone made a Reverse Transcriptase that can hold a candle to Life Tech’s Superscript? I haven’t found it yet). And if you’re a postdoc or grad student, you often go with whatever the lab has used in the past; and so don’t even explore alternative products until you have to.

I like NEB even more now that I’ve seen what it’s like and met a few of the people that work there. It was a fascinating look behind the scenes that many academic researchers don’t get to see or even think about (even many industry scientists probably don’t see other companies campuses): just where the products we use every day in the lab come from.

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