Pressure On. Pressure Off.

It was only a few hours on Saturday night. I settled in for the evening with a pot of Cherry Garcia ice cream. The whole cherries buried within are what excites me about this particular flavour – it’s the same reason I like black forest gateau. There was a guy who got to the ice cream section of Target ahead of me, who spent a couple of minutes dithering in front of the Ben & Jerry’s shelves clearly at a loss for which flavour to pick. I never have those kind of dilemmas – the only time I might delay at the ice cream section is if it looks like they are out of Cherry Garcia, at which point I will rummage through all the rows until my hands get uncomfortably cold and I admit defeat. On only one occasion have I had to resort to rum & raisin.

Anyway. I eat Cherry Garcia ice cream for dinner. Lots of calcium in ice cream. It’s pretty good for you. I flip on the radio and listen to Garrison Kellior as I colour in one of my “Colour-in Mandalas to Help You De-Stress”. I choose a palate of purples & dark blues this time. Halfway through the show I brew a cup of tea. When I retreat further from the living room into the bedroom I burn a stick of Red Crystal Incense. Candelit bath. Rain comes down heavily. I hope for thunder and lightening. Thunderstorms are a release of summer tension – when the broiling humidity finally cracks. I feel a sense of release within me too, when the thunderstorms come.

***

I’m at a kind of existential point in my research just now. Progress has been good up to this point, but the criteria for “good progress” changes as you advance through the grad school years. I have two more years (out of 5) remaining as a PhD student, and 4th & 5th year is when we’re expected to be at the top of our productive form. Usually somewhen through 3rd year you finally hit upon Your Research Theme. After a lot of flailing around you usually manage to sink into a rich vein of original research that is entirely your own for mining. You tend to publish several papers all concerning Your Research Theme, starting in 3rd year but picking up the rate through 4 and 5. At this point in time I would say I’m squarely average in terms of research productivity. Which is good. Average is good. However, if I want to remain average I need to generate a couple more papers within the next 12 months. If there’s a clear path towards that goal I’m not seeing it right now.

Hence. Longer hours in the lab. I may as well. The heat outside is intolerable. The sun is going to burn my under-pigmented skin if I’m over-exposed to it. Summer pay is lower than term-time pay: go outside the lab and I start buying things. The summer is when I grind out data points – taking random threads of my research and shaking those threads to see if there’s anything at the other end.

The main reason I can tolerate the longer hours and elusiveness of positive data – where Lake Wobegon is my only relaxant – is because it is less than a month until the big American Chemical Society National Meeting. I’ll be presenting some of my (successful) research, and in fact my PowerPoint presentation may come slightly before the results are submitted for publication, which means I’ll be disclosing them to my audience. Which is rather cool. For all my introversion, I find these mega conferences bewitching and energising. I’m studying the wealth of presentations in the online program to decide which ones I want to see. I’m thinking up useful questions to ask the recruiters at the Careers Fair. I’m planning my outfits. I’m hoping to spend at least 2 or 3 nights out late in restaurants and bars. It would be fair to say that my idea of “success as an academic scientist” features these conferences as the culmination of a research cycle (do research -> publish results -> present at conference -> repeat). My motivation creeps up. Last summer I wasn’t in a place to present my results, I’m hoping that next summer I will be.

***

I wouldn’t classify it as easy being an academic chemist. However. The rewards are worth it to me.

 

 

Near Yon Clear Crystal Fountain

Overnight journeys. I contort my body in the upright seat, wedged between other people and trying not to intrude upon their personal space. There is the rattle, roar and shudders of the engines. I slid in and out of sleep. In a scant few hours I will wake up in a new place.

My annual UK holiday was more ambitious in scope than this time last year. I was going to fly in to London (Heathrow) and fly out of there two weeks later. Now I had access to London, Oxford & Yorkshire in addition to Scotland. Last year I’d felt vaguely aimless – this year I tried to fill up my social calendar a bit more comprehensively. I sent messages to folk I hadn’t seen in years. Why not catch up and check in?

There was a time when I assumed I’d kinda always stick around Edinburgh. I was warmly happy in the gorgeous, stately city – I thought I could see myself having some kind of professional career in the Scottish capital once I graduated. The details were vague, but it all sorta…fitted.

Then came the email , which I opened and started to read as if I were reading an apologetic rejection, only to realise by the second paragraph that I was being made an offer of an internship in a place I’d never heard of (King of Prussia, PA), but near to a tantalising big city called Philadelphia. I would be spending a year of my undergraduate degree in a foreign country for the first time in my life.

I returned to Edinburgh with a sense of loss and heartbreak. Leaving Philly there was no way I could perfectly get it back. Whatever spirit or perfect alignment of circumstances I had been exposed to over those 12 months, I could never return and just pick them up again like nothing had changed. I realised that to leave one place was to give it up: you can’t get it back. I was no longer thinking about a life in Edinburgh: I wanted an American PhD, I applied for further internships in places I had never considered before (…sure, um, why not Switzerland?!).

This time it was clear that a tangible essence had finally drained away from Edinburgh. I was looking at the same sights, sitting in Black Med watching people walk by, curling into a protective ball on the windy edge of Salisbury Crags…but I was no longer seeing my future self here. Social groups had unknotted themselves and dispersed. I couldn’t replicate the experiences I had deeply enjoyed as an undergrad in my first 2 years at university.

At the same time, everybody I’ve met with has asked me the same question: where do you see yourself ending up?

It sounds blasé to say that I don’t care. Rather, the process of moving to a new place requires actively making it work. I feel sporting enough to apply broadly and put in a bit of effort at any location I’m given. There is also the question of visas: my urge to work in the USA is held in check by the acceptance that I count as a foreigner here and that companies are variable in their recruitment of foreigners. It’s OK not to know. Keeping an open mind is advantageous.

 

 

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.