What is the purpose of Brakes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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:


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:


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,






I was reading Terry McGlynn’s two-year anniversary post of his Small Pond Science blog and like him, I have found blogging to be a rewarding experience and how it’s enabled me to reach more people and given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

He’s done a lot of good work. And it’s another in a cavalcade of people I can point to that have done good work in many aspects of their careers & lives. Twitter has really opened up my eyes to the wide world of people doing good things. I am trying to be one of them. Maybe I am in some small ways, but to my mind still not meaningful ways. I will still celebrate and point to others who I think are doing good/clever work before ever saying that I am.

I am trying to get going now after having stopped for years due to depression, anxiety, and other poor mental habits that mired me in quicksand relative to the rest of the world. Now, I am getting my voice into the world more and trying to contribute usefully to society and hopefully further knowledge or at least spread it further. Or perhaps connect two dots for someone, introduce two people that go on to do great things, etc. And I hope I can be a good friend, significant other, possibly parent someday too. Someday soon, I hope.

I am trying to finish a lot of things this year and start others, namely a new career, somehow, some way. I don’t know how to place myself though, or sell myself that well. “Hey, I’m that open-about-myself-on-the-internet-guy…”.

In an era of tight budgets everywhere and a world where employees seem to be viewed more as liabilities than assets (gotta make the share-holder rich above all else, right?), it’s obviously important to show that you’d add value to a team or a company. I wish I could translate my value into monetary terms…just simply say “yeah, I can bring in $200k in new revenue to the company each year if you hire me” (yes, I chose an arbitrary number). I have no credible way to really make that claim from my current position though. I don’t want to say that I can’t do that, but I don’t have a track record of saying that either.

Maybe I bring a new perspective? As an individual, maybe that’s true, but then there’s the issue that I am a white male looking for a job. In theory, I know this means all the doors are open to me. However, because I believe there are issues with diversity and bias everywhere, it is truly not a fair playing field. I am aware that I do not add diversity to nearly anywhere that would take me in any industry (perhaps there’s hope at the individual company level even if STEM industries & related fields are white male dominated as a whole).

In a tight job market, any job I get is literally taking an opportunity away from someone else (esp. true in academia, I think). Of course, I do need a job still…stay-at-home single person is not currently a thing, unless you’re independently wealthy. I don’t know how big an issue to make of this, except to say that it’s something I don’t have a good answer to, but feel is a real issue. I know no one is asking me to step back and not compete (just to help change the culture with the long-term goal of achieving parity, I guess?), but can I be pro-diversity and also take a job in a field that has issues with diversity? I don’t know. It’s not really credible for me to say “yeah, I can affect change from the inside” (you know who’d do that better…a member of a group that faces societal biases). This isn’t to say, “woe is me”, but it is something I think a lot about.

I founded a Science blog. And I enjoy writing it. (check it out here). that’s probably the only self-promotion I’ll do in this post. and of course, it’s just one of many science blogs out there. One that’s devoted to plants, which is maybe a bit more rare in the scicomm world, but still…yet another science blog.

I am slowly networking and writing more, trying to put a lot of energy into communicating more effectively…hopefully with some success. I am trying to upgrade my skill set, etc. I am willing to learn, but then, that doesn’t seem to really be that valued a thing in today’s economy. Who isn’t willing to learn? To look like an idiot doing so, and come out the other side more humble, but having learned something new?

I like being able to take my time and think things through, explore something deeply. That is almost certainly not valued in today’s world. Fast. That is what matters. Not circumspection & dotting i’s, crossing t’s. Those things only seem to matter after something goes wrong.

Maybe I’m empathetic and listen more because of my experiences with mental illness, but then I also feel pretty tone deaf to too many things in the world too.

I feel more confident that there’s a place for me out there somewhere, but whether I can identify it and attain it is still really a murky process for me.

More to come, I’m sure.