Thursday, February 28, 2008

Work... doesn't work.

I have this. It's part of a paper and has been included in a few talks I've given. Let's say - for the sake of argument - that it is interesting. If it was interesting and you did look at it, I could tell you that blue and red were collected on different days. (Yellow is where they overlap.) So the question of interest has to do with why so much red and so little blue?

One of the members of my committee asked a question after my seminar about the squigglies that make up the red and blue. The squigglies are important and I hadn't thought to look at them. So I nodded appreciatively, wrote down the idea and came back to work.

I have been less than productive of late due to sheer lack of interest. So it was with some surprise that I found myself opening files because I found myself curious about the answer to this particular question.

All I really knew was that I to pick a spot to start. So I did.

From this pot, I knew I could make graphs of squigglies that were related to the squigglies I wanted. So I did.

Then I squinted at the intermediate squigglies and frowned. "Well," I thought, "no wonder there aren't many blues in that first figure. The blue squigglies are all confused. The overall pattern is shown beautifully by the reds, but the blues are drifting and noisy and rather unattractive." This made me feel sorry for the blues for a minute - the pretty things in life get all the attention.

So I did what I always do in these situations. I sent email to members of my graduate research group that explains my problem, offers what I've done so far, and concludes with, "Please help me. I'm stuck. Many thanks." And someone always replies, tells me I've done something wrong or weird and we start to email back and forth about what should be done and where to go from here. Then I'm not stuck anymore.

I read people in grad school or doing post-docs and I cock my head in confusion sometimes. If you're confused or stuck or feeling bad, you go to your fellow group members, I think. I was trained with incredible scientists and have kept in touch with all of them. I use them as resources constantly for questions like what hotel to stay in at this conference, what they think of the supervisor at that job, where to go next with analysis, what free software is available to do X, who to recommend for reviewers at Journal Y. They send papers and advice and encouragement. I studied off of their old exams in grad school and added my own to the file as I finished classes. I copied styles from someone's prospectus and someone else's defense. We trade slides when doing presentations and hug when we meet at conferences. It's delightful, but I always assumed it was standard. And it's why I visited my graduate program - those relationships were so important to me that I feel compelled to offer them to others, even if from a distance.

For those of you who don't have that sort of expertise and companionship freely available, I'm profoundly sorry. I wouldn't be here or doing this without it.

Anyway, they offered ideas and I searched online and read documentation to try to get the squigglies I wanted. I typed in my terminal window and opened text files. I transfered numbers between Excel and Matlab and specialized pieces of software. Between my brief moments of stunning triumph and more frequent bouts of crushing confusion and defeat, I realized I was happy. Tapping at keys and waiting until I could look at something. Puzzling over a project I know well and trying to figure out where processing errors were and where actual trends of interest were playing out. I clicked and dragged and displayed and napped.

(I sleep a lot when I think hard.) (Actually, I sleep a lot in general. But I feel less guilty when I decide my brain needs to rest and mull things over.)

Then, after two days of thinking and pages in my online lab notebook devoted to documenting the process overall and the outputs of functions and things I think are weird, I have a simple graph in Excel. And I see the blue and I see the red. And if you look at the right regions, it does look like some version of an expected squiggly. It goes up and down and then back up a bit. But the blue has an extra bump. And the red is a bit odd in different ways.

So I emailed my people again.

"Huh," we all said. But they provided more ideas.

There are several things I need from my office computer in order to continue in earnest. But I could try one thing. And I got this last picture. It doesn't look much like the one before it. The reds and blues are refusing to behave in any consistent way and while that could be correct and meaningful, it's beyond me to figure it out tonight. Which is why the tapping on the keys is creating a blog post rather than more files and graphs and results.

So I'm done for today, which is OK since I'm tired. But it's been good - surprisingly good, actually - to analyze data again. To wake up feeling curious and eager to do what I do. To wonder about squigglies and spots and reds and blues and why things happen and how this all relates to the bigger picture. To search and read and make notes on techniques I don't need now but might use later.

My other reason for writing was that I realize that some of you who are without strong communities within your research groups find that support online. And Friend was able to offer advice to another person who writes a blog recently and I thought that was rather lovely. So this is one part of what I do - sans google-able search terms. If you would ever like my help, be in touch. (I might not know the answers, but I have people I can ask.)

1 comment:

Wayfarer Scientista said...

post-doc, I wish I had had that kind of group but if anything my advisor discouraged even the people within his own research group from interacting. And I have since been involved with other slightly non-functional groups. I've seen the kind of group you describe and I dream of it and am determined to be part of one at some point. So, anywho, thanks for your offer. :)

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