Conference fun

I just wrapped up my first conference trip as a PI. I had a really good time--I saw and networked with old friends and acquaintances, made some new ones, had good conversations with good people to know (and to have know me). I got noticed for asking lots of questions in sessions. Exchanged business cards/emails and plans to swap seminar invites with some good people. I got asked whose lab I worked in a good number of times, but that was okay. I also got told I look like I'm 22, when I'm 31--good and bad... but not much I can do about it except try to look older. I dressed grown-uppy the whole time, so what else can I do!

Another cool part was that my sister was also here: she is a grad student working in physiology using similar techniques to me, so we decided to go to this meeting together to hang out. We were the famous sisters of the meeting--everyone in the organizational committee knew about us from our registration and hotel arrangements, and by the end most of the attendees knew of us as the sisters, too. We ended up hanging out at the bar after the closing dinner cruise with a bunch of the board members of the scientific organization that runs this conference, and had a blast. Nobody got messy, it was all good clean fun and lots of great conversation. My sister set herself up with their support to propose to run a student group in the organization--she'll be awesome at it!

I had my abstract invited as a talk, and there weren't many talks at this meeting so that was kind of a big deal (even though the meeting was small). My 10-minute talk went well, I kept it right on time and on topic, and got some good feedback from people who heard it. I wanted to show you all the fab shoes I wore for my talk, Isis-style, next to my beloved Marc Jacobs bag that I carried around like a briefcase the whole meeting:

These shoes are made by Sofft and have memory foam in the soles. They are so comfortable, I could walk all over all day and have no problems. LOVE them.

All in all, a successful meeting, and I'm glad that I submitted an abstract even though it is so early for my lab. The K99/R00 made it possible for me to have something to talk about so that people will start to know who I am already: yet another advantage that grant can give us for our transitions.


I've been inspired by Garrison Keillor and the Writer's Almanac on NPR to be especially introspective this morning--usually, I find him kind of pompous and sometimes irritating, maybe because I was prejudiced against his voice by my dad's story from sort of knowing him in his college days and finding him pretty snobby and above everybody around him. But he reminded me today of my love for language. I have a sort of synesthesia about it: certain words bring with them an affinity of associations, all kinds of synonyms, visualizations and abstract impressions that make them "feel" a certain way. Maybe from growing up in a family of writers and poets, or maybe from the huge volumes of books I ate my way through from as soon as I could read, or maybe I'm just emo.

Words that have no traditional connotations towards certain emotions can feel hopeful, bittersweet, repellent, comforting, funny or troubling. For example: the word 'keen.' Keen feels and sounds like longing and anticipation, grief and mourning but also hope and striving. 'Keen' feels both like an infinitely sad song from missing someone or something lost, and like a zippy, 50's optimistic outlook, a readiness to see something be started or come to fruition. There are a lot of contradictions there that really attract me, so the more disparate and complex the associations, the more nostalgic affinity I generate for the word somewhere inside my brain's process.

The same sort of thing happens to make hilarious (to me) jokes out of typos and inadvertent word misuse. Like when I always type "Thnaks" at the end of emails: it makes me giggle to myself every time because it sounds like a robot alien is signing my messages. Or my possibly most common typo: "-tino" instead of "-tion" at the end of lots of words. I always read it in an Italian accent and hear "attent-iino" or "interpretat-iino" and am amused. I also find mistranslations really funny, whether they go to or from English--anything that juxtaposes non-sensical concepts due to shuffling of the modularity of language can strike me as tear-inducingly funny. I guess that's part of where jokes come from within languages, but I usually find cross-language versions much more entertaining.

I also have aversions to certain words: like the word "moist." I hate that word. It just feels like someone with blubbery lips and a really spitty, mucousy mouth chewing something squishy with their mouth open making what my sister used to call "the gross noise" (as if it was so incredibly gross as to be defined as the one and only grossest noise of all time). I almost feel nauseated just thinking and writing about it. Ugh. Or the word 'copious.' I just think of the medical use to describe 'copious amounts of mucous' or 'copious amounts of stool.' Yuck. No matter how descriptive these words might be for something I am writing about, I just can't bring myself to use them.

These physical, emotional packages might be what help me explain my science to people who aren't familiar with the jargon of my 'field'--I can always find about sixty different ways to express a concept, since each word or phrase I initially come up with has a whole host of alternatives just under the surface that can be brought out with a hand/arm motion to go along with them. Maybe I'm too into communicating, maybe I think about this a little too much. But I find such satisfaction in having this richness of imagining and visualizing and characterizing available, I'd never want to give it up--and it makes me a little sad to realize that maybe not everybody has this. At the very least, I'm happy today to have this flow, because I need to sit and plan through my "lines" for my 10-minute talk that is happening on Monday, so thanks Mr. Keillor.

Sad students :(

So, I had to own up and deal with one of my other freshman mistakes today. I *WAY* overcommitted myself to rotation students at the beginning of the year. I don't mind having lots of them come through my lab, and besides it's always a gamble: how do I know which and how many of them will want to join? How do I know which and how many of them will do well on our science? There's no formula for predicting that, so I gambled with a big hand (kind of like how I did with my startup money) and flushed the lab with students to see who would pan out. I also EXTREMELY naively thought it would be FINE to take on 5-6 students, after all, lots of people have groups that size. What I forgot about was all the students who would be joining the program next year, and the year after that, and so on--typical noob mistakes.

These noob mistakes wouldn't bother me so much (I have no shame and just bonk myself on the head for being dumb), except that they affect the aspirations of some of those students. That I feel terrible about. Today I had to tell the two rotation students who are still to come through the lab that there just isn't any way I can hold a spot for them. I decided I had to let them know now instead of later, so they have the option of rotating somewhere else that will have a spot for them in the end. It is heartbreaking and makes me feel like such a bad PI for putting them in this situation. Particularly because one of them had deliberately saved my rotation for last with the hope that they could just keep on working here through the summer to get started on their graduate project. I know we have to learn to say no, and that overextending the lab and my own personal resources would not help anybody around here, but I still think saying no to hopeful students is one of the suckiest, craptacularest aspects of this whole job.

I've played a risky hand this year, not knowing how things would pan out. Most of my gambles have been paying off, and in a way this one did, but I can't feel victorious knowing that these students will have to settle for something that wasn't their first choice when they'd been really hoping that my lab would end up as their home.

Yay students!

I just got back from being out of town for about a week, and was kind of worried about the lack of frantic and/or data-containing emails while I was gone. But yesterday, they all pleasantly surprised me with various updates on cool data they'd obtained while I was gone. One group of rotation students has been working collaboratively on a new mini-project, and they had performed a reaction and gotten strange results. Rather than giving up and waiting until I got back to help them solve the problem, they put their heads together and figured out the possible chemistry issues and identified the side products, all by themselves. Not only that, but the chemistry they seem to have observed is really kind of cool, and something we might be able to get at least a new strategy out of if not even some intellectual property.

Also, yesterday was the due date for graduate student reports in my lab. Every six months, they are going to write up committee-style reports, tying together all their last few months of results, making figures out of their data, and just generally keeping up with where they are going with things. We'll be combining these with some goal-setting meetings where they will self-evaluate their progress and we will discuss and document their short and long-term goals. I had told them about the deadline a few weeks ago, and written it on the lab whiteboard calendar, but hadn't reminded them about it before I left town. When I got back, they'd all been working on it for the past week, helping each other out with editing and proofreading, and taken it very seriously. I gave them an official deadline of midnight last night, and this morning I had three emails containing reports in my inbox, all sent just before 12 am! So, they made their deadlines with no excuses, and all worked really hard to get these done while also producing all this cool data they had to show me.

It's a good sign for all of them, that they will rise to these challenges and goals that we make together. I'm really, really pleased with them all.

A little sciencey-diversity blogging

I usually don't get around to trying to say anything intelligent about specific science topics, but I heard this story about skin color on NPR yesterday and was intrigued and comforted.

Professor Nina Jablonski, head of the Penn State Department of Anthropology, has some new work out suggesting that human skin color is an even quicker adaptation mechanism than people have thought before. She says that the melanin production, and thus skin color, of a family group can change in as little as 2000-2500 years. For a group of humans living near the equator without modern clothes and sundry other protective things, those with more pigmentation will have more protection against UV-induced damage, and thus they will have an advantage for survival and reproduction, carrying on their melanin-producing genes to future generations. Makes sense, people have been thinking that for a while now, right? BUT the cool part is that if that same group of humans migrates up more north, where now getting MORE UV is important for vitamin D production, they will gradually LOSE their pigmentation through the same selection mechanisms and be white as the whitest Scandinavian within only about 100 generations.

So, yes, there is a "genetic" basis to racial differences in skin tone, but that genetic basis lies equally inside all of us (except for maybe true albinos), and we all have the same potential inside to be black, white, brown or anywhere in between. It's a simple function of geography and biophysics of UV+skin, and nothing more. I think that is beautiful.

Organization for the procrastinatorially-inclined, or: How I learned to get my shniz together

This is for Becca, and anyone else who feels like they SHOULD be able to organize themselves but just don't know how.

I am not a naturally organized person. Even though I am someone who is overachieving and neurotic, I still do not easily get myself together or keep myself on track. Lack of organizational industry runs in my family. I come from a long line of pathological procrastinators, who don't just procrastinate out of laziness, busy-ness or discombobulation, but take it as far as to procrastinate out of spite--to spite authority figures; to spite family members who they feel are nagging them; or even those who have only asked nicely and not nagged at all but who are perceived as nagging just for having asked; to spite even our very SELVES in some twisted, self-destructive, pointless way. As a result, we have a lot of incredibly smart people in our family who don't quite have their shniz together. Some far worse than others.

But the neurotic, type-A, pathological need for order ALSO runs in our family. We call it "the Bomma Gene." Bomma was my grandmother--she had to have everything JUST SO and made people around her conform to that with an iron will and iron Catholic guilt-complex skill. Her compulsion to control the situation led to some psychological damage along the way... (Getting any idea where the pathological spite procrastination might be coming from now?)

I've been working on finding the good parts of the Bomma Gene to harness them for constructive organizational use, something my Reuben Sandwich cousin is very good at. I've been dragging my procrastinatory butt forward, taking advantage of modern technology and my love for my job to make things a little easier. It involves a lot of planning, and sufficient time for reflection to strategize that planning (for me, that's my 165 mile a day commute). The main key is that it takes DISCIPLINE. You can't shirk on carrying out your plans. If you start making excuses, it's a slippery slope.

Here are some of my tactics, that really do work, even for fundamentally disorganized procrastinators like me. I used an extremely similar strategy as a postdoc, the only difference was that it was just for my own activities and not other people's as well:

  • Give yourself time to think. Being too busy to think is not constructive and doesn't help you get any more done. If you think you are too busy to think, then sit down, take a deep breath, and realize that the Western blot you're freaking out about is not going to be any more helpful if you do it by today vs. tomorrow or even early next week. I try to take an hour or two a day where I don't have meetings, don't have other work to do, and can just think about what's coming up short and long-term and how I want it to turn out. I do this for experiments and for overall project plans. I usually start this process during my drive in the mornings, and finish it sitting in front of my computer where I can type plans into my calendar (see third point).
  • Visualize the map of the next few weeks/months/year. This also refers heavily to the third point below. I use my thinking time to map my personal and lab strategic plan. For research stuff, I delineate what needs to happen, and who should work on it, what it will help us figure out and what it will contribute to our goals. For non-research stuff, I make sure I am leaving myself enough non-freakout time in between whenever possible.
  • Keep an active, live calendar. I use iCal on my Mac, but Outlook works too. Enter everything that comes up as it comes up (you can do this directly from your email with either application), but also do some long-term mapping. I put in long-term plans like grant due dates, target dates for finishing proposals, intermediate dates for checking on progress and meeting with people about it, target dates for manuscript submissions, family events and vacations, seminars I want to go to, recurring meetings, etc. Everything that helps me visualize where we are going and what we are trying to do.
  • Schedule time to work on different parts of a project. I put reminders and time into my calendar to do parts like "Think about overall proposal plan," "Look up papers on X topic," "Write background section," and "Work on figures." And then I MAKE myself stick to it except in extreme extenuating circumstances. I give myself a few hours for each, here and there. I also make sure I start EARLY EARLY EARLY because I KNOW myself, and I know if I don't start actively working on this stuff at least a month in advance, it will get lost in the many other things I accidentally plan for that same time period.
  • BE DISCIPLINED and make yourself do the things you know you need to do. There is just no excuse for backing out on yourself. Pull that shniz together and do what you planned to do. Even if some of the details change, stick to doing something rather than flaking out on yourself. It's like quitting smoking or deciding to eat fewer pizzas. There will be times you just want to listen to that soul-sucking, seductive pull inside that is telling you "It won't matter if I just watch TV instead just this one time... c'mon..." DON'T LISTEN! Pull yourself together. The more you practice doing this, the lower the activation energy barrier to doing it becomes. Soon, you too will be efficient and get shit done, and wonder where this person came from!

It's not easy to be organized if it's not naturally in you. It is not easy for me. I frequently find myself having to re-pump my flattening go-tires. I have to give myself peptalks, or talk to friends to get them to give me peptalks, or read blogs to keep motivated and inspired to push through the blahs. But if you can develop a little set of behaviors that keep you disciplined about little things, then you can expand those fractally into other behaviors too. It becomes a little game for yourself: Can I get these dishes done right after I eat dinner? YEAH! I did it! Can I knock off this series of emails to organize a meeting by this friday? YEAH! I did it! Can I get this proposal done a week before its due date so I can get some feedback from my mentors? SWEET!! I did it and it's in well in advance and the business office people love me! PEW PEW PEW I'm awesome!

Reward yourself by taking pleasure in those little accomplishments, and then reward yourself by scheduling in a nice weekend every once in a while (about every two months or so) of doing absolutely nothing at all but sitting around in your pajamas on the couch, eating chips while simultaneously watching Law & Order reruns and messing around on the internet. That's how I get myself to be organized.