Enjoying Nature.

A friend of mine took me out to see the sunset the other night.

It was a gorgeous night.  But I was distracted. Not really present. Thoughts kept interfering. I have things to write. Stuff to learn, like coding and R stats. Things along these lines (superimposed on actual images of the sunset):

YouShouldBeWritingSunsetFallingbehindNextJobStudyNatureOutHereDidntGetEnoughDone

When people talk about the all consuming nature of working in science, this is what it looks like. Time away feels wasted. There’s never enough time spent. And especially as I’m trying to transition to a new career this year, down time feels like an unaffordable luxury. That even taking care of myself is impermissible too (and that one goes beyond just the sunset…I resent having to take time to go to the Dr.).

And it’s not as if I am exactly enjoying work either. I still feel burned out a lot of the time. Still, after a few hours, and eating something, this time lapse my friend Holly Pierce took is pretty incredible:

I know time away is important, but it’s hard to feel that it’s OK to take time away until I get my life more settled. I hope that happens, but it’s still hard to see how it happens. I hope there’s a time when I don’t feel like I’m burning my candle at both ends.

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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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Network.

I attended the Innovation to Venture (I2V) one day conference at the University of Vermont today. It’s an event designed for networking, but also to highlight successful startups, technology licensing, and patents awarded to UVM students and faculty.

I was there to mostly observe and see just what the world of venture capitla, start-ups, entrepreneurship, and tech transfer are like. It felt alien in a lot of ways. It is also true that it often takes a team of people to bring a product to market. And a lot of luck sometimes.

Everyone I interacted with was friendly. I got to sit at the round table with a chief scientific officer and keynote speaker who waited 15 years to really see her vision for a company become reality (Aratana pharma– PETX on NASDAQ; a company making medicines for pets/animals, now a big market; and potentially, I imagine drugs developed for pets can translate into human medicines at times too).

It’s a world of work that I am utterly not familiar with. She consulted for years, ran clinical trials and did licensing contracts to bring technology from one market into another. Hearing about all of this still seems abstract to me. I have a hard time exactly concretely seeing what the work is like. Finding people to execute all of the proper steps is what is mostly sounded like.

I also sat at a table talking about pitching and pitch decks…basically how do you introduce your product to market. I got put on the spot to give an elevator pitch and I did for my science blog and what I’d be asking for (not money in this case…yet…just subscribers to my still hypothetical email newsletter). It was OK, but something I am really not used to doing. And of course, I ran up against my nemesis as an introvert: enthusiasm that seems brash, loud, falsely enthusiastic, very salesly.

It’s OK to sell things, but it’s not natural for me to do it in that loud way. If enthusiasm and flare are the way to sell things, I may be in trouble. It’s not that I’d be any less passionate about what I pitch, but I’d just prefer to do it in a quieter way, if possible.

And of course, the secret to networking is just connecting, asking, being curious, and of course preparing as much as possible. I didn’t have the chance to really prepare for this event. I am still glad I went to meet the vibrant community of Vermont entrepreneurs, inventors, tech transferrers. Burlington is a really pleasant kind of city too.

I don’t know if there’s a place for me in that world. I might be able to help in the tech transfer process, I suppose. I still feel like writing about or telling/teaching the stories of the people in the room suits my skills and interests better (not a humble brag about how I’m a great writer/storyteller). Or maybe even helping people manage their lives more effectively.

I’ll keep exploring and hopefully land in a place that works for me. Where I can grow, learn, and do more, and hopefully have a life too.

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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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Thoughts at the end of a long day.

Yesterday, I was grooving to music, I was feeling energized and OK about the week. There was a picture of a weasel that jumped on top of a flying woodpecker. I was exhausted, but not bad.

Then today.

It was a long day in the lab. I talked about the science and safety behind GMOs and how possibly, a corporation that makes GMO plants could be compatible with a sustainable and environmentally friendly food system (assuming not all of us are going back to growing all our own food again in the world). I had to help an undergrad, my experiment that I needed for a deadline I’m trying to meet didn’t work out. This in light of Bill Nye’s apparent change of mind about GM technology and how it may not spell environmental doom (he always struck me as one suspicious of a for-profit business being in charge of food…not that it was inherently unsafe). I am a bit jealous that Bill Nye got to visit Monsanto…if I could have a job where I get to visit biotech companies for a living, I’d take it. I loved my tour of New England Biolabs last year.

I listened to Cara Santa Maria’s Talk Nerdy podcast eps from the last two weeks. Indre Viskontes and Joe Palca were the guests talking about their careers, science communication, and paying for it. Dr. Viskontes made the point that in a competitive world it makes sense to do the thing your’e great at…because then you’re competitive. And especially in underfunded fields like science communication, that’s probably true. What am I great at, though? Have I gotten good at something in my life? What do I passionately care about? I still feel disconnected from a sense of that. Is it a vestige of depression, or am I just one of those passionless people?

I read Terry McGlynn’s post about Moneyball and what it might teach academia. How best to measure academics? Efficiency, effectiveness, results, papers? How much pressure do we put on one person to do all the things? What if you’re better at some things than others? How does it all balance out? And how do you figure out if you’re a good fit?

And then I heard Sweet Briar University was shutting it’s doors at the end of this semester. I know many alumnae of Sweet Briar, though am not very familiar with the institution other than it’s a small liberal arts college in Virginia. And that it’s an institution a little like the one I went to in Salem, OR, Willamette University (I donate what I can to them…but I’m a poor postdoc still). The SLAC or PUI is the kind of institution I would like to work, if I were to become a faculty person. And due to economic strains I was not fully aware that some at least (perhaps many?) have been under.

I feel sad for my friends losing the site of their alma mater (they’ll at least always have their memories of the place together), the faculty and staff at Sweet Briar, but also am mourning what seems like a loss to higher education and perhaps realizing more strongly than ever that my place doesn’t feel like it’s in the academy anymore, but I don’t know where my place is. I still have a hard time articulating why I’m valuable to myself, let alone to a place where I’d work. Because fundamentally, that’s what we do in work, ideally, add value (or at least reduce costs). And hopefully we solve people’s problems without resorting to trickery/deception/bad business practices. I like to write. And maybe there’s a career in that somewhere. Or marketing…I love spreading ideas, but a good product is worthwhile too.

Mostly, I want time to be able to think and process. And to integrate a life outside of work into my schedule of work (not balance, exactly, but you know, it’d be nice to try dating again…maybe see friends on a regular basis; maybe the only way that happens is if you work with your friends now).

We are nowhere close to equitably spreading resources around. And it seems increasingly true that there are a few winners, and the rest lose out. There will always be hard choices to make in resource allocation, but I hope teaching, spreading knowledge, and pursuit of the intellectual things that enrich and advance our society (including science & humanities) don’t go away from the world completely.

I still need to figure out a plan. And a long day in lab didn’t feel like I was moving towards it.

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Is change possible? (for me).

No.

I don’t know.

Maybe.

I want to believe.

Yes. And it has been happening.

But outwardly, it’s all still the same.

I don’t seem to know answers to basic questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

Yes, no, maybe.

Still a big work in progress.

I’m a scientist taught to question everything and never be fully sure about anything, even with data. Mission accomplished.

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Placing.

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.

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