Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Goals for 2009

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions. They're usually vague, cliched, unmeasurable fluff. I resolve to get in shape. To take care of myself. To be more patient. To get in touch with my spiritual self. To savor the moment.

Yesterday I ran across a thread on the ScienceCareers discussion forum about career resolutions for 2009. People were posting specific, measurable goals. Publish remaining work from Ph.D. Publish first-person article. Join a professional society. Move to a new city. That kind of thing.

I, too, am going to set some very specific, measurable goals. Relatively modest goals. In fact, I am setting down here only two very modest career goals for 2009. I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed and anxious, so it's best for me to take it easy =)

1. Revise short story from this summer and resubmit to encouraging editor.

2. Publish one article with Favorite Trade Journal
(this is designated Favorite Trade Journal because they published a book review I wrote for them this summer. Now that the editor knows me, I should really follow up.)

If either of these resolutions are fulfilled, I promise to share the results here. And if anyone out there has some advice on freelance writing--scientific or otherwise--I'd love to hear it. Ummm, anyone with advice on conducting interviews for magazine pieces? I don't even know where to start with that, although "getting the quote" seems a necessity. Anyone with experiences using Skype to record phone interviews?

Barely 24 hours left before the New Year. Time for me to get some sleep. Tommorrow I'll be home all day with the bean girls, trying to fit in grant-writing, cooking, laundry (and maybe some sales shopping!) around the edges. Oh yeah, and trying to savor the moment, too.

Monday, December 22, 2008

End of the year odds and ends

It’s been snowing for days now, it seems. The snow keeps coming, swirling down as large, fluffy flakes, piling up in drifts as tall as our mailbox. This evening the other mothers and I complained as we picked up our preschoolers and herded them out the door. “Yeah, it’s pretty,” one of the women said. “As long as you can be inside, just looking at it.” We grumbled, but our children were enthralled, begging to be allowed to run through the snow (NO! the parents said, it’s time to go HOME!) Bean-girl and her friends lagged behind. Bean-girl scooped up handfuls of fluffy snow with her bare hands, then held her hands out to show me their prize. I lifted Baby Legume up, and Legume tilted her face up to the sky, raising one arm in delight at the snowfall.

It took almost 40 minutes to get home—more than twice the time as usual. The children were content in their backseats, Legume quietly sucking her fingers and Bean-girl firing away her usual string of unanswerable questions (“Why don’t we see Santa’s elves around? Why do the elves stay at the North Pole? Why don’t they come down to see children at the mall the way Santa does?”) The roads were iced with packed snow. I drove carefully, and perhaps I should have been annoyed at the delay, the traffic jam, the white stuff that kept falling from the sky. But the truth is that the snow was indeed beautiful.

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This morning the Bean-girl and I had the following conversation:

Bean-girl: Mommy, will I have kids when I get bigger someday?
Me: You can have kids one day if you want, Bean-girl. If you want to, you can.
Bean-girl (as plaintively as any lovelorn teenager): But what if I don’t find a nice man??!
Me: Um, hopefully you will.
Bean-girl: But what if I don’t?
Me: Uhh….
Bean-girl: Why did you marry Daddy?
Me: Because I thought he was funny and cute?
Bean-girl: I wish I could marry Daddy.

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A few days ago, Scientistmother wrote this about not keeping up with her blog:

"I also know that I'm not supposed stress out about the blog but its not stressed out need to cross this off my list type of stress, its the OMG I so haven't talked to my BFF and I totally miss her need to find time for her type of stress."

And that’s exactly how I feel when I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a while. Like I’ve missed seeing a friend. And I have indeed been missing my friends—missed catching up with you, seeing how everyone is doing. I haven’t been around as much to read and comment. Family is visiting, children are tugging at my legs, work is getting busy. Tomorrow my mother and sibling are supposed to drive several hours through the snow to join my own family and me for Christmas in our home. It will be the first time that Husband and I have hosted Christmas. The radio predicts snowstorms for the next two days. Hopefully they will all make it (but if the weather is truly bad I hope they all stay put!) Anyway. Merry Christmas, blogosphere. Or happy holidays, if you prefer. I hope to catch up with all of you soon.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Late Haiku--apology

Apology to Sciencemama
Instead of writing
a haiku, I fell asleep
with Baby Legume.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On leaving the bench

It’s surprising how much I still feel like a postdoc. I still go to work in the usual postdoc uniform of jeans and sneakers. I still go to seminars, journal clubs, lab meetings. I sit at a computer right in the middle of a lab bench, surrounded by the glassware, conical tubes, equipment and buzz of a research laboratory. I shoot the breeze with my labmates, and I find myself part of scientific discussions. And to my surprise and gratitude, I find that my scientific opinions are solicited and respected. I’m not just a copyeditor, correcting typos and English grammar. As part of my job, I am often required to evaluate the quality of the data going into manuscripts, and I make suggestions on how to tighten a paper, what to cull, what points to bring forward, and (sometimes) how to reorganize figures for a better flow.

I really thought that I would miss the benchwork. To my surprise, I don’t.

The postdoc at the adjoining bench tells me heartbreaking stories of failed projects and projects scooped by his competitors. He is currently getting results that are very exciting. But the previous five years have been a desert, with not a publication in sight--and the stress and disappointment show in his eyes. I don’t miss that stress. I don’t miss that hounding pressure of GOTTA PRODUCE, GOTTA GET PUBLISHED OR MY LIFE IS OVER! I don’t miss the frustration of fruitless screens, of watching a year or more of work spiral down the drain.

Yet I loved bench research, I really did. I remember standing in the darkroom on a Sunday afternoon, heart pounding, waiting for that film to slip out of the X-ray machine. The thrill of holding a blot up to the red light, squinting to make out the dark bands that will tell you where your protein is expressed, or whether or not it interacts with another protein of interest. Looking down a microscope to see to how your cells have reacted in response to a particular treatment—did the cells proliferate, did they spread and migrate, did they round up and die? Pacing impatiently before the scintillation counter, waiting for the results of an enzyme assay. There is nothing like the feeling of being the first person in the world to know some new fact about our universe. Even if it is a fact that even 99.99% of scientists couldn’t care less about—that, for instance, protein X is found in liver cells but not kidney cells. Still, at that moment, you are the only person in the entire world with that knowledge. It is a feeling that is very difficult to convey to those who have not experienced it. I’m not sure that it can be conveyed.

When my experiments were cooking, when my science was working—it was fantastic. It was an utter high. When the experiments weren’t working, it was the deepest low. It was like being on a roller coaster ride, but a ride that spent most of its time creaking tortuously through a subterranean tunnel. I remember sitting around a lunch table with friends in grad school, chatting about school and science in general. One of the students said thoughtfully about research, “You know, about once a year I have a good moment.” I always thought that quote should be printed on the cover of every graduate school brochure.

To mix metaphors still further, I recall once reading that research science is like playing the slots at a casino. (And if, dear reader, I read that on your blog, I do sincerely apologize. Drop me a line and I’ll give you the credit =) Most of the time you come up empty. But every once in a while you’ll get a payout. Just enough to get you excited, to keep you feeding tokens and pulling that damn lever. We all live with the dream of hitting that big jackpot. We feed off the smaller wins, or just the memories of past wins. The hope, the adrenaline, keeps us going through the dry spells.

I don’t have that rush of adrenaline anymore. But neither do I have the crushing lows and stress. I see people around me so desperate to continue their research careers. I know a former postdoc who took a position as associate director of a core facility. She took the job with the understanding that she would be able to continue her research interests. But now she finds that there is neither money nor support for her research. She is struggling on her own, trying to live off reagents and equipment donated by collaborating labs, coming in every weekend to work on her “side” projects. I see someone like that, and I think Man, I just don’t have the heart for that. I loved research, but I don’t have the fire to continue in the face of those kinds of odds.

I did not plan to leave academic research. It was never a part of any five-year plan. I was devastated when I left (er, was laid off from) my former postdoc, and I don’t want to underplay that.

But I see a new path opening up before me now. I see a chink of light, and feel a breath of freedom that would never have been possible on the old road. I have flexibility to work from home when needed and spend all weekends with my family. And there is now a glimmering dream of someday going completely freelance as a science writer and editor—working when I want, on what I want, on my own terms.

I’m still in science. I don’t do the experiments, but I help interpret and communicate them. I even (as in the grant I’m now working on) have some input in experimental design. And I’m once again part of an active scientific research community, once again privy to unpublished, cool data, once again part of the “leading edge” of science. I don’t need the glory of a first authorship. I had thought that I missed benchwork the most, and that I would continue to miss it. But it turns out that this—being part of an active scientific community—is what I really missed most of all.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday winter haiku

Baby Legume on a winter's morning
Snow in your dark hair
Like a fall of stars against
a sweep of night sky