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."