December 26, 2012


I'm at my parent's house for Christmas and am trying to get back to work. And not really succeeding all that well. I'm having several frustrations and fear blocking my way. So I'm doing something at least: writing this.

The weather is nasty outside- Sleet/rain. And I took a picture: 
The red circle is the most obvious bird at the bird feeder. As I sit here, cardinals, blue jays and other birds are constantly coming and feeding despite the rain/sleet/snow. 

They're goal of course is to survive and they're going for the most obvious food source, the bird feeder my Dad fills up constantly. It's an impressive example of perseverance despite tough conditions. 

I stepped outside to take the picture, but other than that, I'm a total wimp. I'm not out there going for a run in this. I'm trying to get my work done and am feeling birds ever feel that way? I doubt it. If I'm using myself as an example, it's amazing humans do survive and thrive (it is also possible that we've lost that ability in some ways). And yes, I know that there are plenty of people who are survivors, hustlers and otherwise doing amazing things- or just doing things. My brain isn't convinced I'm among them. 

I'm not doing nothing exactly, I learned something new about photoshop to place that circle there that I hadn't known before. And I am about to dive into a data analysis problem I've been working through for weeks, make a figure or two, possibly do some reading and do a review of my 2012 and plan some goals for 2013. 

Watching the birds outside is also a reminder to stay in the present moment and not get anxious about the past and future, one of which is immutable, the other unknown. Here's to the new year and to finishing the last bit of this one strong,

PS- My Aunt took this, far superior picture of a cardinal under similar conditions in the Midwest today. Birds are hardy creatures. That can fly. Maybe I should take my inspiration for 2013 from those facts. 

December 21, 2012

Ever on and on.

'The Hobbit' opened this last weekend. And this JRR Tolkien verse came to mind in thinking about my post this week:

"The Road goes ever on and on // Down from the door where it began. // Now far ahead the Road has gone, // And I must follow, if I can, // Pursuing it with weary feet, // Until it joins some larger way, // Where many paths and errands meet. // And whither then? I cannot say."

'The Hobbit' was one of my favorite books growing up. I'm taller, don't have furry feet and only have one breakfast a day, but in my attitude towards adventure, I am decidedly Hobbit-like. Bilbo had to be forced into adventure. I'm barely there in my own life. I stay safe in too many ways.

I know one theme in this blog is to serve as an example of what not to do as a postdoc. It's really the most useful function I can serve. 

How do I push myself to be less risk-averse? And when I say risk-averse, I often feel that I don't 'deserve' to use the fantastic digital tools we have access to these days. Or it's OK that I have a Gmail account, but couldn't possibly sign up for two; That's for people who have 'real' things going on. Nor use all of its features to enhance my productivity, organization and life. Staying small and in my comfort zone is usually where you can find me and I find that frustrating. I'm not enough and so don't get to partake of what everyone else does routinely.

Being timid isn't good for a life in science or anywhere else. SciCurious wrote this post about what she wished she'd known in grad school. Wish I'd known them better too; the commenters have some great suggestions too. I would say that mistakes are harder to take in an environment when your scientists are having a harder time finding steady jobs where we make a decent living for our level of education. It's enough to keep me up at many stupid mistakes.

I watched 'Losing Control' this evening and came away with the message that applying laboratory and scientific thinking to everything isn't a good idea to be applied to life generally. The movie does capture the thinking (or at least my thinking) of scientists and our world pretty well.

I know I've mentioned 'Daring Greatly' ad nauseum in my posts. It really is a good book & I think Dr. Brown has hit upon something pretty profound (at least to me). For this post close to the end of 2012, I've decided to do Dr. Brown's checklist for 'wholehearted living' as printed in "Daring Greatly", page 8. Wholehearted isn't a term that resonates with me, but I see what she's getting at- Let's see how I'm doing:

Wholehearted living feature on the left. whether I've achieved the goal or not at right in bold (followed by annoying asides I like to make...:

1. Cultivating Authenticity (letting go of what others think): No (though I am progressing; unabashed Whovian here). 
2. Cultivating Self Compassion (letting go of perfectionism): Yes/No (Now that I know what self-compassion actually is, I'm practicing it more,  still have to remind myself very actively to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good).
3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit (letting go of numbing and powerlessness): NO, not really. @#$%! 
4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Yessish...I'm doing ok with gratitude. Joy is hard to come by.
5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith (Letting go of the need for Certainty): NO.  
6. Cultivating Creativity (Letting go of comparison): NO, though I think I'm doing a little better here. Comparing things is just what scientists do. 
7. Cultivating Play and Rest (Letting go fo exhaustion as status symbol & productivity as self worth): NO! 
8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness (letting go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle): NO (Unfortunately :-/).
9.  Cultivating Meaningful Work (Letting go of self-doubt and "Supposed to": NO (I too often feel I'm supposed to be _____. Blank = better, married, wealthier, more tech savvy, more practical, bolder, extroverted, less depressed). 
10. Cultivating Laughter, Song and Dance (Letting go of being cool and "Always In Control": NO.  

Of course, this is subjective scoring on my part, but it does reflect how I feel (I started this post days ago and am coming back to my initial answers and I feel the same now as I did then. I don't have a definitive yes at all. Ouch. Something to work towards. This blog is a help as well I think: I hope I've found my voice this year. Or at least am more comfortable expressing myself- keeping things in hasn't done me any favors (I realize writing on the internet may not be the best way of expressing my views/doing something useful, but I do like to write it). If I help someone (even myself) function better in the world of science (by being mostly an example of what not to do), then this blog has done its job.

Here's hoping 2013 sees the launch of Ian 3.0

December 1, 2012


I have been trying to explore alternate careers to working at the bench and been having a hard time in doing so. I am more and more convinced I don't belong in academia, though that doesn't provide an instant idea for what I do want to do. 

I've also been told that if I leave academia, it's almost impossible to get back in. Which is likely true. I've also been told it's harder beyond the ivory tower to have a stable job (I would argue that there's not much stability within the ivory tower anymore either). 

Something most postdocs, grad students, and a few PIs are increasingly mindful of  the bias within the academic system to keep people within academia, pursuing that path alone. Leaving science is still considered 'failing' or dropping out; as if it's as bad as dropping out of high school- you're ruining your bright future! Never mind that there are plenty of successful people outside of academia. 

I had a moment the other day listening to a podcast that showed me just how deep that bias is instilled within me as a scientist. Cara Santa Maria is a science correspondent at the Huffington Post. She has a video series there called 'Talk Nerdy to Me' (good use of a pun there), she's frequented a lot of the podcasts I listen to as a guest to talk about science- usually neuroscience as that's her background. I'm a fan of her work and her mission to communicate science to the public; ideally increasing scientific literacy (it helps that she looks like she can rock out too). And similar to me, she's fairly open about her experiences with depression; something that does seem to afflict science-types more frequently than the general population.

I like her, but I found myself cringing when she was introduced as a 'scientist'; my visceral reaction was 'No, she's not'. In a technical sense that's true- she's currently a reporter. I don't think she's in a lab doing experiments. However, that is a narrow definition of a scientist. Once you've done work in a scientific field and move on, does that revoke your scientist card? Cara was smart, I think, and got out at a master's degree and is now successful in her role as science correspondent at the HuffPo (I say that since it is increasingly apparent that very few grad students/postdocs will get academic posts these days). And I don't think that the fact she doesn't have a Ph.D. was the reason for my reaction. 

I have drunk the Kool Aid as it were that there is only a narrow definition of a scientist. A science box as it were. I would compare it to 'the man-box'; where there is a narrow definition of what a man should be; and I'm trying to move away from the 'how I should be' way of thinking. People are diverse. So are men (and women!). So are scientists.

The bias that academia, and toiling away in the lab is the only place for scientists clearly runs deep. I remember hearing stories about how Carl Sagan was somewhat Ostracized by fellow astronomers because he spent a lot of time communicating with the public (OK, so I give him flak too for his intonation of 'Billions and billions'*). It does seem that things are changing. The next generation of scientists seem to engage and communicate more than in the past. But I do wonder if people like Neil deGrasse Tyson get guff from 'real astrophysicists' for his public engagement (there's no question that he's a nerd celebrity). I think he still is a scientist who does some research still though. 

I am trying to be mindful of my own biases (just read previous posts- I am biased against myself a lot of times), but this one struck me deeply. No wonder I have a hard time stepping out from behind the bench to really go after a 2nd career path. The bias against it is really deeply seeded inside me. It's not that I wouldn't stay in academia, I do, however want to openly explore other things I might do. And right now, in my head, I feel pigeonholed. 

The lesson: Be mindful of how you're feeling and figure out where your biases are that might be holding you back from exploration. 

*It has been pointed out to me that Carl Sagan never said 'Billions and Billions'. And after some brief research, indeed, he didn't, but apparently did emphasize the 'b' in billion (from Wikipedia):

Billions and billions

Sagan with a model of the Viking Lander probes which would land on Mars. Sagan examined possible landing sites for Viking along with Mike Carr and Hal Masursky.
From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sagan became associated with the catchphrase "billions and billions". Sagan stated that he never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series.[37] The closest that he ever came was in the book Cosmos, where he talked of "billions upon billions":[38]
A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars—billions upon billions of stars.
—Carl Sagan, Cosmos, chapter 1, page 3[39]
However, his frequent use of the word billions, and distinctive delivery emphasizing the "b" (which he did intentionally, in place of more cumbersome alternatives such as "billions with a 'b'", in order to distinguish the word from "millions" in viewers' minds),[37] made him a favorite target of comic performers, including Johnny Carson,[40] Gary KroegerMike MyersBronson PinchotPenn JilletteHarry Shearer, and others. Frank Zappa satirized the line in the song "Be In My Video", noting as well "atomic light". Sagan took this all in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions, which opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catchphrase, observing that Carson was an amateur astronomer and that Carson's comic caricature often included real science.[37]
He is also known for expressing wonderment at the vastness of space and time, as in his phrase "The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth."

November 28, 2012

The End (of 2012).

I have felt punched in the gut lately. 

My mind and body have kind of been hibernating I think. I also feel very disengaged, which has been hard to get past. 

I've been reading Daring Greatly, Brene Brown's newest book. Ever since I saw her TEDxHouston talk, I've been a big fan and really think she's onto something with her work. Vulnerability may not be weakness and coming at things from a place of shame is certainly not the best way to approach living. Getting to that place though, is very difficult I'm finding. 

The title of the book derives from this Teddy Roosevelt Quote: 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." 

Inspiring words. I am trying hard to get into the arena, but don't feel like I'm one who's present  in the arena very often. 

In reading her book (I'm half way through), I keep reflecting back on times when I just haven't shown up in life. Too many to count. I do remember the night in middle school after a bad day where I was bullied (a recurring thing, from multiple people in my school career sadly) when I consciously decided to disengage; to go Vulcan in a way- never showing emotion if I could help it ever again. And I largely not present for many times since then. Being invisible works as a high school survival strategy (and later led to a pretty profound depression), but as Dr. Brown points out, it also means missing out on joy, love, innovation, change and boldness. That decision, accompanied by perfectionism really impaired my learning

I am now trying to dare greatly. And be more uncomfortable more of the time; it's where growth and learning take place. simply, I am trying to do something. I'm still not sure what it is I'm doing or what direction to go in, but more vulnerability can only be a good thing, even though it's hard. I hope I haven't gone too Vulcan; cold and logical without access to my emotions. Feeling like I'm 'enough' and lovable as is, is difficult for me to pull off. 

I know I have emotions, as they will come up strongly in this holiday season; they always do. Listening to a podcast on my long drive back from Thanksgiving weekend, I had a brief crying spell when I heard something that triggered an 'I'm alone' feeling in me; those get me every time. 

While the "Mayan Prophecy" (sarcastic quotation marks) predicts the world will implode in a few weeks, likely there will be a 2013. I hope it's a year when I dare even greater than this year (I have shown up a little more this year and made some small decisions. And I hope it's a year where Ian3.0 gets released. I'm learning to use a new computer just now. Is there something you want to do in 2013? Want to dare greatly with me? 

November 19, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2012

Learning deeply.

I recently finished reading "What the Best College Students Do" and it fits in with what I've been writing about in my blog. I've had a few weeks since I finished it to think about it, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about how it might apply it to my own life as well as how this might impact my teaching practices and how I think about them. I am writing this from memory, so any content I talk about is what I am recalling (best way to review a book, almost certainly not).

The book is definitely not about how to get good grades. Ken Bain focuses a lot more on what he calls 'deep learning'. It is basically learning from a vulnerable and authentic place, a theme I've run across again and again in my readings this last year. 

This is contrasted with those he calls 'surface learners', who just learn what they need to get the grade or pass the exam. In other words, getting good grades to please someone else, not themselves. Sounds very familiar.

The profiles of 'deep learners' in the book include a lot of very prominent people, including Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson (two of my favorite people), but also other people who are not as well know but who he considers to be deep learners. What they all have in common is a curiousity about the world and a particular perspective and passion they found to follow through with. I found myself wishing I had that kind of clarity when I was younger. Sadly, I, like many others, were fixated on doing well in school as an end. Of course, that's not really the point of getting an education. 

The book starts off with a course taught at a college in Texas called 'integration of abilities' that sounds like it would have been torture for me to go through. The whole idea was to get in touch with the rhythms of your own mind, perceive the world in multiple ways, break things down and build them up again. Basically getting in touch with what matters to you, linking your interests in disparate things together. From there, you go off and learn what you need to do to succeed. 

In the book, he highlights research about having a 'growth mindset' as opposed to a 'fixed mindset' (the former is far superior I'm learning in my own life now). Bain also goes through studies of how the brain best learns, what is a good use of our time (reading, writing, e.g.) and having self-compassion (basically accepting things that happen, not ripping yourself apart, and moving on). 

In sum, I would say the best college students take a Bayesian approach. They incorporate new data, new knowledge into their current model of the world. All these people also seem to take chances and be very self-assured. They also try, fail, try again and learn from their errors. They embrace failure as a way to learn. Almost the opposite of perfectionists.

As for how this will affect how I teach, or create the learning environment for students, I think it is a challenge to create a deep learning environment. But there are some things I will incorporate such as giving students chances for ungraded trial and error before a graded task is assigned. Also, having students keep a journal of their class appears beneficial as well. However, I think there are limits to what individual teachers can do; there do need to be cultural and institutional shifts that focus less on tests and more on truly measuring learning (the two aren't necessarily the same thing). 

In my personal life, this is the message I've been trying to incorporate into my mind for the last year. Be vulnerable. Embrace failure. Try and try again. Do new things as much as possible. Ask whether you learned something new each day. Take chances. Bomb and realize that it's not that bad; it is survivable. I still feel like I'm trying to find what I truly care deeply about, or at least need to get out from under the large amount of shame I carry around with me most days which really does drive my disconnection from the world (I'm reading up on this more- reading Brene Brown's book 'Daring Greatly'). I really want to come in from the cold and am slowly wending my way back into connecting and possibly learning deeply.

November 11, 2012


I have a limited amount of energy. 

A lot of my effort this year has been in trying to find things that energize me more. Finding what motivates me to keep going. Finding what makes me tick. I've found some successes this year:

  • I have hung this on my wall to remind me to appreciate life and to keep creativity, passion and ideas in mind as I tend to go on autopilot a lot.
  • I've become an avid reader of Lifehacker, though I may have overdosed on it a bit. A lot of the posts there really have helped me form some new productivity (learning keyboard shortcuts for many things! So cool!) habits as well as new ways of thinking.
  • I've read a lot more books recreationally than I have in a long time as well. Most influential has been Quiet by Susan Cain. I have been reading more about and exploring introversion a lot more this year and finding ways in which I can embrace my nature- I'm as introverted as they come. I feel defective in social situations a lot of times. It's better to know that I just socialize differently and that there isn't something fundamentally wrong with the fact that I only switch on when topics I care about deeply come up (Han shot first!!!). I have taken advantage of every speaking opportunity I've had this year, which I think has helped me be more comfortable around people. None of them went that well. It's sort of like the standup comedian who bombs, lives, and goes on the next night anyway, more fearless than before- at least I hope it's like that.
  • I took a few tentative steps to learning new things. Brewing beer, coding (a very few steps there), and even pushing myself again in my work, which unfortunately I haven't done enough of the last few years; I think that's the most devastating part of being clinically depressed. Luckily, I seem to continue to become more aware of when my depressive thinking comes up and can manage it a lot more effectively than I once did. It's still there, but does occupy less of my mind. And I can fight it. I had a pretty bad setback in my research a month ago and had a lot of other things going on too, but despite that huge negative, I seem to have bounced back OK. I didn't just give up.
  • I have learned to say no more. And yes. I've said yes more often the last few months than I have all year. I hope all this new input into my brain will lead to me feeling less stuck.
  • I'm learning to use Twitter to network and interact more with the online science community, which seems to be thriving. Almost to the point I often feel that writing my own account of my experiences as a scientist just don't belong on the internet (just because it's written down doesn't mean it's worth reading or is even a legitimate voice). I'm writing anyway, mostly for myself because I actually find it fun to use my words (however ineffectively). As I've said in this blog before a few times I think, I serve as an example of what not to do as a postdoc/grad student; for changing my own habits as well as for anyone that reads what I write and is helped by it (I can dream). I consider myself an educator and I take my undergrad university's motto to heart: 'Not unto ourselves alone are we born'.
  • I recently joined a running club, which is changing up my routine a fair bit as well. I went for an 8 mile run on election day morning in below freezing temperatures. I never would have done that on my own, but might now that I've done it once. It is also a social activity/group which is good for me. 

So inch by inch I am clawing my way up from the bottom of the canyon I was in. If I keep it up, I can declare I've made it to the top and stand on the canyon ledge and declare the arrival of Ian 3.0. This will involve doing more: reading, writing, applying, experimenting, learning, trying, failing, trying again, and persevering into a new and better place (mentally, if not physically). 

I hope all of that will lead to an increased energy budget and to more effectively using my time for the things I care about. 

November 1, 2012


I study plants. Sessile organisms that grow in a particular environment. They put down roots and develop in the most optimal way for their environmental conditions. 

In graduate school, I had a joke about how various PIs showed characteristics of the organisms they studied. The Drosophila PI flitted about like a tiny fly would, the C. elegans lecturers were like the nematodes they studied...most boring lecturers ever. the lecturuers who worked on mice were very mouse-like. Is your PI like the model organism they work on? Since I haven't spent a lot of time with yeast, I'm not exactly sure how a human would be Yeast-like, but I'm sure they're out there. 

Now I'm wondering if I'm a plant. I do seem to be rooted in place, and worst, I'm a plant that hasn't been allowed to grow. I'm like a severe mutant, impaired in some way trying to figure out how to 'make it'- and hopefully I can live out a normal life. 

I'm also still trying to find the sun so I can thrive. I don't think I'm in the optimal environment, but any plant that grows in a marginal place must adapt to that, whereas an animal can get up and walk away.

I can walk. And run. But I still feel rooted in place. And stuck. Some of it I'm sure is this, the ultimate career pressure to succeed and I just haven't performed. They aren't the conditions for me to best succeed. I'm not sure what conditions are best for me, but certainly not one where perfectionism is a default option. 

Growth has been on my mind a lot this year (look at past posts, that I'm still not good at citing within my blog- I'm still an amateur when it comes to this interwebs stuff). 

I think I'm doing better at pushing my comfort zone, though I don't see much magic happening. Maybe it's starting. I am a lot more curious again than I used to be. Things actually interest me again; which wasn't really the case a year ago, though apathy is still all too present in my life. I did raise $343 for the local cancer center a few weeks ago, which is something I don't think I've ever done before, so I am proud of that. In some ways, I am waking up again and actually living rather than just coasting through like a zombie. 

Is it enough? I don't think so. Not yet. I still have a lot to work towards, and need to get more organized. about everything and set my goals to be achievable and accountable. I am expressing myself more and am more accepting of who I am (introverted is my most prominent personality trait). 

I have applied for some jobs this year, none of which I'll get, but I did it anyway. I think I understand networking a lot better now, even if I'm not that good at it still. 

I will have made 3 batches of beer this year as well. 

Signs of growth? I sure hope so. Am I a plant who will make it to a new environment? Or do I get to truly launch Ian3.0 this year? I don't know, but maybe I took a few steps towards that.

So the growth continues. Hopefully I nurture myself well enough to thrive in the near future.

October 11, 2012

I get to.

update this blog.

wake up and get going each morning.

live in the present.

be enough.

learn something new.

enjoy my coffee.

stand in a power pose.

be a scientist.

push my comfort zone.

read a book.

                                                                                    take a nap.


*This is me experimenting with a new way of updating this blog. Playing with formats is fun, no? 

September 29, 2012


I've been thinking about the topic of what I present to the world- the digital world in particular lately. xkcd #137 is one side of a case that runs counter to a lot of advice you see about being extremely careful about what you post on the internet because it's there forever. I sometimes make the joke that Facebook will prevent everyone from holding public office or being employed in the future. If you're not buttoned down and perfect and show an ounce of humanity or personality, you are unworthy of employment or participation in society. Is there a picture of me drinking a beer somewhere on the internet? Yes. I'm sure that exists. I even brew my own beer at home now. I never drink to excess though. A lot of nights, it's one and I'm done- I like trying new beer and it's varying taste across breweries the world over. However, the paranoid in me says that any potential employer finding said picture will instantly think 'he drinks beer, he must be a drunkard and will be trouble, definitely a no'. That said, if it's obvious someone's a raging partier (not me, at all), that ought to raise a red flag.

Maybe the beer example is a bit silly. Let's see what else I can dig up. I'm introverted. And that's a problem to some because we live in a very extroverted society (talk loudly, act quickly, thinking is bad) and upon learning that, some employers who misunderstand introversion might easily just say no as well. I'm embracing it a lot more than I used to, since pretending to be extroverted all the time doesn't work. That's something I talk about a lot in my online postings, and easily could be held against me.

I also am fairly open about battling or learning to manage depression. It's easier to talk about now that I'm less depressed, but I can't say that I'm completely over it either. However, it's important to understand that many very prominent and successful people also deal with depression and that that shouldn't impede me from striving. I still try. Despite sometimes not wanting to. I have my very bad days. I am open about it because it has affected my life in a big way and I hope by being somewhat open about my experiences, others can be helped, especially in the academic science world where this gets swept under the rug too often.

I know I have a very grad student/postdoc view of the world- where I'm still striving for my next step and still trying to 'make it'. In that context, because competition for faculty jobs is fiercer than ever, it's easy to see how showing any kind of vulnerability- introversion (not a vulnerability exactly, but how I'm wired), depression/anxiety, etc. could easily be seen to be held against me by any employer; Candidate X doesn't have any issues...we'll go with him/her instead- thing is, Candidate X does have issues too, they just may not be as apparent as mine because I'm more open with the all too human things I wrestle with.

Which brings me to this from NeuroDojo. I don't know how my story will turn out, as Steve Jobs says in his Stanford commencement address, you can only connect the dots in hindsight. All I can do is the best I can in the moment and make mostly responsible decisions. I am a recovering perfectionist (yes, perfectionism taken too far is a bad thing- there is such a think as 'good enough'- deadlines exist in the world). I have been extremely buttoned down my whole life. Always wanting to do the right thing, always looking for the 'win-win' solution that's best for everyone, even if it's detrimental to me. I do get paralyzed by over-analysis at times too. And it hasn't gotten me very far. Since starting this blog and expressing myself more, I feel better about myself and life. I don't particularly feel like apologizing for being an imperfect human. I will bring the skills I have to whatever task is at hand and do my best. As the Mythbusters are fond of saying, 'Failure is always an option', but also Adam says, and the series took off because he said this I think 'I reject your reality and substitute my own'. You can't be buttoned down and fearful if you're going to create change, have creative thoughts or be an innovator. I'm not a round peg into a round hole, and that's OK. As in science, I'll find the 'best fit' model for the data that is me.

September 26, 2012

Getting out.

Something that's on my mind lately is just how sticky science is, especially when you're frustrated by a lack of success in the lab. There's a reason it's called research, of course, there are no guarantees that experiments will work out or go well. Since I still have too much of my identity wrapped up in science, setbacks hit me hard. But especially now. A postdoc is supposed to be a limited time to set yourself up for future success. Right now, I feel like I've failed in that goal. I can, however, tell anyone exactly what not to do (including myself, lately, so that's a positive). And would happily do so. So I'm in this strange position of being at a point to move on, but also still wanting to show that I can do good work and prove myself (publication is all that counts, really; any teaching, mentoring or helping colleagues with their work doesn't really qualify as 'science'). But I still feel stuck by it all. 

Though I am trying a new strategy of interacting more and trying not to worry so much. Also, I'm starting to lean on friends and colleagues to help me raise my game and keep my accountable. 

Tips on being a postdoc 1. Don't get clinically depressed 2. Don't isolate yourself (number one will make you do that, btw) 3. Ask lots of questions and don't be a perfectionist (number one will make you afraid of being anything but perfect and feeling like you aren't worthwhile). 4. Do things besides science. Find something outside the lab you love to do. It will keep you sane and balanced. 

Otherwise, you might just feel stuck. 

September 16, 2012


I should be working on powerpoints, data analysis, job applications, etc. It's 10:40pm on a Sunday night and the lab is taking a trip to North Carolina on Tuesday for a lab retreat with some collaborators. 

I haven't had a good week. I've worked hard, but still feel like it's not enough. I did have a breakthrough with using the confocal- I get it now...a lot more than I did, anyhow. I actually got some quite good pictures, though one of them is puzzling and brings up more questions than it answers. I guess that's just science. 

Job applications worry me and my barrier to getting them done is purely in my head. Impostor syndrome (common amongst academics and high achievers- a sign that we're actually pushing ourselves)? a feeling like I've stagnated and completely messed up in life thus far and am not ready for the next step? Conditioning to my environment that says it will always be the way it is now? Doing the immediate work things to prepare for NC? 

None of that sounds very positive. I seem to handle adversity a bit better than I used to. and am more willing to engage with more new things that I wouldn't have considered before. And yet I'm not changing fast enough. I don't feel I know enough. I don't interact enough. I think the former and the latter I can do something more about and yet I hesitate too much still. Part of it is having to do things at a distance. Part of it is that I am still shy (not introverted, though I'm that too) around people. I still assume things that probably aren't entirely true- and need to unlearn. 

It's after 11pm now. And I'm going to bed. Monday will be a long day, but the retreat should be interesting at the very least. I think I included some positives in this post. 

September 8, 2012


In braces ({}) = Neurotic/anxious thoughts as  I wrote this post. {using braces, probably wrong}.

I'm neurotic. I think a lot of scientists are. I am getting a little better at doing something and yet I have a lot of times of paralysis where it's just completely uncertain what I should do, where I ought to go, what is the next step. Experiment fails. {Do I set it up again? the exact same way? What failed? Was it me? It was probably me. I have horrible hands. My knowledge is incomplete (easy criticism for a scientist to level against themselves- by definition, our knowledge is incomplete, it's why we're doing experiments)}.

I was speaking with a fellow postdoc yesterday about how being a postdoc in these uncertain times of low academic employment, a downturn in pharma/biotech hiring, the disconnect between our training and potential jobs we could get is wide, and how that fuels a special level of neurosis and anxiety {Overly long sentence. Oh no! I can't write either}. Science (AAAS) just put out an individual development plan web application for Ph.D. students and early career postdocs {for all postdocs really...but like Darth Vader at the end of ROTJ I think 'it is too late for me'- what a random reference}. I actually am giving it a try; It seems great, if one is willing to use it fully. {What the f**k is my problem? Why can't I just use all these great resources available to me, w/o excuses? Why am I always loath to ask for help? My brain is wrong. I tell myself that, and have basically been told that several times, so it might just be true}.

I am trying to dare greatly. My mind screams at me from deep down, slightly less loud this last year, but still loud enough that I can't ignore it very well either. I am not my immediate thoughts. I can challenge my negative thoughts, and do that more often now. In that sense I am back online and functioning {if you count still feeling stuck as functioning}.

One issue that I think postdocs/grad students often have {including me, seriously, what is wrong with me?} is that we feel like we're not in positions to influence things. We do what we're told- it's hard to let go and just be our creative selves, which is what science requires. {I can't do that experiment, it'll cost too much money, I need to think this through before doing it so I don't waste time, I can't reveal anything, otherwise someone will steal my ideas and get them out before I do, I can't be independent- I need my advisors input on everything I do, I don't know enough about technique X to actually do it well so I shouldn't try it until I've exhaustively read up on it even though learning by doing is the best way to learn something, I can't say I don't know something because everyone around will think I'm stupid and unenlightened}. We're small, PIs are big, sometimes we feel more like indentured servants than valued colleagues {seriously, something must be wrong with my brain}.

I feel a lot better about asking, looking stupid doing it, and trying to learn for myself and be more aggressive about what I want. {Not enough though. Still don't seem to know enough, be savvy enough, be enough, why not? My brain is wrong somehow- I need to challenge that, not sure exactly how to go about it after years of counter-training to thinking I'm not enough}.

My brain is neurotic. too much so. I don't know if other people have the same thoughts, but it seems that most of my friends who aren't academics have a clearer mind about things whereas most of my postdoc and grad student friends all tend towards the neurotic and anxious.

Is it something about the environment we're in? I think that has something to do with it. Progress and egress are slow in academia which breeds anxious thoughts. My friends in the private sector all seem to have less time to think, which is a good thing for moving forward. There also seems to be more of a culture in academia that we are our work. Take that away and we're nothing. I think that breeds a lot of anxiety and neurosis too, especially in times when we're trying to step away and do other things with our lives which is getting more and more common.

{By expressing all this, I'm probably hurting myself in some way. Everything I say is an excuse. Something is seriously wrong with me that I think these thoughts. I spent my morning blogging rather than doing something productive. Does this count as doing something worthwhile? Writing practice?}.

Back to challenging my brain into being better about everything and anything. And to getting myself out into the world, rather than being my introverted and sometimes shy self.

August 27, 2012


I am reading Beth Buelow's e-book Insight: Reflections on the Gifts of Being an Introvert and ran across this quote in chapter 16 talking about vulnerability:

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."- Leonard Cohen

I have also been thinking a bit about how science is like crack, the addictive drug. Both ideas- of a crack letting light in or out to connect an individual to the world and the drug have been floating in my head lately.

With this blog, part of the idea was to let the light out, to be vulnerable and express what's going on inside. It is still terrifying to me to post sometimes- I worry that what I express will come back to bite me, but then I also know that it's hard to make progress from a standpoint of perfectionism.

So with that, I'm going to open up a bit about my addiction to science (I don't think I'm alone in this feeling, either) and how I think it may well be negatively impacting my life and what I am trying to do about it, finally, though I still feel stuck in some ways and am not sure how to get moving forward again.

Current scientists almost always fall in love with science when they're young. And in my generation, anyhow, I got convinced I had to be perfect in everything and never show that I was struggling in any way. That's when 'they' pounce (sometimes 'they' were very real, mostly, I think it was in my head). So perfectionist kid falls in love with science and what I picked up on in the culture of science is that if you are not 100% devoted to it, you're not a 'real scientist'- you don't care enough. I spent grad school being as devoted as I could to work, even when it was apparent that I was burning out and depression was setting in, I coped by exercising more regularly and seeing a therapist (This is an excellent piece on what it's like: "Most people don't see depression in others, and that's by design. We depressives simply spirit ourselves away when we've dimmed so as not to stain those who live in the sun.")- I cut myself off from people, something I'm trying to get over now, but still struggle with.

All the while, I was continually devoted to trying to make a career in science. I am now in my 5th year as a postdoc and see slight positive signs that I'm moving forward, but I look at my friends (scientist and non-scientist alike) who have kids, houses, are married and established in lives and compared to me. I'm single, now 35 and would like to have a life outside the lab and a career that I can actually put down at the end of the day and not have to think about constantly. But then I feel stuck. I have a Ph.D., but still can't figure out what else I would do in the world, besides be an academic- and my depressive side says maybe I can't even be that or anything- but I feel like I need to test the waters some how, devote myself to something else, get off the crack that is science. It may be good for the human race (science, as a process unarguably has been a boon to us humans), but I reject the notion that it has to be done by people who don't have lives (Sorry Mr. Tesla, I know I'm not as smart as you were, but I don't feel that a relationship would be bad for my career). Even in an era when it is clear there are not full time academic jobs for every postdoc out there (academia is a minority employer of Ph.D.'s now), the culture is still very much 'if you leave, you have failed as a human being and are dead to us'. So if I left, it's hard to not feel like I've wasted my 20's and half of my 30's- it would be a blow to my ego, for sure. I wish it was a bit more positive than that, that anyone who is trained at a high level as a scientist is celebrated no matter where they end up. That it isn't insane to think that someone would make a decision for personal reasons rather than purely professional ones. The biggest problem of that mindset is that we're not trained to do broad careers, we're trained to do one specific thing and forget about the rest of the world. So in that sense, science is addictive, like crack. I love the discoveries, the process, the problem-solving, the mental effort it requires, but it feels very confining, not expansive- as science usually is- expanding knowledge built up by previous generations.

Part of my Ian3.0 project I started this month is to make a major life transition. Into a new job in a new place, having healthy social relationships where I see people regularly (with friends, hopefully finding a significant other as well- I want that). I am finally taking control of my own life in a way I haven't before. I still feel fairly stuck, but at least more light is shining through the cracks that were my shell against the outside world, and I'm trying to be more open- to new things, to novelty, to actually shining.    I am working on the specific details, but hopefully, when I'm writing next year, I'll be in an even happier place than I am now. Believe it or not, this is more positive than I was even a year ago. I don't know if this is coherent, but there's a little more light I'm letting out of my shell.

August 14, 2012

Academic anxiety.

Anxiety has been on my mind a lot this week. This essay appeared on Science's website last week reflecting on the state of mental health amongst the academic community. I read this anonymous blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education; A common practice on their site. I listened to a segment on Science Friday about this book about one man's experience with anxiety and I read or listened to something about Impostor Syndrome and how it's prevalent amongst high achievers (I don't count myself as a high achiever- yet) and how it might be adaptive and a good thing in some ways.

And this week I've had a lot dumped on me that I wasn't expecting as well. I've got to present in lab meeting next week, the day before I head off for vacation and I have to finish, I have a paper to put together, my fellowship is officially ending and I need to get my final report into them and that makes me anxious because I feel I haven't done enough. I'm always nervous to go on vacation. I was worried on Monday that my car wouldn't pass inspection (it did!). I'm worried about finding the time to get my job search going when everything I read about carrying out a successful job search requires putting forth what seems to be Herculean efforts just for one application (I know, stop blogging...).

I know the solution is something along these lines of getting to work on something and just doing all the little things to achieve things. And I'm not as anxious as I used to be, though I still get paralyzed by it. I get paralyzed in place all too easily still. I'm trying to flip the switch to being excited and energized when I feel the anxiety coming on, but I'm not there yet. And my old friend depressive thinking also comes into this and still makes me think that anything I do is pointless. Catastrophic + depressive thinking is not a good recipe in my head. I can go to the gym to alleviate it a little bit, but anything I do is kind of a stop gap measure.

How does this relate to academia more broadly? I had the thought today in reading the anonymous essay- the author is writing about the start of the job search season and the feelings it provokes- that there is something odd about academia and anonymity that breeds anxiety. I read a lot about mental health issues- it's a subject of personal interest to me and in a lot of places the author is listed. But in both the Science and Chronicle pieces, the authors use pseudonyms which is common in academia whenever career/personal life issues are discussed. I'll say here it is the right of these authors to remain anonymous and I can understand why they would choose to do so, but the anonymity also sends the message that if you're you, you won't have a career, no one will listen to you and that it's not OK to be yourself.

I may be reading too much into this, but it does seem endemic in academia to keep things quiet and to suffer in silence all too often. I started this blog in part to voice my challenges (and hopefully some triumphs too!) since the culture of academia ironically is not as open and sharing as it might seem from the outside. It might well be true of ideas in science, but the people are often seen as secondary to the actual lab work. Am I hurting my career by being open about my thoughts/feelings/experiences? I hope not. But it makes me anxious that that's the case due to anonymous essays about the experiences of people in science. I realize there are plenty of non-anonymous stories too, but they always tend to be about the successful people, not those of us still struggling.

August 7, 2012

Ian 2.9 → Ian 3.0.

I feel comfortable saying I'm going from version Ian 2.8 to Ian 2.9 today. And with Ian 2.9, I can work towards Ian 3.0 in earnest- while having fun along the way.

To start the transition, this sentence from Sarah Kathleen Peck's blog is what I am going to keep in mind:

"The irony is that you’ll learn more from tripping and stumbling and iterating than by circling through your brain any longer. You’ve got to get out and do."

It's one of my current favorite blogs that takes into account both the positive and the negatives of life and not all one or the other, but has a positive tone which is exactly the head space I want to occupy. This op-ed in the New York Times is also in the same vein.

Ian 2.0 was about getting my own internal dialogue under control and getting to the point of being OK wanting things for myself. I feel that I've gotten there this last few months and can say that being clinically depressed is mostly behind me. I've embraced my introverted nature (extremely introverted), my geekiness, and my love of technology & science that I haven't had the easiest relationship with over the last few years. But I think it will be a part of my life no matter what the next step is for me. I love science and talking about it's discoveries and insights with others. I've had several experiences conveying information to people today- about science and it is something that gets endorphins in my brain to release.

To get to Ian 3.0, I think requires a big transition in life. A new career is top of the list. As a postdoc, I think the point is to find your place in the world- and I still haven't found mine yet. I still think a primarily undergraduate institution is where I would like to end up as a faculty member. That said, I am not opposed to ending up doing something else either. Ian 3.0 will have a career. I will do my job  Hopefully I will be able to incorporate science into that somehow.

On a personal note, I turn 35 in a few weeks (as I think I noted in a previous post). In thinking about that fact, I do still want a personal life that I've put off for too long- possibly more than a career, though I think a career is necessary for me as well. A balance would be nice. Regardless, to take care of myself, I feel first, I need a job and then a life can flow from there. Spoken like a true postdoc I think.

To get to Ian 3.0, I know I'll need help along the way. Part of getting comfortable with myself and having a bit more belief in myself is that I am more willing to admit that I don't know everything (in fact , I probably I know very little) and am willing to ask for help when I need it as well as help people whenever I can.

My brain has played these 7 tricks on me for a long time now. With that and the rest of this post in mind, let the work towards the release of Ian 3.0 (coming sometime next year) begin!

July 29, 2012


I think I'm suffering from a post-conference hangover. I did go into work on both Thursday and Friday and didn't end up getting much accomplished and have not gotten much done this weekend, except some rest and a small amount of cleaning. I've been watching some of the 2012 Olympics. But I also feel like an idiot. Like I should be doing something more with my time. I feel stuck in a rut. I feel I need to explore more often than I do- ask questions, do more, start things, follow through...

I'm trying to blog more in hopes it will help me express myself and get things out of my head- though probably more annoying for the people I share this with; I'm still not convinced anyone cares what I think. Of course, I'm not forcing anyone to read what I imagine is mediocre writing. I started doing this to have a hobby, to document my road out of depression (I am perhaps catching glimpses of the edges of Mirkwood from a tree I climbed) as well as my (mainly frustrating) experiences as a postdoc in the life sciences. And my road to the next step in my career- which is still hard to figure out. I love science and teaching and still have no idea what else I would do with my life, but with the conference, maybe I've taken a few steps in the right direction.

So what makes me title this post idiocy? I need to write emails to people I met at the conference. I did it with a few of the people I know, but not to anyone new that I met. It's just an email, so why the delay? I don't know, I haven't taken the best care of myself this weekend- mostly through not eating enough, so that probably saps motivation a bit. But this has also been kind of a return to my old pattern of weekends- asocial, mostly on my own and having recurring negative thoughts about life and excessively ruminating about them. All signs that depression and anxiety are still within me. So I feel like an idiot for thinking I've made more progress than I in fact have. I feel like an idiot for not being able to just take action more quickly on so many things. I feel like an idiot for not starting this process sooner in my life. My brain feels slow. I also feel like an idiot this weekend for not being able to figure out how to have much of a personal life yet (I'll turn 35 in August...and be single for it, so frustrating).

I might be suffering from the post-conference and travel let down, which is common after a trip. I did explore using my Google calendar more- to concretize my goals (I created an Ian3.0 calendar to add goals onto so I can measure progress. I'm on Ian2.8 now. I still need to figure out when to set the release of Ian3.0 and what that would require, though I have some ideas. I think a year is a good time- perhaps on my birthday next year. But I am going to make a calendar of goals and see how well I do with them- and make it formal with alerts and everything. Thus far I've been a little informal about my goals for this year.

I'm trying to force optimism on myself through bombarding myself with positive messages from various  sources like itstartswith and this podcast (though it's about sexuality, I find a lot of it applies to life generally too). So it's not all doom and gloom, but I feel overwhelmed and frozen, which seems idiotic. I need to start in and do things to get less overwhelmed and to warm up.