Tuesday, August 22, 2017

And Still I Waited

Outside the iron gate
We parted ways
I, to the oceans
You, to the peaks
Promising to return, one day
Amid smiles and fond farewells
To this same portal
And meet again in the shade of these trees
Where a soft cinnamon wind blew
Carrying with it the scents of hope and youth
With goodbyes said
I watched you shoulder your burdens
And carry on, alone, down an old road
As I made my way to the shores
Thinking already of a day to come
When we would meet again
And so, eyes on the horizon
And mind already adrift
I sat, and I waited

Days were not always kind
Though the world was not always so fierce, either
I carried rich tunes through sad days
And sang sad melodies through summers so fierce
And beautiful
That the world seemed cast in gold
Upon distant shores I found love
And in dark seas
Lost and aimless, thirsting for revival 
I faced the void
There were monsters there
And storms that promised to smash our ships apart
Days when I thought I would be adrift forever, alone
And forget simpler days
Near green trees and that black iron gate
Where we met, and played
All those years of our childhood
Still, I had made a promise, and it would be fulfilled
But not yet
Not until I had seen my fill of the world
And so, I waited

Many moons ago
With clear skies and clear eyes
I rested a weary hand on a black iron latch
But you were not there
Your adventure not yet ended
So I stood, staring at the ghosts of my past
Alone, with my memories
Watching the burning leaves of autumn 
Fall like the promise of snow
And still I waited

Frost kissed rusted hinges
As bare wooden skeletons reached to gray skies
As if stretching towards the green life they had left behind
My eyes turned towards snow-capped peaks
Bleeding their whiteness down into the hills
No thought to the cold
As I imagined tracing your footsteps
But that was your path, not mine
And I could not follow you to the mountains
No more than you could follow me to the sea
Our stories had parted ways beside the gate
Where we had promised to come back together
And still I waited

Garish colors broke the silence of winter
Vibrant blooms born of green life
A shifting sea of hope rising from the mud
Arranged so prettily among other memories
Fragrant blooms and pouring rain gracing the days that passed
Beneath the white blossoms of the trees
I stared out at the gate
And to the deep oceans beyond
Where I had not found any answers
But where I had made myself
Alive in my remembrance
While trying my best to remember your face
And all of my promises
And still I waited

In the still of one gray morning
With a shriek of protest
The gate opened
And you came back to me
Tired, and old
Much older than I had left you
With worry and pain etched into the lines of your face
A road map to the stories you had yet to tell
Your eyes gazed slowly
Until they found me
And you stood still
With no smile to light your features
As I had once remembered
Your hand rested on the rough bark of the tree
Where we had carved our names as children
Silently you turned and walked away
And still, I waited

When you finally came
You came slowly
Solemn and serious
Sad, stormy orbs looking down as you sat beside me
Regaling me, in soft whispers
Of your time spent among the mountains
And a life well-lived, in triumph and tragedy
You asked me about the seas
Without pausing for an answer
Too intent on loosing the torrent of time lost
To listen
And so, patiently, I waited

Among the crashing waves and falling stars
It is easy to learn patience
Recalling storms and restless days
With lands unknown spread before us
On maps marked with dragons
I had so much wonder to share
Before life had claimed its due
Stories on stone tongues
For no ears to hear
And I'm sorry they came to carry me through the gates
Before you could return
Beyond rusted iron and towering oak
Where we had promised to wait
But among the earth and stone
It is easy to learn patience
As I'm sure you know, from your time in the mountains
And they lay me here, in this old place
With a spot beside me
As open as my heart, for you
Though I know you have mountains left to climb
And storms left to weather
Before you can rest beside me
For whatever passes for forever
And still, I'll be waiting

Sunday, July 30, 2017

He Looks How I Feel

He looks how I feel
The remains of the ghost
Of a man whose dreams
Hang as slack
As his feet do now
Almost tracing the ground
A gentle twist
Grim, grinning chimes
Dancing through forces; uncontrolled
A resigned, ceaseless smile
Plastered, unfeeling
Twisted under the weight
Of a world only interested
In what his last few pieces have to offer
Torn open
Laid bare

The dry limbs rattling in the wind
Settled with always-open eyes
A reminder of what we are all destined to become
A lovely future to aspire to
Stripped of the trappings of existence
Revealed inner recesses
Stripped of life and love
Where memories no longer rest
A world experienced, now snuffed
An empty cage where a heart once beat
Pinned up on display
Like a butterfly
A curious reminder
Of life lost, left
Remembered for nothing it was before
Held together
By cold pins and wires

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Shipwrecks and Sailors

Endlessly amazed
That we can exist in the same world
Without the twisting contradictions of us
Tearing the fragile fabric
Of this uncaring universe
Adrift on tired wings
Eyes closed to the possibilities that danced around us
Like a choir of ghosts

Demons deeply entrenched
In the twisting labyrinth of a miserly mind
As impossible dragons soar overhead
And monsters stalk the edges of our hopes
Blurring the edges of a map
Clutched in sad, determined hands
We have walked in these forbidden lands
Supping on the exotic tastes
Of a life so far out of reach

Upon a desk, beside blank pages
A single candle burns brightly
Casting long shadows across pristine paper
The untold story an unknown adventure
With the only X marking any treasure
Carved deep across lonely hearts
So that you can know where to find me

Tomorrow lay before us
Uncharted, unknown
Faced silently, through the fear
Because there is some knowledge in us
That together, we can brave the dark places and open seas
Fearing no dragons
We set sail for new days that rise like a phoenix from the ashes
Of yesterdays that now seem so wasted and wanting
I have found solace in the maelstrom
Storms breaking overhead, as we are doomed to break upon the rocks

We brave strange times, not in spite of the monsters
But so that we can face the fears as they come
The intangible grasp of slick serendipity
Rising from the depths 
Like some great beast
Something deeper and darker
Pulling us down where we belong
Like shipwrecks and sailors

Monday, July 10, 2017

Small Talk, Big World

A warm grey morning
Spent on sunny hills
Where flowers bloom in the back of a mind
Settled over a view
Distinguished by its indistinguishable nature
We met at the apex
Of the tallest hill
Exactly where we had agreed
As the Dreamscape's skies
Fluttered like butterflies
With smoke curling in pink fingers
To caress the green clouds
We walked, together
As you nursed the poison
Coursing through tired veins
Fighting what eats away at you
Like a swarm of insects
While I resigned myself to the poison
Curled like a sleeping cat
Inside my frantic mind
Clinging to normalcy
Like a child clings to their favorite toy

You took my arm then, with a smile
Apologizing for the weight
As if friendship could be a burden
We made small talk
About a big world
Or so you say
Shrouded in gentle currents of timelessness
The conversation turned to life
Or maybe books
But probably just about how much we both like cats
I did my best to ignore the elephant in the room
And you did your best to stomach my concerns
With so many unknowns
And undesirables
You sat, talking to a stranger
About missing the ocean
The smell of freedom in salt winds
The crash of surf on stoic rocks
Singing a song of a sort of freedom 
Vaguely remembered
As we did our best to ignore
The reality flooding in around us
Where we draw straws
To see which of us gets to play the optimist
And since it is your mind
I use the short straw to draw silly pictures
In the shifting sands of an old shore
Where waves crash with longing
On warm sands
Below a sunny hill
Carpeted with flowers
Where we had walked
In the back of a tired mind

Friday, May 19, 2017

An Academic Journey: A Premature End

It was my intent with this blog to catalog and describe my experiences with my doctoral studies. The first year was weird and kind of great. At the same time, it was also kind of disappointing and frustrating.

To that end, with the academic year coming to a close and my future entirely up in the air, that I made the decision to leave the program.

The doctoral program was maybe not as rough as I had expected. The academic work was easier than what I went through during my masters program. Rotations were great; every project I worked on went smoothly and got successful results. My fellow students, both senior graduate students and those in my cohort were pleasant, and even friendly at times. Some were even helpful, which was nice. The non-faculty staff were amazingly helpful, despite a few hiccups in paperwork and stuff throughout the experience. The faculty were... a mixed bag. 

The classes we took were all over the place, as far as difficulty. Of the 8 professors that taught the two core classes, and the two that taught ethics and conduct, most were at least acceptable. Having classes focus on specific research interests rather than useful knowledge was frustrating, as I believe that that type of directed learning is the purpose of journal clubs. A few professors took time to tell us how stupid we were, and how bad our institution was as far as quality of education. Those moments were a little off-putting, as a student. Furthermore, it sometimes felt like the classwork was simplified, and existed merely as a formality. I excelled at it, and I did not expect that. Rotations were undirected and in my experience there was no real way to address the absence of expectations or direction of the work. Rotation students weren't treated like potential graduate students, we were just treated as 8-10 weeks of free extra labor. In one rather awful case, I was belittled and insulted daily by a PI, to a point where other graduate students and faculty began to take notice. Nothing was done about it, because such behavior seems to casually condoned: everyone else had it rough, why should the new people get a break?

To sound a little bitter, this exposure to academia made it seem like they were all nothing but fragile egos living in this awkward bubble of unrealistic ideas of the world. They didn't seem to know how to treat people properly. It's like they have no understanding of the portion of their job that requires them to teach and mentor. A building full of intelligent people, who have a history of success, and yet are so far removed from common human interaction that it would be laughable if it wasn't so bad for the people who rely on them to do their job. It was a frustrating experience to be treated poorly while simultaneously doing well in most facets of the program. 

My experience is likely not a unique one. It wasn't even unique in this department: half of my cohort left the program; the three at the top of the class academically, with the most experience outside of academia.. in the real world, so to speak. I'm just glad that I was at a point in my life where being treated poorly and being miserable for six years was not something I wanted. I'm sure there are other places - institutions, labs, what have you - where I would have been happy, and done even better. None of that was present here, and rather than make a commitment to destroy my mental health, I made a choice for my dignity and well-being. Academia, especially in the sciences, is a bloated, draconian institution which has yet to address growing problems with how it functions. Postdocs and graduate students are often poorly treated, and definitely under paid. The time it takes to obtain the degree is slowly growing. Many professors are hired only for their research background, and have no business being around students, or being responsible for training and mentoring the next generation of scientists... some few grew into the position, but it isn't encouraged or examined because it isn't seen as important by administrations which see research only as a vehicle for money. Curiosity and creativity take a back seat to pushing whatever gets funding. At second and third rate universities, trying to emulate larger, more successful institutions is a recipe for disaster, because the resources and infrastructure don't exist. In my experience, academia attracts a very specific type of person, and from those experiences it isn't the kind of person I want to be. It isn't the life I want to lead.

I know that sounds a little more bitter than I really mean it. There are a lot of great scientists who have inspired me. I had to try to do this, and I truly believe that in other circumstances, in another place, I would have been able to keep going and accomplished this. Fortunately, I also don't regret this as much as I thought I would, despite having spent so much time and effort working towards getting into a program. I think I did what was best for me, given all the factors. That is the thing I want you all to take away from this: don't force yourself to be miserable. Don't force yourself to settle for things that are less than you expected, and don't let yourself be treated like garbage by 2nd rate academics at 2nd rate institutions. That one may be a little specific, but it still applies. If you're thinking of graduate school, please remember that it is okay to walk away. By no means does leaving a program mean that you're stupid, incompetent, or incapable. Sometimes things just aren't a good fit, or you're not in the right place or state of mind. Don't be ashamed to choose yourself in these situations. If you find your mental health being compromised, or your physical health, you really need to take steps to rectify the situation. To anyone struggling with their graduate school issues, please just tackle the problems. Step on toes. Take nobody's shit, even a miserable PI. Temper it with as much patience as you can, when you need to. Play it smart, but don't lose sight of your humanity. 

Now as I enter this weird new phase of uncertainty, I feel nothing but relief about my decision. I miss the science, but I don't miss the bullshit, or the bad people. Maybe some day I'll get back into it. Maybe I'm just going to be an outside observer, and that's alright too, right now. If things change, we'll see.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Academic Journey: Musings on the Academic Profession

Scientists have the benefit of being a group comprised of essentially every other subgroup of humanity. Their backgrounds, experiences, and lives are diverse... that sort of perspective difference has a lot to offer finding a good way to approach questions. Many pairs of eyes is good; many pairs of trained eyes with different perspectives is better. 

To speak to this diversity among academics would be to ramble on endlessly. There is too much variation, and they're only really tied together by one common thread: passion for a field of knowledge. The fields may be different, the approaches may be widely varied, and the reasons their passion developed and why they followed it are as diverse as the people involved in academia. Outside of academia, it can be easy to fall into this trap of perhaps expecting more from what some may see as the (over?)educated elite. It is easy to forget that they are people too, subject to the same flaws, faults, and failures as anyone else. In some senses, many academics don't seem to quite have caught on that they aren't infallible paragons of pure truth. Knowledge can easily lead to arrogance, and I'll admit that even my limited scope has given me an inflated ego a time or two when areas of my interest and knowledge come up around people who haven't spent years studying it. I can see how easy it could be for professional academics to retroactively smooth over their struggles when they were in the shoes of their graduate and undergraduate students, because these folks are sort of in a special place, even within their fields. 

The thing is, from the student perspective, you can see where the system of hiring academics for academic positions ignores many facets of their responsibilities as educators and mentors. Every STEM student has had professors (maybe the majority of their professors) who are likely very good at what they do in their lab, and not so great at pedigogy. It's unfortunate, because the universities sees these folks as money machines, rather than educators. They hire for exemplary research backgrounds, and just assume that mentoring and educating come easy to people who can design complex experiments to answer even more complex questions. In my experience, this is hardly ever the case. There is something to be said for people who understand that part of their job is to educate and mentor students. I've had enough good professors to know that there are some who take their role as educator, mentor, and trainer just as seriously as they take their role as a research scientist. However, these are too few and too far between. These highly educated, ostensibly highly intelligent and capable people, can be blinded by that success to the fact that they can be insufferably bad at other facets of the job they are supposed to be doing. 

Teaching is hard. Teaching is probably the hardest thing I've ever done, and I don't envy people who do it for a living at any educational level. In a perfect world you could recognize your own biases, and get constant feedback both from students, colleagues, and your supervisors / department chairs/ etc. about your performance, and integrate that into your approaches. In this perfect educational utopia, frustration with a student being slow on the uptake, or working at their own pace, shouldn't factor into your response. As a student, I'm already frustrated when i make mistakes. I'm already frustrated at the things I don't know... more so as a graduate student because I'm beginning to see the scope of all of the things that I don't know. The last thing I need, when I'm already in that state, is to be treated like an idiot because my mentor has knowledge garnered for 2 decades of experience and training which they take for granted as common knowledge. Nothing we do in science is exactly "common knowledge" in the sense that I can walk in here and be able to lecture on the subtleties and nuances of whatever weird niche you work on. In practice, often it is merely a sink or swim mentality, and things that could be turned into teachable moments are overshadowed by the frustration of a professional who seems to forget that mistakes are part of learning, and helping students learn from their mistakes is part of being a teacher. It's almost as if they are denying their own past mistakes when they were in similar circumstances.

We get it, nobody is perfect. That includes lofty academics with their PhDs and years of experience. The thing is, you don't train the next generation (and your future colleagues) by belittling, browbeating, shaming, or otherwise doing everything a teacher isn't supposed to do. Part of being a professor is sharing your knowledge. Part of training graduate students is helping them to not make mistakes twice. While it certainly sticks in our heads when we're berated for small errors or inconsequential things, it also tends to undermine our self-esteem and self-efficacy. The reasoning that there are things we should know is almost laughably over-simplified given the diversity of backgrounds. For example, in my cohort, there are students who had never taken a molecular biology course. Two of us have masters degrees in related fields already. I've never taken a developmental biology or cell physiology course. There are things we were never taught, and things we've probably forgotten. In no sense does it help us learn (or want to learn) to tell us that we're stupid for not knowing things that we were never taught or told were important, especially if they pertain to things we've never done before, or fields we have little experience in. This is compounded by the tendency for academics to take their work so seriously that they take errors as personal slights. I'm not trying to derail a decade of work; I'm trying to find my own way as a budding scientist who must, through necessity, rely on the training and mentoring of academics in order to succeed. When that support is minimal, non-existent, or takes the form of unnecessary bullying (for any reason) it does not help anyone involved. 

Having said this, I understand that students are just as much a part of this system. You have to want it. You have to make it clear that you're involved, and you have to keep your head in the game as much as you possibly can. You're not just a student, you're also an employee of sorts, and your success or failure is a direct reflection of the work your mentors and trainers put into you. We're all diamonds in the rough, and mentoring, educating, and training are there to polish us to a high sheen so that they can brag about how effective they are.

...I understand that the diamond analogy falls apart when we examine it further, because stones get polished by coarse, abrasive materials. This would suggest that coarse, abrasive training would be equally adept at polishing humans. It isn't. Academics need to know how to teach. They needed to know how to mentor. Not so many of them seem to be motivated to develop those skills on their own, because they are not things which are strongly emphasized in hiring or training. I get it: a competitive CV is more about the work you've done than the work you've helped others do. The thing is, system that persists isn't necessarily good because it has persisted. Not having the skills to handle the educational requirements of the academic profession doesn't reflect poorly on students who are unable or unwilling to tolerate negligence, verbal and emotional abuse, or whatever obtuse, unpersonable nonsense gets thrown at them. The best scientists shouldn't be the people who can get the most work done while also being treated like garbage. We shouldn't be forcing people who are intelligent, capable, and passionate to give up on their dreams because we don't care if they get treated well or taught properly so long as they get results. Graduate students are already underpaid, under-appreciated, and looking at shriveling future job prospects. There is no reason to add shitty mentoring to the list of things that can make grad school suck. The hardest part of graduate school should be immersing yourself entirely into something; the hardest part should be doing and designing your research. It shouldn't be all the stupid bullshit that comes with volunteering to follow your dreams. 

Of course, this is written at the most tense moment of my first year, trying to finalize a permanent position (which seems unlikely given the rotations I've done) and preparing for my qualifying exams (which will be the topic of another blog, I'm sure). I'm already stressed, and frustrated. I'm probably more frustrated than the professors seem to be these days. I don't know if I will stay in here; or if I'll even be able to stay. It's hard to be treated poorly and keep your mouth shut because you're replaceable and have no real avenue for recourse. It's hard to have to feign complacency because your other option is walking away from a year of your life spent already being miserable and working hard. It's bad enough that coming in every day makes me feel the kind of anxiety I haven't felt in a long time. My base assumption is that I'm going to be treated like crap, and so my motivation has suffered. Shit rolls down hill, sure, but that is kind of a bad excuse for being treated like crap, because there are plenty of graduate students who have and have had positive experiences with PIs and rotations. Maybe I really am just kind of shitty. Maybe I just was really unfortunate with my rotation selections. It may be somewhere in between, with a healthy dose of it being a stressful time of year for everyone involved.

I can say this, though: my experiences here, regardless of whether or not I stay to finish my PhD, have entirely soured any thoughts of becoming an academic. The road leading to it, the lifestyle, and the way I see interactions occurring here aren't enough to sell it as an attractive goal. The numbers are already against an academic career, and the reality is that my experiences are already starting to ruin science for me... that is enough of a reason to avoid it. I get that people are the same everywhere... maybe I'm guilty of wearing rose-colored glasses when examining how I think academics would want to approach teaching, training, and mentoring. You'd think that they'd want to treat the people they're responsible for well enough to maintain productivity and be able to recruit students, but the joke is on me because there will always be people willing to get treated like shit to follow their dreams. 

Personally, I'm not sure yet if I'm that kind of person, or if that would really be worth it.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Burning, Alive, For You

Fading lines blurred
Edges bleeding as memories pale
Things you left, scattered about
And here and there
I find your hair on my clothes
Or in my blankets
Sweet reminders, caught at the periphery of our senses
Like the faint whiff of perfume
Fading at the edges of passion
As it burns inside
Like an eternal flame
Bearing the heat within
That lingering shock
At the tips of my fingers
The memory of lines traced
Down the warm landscape
Of soft, sweet skin

There are photographs
Behind glass
Cradled memories
Of the wisp of smiles
That lay dormant under the cold ice
Of days and times before
Where the darkness was more a part of me
Than I knew how to be comfortable with
Emboldened, embrightened
The little flame melted away walls
Placed by the cold, dead hands
Of undying demons, writhing inside of me
Snakes in a pit
Singing siren songs with poisoned lips

I sit, under old trees
Where your name is not carved beside mine\
But under whose leaves, our hearts reside
As if a phone call would be enough
To make up for soft words
Whispered directly into ears
Curling through the cold
Warmed from within
By the same heat I feel
From your hand, pressed to my chest
Heart pulsing, pounding
Like a monster created
By mad science
Finding life at last
Sweet, cinnamon kisses lingering like smoke
As if my memory would sustain me
Past the long days without
While you sit
Not alone at all
But merely apart, for now

Throwing petals to the wind
Tossing them aside like overwrought cliches
To drift away 
On cold beaches, where the sun shines
On your face
While the moon shines on mine
In slumber, a world away from you
Though not alone
As you are the fire now
A sort of artificial, eternal dawn
Melting the ice I'd bound around my heart
To hold me in the darkness
Where the snakes and demons once resides
To dance and be merry
A darkness which no longer feels like home

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Day For A Lifetime (World Poetry Day)

For Jessy, and all the times we've played with words


There are days
Long days perhaps, or days often overlooked
Set aside for the sharing of ideas
Ideally to conspicuously denote
Those who share the passion
Predisposed towards the sort of thing
That we see fit to give a day to
Agreeing perhaps that these things are worthy of praise
Though we afford only a single day to share them
Today, they say
Is a day to celebrate wordplay
Something I find insufferable at the best of times
But through which I have found many things
Like a dear friend (more like family)
Far, far away
In a world that may as well be from the pages of a book
For all distance between us
I've also found a way
To write without writing 
Perhaps without writing well
Though I'm sure there would be hackles raised
If that statement were made in sincerity

There are people
Living these days
The long ones we peasants deign to acknowledge
Perhaps but once a year
Every day of their lives
With scribbled words
Or brush stroke
Or just appreciating who they are, where they've come from
The milestones reached
Things both within and without their control
Today is a day for poets
And lovers of poets
Tomorrow, though
A day for remembering the thirsty
And the day after, will be something else
But for each, we see only the days we know
Be it a day for science (November 10th)
A day for love (May 1st)
Or just for cookies (Decemeber 4th)
I think we all know
That these days do not stand alone
Mutually exclusive of the enjoyment of other things
Each of us, instead, choosing to live the way we love, the things we love

There is too much art
Even within a medium
To take a single day for any appreciation
And it may seem so cliche
To use it as my excuse to scan the works
Of Bukowski, Rimbaud, or Gibran
After long days of scanning textbooks
And preparing for exams
You won't find me sipping wine
Watching bad beat poetry on youtube
As if there was any other kind of beat poetry
Wincing delightedly at every un-ironic snap
And spoken word cliche
Spit with such candid vehemence
Like the poorly scribbled
Cliche-ridden angst, of every teenager
Or the childlike, saccharine of rhyming
Clumsy, or elegant
A cacophany of thoughts and emotions
Roiling through the mind and onto paper
Or into ears
Such sincere, heartfelt art
That even the worst is endearing
Because even the (subjective) worst is art

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Women in Science

For a while I've toyed with the idea of this blog, and I wasn't really short how to best approach it in a way that makes the message clear, because I want to include my personal experiences without making it about me... unfortunately, I can only address issues through the lens of my experience, and so I would ask that you take that limitation (and my own stupidity) into consideration when reading.

The thing is, I am where I am entirely on the strength of female role models. I have succeeded and progressed as a student and graduate student entirely on the strengths of amazing female scientists who served as mentors. I can attribute a measure of my success anywhere to my female peers, who have been an invaluable source of knowledge, support, and insight at various levels. Before I share why having women in science is important to me, I want to share why it is important in a global sense.

First of all, there is a long history of women achieving remarkable things in a field that is largely dominated by men, especially in a historical context. We have Marie Curie, a dual Nobel laureate. We have the fine women of early NASA, recently recognized in a movie, based on a book about their integral contributions to modern aerospace, in spite of facing roadblocks due to both gender and race. We have Rosalind Franklin, who is seemingly more well known for her clear X-ray crystallography of the structure of DNA (something for which I doubt she would have shared the Nobel if she had not died unfortunately young from cancer) and who SHOULD be more well-known for her crystal structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, which I do think could have gotten her Nobel recognition, again, if her untimely death hadn't interfered. You have the wealth of current researchers who have made amazing discoveries, among them Dr. Carol Greider, a Nobel laureate whom I had the distinct pleasure of being taught by during my masters. The list of exceptional female scientists and their accomplishments could essentially fill volumes, and I could probably write a blog about each individual. The contributions of women to all fields of science are really beyond any sense of doubt (just look at a list of female Nobel laureates in the sciences, or female winners of any prestigious science award), yet we still see clear biases in the scientific community when it comes to gender. Women are less likely to enter the sciences, less likely to stay, less likely to publish as many papers in their PhD education, less likely to be hired as faculty, and less likely to have their work praised highly by their peers. Women also tend to have fewer collaborators, and are less likely to be the Principle Investigator on published research. We can examine these issues from a variety of perspectives to determine why these things occur how we see them, and where those things initiate along the pathway of education to create this kind of disparity. For me, at least, it is easy to see that often girls are pushed out of science early on, based on a number of factors relating to perception of gender and gender roles in early education. It isn't as if women aren't contributing in major ways to the work when they do it (this holds true in basically every academic field I would hazard to guess, but since I'm not in those fields, I really won't comment more than just my semi-informed best guess).

The thing is, that we can talk about the benefits of women in science in regards to equality, but hardly ever in regards to the overall quality of a field. Multiple perspectives always helps science. Having a good researcher always benefits, regardless of that person's gender... but one can easily hypothesize a situation where someone who would have had a profound impact was excluded entirely, or never allowed to flourish.

For me, being a man in science, I get to see how some of these things play out around me, hearing the conversations from my female colleagues and seeing how interactions occur with female faculty and their peers, and also how students respond to female professors and PIs. At a recent event, I was talking with a post doc who told me how she came to be in biology: she was originally a theoretical physics graduate student, but her male advisor kept putting her on projects unrelated to that work. When confronted, he simply told her: "Women can't do theoretical physics." Soon after, she went to the biology department at her institution, told them she would catch up on the chemistry and biology within a year if they would give her a chance, and... well, she's a post doc now. Something must have gone right. That conversation would never go the other way, and we all know that. The thing is, I'm not sure I can fathom a world of science without contributions from women, both on a global level, and a personal level. My mother worked multiple jobs and always supported my dreams of education, even when (looking back) it really increased her own hardship. In my secondary education, it was a woman mentor who gave me academic confidence. It was women who gave me the tools to succeed, and spoke highly of me in recommendations to get into college, even though I was from a location where a college education was not expected, and certainly not in the sciences. As an undergrad, a biology professor took an interest in my success, and mentored me throughout all of the issues that come with being a college student. She encouraged my success, fostered my curiosity and interest, and still today is a sort of mentor/cheering section for me as I navigate the early stages of becoming an academic. She has been a constant source of support and the occasional reality check that I needed, and even speaking with her about her experiences has shown that her career was spent in the shadow of male colleagues, despite having amazing training and experience with renowned experts at prestigious institutions. Yet, again, I could not have succeeded without her and her insights and support. In my masters studies, in a cohort which was (quite amazingly, given global demographics) 70% women, there was a wonderful scientist and educator who helped me to struggle through an experience that was exacerbated by physical and mental health issues, and who was willing to speak on my behalf in recommendations in spite of what may have been a disappointing performance academically. It was at this time that I was also given opportunities I never would have imagined because of two faculty members who decided to take a group project and try to turn it into a real research project, giving me a real eye-opening experience into that world which I haven't forgotten. These wonderful researchers, both successful female academics, gave me a kind of renewed confidence in my abilities. I couldn't have survived my masters program without all of them. Now, as a PhD student, I have peers with whom I regularly interact in the fields of medicine and the life sciences, and that network is full of some of the most brilliant, hard-working, badass scientists and future doctors I know... and a large portion of them are women who are passionately dedicated to what they do, amazingly brilliant, and also great people to boot, and I would struggle without them. With an even wider net, there are scientists and researchers in fields who act as great communicators and role models in that regard, with whom I regularly engage and are great scientists, great educators and communicators, and super fun people! Taken together, all of these amazing women in the sciences are the reason for my ability to do what I love. Not because they are women, but because they are positive role models and amazing mentors who excel at what they do, and we need scientists of that quality everywhere, and those futures should not suffer because of criteria unrelated to their competency and passion.

Fields as diverse as science should thrive with diverse perspectives from those engaged in the disciplines. The necessity of this diversity is necessary not just to improve the overall quality of the field itself (which it totally does!). We know that women in science face struggles, and we know that the struggles are unrelated to the quality of their science. I don't want others to miss opportunities to follow their passions because of roadblocks based on their gender. I don't want female students to be discouraged because of the disparities they see occurring within science as a whole. There are great things being done, and the best way to change the direction is to see great researchers doing great work, and smashing the barriers being placed before them through their success and abilities. We need good scientists, competent mentors, and great teachers... and among those who perhaps face obstacles that push them away from science, there are many who could fill those roles with the passion, dedication, and diligence that would improve the field, and the experience of those in it, at nearly every level. The roadblocks that exist, to anyone, are detrimental to the whole of science. 

I hope this didn't get too off topic. Part of this, of course, was a thank you to the people whom I view as so directly responsible for me being where I am. Part of it is a nod to my friends who are going through the same struggles I am, only maybe more so because they are women in traditionally male-dominated fields. The personal flourish is because I have to address the issue through my own perspective, which is likely not just limited, but also poorly worded... I can only hope that the intent is clear through any bad approaches I have made, and that I see this issue of diversity includes many types of people from all sorts of backgrounds as well as the gender disparities mentioned.

In the end, I'm just glad that people... anyone at all... get involved in the thing I love so much. Women in science are the reason I've survived (and occasionally thrived) in science. Not because of (or in spite of) their gender, but because they were passionate and great at their jobs and really gave a shit about my success. We need more of that, for everyone.

Monday, January 30, 2017

An Academic Journey: The Joys of Failure

Honestly, I've always kind of enjoyed working out how things work, or why they don't. In the context of science, this would be troubleshooting and optimizations. In general, it's kind of soothing to take it all apart and see where things may have messed up. In a greater context, I like to step back from things that bother me, or my problems, and try to see them from another perspective. I find it can provide valuable insights.

More importantly, I'm comfortable with things not working out my way. This is because I understand that I alone am responsible for my success, failure, or performance 99% of the time. It's on me, and if I do it wrong, or do poorly, it is on me to adjust or fix it. With classes, you maybe have fewer opportunities to adjust yourself to improve grades, though for the most part one bad exam (or class, or semester) won't kill you. You can always learn from it, and try to see where things went wrong. 

In the lab, it's a little more nice that the immediacy is gone. You aren't going to "pass or fail" science based on a lack of immediate results the first time. You're in this for the long game, and you have the luxury of being able to return to a failure and improve it without the first failure really ruining anything for you. In both rotations so far, things have not really been going my way as far as results. Last time, it was a couple bad stains and an optimization that was ruined by a well-meaning undergrad. This time, it is cell cultures getting contaminated and also just having dead cells. The cool thing with both, is that I can address these errors and not have to worry that they will necessarily "make or break" the rotation or my experience. I mean, it seems that most of bench science is optimization, troubleshooting, and repetition. I can do mind-numbing repetition. I grew up shoveling manure and digging ditches for 10 hour days every weekend. Given the choice, I'd rather run another PCR or sit at a cryostat for a few hours. It will at least smell better.

So I know this is a little short, but I'm mostly just letting off some stream of consciousness frustration. Simply, just because you can deal with failure constructively doesn't mean you enjoy it. I wanted my first foray into the work this rotation is doing to come out strong and make a good impression. All it really taught me was their protocol for contaminated cell cultures.

Still, I'm pretty excited to be able to sit and try to parse apart what went wrong, and to refine my skills and technique to the point where I can not only diagnose my errors, but also minimize or remove them. That, of course, will come with training and time. Since I have a long road of training ahead of me, the little hiccups along the way will hopefully inform my improvements rather than discouraging me.

An interesting aside, the school of public health here sent a survey to all of the graduate students asking about what they need for support services. The questions, of course, mainly focused around a few things: 

1) Can you afford to live?
2) Can you afford food, and when you can, is it healthy?
3) Are you experiencing any symptoms of anxiety, or depression?

It seems to me they really already know their target audience. Graduate student stipends suck. My department alone is looking to reduce admissions so that they don't have to pay as many TAs, resulting in an increased burden on current TAs AND a downsizing of graduate students in the department (despite the opening of new faculty positions and labs.) I know that funding is an issue everywhere, so it comes as no surprise that students are stretching their TA stipends as far as they can, with senior grad students all TAing for as long as possible so that their PIs don't have to fund them directly with grants. Add in the science funding crisis, the number of years it takes to get a PhD, and the size of a public university's biology department, and you have a recipe for disaster. On top of the generally low stipends, you also have the compounding of the stress of graduate school to impact your students' health and welfare that can lead to a lot of issues with mental health. These issues, I think, are just now beginning to be talked about openly by people in higher education. In my experience, it is mostly through students speaking out, and not much is being said by the PIs and professors of the world. 

Sometimes it seems like they see misery as a sort of rite of passage, and that seems completely unnecessary to me. It's part and parcel of a larger issue in science, which is the increasing commodification of scientific endeavor, where it is no longer seen as something done for the betterment of society. With an increase in granted PhDs, a longer academic career for tenured professors, and the difficulty facing early career researchers when it comes to securing grants, even academic science has become this sort of high-throughput monstrosity that requires an insane amount of time commitment with what is seemingly little benefit or payoff. Salaries aren't great, even if you GET that position... after you've already spent a decade+ getting the PhD and doing post docs, all of which are underpaid and extremely overworked. The system is broken, but it is so hard to keep up with the pace of advancement and with funding requirements that those involved in the system are doing what they can to just stay In the system. Nobody has the time to try to massively overhaul a system that desperately needs fixing. My generation of researchers will suffer the same hurdles, and until there is a sincerely concentrated effort, I don't foresee a change of any significance. This is unfortunately compounded by a decided lack of interest of understanding in science. It is very hard to convince people that basic research is essential research. it is very hard to get funding to study something for the sake of knowing. if that is your motivation, you damn well better be prepared to spin doctor it into a perspective where it has tangible societal benefits to get funding. That's why biomedical research has so much better funding than basic science, even though both are equally valid scientifically. And as in every field, money talks. In academia, that seems to be the best incentivization: work hard and make your questions address human problems, and you get the payoff in the form of a mediocre salary, grant money to not lose your job, and hope that you can keep that up until you get tenure so that you don't have to start sending resumes. Graduate students see this in the 60-80hour weeks they're typically expected to work on things, because not only is this kind of a norm, it's a necessary survival technique in the world of research. I can't say the preparation is bad. I just don't think that "break them down so you can build them up" is really an effective way to get critical, creative thinkers motivated. It doesn't help that I feel like I'm being trained as a sort of worker bee right now. They want to talk about teaching us creative approaches to scientific questions, but half my time is being spent being told what to do, and how to do it, without any real explanation as to the why or where it's going. Not to mention that the classes are a little redundant a lot of the time. (For example, I've taken 7 biochemistry courses, 4 molecular biology courses, and 3 cell biology courses across my 3 degrees. All required.)

Anyway, that tangent got pretty real. It's just something that I think about a lot in my day-to-day as I go between classes, lab, and teaching, and talk with peers in other fields or at other institutions. The long and short of it is that if you don't love it enough to be miserable sometimes, then you should really consider finding something else. I may not be the happiest, or best adjusted I've ever been, but I still can't see myself doing anything else. You have to make sure that it's worth what you give up to do it. Also, try not to get too discouraged. Life happens. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

An Academic Journey: When Things Don't Go As Planned

My mantra for this first year as a PhD student has been something like "When things don't go as planned, plan around them."

It must seem like half of what I do in grad school is complain about being in grad school, and most of what is left is just being really bad at what I do, but honestly it has been a great experience. Unfortunately, a lot of the time that's simply because it is what I'm making it out to be. My goals for rotations and the disciplines I would rotate in have all sort of been throw to the wind. It now looks like I'm well on my way to having to do some clever forward thinking to end up doing what I wanted to do originally, and that's fine. I think a key component of graduate school, and of science in general, is related to an old military maxim: No plan survives contact with the enemy. 

Now, in the case of graduate school, there really isn't an enemy, but replace "enemy" with any number of factors, up to and including just the stochastic nature of life, and you'll see that it becomes a sort of cliche. The thing is, you kind of have to get used to things not working as planned. That's 90% of all experiments, and probably 95% of just general living life. Plans change, things go wrong. Hell, sometimes things go right in a way totally different than what you expected. It is the thing they can train you the least for. You just have to be used to things not going your way, and be able to spin every failure into a learning experience. Again, broadly applicable to life in general, but more so to grad school. People lose funding. Labs fill up. Experiments fail. Reagents may suck, or things may get contaminated, or an undergrad may put your 2 weeks of staining optimization into a protease bath. 

What do you do? 

Well, after a hardy grumbling and maybe stepping away for 5 minutes to contemplate the career opportunities as a carnival worker or street performer, you kind of just need to take a deep breath and shrug it off. (Or laugh it off.) Then you reformulate a plan of attack, and maybe you start all over again. The cool thing, I guess, is that you can always take the stance that even negative data is data, and even a failed experiment can teach you something, even if it's just teaching you how far you can stretch your patience. (I hear the going rate for that is about 7 years, and then you graduate).

Little obstacles suck. Especially issues over which you have no real control or means of responding to. That kind of powerlessness can easily lead to a downward spiral of frustration ending in apathy or resentment. It's not a good place to be when you're starting out in a profession that is 20% frustration, 70% grant writing, 7% failure, 3% underwhelming success, and 100% science. Again, it's because science has to be a labor of love, and the result of a passion. You have to be doing it for the right reasons, or you're better off not doing it at all. Academic science these days is a high-stress, low-reward profession that requires mastering so many skills that you are never remotely taught. You're an accountant, a mentor, a teacher, a manager, a technician, a troubleshooter, a writer, a communicator... plus a grant proposal machine, and any time you can get to spend in the lab. It's a wonder that anyone goes into the field, really, knowing that they have to look forward to long years of low paid servitude followed by longer years of high stress, high activity professional life that may or may not be rewarded at all. In a way, I'm pretty grateful that all I have to worry about right now is passing my classes, studying for qualifying exams, and impressing my rotation mentors. 

Still, from the student standpoint, it can seem like an uphill battle against failures and detours and myriad other things that suck. I know that there are definitely times when I dislike being here, and when I feel like I hate myself for having done this... but at the same time, i don't regret it, because it's easy in a field like this, to really see the big picture, and what it is leading to. 

I guess what I'm saying, is that it's alright to be optimistic, so long as you're prepared for every goal and plan you have to be outrageously denied to you by the callous hands of fate. Which is to say, that the system is bigger than you, and in the beginning, you spend a lot of time just being at the mercy of the ebb and flow of bigger things going on around you. Don't get too discouraged. Adaptability is just another trait of a good scientist. Most of being successful is just not letting the disruptions and failures get to you long enough to keep you from moving forward.