Resolve to Evolve

January is a time for cutting back after the decadence of December. No alcohol, no dairy, no spending. No fun.

I’m not doing any of these, but I have made some resolutions for in and out of the lab. Instead of just listing what I want to do this year, which wouldn’t make for particularly thrilling reading, I thought I’d say what I think makes a New Year Resolution that you can stick to.

Okay so the calendar is a human construct and New Year’s is therefore arbitrary but it’s still useful to draw a line for yourself.

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Choose something positive, don’t punish yourself.

I’ve always thought the idea of cutting something out as your resolution to be a bit of a rubbish idea, as January is such a dull joyless month in comparison to the previous one and deprivation makes you feel even more low. Resolutions suit me better if they are more “I will try a new thing (because it will make me happy)” rather than “I will stop this other thing (because I’m terrible for doing it)”.

Make yourself accountable

 

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This’ll liven up this blog post

 

Our first lab meeting this year, we all presented our goals for 2019. It was great to hear everyone’s ideas and it was useful to order my thoughts. Plus, sharing my plans will put pressure on me to do them. It’s like if you book with a personal trainer rather than just telling yourself you’ll go to the gym – it makes you a bit more accountable. I’m not saying my lab members will call me up and shame me for not sticking to my schedule (at least I hope not), but you spend so much time planning things alone in your PhD it wouldn’t be hard for something to get put to one side and never picked up again.

Track your progress

As a big fan of to-do lists, I totally subscribe to the idea of having big plans, but breaking them down into smaller jobs that you can do and you can record what you’ve done. Get that dopamine hit when you tick something off! If you hate lists do a photo series or something? Maybe you want to do a cartwheel this year (I don’t know your life), so video yourself every week trying one.

Have a reason for doing them

There are some things on the horizon to plan for and so I’m setting myself more specific goals to tackle them. This year I officially enter the third year of the project in April. Which is terrifying. It also means second-year review and an assessed seminar upcoming, and there is also a great Small Vessel Disease meeting in Paris in July that I’m going to and hopefully giving a proper research talk. For all of these I want to have something interesting to share, so I want to have some solid data to discuss and maybe even a ‘finding’ that makes people excited. This means thinking carefully about how to manage the next couple of months to get the best data.

 

 

Choose something specific and achievable

resolutions-3889989_960_720Making a goal like ‘Be more organised’ is infinitely harder than making your goal ‘Organise my folders/microscope slides/sock drawer’, or even better ‘Write down all my appointments in my new diary’. Basically, how will you know when you have become Organised Person™? And, oh man, make it realistic. I don’t mean make it easy, but If you are not a morning person, don’t make your goal ‘do a 10K run before breakfast’. You will not stick to it and you will feel crap about yourself.

Accept occasional failures

Science teaches you this but it’s so useful to have in the rest of your life. Sometimes you try something and it doesn’t work or you make a mistake – but you don’t give up, you work out what went wrong, you pick yourself up and try again. Maybe you slip up on your resolution but that doesn’t mean you’re rubbish or that you should stop trying!

 

So, feel free to ask me how some of my lab resolutions are going. And if you find I’ve had a drink, a bit of cheese or bought something wholly unnecessary, I’m probably okay with that but I’ll promise to stick to my PhD-based goals!

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Oh come all ye students

Oh come all ye students,

Postdocs and professors

Oh come ye oh come ye to seminar rooms

Come and see data

Raw, unpublished data.

Oh here’s my introduction

And here is what had gone wrong

Now here’s the main conclusion

Thanks for your time.

*up an octave*

Ask, crowds of scientists,

Ask your burning questions.

Oh come ye, oh come ye, to the microphone

Come and behold me

Try and field questions.

“What are the stats you’re testing?”

“I think you need to add n”

“A comment, not a question”

“Now one from the back.”

#happyfemalePI… a space for success

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make it in academia, and how I sometimes perceive myself as not necessarily cut out for it. I don’t mean doing a PhD, which I’m (pretty!) sure I can complete, but I mean continuing on the post-doc cycle, sourcing grants and making it through the horrible, horrible statistics to become one of the few female PIs in the biz.

Comparing yourself to the other PhD students at the same stage is a risky thing to do because all projects vary but I couldn’t help but think who out of my cohort would make a ‘good’ PI. The ones that sprang to mind are the ones that can reel off papers from memory, the ones that come in all hours of the night to churn out that data. That seems like the best way to succeed in academia, and that’s not me. So I guess I didn’t consider myself up to the job. Maybe I’m just more suited to something else. (Is this part of a whole other set of feminist and imposter syndrome issues? Perhaps, but let’s unpack that at a later date guys, I’m not ready right now.)

Then I considered the PIs I feel are not just good, but great. And it’s not the ones who got a string of Nature papers or the ones who work 20-hour days. It’s the ones who care about how their students are feeling, who really support their post-docs through their fellowship applications, who have time for a hobby or a cup of tea. These are the PIs who create an environment for students to succeed, where support is part of the package and they go beyond pushing out high-impact science. I’m lucky enough to know and be supported by some of these PIs and know that this will be a big part of my PhD career. These are an inspiration, but also seem like an achievable aspiration for me personally.

There is the image of a PI as someone who has no life, who has dedicated their whole self to their research. This is not something I’m willing to do. And it’s why I’m really glad to see a conversation on twitter called #happyfemalePI, where researchers are discussing how they live their lives alongside being PIs. Reading that one of my favourite PIs spends weekends hanging out with her husband and binging Netflix honestly gave me more hope and joy than I can say. And I know she provides a great environment for her students to work in.

I know that they will all have stressful times and pressures and late-night working. I’m on board with that being a part of the job – it’s just good to know that that’s not all there is to it.

What makes a good space for success? Well, it truly is whatever works for you. Some students have great confidence in their abilities and want freedom to explore their project as they see fit, while others benefit from more regular guidance. Inevitably students are moulded by their PIs and I am glad to have role models providing a template that I could potentially see myself following. If I reset my perception of my own abilities it might influence my ambitions – I’m not here to announce I’m fixed on becoming a PI, but perhaps if I reconsider the job description it could be something on the horizon after all.

Check back at the end of the PhD where you’ll see me write how I’m definitely leaving academia forever…

Planet Lab (The lesser known sequel to Planet Earth)

attenborough*David Attenborough voice:*

Hello, and welcome to this very special episode of Planet Lab where we will observe the scientist in their natural environment. Join us as we explore their varied habitats and delve into the strange and sometimes surprising habits of the PhD student.

Camera pans across a lab bench strewn with illegibly labelled eppendorfs, bits of parafilm, open pipette tip boxes and tube of antibody slowly thawing in a polystyrene box.

We come first to the small habitat, the bench space, where our PhD student is frantically pipetting indistinguishable liquids into a small plastic plate. Adept at using tools, they have developed these uniquely useless skills inapplicable outside this environment. See how their repetitive motions are almost machinelike, with little thought to them. It seems they have entirely forgotten the purpose of these actions and are now blindly following the paper in front of them.

scientistCut to next scene. The overwhelming whirr of the fume hood fills the windowless room, the camera follows a lab-coated figure as they collect numerous bottles, tubes and plates, initially spraying each individual item painstakingly with a translucent spray bottle, then seemingly getting bored and spritzing everything including themselves liberally until all is slightly damp.

With the smell of ethanol fresh in their nostrils, our PhD student enacts a curious ritual with these orange-topped flasks. Their movement from one large container to another and the replacement of coloured liquid is at once intriguing and incredibly dull.

The living cells within offer no nutrition, no entertainment and, often, no data. A strange pet to have chosen, we do not fully understand what the PhD student gains from this relationship, but it is clear that it is extremely important, as they visit every 2-3 days to provide nutrition to these tiny creatures, even at the expense of their own personal time.

Screen cuts to black… or so it seems. A small white light illuminates a drained face with wide eyes, fixed on to a computer that slowly comes into focus. The dotted marks on the screen, however, do not come into focus. The imaging is not going well.

scientist 2.jpgHere we join our student in one of the darkest of their habitats. The blackness of the microscope may be to protect the immunofluorescent slides, but it also serves to lull the PhD student into a stupor akin to intoxication. All time is lost here in the darkness, the slow flicker of the laser instead acting as the second hand of a clock counting down the minutes until the student must vacate to make room for the next user. They adjust and then re-adjust settings, muttering “real or artefact?” under their breath, though it is unclear who they expect to answer.

Wide shot of a room filled with lines of chairs, people seated and facing a large projected screen. In front stands a more-smartly-dressed-than-normal figure, small beads of sweat forming on their forehead.

Much like the lone gazelle on the savannah, the PhD student stands alone while the circling predators look on. Instead of the desire to pull flesh from bone however, the predators’ minds are filled with the desire to pull sub-par statistics from Graphpad graphs. Our student is talking loudly despite their dry mouth and is using a laser pointer to gesture despite their shaking hand. As they reach their conclusion slide they visibly brace as hands are raised. One predator – or PI as they are known in this habitat – makes more of a comment than a question but no-one seems to mind.

……

Join us next time on Planet Lab where we will revisit our student in a new habitat, the ‘desk’ where we will discover how much they have to snack in order to cope with analysis sessions.

Planning for action

The timing of your experiments can make all the difference. Putting things in place can help you get the best out of your day, your week your month or even your PhD *clapclapclapclap*

I’m not keen to be preachy and tell you how to run your life, cos I mean frankly what do I know, but I do love multitasking. So here’s how I try to be efficient!

Short-term planning 

“The drug was incubated with the cells for the amount of time it took the researcher to have lunch.” 

Scheduling your day effectively can mean you fit more experiments in but it can also mean you have working hours that fit with your preferences. On a Monday I tend to lay out my week using this planner thing I got on Amazon which I love and helps me see what the week ahead can look like. When I arrive each morning I make a days to do list and put in timings too if I can. I know, horrendous isn’t it, but it helps me feel like I get stuff done every day and reminds me to get smaller tasks like emails done. If I have a long incubation I’ll plan what I do with that time… another experiment? A break? Remember, there’s always time for lunch if you pick your timepoints well!

Sometimes I end up with lists of my lists.

 

Medium-term planning 

“This similar reagent was substituted because the researcher had run out of the one in the protocol.” 

When you’re organising a new experiment there’s definitely a balance to be struck between rushing something and overthinking it. I’ve definitely done both. If it’s something you’ve done a dozen times there’s no point in spending a day planning but if you’re trying a new protocol it’s absolutely worth an extra few hours making sure you know where all your reagents are, what order you’ll need everything and fully understanding all the steps. Okay this sounds super obvious but when I’ve been excited to get going on an experiment I’ve not checked these things and ended up in a wee bit of a flap mid-experiment. However, over-planning can be bad too. If there’s something you’re reluctant to do because you’re not confident with it, it’s tempting to plan and plan and plan to the most infinitesimal detail. My advice is, just do it! Have a bash! Maybe less so if its scRNAseq and costs you £10,000 a pop, although there will always be a first time you do every experiment and it probably won’t get less scary. Always ask yourself what is the actual worst thing that could happen.

Some protocols I need to do!

 

Long-term planning 

“This hypothesis arose when the outlier was explored rather than discounted.” 

I was going to say that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint, but I realised that analogy is pretty pants because a marathon has a defined route, a specific endpoint and no hurdles. While its true that you have to pace yourself throughout your PhD and that this requires a long-term plan, what’s important to know is that the route will almost certainly change and so must your plans. It’s absolutely worthwhile having overall goals, dividing your project up into aims and objectives (big presentations and lab reports helped me do this!) but being adaptable is so important. Tracking your progress and knowing more or less where you’re heading is the best approach, regularly reminding yourself of the broader aims. The PhD marathon is more like orienteering, but you will still need helpful stewards (post-docs and friends) along the way to pass you protein shakes (wine) and maybe chuck a bottle of water in your face (figuratively. Probably.)

Racing to get that nature paper.

 

Footnote: I told my husband I was publishing a post about the efficient use of time and he joked that it wasn’t an efficient use of my time. Well JOKES ON HIM I wrote it on the bus.

Why Bother Doing SciComm?

A friend of mine recently attended a Richard Dawkins lecture, and was shocked at the questions that followed. Not because they were provocative or controversial, but because of how little they had to do with his background as an evolutionary biologist. It reminded me of when my supervisor was recently interviewed in her role as a consultant neurologist about the future of the NHS and was asked questions about organ transplant, something she has nothing to do with as an MS researcher or as a practicing clinical doctor. I’ve also had similar experiences on a much smaller scale, when people I’ve just told I am a PhD student will ask me questions about cloning or gut bacteria or something.

I think there’s a myth that scientists are all super informed about everything. Lots of people definitely assume we’re all part of a homogenous group that all know the same stuff. In fact, one of my most hated phrases is when a news reporter will say “Scientists say…” as if we’ve all got together in a room and made a big decision about cancer treatments or something.

Brian and the bourbon
He loves ’em

The last big meeting went terribly because Brian Cox ate all the bourbons so we had to stop doing them…

Anyway, I wondered if because people see us as one, and because they just don’t have exposure to “a scientist”, when they do it’s a chance to get all those burning questions out there. This is really a failure of scientists that we don’t make ourselves available, approachable or accessible to the general public. I really do think that communicating your science is so important.

 

I attended a SciComm summer school in July called STEAM and learnt a lot from the people I met there about the different ways we can share our science, both with the public and with other scientists. It was a really cool experience –doing placements or summer schools as part of your PhD can be a really good addition to your CV as well as being a bit of a change of scenery in the lab. Mine was in Malta as well! (though we did spend most of the time inside the university so don’t feel too jealous, the pictures below are highly unrepresentative of my two weeks there! See my post about Pinterest-perfect life  to see what a hypocrite I am). It did spark ideas about the sorts of ways to build your SciComm experience and made me more confident in my abilities in this area.

Malta collage

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Me doing science stand-up comedy.
Yes really.

I’ve dropped off with my blog the last few months because I wasn’t sure what I was trying to achieve with it any more. Now the new academic year has started and we’re welcoming new students to the lab, with all their enthusiasm, questions and just a pinch of terror in their eyes, I think I’ll start up again. Documenting my time as a PhD student is important not just for students to see what a PhD entails but also as a record for myself to see how I’ve progressed. I also think that better visibility of scientists can only be a good thing and if we can provide lots of different platforms for people to ask questions maybe they can be asking the right people and getting the best possible answers.

 

The paradox of feedback

When you’ve made something yourself, whether it’s drawing a giraffe, baking a cake or writing a first-year-PhD report, it’s often hard to show it to someone and hear what they think about it. When you’ve spent time on something you want people to like it… unless it’s 100% just for you I suppose, but hiding your drawing forever, eating the entire cake alone or never submitting your report are maybe not the best ideas.

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Three things I made, a doodle, a strawberry cake and a 1st year report… probably should be an artist I reckon.

I’ve heard it said that advice is freely given but rarely taken, but in science we are constantly sharing our data with our colleagues and looking for ways to improve it, so taking feedback on board is really part and parcel of a scientific career. If you lived in a bubble of your own thoughts you would miss out on making your work a lot better, and I think that applying the scientists attitude of readily accepting feedback helps me to be better at other things too.

Recently I have been working on my report, trying to write up my seemingly haphazard experiments into a coherent narrative. I mean, everything I’ve done has been for a purpose but after just a year I don’t exactly have ‘findings’ so putting together something that feels meaningful was a little challenging. It’s also been a while since I wrote in a scientific way rather than for a general audience so I did feel a bit out of practice. I had a go though and put together a draft to show my supervisor to get some advice on improvements.

Recently I’ve also had a number of presentations and lab meetings, showing this data and explaining my work. People can point out flaws, ask for more details and make suggestions on what you could be doing different. It’s an environment where people can and often should be blunt with their advice, there’s not a lot of time and people often know more than you.

What’s terrible about feedback is realising what you’ve done wasn’t quite good enough, and thus showing off your creation feels foolish. Especially when the feedback seems obvious – perhaps you forgot to add the neck on the giraffe, used salt instead of sugar in your cake or forgot that the results section isn’t just a list of chronological experiment but a story of your work. It can feel a bit embarrassing to say the least, though of course it depends on how the advice is delivered. If you’re made to feel stupid it’s pretty gut-wrenching, though I have to say that all the feedback I’ve received about my report and about my data has been delivered pleasantly and helpfully – it’s my own mind that says ‘what were you thinking?!’.

What’s wonderful about feedback is that it means you have the chance to be better. Learning to accept criticism as a useful tool will make you better at whatever it is that you’re doing. Hearing advice makes some people resistant and close their ears, perhaps saying that they know better or that the advice is no good anyway. But this defensive reaction could mean that they’re missing out on improving their artistic flair, their baking skills or their report-writing ability (or whatever it is they’re getting advised on!). Taking the funny feeling of not being good enough and turning it into a feeling that you will be soon makes it hopeful, not humiliating. Listening to enough advice could make you the best! (Then you can give the advice yourself). A quote from the wonderful Eugenia Cheng, mathematician, science communicator and baker extraordinaire, said that if you feel stupid for not knowing something before, it just means you are smarter now for knowing it! I try to keep this in mind.

So, I say, always listen to feedback and act on it… but that’s just my advice…