Sunday, August 18, 2013

It's more fun to compute

If you're not currently addicted to Evernote, I pity you.

Yes, this is meant to sound inflammatory. I am not overselling how much more in control of all the crazy things that go on in my life with the use of this technology.

What is Evernote? 
Evernote is an application that allows you to create "notes," in which you can type information, take and attach an image, record and save an audio file, add reminders, draw images or annotate  and tag notes with labels to categorize them. Also, like a billion other things but that's the gist. It's available for iPhone, iPad, PC, Mac, and online.

Here's some reasons it's amazing for scientists:
1. All those notes/tips/protocols that I lose in my haphazardly organized and bulk lab notebook? Yeah, I took pictures of those motherfuckers and now they're stored electronically forever and I can find them whenever.

2. It offers incredible functionality within a web browser and allows me to "clip" things I select online directly to my collection in a snap.

3. It can scan handwritten notes and makes that shit searchable.*

4. If you imported pdf files, the content is searchable. No more creative file names, no more organizational mishaps or printed stacks of articles.*

5. I've been using it to put together my thoughts/ideas on data analysis, manuscript design, and graphs.

6. You can share the notes with people through links or by email.

7. A note is almost instantly synced to every device on which you have the software, including the web version.

Beware: You will start using Evernote for all of teh things, all of teh time. 
It's also awesome for recipes, music/restaurant recommendations, prescriptions, remembering where you've parked, and just about anything for which you'd like to stash some information to rapid retrieval later.

Want to learn more about Evernote? Try this Beginner's Guide from Mashable.

*These features are available through the paid version of Evernote (called Premium), which is $45 for the year.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Until it all, starts over... again

I've been pretty mum here about the fact that I've recently moved and changed jobs.

I think it's because I now realize how much I want to share the "how I got to what I am now" before I spend too much time talking about the straight-up details of my new job.

University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) was my first postdoctoral position following graduate school, and it has been pretty great. I generally like my coworkers and my work, Austin is beautiful and vibrant, and I got to live with my bestest favorite person (from whom I was separated for the immediately preceding two years while we finished graduate school shit). While here I've met some incredible people, officiated some incredible roller derby with the incredible Texas Rollergirls (fourth in the world, what, what!), and tasted some incredible food. Unfortunately, I've also done some incredibly trying work setting up a new lab, paid an incredible amount in parking costs, and placed an incredible number of miles onto my leased car.

More recently, funding became an increasingly pressing issue: my PI's grant is ending, and despite good scores on an NIH R01 grant, it will be unclear for months yet if there would have been money to support my continued work in the lab. I applied to become a research educator for the awesome Freshman Research Initiative at UT, but funding is tight, and the program did not have funds to support new "research streams."

This, and the rapidly approaching end of the lease on our condominium forced the hard question: Can I commit to another year in San Marcos, locking in  a long commute for both myself and the love of my life, without a guarantee that I would be employed during that time?

So, a few months ago, I started hunting for jobs in San Antonio. After all, my fiancee's permanent position was in San Antonio and I was already skating there once or twice a week with the Alamo City Rollergirls. In June I blogged that looking for academic positions was comically complex. . I know that I love doing science in the lab everyday, but the counterintuitive expectation that successful scientists leave the bench to become administration, teachers, and managers just felt stupid. I wanted off that tract, and I wanted off badly. Desperately unsure about what I wanted, I reached out to a lab that had posted a technician position, for which I was ridiculously over qualified.

But then I met this scientist and he was all human, and it was like, what do I want again? Because working with these people could be pretty awesome. Sure, it's another huge academic leap from one discipline to the next, but the cost-benefit was so disparate compared to my situation with UT-Austin: guaranteed funding, carpooling to work with the fiancee, and only a short drive from roller derby practice. We could live in a city near things and people, have social lives, and visit nice restaurants without spending more time in the car than at the table.

So, I started a new job on August 1 at the University at Texas Health Sciences Center San Antonio while still working (albeit long distance) with the group at UT-Austin. I was pretty entrenched at UT-Austin position, my exit was swift, and I had a lot of people with which I had to coordinate all of these changes (remember all of my undergraduate assistants?). The undergraduates with which I was working are now finishing some of the behavior that I help start before I left. It's so strange stepping away from a project before its natural conclusion, hoping that those I left behind pick up the slack. I know that they can, but I've never had to test that trust so completely in the past.

And like that, I know relatively nothing again. I'm a behavioral neuroscientist in an electrophysiology lab that uses patch clamp to examine dopamine signalling in a myriad of systems.  It's a bit like starting graduate school or starting the last postdoctoral position - it's an opportunity to demonstrate that I'm adaptable. At least, until it all starts over again, again.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What about your friends?

I was actually seeing someone else at the time, but that ended abruptly after about a year, during the summer following my first year of graduate school. It was my first serious relationship, but it'd been a rocky and stressful one. I spent a week in my apartment, scoring animal behavior on my TV (to my cats' amusement) in my hot, un-air-conditioned duplex while watching seasons of Charmed that I'd been loaned out from the nearby library. It may have been one of the most pathetic phases in my then-25 years.

My graduate school frenemy finally goaded me out of my shitty home and out to a weekday concert in our small, semi-southern town. IT WAS AWESOME. Hippies were dancing! Some industrious people moved a couch into a public park! It was so packed that you would have sworn that every person within 10 miles was in attendance. I ran into this totally cute guy that had been in my Psychopharmacology course the semester before, and he was sporting a fabulous beard and had pretty eyes. Tall, dark, and handsome? Yes, please.

The following summer, we were living together and celebrating these free and public 'sunset' concerts by hosting cookouts with our circles of graduate school buddies, most of which were couples. It was great - I could binge eat and drink with all my friends. In fact, one of the craziest but best memories was the cookout we hosted to celebrate a dissertation defense, which still managed to occur despite a major, power-outage-causing storm. We and all our friends congregated at our house immediately following the afternoon's hurricane-typhoon-tornado-like storm, and wandered the neighborhood, gape-mouthed at all the fallen trees, destroyed homes, and battered cars. Then we started drinking, emptied the freezer's contents onto the grill, and drank and ate everything we had on hand.

At the end of the summer, my handsome man then moved to Tuscon to complete his pre-doctoral clinical internship at the VA hospital there. It was fun going on the road trip to move him there and set up his home, but it was really hard to leave him and our kitty Sterling Hayden there to return to our small town graduate school. I had two years to finish, and I was scared our relationship wouldn't survive 1000 miles of separation.

When your best friend, boyfriend, and sole roommate moves across the country, your entire life changes. In hindsight, I'm pretty surprised that the relationship survived (spoiler alert). At first, our graduate school friends were okay about my pseudo-singlehood, but the changed dynamic quickly saw my social calendar opening up. A new co-worker's long-distance girlfriend then met me and supposedly thought I aimed to pursue her boyfriend (I did not, at all), and openly despised me. Then, my friends had to choose between this couple (the guy was nice, she could be fun, but was high maintenance) and myself. Before long, I was only getting phone calls to meet up at the bar for drinking after everyone else went on group dates. It was a friend-style booty call and I wasn't loving it.

I befriended a much-younger, but much more crazy, fun, and single friend, and four months after my best friend soul mate boyfriend moved away, I again had a close friend with which I spent most of my time. Sure, I drank and partied more than I have - or probably ever will  - but it was awesome and exactly what I needed. I'd felt so slighted by my paired-up graduate school friends. Later, my friendship with her was probably the final push that severed my connections with a number of these graduate school friends (by no means all, but at least one), but I had already given up on being a meaningful member of that social group. Didn't need them, didn't want them. Not only had they been replaced, I'd upgraded.

It was with bemusement that I learned, in the ensuing three years since all these shenanigans went down, many of these same couples found themselves in similar long-distance situations with their significant others. In fact, I believe it has struck ALL of them (thanks, Facebook and gossipy academics). I'd be lying if I said that I didn't get some smug satisfaction that these people had to face the same trials and tribulations that I faced - without their help. I hope their friends were better selected than many of my own.

It's really, really, hard to be in this type of situation. In many ways, it feels a little bit like your significant other is dead, because all the things you once did together are not only now done alone, but stink with the frequent and painful reminder of your heightened social isolation. Just like the day my frenemy dragged me out of the self-induced solitude following the breakup, you sometimes need friends to help you cope with this huge and meaningful life change. I didn't really get that - I was mostly on my own.

Furthermore, what transpired also highlighted the notion that many of your 'friends' in graduate school are your friends more so because of your shared environment, common academic interest, and/or proximity than meaningful emotional connection. These connections are predominantly out of necessity. Most of them will become just some person with whom you once had some (graduate school) shit in common with, and they'll never be part of your life again. The precious few that defy that categorization are probably now some of the best friends you could ever have.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Work smarter, NOT HARDER.

If you're not already reading Lifehacker everyday, you're missing out both as a scientist AND a human being.

The header on the website is literally "Tips and downloads for getting things done."

Lifehacker has helped me bend technology to my whim, find great deals on products or services, and solve small but meaningful annoyances in my everyday existence. I read it everyday, even if only glancing, because it is that useful of a resource.

Go. Now!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I don't care, I love it

I ordered a free informational poster today from a pipet company with the pure intent to use it as decoration in my home.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Packed and all eyes turned in

You're going to freak out about this.

But for even for scientists, sometimes life needs to take the front seat.

We just moved into our San Antonio townhouse (before the complex was completed with their renovations or turned on the air conditioning). It's been a flurry of angry cats, drywall dust, and achingly painful flea bites in our 85 F degree abode.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Say something, say something, anything. Your silence is deafening.

If you need help, ask for it.

Seriously. It's incredible how many colleagues I've seen struggle and dredge through an experimental goal that requires the implementation of new or different techniques. Sure, they've probably read some scientific articles on the topic, but seldom do I witness fellow researchers reaching out to their colleagues for help when they're struggling.

In my postdoctoral fellowship, my research focus went from preclinical traumatic brain injury with rats (in a Psychology program) to functional adult hippocampal neurogenesis (in a Neurobiology department). It was a huge leap into much harder bench work with which I wasn't familiar - which meant that I had to reach out to the undergraduate technician in the lab to learn these techniques. The other postdoc didn't need this type of tutoring, so I quickly felt like an idiot, and I think that still kind of sticks with me even today.

Not many scientists will tell you this - but working in science is essentially a commitment to frequently feeling like a moron. For example:

I have done something so profoundly dumb in an experiment that I am briefly yet frequently certain I have multiple personalities that hate one another.

One time I returned an animal cage following behavioral testing, but did not notice that an animal was missing from its cage. Turned out that the animal was in my private testing room for the entire weekend, and I didn't realize it until I found shredded paper towels in the middle of the floor, Monday morning. CT-15 was fine, but freaked out, and honestly, so was I. What kind of bonehead does that, I thought.

I have struggled with lab techniques and let it go on longer than I should have because PRIDE.

I didn't learn PCR and gel electrophoresis until my postdoc, and I was able to hide my troubles with genotyping until the laboratory technician left his position a year later. And then it still took four months for me to go from "recipe-following automaton" to "sufficiently proficient scientist." The undergraduate assistants understood more about the process than this postdoc did, so I avoided that shit like a shameful plague.

More often than not, experimental results are the opposite of what I would have predicted, despite all the science things I thought I knew on the topic.

The first study I did in graduate school demonstrated that a vitamin effective in young animals as a treatment following TBI (traumatic brain injury) was completely ineffective in middle aged animals. The finding was so surprising that my master's thesis wound up being a study of the effect of age on that drug's efficacy. This is a normal progression of experimental investigation in science, but it's not difficult to interpret it as being incorrect or even moronic in your scientific predictions.

It can be really painful to admit that something is difficult for you, even more so when the people around you, your peers, don't seem to have the same troubles. We're all competing for the same grant money, recognition, and success. So you don't say anything about your struggles, you don't ask for help, and something that is a frequent and necessary task in your scientific endeavors turns into a monster of an undertaking. At least it did (and still can) for me.

The too frequently unspoken truth in science is that as a group, we all rise and fall together (in a lab, in a research group, in a department, in a university, in a field, etc). If one of us makes a major breakthrough in methodology or technique, all of us might benefit from it. If one of us secures funding, there's more support for the rest of the team, or another piece of equipment. If one of us expands their professional network to include rich or powerful people, all of us might now have a powerful friend-of-a-friend.

Putting together a great team of a lab is important for each member's benefit. This is true for both social and professional climate, but I'm talking specifically about professional development. For the sake of the team, each member should seek to be open, considerate, thoughtful, and dedicated. It needs to be a safe place to ask for help or advice without fearing judgement and persecution. It allows its members to play to their strengths, and others to support them with their own, symbiotically.

In science, as in life, it's best to forgive yourself for your failings, and move the fuck on, preferably with your friends.