Back in work whirlpool…

…where days pass and suddenly you realize it’s the next week already, next month already, and you still keep planning but haven’t done any experiments yet, so it has to be a long hard-working day tomorrow and you’ll finally move it and rock it, and get stuff done, and then… then you get proofs of your paper, due in 2 working days. As always in science: it’s ying-yang, it’s “yey my paper’s getting out there” and it’s “oh no, another urgent thing to do ASAP and to postpone some other important things”.

Conclusions: I’m busy. But I have to write here more often: some good ideas I incubate might be lost in the end if I don’t.

Wish some people pushing for scientists to communicate more tried the scientific work whirlpool for a week.

Speaking of which, there’s a piece on science communication in my pipeline. Coming soon. Soonish. Ok, honestly, a bit later, when I breathe again…

The unhealthy conferences…

No, it’s not the buffet. Or evening drinks. It’s viruses. Just that.

It’s becoming a pattern – any time I go to an international conference, I end up sick the very second day. Despite it being a repeated experience, I never have paracetamol on me. So I ask around, get some from a hotel room-mate or run out in a coffee break, only to be hit by the cultural shock (no, in this country we don’t sell paracetamol in supermarket, you can only get some from a Pharmacy). And then I take my precious pills with my coffees and try to keep awake and even be social…

As fit for a biologist, I have my own theory on the matter. It is as obvious as unverified, and says that because of the mixing of people from different sides of the world – both met at the conference, and on your way at the airports and/or train stations – you get exposed to a range of new virus forms that your system is not resistant to. No ready-made antibodies, and you “fall like a fly” (as we say in the home country…).

So here I am, feverish, in my hotel room, hoping to survive the last day tomorrow and travel back. Because… yes – it’s science any-ways.

Want to write? Write.

Busy days, finishing another grant, this time working hard against the dealdine, that mercilessly approaches every day and… you know what? I feel almost ready! Having just written the fourth grant in a row to get funding for my project, I feel like I can describe it in so many ways now and approach my own work from different angles.

Well, despite what people tend to think, science is far from being carved in the stone – it’s a dynamic beast, changing every day you go to work! The art of research is to tame it, to give it a name, feed some warm milk, and after months of patience (intertwined with despair) finally have it crawl up your lap and purr – then you know you’ve got it. You got that project right.

But back to grant writing. The obvious truth, probably not unfamiliar to any blogger, is that the more you write, the better you write. Months of writing my grants (and before that my PhD thesis and papers) have made their impact and even if it was a slow process, I do think I’ve improved.

Hence, conclusions are simple today: if you want to write – write. Write regularly, write frequently, write, write, write. (And yes, they will still edit you, no matter how good you get 🙂 ).

Mobile scientists and the personality collage

People don’t change. Well, people also divide roughly in half (?) in the opinion on that matter. And yet, I believe we… grow. We evolve. We acquire tastes and habits. Reaching my 30s, I can’t help to wonder wether it is the property of the past 10-15 years of my life, or wether it continues on, into the old age. I suspect the latter.

How much we evolve and enrich ourselves, depends on how much we expose ourselves to. All the books, movies, plays. All the travels, people, events. Some of us consciously and carefully plan it. Being a lab-stuck scientist, one probably plans it even more. Wasting time feels like a heavy sin.

But another property of being a scientist is the never-ending (?!) mobility, that drags you and throws you from place to place, country after country. This vagabond life wears some off. I feel it makes me thrive. I love the new places, I love to learn and experience, it makes me feels alive. Somehow the fate has spared me the home-sickness so many people develop when abroad. Being European, I feel much more a Europe’s citizen these days than the citizen of the country I’ve left a few years ago.

What this mobility means, though, is that you keep picking up pieces and patches of the cultures you experience. Even the itchy and uncomfortbale at first, may well become familiar or even your habit.

The first cultural shock is always… well, a shock. You came to a new country and never even imagined that people could possibly behave and think in ways other than your home society. But in every next place you’ll live or visit, you will already anticipate those differences. You might even become curious of them, welcome them, observe, take mental notes for later (the last being possibly a science-specific behaviour).

Conclusions? Just opinion: I think it’s good. It makes you a more complex, but richer person. It surely costs you an identity crisis every now and then, but personally – I love it. Because you are what you make yourself into. And so maybe we do change?

Big labs are like big cities – on flexibility

Big labs are like big cities – you may feel lonely sometimes, but they grant you the anonymity.

I come from a little village, but living in a million-inhabitants city now actually feels good. I love to walk a busy shopping street and realize that nobody, not a single person, knows me! I feel FREE. The childhood nightmare of saying hello to any person in the street is over (most of the time I didn’t know who they are, but everyone in a small village knows the local teachers and their children; I still sometimes wonder how my parents take being such “public” people in that little, gossipy society).

Now about the lab. The bigger your lab is, the easier it is to hide. Or to stay home to work on your writing. I work in a small group now, 5 people and the boss, and I feel strangely exposed. Even though our boss never even mentioned the working hours, everyone seems to feel obliged to show up at lab.

Trouble is, my writing sometimes suffers, because there is just too much going on around me and I cannot reach a proper focus to achieve my writing flow state…

As a PhD student, I worked in a slightly bigger group, and if there was no meeting that day, I could safely stay home, given I actually had work to do. It was not welcome to do it all the time, but it was somehow easier to schedule your own time anyway.

Conclusions? No conclusions today. Just hope that my current boss will understand 🙂

Pipetting doesn’t make you a scientist!

Spending hours pipetting in the lab makes some people think they do big science. Well, they don’t. Not likely. It’s not about how much you pipette. It’s about what you pipette and what you do with it afterwards.

Now that I’m a post-doc, all I can think of while sitting and pipetting are all the grants I am not writing and papers I’d rather be working on. It feels like time wasted. And unfortunately lately, having a lot of optimizing to do, I feel like I’m a technician and not a scientist. Which worries me and makes me rethink my scheduling and my approach.

It is something people tend to get confused about. My own boss tells me that he finds it funny that in some labs post-docs have technicians working for them. I often think I really wouldn’t mind: let someone do my piepetting while I can do… well… the actual science.

It is what you do with your data that matters, not how much of it you manufacture. And don’t we all know it? The countless PCRs and Western blots that don’t account to anything? So, isn’t it smarter to sit down and do your homework: read, plan, design, analyse. Then, go to lab and pipette these few experiments that will actually matter.

Trouble is, working hard in lab is an easy excuse. Very often it is a perfect escape route into… procrastination. Yes! When you have to do your writing or data analysis, spending long hours in the lab or finding yet another experiment to perform is just a way away from the actual Science work you have to do.

And in the end, what will make you, are not the pipette-hours you put in, but the concepts you develop, the novelty you contribute and the… well, yes… papers you publish.

Conclusions… I suppose:

  • Whether you have the technician pipette for you or not, stop for a moment, sit down and read that paper stuck on your desktop for weeks; let it inspire you!
  • Plan your next experiment so that it means something…
  • …and maybe make a figure of it and write it down.
  • Science is done with heads, not with thumbs!

When the boss comes back…

Somehow when your boss is back form holidays, you suddenly feel all much more motivated to spend your hours at lab, isn’t it? That’s what seems to have happened last week. Also, my two-body-problem, aka my partner, returned from a 2-week trip over ocean (mostly conference of course). All in all, it’s been quiet here, but worry not – it is Science Anyways! Planning to be back with a post (still before my own holidays 🙂 ).

Procrastination, flavour I: The fear of the unknown, or the scientist block

If you did a PhD, you are familiar with all the shades and flavours of procrastination.

I am planning a longer piece dealing with it, but for today just a short note on the one, perhaps most difficult type of procrastination that touches our academic lifes.

The block of the unknown.

Yes, we strive to answer all those new questions, we are curious, we are motivated, we crave to discover, optimize, measure, find out! And yet.

Just like all human beings, we like our little routines. We like to repeat techniques and experiments that already work well in our hands.

I have recently observed I tend to postpone and struggle before trying a new protocol. The need to read through every step and prepare all the small reagents and buffers, as opposed to the smooth sailing across the known protocols, has been quite paralyzing. It might be because in my new job I need to optimize a lot. I mean: a lot. Trying a new thing occasionally is easier than having to try new things all the time… One really starts to miss the comfort of a routine experiment.

And yet, truth is that once I finally get set to it and do the new thing, it feels exciting, relieving, it brings on all the enthusiasm of learning something new and different.

And it is not only the labwork that suffers from this little block. Just today I finally launched a submission of a dataset I’ve been working with to a database – something I have feared for weeks just because the first time I looked into it, it seemed so complicated. Well, in the end it took one evening to sort out. And, I’m feeling happy now, because I just learnt something new and I managed.

So, conclusions of today:

  • This new thing you have to do and you feel stuck and blocked about – get out there and start doing it! And you will soon see that you actually can! It might even be fun 🙂
  • What’s more, this new thing, repeated twice or thrice, will actually become an old, comfortable, routine thing 🙂 So, it’s time to tame it.

The reflections of a young blogger, part II

I guess part I was the post on writing an anonymous blog, and how it should be an exercise for all of those complaining about their networks.

It’s been such a good feeling the past 2 days to finally see some people wandering by here! And although the truth is it is not my own success, but rather the heated discussion about the “Getting noticed…” piece that brings you here, it feels great that my words do not all fall into the darkness any more.

So, just taking the opportunity and saying hi! to anybody that wanders by!

Meantime, Science Anyways changed its layout. It suddenly became obvious to me that the previous font was small and gray, hardly readable. Why hasn’t it occured me earlier? No idea. Learning curve. But this is certainly the thing I’ve been realizing all along this little writing adventure: at every step there is something new you need to tackle and learn. But ah, we scientists love all the tackling and all the learning, don’t we?

Happy almost-weekend everyone 🙂