Sunday, February 19, 2017

Taking Stock 2/n How much should I work vs. how much did I work

Six years ago (nearly to the day) I started my lab at the University of Arizona. There have been numerous ups and downs in science and outside of science, but I'm still here. My tenure package was submitted last August (I've gotten good news but nothing official yet), we've just undergone about the third dramatic change in lab personnel, and there's plenty on the plate for the future. I figured it was a good enough time to sit down and begin to reflect on these last 6 years and dream about the next 30 or so. Not sure how many parts this is going to be, hence the /n in the title, but for this second post I'm going to at least provide my own slanted perspective on work/life balance. 1/n here:

Every once in a while the same arguments pop up on the tweets...they go something like this:

followed by
and it escalates after that...
and so on and so forth.... Side note, for a great thread(s) check out what followed this tweet:

 Healthy discussion is great, sharing different viewpoints is great. They are all valid points, and much of the required nuance is trashed by the 140 character limit and difficulty in relaying tone because twitter.

I fall squarely in the camp that every single one of us has different work schedules and different requirements for how much to work in order to be "productive". Terry McGlynn hit the nail on the head exactly when he mentioned that one of the main problems with discussions about work/life balance in academia is that we inherently (ed: often not openly) disagree about what constitutes "success". Some want to win a Nobel prize. Some want to make a difference in the lives of those who have no one else to encourage them. In many ways, these are equally difficult challenges. There are many variations on what "success" is, and they're different for everyone.

One of the greatest challenges I've seen with being a PI is that, in the US system at least, we become used to judging our own worth compared to other people's metrics. Did I get an A in the class? Where do I rank with my GPA? This doesn't ever stop. Did I get into the program I wanted? That person in my cohort just published a paper, why haven't I published a paper? That person works more than me? and so on and so forth. At some point (I'd argue in grad school) we lose the ability to have definitive metrics to compare ourselves against and this is completely unsettling when your career is firmly placed in the context of data gathering. That first day you step into your empty lab space, you try and grab onto any foothold you can to try and gauge whether you are doing *enough*. Ideally, you have great mentors that can guide you along the way and offer advice, and ideally you are getting feedback from those on the tenure committee and during annual reviews, but there's no magical metric to tell you whether you're doing *enough*. Don't even get me started "how many grants and papers you need for tenure" because it's different for different people even in the same department. Allow me an (American) football metaphor for research...some teams try to score a touchdown every single play. Some teams are content to move the ball 3 yards forward every single play. You can be successful using both strategies and mixes of both but both require you to just move the ball forward by the end of the game. I'm not sure where defense plays into this, but I was on a roll so there you go.

There have been weeks when I've worked 80 hours and those that I've worked 0. There have been days when I've worked 24 hours (usually before a grant deadline). There have been many days that I haven't worked because (at least for me), I need to take at least one day fully off every week to stay sane. I tell the people in my lab that my metric for judging whether things are on the right track is that we should set up mutually agreed upon goals and work towards making constant progress towards these goals, and yes, I count failed experiments as constant progress. Aside from having to OK hours on a timesheet, I don't really keep track of how much or how little people work. I figure that everyone has their own rhythms and effective times and encourage them to make the most effective use of their time. I try to set an example through my own actions, but I don't expect them to exactly copy my work habits. Have goals, keep your eye on them, work enough to give yourself a fair chance at accomplishing them. Reevaluate the goals frequently because contexts change. Perhaps the second greatest challenge I've had as a PI is learning to have empathy for other people's working and learning styles. It's not easy, but it's incredibly important. That said, I understand and respect the other side of the argument but it's just not for me. We often have the opportunity to choose what we want in the labs we join, and I think the best we can do is represent how we view work/life balance and *success* so that those that are actively choosing can make an informed decision.

This is getting long, so one last observation about what "work" is. I've learned that I do my best writing and thinking when I'm running or otherwise being active. I've written a lot of my papers while not actually writing. I've written a lot of my papers and grants while not "at work", while in the shower, sometimes in dreams (for real...just kind of wake up sometimes and write stuff down and it's coherent). Does this kind of *work* play by a 9-5 schedule? Is it actually work? I have not clue...but it's what I've done and it's what works for me. I think this was Kern's point above before the nuance was lost to the twitter Gods.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Teaching Microbiology in the Era of #Fakenews

Wanted to briefly post about an interesting situation I'm encountering right now in my Microbial Genetics class. We just had a quiz exercise where I effectively asked this True/False question:

True/False During bacterial transcription, RHO-DEPENDENT terminators utilize a hairpin loop

To me, and my understanding of transcriptional termination, the answer is clearly false as far as science knows right now. I went over factor dependent and independent terminators and focused on how factor independent terminators can be identified by hairpin loops in the DNA/RNA sequence (usually followed by something like a run of Poly-Us) and contrasted this with how there was only a sketchy signal for rut sites in terms of rho-dependent termination.

It sucks to be wrong, and especially to make mistakes when lecturing to a class of undergrads, but there is a part of me that loves it when I get challenged by what I've said with actual data. It's a learning opportunity and I enjoy when students go above and beyond to find other sources of info.
My standing agreement with students is that if they can present me with primary literature that demonstrates their argument, I'll give them points regardless of how the quiz was originally marked. I think that's only fair...

However, a couple of times I've run into a situation this semester where students cite non-primary lit sources to demonstrate their point. In the case of the quiz question above, they've cited a couple of YouTube videos about Rho-dependent terminators (here and here) that AFAIK incorrectly state that rho uses hairpins.

I see this as a very small battle in the larger world of #fakenews where we are constantly barraged with other peoples digested opinions and views rather than read the original undigested words. Regardless it's troubling. I'm going to mention this in class example in class today, and point out that "when in doubt find a primary source and look at the original data" is a great go to for deciding what's "real" in these situations.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Taking Stock 1/n

Six years ago (nearly to the day) I started my lab at the University of Arizona. There have been numerous ups and downs in science and outside of science, but I'm still here. My tenure package was submitted last August (I haven't heard back yet but expect to soonish), we've just undergone about the third dramatic change in lab personnel, and there's plenty on the plate for the future. I figured it was a good enough time to sit down and begin to reflect on these last 6 years and dream about the next 30 or so. Not sure how many parts this is going to be, hence the /n in the title, but for this first post I'm going to try and be open about self care needs and the internal struggles that I'm guessing a lot of us face. 

I've always been of the mindset that it's not about how much you work, but whether you make progress towards goals in that time. I've tried to encourage my lab members to take care of themselves mentally, to take breaks when necessary and enjoy the flexibility that comes with working in a research lab. I'm well aware that that line of thinking works for me, but it doesn't work for everyone and so please don't take this as a prescription for what to do but as an example of what's been done. For five years I thought I had everything under control. Sure, research and publishing and funding is always a struggle but it's been a manageable struggle. That all changed seven months ago and I'm still recovering.

My wife's pregnancy had been pretty standard up until early June. At that point she was about 29 weeks pregnant, but was also self employed as an equine vet and still going out to calls. She had been around horses all her life and has cultivated an intuition around these animals that's second to none. Was I worried about her job and my unborn son, deep down yeah. However, I trusted my wife to take all the necessary precautions and be careful, and by all measurements she did and was. I still remember that call in early June because it's one of those moments where time stands still. She had been kicked square in the stomach by a horse, it had thrown her back into a wall and there was a deep cut in her head. Maybe a couple of broken/chipped elbows (never did figure that one out, it was the least of our worries). She was being rushed to the hospital, no clue of how bad anyone's injuries really were. Not going to show you the pic, but there was literally a horse-shoe shaped bruise right on her pregnant stomach.

These are the kinds of situations where your mind tries to prioritize everything into what's essential and what's non-essential. Essential was me getting to the hospital ASAP bc my wife was in and out of consciousness and they didn't know how bad the head trauma was. They didn't know what condition my son was in, there was really no way to know if he had enough oxygen, how badly the internal damage was. It's a unique method of torture, to be a researcher and be incapable of truly assessing how bad the situation was because the tools simply don't exist.

Fast forward and my son was emergency C-sectioned at 29 weeks. Somehow his head was pointing down so that if the horse landed any blow it was a glancing one on his legs. We still don't know if he lost oxygen in the womb at all, but the placenta was damaged. My wife pretty much stayed in the NICU for two months straight (plenty of stories about that for other times), while I watched my three year old daughter at home during that time. It's a testament to the flexibility of our jobs as researchers that it was possible for me to do that. Somehow I managed to get my tenure packet submitted. Somehow I managed to write a couple of papers. Somehow I managed to make the slightest of progress in the lab during that time. Do I remember much of it, not really. I was just focused on getting by day to day one step at a time. There was a lot of stress in directions that I wasn't ready for, but I grew numb to it all for the sake of getting to the next day. It wasn't really easier when Kyle came home from the NICU, but my wife is a superhero and I'll leave it at that.

Why do I mention all of this? Part of it is catharsis. Part of it is that I haven't had the time to properly thank everyone for their help during this time, and so please take these lines as a thank you. All of the support meant so much and made everything easier to cope with. I mean that. I'm also writing this to say that, it has to be OK for us as researchers to be given time to get through difficult situations. Give your people the space they need (within reason). Give your people the help they need whether it be mental or physical. Whether you are an undergrad, grad student, postdoc, can be extremely challenging. I picked this career because of the flexibility and this summer solidified that. Everyone deserves the support that I received regardless of station.

I'm also writing this to describe that I'm not completely back yet. I've tried a couple of times to sit and write grants like I did before, to just pound them out, and I can honestly say that I don't have that gear back (hopefully it comes back...having a 7 month old doesn't help with sleep patterns). I'm getting back to how I felt pre-summer of 2016, but it's happening more slowly than I'd like. I would love to just flip a switch and have everything feel like it did before, but it doesn't work that way. I can't help but think that those months of emotional numbness that it took just to survive have left a bit of an emotional hangover. I've had more science energy lately and I feel better and more energetic every day about my research. I don't know how the story ends, but I do love both my family and my job. Sometimes you don't get to choose how to devote your emotional energy. With help, it's possible to muddle through to a more stable place. I've been way luckier than many and I'm looking forward to what the future has to hold. Still taking things one step at a time though, and that has to be OK too. 

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