On the Downtown Line…

After a winter of discontent, I’m back on the bike. Commuting through woodland on sleepy backroads to and from work. Fitness, fresh air, petrol consumption down, yada yada. Honestly, that stuff is a given. What surprised me was the realisation of what cycling those precious 10 minutes per day does to my brain.

When I’m in the car I have to focus quite intently. I’m listening to the radio, but even when I’m on those same backroads most of my brainpower remains on steering, speed control and keeping concentrated. As you’d expect, right? When I’m on the bike I found that I can phase out. The bike steers itself, speed is a non-issue. I can take in the forest noises, look out for deer. And think. When I’m pedalling to and fro, my brain is processing stuff. It unpacks the day, it shuffles up random memories, it role-plays and pretends.

My brain needs process time. At times it has felt like grad school has dulled me. My imagination quietened, I struggled to stay on task and remain sharp throughout the day. Some of that is just the monotony of a long project with lots of in-built repetition.

But there’s also the reality that I can wake up in the morning, spend some time drinking Nespresso coffee and pouring over my diary. Then I’m at the gym or work. Then I’m coming home between 8 and 9pm and knocking up dinner. Maybe I’ll pull out a book or flick on the radio for a specific NPR program, but at this stage I’m usually running a bath and readying for bed. There’s a lot of action in my day, but there’s nothing that fosters brain processing. Scientists describe sleep (the dreaming phases) as being important for cognitive housekeeping: I suspect that we need some of that time when we’re awake, too.

The cycling helps. Exercise makes you feel more alert, but getting on a bike during the week is doing more for me than the gym could.

Alarm Clock

Correlation or causation?

I got back into the habit of rolling out of bed in response to my first morning alarm. Last semester I slipped into the pattern of setting a respectable alarm clock time (say, 7am). I would tuck myself in to bed with full and honest intentions…only to turn the alarm off and doze onwards until 7.30am or later. That became my normal. Now, you wouldn’t think that 30 minutes dozing time was too bad…but it set up an undercurrent of annoyance at myself and a tolerance for poor self-discipline. It’s tricky in the winter when you don’t have natural light to wake up up, but I’ve been good about my waking routine in the past. As the Fall semester closed I was avoiding the gym, avoiding cooking at home and feeling other stuff in my work/personal life sliding.

Fixing this sort of shit is important. In 2016 I got tougher. I’m now re-trained and getting out of bed upon my alarm beep at 6.30am. Probably next week I’m going to dial it up a notch and return to the 6.15am wake-up. It doesn’t even matter than I take it easy first thing: drinking a slow espresso in my dressing gown, taking in some precious sunlight. I respect myself enough to get out of bed when I say I want to. I have enough time to go to the gym 3-4 times per week (maybe not as early in the morning as I’d like, but early enough to – usually – find a convenient parking space on campus afterwards). Suddenly I feel a lot more energetic and optimistic.

Hopefully the good momentum can continue. Once routines are established they tend to stay put quite well. I like the gym. I always enjoy time in airy spaces with plenty of natural light.

Cashflow remains a major issue, but it bothers me less. Again, you form money habits and sometimes it only takes a little self-discipline to get on a better track. If I stay away from the student centres and their convenient, quick-fix foodstuffs (coffee, cake, burritos) I can go whole days without spending cash. Of course, I also like the brisk walk in the fresh air to obtain a red velvet muffin…but reducing money stress is a bigger priority right now.  I’m sustained on dreams of Manhattan and Philadelphia – burning saunas and intriguing restaurants will have to wait. Who knows? Maybe they will be all the sweeter for the wait.

***

Research is going well. I remember two years ago I was almost overcome by panic. A failed project is oftentimes easier to cope with than a successful one. Your reaction fails? Go home early to have a bath and a careful think about what (if anything) you can try tomorrow. Your reaction works? Great! Your boss wants a manuscript draft, air-tight control experiments that no peer reviewer could possibly frown upon, full list of citations and complete characterisation data for all the new compounds you’ve made. And if you could get it done quickly, we should get this published as soon as we can. A successful project means that you are contending with a myriad of new opportunities, deadlines and expectations. A messy convoluted project has to be transformed into a showcase of scientific prowess.

Honestly, I’d worked on many unsuccessful projects. I’d innured myself to failure: didn’t take it personally, kept my morale up, continued. Training myself to deal with success was an equal challenge. I didn’t think I was worthy of success, I both feared and hoped for somebody to take this project off me “You aren’t good enough, I’m giving this to someone else to finish”. I dreaded being exposed as an imposter scientist. Juggling manuscript drafting and data collecting ramped up my stress levels.

Yet…I managed. I made mistakes that weren’t too horrendous. I learned. I developed strategies for keeping morale up during periods of success. I tried to keep the stress levels under control. I worry that I wouldn’t be able to do Task X (I’m not smart, knowledgable, skilled enough…). I try Task X. I succeed at Task X. My morale and self-confidence goes up a little bit.

You train yourself. Even the smallest quantities of imposed self-discipline make things better. Before you know it, you’re back in the good routine.

Swingin’ Round to 2016

The second half of 2015 wasn’t all that great. You get into these deep troughs sometimes where there isn’t an easy way out. Something has to snap…or you’ve just got to plod on through the trough until the descent turns into a gradual inclination, then eventually (you hope) you’ll get back to the above-ground terrain.

It happens. I can’t really blame anything. Random circumstances, minor shifts or life changes that you wouldn’t even bother to mark on a calendar.  All add up to make things seem unhappy. At some point late in the year I became just that little bit more proactive; that little bit more forgiving; that little bit more organised. The path became smoother.

I’m also at the mid-point in my PhD, which plays a role on a philosophical level at the very minimum. Starting out, it didn’t take me long to form ambitions and assess my goals. What did I want from my PhD? What was realistic to expect I could get in terms of funding, recognition, contributions to the scientific literature. I got off to a strong start with my PhD-level research. Of course, it helped on one level that my first project was a smaller one that built upon successful research already well-established in our group. My second project was a lot bigger and with scant precedent. In fact, I’ve got 12 months of research behind me that testifies to stalled progress, dead ends and discouraging scientific data. Naturally you wonder what the rest of your PhD studies will look like: struggling blindly with no end in sight, or a plethora of datum to mine. Could go either way. Well, it looks like I’m on track with the general trend in my lab of getting your first sizeable, original project moulded into a publication somewhen during year 3. I’m doing fine. Still on track. No serious cause for concern.

There are plenty of things that I am thankful for in 2015. Of course, some other events that I hope to sweep under the rug and pretend never happened. As it goes for everyone.

My apartment continues to make me happy, despite its position on the upper limits of what I can afford, rent-wise. My hope is that I can stay put for the next 3 years. Even though my disposable income has gone down a notch from my first two years in the States, I feel that the benefits from having my own place, having this place outweighs that. And I’m willing to do the work to make the in-out spreadsheets balance up a little nicer.  Is it a logical, sensible decision? Just about. I like waking up to sunlight streaming through trees. I like candlelit baths, dishwashers and a large kitchen space.

I’ve made an effort to keep up with current events and culture in the latter half of the year. I’ve bought more books (mostly non-fiction). I’ve studiously kept up to date with the latest Serial season. Over the Christmas break I finally ventured back into the cinema of my own accord to check out Star Wars and The Big Short (both depictions of an evil empire with bottomless greed, it must be said). I remain amazed at how shitty American cinema food is, but will try to see more movies in 2016.

I don’t really have an resolutions for 2016. I always try to remain healthy, work hard & smart, do interesting stuff outside the lab. At this point in time I feel optimistic about the short and long term. I’m keen to move on with the new year.

Sync

 

Wishing for more certainties, wishing for fewer toxins in my bloodstream.

It feels as if I’ve been too caught up in Stuff. Too many worries, too many long and drawn-out days when I should have called it quits and headed home. Too many mornings where I silenced the alarm clock and slept for another hour when I should have got up and made use of the productive ear lies morning hours. Too much staying angry when I should have let the anger flow out instead of clogging me up.

Eventually this will pass. Getting everything back in sync seems like the biggest struggle right now.

 

The Newest Normal

Today was full-on domestic wench business. It’s a Sunday, you see. Sunday is the one day per week where I don’t set my alarm (not that it matters, I’m rolling awake before 7am anyway) and don’t have to kick off my morning with a migration to the lab, or thoughts about a migration to the lab (“C’mon bitch, the sooner you get in and do stuff, the sooner you get to leave”). [1] No. Sunday mornings I can crouch on my balcony with a mug of Nespresso coffee and enjoy a bit of sunlight-through-trees-light, which is one of my favourite kinds of light.

Sunday is the day that I can do my laundry, load my moderately grimy eating things into the dishwasher (the dishwasher!) and clean the place up a bit, perhaps with some music on. I finally got around to boxing my fresh herbs – they were a gift from a friend straight from their garden, I dried them myself using an improvised system of pencils jammed in to window locks. This afternoon I’ll be sweeping the expanse of hardwood flooring, maybe doing some dusting if I remain in the domestic wench kinda mood.

It helps that I think of grad school as a job. In this mindset I’m no longer a student, but a working professional [2]. The fact that I’m no longer in university housing cements that. I’m a professional scientist with my own car and an airy apartment. So I may as well do adult stuff like clean up after myself and make the place look tidy. The responsibility feels nice, and I think it helps me on other levels too. As an introvert, the personal & private sphere is a really important thing – I think that if I take good care of my private sphere it helps me to do well in the public one.

The downside of this domestic surge is that I’m losing the time when I can escape to the big cities. It’s been a while since I was last in Philly or Manhattan. I need to schedule my chores onto the Saturday (once I’m done with the lab) so that I can have a completely free Sunday.

***

Actually, this week was a really good one as far as research was concerned. I finally hit the jackpot known as Publishable Data. In my sub-sub-field, Publishable Data occurs when I get 90 %ee or above. For those not in my sub-sub-field: imagine that you have a scale of 0 to 100 %ee, and any reaction can give you a value somewhere between the two. Most of the struggle, sweat and late nights in my sub-sub-field revolves around improving this %ee value until it reaches this cut-off value of 90. Of course that isn’t the only variable you need to worry about (oh ho ho, there’s plenty of variables to worry about), but ‘d argue that this %ee variable is the one that’s hardest to control. Either you have it or you don’t.

The inside of my brain has been a very boring place this past year. The only thing I’ve been thinking about has been those damn %ee values. When I’ve had a spare moment of down-time? Only 11 %ee to go! Or else Well, when I change X I gain 3 %ee, and when I changed Y I got 2 %ee…so maybe if I change X AND Y I can get a total of 5 %ee. And then it will only be 6% ee to go. This is what graduate-level research does to your brain, by the way. I’ve had a dull year of tinkering with rather minor changes to my reaction conditions and not really getting anywhere. I’ve not lost sleep over it – I tried to leave the stress in the lab office – but the thoughts nonetheless go everywhere.

I’m in a lab where publications matter. There are plenty of PIs who don’t mind if you spend 5 years doing decent research that doesn’t lead to any publications (at least before you defend). But there are also plenty of PIs who will say “You need [number] first-author publications before I let you graduate.” Both I’d consider valid approaches, and I can list the advantages & disadvantages of both. Regardless, I’m in a lab where I need papers, and the thought that I might reach my 5th year without enough papers to graduate isn’t a nice one.

There’s a lot of work to go before I get that paper I want. But to have finally crawled to the Publishable Data benchmark is a nice morale booster, and fills me with a bit more self-confidence (I AM a good scientist, I CAN get Publishable Data). It will make the rest of my graduate school career a bit more straightforward, too.

The celebration was muted. I went home and ate a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream for dinner, along with a partially-eaten red velvet muffin that I warmed up in the microwave. There will be some more treats before too long, I think I owe it to myself.

[1] Friends who read my Facebook and blog posts tend to react to my descriptions of grad school life with “OMG – that sounds so awful/intense/crazy” or sentiments to that effect. Working on the weekends attracts a certain amount of horror even from people within the scientific grad school zone. At this point I don’t think that working on weekends even bothers me. I stopped noticing the week/weekend partition when I was in hospitality and had to work nearly every weekend and take my days off during the middle of the week instead.

[2] There is plenty of debate and differing opinions about just what a graduate student is. At our university the TA/GAs are unionised and in the same union alongside the academics & adjuncts. Coursework is close to non-existent after year 2: we are either occupied with teaching or our research, and we get paid for both. I once drove a visiting faculty member to lunch, and made a comment about how it’s great that the grad students get access to Faculty/Staff parking here. They admitted a bit of surprise that grad students could be considered as staff. Well hon, I sure as Hell ain’t a volunteer. 

It’s unclear why I would have a psychological barrier that stops me from taking baths when I live with roommates. I think if you started a timer, a long hot shower takes me about as long as a soak in the bath (at least it does these days). I still don’t like the idea that somebody could be waiting to use the bathroom whilst I’m wasting time in a bath, so I guess that’s why it never happened.

Now I can take baths instead of showers every night. In fact, my new weekend treat is to switch off the lights and enjoy a bath by candlelight. Maybe I’ve just been feeling guilty about the in-built decadence of baths.

My new apartment comes with plenty of wonderful freedoms – but also hidden restrictions. I have a balcony upon which I can drink my Sunday morning coffee during the height of summer (as you may recall, I love a good balcony) The greenery out the back in pleasant to look upon. Baths, etc. I can walk into town in less than 30 minutes.

The biggest restriction is the higher cost of rent, especially pronounced in the summer when I’m on a different (i.e. lower) monthly salary. For the past two years I’ve had the freedom to not worry about money and expenditure, now I’ve got to think about budgeting more tightly and checking my bank balance more frequently. It should work out fine, but will take adjustments.

The other restriction is on my freedom of movement. I can cycle to my office now. Although it takes a short space of time, it still takes much more time, planning and energy than the 5 minute walk I’ve grown used to. It looks like I can’t have everything: I can’t save money (cycling instead of driving, eating at home instead of on-campus/in restaurants), possess the full freedom of off-campus housing and have equivalent productivity in the lab.

Perhaps the best thing about my new apartment is that it gives me a greater sense of responsibility. It was hard to muster up enthusiasm to clean my on-campus quarters – it was shared, I didn’t spend much time there, the dirt wasn’t that much of an issue, yada yada. Now I have the free time on Sundays (since I can’t just wander into lab when I’m bored) I can do some dedicated cleaning of the space. I have a sense of ownership of my place, rather than just concluding that as the only occupant I can leave everything as filthy as I like.

I’m looking forward to my next couple of paycheques – decorating my rooms and concealing the dull whitewashed walls is my top priority.

Dreams of Never-ending Summer

aEverything has contracted. My life, my whole existence can barely get more compact. A pleasurable respite is when I sit in the car for an extra 30 minutes, listening to the radio. Or perhaps it is the American rain – warmer, heavier and more satisfying than the cold, biting kind you get back in the UK. The kind of rain that soaks you to the skin within seconds of stepping out into it. There isn’t enough rain at the moment – I’m waiting patiently for the thunderstorms.

Right now my challenge is to become a better person. Not a perfect person – there’s no way I can ever achieve that, and I’d rather not waste my energy beating myself up about the impossibility of it – just one that’s kinda better in some ways. There was a recent moment where I was forced to examine myself and my dredged up feelings of guilt. One of those times where sure I could just blame somebody else for their mistakes (100% non-self-blame)…but realistically I knew that there was some portion of blame that could be attributed to me and my behaviour. No excuse. If I can fix my behaviour, then I should. I’m focussing on one relationship right now – putting my energy into getting it right. If the small-scale project works then I need to incorporate more of my positive actions into the rest of my life.

As an introvert I try to conserve my energy. Interacting with people can be draining: if I don’t want interaction time then everybody within a 10 metre radius tends to be aware of that. If I’ve been in a high-interaction setting (such as teaching) for several hours then I will need to decompress for the best part of an hour before I feel socially-functional once more. Fighting against my default settings takes up most of my “personal development”. In an ideal world I think I’d be able to act like a charming extrovert for all of my working hours, then crash and decompress in the comfort of my own apartment in the evenings. Man, that will take some work.

***

In other news: my research project continues to go well. After a year of disappointment and circles it now looks as if I can wind it up soon. The disappointments and frustrating lack of progress has worn me down – I’m almost scared to run several key reactions, for fear that they won’t work and I’ll end up within another dead-end cycle of incremental improvements (that don’t ever become cumulative). However, I’m now at the point where I only need a handful of incremental improvements to pass over the finishing line. I feel excited at the thought of another publication to my name: the academic unit of currency is the publication, with it all our careers and sense of self-worth are tied up.

I’m hoping for a speedy breakthrough.