Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lull

It is damn hard to work the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

The end-of-the year goals I had—to finish off this review article, to organize all my constructs, cell lines, and viral supernatants (yes, good times), to clean off my desk, organize my papers, and read through and revamp my old project goals—those are all falling by the wayside, collapsing into puffs of dust. People have been trickling intermittently in and out of the lab all week—an hour here and an hour there, a morning shift of students that leaves at 10 am (just as I’m getting in) for lunch, another shift that rolls in at noon and leaves at three. I assume there’s probably a late afternoon/evening shift, but I’m not around to see it. The cafeteria is still open and reasonably busy at noon, the Christmas lights are up and cheery, but thank god the Christmas carols are banished from the cafeteria speakers and off my car radio.

Christmas was here, chaotic and fun. Six extra adults, all members of my family, moved temporarily into our house and stayed for two nights (well, the sister from California stayed for three). Dinners were the usual mishmash of Thai/Chinese/American. Are Christmas dinners usually like that? my poor non-Asian brother-in-law asked at brunch on the 26th, after my parents had departed. I agreed with him that Christmas day dinner had clashed a bit more than usual, though it was partially his pregnant wife’s (my middle sister’s) fault for demanding cooked sushi rolls. And my mother’s, of course, for bringing out an entire pot of Thai brown eggs (kaipalow). And tempura-fried soft-shell crabs. Which did not entirely mesh with the braised lamb leg and brussel sprout gratin that Husband and I had prepared.

We learned that the little Legume must not be woken early on Christmas morning. She spent the last part of the season quite hostile to the concept of Christmas presents. “Santa won’t bring you presents if you’re naughty,” I overheard Bean-girl lecturing her. “I don’t want presents!” Legume cried. “I want to be naughty!” And true to her word, she was naughty and kept yelling that she wanted no presents at all. Okay, no presents for you, Husband and I soothed. We wrapped her gifts late at night with help from our houseguests and placed them under the tree. The girls put our milk and cookies for Santa before bed. In the morning, Bean-girl was up at 7:30 am, hopping with excitement, eyes bright. Husband was excited, too. While waiting for the others to wake, he showed her a computer animation of Santa purportedly still flying his sled through the night sky, still delivering presents to children on the other side of the world (I was both annoyed and impressed by the animation; I detest the deception of Santa, but that’s a whole other post. We keep up the Santa myth because my husband beat me to the punch by telling Bean-girl all about Santa when she was only two, and now I can say nothing against it). After waiting a scarce seven minutes, neither my husband nor Bean-girl could take it anymore, and went upstairs to peek at Legume and see if she were awake. A few minutes later I heard an angry cry, and an angry, sleepy-eyed Legume appeared on the stairs. She may well be the only child in the world who is not cheered by the sight of Christmas presents. As her older sister tore happily at wrapping paper, Legume sat sulkily before her gifts. Husband unwrapped a huge truck for her, and Legume angrily pushed it away. “I hate it!” she cried. The sky lightened, other family members stirred, Legume continued to sulk. I went up to take a shower. An hour later, Legume cheered up, and she later spent most of the day playing/riding on her new yellow truck.

It’s hard to sum up a holiday with my family, as they are so very very crazy. I am aware that everyone thinks their parents and siblings are insane, but I really do think mine are unusually so. Sometimes I think I should start a Twitter feed titled “Shit my family says” ala the famous “Shit my dad says” that garnered a book deal and sitcom deal for one enterprising young man. My feed would lists posts like this:

My father upon learning what my youngest sister paid for her car rental: “I don’t care how smart you are, you act stupid every day of your life.”

My sister, being impervious to insult, simply continued to rant about the political and economic philosophy of Henry George, kombucha tea, alternative medicine, religion, sugar beets and jello scuplture.
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It’s quiet now, the family guests gone, the mess at least partially cleared. Husband has most of the week off, and played stay-at-home parent today. I’ve been trying to finish this review article, but it’s hard to stay motivated when everyone else is drifting in and out of the lab for only an hour or so. Bean-girl and I are on a Narnia kick: our Tivo recorded “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which she saw about 9 times over the course of one weekend. Then TiVo recorded “Prince Caspian,” which she has seen an additional three times (I didn’t know how violent the sequel was, or I wouldn’t have let her watch it the first time). Now at night we are reading “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” and making plans to watch the film this weekend. My head is full of dashing boy kings and girl queens and Telmarine armies (weirdly speaking in Spanish accents in the movie) and talking mice and dragons. I plan to cuddle with the girls this weekend, maybe get a little shopping done, and indulge in some fantasy escapism.

Anyone have any good recommendations for escapist fantasy when we’re done with our Narnia kick?

And that scientific review article, and those construct lists, and those dozen other items on the work to-do list?

They’re going to have to wait until after the New Year.

(Happy 2011 to everyone!)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What's important

This fall has been a blur. Can it really be Thanksgiving in a few days? Downtown buildings and streetlights are already wrapped in lights and Christmas greenery. Announcements and requests for holiday giving (from various sources—school, community, work) are piled up by this home computer. The calendar is booked, the deadline for my review article is looming, everything seems to be rush rush rushing toward the end of the year, time gathering itself and speeding into the vortex of December.

Somebody died last month. I didn’t know him well. But he was only 24, and he had a truly brilliant future ahead of him. He was a young, healthy 24-year old researcher at our institute—an athlete, a scholar, a valuable colleague and a wonderful friend to those who knew him well. We throw around words like “promising” and “bright,” but this young man truly had those qualities. He was a technician in the lab that I worked for last year when I did my stint as a scientific writer/editor. I am not exaggerating when I say that I trusted his scientific abilities more than I did some of the postdocs in that lab. And beyond all that: he was a truly caring and supportive person, always more than ready to go out of his way to help anyone at all who needed it.

I am not going to pretend to grieve, as I can’t say I knew him that well. Sitting in my office in front of the computer, I didn’t have quite the camaraderie with the lab group as one usually develops sharing a tissue culture room and squabbling over equipment and spent reagents. I still saw him in the hallways when I moved to my new lab, and we always said hello. I asked him for his protocol for growing cells in soft agar. He promptly e-mailed it to me, and at every sighting after he would ask if I needed any help with it, how I was coming along, to please let him know if I had any questions or needed any help with it at all.

Our institute is not large, and everyone knows everyone else, even if we don’t all know everyone well. A large number of people from work went to his memorial service. The line stretched down the hall. His college hockey jersey hung on the wall. Memorabilia of a life was displayed in the room—framed photos on tables, photos displayed on posterboard. On one table was a copy of the manuscript he’d been working on during the week he died, the manuscript which he had just finished. His first-ever first-author paper. His parents were so proud.

It’s sometimes at places like this that you learn for the first time of the life a colleague had outside of work. All the many activities and causes and groups he’d poured his energy into. He was a youth pastor. He taught Sunday school and also taught science classes for children at church. Who knew? Well, I guess it wasn’t a surprise after all—it fit perfectly.

I offered my condolences to his younger brother, who looked like a smaller, thinner copy of his older brother. He loved the Institute, his brother told me. He was so passionate about learning. And he’d just received word that he’d been accepted to medical school.

Around me I heard people murmuring platitudes, because really, that’s the only thing you can say at times like these. “It’s times like these,” I heard one colleague tell another, “that you remember what’s really important. We get all hung up on our egos, on getting into medical school, and our careers, and reputations, and things like that. But those aren’t really the important things in life at all.”

After greeting the boy’s brother and father, I waited an hour to shake hands with his mother (that’s how long the receiving lines were. And they were still growing when I left). The boy’s mother was such a picture of grace in tragedy that I cannot even describe it.

Then I walked outside, into the bright sunshine of a beautiful fall day.

*********************************************************

I guess there was another reminder of what’s important this past week.

One of our laboratory technicians (and my best friend in the lab) is pregnant. Our PI is trying to finish a screen before the holidays, and she has been working hard. She’s also been working hard outside the lab, as her family is in the midst of moving into a new house. On Wednesday, she and a team of two or others were scheduled to spend a crazy 16-hour day with their round-the-clock screening assay. On Tuesday (the day before the Crazy Day), she was in the midst of work preparations and found herself bleeding.

She left work and went to her doctor, who said that she and her baby were both fine. But she was scared—who wouldn’t be? And she was tired. So she took the rest of the week off to take care of herself at home.

I wasn’t actually at work when all this drama occurred, because I was out sick myself that day. I then got scared myself the next day when I saw our PI’s e-mail regarding the incident: it was a general lab e-mail to say that he’d spoken with her, that both she and the baby were fine, and that he was sending her flowers in the name of the entire lab (the next day she texted him her thanks for the flowers). Another lab mate took her spot for the crazy 16-hour work day, and the screen went off without a hitch.

So I guess the point of this entire long post is just to say. . . or just to remind us all. . . of what’s really important again? Not papers, or medical school, or siRNA screens, even those all have their place?

Something like that, I guess.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still alive

I'm still alive.

Vancouver was awesome, and deserves its own post. We wandered around the city, ate great Chinese food (not easy to get in my Midwestern town), and discovered that it's a wonderfully family-friendly place if you know where to go. Luckily, I have blog-friends who pointed me where to go. And I actually got to meet two of them on our trip!

Then back home and full-speed into the holiday season. Bean-girl turned six. There was Halloween, and Halloween parties, and her first at-home birthday party (which I survived). And my first lab meeting, and now Thanksgiving is looming and Christmas music is already playing 24-7 on the radio and I'm writing a scientific review on a field I know almost nothing about, while simultaneously trying to do lab experiments...

Yeah, I've been busy. And now I've come down with a cold.

So that Vancouver blog post (wherein I pretend to be a travel writer) is going to have to wait, like so many things these days.

But hey, check out this article and the accompanying video. Watch the F-ATP synthases spin!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Suggestions on what to do in Vancouver?

The family and I headed to Vancouver for vacation in a bit over a week. Well, it's a "vacation" for the kids, at least; Husband will be attending a medical conference while I wrangle the children around town. So I ask you blog-readers: any tips on what to do and see with a two-year old and five-almost-six year old in Vancouver? (We'll be staying downtown, and I will not be driving).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October

The days are pure October—the air crisp and brimming with sunlight, the trees aflame under a brilliant blue sky. I barely see any of it. I’m in the lab all day, in a room with windows that look out only into the hallway. I catch glimpses of autumn as I drive in to work, as I pass under tunnels of leaves that are red and gold and rust. “Look,” I tell my girls. “The trees are so pretty!” They take it for granted, yet another of the inexplicable marvels of their world.

“Did you have a good day?” I asked Bean-girl as I picked her up from after-school daycare today. She came running to me across the playground, her jacket off as usual. (She is always taking her jacket off and even trying to leave it behind, for all that I’m always trying to put it on). I already knew that she’d had a great day: today was the day that her class had a field trip to an apple orchard, followed by a school-wide fundraising hike around the block (the school’s big annual fundraising activity for the year.) “Today was a play day!” she exulted. “It was nothing but play! And mom—“ her voice lowered dramatically—“we had cider and doughnuts!”

Her backpack was full of apples that she had picked at the orchard, as well as a small pumpkin. We met Husband and Legume at home and went out to dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant. Why not make Bean-girl’s day absolutely perfect? Dessert was ordered—little glass cups of lemon custard, chocolate mousse and tiramisu. Chocolate mint sticks with the check.

Bath time. Story. Sleep.

I feel the days rushing past. I wanted to make the most of the summer season—to take the girls to the beach, the park, the pool. But the pressure of this autumn season seems even more intense, and the season yet more fleeting. There seems just this brief window to fit it all in—apple orchards and cider and Halloween fun houses, pumpkin patches and corn mazes and jack’o lanterns and walks and bike rides before the season turns too cold. It’s near the middle of October already, and it’s all going by too fast.

Things at work are going by way too fast. The data is pouring in before I can properly analyze it. My lab notebook is a disaster. My desk and bench are disasters. I am seeing awesome cool phenotypes in my system. “Fucking awesome,” I kept repeating under my breath at the microscope earlier this week. “Fucking awesome.” It’s gone better than I could have dared to hope when I first re-entered the lab this past June. But I’m running too fast for comfort. I’m hooked on experiments, but I need time to read and think.

And oh, yeah—I have this review I’m supposed to write. By December. On a field which is integral to the lab, but which is only tangentially related to my own current line of research. And I need to take the time to work on that, but I’m rather resentful because doing experiments is just so much fun.

So yeah, time is fleeing away here. I feel a forced rest in the lab coming soon—we’re scheduled to take a family vacation to Far-off City in two weeks. Which just puts more pressure on me in both the lab and in outside life. (Halloween costumes? No, haven’t bought any yet. Bean-girl’s upcoming birthday party? No plans made. And I haven’t even mentioned Legume’s potty training—or lack of—and her defiant “I-am-three-hear-me-shout-“NO!” phase.)

I love it. I’m tense and exhausted.

And tonight, I feel happy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

On The Hunger Games trilogy, writing, and character (and why I haven't been posting)

Over the past two weeks I’ve been in the grip of delirium, staying up way past my bedtime, dragging to work bleary-eyed, and then staying up too late again the next night. No, the kids aren’t sick. No, I’m not writing a grant or investing this time in other practical matters. I just finished Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy. Now that I’ve finished the series, the fever should be broken and I should be able to get on with life. . . but her characters still haunt, and I think they will for a long time.

I don’t want to say too much about the last book, Mockingjay, because I don’t want to give away spoilers and because I’m still processing it. Let’s just say I’m still ambivalent about its final chapter. But I feel no ambivalence toward the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, which I flat-out love. It’s an interesting example for me of how very different kinds of writing can succeed. Collins’ prose is unadorned and even workman-like for the most part; no one could accuse her prose of lyrical beauties. But she’s a master of plotting, of edge-of-your-seat-can’t-put-the-book-down tension. She builds an entire world in her trilogy. She’s terrific with the snappy and memorable dialogue. And most important of all, she creates characters that you come to care deeply for. You don’t always like them, but you desperately hope that they turn out okay. I can’t remember the last time I fell for fictional characters like this—and most especially for one particular character in her series, a mild-seeming baker’s son with unexpected reserves of courage, strength, and nobility (and he also frosts a mean cake!)

It makes me ponder the veneration that many of the literarti (and I) hold for beautiful writing. Collins’ writing style is not particularly beautiful. Her background is in television writing, and I read an interview where she admitted that she has a difficult time with descriptive passages in her novels, because script writers don’t write extended description. But I think that a heart-grabbing character trumps the most gorgeously turned line. I’ve finished whole books of beautiful prose, nodding my head in pleasure at the well-wrought lines, and then forgotten everything about the book—plot, character, everything—after shutting its pages. I know I’ll never forget the characters of Katniss and Peeta in the Hunger Games.

Creating character is a gift. Someone once said that all great fictional characters have a touch of mystery to them. It’s the mystery that real-life people have. Collins’ characters, like real people, often surprise, behaving in ways that are unpredictable and yet also in keeping with their characters as we have come to know them. They exhibit a constellation of traits that have a certain recognizable consistency, and yet within those bounds they continuously surprise. They grow. And they remain themselves (save for what I see as a few missteps in the very last novel).

I dabble a little in short-story writing, and the descriptive passages come easily to me. I like imagery and mood. But what I would give to be able to envision and write real characters. That is what makes writing memorable.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Self-indulgent meta-blogging

Over the summer, I’ve watched with bemusement—and understanding—as various bloggers sign off from the blogosphere, or merely threaten/contemplate doing so. I’ve thought of signing off myself. No big announcement—simply drifting off into silence, a chapter closed, the original purposes of blogging having changed, over, done.

I can’t do it, though. Busy weeks pass; I’m happily absorbed in life, but too long without writing and I start to get antsy.

And in writing this I’ve broken one of my sacred personal blog-rules: no blogging about blogging! Then again, I think I’ve probably already broken that rule somewhere in my sordid past.

When I first started this blog over three years ago, I was in the midst of transition. I had recently left academic science and was adjusting to my new role as full-time stay-at-home mother. I had a brand new mewling infant daughter and a sweet-faced toddler. I was struggling with transitions of many kinds, on different levels. This blog was mostly a chronicle of my children’s growth. It was also a way for me to deal with the changes of motherhood and career, and it became an outlet that probably saved my sanity. Over time, to my welcome surprise, it also brought me a rich sense of community.

I’m not a stay-at-home mother anymore, and the infant and toddler are both gone, replaced with a head-strong three-year old and confident first-grader. The original intentions that drove the start of this blog are also gone, replaced with—well, with what? I still want to record stories about my children, but the Bean-girl is getting older, and whether she yet knows it or not, she is starting to deserve more privacy. I feel no inhibitions about posting Legume’s ridiculous preschool comments and antics (not that I’ve done it in a while), but the day will come when I no longer feel free to do that. There is always science, of course. When I started my new job this spring, I looked forward to participating more fully in science conversations online. But I feel inhibited, there, too. Like many of you, I feel restrained by my anonymity, but afraid to leave it. I would like to post more openly about my research. I don’t want to resort to coy pseudonyms to describe my work (however clever and cute those pseudonyms may be). I would like to dish about all the crazy characters and antics that occur at my institute, to make you gasp with disbelief and horror, simmer with envy at some of the cool shit that we do have going for us, and laugh out loud at honest-to-god real events. I would like to blog openly about my geographical location, an underrated town that I have truly come to love. But (1) I don’t want to get into any trouble (2) I would just die if anyone from my institute stumbled upon this blog and recognized me. And if they work at my institute they will recognize me (trust me on this).

So where now with The Bean Chronicles? I’ve flirted with the idea of changing the name. Shifting focus. Finding focus. But I’m a creature of inertia who is too lazy to even update my blogroll, let alone decide on a new masthead. I’m not reliant on this space for the privilege of community; having found you, I can continue to greet you in the comments sections of your blogs, and I even know a few of you on Facebook. But even with my self-imposed restraints and inhibitions, this particular blog-space means something to me. Maybe not what it once did, but still. . . Scratch-pad, verbal doodle pad, personal journal, place to blow off steam, place to indulge in navel-gazing until I twist myself inside-out. Maybe just a spot to jot down a line I read and liked, or a place to comment on the local weather. And maybe a place where, perhaps, I might ever so delicately write now and then about science and motherhood.

No promises, though. This place is evolving, like all of us. I might not be here as much, but I continue to follow you all.

End of navel-gazing meta-blog. As you were.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On returning to the bench

There are times that it feels as though I never left. I’m in a new lab, learning new techniques. I still don’t know where everything is; I don’t even know how to use the pH meter here yet (so many common lab stocks, I haven’t needed to!) But the rhythms of lab work, the balancing of multiple tasks, the beeping of the lab timer and the planning of positive control, negative control—all have come back as though I’d never left. More than three years went by while I was off the bench, but it’s as though I walked straight from my old post-doc to this new one without pause.

You’ll be fine, my husband had reassured me repeatedly, even with a little irritation. He went through his own absence from benchwork; after completing the Ph.D. portion of his M.D.-Ph.D., he went through a four-year hiatus during which he completed medical school and residency. He stepped back into the lab for his medical fellowship, and appeared to have no trouble easing back into experiments. Was it hard to go back? I kept asking. He shrugged. No, he said. And added, You won’t have any trouble.

All in all, I think my husband was right.

**********************************

In the sunlit cafĂ©, I sat with a new friend from the Research Institute. We were trading pieces of the stories of our lives, as new friends do. She was reflecting on her past, and the journey that has led her to this current position. She was talking about both science and life. I’ve learned so much in the past six years, she reflected. Do you ever look back and think that, too?

I nodded. I’ve learned a lot… but not just about science. I’ve learned that there are things more important than science. Science is still important to me—that’s why I came back to it. But it’s not the most important thing.

And that is the most important thing I’ve learned during my unintended hiatus. Being a scientist is a big part of my identity. But it is not the biggest part. Years ago, I let myself define myself too closely with my profession; I let my self-esteem and identity ride with a particular standard of professional “success.” I will not let myself do that again. It was a rough lesson to be learned, and not one that I took willingly. But having learned it, I will not let that lesson go.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” That’s another lesson, one that I see more easily now. My success or failure as a scientist does not ride on a single RT-PCR experiment. It does not ride on any single individual experiment. I’ve been given the gift of a three-year grant, and I have three years to prove myself. Three years to pace myself. It does not all need to be done this day, this week, or even this month. I need to keep myself healthy and happy over the course of years; there is no point in burning myself out early.

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Summer is already more than half over. The days are flying past. The kids have been spending their days running through sprinklers and going to swimming pools and parks at their respective daycare/day-camp. They are brown as nuts, bronzed deeply on bare legs and arms. We go out for ice cream at least once a week, often more. The kids are exhausted by the end of the day, and fall asleep minutes after the last story is read.

I am tired, too. Sometimes, I admit, I wish I had a little more time with them. And sometimes, I admit, I welcome Mondays with relief after a long, exhausting weekend at home. Being a working mother is tiring, but in truth, I don’t think it’s any more tiring for me than being a full-time at-home mother. As Cloud so eloquently wrote, any way you do it is hard. Our mornings are a little more hectic, as Husband and I rush the kids through the morning routine so we can get to work at a decent hour. But the flexibility of academia is a blessing. If need be, I can run into work to finish something up after the kids are asleep; I can read papers at night. I’m in charge of my own project. Like many academic advisors, mine gives his lab members a great deal of freedom, and we make our own hours, set our own goals, and do whatever we can within our own power and constraints to meet those goals (with his support, of course).

I think of this article that I mentioned before. I like the author’s point about being happy and healthy even while pursuing a demanding career. When I have felt occasionally overwhelmed, I remember that I made this choice to have children and to also go back to the lab. This is my choice. And if at any time I feel that it’s not working—if I’m not healthy and sane and relatively happy—if my family is not happy—then I can walk away from it. That’s a choice, too.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Link to article in Molecular Cell: "How to Survive and Thirve in the Mother-Mentor Marathon."

How did I miss this?

Oh, I guess because I don't scan through the contents of Molecular Cell on a regular basis (although I should, just as I should scan through the table of contents of, oh, a dozen more journals in my field.)

But a grad student in my lab found this article and forwarded it on to a number of women at our institute. I forwarded it on to a few more. I sense this article will pass in this way through many e-mail boxes.

There are number of things to say about Dr. Galit Lahav's piece, "How To Survive and Thrive in the Mother-Mentor Marathon." My favorite part comes at the end: the reminder that it is a marathon, not a sprint. The reminder that although it is hard, there is also flexbility and joy in the academic lifestyle. I'll let the authors's last words speak for themselves:

"...Yes, it is a marathon, and clearly a long and exhausting one. Remind yourself the things that brought you here; celebrate your achievements and don't beat yourself up for not running fast enough. Remember your values and make your choices according to them. Remember to breathe, to live and to smile. After all, if you run without joy, it really doesn't matter if you are the first to get to the finish line."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sound bites

A conversation in the lab today:

Young postdoc: "The worst thing you can do to a scientist is to turn 'em into a business person."

Me, old and jaded: "But if they get big enough, they all turn into business people."

Young postdoc, with equal parts resignation and disdain: "Yeaaaaaaaah."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer's here

Summer came too quickly this year. The spring flashed by—the lilacs have bloomed and are gone, nameless bright wildflowers burst open by the side of the road, only to be replaced now by other (mostly equally nameless) summer species. Bean-girl graduated from kindergarten. Legume turned three. Husband just turned 42 this week, and I started my new job two weeks ago.

My little girls are growing every day, as I tell them whenever they step on a scale. Just this week Bean-girl decided to put herself to sleep at night. We no longer lie next to her after turning off the light, waiting for her eyes to close and breath to slow before sneaking away. At the age of five, she’s finally learned the trick of falling asleep on her own. “I close my eyes and think of something nice,” she told me. Did you tell her that method? I asked my husband. Nope, she learned it all on her own.
And Legume? What to say about this headstrong, defiant, exasperating toddler with the killer-cute grin? She’s three. For any parent who’s been there, enough said. The “terrible twos” get all the press, but the early threes have it beat, hands down. I will say that I think she actually enjoys getting time-outs.

Last weekend we happened upon a carnival in the parking lot of a strip mall. I saw the carnival there last year, too—it doesn’t advertise, it just pops up without warning, like mushrooms after a rain. “The carnival!” the girls started crying. We’d been to a carnival near the zoo a month before, and the girls had talked about it continually for days afterward, reliving elephant ears and the glory of a carousel and children’s train ride. “If you eat a good dinner and if it’s not raining, we’ll stop by the carnival,” Husband promised. We continued on to our restaurant destination, and after dinner we stopped by the carnival as promised. Legume clasped her horse on the carousel and stared straight ahead with solemn eyes as she does every time she gets on a carousel, seemingly more frightened than happy. Bean-girl, on the other hand, beamed radiantly. Most of the rides were for kids older than Legume, but we piled onto the Ferris wheel as a single group. “It looks scary!” both Bean-girl said, and Legume hung back. I pushed/carried them into the swinging car, Legume struggling against me. I wanted them to know this. Husband held Legume, and Bean-girl pressed against me as the car rose into the air. We were soaring, and the air rushed against us. Bean-girl began smiling her radiant smile. She moved away from me, saying that she didn’t need to be near me after all. She grasped the ring at the center of the car. “Look, look! There’s our car down there!” Legume said (it wasn’t). We were at the top of the sky.

***************************

The card in Bean-girl’s report card said “Mark your calendar. School open house on Sept 1.” I dutifully marked it in black ink on our calendar. I flipped past and then backward through the intervening months: June, July, August. June already completely marked up, filled up, half-way over. The summer hasn’t even officially begun, and it seemed to be going too fast. Bean-girl has a full calendar at summer camp—field trips at least once, sometimes twice, a week. Sprinkler days and water play for Legume at her own daycare center. And me? Such ambitious plans I have for work this summer—experiments to be validated, cells lines to be created, proteins to be knocked down.

I just have to remember to get out and see this summer, too, before it’s gone.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Passages: the first week.

I must have spent many many Saturdays passaging cells during the course of my grad school and postdoc career. Like everyone, I’ve bitched over the feeding and care of cells in culture. I’ve dragged myself to work to feed them when I’d rather be anywhere but. And then I left research, and didn’t see cell culture again for more than three years.

This afternoon I drove to my new lab to split some cells, and it felt oddly like coming home.

I started my new job this past Monday. It’s been exciting, disorienting, both busy and slow. I’m still trying to figure out where everything is, as I suspect I will be doing for at least a month. I still don’t have a lab coat, although my timer and eppendorf racks (bright red!) came in on Thursday. I have an empty lab bench, and a blank lab notebook waiting to be filled. I have a brand new set of pipetmans (pipetmen?) I have colleagues who appear genuinely supportive and wonderful, a PI who is beyond awesome, an environment that seems to offer all that I could dream of. Did I mention the shiny new toys? There are some AWESOME toys in this lab.

I am aware that I am in the new lab/new job/honeymoon phase, a phase that I have gone through with every single one of my positions. I will also say that I honestly believe there is ample objective evidence that this lab really is what I feel it to be. And maybe it’s partly a reaction to my time away—but I can’t remember the infatuation ever biting me so hard.

There’s a steep learning curve ahead. I will be learning new technologies as well as a new field. siRNA? I’ve seen you around, of course. I followed you when you first burst onto the scene, and you started appearing in all the sexy journals. Of course, you’re now ubiquitous, a common tramp. But I’ve yet to lay hands on you myself. Or to have touched a number of the methods in use in this lab.

But I thawed out a new vial of cells this week, and they took just fine. I looked at them daily under the scope, seeing with approval the familiar growth patterns and cobblestone morphology of this particular cell line. And today I passaged them, my hands moving with confidence in old rhythms. Touch has a memory, as they say. And I was reminded that there is something soothing about cell culture work—a kind of mindless focus that is needed, an attention to detail and awareness of your movements—but in a non-taxing, simultaneously thoughtless kind of way.

We’re just see if those cells are still growing normally on Monday.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day 2010 recap

I think it would be impossible to survive parenthood without a sense of humor.

Yesterday morning the children had been playing peacefully upstairs for way too long. When I finally went up to check on them, I found Legume bum-naked in my bedroom, standing on a little red child-sized chair. Bean-girl was playing on the floor beside her. Um, why is Legume naked? I asked, and Bean-girl helpfully replied, “Because she asked me to take off her clothes and give her a bath so I did.”

Oh.

And that explained the mess I later found in the bathroom, and the shampoo bottle leaking onto the floor.

Actually, if you don’t already have a sense of humor, wouldn’t the crazy things that kids do bring one out in you? And if you never developed one, wouldn’t you go ape-shit crazy and homicidal sometime in the first year?

In its essence, it was a wonderful Mother’s Day. I had a bouquet of lavender roses, picked up earlier by my husband and girls from Costco. Husband had to work early this morning, so I had to make my own pancakes for the girls and I. But his early appearance at work meant that he was able to get out early and take us all out to lunch. We tried out a new pan-Asian restaurant, which was, miraculously, uncrowded when we walked in just before noon. “Hibachi table?” the hostess asked us. I hesitated, actually more in the mood for the Thai menu. “It’s up to you,” my husband deferred to me. What the hell. Hibachi cooking could be entertaining for the children. “Hibachi”, I decided, and the hostess led us to the table-top grill. As the kids waited, excited, for the entertainment to begin, I decided that I’d made the right call.

Big mistake.

Legume was terrified of the hibachi flames. The cook squirted oil onto the grill and lit a match, sending a wall of flame shooting sky-ward. The heat hit our faces. Legume covered her face with her hands. Then the fire was out, but Legume spent the rest of her meal with her hands covering her mouth, then spread over her cheeks, then hiding her eyes. When the flames started leaping at neighboring grills around us, she had too much and burst out crying. I had to take her to the waiting area (now crowded with people) and hold her as we waited for Husband and Bean-girl to finish their meals. (Bean-girl, on the other hand, had a great time with the hibachi entertainment and ate heartily, according to Bean-girl standards).

Legume cheered up when reminded that we were next headed to the botanical gardens, and cheered even more at getting a Hostess cupcake from the garden vending machine. A special exhibit has just opened at these gardens, and the glass sculptures —curving shapes like plants and seashells, blue forms dipping like abstract herons, neon-colored chandeliers and a twisting form Bean-girl compared to a gigantic octopus—really were spectacular in the garden setting. “Take a picture of this one! Now take a picture of this one!” Bean-girl kept demanding. Legume found what had to be the very last butterfly left over from the April butterfly exhibit. And the children ran through the children’s garden maze, beating drums and clanging a bell.

Then Husband made smoked ribs, corn-on-the-cob, and boiled potatoes for dinner.

It was a pretty great Mother’s Day, actually. Beautiful sunlight, good food, family time. And it was a day like most any other—tantrums, tears, frustrations and little tiffs along with the smiles and laughs. All mixed up together in this crazy stew of life.

Hope all the mothers out there had a great day, too.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I got the grant

I just received a phone call.

The NCI has recommended that my grant application for a re-entry research fellowship be funded.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Back from spring break--updated

Back from one of the craziest family spring breaks ever. Uh, not in a good way.

Well, there were some good times. Ritz-Carlton hotel. Zoo and science museums. A streak of good weather at the end.

Bad weather in the middle. Sniffles and runny noses all around. And oh yeah--on the next-to-the-last night I had to go to the ER in Old Post-doc City for painful treatment of a relatively non-serious but painful and embarassing medical condition (let's just say it's a feminine issue and leave it at that. And I now feel the way I did in the aftermath of giving birth.)

Good times.

And my husband still wants to leave for his conference this week, leaving me alone with the two kids while still recovering from my admittedly minor outpatient surgery. Um, remember where I said it feels like the aftermath of giving birth?

I would call him a name here, but restraint wins out.

Updated: Thank you for the well wishes! My husband came to his senses and canceled his conference. Last night, as our children ran around the dinner table and created their usual havoc, he admitted that it would have been "cruel" to leave me alone with them in my state. Damn right.

I have decided to forgive him his temporary lapse in judgement/sanity.

And I have a prescription for a new set of antibiotics and am feeling much better.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring puddles

In the blink of an eye, winter melted away. We had a glorious week of sun and birdsong, and then the March rains came, leaving puddles in their wake. Although only a few last sad mounds of dirty snow remain, I’ve been sending the girls to school with their snow boots and snow pants every day. The schools are adamant on this point.

“Do you still really have to wear snow pants and boots at recess?” I asked Bean-girl every day last week.

She nodded.

“Even though there’s hardly any snow?”

“It’s because of the puddles,” Bean-girl informed me. Then she went on to tell me about the perilous water in the schoolyard. “There’s one puddle,” she told me, “that is sooo deep!” And she raised her hand to a level just below her chin.

“Wow,” I said, impressed. “How do you know it’s that deep?”

“Because my friend, Hadley, said so.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “And how did she know that it’s that deep? Did she measure it?”

“No. But she saw a boy stick his shoe partway in it. And he said, ‘I can’t feel the bottom!’ And he ran away.”

“Oh. You know, you could measure it with a stick.”

“We don’t play around puddles. I think you might get a white slip for doing that. And you could drown.”

“Okay.”

It does make sense not to play around dirty water. But I smile to think of Bean-girl and her friends playing in this schoolyard of mystery and danger. Where fathomless pools of water lurk, immeasurable to any.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Research Scientist" postions; waiting

I feel unsettled these days, restless. Did I once say that I was enjoying my time off from work? Well, I was, but I think I’m at my limit now.

I’d dreamed of having time and space to write creatively. But I think my dream of being a writer is just that—a dream. I don’t have the guts for it. I don’t have the discipline, and I can’t take the silence. I don’t know how real writers and aspiring writers—those who have pinned their true career hopes on this, who truly pour their souls and self-esteem into this work—can possibly do it.

I finished a short story and showed it to an acquaintance of mine—a published novelist and the editor who handled my first published piece. She kindly pointed out that it needed work. I showed it someone else, who gently agreed. I can’t bear to look at the thing again. My critics are correct, but I’ve fallen in love with certain passages and turns of phrase, and I can’t bear to rip them out. And I can’t bear the rejection forms of journals. I had beginner’s luck last year, and I suppose it went to my head. But faced with the reality of time to write? I can’t do it. I surf the net and fritter time away. I think I wrote more effectively when I had an outside job and external structure to my days; I was more efficient when writing time was squeezed into an hour here or there at night. Left to my own devices a few days a week, my discipline relaxes like wet spaghetti.

Anyway. Perhaps this is all just prologue to say: I am really really looking forward to heading back to the lab.

My potential PI e-mailed me out of the blue last week to ask me: Have you heard anything about the grant? I had to laugh when I mentioned it to my husband. Um, it’s the PI who is the PI of the grant, and whose name and contact information is listed. Not the lowly trainee applicant (me), who currently even isn’t affiliated with an institution. Nice to know that my potential PI still remembers me and our application, though.

I’ve been advising someone who is applying (and has just gotten an interview!) for teaching positions at undergraduate-based institutions. And I’m hearing rumors through the grapevine of big changes at my former institution. Not all good changes, either, in my opinion. One rumor is that the Research Scientist position will be eliminated, meaning that postdocs can no longer be promoted to non-PI staff positions. If the institute’s current 5-year limit on postdoc positions holds, this means that all postdocs at the institute will automatically be kicked out at the end of five years. This really makes no sense to me, because our institute has great difficulty in recruiting postdocs as is. This difficulty means that PIs have generally sought to retain senior postdocs if funding permits, meaning that a great number of our postdocs were promoted to Research Scientist. I am assuming that this perhaps became too expensive for the institute to handle? (I’ve no clue as to how financing of these positions is handled) And yet our PIs will be in trouble if they cannot retain their skilled talent; it’s very difficult to recruit people to this little-known corner of the Midwest, and I know of PIs who have been searching for postdoc candidates for over a year. It seems that forced turnover of senior postdocs/scientists would only increase these gaps in staffing coverage.

Of course, I have concern for more than PIs at heart. I myself was hoping to eventually land on the Research Scientist track.

It all seems to be going backwards to me, although of course I don’t have the full story. These are rumors, after all, relayed to me second-hand by people who rank fairly low on the research hierarchy. Pity if it should come to pass as described, however. As described in this post, I think the creation (or increase) of the number of professional, permanent Ph.D-credentialed but non-lab-head research staff in the world would go a long way to both increasing research efficiency and absorbing the postdoc glut.

But of course, given my own unstable position, I’m kinda biased.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For ScienceGirl

Ecogeofemme is hosting a virtual baby shower for ScienceGirl!

So are here some humble words of advice and support, Sciencegirl and family:

Congratulations! You and your husband are about to begin an incredible adventure. You’re probably a little nervous. That is perfectly normal. In a few months, when you leave the hospital with a fragile newborn in your care, you will be completely petrified. That is also normal.

Just a few things to keep in mind through those first months:

1) Babies actually aren’t that fragile. They might not be able to lift their own heads, but they’re actually pretty resilient. I realized this for the first time when I saw the nurses manhandling my first-born at the hospital. The nurses swaddling, changing diapers, and examining the baby Bean certainly weren’t afraid of breaking her! And my husband, a pediatrician, wasn’t afraid either (it does help to be married to a pediatrician)

2) Poop comes in weird colors, consistencies, and on varying schedules.
That ghastly green-black stool that first comes out? That’s called meconium and it’s perfectly normal. And then those weird mustardy seedy stools? That’s normal, too. At first the baby may seem to go poop every five minutes. Normal. Then (if you’re breastfeeding) the baby might go only once a week. That’s normal, too. It’s also normal if he doesn’t.

3) You and your husband will be talking about baby poop a lot.

4) If you breastfeed, buy lanolin nursing cream.

5) SLEEP WHEN THE BABY SLEEPS!!! Forget about those dishes in the sink and the state of the house!

6) Let other people help.

7) Find a support group of other mothers who understand what you’re going through and don’t mind—indeed, will enthusiastically participate in—conversations about baby poop.

8) Colic may seem like it will last forever, but it IS temporary.

9) It’s all temporary. The good and the bad, both.

10) Your science will still be waiting for you when you get back from maternity leave.

11) You are going to be one awesome rocking mama.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Valentine

When I first met my husband, it all seemed so easy. That old saw about relationships being hard work? It made no sense to me. Our relationship was pure play, effortless as breathing. The furthest thing from work.

More than a decade out, wedding bands on our fingers, two children, the numerous small disappointments and difficulties of life. . . yeah, I get it now. Relationships are work.

Fortunately, my husband is wiser, more perceptive, and stronger than me on this front as on others. Just before Valentine’s Day last week we had a fight—a ridiculous, angry, go-to-bed-with-tears-in-my-eyes fight over something completely absurd. It was the kind of fight we very rarely have, because we are both naturally easy-going and terribly averse to conflict of any kind. Afterward, my husband talked to me. He talked about where we are in our relationship, and how we should pay attention to it, spend time on it. Cultivate it. Work it.

It’s been easy for me to drop my marriage to the bottom of the to-do list. To take it, and my husband, for granted. After 10+ years, it’s still easier for me to withdraw in fear and shyness from my mate, rather than share with him thoughts and parts of my self that I think he might possibly laugh at. After more than a decade, we are still far from knowing each other. If someone had explained all this to me on my wedding day, I would have laughed. I thought I knew everything.

Today there are three beautiful bouquets on the kitchen table: a vase of roses, a vase of tulips, and a vase of aster lilies. My husband ordered them last week before our fight. They were supposed to come on three consecutive days, culminating in the grand finale of red roses. By accident, the floral company shipped them all out on the same day, so I opened the garage door to what seemed a lush forest of blooms.

The roses were slightly open when I got them, and have been steadily expanding since. The red and pink tulips (my favorite) are now at their lush peak. The aster lilies are still folded in slim buds; only two have begun to open, shyly revealing themselves.

My daughter is quite interested in what it will look like when all the flowers are in bloom. I am as well.

And after I finish this post, I am going to e-mail my husband a short love note… just as we once used to do, a long time ago.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sisters


These days, the Bean-girl and Legume get into the type of passionate quarrels that only a 5-year old and 2-year old can engage in.


Scene: Kids eating yogurt at the breakfast table.


Bean-girl: I’m eating berry yogurt.


Legume: I’m eating berry yogurt, too!


Bean-girl: You’re eating peach yogurt. Peach is not a berry.


Legume: Peach is a berry!


Bean-girl: Peach is not a berry!


Legume: Peach is a berry!


Bean-girl: Peach is not a berry!


Legume: Peach is a berry!


Bean-girl: A blackberry is a berry.


Legume: Blackberry is not a berry!


I think you get the idea.


I think of that famous quote from The Tempest, where Caliban tells Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is/ I know how to curse.” I think it could be modified for our little Legume as “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is/ I know how to argue.”


Never mind, of course, that her arguments make no logical sense. “No,” “nope,” and “I don’t want to” can actually take you pretty far. A reflexive negation of whatever statement another person (usually the Bean-girl) has just said is also a pretty fun trick.


Bean-girl runs through the house. Legume is determinedly on her tail. Bean-girl snakes her way through the living room, twisting and turning, and her little sister is right behind; they form a two-person congo line. Mooommmm, Bean-girl wails, Legume is following me and I want her to stop!


Then later: Legume is in my room and I want her out!


And: Legume won’t leave me alone!


It’s on the tip of my tongue to reply, Now you know how I feel about you sometimes, my Bean-girl, but of course I don’t.


It’s a little heart-breaking, really, to see Legume clamoring for her big sister’s attention at times. Bean-girl, will you play with me? she says with the most winsome smile. Bean-girl ignores her, and Legume tries again. Bean-girl, will you play with me? She repeats herself in rapid fire like a demented robot Bean-girlwillyouplaywithmeBean-girlwillyouplaywithmeBean-girlwillyouplaywithme?


I’m the oldest of three sisters. I have a natural sympathy and identification with Bean-girl. But now, for the first time, I see things through the eyes of the younger sibling.


This morning I carried Legume up the stairs for the daily tooth-brushing/getting dressed routine. Bean-girl followed us, and Legume twisted in my arms to watch and laugh at her big sister. I put Legume down, and Bean-girl suddenly zoomed past us. Legume ran after, but Bean-girl raced ahead into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. I don’t want Legume in my room! Bean-girl said, muffled behind her door. Legume’s face was stunned, on the verge of tears. I scooped her up quickly, trying to forestall them. Bean-girl, come out of your room, Legume said softly, plaintively. Bean-girl, come out of your room.


I danced with Legume in my arms to try to distract her. Bean-girl will come out soon, I said.


I don’t want Bean-girl in my room, Legume told me.


And then a few minutes later Bean-girl was out of her room and the two were laughing and rolling on the floor of Legume's room, in shared hysterics over who-knows-what.


Sisters.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Goals for 2010 and uncertainty

This month I am on vacation.

Not on vacation traveling with the kids. Or on vacation at home with the kids. No, really on vacation sans children. Part-time anyway. (A slightly under-the-weather Legume is with me right now, snoring peacefully away in her bed).

I can’t remember the last time I had such luxury. Oh, right—that’s because I’ve never had it before! I’ve either been working, in school, or raising kids (or some combination)—but to have a little free time without employment and without kids?

Being a stay-at-home mom, I remarked to a friend at the gym the other day, is actually a lot of fun when you’re not really staying at home with the kids.

As I alluded to before, I am unemployed for at least the next few months. My husband and I are keeping the kids in daycare/schoolcare part-time for a number of reasons. We don’t want to take a chance on losing our daycare spots, of course. We don’t want to disrupt the children’s routines. Legume and Bean-girl truly love school now (they were both sooooo happy to be back after the long Christmas break; Legume just kept smiling and smiling when I dropped her off on the first day) and I think preschool is particularly good for little Legume now. But my reasons are also purely selfish. I like having a little free time to myself during the week; there are things I want to get done for myself; and being in charge of the children 24-7 frankly drives this momma bonkers.

So what do I want to get done for myself over the next few months?

This is time to play New Year’s Resolutions, of course. Folded into a 2-3 month time span. I have the usual pledge to exercise and get in shape. As well as other goals. I found last year that breaking up vague goals into concrete proposals helped enormously (especially helps when your aims are particularly modest!) I even mostly fulfilled last year’s very modest goals! (I did get that short story published, and I pitched an article–and was turned down—by Favorite Trade Journal. But at least I made the attempt).

So after the success of the “Goals for 2009” experiment (it did get me off my butt to at least work toward those goals), I now publically declare my overly ambitious Goals for 2010. To make it all the more grandiose, I divide the goals into several fields with pretentious titles.

Health (physical)

--Exercise at least 2-3 times a week.
--Take a pilates/yoga class (went to the first class last week—public humiliation).
--Eat more fruits, veggies and whole grains.

Creative writing (and emotional health)

--Finish second short story, send out to some trusted readers, eventually submit and hopefully publish somewhere.

--Start a new story.

--Revise and submit a very old story.

--Try daily journaling/writing.

Science

--Master the literature of an entire new subfield of cell biology (ambitious much?)
*Sub-aim: Try to see if there is a way to link intriguing results from old postdoc to the direction of my (hopeful) new lab to create a coherent and intelligent research plan that brings it all together.

Home (domesticity)

--Sort and donate old clothing (done!)

--Sort, get rid of, organize the toys taking over our house.

--Organize the home office

--Print and organize backlog of family photos.

--Hang up some of those pictures we unpacked three years ago (which are still stacked up on the floor of our den)


Now how many of these goals can I actually accomplish over the next few months? We’ll see….

******************

Although I enjoy this freedom now, I wonder if the lack of external structure will soon start wearing on me. And then I wonder if I’ll get too used to doing my own thing, living a freelance life (I have potential freelance editing contracts starting February). Then I wonder if the notice of funding and call to lab work might come early—as my potential PI thinks it will—and whether I’ll be ready for it, whether I’ll fall apart and my family fall apart and perhaps I’ll humiliate myself after all these years off the bench and disappoint the PI who took me on. . . And perhaps that call to work might not come at all, our grant application gets turned down, the PI’s other grant gets turned down, and despite his assurances he’ll have no money or way to take me in. . . .

It has all happened, as Jennifer Rohn so eloquently writes in her post. I envision all outcomes. I envision a future in which I leave science entirely—leave even the writing and editing of science. And I see another future where I’m back at the bench, happy as a clam. And I look backward and see all those junctures where things might have gone a different way—where the road forked and I took one path and not the other. The road keeps forking ahead; I look both backward and forward, and where does it all lead?

I love Jennifer Rohn’s blog. Go read it if you haven’t—I am in that same bubble of uncertainty.

(And the discussion comments following her post are, as usual, quite wonderful.)