Startup Careers

More to come on my transition out of the lab very soon, but here is a piece of writing I did in my new position as STEM Career Advisor – see Page 6 here: http://www.stjohns.edu/sites/default/files/documents/provost/march_2015.pdf

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Evicting my laptop from lab

I recently decided to shake up my lab routine and schedule in an effort to enhance my productivity. Many of my lab mates live in apartments right across the street from lab and spend long “hours” in lab but aren’t particularly engaged with their work or busy during that time. My commute is more like 30-40 minutes, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve been wanting to get out of some of the bad habits I developed near the end of my PhD – namely, spending entirely too much time in lab unfocused and letting the rest of my life and work suffer for it. At the end of my grad work it seemed like I was going to be there all the time no matter what I did, but I think trying to get work done efficiently and go on to get other things in life done is a much better lifestyle for me.

To start, I spent some time reflecting on the periods of time I felt most productive in the lab. Certainly those final pushes to the PhD felt productive, but those were narrow in focus with specific experimental goals. These days I am balancing a far wider palette of experimental goals and day to day tasks. It led me to think about the early years, when I was a super-productive undergraduate researcher, getting research done and doing lab management part-time while taking a full load of classes.

I started working in the lab in the summer of 2003 as an undergraduate. Looking back, this was an interesting moment to start lab work in terms of the role of computer in the laboratory.

When I was an undergrad, laptops were heavy things, phones were dumb, and texting was not a thing anyone I knew did. You didn’t haul your laptop from class to class. We had two lab computers that everyone shared and it was understood that you were to use those first and foremost for lab tasks. If you were just surfing the Internet, anyone with a science task to do had every right to kick you off. I definitely used the computer as a tool to find papers and answer lab questions but didn’t spend much time on it in lab. If I had spare time between experiments I would be making a buffer or prepping for the next experiment or restocking tips or otherwise organizing our laboratory space.

In graduate school, however, it was a different story. In two of the three labs I rotated in, everyone brought their laptops to work and immediately set them up on their desks first thing every morning. In the third lab, each member had a lab-issued iMac on his or her desk waiting on them. With a computer at my desk, especially my computer on my desk, the nature of downtime in lab started to take a shift. Certainly it would be possible to look up papers in those free moments. But instead of making buffers, I found myself checking Facebook (who hasn’t?).

When I moved to my postdoc, I found an odd mix of the same – a few lab computers that were shared for explicitly lab tasks, but everyone bringing their own netbooks and laptops and smartphones to surf the internet with.

At some point, I decided that having a computer there at the ready was doing more harm than good for my laboratory achievements. I figured that evicting my laptop from the lab and only using the lab computer for most tasks could help me focus on the work at hand and completing it in the most efficient manner possible, not in a manner that favors long sedentary periods at my desk.

I have been fairly satisfied with the experiment three weeks in. I find that I spend less time on the Internet overall – the websites that were tempting must-reads in between Western blot washes don’t have the same allure when I’m at home and could be doing other things. I do use my smart phone to look up information quickly and to keep up with the happenings of the universe via Twitter (and listening to NPR via the Public Radio Tuner). I still look for and read papers but it is a more concentrated search.

Moreover, I find myself getting a lot more done in lab. I’m reclaiming those tiny snippets of time that I was freely giving up to the internet with the small things that let one stack experiments in an efficient manner. I’m not perfect at it every day but I feel more productive and have the completed to-do lists and data attempts to prove it. The day the data attempts turn into publishable data, I will brand this experiment a grand success, but with me and my advisor being happier with my progress, I may already be at great success levels.

If I were starting a lab tomorrow, I think I’d encourage communal computers for accountability purposes in most situations. This is obviously an option best for scientists who have an experimental, not computational approach, but unplugging from the Internet if possible could attain similar results. Clearly qualifying examinations, dissertation writing, paper writing, and grant writing are exceptionally computing-heavy times where an individual really needs their own electronic space. For these situations, I’ve found the applications Freedom and Anti-Social to be helpful in attaining similar goals of distraction-free work. Freedom blocks Internet access entirely while anti-social lets you block specific distracting domains (facebook.com, twitter.com, reddit.com, gawker.com, nytimes.com, whatever suits you) for a specific period of time.

I do wonder about the current trends in lab design – a bench and a desk with a computer on it for every scientist – and how these trends influence the way we work. I don’t think that design trend is changing anytime soon but I do think it is worth examining our habits of work – first thing, get in and set up the computer or start the first experiment? – to help keep the communication and analysis tools we have at hand from impeding the work we set out to do in the first place.

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Constructive Feedback

Now that I’ve received notice that I wasn’t selected in the Nature Careers 2013 Columnist contest, I can share the audition post on constructive feedback that I wrote for it. Just like a grant, I look at this now, and see ways I could have made it better. Telling, really.

 

In an environment of continually shrinking funding and fewer jobs for more candidates, receiving an individual fellowship is a critical way for young scientists to set themselves apart from the pack. While I knew this from the start of my graduate career, as a postdoc I am still learning how to receive fellowship grant feedback in a way that improves my application for next time, rather than discourages my science.

Like many PhD students, my academic applications nearly always met with success, until I began pursing funding for my work. Suddenly finding one’s self in an area of intense competition – say, for the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships – can be a new experience. I applied for the GRFP as a first year student and felt pretty good about myself for achieving Honorable Mention on the first try. The next year, on the second attempt, Honorable Mention again didn’t feel as nice. The feedback was only somewhat helpful, or so I thought at the time – the proposal was excellent but could be better, and my science outreach activities as an undergraduate were outstanding.

Bolstered by this feedback, I persisted and applied for a Department of Defense Breast Cancer Predoctoral Fellowship. This was my first experience with a long gestation period for grant feedback, waiting almost six months. At the time, I simply saw that I did not get the grant and could not bear to look more closely for a few weeks. I sense that I am not alone in this desire to withdraw into my shell like a turtle at negative feedback – the American educational system, in particular, does not do much to prepare people for this requisite part of a scientific career, and the long hours put into the grant make it feel like a much more personal rejection than it is.

After a few weeks, I read the feedback and received it almost too eagerly, concluding that the project proposed was not worth doing. Later, when I wrote up the preliminary results for my dissertation, my committee members remarked that it was a shame the project didn’t develop into a publication. While the grant reviewer feedback was not the sole reason for abandoning the project – I encountered technical difficulties and another group published an alternate explanation for my results – but I do wonder if the doubt sowed by the reviewers made me less willing to push through on that project.

Near the end of my graduate career, I encountered the reviews while cleaning out my bench, and only then realized just how close I had been to funding at that time. With some strategic revisions, the application could have made it. Had I been more open and willing to discuss the reviews with my advisor – and had she pushed harder to look at them – perhaps I would have continued to pursue that project.

I entered my postdoc knowing that I would need to apply for fellowship funding, and the first one I received feedback from, the American Cancer Society, scheduled phone meetings with the program officer. Having that first conversation has bolstered my courage to call program officers to inquire about review discussions in the future; knowing you will ask questions about the reviews gives one a reason to really study them. Seven sets of feedback remain.

Clearly, receiving critical feedback is a key skill for scientists and one I admit I am still honing my skills on. The transition from trainee to independent research scientist requires one to learn to both listen to feedback openly and discern what to do with the feedback. The appropriate response is not to accept all feedback without questioning, nor is it to ignore the feedback claiming that reviewers don’t understand your brilliance. Learning to walk this line is a task best taken with trusted colleagues and mentors, and requires the courage to expose one’s work to even broader critique.

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Pondering Publications

I’ve been thinking about publications a lot recently – as anyone should be, in this funding climate. As a graduate student, I definitely fell into the mentality of seeking one good publication out of my PhD. Partly, this was due to the fact my project did not overlap with other work going on in the lab – to the point where I would counsel any incoming graduate student to pick projects that were part of the main focus of the lab, so they would have the opportunity to collaborate with others in the lab and wind up with several publications by the time they left graduate school.

As a postdoc, however, it is clear that I should have more publications to my name by now and it’s really time to start thinking in terms of publishable stories rather than perfection. There are a lot of perfectionistic tendencies that scientists have to un-learn, and I think this is one of them. I have a half-done story from graduate school that was going in interesting directions when another group published a well-done explanation of what we observed. I wrote up the work for my dissertation, but my outside reader pointed out that it was a shame this data wasn’t in a paper. Maybe it was my department or my advisor, but putting it out there when it was just confirmatory was never something we deeply considered.

Right now, I’m helping several students in the lab wrap up and write up their own papers, and am working on two of my own. Starting with an outline of the paper and what figures we need has been a tremendous help in shooting for a small story and not a perfect opus. Naturally, this outline reflects our hypothesis, and as the data comes in, it will need to be adapted to tell the story the data wants to tell – as my graduate advisor was fond of saying, “The data’s the data.” However, thinking of the overall context and goal does help move the tempo along.

Scientists on TV and in the Movies

In my last year of grad school, I listened to this NY Academy of Sciences Science & the City Podcast called “Celluloid Science: Humanizing Life in the Lab.” I’ve taken increased note of scientists in television and movies since then, and honestly – it’s hard to find a cool scientist on TV. I think the winner right now may be Lanie Parrish on ABC’s Castle, as a sassy, sensual, confident medical examiner who is seen inside and outside of the morgue and enjoys really normal interactions with the other characters. She has romantic relationships, she puts on dresses to go to social events and parties, she wears a classy suit on the scene. She’s insightful and good at her job. In the earlier seasons, there was a male medical examiner who was awkward and odd, that the other characters were uncomfortable around. The friendly ME is a much-welcome breath of fresh air for scientists on television.

The Sci & the City podcast pointed out there have been no scientific screwball comedies. There have been days in the lab where I felt my life was headed that way. The fact that David in Bringing Up Baby is a paleontologist is a key plot point (and Cary Grant is quite the dashing awkward scientist) in that classic, but I’m still mulling over the potential for a great scientific screwball comedy.

More recently, I finally got around to watching Losing Control, a movie I had been meaning to see for a while. It focuses on a graduate student who has become mired in the attempt to finish graduate work, and she feels it is holding her back from all the other parts of her life. It was a cute romantic comedy, a little predictable in some ways but I think that’s almost to be expected of the genre. If anything, the great thing is that science is accepted as a normal default mode – even if a bit obsessive and quirky – the way most other movies treat being any other profession.

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Scientists Have an Image Problem

I saw this article quoted on Tumblr back in the fall, but it had slipped my mind until the recent Girl Scout Advocacy Day. I was speaking to STEM director for Girl Scouts of Connecticut, and she told me a story about an event where they had female scientists come talk to the girls. The scientists came in jeans and sweaters for a Saturday event, and as the girls were just hanging out with the speakers before they got started, the girls asked, “But when are the scientists coming?”

The NewScientist article talks about the public perception of scientists, as measured by the “draw a scientist” test and a general look at scientists in movies and media. They link to Margaret Mead’s 1957 Science article, “Image of the Scientist Among High School Students.”

With great perception, Mead out that a negative perception of science not only means that students are less likely to pursue science careers themselves, but that they also feel negatively toward a future spouse having those careers, and that this seriously impacts the environment in which future scientists are going to school and the environment their educators are presenting science in. Of course, Mead only asks the girls how they’d feel about marrying a scientist, she never asks the boys – and that says a lot about the world then (and now?).

It doesn’t necessarily seem like a huge deal, but loneliness is hard. Kids today face so much pressure from bullying, and even into my 20’s, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” seemed to ring so true. Scientists are people, with feelings and passions and lives, and it’s important to clear the way for future scientists by showcasing who scientists really are – normal people with a passion for this particular way of thinking and this particular kind of work.

Other gems from Mead’s article:

“He works for long hours at the laboratory, sometimes day and night, going without food and sleep. He is prepared to work for years without getting results and face the possibility of failure without discouragement; he will try again. He wants to know the answer.”

I think that anyone who has survived graduate school in the sciences is at least in some percentage this person. Perhaps, however, in our rush to affirm the above positive image of ourselves, scientists lead other people to draw a similar conclusion to this ‘negative’ image in the paper: “He has no social life, no other intellectual interest, no hobbies or relaxations. He bores his wife…He is never home. He is always reading a book. He is always running off to his laboratory.”

One of my favorite recent efforts along these lines is This is What a Scientist Looks Like.  It certainly gives me reason to pause and ask what I’m really telling folks when I dash back off to lab.

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STEM Advocacy Day with Girl Scouts of CT

The Girl Scouts of Connecticut held their annual STEM advocacy day on March 7, 2012. I was a Girl Scout from second grade through high school, earned my Girl Scout Gold Award, and am a lifetime member of GSUSA. It’s am amazing organization – in a time when women couldn’t even vote, there were badges for circuitry and aviation. Almost every American woman who has been in space was a Girl Scout. Secretaries of State, CEOs – leadership to the core. As a scientist and a member of Women in Science at Yale, I’m super-supportive of STEM education. Clearly, this was worth slipping out of lab for the morning.

It was great to talk to girls from around the state and meet with legislators to talk about the importance of STEM education, particularly for girls. There was a press conference where one girl shared her story of STEM experiences through Girl Scouting and lots of legislators showed up to show support and have a rededication and investiture for the “legislative troop.” I had a great chat with a scout and her mom over lunch then went to more meetings – and sat in on the Public Health Committee’s public hearing for a bit – in the afternoon. It was a great day with people who are enthusiastic about seeing girls become leaders in science and all realms of life.

From GS of CT's Facebook

Learning about the Public Health Committee public hearing schedule, photo from GS of CT Facebook

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Unexpected ladies…

I had no idea that Menten of Michaelis-Menten kintetics was a woman.  You go Maude.

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A Bucket for My Thoughts

When you’re a graduate student in the sciences, it’s a given that you think about science a lot.  Even my friends who aren’t scientists know how science-driven my thoughts are, because they know:

  1. She’s in lab at all kinds of odd times when the rest of the world is hanging out, and
  2. No matter what you talk about, she’s going to bring science into the conversation at some point.

Early in my graduate career, I felt a bit guilty about my science leaking out all over the place.  This is a rather silly notion, now that I sit and think about it from the perspective of a senior student.  If you’re passionate enough about a subject to earn a graduate degree that takes roughly 20% of the total time you’ve spent on this earth thus far, of course you’re going to be excitable about the subject.  You’re going to bring it up all the time.  It’s like asking a man in love not to speak of his beloved, to suggest that one shouldn’t want to talk about their work.

This excitement does serve a greater purpose, though.  NPR’s 13.7 blog recently posted on the importance of scientists talking to the public in order to keep science and the way it informs our worldview in the public dialogue.  They give a great historical overview of how changes in science have changed the way we understand ourselves and humanity as a whole.

One line that particularly struck me was:

Only a well-informed population is able to make well-informed choices about science and the environment that will shape our future.

If that’s not a mission statement for scientists considering engagement with public policy, I don’t know what is.  It’s almost a call to arms, to take off the lab coats and put down the furiously scribbling pens, leave the lab on a semi-regular basis, and take up conversation with some people who haven’t thought about science lately.

So much of the current frustration in the US – from all sides – reflects the current futility and deadlock in the political process.  The civil discourse of days past seems to have left us for hyper-political soundbite wars.  If we are to ever restore the national dialogue to something other than a cacophony of simultaneous monologues, we must:

  1. Restore critical thinking to its proper place in education, which could also be stated as “teach and apply the scientific method.”  If the populace knows how to ask critical questions, analyze the information available, and evaluate actions based on that information, they are emancipated from the need to accept soundbite “facts” at face value.  This raises the bar for those who dispense soundbites and gives people a rubric through which they can think for themselves, instead of trusting someone else to think for them.  Thinking people will draw a wide variety of conclusions, but they’ll be able to back them up with something other than “someone I heard on the radio said so.”
  2. Teach the science and mathematics required to understand the problems facing us in the modern world to all students, not just those who go to college and specialize in those particular subject areas.  Looking forward into the genomic era, it’s an absolute shame that most universities do not require students outside of the life sciences to take biology in some form.  Moreover, not everyone goes to college, but everyone faces important medical decisions that require understanding some fundamental things about biology and risk.  How can a patient actually give privacy-related consent for a genetic testing procedure if they don’t actually understand how testing relates to their own privacy and the privacy of their family members?

In order to accomplish this goal, we would need to raise standards for how we teach science and math and for what we expect from all students.  Yes, people have different interests and abilities.  We have to stop telling people that math and science are for the super-geniuses, and instead treat math and science as fundamental skills that one is expected to have to function in society.  Reading does not come naturally to every student, but stopping at picture books is not an option our education system permits.  The same should hold true for math and science.  Math and science are critical to functioning in our modern world, but we are willing to let students stop at the mathematical equivalent of The Cat in the Hat because they find math hard.  Training your brain to work in new ways can be hard work, but to skip out on the task is to sign up for far more difficult work.

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