Independence: given or earned?

Welcome to the end of 2013. I haven’t posted nearly as much as I would have liked to. That one post since I started grad school? That was 11 months ago.

I’ve had a number of eye-opening experiences this year. It surprised me that my PI expected me to train undergrad students just a few months after I got here (not to mention of course the new graduate students). I wasn’t an undergrad very long ago…

As time progressed, I got the feeling (and now know for a fact) that my advice — think: tips and tricks — became very unwelcome to one student, I’ll call V. I’m really trying to pin down the cause of this so I can be a better mentor to future students, but it’s difficult. V and I are of similar ages, but V is a 3rd year BSc with two summers of lab work (including the one with me). I’ve run through a number of situations and scenarios but I can’t get a firm hold on why we’re not working well together. 

Since V plans to be a grad student in my department in the next few months, and her project will use a similar approach to mine, I thought it best to talk with our PI about the issue. Together, we think V just wants to be independent… to receive similar trust and the same “hands-off” approach from the PI that I get.

How do you allow a person their independence? I thought it was more privilege that was earned, at least in the labs I have been in. Is the best approach to be “hands-off” and let V figure out that the others in the lab can offer valuable advice?

2 weeks in

Well, friends, I have officially been a grad student for two weeks.

I underwent my first trial by fire, in which I was left alone (in my first week!) until 11 pm with important and expensive samples, and nothing went right! Fortunately, or perhaps luckily, I managed to preserve the genomic DNA and earn some respect. My supervisor was pleased with my decisions and my mad problem-solving skillz.

After that, I was feeling more confident. I think I’m technically prepared after my experiences in many research groups as an undergrad and as a technician for the past year. On the other side, though, all of a sudden I am expected to have a wealth of knowledge about everything. I’m reading so much just to get up to speed with what people already know, not to mention trying to discover connections from my own data.

My supervisor has been kind enough to have some data already, which I am wading through and attempting to analyze. S/he has never seen data of this sort before, so I’m pretty much on my own. I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed as I look up gene name after gene name and attempt to decipher any known function and categorize them into my own categories. I’m busy learning new software and finding new databases; and, surprisingly, also upgrading my Excel skills! 

What’s also crazy to think about is that there won’t really be anyone ‘checking my work’. Yes, I’m checking what I’m doing with other people familiar with these types of analyses, and making sure everything makes sense; but, I’m responsible for it now!

In other areas of my student life, I finally have some furniture (a desk and chair) and my bed will arrive this week. Obviously, my priorities are straight! My back sighed with relief when my desk came. I’m so happy to be off the floor – it means I can finally start studying for my class and doing some work & reading when I’m not at the lab.

In general, I’m very happy with my current area of research. Everything seems like a great match. I get along well with my supervisor, the students in the other labs seem friendly, and everything is exciting! The outline of the project I’m doing seems like it could very easily be PhD length. It’s a bit early to think about whether I want to roll over into a PhD, but I’ll evaluate things in a year!

Here we go!

Time is flying by, and I’m getting closer and closer to the big move. I’m moving 3700 km away from my friends and family to start that next chapter. What’s in store?

I am prepared to sell my soul to the school, the faculty, the department, and my supervisor.

I am prepared to love every minute of it, even when I hate it so much I want to quit.

I am prepared to contribute in meaningful ways and accept input from others.

I am prepared to be myself without regret. This means not settling for anything less than my own ideal.

I am prepared to start over. I am leaving behind tarnished memories and cheapened moments for the thrill of something new – new places, people, things, and ideas.

I am prepared to be sad. I’m also leaving behind treasured relationships and cherished times.

I am prepared to be lonely but I’m also prepared to put myself out there. I’m already in touch with several organizations to volunteer with and contribute my passion to!

I am prepared to sleep on the floor as I move into an unfurnished apartment – but I’ll make it my own.

To new memories, moments, relationships and ideas – never forgetting who I am, where I came from, and what I hold closest to my heart.

Trapped in a thermocycler

I’m not really sure how I ended up with a reputation at my current job for being a PCR machine, but most of what I have done for the last year can be summed up as such. I am a PCR machine. I spent 8 months during my undergrad working in a PCR diagnostic lab where I sometimes set up 2 or 3 96-well PCR plates in a day. I troubleshooted many things from primers to magnesium and I generally feel like I know stuff when it comes to PCR.

Perhaps I am coming of scientific age at ‘the right time’ for PCR?

I like PCR. It is sometimes boring, usually monotonous, and after a couple of rounds of the same set-up I can do it in my sleep. In short, PCR is relaxing.

But… PCR is only relaxing when it’s not the only thing you do! Perhaps I limited myself in not actively seeking out other projects in the lab, but let me tell you… once the PCRs got going, they kept me busy.

Perhaps it’s relaxing because I am reminded of baking. I think all molecular biologists would be well suited to baking. You mix up a recipe where the proportions of the components are very important. You heat them up either once or 20-40 times at a specified temperature for a particular time, then you take them out. You might want to color your cookies or ice your cake or stain your DNA before you set up a lovely plate / display / gel picture.

In conclusion, I will refuse to only do PCRs as a grad student. I will do them as necessary, which they will be, but for my research they will not be the be-all and end-all. PCR will be a means to an end! Maybe I will escape the thermocycler I’ve been trapped in. Fingers crossed…

Solidarity required

Today, December 6th, is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. Perhaps for the first time, this date and the greater story resonates with me. I am the same age as many of these women were when they were killed for being women in science & engineering. I read this post by Janet D. Stemwedel over at SciAm blogs: Thoughts on the anniversary of the Montreal massacre. Her closing paragraph was especially thought-provoking:

“And, when men speak passionately against women leaving their proper place to invade male dominated fields — when they go beyond placing the burden of proof on women to show they should be allowed to participate (rather than giving them the same opportunity as men to prove themselves) and argue that women’s full-scale participation will ruin science and engineering for everyone who matters — we cannot tell, just by looking, which of them may someday feel entitled to act on their convictions with weapons more deadly than words.”

My experiences might not be from fighting for tenure-track positions or negotiating employment conditions, but those men making snide comments to those at the upper levels of academia were undergrads once. I wonder if they’re learning their passionate opinions about the role of women in science from their professors – or if at the very least their pre-formed opinions might be reinforced by their professors. The stereotype & the entitlement demonstrated by some men doesn’t originate at only one place.

It would be nice to think that in 20+ years, things have drastically changed; but, a recent article in PNAS (Moss-Racusin et al.) demonstrated that both male and female faculty have a slight bias in hiring that favors male applicants over the identical female applicants. Editors at Nature published a editorial which revealed that, though their editorial & reporting staff is roughly 50% female, their referees are predominantly male (85%) and they have done only 6 profiles on females (out of 34 total) since 2011.

Biases aren’t violence. They aren’t murder and they aren’t massacres. But they might explain why stereotypes prevail and madmen madpeople still crawl out of the woodwork.

No food left here!

The other day, I described my current situation to my mom and concluded it with the statement, “If you’re late to the party, you can’t expect any food to be left.” Her response? That the hostess should have planned for the number of invited guests! I was offered an interview at another school, but I didn’t feel like I should take it as I’ve already made my decision to go somewhere else. I don’t really understand how the application process can extend into the month before the expected start date. If it usually takes that long, perhaps the deadline should be adjusted! Though perhaps I’m the only one who doesn’t like the timeline.

I am very excited to study at the small research university I have chosen. I have been a western Canadian my entire life and am looking forward to crossing over… haha! I leave in one month today! Not too many things to do right now, but many things to do in those 3 days after I arrive and before the semester starts. Oh well… Christmas is just about here so I can worry about those things later!

I’ve spent the last year fully immersed in a medium-sized research lab. I’ve worked in several smaller labs and I’ve been on the outskirts of a large lab, but this was a unique experience. I learned many things from the graduate students around me – both in my lab and elsewhere. Some of them are die-hards and so dedicated to their research that even they think they’re crazy! Others? Well, I have to wonder why they are in the program.

I know I sort of waffled around in my undergrad, I didn’t know how to figure things out for myself for a year or two, I didn’t understand how to maximize the opportunity I had. I like to think I’ve got it now. I don’t mean I’m a genius or that I know everything, I just mean I have a sense of purpose and direction. I may not know what I want to be when I grow up, but at least I know what path I want to be on. I don’t understand the students who work around me who don’t seem to be interested in learning information or new skills. (Plagiarism? Really? In grad school?)

For a lighter read – check out this letter from Letters of Note: Cowboys must be deranged. How can you call out a scientist – debench? unglove?

Decisions, decisions

I think I have finally made my decision. Every question I ask brings me closer to clarity, and other people’s input has also brought me closer. I feel a collective push towards one decision, and perhaps that is the universe’s choice for me!

This isn’t an official decision, and I’m still hoping for an extension on my deposit due-date, but I feel a little bit more at peace with all the craziness going on.

Dandelion quote

6 weeks to the new semester and I:

  • don’t know what school I’ll be at;
  • don’t know what city & province I’ll be living in;
  • don’t have a place to live;
  • must move out of my current place to my parents’, and then to undetermined location;
  • must finish my job;
  • have to register for classes;
  • etc., etc., etc.!

So you can see where the stress is accumulating… but each day is one more closer to the rest of my life!