The continuum. (sans Q)

I think as humans we have this need to organize things. We learn how to do something and then we want to learn how to do it better. We categorize, we put labels on things, we try to figure out exactly the base level of everything. Part of this, I think, is because we need to control things. 

There always seems to be a lot of things out of our control. We can’t control who we fall in love with. We often have no control over our jobs. We can’t control our gender, who we were born to, what are genetics ultimately encode for us. Because of this, we can, and do, control the smallest parts of our lives.
There is a comedy skit (I don’t remember who by) that explains why Starbucks is so successful. It’s that we can walk in, make eleventy choices about what we want to drink, and leave feeling like we accomplished something. 
Where things get hinky is when something that we feel the need to name, label, and categorize doesn’t fit into a nice box. This presents the concept of personal interpretation. Personal interpretation can strike fear into the hearts of the populace. Why? Because when it comes down to it, it means that you can’t categorize something because someone else has a different category than you. This means that something is out of your control. What’s the easiest way to make a category in this instance? Figure out how to control who doesn’t agree with you. 
This concept of control has gotten out of hand. For instance, I remember waiting to listen to a favorite radio show so that I could tape songs off of the radio. Now, when I want a copy of a song, I have an instant access to whatever song I want. There is no anticipation, no anxiousness, no unknowing-ness about the situation. We no longer have these minuscule moments about unimportant things. We have ridiculous amounts of control over minute parts of our lives (tall skinny vanilla latte, anyone?) and no control over the big things (I’ve always hated my nose). 
This is starting to bite humanity in the ass. We are forcing control over things that don’t matter: does it really matter what color lego are? (If I ever have a kid, I’d mandate a no pink or blue rule.) Is it really anyone’s business what type of clothing someone else is wearing? Does it matter what someone chooses for their career?
This need to categorize and control is moving over into things that really do matter: who you can love, being healthy, being safe, being who you are. Does it really matter that much about putting things into a category that only you understand so much that you’re breaking someone else? 
I often tell people that I am able to hold 2 opposing ideas in my head at the same time. I can. The key is to recognize that you are interacting with the world in a certain way. This interaction is unlike any that has gone before and will happen again. And I can sense these ideas and recognize them for what they are. They are two instances of categories. They’re names. Names give things power. 
There is no way we can quit giving things names or putting them in the filing cabinets of our minds, but we can start rethinking our categories. We need big broad categories. Ones where everyone fits. We’ve been putting things in categories that are binary for too long. And these binary categories end up as natural adversaries: Woman versus Man, Light versus Dark, Yes versus No, Tea versus Coffee. 
So let’s start redefining what we are: Big colorful swaths of humanity. Voices of all timbres. Beliefs that run the gamut. Let’s be a continuum. I think we will be much happier. 
This entry was posted on July 1, 2014. 2 Comments

Going Back

I had gone to graduate school for 2 reasons. One was to avoid the real world for a while, the other was that I had wanted to teach. I had started undergrad as a Biology Ed major, and after my first Ed class, I realized I had a philosophical problem with the department (mostly that if you are going to teach the youth, you should maybe get a B minimum average in the classes you were going to teach). I figured that if I went to grad school, I’d at least be able to teach college.

When I mentioned teaching during my first year, I found out something about the department, the prevailing attitude was that they trained scientists, and not teachers. TA positions were very difficult to come by. I was maybe in the wrong place for what I had planned to do with my life. I did, however, enjoy the lab and my project and the senior student who’s project I was taking over. This student, Dave, was a great mentor, and I have him to thank for most of the things I learned in my first 2 years in grad school. He was also the person that taught me to look beyond the tenure track.

Dave, while liking teaching and being very good at it, had this plan. His idea was to go get an MBA after grad school and while doing some bench science for a while, ultimately move up a corporate food chain so that he could have a group of scientists at his disposal. For years (and I spent 8 of them in grad school) I mostly had no idea what I wanted to do with my degree. I used to joke that I thought it would be freaking awesome to work at Molecular Probes or New England Biolabs. I liked being in charge of students and techs. I knew that I didn’t want to sit and write grants all the time. And at some point, right around graduation, I appropriated Dave’s dream.

I interviewed at both corporations and post-docs and got offers from all except my dream lab. I decided to do the post-doc in my city because what if my PI in grad school had really tainted me against the tenure track and I was missing my true calling? Again, I enjoyed the lab and the research, but it still wasn’t for me. So I started interviewing again.

I went through something like 7 or 8 interviews, both phone and in person, for the job I have now. The last was with the site leader. He’s gruff and sarcastic and I was sure that I wasn’t going to get the job after talking to him. We had a weird exchange where he asked what my goals were and after telling him that in the short term I’d like to get an MBA, he started going after my decision verbally. Mostly it was a barrage of questions about why and if I thought that I needed it, and if was my way out of science (?) and what I thought that I’d get out of it. As I was answering, I realized that I was getting defensive and actually answering these questions honestly. No, I didn’t think that I needed and MBA to get ahead. Yes, I know that most of them are bullshit. I didn’t want to leave science, but I was sure that an MBA would help me link the science to the business. If I wanted to go the route of corporate science, I wanted to do a good job of it. I think that this exchange was likely what got me the job.

I started a program that wasn’t an MBA, but more of an overview of engineering and business, basically a scientifically bent MBA (technically an M.S.) . I’m not an engineer, but as I like to say, I’m engineering adjacent. I’ve had finance and law classes, linear programming and project management classes. All relevant.

It wasn’t difficult to go back to school, and I kept my PhD close to my chest as long as possible because I didn’t want to be singled out even more (usually the only female in the classes). I’d like to say it was easy, but it wasn’t always. Sometimes my biology training got in the way. Work/life/school balance can be hard. But I met some great people. I learned a lot. I’ve even learned things that I’ve applied to my work. And I’ll be graduating in May.

Just where I’m standing

I have to admit, I’ve been watching the disturbing events on twitter with much reservation. I wasn’t even aware of my silence being a talking point, but I guess it is, so I’ll put some words out there:

So much of what has been said, has been said eloquently, with true emotion, with intelligence and with the purpose of good, and no matter what I write, it will be found lacking.

I don’t know Bora. I don’t know DNLee, I don’t know Monica, but I read their stories. And my feeling is that we need more stories like this. We don’t need the initiating events, but we need people to tell their stories. Why? After all, these stories are hard to tell, both professionally and personally. They’re alienating, they can be met with more harassment, they can be unbelievable, but they’re truth, and the more that we speak the truth, the more we can address the basic issues. We need to own our lives and our stories. We need to address truth. We need to destigmatize harassment issues in general.

There’s very little that’s said about harassment, even with friends. Women don’t talk about health issues either, and harassment is a mental well-being issue. I can guarantee that you are not the only person that experienced “X”: there is someone else out there. There is someone out there that needs to be reassured that this shit cannot stand and just needs a little nudge in the direction of calling out their harasser, or reporting them, or not being afraid to go to the doctor for that lump, or having a kid or any other number of things that people are afraid to do. Some of us are stronger than others. Some of us have to be strong so that others can learn to be strong.

I applaud Monica, Hannah and Danielle for sharing their stories, I applaud Drs. Isis and Rubidium for signal boost and great analysis. I applaud those that named their oppressors. As I wrote above, I don’t know these people, so I’ve been watching on the sidelines, but don’t mistake my lack of comment as complacency. I could write tomes, but I’d rather act.  Rest assured, bullshit will be called out. Help will be given where needed. And I will not stand for for a lack of transparency. This starts with personal responsibility: I’m naming mine to not deal with this shit, either directed at me, or when it’s known to being going on.

When it comes down to it, I’m feeling offended. I’m offended that this occurs. I’m offended that someone thinks so little of people as to intentionally make them uncomfortable, or harass them or call them names. I’m offended that people are afraid for their jobs and reputations or possibly feel like they need to apologize.

This entry was posted on October 16, 2013. 1 Comment

Assay Development

I’ve been working on this project at work. And it was sort of a clusterfuck. I did all the research that I could do, because it’s a cell type and assay I’m not familiar with. And I started working on it. 

And it didn’t work, despite all of the combinations that I did. I presented the work to the boss, and he asked what I wanted to do, and I presented a new direction. 

And then I worked on this new direction for a while. And it didn’t work. 

Then I ignored all of the published literature and the instructions from the manufacturer and went at it with strong biological principles. And it kinda worked. I explained my methodology to my boss as “going rogue”, and he told me in his most sarcastic voice that he couldn’t imagine me doing that. 

And each week has shown an improvement, each week changing something, optimizing something, communing with my cells. It took 5 versions to get to this point.

Today I got to go in to my 1:1 and say: “I have measurable data. I’m doing the final experiment this week.” 

And my boss, who I’ve not really been able to gauge, smiled, telling me that he knew it was going to take a long time, because they’ve never had the set up or the people to do this particular assay. 

This is why I love my job. 

Maybe I’m ok?

I got a new boss in February. I like him. I think he’s probably the smartest man I know. I respect him as a scientist. He’s fun to drink with. He tries to mentor me. I’m fucking scared of him. 

Now, my fear lies in the “I don’t want to get yelled at by him” area of the spectrum, because I know that will be freaking scary. I didn’t have this fear of my old boss, even while I was caught in between a fight he had with a former coworker. 

My general mechanism for work is either have new data to show, or have a plan that you are in the process of enacting. I try not to make mistakes, and when I do, and there was some control I had in making the mistake, I apologize for it. I work, I get my shit done, I don’t nag people, I’m not a ‘boat rocker’. If I’m yelling at someone, they needed it. In my 3 years at my company, I’ve only had words with one person, and yet, while he’s a few levels above me, he respects me so much for standing my ground, my old boss is confused how I worked it out. I push myself. I try to inspire good science. 

And while I know that my boss likes this behavior, I’m still scared of him. 

My PI for my post doc once told me that he was a simple man, and that he held no ulterior motives, and that he’d always be honest with me (and even to this day, he has been). He eluded to the fact that men are like this. He also once told me that I hold myself to an impossible standard. 

My current boss has a habit of asking me if I’m happy with the way things are going. He waits for my reply before he answers, and yet I think he knows that my reply will be: “While I’m happy with the result, I can’t help but think that I could have done this better.” He does this during almost every project update. He’s also told me things like he was very happy with the results, or that I did a good job, or that he was impressed with my work. And I can’t help but think it’s not true. I know that both he and my old boss has gone to bat for me, people that have left have told me this. 

He’ll also asks (if he thinks I’ve had enough to drink and we are without coworkers), if I still enjoy my job. I’ve told him, several times at this point, that yes, I do still enjoy my job, and yes, there are certain things that I don’t like, but generally, I know that those are necessary evils. And then I go on to tell him that I’ll leave when I’m not being challenged, or if I’m bored, or if there’s nothing left for me to learn. 

It happened again today. A 1:1 meeting where he (seems to be at least) really happy with my progress, and I’m sort of embarrassed that it take me so long to do what it was he wanted me to do and I’m afraid that it’s not good enough. 

When does this stop? In the grand scheme of things, I want this guys job (or a job like it). I’m preparing myself to do that job. My old boss knows that I want his job (which, pretty much means that he knows, because they’re tight). I have full confidence with people that are levels above me, or people that I have to work with, but with him it’s different. It was even different with my old boss, I was never this afraid of him. 

I’m lost on how to go forward. I need to get over this. Do you think he’s (essentially) lying? Or am I just projecting my feelings over what he’s saying? What do I do to change this? At this point, it’s selectively him, and he’s the person I most want to impress/do a good job for. 

This entry was posted on August 6, 2013. 3 Comments

Perfect dreams that make you sad

I dreamt all last night. In reality, it was probably only minutes of the 7.5 hours of tortured sleep I likely had, but it seemed like a movie that lasted hours. 

I danced in the arms of an older, professional, unbelievably sexy Spaniard named Xaiver. He had an accent that was equal parts lullaby and chocolate. He made me feel beautiful and graceful and brilliant. And somehow, while we had met in some random situation while he was in the city, it turned out that his visit here was because he was friends with my boss, which we had only found out months after the 2 of us had been traveling back and forth to see each other. Mostly because I showed up with him as a date to my boss’s home. 

In my dream, as we were dancing, at a wedding no less (not mine), he made me laugh. I was laughing so hard that I pushed my face against the front of his tux jacket, my eyes watering. When I looked back at him, in his wonderful blue eyes, he told me that he was going to make it his mission to make me laugh at every moment he could because my laugh was the sound of life. He was my personal manifestation of joy. 

I remember lying on the hood of a 80’s 9-11 with him looking at the night sky, telling him that in all my life, I always felt that I’d be ok not being the pretty one as long as I was the smart one, but for some reason, when I was with him, I felt both, and it was perhaps the only time I ever had. 

He came to my work one day with a ridiculous bouquet of yellow flowers of every kind, telling me that his life had blossomed in my sun, and he would remind me of this whenever he could. And then in front of all of my coworkers, asked my boss if he’d be uncomfortable if he married me. 

The dream spanned years: he ended up moving here, he retired and took up cooking and winemaking, we took a fencing class together. There were snippets of me calling him Avi, and laughing as he danced with me while wearing an apron, curling his hand around mine holding it to his heart. Or him dragging me out in the snow to see the stars on midwinter night.  Or that if we were near each other we were holding hands. He’d leave me chocolates in random places for me to find, and I’d bring him coffee in bed every morning. Or when he stood behind me I could feel him breathe the scent of my hair. Me telling him after being scared because there was an accident on the plane he was on, that I would have figured out how to get to him if he ever was in harm’s way. 

 And later, because he was 17 years older than me, he became sick, and I spent my waking moments caring for him. And then he died, and it was like I was broken. 

I don’t know where this came from, but I’ve been sad all day because of this dream. I’m not sure it’s because he died in my dream, or that it seemed so perfect that I just want it so much. 

Deja Vu

 In amusing news, Jackass (my phd PI) turns 60 on Friday. I’m not sending him a bucket of elephant poop, or 60 helium balloons, I am going to be a grown up and send him a happy birthday card and a request for a lunch. 

In other amusing news, I had the worst case of deja vu with my current boss. We were meeting in his office for our weekly 1:1, and through some random set of circumstances he said the following phrase, “Well, only X more years and I’m done. My last kid will be out of college.” but he said it while leaning back at his desk laughing. EXACTLY like Jackass would do. If I had a publication for each time I heard Jackass say this, I’d be the chair of Harvard’s School of Public Health. 

New boss amuses me, mostly because things like the above (he reminds me of what Jackass would be like if he had motivation), but also because he genuinely cares about what I’m doing. I kind of think that he’s amused by me too, mostly because he’s used to someone either trying to kiss his ass, or placate him, or just have no clue. He had asked me to do some research about something last week, and when he asked I was able to give him good, usable, realistic reasons as to why I chose the thing I did. And he actually took my opinion seriously. 

I think it’s likely a bit of impostor syndrome when I get surprised that someone trusts my opinion about something. I’m starting to get used to it. Luckily, I actually trust this guy to not bullshit me.