Wednesday, August 30, 2006

August and everything after

Well, it looks like August was/is a bit of a boring month in blogdom for me. Truthfully, I haven't been blogging as much recently because lab is really sucking more than usual, and I'd rather not post the same negative stuff every day. Poor Tim--I had a bit of a meltdown on him over the phone last night. I just really needed to vent about the lab, and he got it. I don't think he's gotten a breakdown over the phone from me since college.

It's just been really rough. I'm not a negative person, but I get so bogged down by my lab issues that it permeates all other parts of my life. I can't leave it at the lab--it follows me everywhere. I'm pretty good at bottling it up. Of course, when I do that, I know there's going to come a time when the pressure's too much. That was last night.

I feel better now that I've vented, but it doesn't make the lab any better. However, rather than post forever and ever about how much it sucks, I need to refocus. I love the rest of my life, and I can't let lab take over the way it has.

So, that's why August was so lame. Complaining won't change anything, and there's no need to send constant negative energy out to the world. For now, it's about refocusing and just trying to make the best of everything.

On the positive side, we're getting into my favorite season. I love fall in Cleveland. It gets so crisp and clean in the evenings--not long from now, I'll be able to start with the sweaters and woobies*. I missed fall when I lived in DC. The trees change color, but it never got as cool at night as it does up here. Heck, I went to the beach in October--not swimming, but it was warm enough to wade in the water. I like my 50 to 60 degree weather, and I wish it would last just a bit longer before the snow starts to fly.

Things otherwise are boring, as usual. I'll pick Tim up from the airport this afternoon, take him home, and then he heads to his calculus class. Exciting stuff. And thank heavens Monday is Labor Day. Even though I'll have to come into work for a while to change my cells, it's great knowing that there is one day I don't have to be at work the whole time. It's like Christmas in September!

(*woobie: our term for a hooded sweatshirt jacket. It comes from Mr. Mom, the 1984 movie, when the little kid had a ratty blanket he took everywhere, called his woobie. Since Tim was never seen without his gray ratty sweatshirt jacket, it became his woobie. Now they are all woobies.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Boringness and random advice

It's been pretty slow on my end recently. That's fine--I'll take the respite.

Here's what's going on: Jen started college yesterday. Tim's in Richmond, again, for work. I have a new MSTP student that is rotating in the lab. I've somehow become the computer person in the lab (mainly because I speak English), and therefore I've spent the last several days trying to get a worm off the lab computer. I'm also in charge of ordering, and apparently I'm in charge of cleaning our incubators/water baths in the culture room.

The long and short of it: I've been spending a lot of time doing routine lab stuff and not nearly as much on my project. So, I'm behind where I'd like to be, as usual, but hopefully I'll be able to catch up soon.

There really hasn't been too much else going on. My cousin that lives in New York City was visitng this weekend. It was a bit weird--not seeing her, but having most of my dad's family all together. It was the first time I'd seen them together since the funeral. I could still see my grandma & grandpa sitting next to each other on the couch in the living room, but since the get together was a fun time, I didn't get bogged down too much in the sadness.

My younger cousin and my aunt asked me about colleges and med school. They are looking at the college I went to for undergrad and asked for a recommendation. Honestly? I wouldn't go there now if I had the choice. Too small, too unknown, way too expensive, and I just don't think I got a tremendously good education. Now, I did learn a lot about myself, and I met lots of fun people, but was the education worth it? Probably not. And, I would've gone a bit farther from home.

But, I tried to give them the best advice I could. Ohio has a ton of small to medium, private, liberal arts colleges. Most are decent. Even the ones that are supposed to be excellent, like Oberlin, aren't that much better (if they are better at all) from some of the lesser-known schools. They are all very similar, so it comes down to personal preference. They asked me how I ended up where I did, and I can sum it up in two thoughts: laziness and gut instincts. I was lazy because I didn't really research a lot of schools. I only applied to four, and I only actually visited three of the four (the other one had a free application, so I just applied as a practice run). Of those three, I picked the one that I had the best gut instincts about. I actually got more money from the other two schools, but I went to my school anyway because I thought it was the best match.

Who knows if I made the right decision or not; actually, who knows if there is a right decision. I am sure I wouldn't be on the path I am now if I hadn't gone there, but would another path have been better? It probably would've been different, but what is better, really?

So, I wasn't a lot of help on that front. If I had to give honest advice, here it is:

1. Go to a medium-sized public school that is good in the general area you are interested in (ex: science, music, etc). If you want a bigger school, make sure there is a honors program or some way you can find your own academic success without getting lost in the crowd.

2. Private schools aren't worth the money. Really. Yes, they may give you a scholarship. Yes, the quaint little campus is beautiful. It's not real life. You're just putting off the inevitable for four more years. But, if you are going to go to grad school or the like, then it may be ok to do the private school thing for undergrad. Just make sure you do well enough at your little school to move up to the big boys. And, if you're not going to grad school, is anyone really going to care where your degree came from? Think again. (The exception to this is if you get into an Ivy league school. Then, go for it, and good luck with those loans).

3. Move at least a few hours away from your family. Trust me. You need the space to grow.

4. Get involved. Not so involved that you lose sight of the education part, but get involved enough to meet people and have a cause of some sort. You'll learn more about yourself that way.

5. Find a great mentor. You need someone who knows you well enough to push you. And that professional contact is a great opportunity to network.

6. Pay for at least part of your education. You'll value it more than if your parents or someone else pays for it for you. And yes, you can do it all on your own. Just get an on campus job. Or a few. Or, two off campus jobs and seven on campus. I've been there--it's doable.

7. Get outside your routine in your summers off. Yes, that job back home may be waiting for you, but this is your time to try new things. Once you graduate, it's much harder to explain to an employer that you spent your first three years out of college seeing every ballpark in the US that it would be if you did it during your summers. Or, you know, do something useful like get an internship.

8. Travel abroad. You'll get a new perspective. I didn't do it, but I wish I had. I saw those around me who did travel come back like new people.

9. Never be afraid to change your mind. Asking an 18 year old to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life is crazy. If you decide that you like English more than art, check it out. I'm not saying change your mind every week, but don't be afraid to try new things. You'll never know what fits you otherwise.

10. Be yourself, and do what makes you happy. Yes, you had an image of who you were in high school. You don't need to be that person in college if it isn't really who you are. Yes, you may have teachers, family, friends, and random strangers who expect you to do such-and-such a thing for one of a million reasons. Ignore everyone else, learn who you are, and do what makes you happy. You can be the best lawyer ever, but if you hate it, who cares? No, you don't have to take over the family business. No, you don't need to do something because your high school Spanish teacher told you you have a flair for the language. Do what YOU want. And trust me, after college, it's a lot harder to change course. So find the right course in the first place.

So, I am sure people will disagree with me, especially over the private school thing. I'm cool with that. This is my opinion, and people are entitled to theirs. But if I had to give honest advice, this would be it.

That's about it for me. Off to check on the debugging computer. I'll write more often, I promise.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Yeah, sorry

It's been a while, I know. Not much going on. Lab is sucking, what with the fungal contamination of all of my plates from Ossama’s stuff, broken -80 freezer and misplaced samples, ordering headaches, leaking gels, and incubator issues. I don't love my project on a regular basis anyway, but this is making it much tougher to deal with.

On another front, Jen's been living with us for over a week, and I think it's going really well. I know I'm digging it, especially when Tim was in Richmond for a few days and I didn't have to be alone. I can't speak for Jen, but I hope she's enjoying it.

The weather is also starting to get beautiful. I absolutely love fall, and the last few nights, we have been dropping into the 50s and 60s. Perfect sleeping weather. I love Cleveland weather three seasons a year. Too bad that fourth season has to suck so much and last for so long.

Other than that, not too much new. It's been an introspective few weeks for me. I'm not pondering the origin of the universe or anything--I'm just trying to do some mental housecleaning. I think I've narrowed down the problem. At first, I thought the issue was that I couldn't decide what I wanted in life. I've figured out that isn't the problem. I know exactly what I want. It's prioritizing those things.

For example, I know I want to be a doctor, have a career, be financially secure, start a family, have time to spend with my future family, and maintain a close relationship with my immediate and extended families. Duh. None of those are big shockers. The struggles I am having are about prioritizing those things. There has to be a little give in life. It's likely that a few choices will definitely present themselves: do I take a less-paying job to have more time with my family? Do I move far away to have a more prestigious career? Do I wait many years to start a family in order to be more financially secure? Do I stay in Cleveland to be close to family but have to take a lesser career path?

I don't have any answers right now, and these are just a few of the potential decisions I see myself making in the coming years. At least I've figured out that I know what I want. Now it's just figuring out what I want the most.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A whole week already? Wow

Yeah, some days I post multiple times, some days...not so much. Not too much to report. I'm now the ordering beyotch for the lab, since Li left. Not going to be a good time, but I'm trying to make it more streamlined and less stressful. The visit with Amy from PA was a great time, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Really, that's my excuse for not posting. I've been all over the map this week with my introspective musings, and I haven't really come out of it yet with a coherent thought. When I do, I'll let you know. I'm just trying to prioritize life issues at the moment.

I do have to say, though: the women in MSTP meeting last night was awesome. I was tired and had a depressing day, so I half though about skipping it. I am so glad I didn't. I got a lot of perspective from women who have been through hell in their PhD and are moving on with life. I also got to thinking about how I can make this experience more positive and less guilt-inducing. I know some of my male colleagues have very different feelings about their responsibility to their PhD, and if I could get on their track (AKA not taking it personally), I'll be a lot better off.

Ultimately, the theme was: do what's best for you. Don't let your mentor, your program director, or anyone else tell you what your career path should be. Do what works for you. That's the only way you'll be invested in your future. And it's the only way you'll learn to be your own boss. I need to learn to speak up now and again to make sure my needs are being met.

That's where I am at today. Once I get through some of my mental pondering, I'll try to post something readable. But why start being coherent now, right?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What was the #1 song the day you were born?

Go here and find out what was #1 the day you were born. It's supposed to be a pseudo-theme for your life. Mine was Blondie, "Call Me." Appropriate, since I've got the blonde thing going on since I was born. What's yours?

As promised, the positive....

We had our lab meeting, and it just let out. The nuts and bolts running-of-the-lab stuff was postponed until tomorrow, due to the fact that we had guests sitting in that didn't need to see people screaming at each other. The lab meeting instead was a pizza party for Sriram's paper finally getting published and an overview of a grant Dr. B is going to start.

Here's the positive: I know I'm still a science nerd. I really enjoy hearing new ideas, especially when it's an interesting topic. This isn't a project I would be working on directly, but it's cool to think it would be going on in the lab.

As much as I hate the day-to-day issues of the lab, and the politics associated with grant writing and paper publication, I still really like science. I really like medicine and patients, too, but maybe there's a niche for me to be involved in teaching and general science without having to be a full time researcher. It's thoughts like this that give me hope. And right now, I'll take hope in any form.

What's really been going on...

There's been a lot of drama in the lab recently. I can spare you the details, but things have gotten ugly, and Valerie (the endocrinology fellow) and I are trying to stay out of it as much as possible. We're having a lab meeting about it in a few minutes, so we'll see how that goes.

Anyway, Valerie and I have been talking a lot lately about the pressure to do medicine as a woman. You feel pressured to make your career the primary focus, and you are made to feel guilty if you consider family or anything else first. It’s easy for the men—their wives stay home and have babies. The woman, on the other hand, can’t do that because then they aren’t dedicated. It’s a frustrating thing.

We talked a lot about expectations. You’re expected to get the best residency and fellowship possible, and then you are expected to get a prestigious job. That means usually having to move fairly frequently. It also means you’ll almost always live in a big city. What if you aren’t a big city person (I’m not)? Do you have to be miserable for the sake of your career? If you are “dedicated,” then the answer is yes.

Last night Tim and I were having a similar talk. It started out as, “how are we doing money-wise” to “how can we save more money?” My suggestion was that I stop driving and paying to park and start taking the RTA. Now, Cleveland’s public transportation pretty much sucks, and it would mean my hour commute goes to an hour and a half plus, but it could potentially save us about $100 a month. I also suggested getting rid of the cell phones. Tim nixed both of those ideas, so I suggested I get another job. This line of talk went into how I am frustrated that after four years of college and four years of post-graduate work, I only make crap.

This, of course, went into a discussion about how I hate the lab and how lost and confused I feel about my future career. I told him there was a good chance that I may be in the lab until 2009, which means I don’t leave the whole program until 2011. To him, two years more than anticipated is no big deal. To me, it’s an eternity. If Frank had stayed, I would’ve had my first paper out by now and been almost done on a second. Now, we can’t even get the preliminary stuff to work.

I see it this way: there are four phases to research before you can write a paper. First, you need to find a preliminary idea. Next, you need to get the tools and experiments to work and be reproducible. Third, you can collect data. Last, you analyze the data and start writing. Really, in my experience, one and two take the longest. Three and four can move pretty quickly.

In Frank’s lab, step one went pretty fast. Step two was the slow part. However, it was slow not because we were trying new methods—these experiments were pretty well established in the lab. It was just my learning curve. The surgeries and fiber preps are very technically demanding, and it took me about six to eight months to be consistent. I was finishing step three and starting step four when Frank left.

In this lab, Sriram’s stuff was step one. We’re stuck on step two. It’s a lot more frustrating that when I was stuck on step two in Frank’s lab. Then, I knew the methods would work eventually, and I could see my skills getting better. It was still frustrating, but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, in Dr. B’s lab, we just can’t get anything to work. We are trying all new things, with all new reagents, and we don’t know why they aren’t working. Are we missing a simple step? Are the reagents optimized? Is it just intrinsically the wrong experiment? We don’t know, and so we are grasping at straws. That’s the frustrating part. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. We realistically could spend years trying to get this to work and not be successful. I’ve been in the lab almost a year, and while we’ve made baby steps, we are nowhere near being ready to move onto step three.

That’s what’s tough for me. Add that to the general lab demeanor, and I am not a happy person.

I’m sure a lot of it is that I take things too personally. My lab experience makes me feel worthless, useless, hopeless, lazy, and like I’ve failed. I feel worthless because my opinion and concerns about the project are totally overlooked by my advisor. Why ask my opinion if you are going to ignore it? The hopelessness comes from trying new things, having that shred of hope, and then seeing it dashed when experiment after experiment fails to work.

I definitely feel lazy, and I felt similarly in this stage in Frank’s lab. In stage three, when you are gathering data and able to be consistent on your own, you can be your own boss. I know that, and when I hit stage three, I am going to work as many hours as possible to get things done. However, in stage two, I need more direction, which means I have to rely on other people. This means that some days, I am solidly busy for ten or more hours. However, it also means that there are some days where I have little or nothing to do. For example, since returning from vacation, I’ve had maybe three or four days in the last three weeks where I’ve been busy most of the day. Most of my time has been helping other people with their experiments and waiting for my cells to grow.

Now, this general lack of activity is not a phenomenon isolated to me. It happens with most people. In Frank’s lab, the lab used to play poker during the day when things were dead. Frank even joined in sometimes. I always felt uncomfortable with that, like if you are paying me to be here, I should be working. In Dr. B’s lab, people just hunch over their computers all day. Sometimes it’ll be a week or two between when I see people do an experiment. If you are writing a paper or a grant, that’s one thing. If you’re just killing time, that’s another.

So it’s not that I am the only one burning time in the lab between experiments. I just feel like a lazy ass for doing it. Add to that the lack of hope and motivation I have with my project, and it’s not a good combination. Lazy is definitely one of the top emotions I feel on a daily basis.

The last feeling I feel is failure. When I came to the lab, Dr. B gave me this big speech about how he was done taking students, but he’d take me because he knew what a self-directed, motivated student I was. I feel like I have been the antithesis of this. He has also said that he wants me to be done by summer 2008. Seeing as how that is only two years away, and I am nowhere near my first paper, I’m not very optimistic about that.

Every time I show him another experiment I’ve done that hasn’t worked, I feel like a failure. He grills me about every little step I’ve done. At first, I appreciated this, because the thought of things not working because of a simple goof made me paranoid. Now, when it’s the twentieth or thirtieth time he’s asked me the same question, I get annoyed. I pride myself on learning from my mistakes. If he’s suggested a correction, I’ve done it. I hate that he never believes me when I tell him I really did do things his way, and it still didn’t work.

I am thankful that my committee has optimism, but I don’t. I don’t know if things are ever going to work with this project. I’m going to keep doing it, but a little piece of me dies every day I have to spend here.

Tim commented that every day in the lab is a day closer to graduation. I disagree with this. Since I have no set end point, every day that I go without success just prolongs my misery. There really is no end until things start working.

I’ve mentioned how I’ve thought about just doing medicine. Thing is, I haven’t had enough exposure to it to know if it is really what I want to do. I think so—I really do—but I’m not willing to sabotage any future I have in science by quitting the PhD. Even if I decide industry is what I want to do, the PhD is a huge step up. The only place it doesn’t help me is private practice. If I’m only 80% sure that private practice is what I want to do, should I risk that other 20%?

If I KNEW what type of medicine I wanted to do, I would’ve quit the program and just done medicine. I really would have. But right now, I feel so unsure that I don’t want to close any doors, even if staying in the program is sucking the life out of me. I know I don’t want to do full-time research, but maybe I’d like something a little more clinical. I just don’t know enough to make a decision.

Factor in the current discussions we are having about where we want to live, when is the best time to have kids, etc, and I get even more confused. I was raised that family comes before career, and I’d like to keep it that way. Unfortunately, I am also obsessive and extraordinarily competitive, and this has landed me in a field with values polar opposite to mine. Something’s gotta give. Do I deserve to have my career play by my rules, or is it my moral obligation to be the best whatever I can be? I don’t know. I was na├»ve when I entered this program, and I thought I could have both. Women have progressed so far in the workplace—issues of family versus career should be solved by now. Well, they’re not. And until men have babies, they will continue to go unsolved. Sure, men can stay home with babies once they are delivered, but a woman still has to be pregnant for nine months and stay home at least a few days after delivery (although it’s not uncommon around here for women to be back, at least part time, less than two weeks after they deliver).

I know what I need to do is pray about it. I don't mention it much, because it's personal, but I really believe God has a plan for me. There have been so many seemingly random events in my life that have ended up shaping me as a person that I have to believe everything happens for a reason. I also know that worrying about the future isn’t going to change it, and it isn’t going to make it come any sooner. I know. I KNOW! And yet I still worry. I need to get back to that place where I worry about what I can do today. I’m still four, maybe five years off from deciding about residency. No need to stress over that. I’ll be in Cleveland until then, so I don’t need to know now where I will live. Yes, questions about when to have a family are a little more nebulous. We’ve been married almost four years, so we’ve already made four year’s worth of decisions about family. We can make a few more.

I just need to get back the calm and faith I had about this whole thing before. The times I am most at peace with life are also the times I am best at make my faith a priority. I know since I switched churches, and even before then, that my faith has slipped into a less prominent role. I’m not talking about my religion—I still go to church. My personal faith is a lot deeper than just my religion, and I know that I need to nurture it better. Maybe I’ll find a group or do a bible study or something. I just know I need to get back that calm or else I am likely to have a meltdown.

I don't want to get into a whole religious type thing, so I am going to leave things at that. My life outside of lab is really great, and I am extremely thankful I have so many supportive people in my life. I know I couldn't do this alone, and I am glad I don't have to. I hate sounding so negative all the time, but I guess a blog is a place to talk about what's really going on in life, and this is it. If and when things get better in the lab, you can be sure I'll post the positive.