Don’t Beat Up 12-Year Olds – They’re Too Damn Springy

In primary school it became obvious I was different from the other children. Much more introverted. In the playground I’d take my skipping rope and use the wooden handles to enthusiastically beat out tunes on the metal railings. It wasn’t until secondary school when the fact I was different became a problem.

I didn’t have the social tools to deal with bullies. My response was to shut down: keep silent, look away and pretend they weren’t there. This wasn’t a good strategy – it just meant the little bitches kept needling. So I did what many nerdy, introverted, targeted kids do, and requested to my parents I be enrolled in martial arts.

The hoes faded into other classes, and I learned to use humour as a social tool. Taekwon-do remained a committed part of my life for 5-6 years, until my 1st year of university. Then it was out-competed by all the other sports and societies I jumped in to. After black belt I stopped.


This is a long preamble to the news that I’ve returned to martial arts. I cycle my hobbies: long-distance running was a part of my life in secondary school & university…then again several years later when I was in Basel. Ballroom dancing was “in” for a couple of years, starting from when I lived in Philly. Now I’m back to fighting.

I switched from Taekwon-do (TKD) to Karate & Ju-jitsu. TKD comes from Korea – it was originally designed for peasants fighting against horsemen, so it features a lot of jumping /flying kicks. They are hella fun to practice…but I wouldn’t be able to dismount a horseman with my kicks. Maybe somebody sitting on a small pony, or perhaps a cyclist that was stopped at a traffic light. I’m not naturally graceful, strong or flexible.

Karate isn’t wildly different from TKD. You learn patterns, do a bit of sparring, practice punch & kick sequences against partners. I remember enough TKD to do all the Karate moves wrong: stance too long, fists turned sideways when they should be down, etc. But most of the underlying principles are the same, and getting comfortable with Karate isn’t going to be a tough.

You can’t even say Ju-jitsu is in another ballpark. It’s in a seedy back alley late at night with two guys who’ll stab you and run off with your iPhone. Ju-jitsu is what I’d call “dirty fighting”: choke your opponent, throw them to the ground, then break their arm for good measure. In TKD and Karate you practice these clean technical punches aimed at the chest, and a knee to the stomach is as close as you get to your opponent. Ju-jitsu involves wriggly grabs/locks, learning how to fall diplomatically and jumping on people’s backs. Part of me is horrified when learning the mechanism of a neck break…but I admit I’m intrigued too. Here’s an opportunity to learn something totally new.

Because I’m a beginner I often don’t get placed with full-sized adult dudes, but rather the pre-teens. I would be morally-conflicted about trying to dislocate the arms of kids half my age…if it weren’t for the fact that 12-year old boys are 70% elastic. They only ask me to stop the move out of pity, after I’ve been twisting their limbs for several minutes without anything happening.

I’m still processing the ~4.5 years of my PhD, and will blog about it more when I’m at a safer distance. For now I’ll say that it’s been ~4.5 years since I invested myself in a challenging sport or hobby, gunning to master it. Now I’m waking up several times per week with aches and pain in my body. I’ve got conversation-piece bruises that morph through a tasteful spectrum of dark blues, greens and browns and are always diverting to look at. It feels like I’m pushing myself. And that feels good.



It’s one of the things I think I like about America. The seasons change quickly and clearly. I think I could point to my calendar and say “That was the day we finished summer and moved into fall.” One week I lay uncovered in my bed at night, coated with a thin layer of sweat. Getting to sleep during summer is an act of exertion in itself: I’d occasionally move onto the cool wooden floor at 1am to re-try. One week later (or so it seems) I’m snuggled deep under my thick duvet. We’re now in autumn.


The ACS conference in Philly went well for me. The one thing I didn’t do beforehand – which I really should, and can’t be the only person who should – was cut my toenails. Scientists at conferences have to squeeze into fancy shoes. You then proceed to cover several miles on foot over the course of 4-5 days rushing between sessions at the inter-galactic conference venue. Some of the halls you can barely see the other side of! A single rogue serrated toenail pressing into its neighbour can wreck havoc upon your gait and in fact your whole enjoyment of the conference experience.

I presented my research in a ~15 min talk early on Sunday morning. Attendance wasn’t too bad, and some folk came up to me later and said they’d enjoyed it. So, thank you to those people: I appreciate your taking the time to tell me (as would most graduate students).

Clearing my schedule of that key obligation first thing left me able to stay busy throughout the rest of the conference. I managed to chat to several folk at the Expo in a bid to tackle my most pressing career questions. I saw a lot of cutting-edge research from the hottest researchers in my field. I fitted in lunches and coffees with my SciFinder Future Leader friends. I attended a feedback panel on an ACS product, which was an always-welcome chance for me to talk at lengths and get paid for voicing a steady stream of opinions. I know that I need to attend a smaller conference next summer. You can’t engineer much low-key intimate networking at these behemoth events: everybody is either rushing around or crashing someplace quiet due to exhaustion.

Still. I came away with fresh enthusiasm and motivation to push on through the next 2 years of the PhD. Seeing other grad students present talks helped me calibrate. What do I admire about their research? What do I feel is missing from my own work when I see theirs? With 2 years I have enough time to make corrections, so it isn’t an exercise in frustration.

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.