Chicken-gate and hate

So it turns out I’ve been living under a rock. Or rather the deep, dark, painful cloud of the worst fucking case of sinusitis ever. The little bit of time I spent at work last week, I was high on benedryl, mucinex, advil, cough drops, and any other legal drug that promised to make the pain stop.

The first I heard about Chicken-gate was a status post from one of my FB friends – a close friend, nearly family, for many, many years – that she was waiting in line at Chick-Fil-A with 28 other cars. While I definitely have a soft spot for their fried chicken goodness, I didn’t understand why anybody would wait that long in line for a greasy splurge. Five days later (yesterday) I stayed awake long enough to watch some missed episodes of Daily Show, while sitting at home, trying to recover, with a new box of kleenex and humidifier, and I learned all about the bad, bigoted, evilness to which my friend was referring.

My first impression was horror that my friend had posted this on FB. And that so many of my other friends had *liked* it. We have quite a few mutual FB friends who are gay and out – singles and couples, with and without kids. Did my “friends” understand how FB worked? Did they get that our mutual “friends” were reading all about their support of hatred? Did they care? My next reaction was shame. Shame that these are my friends. And now this morning, reading through the back-log of blog posts from the past week, the calls to speak up from Gerty and Isis and many others I respect – I just feel so sad. And angry. And confused.

A week before Chicken-gate, I got into an all-out FB scuffle with my brother about the Boy Scouts decision to continue excluding gays. We went several rounds for all my family and friends to observe. I got one vote of confidence from one very old church friend, and nothing else. Nobody else wanted to enter the fray, either for or against. Dead silence, until some guy selling chicken decided to open his big fat bigoted mouth and spew hate. Then all those friends couldn’t shut up about how long they waited in line for a damned chicken sandwich.

I’m really confused about this crap. I know I shouldn’t be. I know I should just disregard these individuals as friends, since their ability to hate is beyond what I know how to tolerate. But some of these individuals are long-time friends who have been there for me at bad times. It’s also not just my friends, but my family. Many of them are people I love, in spite of their faults. In spite of a huge fucking fault – hatred that I don’t understand.

I haven’t eaten Chick-Fil-A in quite a while now. Not for any political reason, but because there’s not one really close by in TTT, and I’m not about to go out of my way for their fatty goodness evilness, when I have no time to work off those evil little calories. So I’m not sure my boycott means much, but boycott I certainly will. I will also continue to speak up whenever the opportunity arrises. It may cost me some friends, but I think I’m okay with that. The friends that stick yet disagree, well, I’ll assume they respect me just as much as I respect them – for our past friendship, not for our current views.

I do believe things are changing for the better – I’ve seen the positive changes in some of my family, the clergy at my churches, the willingness of colleagues and friends to also speak up. All this positive change, IMO, is what’s made the hatred get so frighteningly loud. Change doesn’t come easy, but I’ll continue to fight for it every way I know how – to ensure everyone I know and love can live a full, happy life, and enjoy ALL the civil rights our country promised so long ago.


The evolution of a n00b PI

I started science as a little grad student who knew nothing. Well, not nothing – I could use a pipetman, streak out bacteria on agar plates, practice sterile technique. I knew a bit about the large field of microbiology, a little less about bacteria, even less about the sub-field and sub-sub-fields of my graduate laboratory, and virtually nothing about the sub-sub-sub-field that, five years later, I would write my dissertation on. I spent the next five years going in deep, exploring an area of microbiology that very few people in the world knew that well, and by the time I graduated, I was one of only a few experts in my tiny little field, and that field alone.

I moved onto my postdoc lab and a sub-sub-field that was distinct from my work as a graduate student, but still within the same sub-field. Over the course of another five years, my project, derived from my postdoc mentor’s previous findings, weaved through several new sub-sub-fields, and I became differentially familiar with many new areas of research. All the while, I was building a distinct (and new!!) research focus and expertise for myself. I wrote a grant, got it funded, and took this new research focus to start my own lab.

I can say the following quite confidently: I am the only person in the world who knows this topic as well as I do. Even when all the papers are published, even after I present data and insights at meetings, even as I relay my knowledge to my lablings, nobody else will understand this very specific area of microbiology the way I do. And as I train my labbies, I’m finding it increasingly apparent that nobody ever will.


It’s impossible to make my labbies experts in the exact same very specific field of microbiology. They do not have the same experiences I do; they don’t have the same interests I do; they won’t absorb and learn and understand science the same way I do; they’ll come to different conclusions and go in different directions with my current data; they’ll generate new data that tears down some (if not all) of my hypotheses. As my trainees, they have access to my expertise, my guidance, my nudging. But they’ll also see me step back, in an effort to push them to become independent experts in their own sub-sub-sub-fields.

It’s quite scary – the thought of handing off the science I’ve spent so long learning about to complete n00bs, knowing they can’t possibly understand it the same way I do, and watching what they do with it. On the other hand, this whole PI thing would be quite boring if all I did was create little clones of myself**. Not to mention the stress that kind of system would create – I’ve generated lots of unique ideas in my past 10 years of training, and there’s going to come a time when someone else will need to get creative. It’s not my job to pass on every bit of knowledge I have to even the most promising student. It’s not my job to get them to see things the exact same way I do. Instead, it is my job to give my trainees the tools and guidance they will need to become experts in their own field.

At least this is how I’m seeing my job as a PI right now. We’ll see how this hypothesis holds up over the next few years.

*Pro-tip: This is why I am the best person to lead the work on this specific research topic, an idea I made clear in the aforementioned grant application.

**Although clones would be helpful for dealing with the administrative crap.

At the helm

In  a recent post by babyattachmode, PLS commented:

I think part of it is switching one’s mindset from “trees” to “forest”. As you find yourself thinking more broadly and even getting away from the bench in favor of writing papers and grants, it forces you to think more broadly. From that perspective, ideas come more easily.

To which I replied:

For me, this has definitely been the hardest step to take. I thought I was on the right track as a postdoc with my nice little research summary, but I wasn’t sure if I could pull it all off (hence the imposter syndrome). Then I walked into an empty lab and had all these ideas but couldn’t figure out what the hell to do first (imposter syndrome heightened). Really quickly, I found my brain running off in 20 directions at once, which was completely overwhelming (imposter syndrome took over). I’m just now starting to calm down a very little bit, think more broadly about the research, and figure out what ideas fit, and which ones need to go away. Lots of thinking, lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of talking to colleagues.

This really has been the hardest part of the postdoc-to-PI transition for me. I knew how to do science, and I spent a lot of time as a postdoc imagining what kind of science I would do in my own lab. By the time I showed up in TTT, I had lots of plans. LOTS of plans. Suddenly I had my hands on a shiny new lab, money to buy stuff, and people to do stuff, and I realized just how much I could do. And I wanted to do it all.

Not only did I want to do it all, I thought I needed to do it all. I thought I had to figure out what my entire research program was going to look like before the first pipetman began its work. I had planned and planned and planned and planned, and I was still planning. I planned myself a million little experiments, and forgot to ask “how does any of this fit into the big picture?” I stopped prioritizing experiments, and focused all my attention on planning the lab I’ll be lucky to have in 5 years.

It’s not that a five year outlook is a bad thing (contrary, I think it’s incredibly important), it’s just not where I need to have all of my energy focused right now. Besides, planning out 5 years worth of experiments is not the same as having a 5-year plan. You can have a general direction you know you want to go in. You can even have a few specific wild crazy hairs on your wish list for future experiments for when things get stale, or when you see a great funding opportunity. But you can’t predict the future, and you can’t do everything at once. I needed to set priorities, and I needed to know what the important question was in order to set those priorities.

Just a few weeks ago, when my head was about to spin off, I got the most freeing advice ever: “First, take a deep breath. Next, decide on a very concise set of experiments that you can publish quickly and get your name out there. Then go from there.” Seriously, this may have been the best advice ever. I spent a few days in my office, pacing back and forth, thinking about my project, looking at the data I had, drawing on my dry-erase board. I re-read my K grant and determined what needed to be done with that money. I figured out what needed to be done to get those last bits of postdoc data published. And I came up with a very concise plan for the first experiments that would be done in my lab.

I’ve now parsed out these experiments among my lab personnel, taking into account each individual’s experience level and interests. I’m training them individually on the different assays they need to know, spending more time with some, less time with others, but reminding all of them from time to time of the bigger picture. Slowly but surely, each person is starting to take some level of ownership of their project. I’m giving them hints of where I think the research can go, but also letting them start to build their own ideas about their projects.

Me? I’m trying to stay at the helm, teaching, thinking, fundraising, waiting, and having a blast.

I also like my long-long name

FSP recently wrote a blog post about her daughter’s last name, a hyphenated combination of FSP’s and her husband’s last names. This post intrigued me, because I also have a hyphenated last name, but not from birth. I got married well into my postdoc, and didn’t want to “lose” my prior publications. But I also wanted to share a name with my husband – hence, the hyphenation. For the record, Hubby didn’t care what name I went with.

Fast forward several years, and I love my long-long name. Both mine and my husband’s last names are fairly uncommon, so if you google my current name, you find me. Just me. Which is kind of nice. I also like the blend, the complexity, the reflection of different cultures, and even the fact that it doesn’t fit on some government forms (social security – I’m looking at you). I also like that I have part of my son’s last name. Call us old-fashioned, but we decided to stick with the tradition of giving him his father’s last name. His is a cool name, with a rich genealogy. Another reason I liked sharing that name.

The one problem with my long-long last name has been reactions from other’s. Some people don’t like saying it, or even spelling it out, completely. Quite frequently, Hubby’s part gets cut off when I’m introduced, or during email correspondence. I’ve even been asked if I’m going to choose one name or the other for my “professional” name. Really? Am I in Hollywood? Since when do I need to have an easy stage name to do good science?

Whatevs – I like my name, and I’m owning it. I politely correct people when they leave off the last part. When people ask which name I intend to use, I tell them I don’t have to choose – that long-long name is MY NAME. And I like it. ALL OF IT. Please, leave my long-long name alone.

Work-life balance and other silly stuff

I’ve had some thoughts brewing in my head for a while now about differing views on parenting, breastfeeding, working, etc, brought on by some strong statements from a number of voices on the internets. From letting your baby cry-it-out and taking extended maternity/paternity leave, to deciding not to breastfeed or not to have children at all, it seems everyone has an opinion. I recently commented that the day I quite breastfeeding was incredibly liberating. Despite my ease with nursing and pumping, I absolutely hated my body during that year. Finding clothes (and bras) to fit my newly disproportioned body during a tenure-track job search was demoralizing. 34H is not a common bra size, and the girls housed in that bra made me feel more like a porn star than scientist. The blogger on whose blog I commented didn’t share this view, and that’s okay – it’s my view. But I think it’s important for us all to remember how different and personal these issues and decisions are for each individual.

On a related tangent, sometime last year I got my panties in a bunch because a few bloggers were disappointed with the predominance of baby-talk at their institutions’ work-life balance and women’s issues symposia. I’m clearly biased, but I happen to think an environment that’s friendly to parents will also be more accommodating to other work-life balance issues. Let’s face it, there’s only so much that can be covered at these seminars, and issues for young parents are likely the most abundant. On the other hand, women have a lot of REAL issues to deal with other than baby leave and a clean, private place for nursing mothers to pump. Finding the right forum for all of these issues is something our society doesn’t do very well, however, because we’d rather simplify and marginalize than embrace a diversity of lifestyles.

Well, now there’s a new kerfuffle about work-life balance arising on the internets, and some jacknut wants everyone to be treated “the same”, regardless of their situation:

Everyone should have the same deal: A certain amount of vacation, a certain amount of health time.

This is obviously ridiculous – not everyone works the same, and no amount of bean-counting hours is going to level the playing field. Sure we need standards, but those standars shouldn’t be used without common sense. People get cancer and other horrible illnesses that prevent them from working every day; many of these individuals find ways of making up for the time off. Elderly parents need attention. Women have babies, and some take longer to recover. Some couples adopt from foreign countries. Divorces happen. Spouses lose their jobs. Stress from home creeps into office hours. There is just no sane way to address all people and stresses of life the same. Common sense and an accommodating boss, who understands they get the best productivity from happy employees, are really the only fair real solutions*.

We all have different ideas of what we want our lives to look like. We all have varying views on family. We all derive different degrees of pleasure from our careers. I’m privileged to have a job in which I’m (theoretically) rewarded based on the quality of work I do, rather than the quantity of hours I or my employees work. Set up a good research program, direct the lab to solid funding, contribute to the university’s teaching and service missions. That’s what I hope I’ll get judged on, not whether or not I took a three month break to take care of a young child, or a two hour lunch to walk my pit bull.

*Like DM said, life’s not fair.

Strep, pink eye, and explosive diarrhea

Monkey had his 18 month appointment yesterday, just in time for his first case of strep throat to turn up. I stayed home with him the rest of the day, and Hubby stayed home with him today. Hubby emailed mid-morning that Monkey’s fever had gone down, but his right eye was looking pretty pink. At noon, Hubby said he himself was starting to feel pretty crappy. Just a few moments ago, I got a text informing me that Monkey now has explosive diarrhea, and his fever has come back up.

All hope is that Hubby is actually fine, and that Monkey’s issues are interconnected and will resolve quickly. Alternatively, the Dr. O household has just become the central repository for all sorts of toddling infectious substances. Either way, I think this week is a wash – and I’m heading home now to take care of my two sad little sick boys.

I’ve become a science whore

More specifically, a research whore. Seriously, the past week has been fantastic – and I attribute the fantastic-ness to the fact that I’ve had uber-loads of conversations about research. LOTS and LOTS of interesting research discussions, and very few of them were at all about my own research (which, at the moment, is still on new lab hiatus).

To fill the void, I’ve talked with others about their research. With interviewing technicians, students from other labs, new colleagues, potential collaborators, visiting speakers. And I have loved almost every single minute of it. In the absence of my own thriving research program, I am living vicariously through other people’s awesome (and sometimes not-so-awesome) science.

So I’ve decided: If I can just find a way, somehow, to ensure every day has at least one science-y chit-chat, I can make it through the total fuckwittery* of PI-dom. (HR, I’m looking at you.)

*Thanks to Isis for this word. I’ve read it many a time on her blog, but only now am beginning to really appreciate it; there is no other word that encompasses the more inane parts of this job than “fuckwittery”.