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…

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How I have Conferenced

How to Understand Talks when you’re not the best auditory learner

Different people learn in different ways and if you’re someone who’s instantly able to follow a talk without much prior knowledge of the techniques or topic then Congratulations, and please teach me. I try to take lots of notes during the talk, from the basic background slide to the main findings, then if I’ve got time I like to go over those notes a little later on (sometimes on the bus) and remind myself what was good about it. This often helps me make links between different talks I’ve heard and also to my own work. I make notes in the margins of all the papers they’ve suggested that I look up later and save to my Mendeley library (possibly never to be read). I do all this because it keeps me switched on throughout the talk and helps me understand, also I’m a big ol’ nerd. Sometimes people take no notes and seem to take it all in, so it’s whatever works for you. I’ve decided to not be ashamed that I have to scribble constantly even if the person next to me is very calmly sitting with their hands crossed.

Currently I’m challenging myself to ask more questions in seminars, so what I’m trying is to write down questions that occur to me. I’m finding that many of them were valid as they get asked by PIs or I discuss them afterwards with others so it’s giving me more confidence. I’ll be sticking my hand up constantly in no time I’m sure.

How to give a talk if you’re a rollicking bag of nerves

My experience here is minimal having done only 2 talks actually at conferences and frankly I struggle to keep that laser pen straight when pointing at the slides. I know all the tips and tricks like breathing slowly, stepping forward, looking at the audience, but I go into fight or flight mode and feel like I’m racing through my slides. The hardest part for me is the questions cos you just don’t know what’s a-coming. ‘Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance’ I have heard and the more good experiences I have with presenting the better I hope I’ll be. Try watching this video about stage fright instead of asking me.

How to Network when People are Scary

Stand with someone you sort of know, there must be someone there who looks vaguely familiar. Even if you don’t remember their name and they’ve not deigned to wear the awkwardly placed but essentially useful nametag, just give a friendly smile and see if they remember you. Although if they’re with a bunch of lab pals this is infinitely harder. Don’t try to integrate here, you won’t get their in-jokes… As an alternative, speak to people at the posters, or try speaking to someone you randomly sit next to.

Bond over something shared. Maybe for you this is actually science – good on ya. If they’ve given a talk and you loved it, tell them, if you’ve questions, ask them. For me I like to bond over food. “ooh these are nice aren’t they”, “I’m going to get one of these flapjacks” and other top quotes. Okay so it’s not ground-breaking but it eases me in. A top tip I heard is at the drinks reception, get in and pick up two glasses (don’t down them both, no) and walk over to someone you want to chat to. Get your opener in (“Nice talk wasn’t it!”) and then if the conversation goes terribly say “I’m just going to find my friend”, indicating the glass. If the conversation goes well, you can offer them the other drink and say “I can’t find my friend, do you want this?”. If they’ve already got a drink then I don’t know… stick it down somewhere.

The most important things to remember here is that they are all literally just people. Intimidating or amazing scientists, they may still have a hole in their sock and that might just normalise them a little.

How to handle the snacks when your instinct is to shovel food and drinks into your face (and bag)

Whether the food is excellent or adequate, there’s the student in me saying “IT’S FREE”, there’s my Nana’s voice saying “DON’T WASTE” and there’s my belly saying “I’M STARVING” and inevitably I end up with a pile of tiny sandwiches and mini bhajis that I never meant to get. At the risk of this becoming a dieting advice piece, my new technique is to just take some of the stuff, then go back for more if I’m still hungry. Also with the drinks, free booze is obviously amazing and great science chat can be directly related to imbibed alcohol but you gotta read the room. The risky bit is if they’re topping you up!

How to stay engaged when you’re a bit overwhelmed

The scientific holiday of the conference is always interesting and often inspiring, but it can be a bit much – talk upon talk for however many days. Take a wee break to think about what you’ve heard, enjoy the social bits, switch off. Also, wear layers as you don’t know what the temperature in the room(s) will be so you need options. Avoid the photographer and consider playing conference bingo.

Women’s History Month

The road to success will always require choosing the right route, knocking down some roadblocks and laying some new tarmac. We have to be grateful for pioneers who have gone before us and started this off, making the first part of our journey that much smoother.

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The suffrage movement in the UK in the early 20th century demanded for a roadblock of inequality to be taken down, eventually got sick of waiting and ended up using a great big steamroller of a movement to clear the way. In 1918 some (not all) women got the vote, and later that same year they could enact their right in the general election. When we go to the polling station now – if we remember to go at all – we forget that the walk to get there is so smooth simply because someone else paved the way.

Women in STEM have to be grateful to past pioneers who have laid the groundwork, making it easier for us to have equal opportunity and I don’t just mean Marie Curie! Many of these women really fought hard battles to make their mark, often undervalued and occasionally demeaned. While the first woman to get a Nobel Prize and the only one to get two is an amazing example, for most of us she’s maybe not a realistic role model. Also she died as a result of working with radioactivity so maybe not the best one either. So here’s a snippet of some women you might not know have made the road it easier for you by their pioneering actions.

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The first British woman to be paid for scientific work in the 1800s was the astronomer Caroline Herschel, who was the assistant to the Kings astronomer (her brother) and was paid £50 per year salary, so just a bit more than today’s PhD students…! Over the course of her career she became recognised in her own right, discovering eight comets and cataloging hundreds of stars through her nightly telescope viewing.

 

sophia

Sophia Jex-Blake absolutely smashed the system back in 1869 when she and four other women were famously the first women in the UK to go to University, studying medicine right here in Edinburgh. The opposition was unbelievable – at one point they were mobbed on their way to a lecture and, in the end, the University refused to award them their degrees. She still qualified in Bern a number of years later and went on to help create the London School of Medicine for Women.

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Ellen Richards got herself into MIT to study chemistry, at a time when they didn’t even admit women. She didn’t pull a Twelfth Night or anything, she just was adamant that’s what she wanted. In the late 1800s being the first woman to be accepted to a STEM college was a pretty big deal and she went on the make a name for herself not just as a trailblazer but with a key role in the understating of sanitation in water, air and food. She was the first female professor at MIT and her work led to water-quality standards and the first sewage treatment plant in the USA.

 

lise

Lise Meitner was the first Physics professor in Germany, working in nuclear physics, and she was a bit of a powerhouse, pun totally intended. She and Otto Frisch led the group that discovered nuclear fission, publishing their findings in 1939. They had collaborated with another Otto, the chemist Otto Hahn, on radioactivity and shared ideas to bring it all together. Now controversially, only he was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission in 1944, partly because he had downplayed a lot of her involvement since she was forced to leave Germany – being a woman, a scientist and Jewish it wasn’t exactly a safe place for her to be. She was awarded other notable prizes and even has an element named after her now, but it still stings a bit.

My journey so far in science has never made me feel discriminated against because of my gender, with the quality of science feeling like the most important measure, but I know this isn’t everyone’s experience. Along the way, I’ve also been guided by a series of women who’ve inspired me and made me realise I could pursue any sort of career. In this sense, I’ve been extremely fortunate because it’s hard to dream something you don’t know exists, which is why representation and role models are so important.

As we celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote, it feels like there are new paths being cleared now, that the suffragettes might not understand but would hopefully approve of. The social media movements, women’s marches, shifting of attitudes in Hollywood and the wider impact this might have. It seems more “talked about” but it’s also hopeful to see more tangible actions. This includes the TimesUp legal fund which should, at least financially, enable women lacking funds to take on sexual harassment. The publishing of gender pay gaps should force companies to acknowledge that there are faults in the structure of the system. Whether it’s big moves or small moves, all these things are part of clearing the way to make equality a reality.

votes for women

We have to be grateful for these women, for those who fought to get us the vote, for those who led the way with their research and for those we see around us now showing what’s possible. We also have to remember to not just follow their path but clear it, widen it and take it further to make the journey for those women behind us just that little bit easier.

A lot of this info on women in science came from “Headstrong – 52 women who Changed Science – and the World” a really cool collection of short biographies of past scientists who made big impacts on their fields. Read one story a week and in a year you’re better off…

The brain wants what it wants

Roses are Red,

Their stems are green.

Love is just oxytocin,

Serotonin and dopamine.

We associate our romantic feelings with the heart, but as we understand more about the science of love we now know it’s all about what our brain is telling us. Something I’ve read is the concept that the only thing you really enjoy is the release of neurotransmitters… which is true I guess.

Theories in the 19th century first proposed the idea that emotions came from our body’s reactions to stimulus, which is certainly true for things like fear. Stimulus we experience cause the release of different factors, which builds connections and associations in the brain. Certainly, when we repeatedly experience something enjoyable with a particular person we build a positive association with them. On Valentine’s this year ask yourself… do you really like them or is it just science!

Biological anthropologist and scientific advisor to Match.com Dr. Helen Fisher suggests we fall in love in three stages, distinguishable by the different factors our body releases. First, testosterone and oestrogen drive us in lust. While we associate the former with men and the latter with women, both play a role in lust whoever you are – higher levels of testosterone are associated with higher levels of libido, true for both sexes, as it’s released by the adrenal glands in men and women. The initial rush of feelings when you spot them across the room, that ‘love at first sight’, well it’s most likely your hormones’ reaction telling you that individual is lookin fine.

Then a trifecta of neurotransmitters, those chemical signals between neurons, take us through the attraction stage, where we obsess over the object of our affection. The first neurotransmitter is dopamine, which activates the reward circuit, making love a pleasurable experience – as this is the same neural pathway involved in addiction, it’s little wonder that people do crazy things for love. A second neurotransmitter is norepinephrine, similar to adrenaline, which is key in fight or flight situations – in this context it’s what makes your hands sweat and your heart race when they’re around. Interestingly, we think about these same physical responses very differently depending on if we’re standing in front of someone particularly exciting or a great big bear. The third neurotransmitter is serotonin, linked to mood and appetite, among other things. It seems that there’s actually a reduction in serotonin during the attraction stage, similar to that seen in people with obsessive compulsive disorder, which might explain why people are often so obsessed in those early, heady days. So in this phase you’ve got addiction, excitement and obsession… sound familiar?

Finally, Dr. Fisher suggests, we move to the attachment stage. Here, oxytocin and vasopressin released by the hypothalamus, stored and secreted by the pituitary gland, are involved in solidifying long-term commitment. Oxytocin is known colloquially as the cuddle hormone, as it’s released by nursing mothers. It’s also released during orgasm –  in both experiences it’s all about bonding.  This stage of love is where we form strong bonds with our partner through shared experiences and it moves on from the attraction stage (which gives us a chance to get on with our normal lives.)You might be surprised to know that a decent portion of our understanding of these two neurohormones in love comes from studies in voles. There’s a monogamous prairie vole and a promiscuous montane vole that have been studied and provided a significant amount of data we’ve since applied to humans. The monogamous vole has higher amounts of oxytocin and vasopressin as well as a higher number of suitable receptors. Blocking the secretion of the key hormones made the commitment of the prairie vole waver, but giving extra to the promiscuous vole didn’t change their behaviour, as they didn’t have any more receptors to receive the increased signal. So maybe the amount of these androgen receptors is linked to the nature of our monagamy…

So whether you’re feeling lust, attraction or attachment this Valentine’s day (regardless of whether you think it’s a load of commercialised nonsense or not), forget blaming your heart, start blaming your brain.

P.S. To my husband, who probably won’t read this anyway, OF COURSE my love for you is not just neurotransmitters…

 

**it’s come to my attention that the last couple of posts have been “Private” not “Public”… so this is no longer timely! Here it is anyway…**

Polishing, Publishing(?)

This month has been a little hectic as we scrambled to organise the final parts of a paper to submit. I’ve been working on a number of experiments for this and I’m excited to get my name published on a paper as it’ll be a real something to show for my efforts. In the PhD process there’s not many measurable successes like exams where you can say “ah yes, I’m doing well/terribly” other than your own self-assessment or the words of your supervisor, so having an achievement like a publication will be satisfying if nothing else.

After a fair amount of work, things have fallen into place and we have submitted so now we simply cross our fingers and hope that reviewers are pleased. This is actually a bit like exams, handing in your paper and hoping that you’ve done enough! I had a really niche problem the day before the (admittedly self-imposed) deadline where I was trialling antibody upon antibody to get the final piece of the puzzle and it was a bit frustrating but when you’ve a fixed idea based on a reviewers comment you can’t exactly luxuriate in trying lots of different approaches and see what works best.

Part of me will miss the preparation for the paper as it’s quite pleasing to have a sort of laser focus with a really specific end goal in mind. There have been particular figures that I actually want to produce, I know what they need to look like and I know how to get them there… I have just needed the cells/assays to behave. Now the meandering exploration of the PhD proper is daunting in a new way… but exciting. Onward!

The Fairy tale of Academia

Sang to the tune of The Pogues Fairytale of New York

It was Christmas eve eve
At the lab bench
A post doc said to me
Won’t see another one
And then he hit submit,
A Nature manuscript,
I turned my face away
And dreamed of first authorship.

This labworks nearly done
Screw you, reviewer one.
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s when we’ll publish.
So Happy Christmas
I love you science.
I can see a better time
When my h-index is high.

They’ve got funding that’s stunning,
They’ve got grants to behold
But the work is just constant
And this we were told.

When I first joined the lab,
On a cold weekday eve
I wondered if Nature was waiting for me.

There’ll be data
There’ll be graphs
Therell be plenty of cash
When the labs finished working
Theyll go back for more.
The PI will be grinning
Fellowships we’ll be winning
We submit on a weekend,
Accepted next day!

The students of the PhD cohort
Will be pipetting happily
And the paper will be out
For all to see.

Jingle Cells

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Jingle Cells, Jingle Cells

Jingle through the lab

Oh what fun it is to stain

and visualise with DAB

 

My friend Sarah is very talented at knitting and made these festive cells as decorations for the lab and I LOVE them. From left to right: astrocyte, endothelial cell, red blood cell, neuron and stem cell. The Santa hats are an excellent flourish.

Christmas is nearly here and the lab is emptying out as everyone heads home. My last day is tomorrow and I’ve been trying to wrap up experiments like I wrap up Christmas presents… bad joke.

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Something I’ve managed to do is a podcast episode with a few others from our SCRM science communications group Team RegeneratED. We recorded it in a tiny little room in the lab which none of us had noticed before. Very Room of Requirement. You can listen to our podcast here! Hope you enjoy it and if there’s any advice, we’re looking to make more podcasts in the new year.

The first half of the podcast is a SCRM scientist talking about their work. I had a great interview with Elaine Emmerson who is a new group leader at the SCRM. I really enjoyed learning about her reserach and I also found it interesting to hear about her career progression. What she said about realising that your own ideas were valid and interesting has actually really stuck with me since the interview and I think it’s something I need to work on too!

The second half of the podcast is a very serious discussion about the Science of Santa and his liver health. No, really. I made some questionable calculations about how much alcohol Santa is consuming on Christmas eve and we got a liver expert, Phil Starkey Lewis from the Forbes group, in to tell us how much cirrhosis we could expect in Santa…

 

Merry Christmas everyone!