Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ed to Katie and back again

Ed to Katie

I enjoyed your presentation and have a method that you might consider. Please see the attached abstracts I presented at a recent meeting and let me know if you have questions.

Katie to Ed

Thank you. I actually have data that would be relevant to your method and would love to apply it. Would you mind sending the code?

Ed to Katie

Please find attached the poster I recently presented using a different disease. You can see the results we obtained in the following regions and their interpretations. I think this has the potential to be powerful when looking at the patients you studied.

Katie to Ed

The results are lovely and I completely agree that there are some potentially interesting findings using my data. If I could take a look at the code you used, I’ll start running the analysis soon and get back to you with results.

Ed to Katie

I use code written by X to do step 1, Y to perform step 2 and Z to work through step 3. It’s a relatively straightforward process and should be useful.


Katie to Ed (not sent, but written)

Give Me The Code or stop talking about how useful it is! I said yes! I’ll do it! But I’m not writing the code myself – I simply don’t have time between juggling projects and making presentations and taking meetings.

Plus, I don’t write code myself. This should probably shame me greatly since it’s such a vital part of my job, but I don’t tend to be great at it. Therefore if I know there is code and you have the letters and numbers that form said code, I’d like to have a copy of it so I don’t have to spend weeks recreating stuff that already exists! Why must you make me feel guilty and inferior for taking the easy way out?

Give Me The Code. Please.

Katie to Ed (written and sent)

It sounds straightforward and makes perfect sense. Can you offer advice on where to get those separate components or would you prefer to take a look at the data yourself? Either way is fine – I’m more than happy to help however I can. Thanks!

Ed to Katie

I use a couple different machines and would like to analyze the data myself. If you can give me certain files, I should be all set. I’m excited to see how my methods can contribute to this project!


It was at this point that I sat back and sighed. At myself, of course, not Ed. I tend to assume that people are out to get me. That they want me to work constantly and read everything and be far more knowledgeable and organized than I am. In this case, I don’t think it was true. He was willing to help – and, I assume, had been from the beginning – but in my attempts to make his life easier, I kept asking for code he wanted to use himself.

It’s a learning process for me – figuring people out, discovering what’s expected from each potential collaborator. It can range from who returns email to which person needs to be paged. Estimates of how long it takes to get on someone’s calendar to who has the most political power to move proposals and grants through the proper channels. Who’s lovely to speak with and who is a bit too aggressive for my delicate sensibilities. Who responds to favors with an ‘of course!’ and who gets offended by their very suggestion.

The good news is I’m getting it. I’m not afraid – with my current skill set and in this particular environment – to push and push until I get the answer I need. A year ago, I probably would have ducked my head and forgot about the analysis because of my interpretation that Ed didn’t want to share his code. But I honestly don’t have time (or any great idea of where to start) to write it from scratch. But sending a few extra emails and dropping off a CD of data this afternoon should enable a potentially valuable collaboration with a man I like and respect.

I’ve noticed more and more that people are willing to help me out. I’m not new anymore – I’m one of them and they protect and help me according to that status.

The bad news is I still want to leave. I’m keeping my eye on next August for a moving date and will start to watch job postings in another few months. The idea of starting over – of finding out all those little details that make life so much easier – is exhausting. I’m comfortable here, but not very happy. I’m productive, but not fulfilled. This is good – sometimes it’s incredible – but it’s not enough. I think I can do better.

But for today, I triumphed over my instinct to stay home and sleep all day and to hide when someone didn’t immediately offer up the code I wanted. It’s coming along – being here is teaching me some important lessons.

As far as science, I guess I’ll let you know how Ed’s analysis goes. It will be one more component of an already complicated and extensive study. I suppose I could view my career much the same - a slow collection of separate components that may not individually be huge or important, but eventually will pool to make me relatively good at my job.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Like with fins?

“I didn’t want to say anything in the meeting,” Henry said, walking into my office after I returned from making my presentation, “but your equation was upside down. You had the two variables switched. The way you had it, it would be infinity!” Then he laughed, trailing off when I gave him a look that expressed my distinct lack of amusement. Given that he used to make attempts at public humiliation that left me enraged and discouraged, this was infinitely better.

After he stopped laughing, he stood and looked at me, so I noted his equation and considered it for a moment.

“I think you’re right.” I finally said. “Thanks for pointing that out – I’ll fix my notes.”

He nodded and launched into his critique of my talk. The meeting lasted over 90 minutes while we examined slides and discussed what I knew and wished I knew and thought I had wrong, but not everyone had a chance to talk enough. The meeting was good – I made some valuable notes on ideas I hadn’t even considered. I was extraordinarily (for me, anyway) prepared and had plenty of material.

Boss was pleased enough at the end to agree to go beg for additional funding with me. There was general agreement that I could pull off some sort of publication with a couple more patients accrued. This pleases me.

But back to Henry.

“It doesn’t make sense to use what you’re using. It’s a big problem.” He concluded.

I sighed, then paused to frown when I saw Maria – who I’d invited to attend the group meeting – was nodding enthusiastically along with his critique.

“I didn’t pick those parameters because I thought they were pretty.” I offered tiredly. “There are several other disease states that are looking for similar effects with exactly those parameters. Given that they were successful and the biological model we’re using indicates those parameters would be likely correlates.”

“Anything can correlate if you look at enough parameters! Even…the color of the sky!”

I scrunched my face further to indicate both displeasure and confusion. “I see your point.” I said slowly, trying to think. Henry is very smart and sees details I definitely miss. “But if there’s a question before me, I tried to answer it the best I could.”

He nodded, so I continued. “Statistics exist to consider a sample size and the effect magnitude. It’s not a color of the sky thing – there’s a biological mechanism and studies have shown – in other diseases – that these parameters are valuable. And while my dataset is incredibly complex, I think there are interesting findings there. The nontrivial part is in explaining them without overstepping what we actually can know.”

Henry smiled, looking somehow pleased with me, but Maria stepped in.

“I think it sounds feeshy.” She said.

“Feeshy?” I repeated, thinking of words I knew. She made a swimming motion with her hands and I nodded immediately. “Oh, fishy! OK!” Then I pulled back to frown at her. “Wait. Fishy? What?”

“Fishy. It doesn’t make sense.” She said, looking at Henry for back-up. He frowned and backed away, throwing a statement at me that we’d talk later. My feeling – though I could be wrong – was that he’s been waiting for me to stand up for my ideas. He wants to be heard, then he’d like to argue. When I backed down in the past, I think his frustration allowed him to taunt me. It sucks that it happened, but I appear to have finally found a way to interact in a way that isn’t excruciating. Either that or he was tired too. I don't know. Regardless, I avoid working with him. If he makes my time unpleasant - for entertainment or boredom or personal style - I'll avoid spending time with Henry.

I waved a hand at him as he left, noted that email was piling up from others in the meeting who had ideas or suggestions, then turned back to face Maria. “What doesn’t make sense?” I said, being a bit aggressive. I’m all for questions, but to attack a method – a well-established, highly popular, many journals devoted to it method – because you have a feeling it’s fishy? Seriously?

She listed a couple of standard concerns about the method - not completely true, but I saw her points - and I explained how we protect the data from each of the major problems, though there is some risk of confounding your experiment if it’s not properly designed. She eventually shrugged and said she might do some reading at some point.

I opened my mouth to offer her some references, then turned around. I think I’m reaching my limit with this particular student. She leaves regularly, sometimes when I’m trying to work with her on things. She talks on the phone a good percentage of the time she’s around. She has yet to write anything about her research plan and never did help with the project I gave to Ken. I’m too busy and tired to coax someone into proper thought and behavior.

And there lies the problem, I think. She was trying to fit in – pick out flaws, fix errors, make suggestions. Those are all good things and the approaches vary depending on personality. I don’t have to love each person, but I can respect talent and thought when it’s expressed in some decent manner. But I have little patience for someone who belittles a well-studied field out of ignorance, then refuses to expand her scope of understanding. It also makes me unlikely to invite her to more meetings given that she’s going to side with anyone who tries to make me look stupid. I’m not up for battling people from all directions. Perhaps I should feel badly about that – and I don’t expect her to be constantly affirming.

But fishy? Really? Curses.

But the day started with advice – good advice – from Quiet Mentor, along with several powerful introductions. Quiet Mentor, by the way, is a pretty big deal. After the meeting, I have more data than when I started, thanks to some suggestions on where to find extra information and papers. I have an alternate analysis method for a piece of data I was planning to ignore. It was a good day.

Perhaps it’s catty of me, but I didn’t believe it to be fishy at all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Snippets of Work-Related Nonsense

Work
Once again my desktop has been littered with work rather than blog posts or book chapters (of the fun type). I did take out the actual book chapter today, made the corrections Friend helpfully noted with a pink pen (so much friendlier than red, I think) and scowled at EndNote. It is a powerful tool, but I’ve no idea why it decided to flub up the formatting of some of my references. I fixed them by hand, saved the document, then took it to the PC in my office. EndNote isn’t installed there so it can’t reformat away from my pretty copy. I shall send the final version from that computer to the publisher – I think I’ll do that later this week and see what happens. It’s my first experience with penning a real chapter, so I’m unsure as to the next stage of such an endeavor.

IGOPWDWKTII Conference
I received an email last week announcing a call for abstracts. I hadn’t heard of the conference, so I was about to delete it when I decided I was bored enough to glance it over. It turns out this group is focused on exactly what I hope to do. It might as well be called the IGOPWDWKTII (International Group of People Who Do What Katie Thinks Is Important, as if it wasn’t obvious.) They went with a different name for some reason, but the two projects which currently occupy so much of my time would fit beautifully with their proposed program.

Given that I was just recently lamenting that I acquired data at exactly the wrong time of year – conferences are held in the spring so abstracts were due in the fall – an opportunity to present my work to a highly-relevant audience was dropped in my lap. So I’ve been processing data and capturing images and playing in Photoshop in order to create abstracts for this meeting. It’s all quite…well, boring. Which also explains the blog silence. Unless you want to hear about how I tricked EndNote or love Photoshop or was thwarted by UsefulProgram, I don’t have a lot to say.

Dr. Icing was thrilled with his project’s abstract, but he’s good like that. All optimistic excitement, even when things are going to hell. Since I’m more of an “oh, bother. What’s going to go wrong now?” type of personality, it was only a matter of time before we started to bug each other. But we do try to get along and have a mutual appreciation of talents and personalities going on.

Tomorrow – Day O’ Meetings
Quiet Mentor is harder to figure out, largely because he’s so, well, quiet. I ran into him the other day while meeting with a new patient. He stopped, smiled and shook my hand. Several days later I got email from his secretary requesting a meeting. So I’ve been preparing documentation for tomorrow at 9AM. I’ll go sit in his gigantic office with the pretty sitting area – he generally takes the sofa while leaving the graceful armchairs to visitors.

In a rather serendipitous event, Boss asked me to present at group meeting again. So I can use the Quiet Mentor data twice. I should point out that presenting so often is a minor annoyance. I realized that of all the postdocs in my cohort, I’m the only one who works quite closely with Boss. I rather like it though – he’s smart and resourceful and very helpful. But he keeps closer track of me than the others, meaning I take more turns at journal club because I mention cool articles I’ve read. I get to present almost every other meeting lately because he knows I’ve been collecting data. And it’s good – I should present data to a bunch of faculty members to ask good questions and offer interesting suggestions! It’s a valuable opportunity and not every mentor provides pizza to lure the department to meetings so his post-docs get a lot of attention. But it does take time to prepare! Isn’t it someone else’s turn?!

I’m the only one doing clinical work though. I have the results from actual humans with actual cancer. So people are rather interested in that – it’s highly relevant right now rather than something that might work out in the next 5 years if all goes well. And the slides (all 40 of them) are done apart from a couple of images I forgot to load on my USB drive. I should get excellent feedback tomorrow that lead to even more work. Lovely, I sigh tiredly.

Ruck the Fetreat
I recently received a less than exciting email announcing the polar bear retreat. I skipped it last year – the last time I saw Winnie before she died, she was talking about how harshly her abstract formatting was criticized. It hurt her feelings and I was rather offended at the petty nature of the complaints. I mean, honestly.

This year, there are the standard requests: Margins must be correct! Only one author! No affiliations! Must make up a polar bear name, but nothing like Snowball or Cupcake! No color figures! Submit abstract while you're upside down, but standing on one hand, not two!

And this year – to cut down on the rehashing of old work – you can’t submit anything that’s already been done. It can only be proposed work. This actually works in my favor. I have all sorts of stuff I’ve planned but haven’t started! The polar bears have finally played directly into my comfort zone. Actual work? Um… Proposed work? I have all kinds of that!!

But I will never understand the idea of traveling 4-5 hours and staying at a hotel to see people we work with every day. Which is why I skipped it last year and might do so again this year. But I actually rather like the idea of presenting work not yet done. No data – just ideas, thoughts, hypotheses that might not pan out. I think the input gained would be valuable and the room for truly creative thinking would be huge. So good plan on that one, polar bears. You still freak me out – the potential for biting or clawing remains high, after all – but I do think you’re on the right track with this one.

Bored and boring
So that's about it. Abstracts and email and meetings. Maybe something mildly entertaining will occur at a meeting tomorrow and I can tell you about that. Here's hoping!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Humph

I can't write anything.

I have tried and failed and tried again. It's just not happening for me today. Chienne had a big adventure yesterday - heading to Friend's then Friend's friend's house. She was very good and rather sweet, but I can't be patient enough to watch the words appear on the screen.

I wrote one abstract on Saturday and have been battling the other one since. It's a tremendously complex dataset - at least I hope it is because it's beyond me to understand it. And just when I had a decent idea, I hit a major technical glitch. I understand the cause, but I can't find the solution. So I'm going to get the files out of UsefulProgram and into DifferentProgram and try to trick UsefulProgram into reading them the way I want instead of the way it thinks is best. Dammit.

Friend arrived a couple of hours ago to avail herself of my water and garden hose to clean her car. She's been out there ever since, doing what, I can't imagine. Spray, wash, rinse, shower to remove sweat. 20 minutes tops. Perhaps she has decided to build a new car... I suppose I could look, but it's all hot out there. I'd rather not.

Instead I shall load up my USB drive (Minie, I think, with her pink ribbon) and try to fool my programs. I'm tired and crampy and am not looking forward to the remainder of this week.

Phooey and such.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Odd

I mimicked the man outside – ducking down and prancing away at a fast pace. I ended up in my hallway, dog looking up from my feet as she followed me from the front window.

“Stay away from the windows.” I warned her. “Maybe we should lay down on the floor? I don’t really know.” I frowned for a moment, feeling the adrenaline rush, and tapped my index finger to my lips, thinking. I ducked down and scampered again, retrieved my cell phone and hurried back to the hallway.

I pushed and held the number 2, then waited for one of my parents to pick up.

“Hi.” Mom said, sounding distracted.

“There’s a cop with a gun drawn outside my house!” I told her excitedly.

“What?” She said, more confused than worried. “Are you watching a show? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” I told her, a little breathless. “I was reading my book on the couch and I kept hearing sirens and yelling. Lots of yelling. So I got up and tried to see what was happening. They were blocking traffic at the corner, so I was looking out my side window, trying to see what was happening. I had given up and turned around when I noticed 2 police cars were blocking the street right in front of my driveway. When I was looking out the front window, I saw a policeman get out of his car, pull out his gun, then sort of crouch/prance out of my line of sight!”

“Really?” She said, as if I call and make up stories about men and guns all the time. “Are you OK? What’s happening now?”

“I’m fine. The animals and I are considering the duck and cover method as we stand here in the hallway. I got scared – I’m not used to men with guns! But I think I’m going to go look.”

“Outside?” She said, sounding alarmed. “Don’t go outside if there are guns!”

“No – I’m just going to peek out my window again.”

“Call me back!” She insisted and I shook my head, dropping my voice to a whisper for no apparent reason as I crept slowly from the hallway.

“I’m taking the phone with me.” I said softly. She obediently fell into silence too so nobody could hear us. From inside the closed house. We’re smart like that.

“Oh, I think it’s OK.” I told her quietly. “There’s a woman out there trying to get past the police cars on foot. They’re not letting her go so she’s taking out her cell phone. But she can see better than I can. My stupid garage is in the way. There are 2 police cars in front of my house and the ambulance pulled forward now. I wonder if they’re going to load someone in it! Oh, I hope so! Not that I want someone to be injured, of course, but that’d be cool to see.”

“Are there still guns?” She asked, still quiet. “Should you be by the window?”

“The people across the street are out with their dog and children, all watching. I’m OK.” I reported, squinting through the blinds as I perched on the arm of the chair in front of my window. “People are just walking around – I can’t see what’s going on. I wish I could go outside.”

“If your neighbors are out, you could probably go too.” She offered. “But be careful.”

“No, I’d be embarrassed.” I decided. “But I could go out back! Peek around the side of the house from my fenced yard!”

“Good idea.” She said. “Are we being quiet again?”

I confirmed that we were and slipped on flip flops and tiptoed through my crunchy grass to peer around the side of my light brick home. I pulled back to report what I’d found.

“There are more police cars that way. There’s been a bag of trash – or what I thought was trash – in the middle of the street all day. They moved that aside. And there’s a gold car with all the doors open sitting behind the ambulance. People are sort of clustered around it. Hold on – I’m going to look again… Oops – someone saw me that time.” I smiled sheepishly at the young cop and watched him grin and nod politely. “I think I should go back inside.” I told Mom.

“Probably.” She laughed.

“I think it’s OK now – nobody’s going in the ambulance. Nobody’s prancing around with a gun anymore. It seems to be relatively calm.”

“I should let you talk to your father then. I’m sure he’ll have advice or questions.” She sighed, then took the phone to my dad.

“Hi.” I said then asked what he was doing.

“Watching TV.” He sighed. “It’s raining so they canceled the cruise-in.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. We need the rain here – my yard is all dry and icky. But at least I didn’t have to mow this week!” Then I thought I should have watered the plants while I was doing reconnaissance outside. Nah, I decided. Too obvious. I’ll do it later when I see if anybody moved the trash bag in the street.

I updated Dad on the situation and he told me that it depended on the type of gun as to what bullets could travel through. I am apparently to stay behind a wall and not behind a door or window. Which makes sense, but I can’t see through walls! I need to know what’s happening in my busy but safe little suburb.

“Maybe there’s a dead body in it.” Dad guessed of the black plastic bag.

“It’s been there all day.” I told him.

“There could still be a dead body in it.” He defended his choice, but I disagreed. “Maybe someone stole that car.” He brainstormed after asking me if I’d go out and ask the police what was going on. I refused. “Or they were selling drugs. Or maybe someone’s undercover and saw someone … do something illegal. Then the guy tried to run away, which is why they had guns out.”

“Sure, Dad.” I said, still watching people sweating outside in this miserable heat that has descended upon us. I had an otherwise boring day, begging off a shopping trip with Friend to be cranky on my own. I finished one abstract for a small but highly relevant conference. The data are beautiful – the abstract's exquisitely pretty and I worked for hours on analysis and figures and fixing mistakes. I’m delighted that it’s off to co-authors already. I also took trash to the dump, acquired donuts from a new shop in the next town, got Chienne a cheeseburger, and settled down to read another story in a very hot book. (I haven’t been fond of romances in past months – have been reading for pleasure very little, actually. I ordered books about a week ago and devoured 3 in 2 days. I’m reading again!)

Dad launched into a boring story about his new garage – the mistakes they’ve made already, things he’ll put in the garage, things he won’t put in the garage, people he’d like to show the garage, people who won’t be allowed in the garage…I stopped paying attention, interrupting only to report that the police were taking of their pretty purple latex gloves and placing biohazard bags in the ambulance. As the conversation grew boring, I began to lose interest in the people outside. Most of them had left, leaving only a single car with flashing lights and the stolen/drug dealing/undercover car in the street.

I returned to the couch, waiting for an opening to end the conversation. I finally pounced on one and hung up. The tow truck came for the car as I was writing this. Now I’ll go water my plants and see if the black bag is still there.

It has been a very lazy day – apart from the sharp excitement of the moment when I saw a gun. But I’ve enjoyed the quiet productivity and have spared the world from my general bad mood. I shall let you know if I ever hear what happened outside my door. But you now know as much as I do.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Rambling Post

I need to clean. I have clutter everywhere and dishes are piled up, waiting to be deposited in the dishwasher. I have mail to sort and data to process. My trash needs to go to the dump. I really should vacuum.

I’m tired. And hot. And rather cranky for some reason.

I had to be in early this morning for an experiment. Chienne pranced around, eager for a walk, and I sighed and calculated how many minutes I could spare. I woke at 4AM, worried over something that caught my attention, then finally found sleep at 5:30. When I woke at 6, I’d been dreaming. I don’t dream of Grandma often and for some reason I hate to lose time with her, even if my subconscious is imagining it. She was giving me beautiful flowers in this lovely red vase. I didn’t want to take it because I wondered if someone else needed it more – all I wanted was to stay with her. Young and safe and loved.

But as the light creeping past the blinds grew brighter and more insistent, I dragged myself from comforting dreams and gulped coffee to coax my mind completely awake. I clipped a leash on my dog and sighed impatiently as she paused multiple times to sniff. I was sweating just from standing on the curb and walked for no more than 5 minutes before turning around to come home.

“If you can’t walk like a good girl,” I lectured loftily as she trotted beside me, confused, “then we have to go home. Plus, I’m hot and need to get ready to leave.”

I feel like too many things are upsetting lately. Not devastating or overwhelming – just bothersome.

“Does this need to be here?” Someone asked today. She was helping with a portion of the experiment and started something when I wasn’t looking. I have the reputation of being flexible, which is good. But there was a reason I wanted one thing done a particular way. She could get as snippy as she wanted on this point – I held firm.

“Yes.” I said calmly and watched her struggle to fix the problem. She huffed and puffed and made sure I knew how very hard her job was.

I didn’t feel badly at all. I could have fixed it, wanted, in fact, nothing more than to ask her to get out of my way. With her continued expressions of exasperation, I wasn’t even slightly tempted to bend. I needed this particular piece done my particular way. And eventually it was. I also got more data that I expected from this patient.

I returned to the office to drink coffee until my hands shook and efficiently ran through initial analyses. Everything looks good so far. Pleased with my progress – I have lots of data in a useful form – I came home.

I ordered brush cleaner from Sephora and it waited on my front porch. I adore Bare Minerals and have noticed my fancy brushes aren’t as soft as they once were. Using my special shampoo, I massaged the applicators and watched the froth turn beige on my fingers.

I couldn’t see that they were dirty before, I mused, rubbing gently and tipping the brush toward the drain as I began to rinse it clean. I could, however, feel that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t blatant or disgusting – just not quite right as I swirl-tap-buffed powder on each morning. My house isn’t filthy either – it just needs a bit of attention to clear out clutter and remove trash. I'm not sure why I don’t just work at it instead of napping and reading and…I don’t know. Hanging around, I guess.

I need to present my study twice next Wednesday – Boss and Quiet Mentor are pleased with the prospect of data and would like their respective departments to see what I’ve done. Which involves clearing away some of the mental and physical clutter and deciding what I actually want to do with all this pretty data. Yet I feel unsure and irritable and itchy with the need to do mindless cleaning instead.

The inevitable question in both presentations will be to move forward (and if so, with what money) or change directions. And I don’t know. While I have gained confidence enough to insist upon my choices when I’m sure they’re right, I have many moments where I just don’t know. This is one of them. My hesitation in beginning with some of the many ideas that I have indicates that, in some sense at least, I don’t want to know.

In the event that I have hidden guck in my life and brain – metaphorical make-up and moisturizer and dust – that needs to be washed out and rinsed clean, I should work on that.

I am taking better care of myself. I drink some sort of V8/juice amalgam on the way to work. It takes of orange and…tomato. The latter is vague, but I still taste it. It’s bearable though, so I sip juice instead of soda on my morning commutes and remind myself that I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. I take my anti-depressant each night. I’ve been making it to work more often than not (this week, anyway). It’s really OK.

Yet I had to walk away from the post to clean a bit. Pick up trash and gather laundry and place cat toys in a basket and dog toys in bins. I took care of dishes and did some thinking.

“Oh, no.” I moaned in sympathy last week when Friend told me one of her labmates hit a wall. He tried his last idea and it didn’t pan out. “I won’t do that.” I confided. “If I can’t think of two ideas, I won’t try my last one – I want something to inspire hope.”

I think that’s it. I want the project to work. I want to be happy and healthy. I find myself afraid of sacrificing the current status – mediocre yet hopeful – for something different, even if different is better. I don’t want to know that my methods failed to yield anything useful. That my hypotheses – vague as they were – are wrong. That returning a call from a new therapist I might meet won’t end up making me any better. That even if I were thin and lovely, I’d remain less than lovable.

Luckily, there are people who force the issue. Boss keeps prodding me to talk about progress, offering continuous encouragement and motivation. Friend will gently ask about a new therapist at some point. And I grew overwhelmed with the need to pick up my house. Incremental progress counts, I think. But I also get the feeling I’m becoming unstuck. Even if it’s a bit painful, I hope that’s the case.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Amazing

First, if you’re looking for the Postdoc Carnival (Edition 4), it’s one post down. I’m blushing over the compliments and pleased with the number of visitors. I hope that interested parties found new blogs and entries - there are so many people who grant glimpses of what can be involved with our work. I’m glad my turn is over (I was nervous! I wanted it to be OK.), but will definitely try again if called upon to do so.

Second, I have a bit of a story.

“Maybe we shouldn’t go.” I suggested, watching the clock and starting to fidget in the hospital room. I prayed before I arrived.

“Please don’t let this be awful.” I requested as I gathered files and forms to leave my office far earlier than I expected. Since beginning work with doctors, I’m being cured of my tendency to arrive early. Since patients thus far have paged me up to 60 minutes before our scheduled appointment, I’m discovering people must do a tremendous amount of waiting in hospitals.

I did some myself to make this particular experiment work. In spending an hour watching minutes tick by, making small talk with family members and trying to hurry various staff members along, I have little idea how people tolerate such annoyances when ill. The caveat is that I believe I work at a tremendous institution that truly values patient care. It wasn’t that anyone was being anything less than helpful – it’s just that everything moved really slowly.

The disparity is disconcerting. My patient is my priority – I’ll drop everything to attend to her. In her room, she sometimes fell behind others with more urgent needs. Transport and nursing and meal delivery and paging various doctors. It’s complicated and difficult and exhausting, even to watch.

(I do have a question about med students. How many are there? Must they be everywhere? There are all these children in white coats, milling about, typing on computers, talking to each other in herds. What the hell are they doing? Isn’t one or two sufficient? And when I’m using the elevator with my patient, must they all cram in and lean on her wheelchair? I was forced to glare menacingly at one of the egotistical pups. For crying out loud. Sorry – I’m sure medical students are great and under tremendous stress themselves. But they were the only ones who made my day more difficult.)

We finally got started and as impressed as I was by the hospital staff and their overall attitude (speed notwithstanding), I was awed by my patient. I’ve said before that a willingness to participate in research that has little power to help them moves me.

This one – even among people I respect more than nearly anyone I’ve met – was special. Thrilled to participate even when weak, sparkling with personality even when exhausted.

“Will I get to read about what you’ve found?” She asked when I had her arranged back in her room. I helped organize the food that had been delivered while we were gone, offered to call her family on their cell phones since they were elsewhere in the hospital, fluffed pillows, helped her arrange covers, went to fetch ice, told her nurse we were back.

“Of course.” I answered with a smile as I watched to make sure she didn’t need help pouring her Coke in the styrofoam cup I’d filled with ice chips. I smiled when I realized she has strength I don’t dream of possessing. I stopped for a moment to smile at her, struck with the wonder of triumph of spirit over disease, if only for a few hours. “I’ll let you know when I have something pulled together and we’ll talk again in a few weeks. Then I can see how much better you’re doing.”

“I hope so.” She offered in a slightly raspy voice that lilted with…something bright – I can’t find the right word – even when she struggled for breath.

“I hope so too.” I said, smoothing my hand over her shoulder and sending the most fervent prayer I’ve offered recently.

Someone walked by while I was collecting data, pausing to ask how it was going. I deal with sicker patients than most of my colleagues, so they’re curious with what I’m able to obtain.

“Quite well.” I said. “Better than I hoped, actually. She really wanted to participate – she thought it was important to do research and wanted to be a part of it. So headaches or transport problems or afternoon appointments weren’t going to stop her. I would have called it off at any point and must have told her 20 times that if it was uncomfortable at all, we’d stop. But she’s doing beautifully.”

“I pay grad students for some of my stuff.” My colleague reported, bemused.

“I know. These patients are stronger than most people. I don’t really understand it, but I’ve found it to be true with those I’ve met. It’s amazing.”

After making sure she was settled and comfortable in her room, I thanked my patient with all sincerity.

“Hi.” I said when I saw her family heading toward her as I was departing.

“Did she do OK?” Someone asked and I nodded enthusiastically, juggling the files with which I arrived.

“Perfect. She’s amazing.”

“We know.” They smiled and moved past me toward her again.

I’m blessed to know that too. To be able to pray for such fantastic people, to hopefully take some steps that will improve the hours they spend at the hospital. It’s daunting and tiring, but it’s also awe-inspiring. It seemed important to document such an event.

4th Postdoc Carnival

Having never hosted a carnival, I perhaps went overboard with the number of posts included. There is a tremendous amount of good reading here though, some of which I hope is new to some of you. Exploring these authors and ideas should keep you busy, but remember to keep writing. ScienceWoman sneaks in a postdoc carnival on June 23 before beginning a faculty position. But on with the fourth carnival of What's Up, Postdoc? Happy clicking and reading!

Let's start with a delightful "postgrad allegory."

After that, wouldn't you like to become one of us? Or maybe continue in our community from a different location?
Are you still in grad school? Sunil wonders if the PhD process is getting too long.
Navigating the Challenge offers tips from a successful search for a position.
If you're searching for a lab, perhaps Biocurious might be able to help.
Still lost? Try PonderingFool for some sage advice.
If you're interviewing, make sure you spend some time with current students/postdocs in your prospective lab - Image Goddess is trying to warn you!
Do you learn from example? Fun facts and a personal reflection en route to a postdoc from The Argo.

Misery loves company, but there appear to be happy endings for many of us when searching for labs.
Janus Professor finds a great postdoc while trying to escape her graduate lab.
Rob triumphs after his own torture (see 24-33).
Toaster on Fire experiences disappointment and continued hope when searching for a first postdoc.
Freely Jointed Chain (very cool name) starts early on the search for her next lab.
And Status: +61 is already starting to fit in.
The_Girl_From_Ipanema shares her successful interviewing story.
As EnnuiHerself plays the waiting game to hear about postdoctoral funding, I'm wishing her the best of luck.

Who needs cash?
We're poor - no joke.

Adventures of a Postdoc wonders why we can't make more money.
CK@Thirsty shares the salary confusion.

The Argo has suggestions!

Now are we sad about all the stuff we can't afford? Perhaps it's time for everyone to join Luckybuzz for a drink not only to retain sanity, but also for your health!


Questions and Answers and Informational Posts.

Please see Rising to the occasion for a lovely description of what a postdoc does.
Research - and its friend administrative work - know few boundaries. Title Troubles provides some insight (and questions) on goals and limits.
Please see The Daily Transcript for a fantastic discussion on the proximity of Biotechs.
Adiabatic Invariants asks if there are there personality characteristics that make a postdoc successful.
ScienceWoman juggles tasks and describes her part-time post-doc.
Pros and cons of extensive collaborations at hypoglycemiagirl.

Our jobs are hard.
Would you say your postdoctoral work is more magical or carefree? Incoherent Ponderer doesn't seem to think either adjective fits. I tend to concur.
Perhaps your collaborators, like Steven's, are hostile and withhold their toys?
Or is it the nature of our work? Little White Lies explains the "Re" in Research.
Chall discusses being quiet in a rather intense seminar.
Lou has a truly unpleasant colleague. Insults are Not Cool.
Andrew copes with a massive data analysis.
Despite considerable work, Saxifraga still experiences guilt over non-constant publication production.
Yet if we don't hurry, someone else might publish in our area of interest.
Then again, The Eternal Postdoc points out that sometimes one needs a break. It is confusing...publish, perish, or take a nap? I sometimes go with the latter.

What's next?
Ian has some thoughts on embracing uncertainty.
And Chris provides some perspective. (I received serious traffic from that post. Thanks, Chris!)
Propter Doc ponders study abroad. Is there a point? For her sake, I really hope so.
Am I a woman scientist? asks What jobs?
Day By Day provides some excellent thoughts about evaluating priorities.
Acclimating (and receiving benefits) without assistance from Pondering Fool.
Huh. That's a bit discouraging. Should I have done an MD instead? Open Reading Frame presents some reasons it might be wise.
What if you're just unhappy? PhDiva feels a bit stuck.
Ready to leave our ranks? The Ivory Schmower seems to be a wonderful resource.

Thank you.
I volunteered to host in order to help the fabulous Propter Doc who has shouldered more than her share of the carnival duties. But I'm also rather honored to be part of a community of such thoughtful and talented people. The hours of searching for new writers were, I think, well spent. For those that I faithfully read, you provide perspective, entertainment and a great way to procrastinate. Oh, and the images are meaningless - I made them in Photoshop. I'm just trying to be visually as well as intellectually interesting.

See you all next month!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sigh.

In a surprising turn of events, Maria was sitting at her desk when I got there this morning. The department has, for the most part, left for Germany so I was anticipating a day of calm quiet. Maria is neither boisterous or noisy, so I didn’t mind her presence (well, until she turned the thermostat up to 70. I like being cold! Shivering is fine! It probably burns calories). She worked quietly, speaking several times on the phone. The second time, I noted that she sounded annoyed, her lyrical accent becoming clipped and stern.

I continued to analyze data and printed a copy of my chapter. I was going to bribe Friend to proofread it – she says she’s skilled at such tasks – then go through it again myself. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve looked at it and I’m nearing the deadline. I was organizing the pages that had printed, putting my figures neatly behind the body of the paper, when I noticed a man sitting in the corner.

“Hello.” I said, then glanced at Maria. She was ignoring him. Before I could ask if he was in trouble, she turned and jerked her head toward the door. I raised an eyebrow, amused that the young grad student was clearly bossing the scholarly older man.

“Have you met my boyfriend?” She asked as she gathered her belongings.

“Nope.” I answered, reaching to shake his hand. Weak, I frowned, then eased my expression of disapproval. The poor guy was obviously already being scolded for his tardy arrival to take Maria home. He offered his name, then lifted her bag to his shoulder and started listing the tasks he’d completed that day as they walked from the office and up the stairs nearby.

I smiled, returning to my pages containing my chapter and seeing that my analysis step had finished. Then I winced momentarily. I officially skipped my last therapy session with Dr. Counselor today. Apparently the “finished forever” line was a trick to make me work harder. I disapprove and have chosen not to return. We exchanged a couple emails and he wondered why I didn’t want to come back and I said he told me not to come back then I didn’t answer the email he sent after that. No more rejection! This time, I'm calling it done. I never get to end anything - I'm the one who gets to say no more here.

I should see someone else. I know. Given that I’m waiting on doing that, I shouldn’t feel jealous and inferior and miserable that I don’t have anyone. That there is no man to come carry my bag and drive me home. That there’s something so wrong with me that the men I do grow to love somehow can’t escape me fast enough. And while it makes sense taken individually, as a collective romantic past, it’s hugely depressing and demoralizing. Not a single one keeps in touch or shows a speck of interest in how or what I’m doing now. That’s not good. In some way I alienate them so completely that erasing the memory completely appeals. Again, not good.

Anyway.

I met another patient in the afternoon, as sweet as could be and equally sick. Even I, with my ‘let’s discuss every private detail I can muster!’, recognize that it’s inappropriate to discuss such events. Suffice it to say that it hurts. Each patient, every visit, each moment I spend considering their data – I ache with regret and sorrow.

So that happened, then I headed back to my office to find my method of choice had failed miserably. I took a break, did some reading online, and was starting to click productively instead of recreationally when Jill poked her head in. I smiled briefly, then turned to quickly finish what I was doing.

“Have you heard from Dawn?” She asked, and I turned to dig through a pile of papers. I came up with a card shaped like a terrier.

“She left me a card – it was here this morning – but I haven’t seen her.” I replied, swiveling in my chair. “Why? Did you hear from her?”

And in dramatic fashion Jill so enjoys, she stepped aside to reveal a sheepish-looking Dawn.

“Hello!” I smiled at her, then felt myself get weepy. I blinked back unexpected tears while Jill shooed Dawn into a chair and closed the door when she left. We talked for about an hour. Job searches and pets, family and possible locations to work, hair styles and movies. She stayed for about an hour before leaving to battle traffic.

“We could have dinner sometime.” I offered tentatively when she stood up. “I know you have family and friends here, but I don’t have very many. I really do like you and I’m so proud of you for how you’ve acted. So.”

“I have your number.” She said, smiling. “Most of my friends have left, but we could definitely get together.”

I nodded and turned back to my desk. Sighed.

While I moped over people who refuse to stay in my life, I gently moved Winnie’s violet from its perch on my file drawers and carefully removed the dead blossoms. The deep purple blooms continue to appear, but it’s requiring more and more maintenance. So I work at it, allowing room for the new buds to open. I hope she was happier than I knew her to be. I hope she’s somewhere perfect now.

As for the other people I loved and lost, I have some sense that they’re well. And that’s good – I like knowing (or assuming) they’re happy and healthy and busy. I want to be happy and healthy and busy. And in love.

The day actually wasn't so awful. It just could have been a lot better.

Bad Example

Maria,

I just wanted to make sure everything was OK since I hadn’t seen you around in awhile. I hope you’re doing well and research is moving along – please let me know if you have any questions or if I can help. I’m hoping to put in more regular appearances at the office in the near future, so feel free to touch base whenever it’s convenient.

Katie

She arrived a couple of hours later for the first time in a couple of weeks.

“Hey.” I said, turning from my computer screen and list of things to do. “How are you?”

“Good. Guilty.” She offered.

I cocked my head at her. “Guilty? Is something going on?”

“I haven’t been in much.” She said, looking away. I nodded – hard to argue with non-existent attendance. But I do more than my share of working from home, so I’ll happily give her the benefit of the doubt. I also understand personal situations taking priority over work. I have extensive experience with depression and being oddly unable to motivate myself into clothes other than pajamas and out of the house toward campus.

“Young man,” Winston Churchill asked a young Billy Graham, “do you have hope?” A visiting pastor delivered the sermon at church yesterday and spoke of Christian hope. The belief that there is shining light in the midst of a world seemingly filled with darkness. That through belief in God we have the comfort and courage to work toward what is just and good and kind when doing so seems difficult and somehow worthless.

It is, for me, an uphill battle sometimes. It’s not that I’m always lazy – I can have extraordinary bursts of valuable productivity. It’s just that I don’t always care – I feel somehow distant from people or projects and would rather watch TV and nap. Is my work going to help my patients? Unlikely. Is it going to get published in journals of high impact factor, easing my transition into an independent career? Probably not. If it did, do I want to be a professor? Not so much, I think.

Working-my-way-toward-middle-aged Katie, do I have hope? I fear not. At least not enough. Pessimism has cloaked me so that I don’t often feel the wounded surprise when something doesn’t go my way, but I also don’t feel the bright anticipation when starting a new project or convincing myself to go to church or trying to exercise a bit. I just don’t really care.

Which likely explains my feeling of distance from church and prayer and God.

Last Monday, Maria turned to check her email, offering answers to a couple of questions that I’d asked over recent weeks. I considered it, pausing from clicking buttons while I faced away from her, sighed then turned to face her again.

“Are you OK?” I asked. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“No.” She shook her head and I spared a moment’s envy for the length of her hair. “My sister had her baby.” She confided, and I smiled widely.

“Congratulations!” I said. “A boy or girl?”

“Boy.” She grinned and told me a weight. I nodded as if I knew how big that meant the baby was. I remain a bit leery around the tiny creatures. I like them better when they’re a bit older. “But it was difficult for my sister. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. Twice.”

I blinked in dismay. “So they did a C-section?”

“No, she didn’t want that. But they had to keep the baby in the hospital for longer than we thought.”

“But he’s fine now?” I said, not wanting to hear bad news.

“Oh, yes. He’s precious.” I nodded and congratulated her again.

“So I haven’t been in much – I feel bad.” She said and I paused to think. I believe that most people are capable of making it through grad school. If you find the right environment and project, you can show up every day and make progress, fail and try again, meet people and solve problems while creating new ones. But that desire to do so must be present.

To do a graduate degree just because one is unsure of other options leaves one with my particular problems. In possession of a PhD I’m not sure I want to really use. Struggling to go in some days, not out of overwhelming depression, but because of a minor earache. I was on campus for Monday of last week – that’s it. I accomplished very little at home even, but am not overwhelmed for this week. There just isn’t much going on.

Since this happened after my discussion with Maria on Monday, I’m quite sympathetic to her problem.

“I spent a lot of my graduate career feeling badly.” I said slowly, trying to think and speak carefully. “Guilty because I didn’t work hard enough, inferior because it took me longer to understand some things, hopeless when stuff didn’t work. It’s not the best use of your energy – feeling badly about yourself and your work. Instead, I think I should have made decisions and been OK with them. Let myself take a break sometimes, deal with family issues, work when the urge strikes. It’s difficult to sort out, but you’re far enough along to trust yourself when you make decisions.”

She considered me for a moment, then abruptly asked what happened with Dawn.

“She’s not coming back.” I said softly. “I haven’t heard anything official, nor do I expect to do so, but I think things are going to play out in a way that keeps her away.” Then I shook my head and sighed again. “Sometimes things aren’t fair. I…don’t know what to do or say about that. It’s just not fair sometimes.”

“I don’t know if I can do this.” She said. “Work in research with people who are unfair and selfish.”

I nodded – it’s a decision one must make, I suppose. Do you work to change things? Duck your head and do your work? Or walk away? I can’t help her decide that, so I moved on.

“How’s your prospectus coming along?” Since she switched labs so late in her time at my current institution, the powers that be are hurrying her to decide what she’s going to do so she doesn’t lose more time.

“I haven’t really started it.” She confessed and I blinked. That was nearly 3 months ago that we spoke of it, I thought. Her research was moving along at a nonexistent pace rather than just slow. This makes me less eager to help her – it seems like throwing time away.

“Well,” I said, knowing I should say something in response, “if you’d like me to look at something or help in some way, just let me know.”

Except I’ve been out of the office for each day since then. And while I’d happily respond to email, it’s not the same as turning a chair to ask a quick question. That was how I gave part of her project to Ken. We’d waited too long, something had to be done, I was complaining about not knowing how to loop the Matlab code most effectively and he did it for me. He was also around when I met with the PI for that data and I pulled him into the meeting after giving him all the credit he was due. I was rather pleased when our collaborators directed questions to him and he was able to discuss the science behind the code. It’s research at its best – the merging of skills and interest for rapid progress toward some reasonable goal.

Yet Maria was absent and missed it.

I often am too. The nature of my projects make them portable and I can be highly productive at home. I rarely feel guilty about skipping the drive to campus, but perhaps I should.

I hope Maria looks to Ken as a better role model than me. But I also hope to provide a bit of a better example. Which means I should get dressed and make the trek to work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Staying home

I missed the very first conference I could have attended. I wasn’t able to pull an abstract together between by start date in May and the deadline in November. So the following May found me dogsitting for Carrie while she and her husband traveled with our research group to Hawaii. That’s right – Honolulu. And I stayed home, not by choice, but because I wasn’t invited. It continues to stick in my mind that the females in group all – without exception – missed their first conference opportunity. The males – again, without exception – attended each and every confidence available to them. But that’s not really my point.

Since then, I have happily packed my bags and a poster tube – even when presenting talks, I had poster sessions – and headed off to some new city to explore. I like conferences. I see them, in fact, as one of the perks of doing research. Congregating to listen and learn and network – I find it all quite wonderful. And when else can one finish a thesis while watching the ocean on South Beach? Or take pictures in temple gardens before giving a talk in Japan? Look down on a city from the tallest tower and drink wine, all the while hoping you don’t catch SARS? Embrace the cloudiness and history in the UK? Drink coffee from Starbucks located on each block while frowning that Seattle is much hillier than I expected?

This November, I had no data. I recycled graduate material for last year’s conference, tromping to Seattle before flitting off to Hawaii to spend time with M. But I learned very little, choosing to hide in my hotel room and wonder what was wrong with my pseudo-relationship with someone I met online. Not such good times. I’m also very isolated within my group of peers, not sharing an office (or building for that matter) with people who would attend this big conference. So the urge to pull something together and battle the online submission system never arose.

I have, however, waited patiently for the regret to swamp me. To say that I missed a chance to go to Europe! To sadly watch as posters were printed and talks rehearsed, flight reservations confirmed and rides to the airport arranged.

“I decided not to go this year.” I reported to people as they asked. “I didn’t have much data, so I’d rather hang around hope to recruit patients. And there’s a smaller conference closer to home in June.”

Today is when most of my researchy friends are departing for Germany. I blinked in surprise when Boss mentioned he’d be out all next week. The calendars for our toys are booked by folks outside my niche, other than me. I will collect patient data next week and count the time spent here at home as a good decision. I don’t feel up for dealing with international travel, though I do enjoy it. I continue to be surprised that I’m not at least sort of jealous – and maybe I will be when I see photos – but am content to be planning a weekend of mowing my lawn and writing my novel rather than making my way around the world.

Perhaps part of it is that I’m looking at a very busy June. M – my bestest friend from graduate school – will arrive on June 4 and stay with me that week. She has yet to meet Chienne since I’ve traveled to see her in the past years (she lives in Hawaii – it makes more sense to go there). So I’ll show her around my current city. We’ll get massages and take a road trip (I’m thinking Biltmore.) and eat and talk and laugh. When she leaves, I’ll head north to drop off Chienne and Sprout with my folks, then continue on to Chicago.

I love Chicago – it was where we took weekend trips when I was growing up, so it continues to bring this nifty excitement and joy for me. I tend to connect through O’Hare whenever possible (I know – weird – but I’ve had good luck there) since I like being close to Chicago somehow. I’ll meet Carrie at O’Hare and we’ll share a room for the following week, making fun of presenters, sitting side by side with our laptops, finding restaurants my picky friend will enjoy and perhaps talking about a bit of work.

After she heads back home, I’ll grab my car and head just a touch north to where Elle and Tom have their apartment. They get me for the weekend and we’re planning on exploring their neighborhood since I’ll have already spent several days in the city. It’s eclectic and hip up there – I always feel a bit out of place – but I love seeing my wonderful friend from college look so at home and happy. I’m hoping to stop by Rachel’s house on my way home from seeing Elle.

The eager anticipation I experience when thinking about June is more than enough to keep me content with being home right now. I’ll work and prepare for my weeks of friends and travel and wish my colleagues well.

There are few things that keep me happier today than looking forward to tomorrow. Which probably means that to make my weeks more productive and content, I need to plan better weekends. But for now, I’m off to mow the jungle that is my lawn. I’m surprisingly pleased with that for now.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

But, no! It's not fair!

I may have mentioned one project on which I work. It's more administrative than anything - not at all difficult, but rather time-consuming.

When I was first asked to play errand girl - organizing and moving and burning CDs, filling out forms - I was rather bored and didn't mind. I was getting to know an important scientist and clinician in the field and was pleased to help.

I have since become busier and chafe a bit against the demands of this particular task. I wasn't sure why I was being so icky about it - it really isn't anything other than inconvenient - but then I read through an email Very Important MD sent to the drug company.

She asked if I could be added to a presentation since I'd been such a help with the analysis. I thought that was a lovely gesture and was a bit surprised when a firm refusal was delivered.

But, OK. That makes sense. It's not like I'm doing upper-level work here. On the other hand, what exactly am I getting from this? Post-doctoral work is to be selfish - we're all about the presentation and publications and putting lines on our CVs, right? VIMD is being paid handsomely for her involvement in addition to being placed on publications. While I don't seek to diminish the high value of her expertise, I put in about ten times more time.

So I asked the drug company representative with whom I communicate if there was ever a chance of being placed on a publication or presentation. She took over a week to reply - I normally hear back in a day to any question or problem - and said that most presentations were only allowed 10 authors, that there were many people from various disciplines involved, that even her name was a battle to be included.

I should now point out that Pete (of my defense fame) was fond of pointing out that there were too many authors on papers. It was how he defended his decision to steal my colleague's work. When I removed his name from my final publication (the one that earned a cover image), I desperately wanted him to ask me about it so that I could chirp back, "I decided there were too many authors so I pared down the list!"

So just as I will bristle if I'm dating someone who says, "I like you and I wish I could spend more time with you, but I'm just so busy!" I will grit my teeth and glare when people bring up a vast number of authors. My argument is that if you need that many people to do the work, you make room to add them to the paper. There is no way that VIMD would ever deal with even a fraction of setting up these analyses. I think they should have allowed room - via authorship or other compensation - for the minion that will enable her to grace them with her interpretation of the data.

The publication would look good for me - I crave it. But I really understand that I don't necessarily deserve it.

I think the answer is clear. I should opt out of helping further and ask Boss to hire a grad student and pass that cost on to the drug company. It's probably 10 hours a week for someone who's less knowledgeable than I am. Labor - even mine - is cheap. But I haven't been offered anything, so I might as well step aside and let someone else make some cash. The kid I replaced was being paid hourly, so it make sense that the next would be too.

I hesitate because Boss clearly doesn't like for us to say no. It messes with his happy little world where we're friendly and smart and valuable resources to the entire department. I honestly don't blame him for wanting that.

But I'm not learning anything other than how to wait for a conference room that's nearly always in use, how to wait while CDs load, how to call when the data isn't there, how to fill in spreadsheets with numbers that are read to me. I don't really need this extra practice with menial crap.

I am earning favor with VIMD. She likes me a lot more than she did in the beginning. I do enjoy it when people like me. But it's turning into more work rather than any credit. I've now been pulled into a different drug development project! So I spent hours last week organizing and arranging for a mere 'Thanks!' sent via email.

It's not enough.

I'm bothered.

But, much like the last post I wrote, I'm failing to be decisive on what to do from here.

In other news, I have this head/ear problem going on that left me at home today. I have searched far and wide and through over 100 Google search pages to accumulate posts by or for or even slightly related to postdoctoral work. I think the carnival (held here! 5/23! There's still time to write!) will be quite good.

Carnival update

Do you know or love or exist as a grad student? The 10th Carnival is up at 10-Year-Plan and it's pretty as well as informative. I haven't yet had time to work through it, but I look forward to doing so.

If you know or love or exist as a postdoc, please feel free to direct me to any relevant posts for our next What's Up, Postdoc? carnival. It will be held here on May 23. Though I have a nice list started, I don't want to miss anything. Luckily, I've been struggling with migraines lately, leaving me lots of time to scour the internet for new blogs and posts. Good times.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mommy & Me

“Mother.” I sighed. I had called to see how today went – she had an appointment with the doctor and she and Dad took Little One to see a show.

After she finished with her stories, I told her I talked to Brother yesterday. He told me that Littler One will be a girl.

“He didn’t sound happy.” I mused. “He sounded tired. The poor kid’s exhausted, I think.”

“He works really hard.” Mom replied. “And Brother’s Wife has him running all over. He cooks and cleans up every night. Helps clean the house, does all the laundry, picks Little One up from daycare every other day. Works all the time. She doesn’t know how good he is.”

Before they were married, Brother’s Wife informed Mom and me that he loved her far more than she loved him. But her mom told her that was the way it should be – that way she’d always get her way.

I am unwavering in my belief that there are rocks smarter than this girl, but to say such a thing to your boyfriend’s family is asinine. He’s far too good for her and I only tolerate her as his wife and Little One’s mother. Otherwise, I – terrible as it sounds – have zero interest in her. My mom – though she does put forth tremendous effort – is similarly disenchanted with the pretty blonde.

“When they came over the other night for dinner, I put my plan into practice.”

“Ah.” I said knowingly. She had explained that Brother’s Wife expected Brother to help cook and clean up each time they were at my parents’. When Brother said that was standard operating procedure regardless of the location – his wife’s parents, my parents, their home, friends’ houses – Mom was displeased.

“So Brother helped me cook dinner – he grilled while I made pasta salad. Then after we were finished, I said, ‘Brother, you helped cook. Now go sit down. Brother’s Wife, you’ll help me clean up.’”

She paused to allow me to be impressed that she remembered the script she’d devised earlier. I smiled but didn’t comment, resting the phone against the left side of my face and snuggling into the couch.

“She said she guessed she could do that, and helped me get the kitchen back together.”

“Good.” I praised. “So you feel better?”

“Well, some.” She said. “But she still takes him for granted! We had to go get Little One last night so that she could yell at him in private. She said he went for a drink when they got home from the sonogram, then wanted to watch TV later on. Since she wanted him to vacuum and clean the kitchen, Little One had to leave so they could fight.

“So Little One came over and when Brother came to get her this morning, he said he did what she asked but she kept bossing him around. So he left for a little while – he just got tired of listening to her.”

I watched the end of Raymond while she detailed how lucky Brother’s Wife was. How hard Brother worked, how much Brother did, how wonderful Brother was.

“So I’m going to tell her.” She said. And that’s when I sighed at her.

“I think you should let him figure it out.” I advised. “He’s smart and resourceful and he can do this on his own. You don’t need to correct her behavior, Mom. Then she’ll get mad and you’ll be hurt and I’ll get another phone call about how she’ll never let you see Little One again.”

“I’m not going to cause problems!” Mom said, indignant. “I’ll just bring it up casually.”

“Mom…”

“She should know! If she doesn’t start taking care of him a little, he’ll burn out and there won’t be anything left for her to take advantage of. He said he’s only staying because of the children.”

“Well, Brother sometimes lies. Or gets frustrated and wants to vent. If he wants to leave or needs his situation to change, he’ll have to make that happen. You can’t do it for him.”

“She needs to know.” Mom stated stubbornly and I told her to do what she needed to do.

We get bored in my family. None of us sleep well, leading to irritability in general. Mom, Brother and I are quite sensitive and are therefore offended when people don’t take the care with us that we would display with them. We are fascinated by drama, though we are very upset by it. Yet we continually create it.

It’s so easy to see from the outside though. I don’t give Mom too hard a time because I get it. There’s this injustice and it tugs at the consciousness, demanding some action or attention. After all, I, in my infinite wisdom and maturity, wrote email to Boss this morning.

I've been avoiding saying anything about Dawn because I don't want to make you uncomfortable and would hate to seem intrusive or disrespectful. I have every confidence that you did what you thought was best with the situation and do not require details or explanations. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to work for you and am learning a tremendous amount. I just wanted to share some information so that I can stop thinking about it and so that I'm confident you're aware of the situation as you decide what to do next with that position.

The last time I saw Winnie was before the retreat last summer. We talked about how one of my papers had been accepted and how she was disappointed that her former advisor hadn't submitted everything she'd written. She seemed sad and exhausted, which struck me as unusual for her, so as she was making copies, I asked what was going on. She told me that she was on probation for not accomplishing tasks quickly enough. That her mentors in her other lab were vocal in their disappointment in her work. But she said that she felt buried in administrative and other tasks - training students, dealing with protocols and revisions for the entire lab, keeping records. She said she wished she was able to spend more time in our offices - and on her research - but she didn't have the resources to do so. Her hands were shaking during the conversation so I helped her punch holes in papers and put them in a binder. I encouraged her to skip the retreat if she didn't have time to make a poster and deal with travel, and she spoke to Jill about her options.

I understand the retreat went very well for her, and I was pleased to hear it. I also acknowledge that I could have caught her on a bad day when she just needed to complain a little. I know there are times I'm overwhelmed and busy and then things lighten up and feel more manageable again.

Regardless, that conversation haunts me and when Dawn started, I suggested she might want to guard her time a bit more carefully. I shared that I worried they'd taken advantage of Winnie and pushed her far too hard to do work outside the research project she wanted to do. When the same thing appeared to be happening - the lack of research support or training at [other lab] followed by insistence that she handle tasks more related to the lab than her own work - I was pleased that Dawn stayed focused on her tasks and limited her involvement with protocols and training and doing projects for which she didn't have time.

Since this apparently led to her eventual resignation, I feel guilty for encouraging her to go down a path that ended up working out so poorly. I think Dawn is very bright and extremely motivated. She seems focused on what's fair and feasible and is clearly willing to help and work hard, but seemed to chafe against the environment in that lab.

I very much wish that Dawn's time here had ended differently. I do want to be clear that I know you did your best to help her. I certainly don't mean to offend you - I just wanted to make sure you had my information. I think I've had such wonderful collaborators here - Dr. Icing and Quiet Mentor have been encouraging and helpful - that I'm bothered that another scientist will be lost to what seems to be a terrible environment and selfish mentor at [other lab].

If you'd like to discuss this further, please let me know. Otherwise, please accept my apologies for intruding on a situation that has nothing to do with me or my career. I debated heavily over sending anything, but every time I look at the empty desk in my office, I felt heavy with the need to say something.

Katie

I didn’t send it. I’m torn as to what I hope to accomplish. I don’t have a complete picture and I’m clearly on Dawn’s side since I had grown to enjoy having her around. It has nothing to do with me and therefore any statements in this area could be construed as disrespectful. And I’m not exactly operating from a position of great power. My performance in this postdoc has been adequate but not overly impressive. I don’t want to cause problems for myself or introduce tension into my relationship with Boss unless it’s truly worthwhile.

The problem – for Mom and me – is that we see a situation that could go a couple of ways. We very much want to help and have enough free time to obsess over a way to do so. As for what the right answer is, I’m not really sure. I find we’re both helpless against the impulse to share our thoughts, try to help, make sure people know what we think is right, even when said thought has no real place in the situation.

Mom now has a new plan though. She will patiently wait for the moment where she can pounce on some statement an unwitting Brother’s wife makes. Then she will try her best to casually incorporate how wonderful Brother is and how lucky his wife should feel. And it’s not likely to do any good.

I’m less decisive in my approach. I don’t know whether to send the email or to wait and see what happens. I feel sick at the very thought that yet another person will be hired to work in that lab. So now it’s your turn to sigh at me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Under the Skin

"It looks like steak." I commented, making an expression of disgust as I stared at my computer screen yesterday morning.

"I'd say it's more ham-like." Ken offered, squinting from over one of my shoulders. He continued his discussion with a couple of collaborators - I pulled him into the project to write some code and he did an amazing job. I sighed, not really having much to do other than pulling people and work together in some reasonable way. It's basically what I do - organize and talk and plan and write. There's not a tremendous amount of science in my professional life.

So I let their voices blur into the background as I examined the human thigh on my screen, looking at all the different muscles, the bone in the center, the fatty layer surrounding all of it. I glanced down at my own leg, covered as it was by gray dress pants and frowned. When I look at a cross-sectional view on my computer, the skin is rather inconsequential. But it's all I see in person - examining how pale my legs are, even compared to the very light color on my arms, checking to see if I did an adequate job shaving, making sure none of my freckles are growing or changing. But look at all the stuff in there! All this complexity and structure that makes it possible for me to stand up, climb stairs, walk around. It's rather fascinating.

And disgusting. It continues to remind me of steak and I don't like it. But every time I look down at my legs, I have this knowledge of what's going on in there. "Hello, muscles." I think. "You look like steak. Or ham."

I rested on a massage table this afternoon and considered the experience as she worked on the muscles in my head. Over my cheekbones, into my jaw, rubbing under my hair at my scalp. She doesn't want the skin either, I thought, sighing at the release of tension in those tiny areas. My therapist is after the muscles underneath, the tension that weaves around and stubbornly clings, making me achy.

"I don't stretch as much as I should." I confessed with a wince while she worked on my shoulders and back. "I do a little, but I get focused on work or whatever and forget to take care of myself."

Therapy is likely the same way. I forget to consider my thoughts carefully and they veer into ick. Negative, depressing, self-absorbed garbage that ends up twisting around me so securely that I'm trapped inside before I even realize the problem had grown so large. Counseling forces attention to the problem spots and offers tools to untangle the mess on my own. But I really do think I'm going to take a break. Try some stretching on my own for a while.

As I dressed afterward, looking at the muscle diagrams posted on the wall, I wrinkled my nose as I examined the thigh picture. All the ropey muscles that travel up and down or diagonally around. That's what exists under my skin and protective layer of fat. Though I'm fascinated by anatomy and physiology, I also find it a bit creepy. I'm glad all that guck is covered up in a neat package. That when I see friends or colleagues, I don't think about how their bodies work. We just exchange information and converse, discuss problems or laugh over memories.

My fascination with keeping a journal online is that all of that superficial stuff is pushed aside. I continue to be awed by the fact that people can strip ego and pretty layer that makes us appear competent and normal and expose the truth behind their daily interactions. I'm often befuddled - especially of late - as to why people read what's here. What I know that you don't. What I've experienced or noticed that might be of interest. I think the draw for me is the beautiful and grotesque honesty.

I'm often scared. Confused. I'm rarely excited to go to work, but am grateful that I can muster enough motivation to get there on most days. I'm competitive enough to care about publications and grants, but I don't really see why it matters in the grand scheme of things. I've seen the research world be impossibly cruel to some and stunningly kind to others. I believe I've been in both groups, though far more frequently in the latter.

There's a tremendous amount going on underneath. That I get to peek into some lives and glimpse some of that is an honor. That some of you stop by to glance at my problems or stories or secrets means a tremendous amount to me. Because while sometimes muscle images remind me of what I see at the meat counter when buying groceries, other times I'm graced by a phone call from Brother in the afternoon.

"You had the sonogram." I recalled after he said hello. "And?"

"We're having another girl." He announced proudly. "I just can't escape houses of women."

"What did Little One think?" I asked. They took her with them to see her baby brother or sister.

"She was disappointed, I think. Not that it's a girl, but of the pictures. I think she wanted an actual picture of her baby sister. To see what color her hair was, what sorts of outfits she was wearing, if she smiled for her photo - that kind of stuff. So the blurry, black and white ultrasound wasn't what she wanted." I smiled, leaning on the railing outside the lobby of my massage therapy building so as not to disturb others with my conversation before my appointment began. What's inside can be yucky or disappointing or unexpected. But Little One is resilient and recovers a lot faster than I do.

"But now," Brother continued, "she's happy. She can point out the head and hands and is very proud of the picture."

"I'm proud of you." I told him. "Congratulations!"

"I hope I get to have one." I said sleepily as I neared the end of my massage, the muscles in my back finally allowing the tension to be smoothed from them.

"You will. At the right time." My therapist said of my desire for children. I'm coming to understand that what I expect or hope isn't necessarily what's forthcoming. The ability to continue to dream and to adapt when circumstances change is an important one.

But I'm still a bit grossed out by the meat-like stuff that lives in my legs.

Carnivals

ScienceWoman has Scientiae #6.

This reminds me that my own turn at hosting a carnival (albeit a different one) is fast approaching. If anyone has postdoctoral posts they'd like to share, please feel free to send them along. I'm so far behind in my blog reading - work is taking up a tremendous amount of time! - but I will happily read though my masses of entries on bloglines and search out things to include in the next What's Up, Postdoc? carnival.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Petite

Today was composed of hours devoted to small tasks. A meeting here, an experiment there. A few errands in which I dropped off or picked up bits of work. I deposited a check and did some shopping online. I mindlessly clicked buttons and busily backed up precious data. I endured a long commute in the morning and one only slightly shorter back home.

I wanted today's experiment to go well, braving the long drive yesterday despite lingering illness to ensure that all was prepared for this afternoon. It went beautifully - it was my first patient for that particular project and her follow-up data was gorgeous. It seems a small thing - less than an hour to collect data, a couple hours to process all of it. But in terms of feasibility and building confidence, it was quite important. I'm pleased.

I also wrote email to Dr. Counselor. Being done with a particular therapist is fine, I think. But I feel abandoned, as silly as that sounds. Like I wasn't progressing fast enough or doing well enough so I don't get to go anymore. While I was sitting this afternoon, waiting for my experiment and taking care of little tasks, I composed a quick note. I asked him to send the referrals since I didn't feel it was necessary to meet one last time. I'm hurt and offended and no longer wish to deal with him.

He replied with a message that sounded confused. But he did think - if I decided I was done working with him - that we should meet again so he could give me his blessing in person.

Now if I was an adult, I suppose I'd go to the appointment and gracefully end our time together.

Instead, I deleted the appointment from my calendar, smiling when Google wanted to confirm, asking "Delete Dr. Counselor?" I decisively clicked yes. I also replied to the email that he was the one who said we were done. I thanked him as politely as I could manage and reiterated that I don't particularly want one last session.

Then I went to the bathroom and cried.

It's a small thing - losing a therapist I happened to like and was likely ready to leave anyway - but it matters somehow. So I'd rather analyze data and watch TV than think about it, leaving you with a rather lame blog post.

I guess what I told Dr. Counselor is true. I am much better - productive and busy and capable of functioning. I didn't get all the way better and I am hurt that I no longer feel comfortable going to him, but I think I did get what I needed. Maybe.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dichotomy of Home

The phone rang late Friday night. Well, 9:30PM is late at my parents’ house. Mom was napping in the living room and Dad had been in bed for over an hour. I, super-cool person that I am, was just beginning to drift to sleep in the back bedroom when I scurried down the hall to stop the ringing.

“Can I talk to [Dad]?” A man asked and I frowned a bit. Anyone who knows my father is aware that he goes to bed quite early.

“I’m afraid he’s asleep.” I offered, polite, but cool. “May I take a message?”

“Oh, this is Chris LastName.” He said apologetically. “We were just talking and I thought I’d call to see how he was. But don’t wake him – it’s not a big deal.”

I recognized the name, though I couldn’t place the man. But after a moment my brain pieced together the voice and the name and realized he was an old friend of Dad’s. I immediately warmed my tone.

“Oh, Chris.” I said. “I’m sure he’ll want to speak to you. Does he have your number? I could write it down.”

“I can try to call another time.” He said. “It really wasn’t important.”

“It’s just that he goes to work really early during the week, so he’s in the habit of sleeping before it gets too late. I could try to wake him up.” I said. Then I interrupted his protest to offer that Mom was going down the hall.

“Mom?” He repeated. “Who’s this?”

“Oh.” I said, smiling. “This is his daughter – I’m visiting for Mother’s Day. I sound a lot like my mom.”

“You sound old.” He replied and I laughed a bit.

“Well, I am.” I said lightly, offering my age when he asked.

“Wow.” He breathed. “Twenty-eight? I remember when you were just starting to talk!”

I sighed, then said that Brother was nearly 24 and expecting his second child, as if deflecting attention would make the years that exist between now and then somehow fewer. Then I heard Dad talking to Mom and took the phone down the hall. I finished a Quiznos salad at the dining room table – a place the four of us gathered every night to share dinner and stories. Now it’s just Mom and Dad that eat there, save the occasions where Little One or Brother or Brother’s wife is around. Dad spoke to several friends while he laid in bed down the hall in the room that used to be mine. He bragged about my PhD and Brother’s children, listened to stories of other kids who are no longer as young as he remembers them being, and caught up with several old friends.

It is strangely familiar and foreign to stay at my parents’ house as I space my visits further and further apart. I’m finding that the memories of how things used to be are seeming older, perhaps a bit more faded. And though I don’t necessarily want to go back, I’m a bit startled at how different life sometimes seems. As if it shouldn’t change at all while I’m away, though I know it must and does.

“Wasn’t there something outside before?” Dad asked on Saturday evening as we watched Little One, Little Cousin, and Boy Cousin play on the playground to one side of the church. We went there for a dinner and gathered at one end of a lengthy table. After standing in line for supper, eating, clearing our plates and getting cake, the kids made their way to the tiny plastic slides and teeter totter. I followed to take some pictures. “You did go to preschool here.”

“I honestly don’t remember, Dad.” I said, frowning to focus. “There might have been something, but that was a long time ago.”

I do remember Grandma, I thought. There are steps leading to the preschool classrooms in the basement of the church. When I didn’t want to go, she took my hand and walked those steps with me. When I was scared to stay alone, she’d coax me into the classroom then wait outside the door on those stairs. I’d peek out to make sure she was waiting – keeping me safe and loved and ready to take me home if I needed to escape the colorful confines of preschool. But I don’t recall what – if anything – used to lie outside those particular doors. And the woman who sat on those uncomfortable steps every day has been gone for far too long.

I’m almost 30, I thought with dismay. And I really don’t feel I should be. Where did the time go between when I lived with these people in that house? When we talked every night and knew each other so well? How did things change so much?

Yet there are constants at home. I slept in on Saturday morning, walking down the hall at the late hour of 7:30, my steps making a hollow sound on the floor above our full basement. Dad says Mom and I walk too hard – we apparently sound like a herd of elephants. I rather like the noise though and have made no attempt to alter the weight of my steps. By 7:00, they’d both been in the guest room twice. Dad to open a window since it was so cool outside. Mom to cover me up in case I got too cold. Dad to come in to see if I was awake yet and wanted coffee he made. Mom again to see if I was ready to get up and plant flowers. Each time, I’d feel them look at me as I swam slowly toward full consciousness. Then they’d wander back down the hall to tell the other I wasn’t awake yet.

We did plant flowers on Saturday, drank coffee, went shopping, dealt with cable internet, had dinner at church. It was rather lovely.

This morning, I woke at 6:30. I was ready to be awake, but aware that my head had bothered me all night. Rather than taking Advil and nipping the problem early, I’d allowed the pain to build into a migraine. Upon getting upright, I realized I had a large problem and grabbed Advil before proceeding to the living room.

“My head hurts.” I announced as I flopped on one corner of the couch. Mom looked up with an expression of concern from her armchair. Dad asked why I hadn’t seen more doctors as he perused the paper from his recliner in the corner. I ended up going back to bed after sipping coffee Dad proudly brought to me. I got up again to ask for a Tylenol – the headache was growing and throbbing and I wanted it to ease.

“You shouldn’t mix medicine.” Dad advised, but Mom got her pill bottle and offered me a red capsule.

“Are you OK?” She asked softly. “Can I get you anything?” I shook my head, took the pill, then headed to the bathroom. I turned on the tub so I could listen to the water run – it soothes me – and patted the dog as she sat next to me in the room. I felt myself gag a bit and moaned. I hate throwing up. I very rarely do it because I fight the impulse so very hard. It’s awful for me – always has been. I just hate it.

So it was with some shock that I found I was going to do so this morning. Chienne panicked and started to cry. She made a grateful escape when the bathroom door opened. As she always has, Mom turned off the water in the tub and wet a washcloth in the sink. She reached around me to flush the toilet and wiped my face after I finished, then rubbed my back as I rested my cheek on her shoulder and hugged.

“I don’t like throwing up.” I told her.

“I know.” She said, voice soothing. “You never did.”

We walked down to the back bedroom together – the room that Brother used to have growing up, still painted a peach color – and I settled on the trundle bed. She sat in the red rocking chair she used when Brother and I were babies. After a moment, I stopped trembling from the nausea and scooted to the edge of the bed. She immediately stopped rocking and nudged the chair closer and rubbed my head.

When I started to sleep, she rose and quietly left the room. She and Chienne went outside to plant more flowers. Mom likes to have a row of flowers and vegetables around the edge of the fenced in yard. It’s rather silly, I think. She has sunflowers along the back of the fence, tomatoes in the corner, squash and pumpkins toward one side, peas and beans along the other side fence. Brother and I tease her, but she continues to plant her odd little garden every year. I heard her come in and out, the screen door making its distinctive sound in its tracks as she checked on me.

I woke an hour later and felt much better. Loved and comfortable and home. Things do change and will continue to do so even as I search for a way to live closer to my family. But the depth and certainty of our love for and knowledge of each other commands confidence that there’s always a home waiting for me when I need it.

So the weekend – even with its odd tugs of regret that I’m aging – was lovely. Filled with plants and their rich, earthy smell and delicate blossoms, playgrounds with bright colors and toddlers’ laughter, voices that were infinitely familiar even as they told stories I hadn’t heard before. I miss them already, even as I’m pleased and comfortable to be back in my own house.