Real Scientists 2016/03/20-26

I curated the @realscientists twitter account last week and it was a fun, intense, and more vulnerable experience than I would have thought.

I took over the account on Sunday morning and had a general idea of topics I wanted to do, though I ended up not fully sticking to the plan during the week. I knew I wanted to talk about mental health in academia, plant biology, talk about my life as a scientist and some of what my career ambitions are, a little bit about diversity, GMOs, and science communication.

This was pushing my comfort zone. Curating someone else’s account for a week– with 31,000 followers. The account presents real scientists and what they do, how we live, how we work. Despite 16 years in science, I don’t often feel like I am a real scientist. A frustrated one. One with not a ton of success. One that wants to step away from the lab bench into a editing/communications role, and one that has come back from some mentally dark places.

I wanted to curate well. I almost wanted to “win” realscientitsts…though mostly I just didn’t want to screw up. I didn’t want to anger the admins or the followers (which I did in one case- I apologized, but still feel a bit bad about it).

I had no idea my first day I’d end up starting my first ever trending hashtag: #AcademicSelfCare.

I storified it in two parts here (there may be some redundancy):

#AcademicSelfCare part 1

#AcademicSelfCare part 2

#AcademicSelfCare part 3

People shared all sorts of things, including Michael Eisen who just said: “Twitter. #AcademicSelfCare”. I can’t disagree after the outpouring I saw– it is heartening to know that despite physical isolation from each other, we are not alone in our experiences. I know social media can be a double-edged sword, but I am happy to say I didn’t see anything abusive or rancorous during my entire week of curation. Everything was respectful. Especially when talking about self-care.

@PhDpositivity even gave a graphic design to one of my tweets from later in the week:

tpc127993_SupplementalDS1-5

It’s something I think is true– our own scientific training and habits can have negative effects on our mental health if we internalize them too deeply– true of a lot of things held too tightly.

People also shared links such as this list of resources for neurodiverse STEM workers.

And @kyra_schwarz shared this self-care cheatsheet that was popular:

SelfcareCheatSheetKyra_schwarz

A few people, but started by Jesse Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus) noted that all the self-care in the world may not be sufficient in light of a system that is harsh and unaccommodating (and seemingly increasingly so–affecting ever more of the STEM workforce). Self-care ideas can seem like lip service a lot of the time. It is good to see initiatives coming from institutions like the Royal Society (#AndAScientist) acknowledging that scientists are humans too and do need lives outside the lab, but at the same time, the Royal Society and other big institutions of science still define the world of science and there are definitely some bigger changes that could happen I think.

At the same time, I do think scientists sharing the fact that they do get down, that they have a hard time sometimes, that living with uncertainty is hard, that systemic inequities affect some scientists and they need coping mechanisms sometimes, does help in a small way at least. It builds a community of people with similar feelings. It acknowledges issues are widespread. That we are not alone (my rational brain knows that to be true. The emotional side fails to fully internalize that and I tend to feel isolated). It was impossible to feel alone on Twitter this last week with everyone sharing their self-care habits and routines, and how they think about their mental health and what helps. People responding were everyone from grad students to PIs. It was really heartening to see. I hope it helps someone that was just listening in on the discussion in some small way. And having all of this out in the open can help drive institutional change.

I know it can be hard to talk about mental health. We fear for our careers, fear it makes us seem weak (which it isn’t). But being vulnerable can really drive change. No one *has* to open up– that’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves. My story is enough in the past that I’m comfortable sharing pretty widely. When I first started to open up, it was a very small audience of people I felt close to. And it widened from there.

Another thing that came up when discussion #scicomm on Friday was just how important education, science communication, and other efforts to talk science outside (and probably even within) disciplines matters for doing actual science. These aren’t frivolous activities to scientists that do them. They are integral to their joy of science and of being a good scientist. It echoed the self-care discussion. I know blogging has helped me reignite my love of science– and for me, I like writing about other’s research rather than my own.

People also shared their #FavePlants too, which was fun to see a diversity of plants shared. Some of the stories were really personal, like planting trees when kids were born. Another resonant them on Saturday when talking about networking via internet were a number of meeting significant others, but also many, many career stories too.

@paleoblais also started #pancakerule. For things you screw up the first time but then get better at. Even if you are an experienced scientist, you do new things all the time.

That was my week and a few reflections curating realscientists. I am grateful for the experience even if it was intense and really pushed me into some new territory. I want to thank everyone that followed along with me too. Thanks for a good week,

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ineluctable.

I recently learned the word inelcutable.

It has the same latin root as reluctant. Luctari, or “to struggle”.

The word means unavoidable or inescapable. The inelcutable sunrise.

I heard it on an NPR radio show ‘A Way With Words’ all about language. and the way it was described, when I heard it, really struck me. I was tired and it was 6:30am when I heard it, so the first thing I had to do was to figure out what the word was. I didn’t get it at first, but luckily in this era of podcasts, I found the episode and the word a few days later.

It brought up for me the frustrations I’m having being a postdoc, trying to figure out how to have a career beyond it and just the sense that for me,  it seems that a lack of change is ineluctable.

I’ve been working to manage depression and do other things to improve life. Be present. Meditate. Exercise. Learn new things via the growth mindset. Take risks. Get out of my comfort zone. I have done a lot of these things and maybe I need to do it more, or better, or differently, but not much has changed. And that’s frustrating. I am still trying, but it still feels like outward change is simply not possible.

I am writing more. I am engaged in several fun side projects and I am trying to learn some new things too. And I think I’m networking.

There was a discussion on Twitter yesterday about how academics rely too much on external validation, don’t act on our own intuition, and are risk averse/not resilient.

The first two are true of me, certainly. I have tried to cultivate my own internal sense of intuition and to trust myself more, but still have a long way to go and may need to be out of academia to really instill that in myself. Risk aversion is still true of me…except when I’m talking openly about depression on the internet (which may not be a real risk, just plain stupid…seems to be a fine line). I live in fear of becoming someone obsolete, just eking by…which I kind of do now, but it feels better than that. I do live rather minimally, but aspire to more.

Resilience is something I think I may actually have. I (so far) have successfully been managing depression and slowly coming back to life from having stalled a few years ago. I still feel grey and not vital, with an internal drive for life, experiences, enjoyment, etc. but one reason I’m anxious for change is so that maybe a new place will spark that in me again (I know, I’ll always be carrying my own brain, which may be problematic).

I still think academia is not the best place for good mental health (unless you’ve made tenure, perhaps). And leaving may be the best thing for my soul. I don’t want to ever feel the ineluctable conclusion is figuring out how to remove myself from the gene pool. And I still feel too close to that thinking. And that is scary to me. And while I hope I’m alone in thinking that about myself, I’m sure there are other academics that may be thinking along similar lines and that is why I write this blog. We’re not alone.

Despite frustration. I still am not giving up. I don’t know why. I do have some people that still care about me, for one, and I still feel like I can be useful…somewhere. Maybe a connection I make, maybe something I write, taking a chance. I think I’m willing to do the work. I just also need to pair it with a life as well. I hope that that is an ineluctable outcome.

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Closing the gap.

I still see signs of depression in my brain. That’s hard for me to admit since I’ve been working to manage better for years. Lately, I feel exhausted and frustrated with myself though.

The National Institute of Mental Health has a list of symptoms and signs of depression (copied and pasted directly from the linked page and my evaluation for myself is indented):

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
    • What do I feel about things? I still feel anxious at times, but more than anything, I do have “empty” feelings. There’s emotion there, but it’s a null set, or at least that’s how it feels to me; it’s a perception problem. It’s like there’s an empty place in my chest (and I know, that’s not where feelings come from).
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
    • These have intensified recently. I really question if I can improve my skills, have I been learning? I only have a limited lifetime, so just when does hopefulness and optimism become more default?
    • Can life get better? my honest answer is “probably not” right now, at my best it’s a “maybe”.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
    • Yes, yes, and yessish…this last one is where I feel it sometimes, but know there are things I can do and actually do do sometimes. Am I improving, growing? The feeling I have is one of being stagnant.
  • Irritability, restlessness
    • Kinda…yes. especially the former.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
    • What do I enjoy doing? And am I doing those things? Often no. It always seems like the effort and time are crushing constraints. And it feels like anything I do isn’t fun/pleasurable, exactly, it’s just something I do.
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
    • Yes, and yes. This may be getting less sleep, but I rarely feel energetic or excited.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
    • Yes, possibly (I don’t seem to care about details in too many situations), and yes, decision making is still really hard for me; even small ones.
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
    • I am up past midnight most nights, I wake up around 5am most mornings, try to sleep til 6 at least or 7…then the cat insists I get up to feed him.
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
    • I have eaten less this year. I think I’ve lost weight, though I haven’t stepped on a scale lately.
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
    • Unfortunately, yes. the former. They’re not insistent, nor do I take them at face value; they’re thoughts that come up and I dismiss them as temporary, fleeting, but my sense is healthy people do not have these thoughts. And they aren’t thoughts I would act on.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
    • Unsure on this one. It is perfectly possible. I have aches, pains, headaches, and more; but that may be due to exercise and not taking the best care of myself.

So given these signs, how can I say I’m doing better? I still feel like there’s a gap between reality and my perceived reality. Making time for meditation/mindfulness may help; it’s something I’ve gotten away from the last few months. And how do I experiment more to figure out how to get myself into feeling better?

I need to think about it more.

But this assessment just goes to show the the road from feeling crushingly depressed is a long one. I’m not completely under its false narratives anymore, but still haven’t totally given way to new ways of thinking, cultivating a healthier mindset.

The component I’m missing may well be social too. I need to interact more with other people, the world, engage in real life with fellow human beings. I do this in fits and starts now, but I hope I can do it more often. I am still scared of spreading my depression to someone else. Trust me, I don’t wish the depressive thinking pattern on anyone.

I know things take time. But it is frustrating to realize I still have these feelings, even a year after feeling like I’d made a lot of progress. And in some ways I have, really. I am better at recognizing and addressing my depressive thinking in my own brain.

And I am more anxious than ever about being open about it (hello insurance cos and potential employers! I’m self-disclosing medical info! But you know, it shows I’m a bold person…so that’s good, right?). But here I am, showing up, telling the internet how I am doing. I hope it helps someone.

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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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Enough.

Today was a pretty bad day. Experiment went wrong, must set it up again ASAP even if it means losing sleep and weekends, breaking any boundaries I’ve set. And it’s the kind of thing where I am not fully sure what went wrong; seeds just germinated horribly that had worked OK before. At least I solved the one problem I had previously: no contamination.

Still, hard to deal with a sudden blow…and to think I’d woken up feeling pretty good. Even the snow today (even more than the Juno winter storm the other week) didn’t phase me. I was up at 5am, trying to sleep until my alarm, but also day dreaming about an ideal job in my mind (and a rather specific one). it doesn’t actually exist so far as I know…so still in the realm of fantasy, but it was the first time in a long time where I thought ‘that wouldn’t be so bad…I think I’d love that if it were real; or even if something like it were & it’s something I feel I could do). You’ll have to ask me privately for details if you care.

But today was hard. I skipped the gym, am going to sit down and dig into this neglected MOOC tonight, and be back in lab early tomorrow morning to set up this experiment again tomorrow night, late…skipping the gym again, most likely.

Part of it is distraction, but some of it is still the feeling of not enough, why bother because change may happen, but it doesn’t happen in big ways…at least to me, because I’m just built wrong some how, maybe? Defective human walking.

This whole day was a test of what I wrote about yesterday, vulnerability (indeed, it’s  a theme of this blog; I’m me here). And asking if I’m enough. Today, I didn’t feel like enough.That I lack focus and direction of my own, that I am still trying to stay small. I hope I can rise to this occasion. And others. And yet I do not feel I sufficiently push myself. Part of it is distraction, but some of it is still the feeling of not enough, why bother because change may happen, but it doesn’t happen in big ways…at least to me, because I’m just built wrong some how, maybe? Defective human walking.

How many potential jobs have I explored? Not many. If any. I do not feel like enough.

PIs are chosen for their clever, and visionary research

I was listening to the ‘You are Not So Smart’ podcast, one of my favorites; all about cognitive biases and self-delusions we humans fall prey to. This episode was about the halo effect, where halos get cast over other traits besides the one being measured. If someone is amazing at something, a halo develops around them that they must also be good at many other related things. A possible extreme example is academia. PIs are chosen for their clever, and visionary research and the halo effect says they must also be great at managing people, teaching, mentoring, service work, etc. even though all they have demonstrated is ability to do clever research. It’s not that they won’t learn or can’t do those other things, but the halo is there and it biases us. Ben Lillie’s partial list of things scientists are expected to be great at that are also full time jobs may be a good example.

Because scientists do wear many hats, it can be hard to narrow down to just one when exploring work outside academia. it can still seem like every employer wants superman/woman….who can do everything well (even this isn’t quite right in reality; obviously, someone qualified is important, but to begin, just do the job you’re hired for). It also cuts the other way and can make careers outside the academy seem plain and boring…just writing? just experiments? BOOORING!). For the record, I don’t find a career outside the academy boring anymore. Just still hard to envision an exact spot for myself in a new world (and it really does seem like a new, unfamiliar, world).

I am not superman. I am not great at all the things. I want to be good at something. A few somethings even (am I? I don’t even know…I rarely proclaim I’m great at anything ever because that is almost certainly a falsifiable statement and it’s not hard to likely find someone better). And have a person to help me with the rest. Accountants, a suit guy, perhaps…I’ll be here writing. Speaking up about depression & mental health in academia, being vulnerable and open on the Internet (good for me or not…), not giving up, teaching or linking people with new ideas, or putting science into terms more people can understand, showing up. And I hope I can make a real contribution to the world. Make a living/keep myself fed, etc. yes, but that is not my sole motive in life…I kind of wish it was in some ways…then the direction would be easier.

Maybe one day the switch will flip and I will simply be able to say without doubt or negotiation, “I am enough”.

I have worked hard to not cast a negative halo. I worry so much about being a ‘cooler’. Holding others back. If anything, I hope that is something I have accomplished, despite this post that’s making me pretty emotional.

Back to trying to learn more. Do more. Be more. Maybe one day the switch will flip and I will simply be able to say without doubt or negotiation, “I am enough”.

Ever on and on.

 

 

 

 

PS- I was excited today about my new planner/notebook…I think I’m really going to like using it. And the #Scinema today, #GradhogDay, made me happy.

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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Meditating on 2014.

This was my year to do things. And I kind of did. I’ll outline it below in roughly chronological order. And I’m grateful for all the people that helped get it all done.

Content Creation

I did some things/created online content for a startup called HappiLabs, go check them out; they offer a virtual lab manager and auditing of your lab supply costs. Both are good things for any lab. It was a good close look at the entrepreneurial spirit. I may not have it in me to do just yet, but then perhaps I just lack an idea I’m passionate enough about and a market where that idea would be valued.

Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.

I took on an online course in content creation for thought leaders created by a great blogger & doer of things, Sarah K. Peck. I learned a lot about content creation and that lead to my guest post on the ASPB blog “Communicating Plant Science in The Digital Age” that I am pretty proud of even though I know it’s not perfect (trying to list twitter accounts by numbers of followers as a proxy for scope/influence is a bit futile; though my point was valid that I couldn’t find a single plant scientist/organization with over 50k followers compared to other fields).

That also lead to me doing some blog coverage and twitter coverage of the ASPB annual meeting and espousing the great uses of social media for scientists. While being far from an internet celebrity myself, I’d like to think I see it’s value, and I know I’m far from alone as it seemed everywhere I turned this year articles were being written about scientists doing online stuff and winning all the awards and things or something like that. Though that may be confirmation bias at work. Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.

Mental health & self-awareness

I got to talk about my struggles with depression to fantastic science writer Carrie Arnold and what some of my solutions were/are to dealing with it and I still would love to have a job where I got to help academics/scientists improve their mental health as well as improve the system that can impinge upon it. Because I can’t change the system (or at least don’t quite know how/not currently in a position to affect change), I focused on what I can do myself while recognizing it is not fully sufficient to address the systemic pressures that academic scientists face these days (Nature ran a series called ‘ending the doom and gloom’ that I thought was interesting, and tried to at least offer a different narrative even if it’s one I don’t fully agree with). I got to talk about it in a webinar for Bitesize Bio, which was a great experience, though I don’t know if I did the best job addressing what the audience wanted. And I think I may have ignored the webinar software chat box if anyone was trying to get a hold of me during it…oops. I am still quick to criticize myself and note things I need to work on, perhaps hypercritically.

Another thing I learned a lot about this year is privilege (I am still learning); I know I am fortunate in many, many ways and benefit from being white and male in ways I don’t see most of the time. Depression, however, is something that can fully stop anyone and is a factor in ending too many promising careers and lives– Stefan Grimm being a recent example in the STEM world (I wondered here if my experiences with depression informs reasins why I am a feminist). Even one is too many. So tragic and it always drives me to tears whenever I hear a story where a person takes their own life. And though it hasn’t happened so far as I know, I still worry that being open about depression will negatively affect my career.

Learning, trials, and errors

I worked on a sequel to my first ASPB essay (linked above) that I can’t seem to get down on paper well; it’s about how we need diverse voices and communicators in STEM fields (that is an obvious statement it seems to me). And somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers (cross pollination of ideas is a good thing, in fact it’s often where innovation seems to come from: take an idea from one domain and apply it in another). It may not be as dire as that, certainly, but that’s the fear, that without a network of dedicated communicators that knowledge, science, and ideas, will just not get out into the world. Speaking as a scientist that is working on bettering my communication skills, it can’t be left up to pure researchers all the time. Different people have different skill sets and even interests that certainly can overlap (i.e. scientist and communicator of that science). Maybe I’ll keep working on it.

…somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers.

In the domain of wanting to upgrade my skills, I attended WiNGS (Workshop in Next Generation Sequencing) at UNC-Charlotte which was good as far as it went, but too short to really get any mastery over the software and techniques involved in next-generation sequence analyses (but several fantastic talks). I also took a MOOC in social network analysis that was interesting, but still feels a bit beyond me at this point. I am still trying to ‘get’ software that is now standard use in academia.

All of this feels like movement though it feels uncertain that it really is. I am gradually learning new things, or at least exposing myself to some new horizons. I even bought into the Adobe Creative Cloud and been using that for various projects both work and non-work related. Mostly teaching myself how to use a few of the software packages; they’re probably do far more powerful things than I will likely ever use them for, but getting into some photoshop/graphic design is fun for me, even if I’m not great at it (yet). More learning.

I also participated in a lot of the Finch and Pea (specifically Josh Witten’s) twitter hash tag games putting science into popular culture. I mention this because it’s just one of the most fun things I have contributed to. And I suppose I can claim it was practice in honing my wit. Though other people are amazingly witty.

What’s next?

That brings me to where I am now. Working on my science in the lab still, though science is not something I see myself doing in the long term or even being a full time academic. However, the skills required of an academic are still the ones I naturally gravitate toward liking/using. I like to teach (though I haven’t had opportunity to do it lately), to communicate— via keyboard mostly, but have gotten a lot better in person. Hopefully my writing has improved and my point gets across better than in the past.

Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.

My new mission is to start a blog to talk about the science more than the culture of science (who knows if that new project will go anywhere). I’ll likely never fully abandon speaking about the people that do science and how we can improve the enterprise of doing science.

And of course, I’ve maintained this blog throughout the year and that’s still a fun activity for me even though I worry about sharing my thoughts with the world sometimes. Two of my favorite posts this year are the tour of NEB I got to take (fantastic place and people there— seriously consider using their products) and reviewing a book on the academia-industry transition.

I know I get things wrong. I am not so sure that my voice is even needed in the world. Other people say similar things to bigger audiences than I do. And for all the connecting I’ve done this year, I still feel disconnected. Like I don’t know how the world works. I still feel like I’m on an island, not deeply connected. Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.

Final Meditations

I had the pleasure of seeing John Hodgman perform live. The last few years, he’s had a theme of post apocalypse existence and meditating on just what existence means, why we’re here anyway and just who we are and what our value is as humans. First, he was very entertaining and fun. And it made me think about my value, just what’s important to me and how I can best do it as we all have limited time to do things and accomplish them. Other than what’s cited above, I’m not sure I have a good answer and still struggle to define what value I bring to the world. While I don’t feel embarrassed to exist anymore (as I really did when I was deeply depressed), I also haven’t gotten to a point where I can confidently say ‘I am a valuable person and here’s what I am about, here’s my contribution that I am making’. Ideally that contribution is some sort of work I can get paid to do (whether a passion of mine or not, but something that I am engaged with).

Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.

The You are no so smart podcast (YANSS) reminded me about the Dunning Kruger effect that says the skills to evaluate how your doing at something are the same ones that make you an expert at something. So we’re not all that good at evaluating ourselves, basically. So that means seeking useful external feedback that I have tried to do more, but probably not enough. It’s part of networking; put ideas out there and see what comes back or better, ask specifically for what you’d like to get feedback on. Most often, if I ask for feedback, I get no response, which I still take to mean ‘nothing about what you wrote makes sense’.

Even when I do get feedback, I worry that people are just being friendly/nice…I want to get better, but do understand that feedback can be hard to give. It’s a part of the growth mindset I have been trying to adopt. It’s hard to put my work out into the world when I grew up (far into adulthood too) with a perfectionist/fixed mindset that stops you from doing anything until perfection happens. I am trying to say “Done is better than perfect” more now. From where I am, I feel like I have years of negative feedback ahead before someone might genuinely say ‘this is OK’. Partly, it’s being smart enough to know when to be confident and when being humble is appropriate– probably the latter occurs more often than the former (this according to Dr. Dunning on YANSS).

I did a lot this year (not all of it is in this post). I’m not sure how much was meaningful or productive (again, I fear confirmation bias, I should look into my blog analytics perhaps). Or how much of what I have done is genuinely moving me forward. Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.

Cat yoga, Millenium Falcon pose.
Cat yoga, Millenium Falcon pose.

I adopted a cat (see photo). He’s 10. And friendly. And has no front teeth. And he’s a cat. He serves no real function other than being a cat. He and I share that we are both, on the surface, probably not that useful (at least that’s my feeling about myself too often). But I have opened up more with people because of my cat, if only to find someone to take care of him when I travel and that has made me more willing to ask for things in other areas of my life too.

There are still things on my list that are really important to accomplish. Getting more on top of my organization schemes, getting rid of old things, deciding faster, finding a job, publishing my work some how, learning more and better data analysis techniques (writing scripts, using R to analyze data, making figures within R, maybe even getting to gene expression analyses from published data sets). And of course, measuring my goals better than I do currently and going in with an idea for what I might get out of an experience. At some point, though, the ‘always be improving’ mantra is exhausting and I need to feel like ‘enough’ where I am now.

And of course, I need to be wary about my depression and hope it truly is mostly in the past. I had a scary few days last month where I was back in a horribly depressive mood, but I have since come out of it and that’s a good sign that it was a temporary state. Before, it wasn’t or didn’t seem to be. Some of this is a feeling of burn out from pushing myself this year and still lacking enough restorative activities in life. Building resilience is really important too and some of that begins with what I’ve been doing the last few years— getting to know myself a lot better.

I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones

Here’s to an even better 2015. Not just for me, but for all of you readers too (this blog may not be far reaching, but I am grateful for anyone that does read/stop by). I look around and see the many amazing things everyone else is engaged in doing (Some of that can be seen in the links above), and as much as I celebrate other’s accomplishments or even sometimes support them directly (e.g. investing via crowd funding of science like Paige Brown’s analysis of science bloggers or Jaquelyn Gill’s student’s project on The Falkland Islands), I still long to be that generator myself, making something someone else finds useful. Success tends to build on itself and I hope I am connected enough to keep building.

I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones,

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