Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Good-bye. . . Hello elsewhere.

Everything has its season.

I started blogging here nearly a lifetime ago in Internet time—2007, several months before my second child, “Legume,” was born.

This blog has given me so much. It has given me a record of my children’s early years and the person I was then as a new mother. It’s given me a means to vent and express myself, to reflect and process. This blog was my way back into writing, an interest I had abandoned throughout the long years of science grad school and postdoctoral training. If it weren’t for this blog, I don’t think I would have ever started writing the fiction that I’m writing (and even publishing!) now.

Perhaps best of all, this blog allowed me to connect with you. It brought me friends—other scientists, other moms, other writers. It brought me into a community where we could share and vent and express and support one another.

In the past six years, I’ve seen blogs come and go… and sometimes resurrected. Blogging serves different purposes and needs at different times, and sometimes those initial needs end. Sometimes a purpose changes. A chapter closes.

I’m ending The Bean Chronicles here. But I’m starting a new blog here. A place with a different focus, where I’m a little less anonymous (although I still use a pseudonym on the site!) I’d be more than happy to see you there.

Peace out.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer and letting go

I blinked, and now I find the summer almost gone.

I had ambitions plans, a lengthy to-do list. I would clean out the home office, organize the kitchen pantry, clean out my closet, organize and print out a year’s worth of digital photos. I would write amazing, stunning, heart-rending Works of Literature. And I would prepare for a career in science writing by determinedly studying the works of popular science writers such as Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong, keeping up to date in the primary literature, and writing blog posts on actual science.

But I let it all go. First my career as a bench scientist, and then the to-do list of personal achievements. This summer, I’ve let it (almost!) all go.

Instead, I’ve been traveling and spending time with extended family members. I’ve held two new baby nephews born to my younger sisters. I spent a week at the beach. I spent every night of that week washing sand out of clothes and my children’s hair. I let my husband get me into anime. I’ve sat on my back deck and looked at the blue sky and swaying trees and thought of nothing at all. I did not get on an exercise regimen. I did not cook healthier food. I did make some damn good desserts.

Instead of working in a lab, I spent every weekend with my husband and family. I spent every day with my bean girls.

I thought I didn’t get much done, but as I write this I realize that I did, in fact, check off quite a few boxes on a certain list of priorities—a “family fun” summer bucket list I wrote at the start of the season. I had picnics with my girls, took them berry picking, went to the local park, the local farmer’s market, the splash pad/pool. My husband and I  took them bowling and to an outdoor summer concert. I didn’t spend much time teaching Legume to read, as I had planned to do. But we’ve almost taught her how to ride a bicycle (I think she’ll have it down within the next two days), and we got her big sister up and biking nearly two weeks ago.

And I think we’ve tried out nearly every frozen yogurt shop in the area. I think that’s a pretty darn fine achievement.


Summer is slipping away; the days are noticeably shorter. In less than 3 weeks, my girls will be back in school. Then it will be time for me to buckle down and get serious about some career and work issues. Then I’ll finally clean out those closets. For now, I’m still letting it all go.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On leaving science: the stories we tell

Summer. No structure to our days—the kids still in pajamas at noon, screeching through the house, building elaborate structures of cardboard boxes, pillows, stuffed animals and miscellaneous toys. Sun in my eyes at 6 am, sun still in the sky when I put the kids to sleep at night. Eight days ago I sent off a rough draft of the last first-authored academic science paper I will ever write. Since then I’ve had a backyard picnic with my youngest, taken the girls to see turtles in the wetlands area of a local park, and gone strawberry picking with my family in a field laced with larkspur and ox-eye daisies.

Walking away from science is easier than I thought.


Before I left my job, I went to the best “alternative careers” symposium I’ve ever attended. The speaker line-up was smashing—the director of science policy at the American Association for Cancer Research, a former high level administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, a patent agent, a medical communications writer, representatives from biotech, a venture capitalist, and professors at teaching-based, undergrad-focused colleges. The speakers ranged from those fresh out of their post-docs and just transitioning to the Big Bad World, to those who had spent 30+ years in their “alternative” field. And never have I heard such presenters speak so personally, so honestly, about their career struggles and transitions.

Many spoke honestly of feelings of shame and failure when they left academia. They spoke of sleepless nights and wondering oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing? The younger speakers talked about the steep odds facing them in even getting that first “real” job after the postdoc. The medical communications writer told us that she’d sent out 65 applications in a variety of fields during her last post-doc year. She landed only two interviews. A professor at a teaching college told us that he’d sent out 70 applications with similar results. The lone tenure-track professor at Big Research U—the  representative of the standard grad-school ideal of success--also sent out about 60+ applications and landed only two interviews total.

The line between “success” and “failure” is so thin. 60+ applications and one job offer= Success!  60+ applications and no offers? I have a friend who was in that exact position. After two years of trying and countless applications, he landed exactly one job interview just months before his funding was due to run out. He aced the interview and is now celebrated by his peers as a success story. If that one interview had gone differently, he would have considered himself (in his own mind) as a failure.

The stories we tell ourselves can be paper-thin.

“Be intentional!” some of the younger speakers advised. “Be deliberate!” They said that after the decision to leave the bench, they took deliberate steps to achieve their goals and were continuing to purposefully direct their careers, to move purposefully and not reactively. In contrast, the two most senior speakers confessed that they had never had a plan at all. I just seized opportunities as they came along, both said. Both spoke of just “jumping into the deep end,” of moving (repeatedly) into new areas where they had little to no experience and then just swimming for dear life. This willingness to jump led both speakers to high-level, impressive positions (one is currently managing director of venture funds for a very well-known, large pharmaceutical company). But even these senior speakers admitted that not all risks had paid off, nor had all jobs been perfect. And the most senior of them spoke, again and again, of the importance of family and friends and a personal life—and that no career is worth more than the people in your life.*


I’m fascinated by the stories that people tell. There is one story that I could tell about my own career path, and it goes like this: I went to grad school, I got a Ph.D., I did a post-doc. That first post-doc failed, so I left science for a while. I tried to come back. I did a second post-doc and failed again. I am a loser.

There is a story I tell acquaintances who do not understand academic science, and it goes like this: I worked at local Research Institution for awhile, but in a three-year grant-funded contract position. The grant came to an end, and there were no suitable permanent positions open. I was sick of the grant-driven temporary contract lifestyle, so I just decided to leave science.

To friends I tell a combination of stories 1 and 2. I say that I left because I was burned out, I was sick of the lifestyle, I saw no viable, sustainable career in research for me. I say that I left, rather than that I was forced out. But of course it was both, at the same time.


I don’t know the story I am telling now about my future. In one version, I tell people that I will be starting a freelance medical writing/editing business in the fall. I tell them about the online course in medical writing I’m taking this August. In this version, I sell myself as the soon-to-be successful freelance writer. By “successful” I mean successful by the standards my parents hold dear: that I will make good money relative to the hours that I work. And I don’t plan to work full-time. I don’t mean to be always hustling for clients, but only to work enough to satisfy my hunger for social validation, to feed my fragile self-esteem. To work enough to have something interesting to do that makes use of my talents and education, and brings in a bit of cash (Yes, I know how lucky I am that I don’t really need to work; my spouse brings in a good paycheck). In this story I spend more time with my family, and I also have time to pursue my interest in fiction writing.  

I do like this story. I hope it comes true.


**More notes on the alternative careers symposium: The oldest speaker was also the only one to emphasize the importance of blogging in career networking! He suggested reading blogs in your area of career interest, leaving comments on blogs and using them to network. . . and of starting your own blog if there are no suitable blogs in your subject of career interest. (yes, I was tickled by this).

**All the speakers emphasized the importance of networking. The medical writer who sent out 65 applications? She landed her  job through a personal connection. For almost every speaker present, landing that first non-academic job depended upon personal connections.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

New short story at LabLit

Well, it's been a while.

I officially left my lab two weeks ago. Then spent another week banging out a rough draft of my manuscript, which I just handed in to my (ex)boss this past Monday. I've only just come out of recovery mode.

And I have a new short story appearing today at the wonderful science-in-culture/science-in-literature webzine, LabLit.

More later. I swear.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book review: The Zebra Said Shhh

If you have two little kids, you end up reading a lot of bed time stories. And I've found that kids often don't have much discrimination--or at least, not any kind of discrimination that I can understand. At various times, my kids have both become fixated on books with plots so thin or inane that I can't even recall them now. Lapses in logic particularly infuriate me, and repetition of those logical lapses can drive me up the wall. I never liked re-reading the Dora the Explorer series of books, and reading the Magic Tree House chapter book series to my older daughter almost drove me around the bend. (Seriously, how stupid can those kids, Jack and Annie, be? Jack loses his backpack in every freaking book, and Annie is always walking up cheerfully to some dinosaur or saber-toothed tiger or whatever, confident that it's a friendly beastie that will enjoy a scratch behind its ears. She should have been eaten long ago)


Then there are the other kinds of books, in which repetition is soothing to kids and adult alike. The kind of book I can happily re-read. My blog-friend Cloud has written such a book.

"The Zebra Said Shhh" tells a simple story. A zebra at the zoo wants to go to sleep, but the other animals are making too much noise.  Shhh, the zebra tells them. Each page depicts a different zoo animal making its own specific call.  The monkey says "oooo", the lion says, "raaaar," etc.  It's a calming and charming tale. The pictures are bright and adorable (I particularly like the lion's mane, and the scene of the sleeping seals). It's perfect for the toddler to preschooler set, who will enjoy making the sounds for each animal.

And even my six-year old, who fancied herself too sophisticated for a zoo book when she first saw it, enjoys this book. She is learning to read, and we found that the repetition of simple sentences provides her a perfect exercise in sight-reading. "Shhh, it's time to go to sleep," she read out loud for us tonight, as my  husband pointed to the words on the page. With every turn of the page she grew more confident, and by the end she was proudly reading the entire sentence at once at the correct time. "I can read the whole sentence!" she said proudly.

By the end of the book, each zoo animal is slumbering peacefully in its enclosure. The stars are out, and it's a restful end for animals, kids (and parents!) alike.

Recommended. (And not just because Cloud is a friend!)

Note: as we finished this book tonight, Husband read the "About the Author" section to Legume, and mentioned, "This is mommy's friend."

Legume replied, "When she's dead, her book will still be around and children can still read it." (Sorry Cloud--my kid's on a morbid streak right now)

"That's right," my husband said. "That's the good thing about books."

"And when I'm grown up," Legume continued, "maybe my kids can still read my books. If my books are cared for."

"That's right," I agreed.

That is the good thing about books. I looked at her shelf, which has real paper books. I admit that Legume and Bean-girl don't really know of any other kind. Even if all the electronic copies were to vanish into the ether, we would still have these shelves of physical objects, and if well cared for, we could indeed pass them down the generations.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Thursday, April 4, 2013

New fiction publication

I'm on vacation, having a fabulous time visiting friends and family, including my new baby nephew.

And I thought I'd also just toot my own horn. Vacations seem to bring good news for me on the fiction front.  On my last vacation, I received word that my fantasy tale, "Snow's Daughter," had been accepted for publication at New Myths.

And now it's just gone live. 

Unfortunately, I seem unable to link directly to the story. But if you'd like to take a look, you can click on the above link to the journal, click on top for Issue 22 (the latest issue), and then scroll down the table of contents for "Snow's Daughter."

Yes, I'm blowing my pseudonymity. I'm leaving scientific research--what do I care anymore?

Also, I received word this week of another story acceptance--this time at the wonderful science-in-culture webzine, LabLit

And now I'm off to get ready for a meeting with friends, and then an afternoon with my new nephew. It's our final day here in the San Francisco bay area. Next day we board a plane back to the Midwest and reality.

Yes, it's been a good vacation.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sunday drabble

Sunday afternoon, a tired Legume snuggling in bed beside me.

Legume: Tell me a story.

Me: Uh, okay. (thinks a moment) Once upon a time there was a land where it was always day; the sun always hung in the sky. The birds in that land had feathers of fire.  The people wore bright clothes and were merry and ate hot, spicy food.
       But across the mountains, unknown to the people of the Valley of the Sun, there was another land. And in that land it was always night. But the night wasn’t scary, for a full, bright moon always hung in the sky. And the people of that land wore night and moon-colored clothes: clothes of white and silver and black and deep blue. And they were a cool and quiet people. They—

Legume: And they have a war.
Me: A war? You mean, you want the two peoples to have a war?

Legume: The  moon-people and the sun-people have a war because the moon-people think their moon is the best and the sun-people think their sun is the best.

Me: Okaaaay. . . (Pause).  So the two countries went to war. But a boy from the Valley of the Moon fell in love with a girl from the Valley of the Sun. And they ran off together, away from the fighting and their families, and they found a new country, a country with both day and night, where both sun and moon shared the sky.  And they had babies and founded a new people and lived happily ever after.
      There. Do you think that’s a good story?

Legume: Yeah, that’s a good story.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Freaking awesome quote on writing

This is one of the best quotes on writing I have ever seen.

It was posted on ProfessorFangirl's tumblr, and the subject is scholarly writing in the humanities. . . but it applies to any kind of writing. At least, any writing that we actually want others to read.

The whole post is here, but these are my favorite bits:

5. You are a writer. Think of yourself as a writer and not God. When you get caught up in trying to know (and say) everything, you’re confusing your role with that of Athena or the omniscient god of bloodless abstract theology or the Oversoul or the ubermench or whatever.

6. Send your imagined critics to the Bahamas. When you imagine and try to anticipate every possible objection to your thought, it stifles your creativity and clouds your thinking. Let that critical review come later. Put your critics on a plane and start serving cocktails immediately; you can write while they’re drunk, distracted, and intriguing to sleep with each other.

7. Keep moving. Remember Goldberg. Do free writings so you can get used to writing that you’re not invested in. Every word doesn’t have to count. Get comfortable with words that don’t.

8. Who are you when you write? A scholarly fortress? An impregnable pedant? Who do you want to be? Alive. I want to be alive, and to be alive is to be transitory. This knowledge that I build, this stuff that I produce, it’s transitory. No eternal temple, merely me and you, my reader, locked in a momentary dance step that will pass and move on. Other readers, other dance steps. No permanence or security here. That’s what living prose is.

Think of your writing as dancing, and keep moving those feet. There is no perfect step. There is no set of moves that everyone will adore. You have only your body; if you’re going to dance, it’s the one you must use. You have only your own mind and your own language; if you’re going to think and to write, use them.

Delight in that body. Delight in your mind. The desire for eternal words, eternal certainty, eternal life—it’s a death wish.

—Warren Hedges

I don't know who this Warren Hedges is that Professor Fangirl is quoting, but he is now one of my heroes. And Professor Fangirl? In a follow-up post, she quotes the Litany Against Fear from the classic sci-fi novel, Dune. I am totally fangirling over her now.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On leaving scientific research again. . . this time for good.

I think I’m over the bitterness now. Mostly.
At the end of May, my fellowship funding runs out. I entered this lab on a three-year postdoctoral training grant supplement funded by the NIH to promote re-entry into biomedical research careers.  After a few years off the bench--time spent in scientific writing/editing and in caring for the bean children--I was  eager-beaver as a na├»ve undergrad to do science again.

Three years flies by fast.
Three years is not (usually) enough time to build a real body of published research achievement. Not these days.

A lot can change in three years. A lot can change in 6 months.
For the first two years, I was thrilled to be back in the lab. My project was cooking. Walking in every day was an adventure. I loved my co-workers.

I still love my co-workers. I hate my project.
I expect to write up a small manuscript before I finally leave. . . but my project has gone downhill in ways that don’t bear going into right now. And once my fellowship runs out, there is no place for me in this lab. I always knew my PI would not be able to offer me a permanent staff position; he has too many permanent employees as is that he has committed to. I did think he’d be able to support me for at least another year on his current R01 grant. . . but I was mistaken. So I’m out the door a year sooner than I thought.

And I’m done. I’m not doing science anymore.
I’m not putting up with the extreme career instability, the pressure and crazy hours and pay that would be considered insulting in the business world. I’m not walking out of the house on a bright Saturday morning, saying goodbye to my little fresh-faced bean-girls to spend a full day in a dark basement doing confocal microscopy or sitting at a computer laboriously quantitating image slides.

I’m not looking for another research job which would probably also be cut in a few years time.
It’s time to be realistic.  I’m more than a decade past my Ph.D. receipt. The academic research game is for the young: it’s an “up or out” career structure.  I didn’t make it in the allotted time. I’m old and expensive. I’m out.

So the question is. . . now what? What do I do in a small Midwestern city with limited career options?
I’m going to be looking to get back into freelance scientific writing and editing. . . and into writing some fiction as well.

I’m looking to spend weekends with my family again. Cooking decent meals for dinner. Cleaning the house.
Not being too tired to talk to my children or spend time with the husband.

Other than that. . . well, I hope to figure it out.