Word Play. Part 1

When asked the “What is your background and where are you going?” question recently, I realised my answer had shifted.

Usually I begin my story in 2010 within the cubicle maze of corporate American pharma. Walking through silky air-conditioned corridors listening to the metallic whirr of coffee machines and the deep glug of water coolers. Still a chemistry undergrad, I realised I wanted this: the trappings of white-collar life and the stimulation of industrial research projects. I would get a PhD in Organic Chemistry, then angle after an industry position. Watching the company spasm through a site-closure and mass layoffs while I interned there didn’t kill my desire, but I knew I’d have to be careful if I followed this plan. That career narrative followed a sensible path (who wouldn’t want a well-paid, stimulating job?!) and had compelling logic (me needing a PhD for an industrial position was an reasonable statement).

Except this time I answered the question a different way. I shifted my narrative back 5 years. Back to grubby linoleum, the faint tang of lemon disinfectant blending into stale urns of instant coffee sealed behind staffroom doors. Back to the time when I was arguable better-dressed, albeit in a far more flamboyant way. Back to secondary school.

“It was assumed I’d go and study English literature or writing rather than chemistry, because I was so good at it…” I began.

I feel dubious about pitching my origin story back to my secondary school days. This all happened a decade ago. Did my life peak before university?! Haven’t I done anything significant since then? But as already discussed in ‘Terminal Star‘ – secondary school was when my adult identity formed, and I first articulated my values.  I was good at all my classes. But people saw how I went about writing.

Bonus material time! The following is my contribution to the December 2006 student magazine. The school had just endured a government audit that sharply criticised its facilities, drawing ire in the local newspapers. In a tone influenced by The Onion, I decided to defend my prized school.

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4.jpg5.jpgOne line of my piece was censored: I originally wrote “lessons are an ‘Open Mike’ session against the teachers.” Which was a reference to an incident involving a teacher named Mike that local newspapers & tabloids feasted on…and I’m still annoyed my line was mangled. Let this be a correction to the record.

I wouldn’t want to put my secondary school writing up for scholarly critique. Plenty of the in-jokes and references won’t make sense to the casual reader. Yet I’m still proud of it. I didn’t agonise over its composition, in fact I recall clacking it out in a one-r and barely revising. I toyed around with which mundane school group to gift a “militant wing” – I went with the Chamber Orchestra as the funniest. If I had to rewrite the article today…I’m not sure I could make many improvements.  It’s still recognisable as my “voice”. I comes across as confident in a way I’m never confident in the flesh. It’s clear I relished writing the takedown.

**

The point is that from 2006 to present my writing often took a back seat or was actively suppressed. But if science was my expertise…writing was my instinct. I don’t believe I was wrong to care about white-collar science, or that my logic had holes in it. I just think that I should listen more closely to what drives me.

In my next post I’ll bring the narrative up to the present day, explaining why Alexander Hamilton has become my historical homeboy.

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Dawn in the Chem Lab of Good and Evil

Rolling a Halloween party into my postdoc interview travel plans worked out great. One of the airlines I used charged for carry-on bags and my finances were crunching pretty badly…so I went to the Halloween party as Elle Driver (minus her sword). Saved money. Saved myself from wheeling a suitcase across sweaty Atlanta. Got the job.

You can propose your own moral to this story.

Anyway, my first point of call in Atlanta was en route to my hotel: Soul Vegetarian Restaurant. Discovering new cuisine can be akin to discovering a new colour – suddenly you are tasting the world in an extra dimension. I’d almost finished my late lunch when a customer stopped by my table and laid her hand on my shoulder. “Baby, you don’t need to eat it so fast – we know it’s good!”

I was suitably embarrassed, but the encounter showcased the two greatest things about Atlanta: the quality of its food and the sass of its inhabitants.

Sold.

***

On the Eastern Seaboard I was “Miss” or “M’am”. Below the Mason-Dixon line I’m “Miss Claire”. I’ve decided not to push the doctoral degree too hard in everyday social interactions (would “Doctor Claire” be a Workable Thing down here?). Aside from that, I’ve not had to overcome any major culture shocks. There’s so much migratory influx, gentrification and development that Atlanta feels geographically unmoored. In the spring cool I could be anywhere in the United States: mall wastelands, grimy downtown highrises, crammed hipster coffeeshops, tranquil parkland where only the faintest grind of cars can reach you. I like it.

***

Aside from the martial arts renaissance, I’m indulging in word play. Heavy word play. Emory has a Postdoctoral Association Science Writers Committee – an email call for participants went out within weeks of me moving to the area. Before I even had my employment authorisation documents processed by USCIS I was at the committee meeting, explaining awkwardly that I wasn’t YET a postdoc..but hoped I’d be one soon. I’m trying to take my writing more seriously, getting experience and using the many springboards that a university setting offers. If you haven’t noticed, I created a new blog page to staple my writing in one place.

I feel slightly uncomfortable about being “out” as an aspiring science writer. Ninety-eight percent of the time when scientists ask me where I plan to take my career, their exact question is: “Academia or industry?”. Telling them that NEITHER is really my plan is too much of a hassle in casual conversation, it feels like I’m giving them a wrong answer. But I’m at the stage in my career where I need to move into “my career”, and if nobody knows I want to be a science writer…how can I expect to become one? So I’m trying to raise my voice a bit. Will see how it goes.

 

Terminal Star

I inferred he died by stumbling upon a casual Facebook exchange between two acquaintances. They mentioned a first name, and commented upon how touching the funeral was. They were clearly talking about a teacher from Madras College (my secondary school): I had to search through all the teachers I knew who shared his first name – of which there were several – to find an obituary that confirmed we’d lost him.

Damn.

This happened last year. It was night and I was the last one in our office. When I stepped away from my laptop and wandered into the lab, the roar of the air handlers seemed louder and more jarring.

I wouldn’t be HERE. Not without him.

Back in 2003, I’d be 14. The age where you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life; but more importantly, the kind of person you want to be. What do you value? How do you define success? Who are you going to model yourself after?

Back in 2003, I was starting my Standard Grades at Madras. The first set of formal qualifications in the Scottish education system. You start to strategise. What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What are you interested in studying at university?

I was good at everything. The year before Standard Grades we all took “general science” – a mashup course. Our final grade would determine how many science Standard Grades we could take. A-grade? All three (Biology, Chemistry, Physics). B-grade? Two max. Etc. This was an intellectual challenge I gunned for: I wanted all three. It was more about points-scoring than long-term planning.

WK became my Standard Grade Chemistry teacher. What entranced 14-year old me was his array of interesting science facts and anecdotes. Chemistry could be linked to the wholesale retail in chip shops (via acetic acid – vinegar). Chemistry could be linked to Grangemouth. When egged on by other students he applied a distinctively scientific mind towards the French language and its verb tables. Or the democratic voting systems we were learning about in Modern Studies. No one else in my Madras College sphere of influence was that much of a generalist. WK was smart. Crucially, he was smart about a lot of things all at once.

That really impressed me.

From Standard Grade to Highers. To Advanced Highers. To university. I chose a degree in science even though I seemed more adept at English literature. But good textual analysis required a scientific sensibility. I chose a degree in Chemistry because I wanted to situate myself in the middle of Science. Biology on the left, Physics on the right – a chemist could grasp at them both.

I’m not the smartest or most talented Chemistry PhD out there. And that’s fine, because I still think I’d prefer to be a generalist. To have anecdotes and interesting facts.

WK died of pancreatic cancer, I found out. By the time he was ill enough to go to the doctor (maybe a week before the end of the school year) it was far too late. He died a couple of weeks after his diagnosis. While I kept in touch with some of my Madras teachers – had mini catch-up chats with others when I passed through the school buildings – I didn’t keep in touch with him. I’m not sure he knew I went for a Chemistry PhD (he stopped at a Masters degree). He certainly didn’t know I was modelling myself and my concepts of “success” and “intelligence” on him.

Damn.

WK wasn’t one of the cool or popular Madras teachers. He never had trouble keeping control in the classroom – he just had to quietly start talking and the students would silence themselves to listen. I’d argue he was one of the funnier ones. I feel like I was one of the few students listed him as a favourite teacher. But that’s fine.

Thank you, WK. I’ve now got a Chemistry PhD, and as far as I’m concerned I was right to follow you. I know you really liked Bob Dylan, Scottish country music and a bit of Classic FM. I also know you disliked Girls Aloud (“Can’t sing.”). I think maybe you’d like Karine Polwart and her song Terminal Star. It makes me think of you, in any case.

 

 

Mental Gymnastics

It took a long time to line up post-PhD employment. The advice I enacted is to start looking for postdoctoral positions 12 months before you are due to defend. I learned that could be a conservative estimate.

Damn, so much rejection and failure.

I’m not a perfect applicant. Some of my flaws I’ve tried to erase or conceal. Others I feel resigned to. I tried to evolve over the search – not taking anything for granted. Oh, I thought I’d got a good CV final draft? Maybe look at it again next month, compare it to the one that hotshot Assistant Professor uploaded. See if I can emulate their crisp format.

I tried to be aspirational. Wherever the line between aspirational and delusional is…I must have swerved across it multiple times. Some of the professors I assumed would never read a postdoc app from the likes of me came back with a profession of interest. Some of the professors who I thought I had a good shot with apologised for the lack of funding and space. You don’t know until you try. And you don’t always know what these competitive labs are looking for in terms of skills/personal qualities with their postdocs.

Some top groups were booked up with postdocs for the next 2-3 years. If you want to network my way into a Top 10 Chemistry lab at a Top 10 University, you probably have to start in your first year of grad school. I found myself annoyed that I hadn’t attended a Gordon Conference during my PhD – it would have helped.

Close to 50% of my rejections were implicit. An email application was fired off…and nothing ever came back. I know one colleague who got a response after maybe 3 months (“Hey sorry for the delay, are you still interested in my lab? Want to come for an interview?”), long after hope must have died. Kinda wish I hadn’t heard that story. Many professors replied to my email and explained that they’d love to take me on…if only they had funding. It’s the most diplomatic way to reject an applicant – nothing personal, only financial – although with NIH grant proposals simmering around the 10% acceptance rate it is often true.

Good timing helps. If your application is near the top of the pile when a grant is approved/re-approved you have a good chance of a callback. But since federal funding is an endless gnashing cycle of submissions and proposal review dates you might never get a formal rejection when a PI is chasing cash. “The grant I was hoping for didn’t come through last week…but if you’re willing to wait there’s another one I’m trying for in a couple of months.” And you’ve no idea how likely it is the grant will come through. Maybe you’ll still be on top of the pile if it does…maybe a better applicant will have come along.

I have sympathy for the professors. They get a lot of postdoc applications. Many of them took the time to reply to my cold call with a couple of apologetic sentences. I could cross them off my list – thick red lines of ink – and move on.

I have very little sympathy for the post-interview ghosters. After a Skype (or even one campus) interview…nothing. That stings. My suspicion is that it’s an American cultural-linguistic thing. British academics are cagey and stick to formulaic script: “If I were to make you an offer, when would you be able to start?” You know everything is provisional, nothing is guaranteed, and they can email you later to say they’ve decided not to make you an offer and you don’t feel blindsided.

In several instances, American academics don’t seem to know about this useful qualifying language. They talk to you like they’re seriously wanting to make you an offer but just need a few days to mull and double-check. They go as far as to tell you “Let’s email early next week and take it from there.” And like a chump I emailed them when I thought they wanted me to email…and never received a reply. They got a polite follow-up ~7 days later…but at that point I’d taken the hint.

American academics: don’t ghost people you’ve interviewed. It’s cowardly and unhelpful.   By the interview stage I’m already performing mental gymnastics to see if I could imagine myself in this new lab, in this new city. Could I make this work? I start taking the prospect of joining a lab seriously, planning ahead so I know what questions to ask and what signs to look for. A simple lie about “research interests not aligning” would be acceptable. I hate being stressed out in a post-interview limbo. I hate realising I misread major social cues and chased after a PI who didn’t want to be chased. Why did you invite me to email you back?!

Anyway. I’m sorted.

I’m happy and relieved that I’m sorted.

I don’t feel like I “settled for something less” or was forced into a postdoctoral position out of desperation. An application aligned with funding and availability.

I got something I really wanted. A postdoc position in a big city. I admit it wasn’t a big city on my initial list of Big Cities I Want to Live In…but if anything it could be a better fit than my earlier choices.

My PhD defence date is in early December. I start the postdoc in late January. Stay tuned.

Heavy Thunder

We’re at the apex of summer on the Eastern Seaboard. Humidity. The air outside seems to press down on you with force, its that hot. Despite that, I can sleep through the night without air conditioning, though sometimes I have to migrate to the cold wooden floor for a couple of hours to make it easier.

I remember my first week in the United States, back when I was doing my Year In Industry in Philadelphia. The heat was surprising…but the first thunderstorm dumbfounded me. Thunder & lightening is so rare in the UK, maybe a couple of murmurs of thunder and flickers of light. I was scared by the noise over in here – how loud, close and relentless the strikes were. How much rain could be voided out of the sky…and then how bright the sun could be shining minutes later. These days the thunderstorms don’t scare me, in fact my ears prick with anticipation when I hear on the radio that one is rolling through. The summer thunderstorms are one of the things I like the most about America.

***

My PhD is almost finished. The number of reactions left to run I can count on my fingers. This past week has seen the dismantling of our lab, ready for its migration South. Chemicals have been expertly boxed by a specialist moving company, our glassware has been laid out in pristine fume hoods according to flask size/type, etc ready for similar treatment. We defrosted the fridges and turned off the instruments.

It feels a little surreal, especially since I’m remaining here on the Eastern Seaboard. Where I can survive at home without A.C. On the one hand it all feels anticlimactic – my research is over, no more stress about obtaining Publishable Data (I’ve 2 papers to wrap up) and getting enough results to defend my PhD. I’ve got all my results…and that’s fine.

The job/postdoc search is a slog. I’m in several holding patterns as potential bosses wait to hear about grants that may or may not appear. A government department has sunk into a hideous backlog and PIs across the country are howling with frustration along with the grad students, postdocs and visiting scientists whose future career step is paused mid-stride. I get polite rejections of “no funding or space left” – could be a diplomatic lie, could be the truth – and have to sit back down at my computer and fire off another round of cheery applications. Like the rejections aren’t hurting me.

It’s hard to balance idealism against rising desperation. Some career steps can do more harm than good. Would a “bad job” be better than no job at all? Have I totally mis-estimated my skills/worth? Right now I’m craving certainty, which is what we all want, I guess.

 

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.

 

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.