Falling (back) in love with Science

Rejuvenate!

Happy New Year Science lovers!

I wish everyone a very productive lab year with a renewed love for life changing research. Which it really is and I think that grad students get so caught up with the experiments that we forget the big picture.

I know I’ve been AWOL for a minute but the truth is I’ve been struggling with my blog identity. Many Science Bloggers are very good at updating their blog  with what’s cool in the world of science and I think that’s great. I don’t want to be just another science blogger focused on just scientific research. One of the reasons why I blog is because I haven’t stumbled across many blogs geared towards the struggles graduate students in biomedical research face. That’s what I want my blog to be about. I’ll do my best to be true to that henceforth!

That being said…I think a quick recap of 2013 is in order.

For me, 2013 marked the beginning of my 5th year as a grad student and with that came feelings of “I can’t believe it’s been 5 years”. “I’ve accomplished nothing!” “I’m so ready to be done” “OMG, I’m never going to get out”. And I refuse to believe I’m the only one in this position so let’s all just leave our feelings of inadequacy in this moment and agree to move on ok? Cool

Moving On.

It helps to know that you are not alone in all this and I’ve taken the following steps to cope with and overcome those loser-ish feelings. I’ve come up with the 3 R’s.

1. Relax (aka Chill out dude!) : seriously, unless you’ve been an absolute bum for the last 5 years, they haven’t been wasted. So what if 99% of your experiments have failed? At least it worked 1% of the time. The hardwork you put in trouble shooting failed experiments shows resilience and will pay off in the long run.

2. Rejuvenate (aka Take a break!): vacation, staycation, a saturday off, a bath. Take some time off and do not think about your project(s). Just decompress and then come back with a renewed sense of purpose. I’ve heard a lot of accomplished people say this..it’s necessary to take a step back and not think about your work. If they do it..so can we. Also…some of the best ideas are thought up in the shower!

3. Reconnect! (aka Whatchubeenupto!): I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but at my school, after the first year of classes, classmates dissipate and we often end up in labs with people from different years. If you were that loner in the corner who made no friends…er..can’t help you. However, if you made at least one friend..reconnect with them. Have lunch..or coffee. Catching up with an old friend and seeing what they’ve been up to should motivate you to work harder to help you feel better about your situation.

 

That’s all I have for my first post of 2014. As for me…I’m hoping to wrap up this year and move on to the next step in my scientific career. Scary and exciting all at the same time. I can’t wait! I’ll keep you updated!

 

Leaving the nest (MyIDP: career planning for graduate students and postdocs)

As I embark on the final quarter of my graduate career, I am often filled with a sense of uncertainty. Let me explain. My original goal was to return to graduate school in order to obtain a strong scientific foundation for a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

My plan was thus:

  1. Get a PhD
  2. Get a job in Pharma
  3. Work with other scientists to develop new drugs
  4. Save the world

However, I’ve had several bouts of doubt. I’m not sure this is what I want to do anymore. I’m not sure this plan aligns with what I really want to do for the rest of my life. As usual, I have decided to go about this by assessing my strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

So I said to myself: “Self, if only there was some cosmo type quiz I can take to determine what type of career I would be good at based on my likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses”…

Enter My Individual Development Plan,

History:

My IDP was modeled after the employee career development concept used in industry. It expands upon a structure proposed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for postdocs in 2003.

What it is:Individual Development Plan overview page

Did it help me?

Honestly, the first time I took it, I just breezed through it. I gave myself a lot of 5s: “highly proficient” on the skills assessment (self-love much?). Then I went back, and really thought through each question and answered truthfully.

The quiz is divided into 3 sections

Skills: here you rank your skills on a scale of 1(highly deficient) to 5(highly proficient)

Some things that rank for me at :

1,2 :Writing grant proposals and statistical analysis

4,5: Technical skills related to my specific research area, experimental design

Interests: Ranking from 1: (never do in my career) to 5(do often in my career)

For me:

1,2: Analyzing financial budgets and assessing business trends

4,5: Learning how to use new equipment and techniques and planning new scientific projects or developing new research directions

Values: Ranking from 1(unimportant) to 5 (essential)

For me:

1,2: Work alone and work in a low pressure environment

4,5: Help society, competition, job security and family friendly

Based on my answers, my top 3 career path matches were:

  • Product development scientist or engineer
  • Scientific/medical testing
  • Drug/device approval and production

Funny enough, “research in industry” ranks much lower on the list based on my skills and interests than i expected. Not surprisingly, principal investigator and research staff in a research-intensive institution rank even lower.

What I really like about this assessment:

  1. It gives you a framework to work with.
  2. It really does take into account your skills and interests.
  3. It links you to information about careers based on your answers.
  4. It  shows you your strengths and weaknesses and offers advice on how to improve on the weaknesses.
  5. You can download blank assessments and discuss them with your P.I (Ahmazing!).

Has anyone taken it? Did you find it helpful? I would especially love to hear from recent graduates who have gone on to careers in different fields.

PS: My opinions were not influenced by anyone directly associated with MyIDP. It was initially introduced to me by a friend and then again at a conference.

 

The Real Final Exam

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Donald Coffey speak about cancer and scientific research twice. And while I’m a sappy person by nature, his talks always leave me kind of misty eyed but very inspired.

Most people who decide to go into biomedical research do not do so for the glory and fame of it all (those that do are MDs…kidding!!) 🙂

 

Anyway, here is a short article by Donald Coffey called “The Real Final Exam”…it’s a nice short read that I think holds a lot of truth. My favorites are #7,9, 13-16..so true!

 The Real Final Exam

Donald S. Coffey
Professor of Urology, Oncology, and Pharmacology Brady Urological Institute,

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland

 SOME THOUGHTS TO PONDER ALONG YOUR WAY)

I have no more insight into science than many others; I was just naive enough to list the obvious to which most of us are blinded because of measurements by false yardsticks and examples which are always in vogue. I know that with time you can expand and improve your own list. In my weakness, I give students so many sheets or handouts of useless data to memorize that I thought a few important concepts might be worth sharing with you.


1.        IF THIS IS TRUE, WHAT DOES IT IMPLY?

Calculate the time it takes to do an experiment, then put down the percent of time you actually thought about the results; you will be lucky if it is 10%. We usually don’t need more experiments, we need more clear thinking. If you can practice this to an art, you will always have new ideas and insight. Inhibitions to generate ideas and present trends and concepts, tend to paralyze this important process.

2.       GENERATE MORE THAN ONE CONCEPT TO EXPLAIN YOUR DATA, THEN GIVE ALL POSSIBILITIES EQUAL ATTENTION AND EFFORT.

Your pet theory . . . . will usually turn out to be just that.

3.       YOU DON’T HAVE TO ASSUME ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN PROVE.

“When you assume, you are going to make an ASS-of U and ME” – Coach, in Bad News Bears.

4.        THE EXPERIMENT THAT DIDN’T COME OUT THE WAY YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD, IS THE ONLY EXPERIMENT THAT IS REALLY GOING TO TEACH YOU SOMETHING NEW.

The key observations are usually “swept under the rug” or rationalized away. The one fact that doesn’t fit the theory is always the most important fact.

5.        EVERY DATUM IS SCREAMING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING, BUT YOU MUST DO THE LISTENING AND THINKING.

If it isn’t worth thinking about, it wasn’t worth doing. A burning curiosity is the “ATP” of the laboratory.

6.        WHAT YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT WHILE YOU ARE COMING TO WORK DETERMINES YOUR REAL INTEREST . . . . AND WILL DIRECT YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS FOR THE DAY.

7.       A COMPLEX EXPERIMENT IS USUALLY THE LEAST PRODUCTIVE.

A 500 tube experiment is very susceptible to Murphy’s first law. Don’t try to answer it all at once. Do a few things right. Too much phenomenology provides more complexity and little insight.

8.       IT IS TIME TO DO SOME EXPERIMENTS, OTHERS MUST WAIT.

There are many experiments worth doing but only a few great ones. Don’t do the next experiment to come to mind. Try to think up a critical experiment that will go to the heart of the question.

9.        YOU ARE GOING TO BE SURPRISED AT THE SIMPLICITY AND BEAUTY OF THE REAL ANSWER.

Almost a billion years went into selecting the system that you are studying. Remember, Crick and Watson didn’t make the double helix, they only discovered an ancient system still operating today. It had plenty of time to be perfected.

10.    ALL NEW IDEAS ARE RESISTED BY YOU -AUTHORITIES – THE EDITORS – STUDY SECTIONS- DEPARTMENT CHAIRMEN – PEERS – AND FRIENDS. IF THIS DISCOURAGES YOU, YOU SHOULD RETIRE EARLY. HOWEVER, MOST CRITICISM CAN BE CONSTRUCTIVE IF YOU LISTEN WITH AN OPEN MIND.      

There is a fine line between being persistent and being bullheaded. Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Don’t give it. If your ideas are easily accepted, they are probably wrong. Most of the real great discoveries were first rejected and turned down for publication. There is a direct relationship between the unusual nature of a new discovery and the resistance to acceptance.

11.      A  GOOD  PAPER  IS  SIMPLE, CLEAR AND TO THE POINT.

If the average reviewer can’t understand your point, the average reader probably won’t either; the reviewer usually spends more time with your paper. You know what you did, but you won’t be there to explain it to the reader. You don’t have to tell them every experiment you did and bore them to tears, just be sure they understand the most critical ones. A paper can be correct but not informative to the average reader. An example – read your insurance policy. Someone is going to try to confirm your observation; make it easy for them to repeat your work.

 12.     IF TWO GOOD INVESTIGATORS DISAGREE AND A PARADOX SEEMS TO EXIST, BOTH OF THEIR DATA ARE PROBABLY CORRECT, AND WE JUST NEED A NEW EXPLANATION TO ENCOMPASS BOTH OBSERVATIONS.

Never assume that those who oppose your ideas are stupid. The more you disagree with the data of others, the less chance you have of finding the truth. Try to devise a model that also integrates as many observations of others as possible. All good experiments must be accounted for in the end. You are not the only one who can do a good experiment.

 13.     GIVE EVERYONE CREDIT.                                                         

You are not the first one to study this problem, nor will you be the last. Remember, the ones reviewing and judging your paper have already worked in the same field and they also know who did what. Give the true credit where it is due. Your reputation will be made by all of your studies and by how professional you are.

14.     DO NOT BE FOOLED BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE PRINTED PAGE. 

The observation of the “proof” might be correct, but how was the experiment conducted? Most of what you and I think today will appear silly in 20years. At least, we can do our best. Keep in mind the limitations and state them.

 15.    MANY BRIGHT PEOPLE ARE PARALYZED BY NEGATIVE THINKING.

They are often busy trying to prove someone wrong instead of trying to find out what is right or new. Every experiment, yours and others, is limited and is only an approximation. Look for clues because few things are ever proven. Test all theories.

16.  THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENTS ARE HONESTY, DESIRE, CLEAR THINKING, CONFIDENCE AND HARD WORK.

If you aren’t willing to work long, hard hours and sacrifice in pursuit of this goal, then you are not willing to pay the price and maybe you should move over and give someone else a chance.

IN CONCLUSION: If you are lucky, the world will be paying you a modest salary for what you consider your hobby, and you, in turn, will be contributing to some important answers for our present and future society. As you teach and lead, you will amplify your efforts and those of others, and if appropriate, the influence will continue after you cease. What you learn from courses, lectures and books that are reflected in your course grades will be a very small fraction of your FINAL EXAM. Good luck in your careers.

 

 

                                          The Prostate 39:323–325 (1999)             


Russian Roulette…(aka Choosing a thesis lab)

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are strictly mine and not backed up by any scientific evidence.

 

As a 4th year graduate student, I don’t think I’m seasoned enough to be jaded/disillusioned. I also think I still remember my trepidation on choosing the lab I was going to spend the rest of my 20’s in.

So here we go…my top 5 things to consider when choosing a thesis lab

1. Do I like my prospective labmates?

I dig science too so I can talk about scientists. We can be awkward..socially awkward creatures focused only on our research and things that interest us. Perfectly content sitting at the microscope with headphones on and shutting out the world. However, if you are not this type of scientist and you are the more social type…do not convince yourself that you are in grad school strictly for the science and would do well in a lab full of the aforementioned scientists or people you do not get along with. Sure it might work..but it probably won’t.

You more than likely chose rotations based on science you were interested meaning that you could probably do “good science” in any of those labs. However, you are going to be spending a lot of time with these people, no point being unhappy.

 

2. Do I like my prospective P.I?

OK…like might be the wrong word here. Does anyone ever really LIKE their P.I (principal investigator)…(I actually do..great guy he is!). Depending on the school you attend, there will more than likely be a lot of big name, big time scientists (Nature/Science publishing types, Nobel Laureates, Demigods in theirfields even though no one in the real world knows them)….some with egos to boot. You want to have a healthy like/respect for your P.I. and not because of what they have published or what you think you will get out of being a member of the lab. P.I.s are people too..and if you wouldn’t like/respect your P.I in “real life”…what makes you think you’d be able to work for them for 5+ years…it’s a lose-lose situation.


3. Do I like the science?

I think rotations take care of this question. Unless you chose to attend grad school because your parents made you, you know you like science. You know you want to make some sort of contribution to the scientific community et al. You need to join a lab that even when you go through periods when your experiments don’t work (aka 3rd year), you are still excited enough about the field in general to stick around.

 

4. What type of worker am I?

I feel that the only people who successfully make it through grad school with their love for science intact are the ones that treat it like a regular job.

a. Set regular work hours and stick to it for the most part

b. Set goals (monthly, quarterly, annually) just like you would in your career and work to meet them

c. Do not be afraid to talk to your boss/challenge their ideas

d. Don’t let other people determine how far you go in your grad school career..take responsibility for every single aspect and take advantages inside and outside the lab to grow.

 

5. What do I want to accomplish during my time here? 

Set goals and timelines…talk about your goals with your P.I before you join to make sure they are on board. Be flexible…life happens. Be willing to reevaluate your project and determine if you are going in the right direction often! Don’t be afraid to ask questions…Don’t be that person who thought they knew everything until they woke up in year 9 realizing they just pissed away 9 years of their life and have nothing to show for it…ooooop! yep I said it!