Sunday, August 4, 2013

Moving up and moving on

Summer always seems to be a time of flux, and this one in particular is no exception. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a going away party for the lab coordinator at Eastern and his girlfriend who have since moved out west. Even though I wasn't super close to these people, I still had to fight back tears on my drive home that night. I walked into the house feeling rather empty and sad - enough so that even Chris noticed and asked me what was wrong and why I looked so sad. I think I snapped back something like, "everyone is leaving; how am I supposed to feel?!" Now, not everyone I know is leaving - that was an obvious exaggeration of the facts. However, when people that you've come to know over the course of several years start pulling up stakes and moving on with their lives, it can really shake your perception of things. On Friday, I went to yet another going away party. This time, for one of my close friends who is moving out to Colorado for her PhD. I am incredibly happy for her, but equally (and probably selfishly) sad for myself that she is going so far away.

Change is hard, no matter how good or bad the circumstances surrounding it. Other changes that are happening around me are somewhat less emotionally charged, but are still hitting me harder than I expected. Another PhD friend is moving to Brighton to be with her boyfriend. The tech in our lab, whom I've really come to like, is transitioning out of the lab and into what will be a great job for her at the Corner. The other two grad students in my lab hope to graduate by April of next year, leaving me as my PI's lone grad student, albeit with an undergrad minion. Funding is never a sure thing, and we might be out of money by March if another grant doesn't come through. This situation is putting more pressure on me to write an F31 pre-doctoral fellowship grant. The next feasible due date is in October. With so few applicants being funded, the proposition of applying terrifies me.

With all of this swirling around my head, it's hard to keep my eyes on the prize. The whole point of getting a PhD is to have more job opportunities available to me. So, what do I want to do once I become "Dr. Mitchell" (or "Dr. Visel" if I'm in evil scientist mode) and complete a post-doc? I don't know. Sometimes I think I want to teach, but teaching is scary because other people are there. And they're looking at me and expecting me to teach them new things and be this professor that they put up on a pedestal. Is that something I can do for the rest of my career? I don't know. If not that, then what? I don't think I want to be a PI at an R1 research institution. There's no time to do any bench work anymore, because you're constantly begging for money to keep the lab running and to pay for grad students, techs, and post-docs. I think I'd sooner slit my wrists than commit to doing that for the rest of my career. So, what other jobs are available to a woman who is fast approaching middle age and who is over-educated and probably under-motivated? Pot farmer? No, my brother has that covered. Goat herder? Goats are my favorite ruminant, but that won't get me far. Scientific writer? Hmm, maybe, but it might be too similar to writing your life away searching for grant funding. Plain old writer of fiction and non-fiction? My dad had one hell of a story that I could spin into an amazing tale, but it won't be enough to pay the bills, I'm afraid. Professional genealogist? As long as I'm looking for white people, how hard could that be? I don't know how one becomes a professional though. My dad's side of the family has been a black hole ever since I started looking probably 20 years ago, so maybe this job's not for me. Industry?? I need to look into this.

Every Sunday, I dredge up all of the fears and uncertainties about what I'm doing with my life. On Sundays, life seems pointless to me. I feel like I'm not making a difference to anyone and I feel like a total failure. All this means is that I really don't want to go to work in the morning. Tomorrow starts my obligatory week of teaching for the IMSD (Initiative for Maximizing Student Development) program, which has funded me for the past two years. During this last part of their summer program, I will be teaching incoming freshman minority students, most of whom want to be "real" doctors (MDs - it's almost cute), a little bit of the biology they will encounter during their first year of college. During last month's orientation, the students came with their parents. They all had a deer-in-headlights look on their faces. I thought to myself that it must be nice to have parents that wanted to come to an orientation with them. I remember at 19 going alone to orientation at Michigan State, and being surrounded by student-parent dyads and triads. That sucked, but I digress.

On Sundays, a large part of me wants to be back in the car with my major professor headed to a conference. We made fun of car names, sports venue names, and just had a good time. We got along famously and I miss that. I mean, we still get along well and he's become a good friend of mine, but I miss that time in my life. The past is the past though, and none of us can have it back. All I can do now is put my head down, get ready for tomorrow, and keep moving on.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

What is it about Mondays?

I hate Mondays. It's gotten so bad that I start feeling depressed in the middle of the afternoon on Sundays. Just in the last five minutes, I've apparently let out so many long heavy sighs that even Chris noticed and gave me a quizzical look.

Tomorrow is orientation day for the undergrad IMSD summer program. This takes place in a room on main campus that is about 5 times too small for the number of students, parents, and the rest of us who will be crammed in it. As a graduate IMSD student, I'm required to spend a week in August teaching these incoming freshmen some biology. I guess the idea is to kind of give them a taste of what they'll encounter in their intro classes in the fall (they will also have physics and chemistry modules). Additionally, us older students tell the younger ones what not to do and the mistakes we made on the way to getting a bachelor's degree and beyond.

I don't know how useful I will be tomorrow. I just feel emotionally drained. For the last several months, it just seems like I have to keep giving and giving and giving. Giving instruction to various minions, giving my extra time (of that, there's been damn little), my love, and every last ounce of patience to Elliot, and just generally expending all of my energy on preparing for lab meetings, a conference, and my committee meeting. What I haven't done is give so generously to myself. I don't sleep well, I haven't been eating well, I don't really engage in any relaxing hobbies or go anywhere but the bar with friends. And sometimes I go weeks without having any significant social interaction outside of the lab and home. There are times that I feel excruciatingly lonely, even when I'm surrounded by people. I'm just tired. I really need a vacation. I think the last time Chris and I went out of town alone was when Elliot was two or three and we went to a wedding in Ohio. I had such a bad respiratory infection that I was convinced I had whooping cough. Even now I'm not sure that I didn't. That didn't make for a relaxing time at all.

Goddamn it! I just took a sip of beer and realized that I've been sharing it with some kind of insect for the last few minutes. WTF?! I give up. I'm a fabulous complainer - I like to do it and I've become pretty good at it too. Now I just have to figure out how to make things better for myself. I'm not so great at that yet, but I'm gonna keep trying.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Minioning leads to wacked out poo brain

I am exhausted. Just mentally spent. Thinking for myself is taxing enough, but having to think for myself and another person every single day is really wearing on me. A little background is called for here.

At the beginning of May, I was given an undergrad student. It kinda sounds like a late birthday present, but I assure you - an undergrad with no real lab experience is no gift. Particularly in advance of my first national ASM meeting representing the lab and my first committee meeting. My PI ultimately wants her (my undergrad / minion-in-training) to have her own project investigating whether quorum sensing is important for V. cholerae colonization of the zebrafish gut. However, there's a TON of work involved in teaching her the stuff she needs to know (what I call "minioning") to become even semi-independent. She's really smart and asks good questions, but she mumbles like crazy, sneaks up on me, almost never shuts up, has come down with some form of selective deafness, and is generally irritating the fuck out of me. Let me break this down point by point:

  1. "mumbles like crazy" - I have auditory processing issues that make it hard for me to understand speech when there's a lot of background noise. Even giving myself slack for that, it makes me feel SO OLD having to say, "what?" or "I really can't hear you" 50 times a day. When I've had enough, I'll just smile and nod or run off to the bathroom and just sit on the toilet, not to pee, but to hide.
  2. "sneaks up on me" - She doesn't do it on purpose, but she has walked up behind me so silently that I have literally jumped at the sight of her on least 5 separate occasions. I told her to cough or make a noise when she's about 10 feet away, or I'd have to start calling her The Sidler.
  3. "almost never shuts up" - today out of the blue she looks up from her reading and says, "I do Tae Kwon Do on the weekends" - I think that's what she said anyway, because she was mumbling. I said, "really?" to which she replied, "no, not really. But I want to." I think it was at this point that I got up and went to go hide in the bathroom.
  4. "has selective deafness" - Lately, I'll explain to her why we're doing something or I'll show her how to do ethanol precipitation, for example, on a few samples with her doing the remainder of the samples. As soon as I tell her to go ahead and finish the last few, she says, "okay, what am I doing now?"

There's more stuff, but I think you get the idea. It has recently come to my attention that she annoys everyone else in my lab and the fish lab too. <face palm> My description of her really sounds bad, but I'm pretty sure most of the annoying things she does are unintentional. Unfortunately, that only makes it worse in that this is just her personality. Granted, she is only 19 and likely just acting her age. I've been asking myself if I was that annoying when I was 19, and I'm fairly certain that I was not, although I may be somewhat biased.

I'm glad for the chance to vent. Fortunately, we have lab meeting tomorrow and there will be no real time to do benchwork with her. She comes in the afternoon Monday - Thursday because she has class in the morning on those days. My feeling of dread is only slightly diminished though. I have to come up with enough stuff to keep her busy, yet out of my hair, on Friday. I forgot to mention - she has no classes on Friday so she will be in the lab with me all. day. long...

Friday, June 21, 2013

The bitch is back!

I've finally gotten around to updating the blog. It's funny, for weeks now, I've been thinking of all kinds of great things to write about. Now that I actually have time to write about them, I can't think of a single thing I want to write about. I guess I'll just give a rundown of what's been going on since my last post.

The biggest change is that I've advanced to PhD candidacy (I'm not waiting for the paperwork to go through to claim the distinction. God only knows how long that will actually take.). ABD, baby (thanks, Jamin)! So, I had my first committee meeting last Thursday to present and defend my research proposal. I was a little surprised at how long it took. My committee and I were holed up in the department library for nearly two hours. I only had 35 PowerPoint slides in my presentation, so I figured I would spend about 40-45 minutes presenting my stuff. No. When I finally reached my last slide, it was an hour and 26 minutes after I had initially opened my mouth to start speaking. Holy shit. Thankfully, I was only stumped by one question: what is the conductance of the water the zebrafish are kept in? No clue. I still don't know and, at this point, don't much care. Even better is that the PI of the fish lab (where I do my zebrafish experiments) didn't know either. I didn't get any criticisms and was told that I gave an "excellent" presentation. My PI said that it was obvious that I had read everything he thought I needed to and he said I did a great job. That made me feel awesome - almost embarrassed. This project is my boss's "baby" and I really wanted to make sure that I represented the project and him well. Comments from other committee members like, "you're a really good speaker and you gave a great presentation," and, "you didn't just tell us about your project, you taught us," told me that I nailed it. I feel like I have finally earned my place in the lab. All the teaching I did at EMU and WCC has really been advantageous to me. I am comfortable speaking in front of groups of diverse educational backgrounds, I know how to tailor a presentation for a particular audience - what background to include and details I can (and sometimes should) leave out. I've also gotten good at anticipating what questions might be asked of me. The one thing I really need to improve on is time management. I always wait until the last damn minute to do everything - to the point where it isn't unusual for someone to get pissed at me as a result. Oddly enough, putting the finishing touches on a presentation just minutes before I'm scheduled to give it seems to work for me. I prefer not to practice beforehand - I feel like my talk will be too rehearsed and lacking in spontaneity. I feel like I express enthusiasm more authentically the very first time I give a talk. Don't get me wrong, I don't go into a presentation unprepared. I scrutinize every image and line of text on every slide. I know exactly what information needs to be conveyed, but my preference is to figure out how exactly to convey it while I'm in the moment. I think many of these idiosyncrasies can be blamed on my attention deficit disorder. For optimum performance, it seems that my brain requires an absolutely ridiculous amount of stimulation. This comes in the form of pushing the limits of my superiors (how much will they let me get away with before they get pissed?), seeing how long I can put off a task before it becomes impossible to do by a certain deadline, things that cause me almost crippling levels of anxiety. It drives me nuts and I absolutely hate this about myself. However, I'm at a point in my life where I wonder if it's too late to "fix" me. I feel far too old to keep getting chastised like a small child. I also wonder if faculty would respond to me differently if 1) they knew I have ADD (I don't make this known because I'm convinced it will be perceived as a "convenient excuse" for why I  sometimes don't perform up to expectations), and 2) that I am actually 37, not 27 - also something I don't tend to publicize.

One more bit of self-reflection before signing off. Here's an enlargement of my new profile picture:
An early iteration of my "bitch face"
I'm three (possibly four) years old in this picture. Something I've been reflecting upon lately is that fish  have been a consistent thread running through my life - especially now. My astrological sign is Pisces, in this picture I'm wearing a swimsuit with fish on it while holding a dead bluegill that my dad - an avid fisherman - had just caught, and now I'm sitting here writing about the zebrafish project that has gradually come to consume me. A little freaky. While my father was alive, I never shared his love of fishing - although I did love to eat what he caught and cooked for me. When I was pregnant with Elliot, it was so hard to have to keep telling him that I couldn't eat his fish. Even with that temporary abstinence, I'm sure my body is loaded with enough mercury to make even the Mad Hatter cringe. Man, were those fish delicious. I miss them. And him. Now, I essentially go fishing in a barrel every week for my job - with a net in a full aquarium in a lab. I sometimes like to think that maybe, just maybe, he still hasn't given up on trying to get his youngest daughter to love fishing the way he once did. She's working on it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A bad day for science

Today was a minor disaster of a day. I'm taking this stupid grant writing class that second-year PhD students have to take, and over the last few weeks we've been writing the individual sections of a grant. Specifically, the F31 pre-doctoral fellowship (NIH). Today we had to submit the complete grant,  incorporating the suggestions of the reviewing professor. Ugh. Writing shit for this course has been almost as painful as writing my master's thesis. I've hated every minute of it, even though it's a good practical course all grad students should be forced to take.

Anyway, being the dingus that I am, I thought that I could get the whole thing knocked out last night. Ha! Silly me. I couldn't even concentrate long enough to open Word and type my name, much less knit together a cohesive scientific-sounding thought. So I got up early-ish (for me, anyway), and got to school a little after 9 am today. I thought that I could easily crank out my finished grant in 4 hours and submit it before the start of class at 1 pm. Well, I cranked out something and submitted it by 1 pm. I think I incorporated at least some of the instructor's suggested edits, but I know I missed a bunch. Based on past experience, (having been severely chastised - by one of the instructors who is probably my own age - for turning something in late) I've learned that as far as the profs are concerned, it's better to turn in a steaming turd on time than it is to turn in Pulitzer Prize-worthy work late. I think that's bullshit, but whatever.

Incredibly, I thought I would have time to do some science today before and after class. The only science-y thing I was able to do this morning was to tell my minion (she's actually an intern, but I like the way minion sounds) to repeat last week's fish infections using a higher inoculum. Unfortunately, the shaking incubator decided to quit shaking sometime before 5 am this morning, so that introduces an additional unwelcome variable into my planned experiment. I did manage to infect some fish also, but it was almost 4 pm before I had time to do so. Bah.

My main goal for this week was going to be optimizing a protocol for fixing and paraffin-embedding V. cholerae-infected zebrafish for histology. Infected fish aren't completely infiltrated with paraffin and don't cut well. Therefore, we haven't been able to conduct much histological staining/analysis (looking for the presence of colonizing bacteria or other signs of pathology due to infection). Because I didn't read the protocol carefully enough, I neglected to put the infiltration paraffin in the water bath last night to melt. I didn't think it would be that big a problem - I could just melt the stuff in the microwave, right? WRONG! Apparently, infiltration paraffin is immune to the microwave's melt-y wiles. It didn't matter how long I nuked that shit, it would. not. melt. Not even a little bit. If it had been in a non-plastic container, I could have torched it or put it on a hot plate or something. Anyway, this seemingly minor oversight has royally fucked up the time frame for the protocol and may lead to my samples being ruined. Instead of being in clarifying solution just overnight, my fixed fishies will end up marinating for 2+ days. I don't know how this will affect my samples yet. I guess I'll find out tomorrow or Thursday.
Speaking of tomorrow, Wednesday is apparently "40 oz. Wednesday". I guess a bunch of us are going to sit around and drink 40s in the afternoon. Maybe my science is just suffering from delirium tremens. Beer ought to fix that. I don't think it could make anything much worse, anyway.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Say hello to Ms. Sacher-Masoch...

i.e. the original masochist. I just can't seem to stop inflicting great pain on myself. For example, this week I am infecting zebrafish larvae with GFP-expressing cholera in order to (hopefully) visualize the bacteria using fluorescent microscopy. The idea is to get a good image that demonstrates cholera colonization of the zebrafish gut, which my PI can use in the paper he is writing and he said would get me co-authorship. Yay! I also have to plan out an experiment for my rotation student to see if fish infected with cholera can spread it to uninfected fish when placed in the same container of water. Plus, I am apparently getting an intern tomorrow. (I told Chris that I will refer to her in private as "Monica the Intern", just to be lewd 'cause that's the kind of person I am) I will have to plan stuff for her to work on once I know when I can do my own experiments in the fish lab.

I'm in a weird, yet incredibly exciting, position; I'm now considered the lead researcher in the development of the zebrafish model of cholera colonization/infection - I think. So anyone that comes into the lab to do fish stuff gets assigned to me. To the best of anyone's knowledge, I am the only person in the world working on this. I didn't expect this to happen so soon. I honestly can't imagine being in the shoes of my PI, entrusting me with the project that everyone in the lab calls "his baby". I don't know if it's just because I'm the warm body who landed in the lab at the right time to get the project, or if he sees qualities in me that make him think I'd do well in this role - qualities that I don't often credit myself with, like a general lack of idiocy for starters.

Tuesday is going to be a real banner day. First, I have to rewrite a scientific journal article into a "News and Views" type of summary piece for a general (read: non-scientist) audience and turn it in before class begins at 1:00 pm. Then, we have a departmental seminar from 12:00 - 1:00 pm. The final coup de grĂ¢ce is the abstract I still need to write for the poster I'm presenting at the national ASM meeting this May. The abstract submission deadline is also Tuesday, the 15th.

So that's my upcoming week in a nutshell. I just hope my head doesn't explode before I have a chance to knock back a beer with friends at the Corner on Friday. That would totally suck.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The wheels of science keep grinding

A full week into 2013 and I think I have finally accumulated enough stuff to write about. I guess it's similar to how I wait to go to the doctor until I feel like I've "saved up" enough maladies to make it worth my while. Unfortunately, once I unfurl my laundry list of complaints, I sound like a raging hypochondriac to anyone within earshot.

I had initially intended to do some lab work over Christmas break, but I ultimately talked myself out of it. This past Sunday, I started feeling really anxious about starting back in the lab on Monday. I had it in my head that the other grad students in my department had all worked diligently through the break, and would berate me for my laziness in staying my unmotivated ass at home. I had also told myself that I would catch up my lab notebook (for reals this time!) and start the year with unbridled enthusiasm and a clear vision of what I want to accomplish in my research project. Oh, what lofty unattainable traps goals I set for myself! I'm so far behind, I'm still writing up shit I did in September. Ugh.

I have a few things going on that should keep me pretty busy for the foreseeable future. One is that I'm taking a scientific communications class, which is similar to the proposal development class I took at Eastern. It does seem to be quite a bit more structured than proposal development and it delves into scientific writing with specific goals/audiences in mind. I forgot how much it sucks to have classes again. By the end of the semester, I should have slowly and painfully birthed a grant proposal for my thesis project. I really need to sit down with my PI and hash some shit out. I need to stop being so afraid to ask questions about what I'm doing!

Another thing I need to do this week (that I should have done in, like, November) is flow cytometry on the cholera strain I made - and resuscitated from Christmas break benchtop desiccation - that is supposed to constitutively express GFP. My sequences came back with some possible point mutations, which may or may not affect expression of GFP. Colonies seem to look green when I expose them to blue light, so at least I know that something is working somewhere in the black box of the transcriptional unit. Here's a picture of a GFP-expressing strain (not the one I just created) that I took using the fluorescence scope I learned how to use. They're purdy :)

My PI dangled the carrot of co-authorship on the fish paper he is writing if I can infect zebrafish larvae with my GFP strain and show gut colonization via fluorescence microscopy. I'll write more on this exciting new development in my research saga tomorrow, as well as my being charged with the care and feeding of our rotation student for the next eight weeks. I'll probably do a better job of taking care of her than I do trying to look out for myself. Enough for now; I couldn't sleep at all last night and I'm really tired all of a sudden. With that said, I'm gonna quit writing and thinking now and just go to bed.