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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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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Boxes

The man box.

The depression box.

The academic box (aka The Ivory Tower)

And the related postdoc box  (feel particularly stuck in this one).

The perfectionist box.

The impostor box.

The introvert box.

The anxiety box.

The shy box.

The ‘I’m not and never have been good enough’ box.

 

That’s the list of boxes I can think that I’ve put myself into. Somehow, the human brain is capable of occupying several boxes at one time; each containing their own universe. Like the episode of “Futurama”, ‘The Farnsworth Parabox’, where the professor creates a series of boxes each containing different versions of the universe trying to replicate ‘Universe A’ (not to be confused with ‘Universe 1/Universe B’/‘The Mongooses’).

One of Walt Whitman’s lines is “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Minds are like the TARDIS in “Doctor Who”: bigger on the inside. Plus, the TARDIS is not limited by much- it can travel in time and space. So can minds. “Reading Rainbow” taught several generations that idea.

These three cultural references evoke cosmoses, not isolated boxes that we often occupy; boxes are isolating and limiting (even when they might contain something as large as Universe A).

I’ve been thinking a lot about boxes, limits and other things that seem to have limited my life. Not least of which is my own brain putting the breaks on actually getting out and doing things.

A discussion on Twitter about the leaky pipeline metaphor being problematic and preventing women particularly from moving onto careers they want; in other words, keep the pipeline intact, we need women to stay in STEM! Leaving is betraying the cause. Of course there need to be more women in STEM fields, but if the ones who end up there don’t want to be there, that’s a problem for inspiring yet more women to enter a STEM discipline.

If a woman with a STEM background decides the traditional academic/research route isn’t for her & moves onto something she does want to do, I imagine she makes a much better case for it to someone else who’s considering the traditional academic STEM career track (that might be just right for that person). Not that there’s even a standard track anymore. Everyone in STEM has to hustle even more to just stay put it seems.

Smash the pipe and rip up the tracks. Pursue what you want because you want it, not because someone else is putting pressure on you to do it (pressure isn’t always a bad thing, just has to be applied in the right place/time/manner). I need to be reminded constantly to not feel like I’m constrained where I am. I’d like to be a good ambassador for science, but have had a hard time doing that from my current career vantage point.

I’ve mentioned Carol Dweck’s growth mindset idea before, that is a lot more flexible and allows people to learn things and grow into them rather than getting frustrated when something doesn’t just click and giving up because of it. I grew up and spent most of my adult life with that fixed mindset. Through a lot of hard work, I’m flipping my thinking to adopt a growth mindset to learn new things. It’s not just healthier in education, I think it’s healthier in life too; you are encouraging yourself to try new things more often. If you fall on your face, well, maybe that’s bad, but you tried and if you got some thrill out of it and you liked it, you’ll try again and do better the next time.

The education we get in the US too often rewards the fixed mindset it seems to me. As a result, people who tend to be perfectionist, high strung and otherwise obsessive (me!) don’t try too many new things, or give up easily when they do. Not a very resilient way being.

That can lead to boxes. So can outside cultural forces. If you were used to giving up when something is difficult, I would argue you’re more susceptible to cultural forces as opposed to standing up and being your own person more of the time. Some cultural identity is good, for sure, but if it’s put you into a restrictive box, that’s definitely a problem. After all, to be noticed is to be distinct in some way. There’s a reason we’re not all the same person.

It can be hard to let other people know that you’re unique and just how you’re unique- every geek/nerd (terms I use interchangeably) probably has experienced this first hand. We tend to be the ones who get teased for our interests, whatever those are (even from fellow geeks/nerds- it can be fine if it’s done lovingly, but often it’s not).

The last few years, I’ve been slowly unpacking the boxes I occupy and I suppose in a way, re-integrating myself into a whole person. At my most depressed- in that box- I felt like a shadow, invisible a lot of the time, barely there when I was visible and just a shift in the light away from disappearing into the dark. I felt like a lot of me was missing. It was probably there, but wasn’t visible to me because I was inside the very dark box.

Opening that box, as well as working on opening others I’ve felt myself trapped in has helped. The thing that needs to happen more now is opening the final big box of who I am and showing it to the world. I’ll do this in part by asking– still a hard thing for me to do. Talking more about those weird things I’m interested in. Letting people know that I exist and have needs, desires, ambitions, and wants, and just being fine with that.

In many ways, I’m just becoming aware of those things myself and identifying what they are.

Some boxes I’m OK being in; and they’re open ones- I’m a Whovian that still needs to try and watch the original run series episodes pre-2005, but I don’t have a strong desire to, for instance.

Have you put yourself into boxes? Have others? Has the broader culture?

Sunshine is required for life on Earth as we know it; that’s why open boxes are important- they’ll help you live more authentically and confidently.

Ever on and on.

 

Surreal.

Down the rabbit hole

I’ve been reminded lately that science is largely done for fun by the people who choose to do it for a living. Lawrence Krauss talks about taking joy in science, something I didn’t do very well at all throughout my Ph.D. or my postdoc. Being serious all the time was my demeanor a lot, actually. I’m that person who gets told ‘you’re so serious’ all the time. I ceased to see the fun part of science which really can be thought of as going down the rabbit hole like Alice to Wonderland. Though the original ‘Through the Looking Glass’ wrold is a dark place, there’s also some whimsical and interesting things- it’s an adventure and involves risk, stepping out your door can be a dangerous business. Assuming your’e open to what’s out there.

Openness to possibility is key to scientific progress. Though the House Science Committee Chair seems to disagree with this notion and thinks science is about what are perceived priorities that will immediately enrich our economy. While some things are fairly obvious to fund and invest in, how do you account for getting the World Wide Web out of CERN? That’s a happy accident that permits me to transmit this to readers. All because of a large scale science experiment discovering fundamental (likely useless) structures of the universe. Lasers were similar. Electromagnets. Who knew that specific and certain plants produce compounds that work as medicines (maybe intuitive as people have done this for thousands of years, but there’s likely a lot to be discovered out there still). A lot of discoveries come out of stydying the ecosystems and identifying what’s there. how it interacts with everything else and no immediate economic benefit from that until it’s discovered. The initial discovery of microbes was useless too.

Play

Science is full of stories where basic discoveries are made all at once by several people at once because they’re ready to be made due to the studies of previous generations. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace discovered the process of natural selection and they were simply observing the nature and there was no practical application in mind, though it turns out that evolution is quite important in unifying all life on Earth and means we can use things learned in one living system to others. And even transfer genes between organisms via recombinant DNA technology.

Scientists need to have a sense of play. This example of studying cicada wings is a good recent example of just how something seemingly pointless to fund research into, but turns out could lead to some very useful things for people. Wonder is essential.

Taking things seriously all the time can lead to burn out. I’ve written about it before. In fact, that’s a big theme in a lot of this blog; I am writing to hopefully help other scientists avoid the mental doldrums I found myself in and am now, after many years, climbing out of.

Leap

The funding for scientific research is probably the worst it’s ever been. This is forcing young scientists, postdocs and graduate students particularly, to consider alternatives. Science is hard for a lot of us to let go, another theme of this blog. Where do we leap to? I recently met Kat Alexander, someone who quit her Ph.D. program and her story resonates with me, even though I haven’t done that yet. It would seem to be gut wrenching. Many of us have truly been pursuing science since we were little kids. And now, it’s a little hard to talk to advisors about alternate paths. And for me, it’s hard to know when to make a clean break in terms of my research. Rep. Smith’s proposal would make it even harder to get traction in the scientific world.

Fake-it

I was recently in Washington, DC for a friends‘ wedding and went to the National Gallery’s ‘Fake It’ exhibit. It examined the history of photography and how from the beginning, photographers were manipulating images in all sorts of ways. Sometimes for artistic purposes, sometimes to highlight societal issues, and sometimes to fake real events. All before we had Photoshop software. Studying the photographs, it was sometimes very hard to tell what was manipulated. The surface belies what is actually there. It’s similar with scientific grant proposals. Many sound ridiculous on the surface (why would anyone even care about that!?), but are actually quite profound. Even grants that are designed to find disease treatments sound a little esoteric in some way.

Scientists push the boundaries of knowledge, like the peripheral vision of an eye where things are just seen. Stars seen with peripheral vision often disappear when you look right at them. This is due to how the different light perceiving cells in the eye optimally see dim light at the periphery and bright, color vision in the middle. The goal of science is to bring those seemingly hidden stars to full light, so everyone can see the world as it is. And when those dim stars are fully illuminated, science is moving onto the next frontier, the new periphery.

Rep. Smith doesn’t seem to understand that. If NSF grants are submitted to Congress for review after they’re approved in the grant review process, it won’t just be social sciences that are defunded. I am guessing that Rep. Smith is not a believer in climate change- so why would we fund research into it if he had his way? Similar with Evolution. I know not all Republicans hold those positions, but many in Congress seem to- it’s not hard to find examples of anti-science Republicans.

There are more than enough real scientific problems to solve and novel systems to explore them. Funding could increase somewhat so we can make even more discoveries, have more accidental applications come from it and enrich people’s lives. I want to spread what scientists learn about the world and educate the public. It’s F$%^ing amazing that we landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars, as one example. Humans like stories and what scientists do is tell the story of nature and document just how they uncovered those things, and give credit to those whose work theirs is based upon. Scientists are starting to get better at telling their stories in engaging ways and disseminating research that was funded by the tax payer back to that tax payer, but much more needs to be done.

It is extremely competitive, no grant is a shoe in today. Between the competition, the lack of jobs- private sector and academic in STEM (arts too) fields- it is no wonder that many scientists want an alternative, or are getting anxious about their present. The current system hasn’t really trained us for alternatives, partly by design and partly because scientists tend to be very focused individuals who have been set on pursuing science from an early age. The social science grants Rep. Smith objects to probably do have real relevance, it just isn’t obvious on the surface.

There are certainly reforms to the science funding system and the academic system that would be welcome. This just isn’t one of them. Try again.

Ever on and on.

Creationism.

I’m going to tackle this topic even though I know it is polarizing. 


I read a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education today asking to scientists who support the theory of evolution to be kinder to creationists- and at least to not treat them like their idiots. Some of them clearly are not; you can present them the evidence for evolution and a creationist will just say ‘I think there is a different set of facts’ (no, there aren’t, but I’m not here to convince anyone- I think it’s futile to do so, people have to be convinced on their own, make their own discoveries). 

The thing I get confused about with creationism is that it seems like such a limited view of what God created with the universe (or even more than one universe, possibly). 

A scientist’s job, through the empirical method, describes nature as well as they possibly can. Through that study, the evidence suggests that the universe is very old, 13,700,000,000 years old. That there are atoms made up of quarks and a whole host of other sub-atomic particles that are not obvious to the naked eye and zoom around at nearly the speed of light- 299,792,458 meters/second. These small particles and fields they represent make up everything in the universe. Life on Earth is ~2,000,000,000 years old, the Earth, 4,600,000,000 years old. The oceans formed, continents moved! Volcanoes erupted in massive and destructive explosions! Life has had myriad forms and dynamics over its history and we humans are a current incarnation of the mechanism of evolution, in a deeply philosophical sense, we are a way for the universe to know itself. Our brains have 83,000,000,000 neurons that form even more synaptic connections. Our bodies interact with microbes and other parts of the natural world- like plants!- that enables us to live and function on this Earth (all have DNA too- a rather elegant molecule for data storage). As humans, we’ve progressed far enough to be able to send the Voyager spacecraft to the edge of the solar system- 11,000,000,000 miles away! And there’s a ton we just don’t know or understand even still. Nature is complicated and doesn’t yield secrets easily. The fact that our brains have comprehended as much as we have is impressive. 

This astounding complexity would make me say, if I were religious, ‘Dear God, you created something incredible!!!! Far beyond what’s written down in The Good Book!’. I am assuming that God, all-powerful, wouldn’t allow us to know things we aren’t allowed to know, of course.  

The numbers and mechanisms of the universe create a hugely richer picture of the universe than a 6,000 year old Earth with everything intact all of a sudden. The logistics of Noah’s Ark boggle the mind if you consider the millions of species of animals out there (including the insects?). did he also take on all the plants of the world (250,000 flowering species alone- most wouldn’t survive a flooded Earth)?

Is the more epic universe that science has painted a more uncertain place? Probably so. But therein lies the mystery and the frontiers of exploration. Living with uncertainty is hard (believe me, read previous posts here, uncertainty is quite difficult), but none of it means you can’t still be a very decent person and do your part to make the world a better place. 

None of it precludes believing in a God it seems to me; It just deepens what God actually did in creating the universe. Staring at the night sky as a kid was one of the most inspiring things ever to me. And to realize that it’s more ancient and grander than I even knew then, well, that’s amazing! The part of the universe we’re aware of constitutes ~4% of what’s out there…96% is other stuff we have no idea about yet. 

So to the extent that I’m spiritual, the evidence of science suggests God did so much more than what’s enumerated in The Bible- a book that gives some good guidance on how to behave in the world, not a manual for how the world goes, to paraphrase Galileo. 

I can get how the Renaissance Catholic Church would feel threatened by any view that wasn’t what they said was ‘how things are’, but in 2012 in a democratic society, it seems like there’s something else going on that makes creationists reject modern science (and in my mind, not give God his/her full due). And I must underscore, accepting a bigger vision of the universe in no way means you can no longer be religious, or a believer, or destroy one’s faith. 

I’m sure people smarter and more articulate than I am have made a similar argument as I’ve outlined here, but I’m writing it again myself to get it out of my head- it’s something I think about fairly often. 

My goal is not to convince anyone. I do think there needs to be a respectful voice in articulating our points of view and reasonable people can disagree. I do see how scientists (I feel this way too sometimes too) get frustrated when a whole community (like creationists) rejects what is overwhelming evidence that evolution happens; many scientists went out exploring nature and came back with natural selection as a mechanism for life to evolve. Evolution has had practical impact on all of our lives as well; from our crops we eat (selectively bred) to vaccines and antibiotics that kill harmful microbes, but spare us (by targeting things specific to the bacteria, not us- reflecting vast differences in DNA/cellular make up). Scientists don’t come upon mechanisms of how nature works easily and we fight it out amongst ourselves until a theory emerges that stands up to most challenges (and even then, it continues to be challenged and refined). So to have our hard work rejected is hard to take, especially when it seems to a lot of us that we’ve uncovered some new piece of creation, that deepens our understanding of nature- making God, if you’re religious- all the more impressive. 

So scientists often see limits to creationist thinking (it’s all in that one book?); whereas scientists went directly to the primary source- nature itself. 

Scientists also tend to reject absolutist thinking. Science is a process, not an absolute way of knowing things, but a way to be more certain. We stare into the void often enough and get rejected by our methods of trying to understand what’s going on so often that we realize anything we say comes with some level of uncertainty. Which makes scientific theories all the more impressive; Gravity, evolution, cell theory, The standard model, relativity, have all been vetted so thoroughly that scientists have accepted their veracity and continue to use them as a basis for experiments. 

That doesn’t mean that scientists can be mean to creationists and belittle them (that will convince no one to come to accept evolution), but does explain why scientists have a hard time understanding a Creationist point of view- an absolute view oftentimes. When presented with evidence counter to a hypothesis we hold to be true, scientists do something remarkable; we change our minds- often slowly, but we do.