Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Home stretch!

In a little less than three weeks, I will defend my masters. This is scary not because I think I'm likely to fail, but because I want to do the most excellent job I could ever do and I've no idea what this means or how to do it.

Part of this has to do with the fact that my project was built to look at a problem from multiple angles, with each perspective designed to evaluate the question in slightly different way. In my dreams, these different perspectives would be in agreement and solidify some core truth about microbes breaking down carbon. But, of course 50% of the evidence supports my hypotheses, 50% opposes it, and the best overall explanation for my results may just be experimental artifacts my controls may not have fully accounted for.

How can I do an excellent job with results that won't give a fairytale ending? Do I do more analyses with the risk of complicating the results further? Collect new data? Read more papers and empathize with the confuzzled results? Romanticize about the beautiful stochasticities of the natural world which periodically hide true, biologically-meaningful patterns?

Do I share my data and analyses with my advisor prior to my defense? If I did it right, maybe she'll be proud of my competence and ability to develop and assess ideas independently. And isn't training independent thinkers a key part of an advisor's role? But if I did it wrong, then what if my incompetence humiliates her in front of her peers?

As a member of her lab, I am constantly conferring with my colleagues about how we can best serve team Kristen to try and repay the great kindness and fearless leadership she has shown to us. So ultimately, doing the most excellent job I could ever do means doing everything in my power to do my advisor proud, and to represent her team well.

If only I knew how to act on that in this instance...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


My mum asked me to write a post on what I thought the greatest challenges facing young scientists are for her blog. I started writing something which didn't quite fit her criteria, so while I think more about her topic, I thought I would share what became a bit of  a confessional.

What are the biggest challenges facing young scientists, you ask?

I can't really answer this question for everyone, but I know for me it is the fact that reading and lab work are mutually exclusive events in my life. My lab and the fields of microbial and molecular ecology are growing so fast, and I want to know a bit about and be involved in everything. This clearly is not possible; 10-15 papers directly related to my work come out every day, and it's good if I can read that many in full in a week. And that doesn't include getting caught up on the "old" classics upon which these fields are built. Perhaps more importantly, reading goes against the views my father bestowed upon me.

I an my father's daughter, and as anti-elitists, reading is an intellectual task reserved for the kind of wusses we don't approve of. Reading can be fun, but only when the mind is allowed to wonder and I can go on random tangents and explore citations in the papers at hand. However, reading in this way is reserved for the artsy types doing PhDs in comparative literature or philosophy who are expected to read for 7-9 years and possibly not graduate.  When my dad and I read, we are on a mission; we read manuals and protocols to figure out how to DO things better. But we only resort to readin' when we can't figure out how to do something ourselves. 

Reading is for the weak. 

The harsh practicality of this view compounds my short-sighted in my approach to science. I could read more, but the instantaneous gratification of doing an experiment is so much more enjoyable. I am still young and inexperienced when it comes to the lab, and every new discovery is exciting. I like having a growing family of bacteria in the lab, and watching how my "children" develop through time, how they are each unique in their growth morphology and feeding preferences. I love the rush I get when I have finally figured out why something didn't work, and crushing the problem.  If my head was stuck in a journal, I wouldn't get to do as many of these things. Yet ultimately I know that if my findings are to benefit the scientific world and eventually advance some aspect of society, I will have to communicate them in a manner which appropriately places them in the context of what is already known. And for that, I must read.

And if to enjoy reading I must take a day to meander through and really understand a paper or two each week, then I must step down from my podium and become a wuss. From now on, Wednesdays are my wussdays.