Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

For the first time in a really long time, I am home with my family for a major holiday. Not that it's actually a holiday here, but Thanksgiving is an American tradition I have happily latched onto since living in the US.
So today I am thankful for being with family to celebrate thanksgiving, an early Christmas, and a handful of other important family events.  I am thankful for my "adoptive" families in the US - my friends and their families who have taken me in for Thanksgivings, Christmases, Passovers, and weekend escapes over the years. Most of all, I am thankful for being with my family, and their support of me living so very far away.

And when I get back to the US, I will be baking a pumpkin pie.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fun times with travel restrictions

I'm traveling - some work, some fun, some visiting family and reuniting with friends I haven't seen in a few years. Loving every minute of it. This trip I'm doing a lot of flying, long flights.

I don't even mind the long-haul flights, except for one minor thing. I have dietary restrictions, which always means a "special meal". Happily I am on a non-American airline this trip, one that usually has decent food. This makes me especially happy because on the last long flight, one of the meals was a single rice cake. The dry variety. Urgh. Without butter (which I can eat) or jam (ditto) or nutella (and let's face it - nutella could make a rice cake a happy thing).

I've been on one flight where my special meal went missing, others where I didn't trust what was handed to me. This restriction is by necessity, not choice, and because I need to avoid cross-contamination, I have a very hard time finding alternative food (other than apples) to eat.

A long haul flight with not enough food? Unpleasant.

These days I travel with snacks. Which leads to another set of problems, namely security screening at one end of the trip and customs at the other.

From experience I can tell you that yoghurt counts as a liquid about 2/3 of the time - although I did manage to convince someone that greek yoghurt is more like goats cheese and therefore a solid. (Seriously though, yoghurt?!). Smoothies are a definite no-no and bananas get squished in your bag unless you have one of these. But really, who wants to explain that to security?

No, really! It's a banana case!

At the other end of the trip, you run into customs. Many countries have a No Food policy, and some have sniffer dogs at customs to make sure. Yes, that's right, sniffer dogs for food. Or drugs. But here's the thing - you never know which dog is which. And when the handler says. "Put your bags on the ground", you could cut and run, but that's not a good plan. What is amusing* is when one of the dogs start barking at your bag. Especially when you've just deplaned from 20 hours of cumulative traveling, with no sleep, and are at the point where you either giggle or cry (or both) at the slightest provocation.

So picture this: dog barking, a young woman, disheveled and giggling hysterically with tears running down her face, adamantly stating that there are no drugs in the bag, or trying to, but not quite forming the words coherently.

It's amazing I didn't get arrested and drug-tested on the spot.

The customs people were still looking at me funny as they rifled through my hand luggage.

The contraband? A couple of sticks of string cheese and a bag of almonds.
I've been careful ever since to throw everything out before I get to customs. But next time I'm bringing crackers and foie gras on the plane. If I forget about it and get caught, at least it will be worth it.

*several years later

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What did YOU do today?

Sometimes I wonder what I do everyday. Today is a good example - I was busy all day, and suddenly it's dark outside, I'm exhausted, and I have no idea what it is that I've achieved.

Empty boxes = work done
It used to be easier to pinpoint progress - I could look at the lab work I'd gotten done, often produce a graph, the number of waste containers full of pipette tips, number of papers read, or when writing, a number of words written (sometimes words deleted). Whatever it was, I had some kind of measure of "Work Done".

These days, although I am generally more efficient in the lab, I spend a lot more of my time taking care of administrative and other responsibilities, things that don't have a definitive feeling (or measure) of accomplishment.

So what did I do today?
As part of a general lab clean-up, I sorted through a huge pile of reagents, for which I will receive both gratitude (no-one else wanted to do it) and gruff for doing it my way (but no-one else was going to do it, so WHATEVERRRR!),  taught two people a technique, did some benchwork in preparation for testing out a cool new toy that should arrive any day now, edited paper drafts for two of my lab-mates, plus I'm pretty sure I ate lunch (I should bring more memorable lunches).
    I did a lot. I was busy. So why do I feel like I got nothing done? It still feels like this is not my "real work".
    I guess I need to get used to it - or better, modify my view of what "getting stuff done" away from purely how much I produced in lab - before I am in the position of running my own lab.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010

    The Job Market

    Over at Labspaces, there is a discussion about job applications. It started at Balanced Instability describing a shit-ton of applications for a job opening in her department, and has evolved at Pondering Blather with a discussion about how to make your application stand out.

    It's a fascinating discussion, but it highlights what for me is one of the most frustrating things about the application process - conflicting advice on how to structure your job application.
    Cover Letter? Essential! No-one cares!
    Research statement? No longer than 5 pages! Grant-like in detail! Overview of your big picture question! More than two pages and you're screwed!
    CV?  Include your teaching experience! Remove your teaching experience!

    There are a couple of things that everyone agrees on: Write well / Tailor your application to the department / Make it easy and clear to real / Follow the directions / Don't neglect the teaching statement if it's required, although these belong under the heading of DUH! common sense.

    To be honest, I'm glad these postings went up after the bulk of my applications were submitted, I was anxious enough about the whole process. But even so I had moments of panic reading this - 5 pages for research statement? Mine was two, unless the job ad specified a shorter length. Even tailoring my job application - involved small (but potentially important) alterations in how I described my research, depending on the focus of the department and the individuals.

    My take home message from this entire discussion is this: the good candidates have excellent publication record (which may or may not been multiple GlamourMag publications), and a "demonstrated ability to secure funding" and can write with reasonable fluidity. These candidates will float to the top, and the short list comes down to departmental quirks.

    Which means that there's little more you can do* to make your application memorable. But maybe that's just my way of stepping back because I no longer have any control over the applications that are out there.

    *assuming, of course, everything is clear and well written.

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    Bad neuroscience in fiction

    Really Dan Brown? Your brilliant physicist in The Lost Symbol was studying the mind seemingly without ever contemplating the involvement of the brain in this issue? Really?

    No no, I'm not bitter.

    But let's ignore that for a second, and consider this: do you really know what "pia mater" and "dura mater" are? Or were you just looking for a convenient angle for the "veil-like" metaphor?

    Either way, a scientist as well read as Dr. Solomon - particularly one who studied the mind, albeit via physics - would not have referred to the brain as "built in two parts - an outer part called the dura mater and an inner part called the pia mater...".

    No Dan, these layers, with the arachnoid mater, are the membranes encapsulating the brain - like the pericardium surrounds the heart. Together they are called the meninges. Meningitis = inflammation of these membranes. They are not the two parts of the brain.

    Do your research Dan! I mean Wikipedia can tell you this much! (I'm just saying)

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    A Love Letter

    I’m one of those annoying people who loves science in academe*. Even the absurd bits. Even those frustrating days…weeks…months where nothing works, your friends give up calling you because they know you’ll be a no-show, and even the electronics in the lab are working against you. Those days where all you are really good for at the end of the day is sticking your head in a barrel of vodka, but really you end up sitting at home reading, writing, or reviewing yet another paper.

    Well, okay. I don’t love those moments. Fine. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but I love science flaws and all.
    What I do like about science in a university setting is the freedom** to play with a problem in my mind and at the bench until I have an answer. Every answer opens a new barrelful of questions. I love that in academia, there is room to ask questions you’re interested in, room to move from one concept to the next. Is there any other science job where that’s possible? 

    Now, before you write me off as having led a charmed science-life, let me assure you that I have not. Many projects have not worked. I have struggled with projects that ended up going from point A to point D in an entirely different dimension after months of being at a dead end.  The day-to-day work – at the bench, administrative work, or writing - gets repetitive. I spent time in a lab environment that was extremely difficult and painful.  And, like everyone else, I have had papers, grants, fellowships and job applications rejected.
    A better use for lemons

    Why I love science is not clear.  Is it because I have had chemistry experiments performed like magic tricks ever since I can remember?  Even the lemon-powered light bulbs didn’t work every time.  Or the kitchen used as a lab? Although I am not, nor have ever been a chemist. Perhaps it was just watching those people performing those crazy feats of chemistry and wondering what on earth was going on in their heads to make them think this was a good idea. 

    Maybe it’s nature. When someone clones the “Science!!11!!” gene, I am sure I  have both maternal and paternal copies. 

    Or maybe it’s just in the partial reinforcement schedule we’re all on.  Blood, sweat and tears (along with some hefty swearing at Reviewer 3 in absentia) for one jolt of joy when a paper is accepted.  And with that reinforcement we are invigorated! Motivated! Validated! Happy to spend more hours of the day watching mice than chatting with humans!

    * Even though I'm a post-doc
    ** Relative freedom