Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On babywearing

When I started my blog I was planning to write way more about babywearing. It's even what the header of my blog says this blog is about. Because I’m enthusiastic about babywearing to the point that I don’t understand how people get things done (or even eat food) with a baby when they never put them in a carrier or a wrap. Or how you get a fussy baby to sleep when you don’t put him in a sling. But even though I still put BlueEyes in a woven wrap almost every day for a little walk around the neighborhood or to get him to go to sleep when that is really problematic, I rarely ever write about it. So here’s a recent picture of BlueEyes in our Didymos Indio Silbergrau tied in a double hammock. I sometimes wish there were babywearing labcoats so that I could even go to the lab like this!

Friday, June 22, 2012

You could have given me that money for real science, EU!

The whole day the internet has been shaking with lots of outrage over the EU’s video to attract girls to doing science. To be honest, I don’t really mind that these are young girls that aren’t even doing science while being observed by a guy. I don’t mind that they’re wearing skirts and heels and I don’t mind that the background is pink. I look like that sometimes and if it even persuades one girl that science is fun and for girls too, then that’s fine. I don’t think it will though, and what pisses me off about it is that the EU probably spent a whole bunch of money on this.
And last year I applied for a grant that was funded by the EU. This grant (for post-docs going abroad) had a pretty stable success rate of about 20%. However, last year all of a sudden there was a lot of talk about that year being the last year that they would fund this grant because of money shortage. And since you can only apply once, twice the amount of people applied than normally. And even though I scored within the top 20% I didn’t get the grant because they only had a set amount of money.
So instead of wasting that money on that video that pisses everybody off, you could have given me that money, EU! And I would have done real science with it. You could even have come and filmed me, and for some extra money I would wear heels, a skirt and even lipstick.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

No regrets?

Recently I wrote about when you think it’s been enough and you decide to leave academia. Yesterday I learned that someone I know had decided just that and is trying to find a job outside academic science. Part of me is highly surprised because she was someone who was driven, hard-working and critical and I thought she would be able to find a position. It frightens me a bit that people that I look up to are not able to stay in science. And it makes me realize that the transition from being a post-doc to becoming independent is the big bottle neck.

It also made me wonder whether if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants? If I would look at it from a distance, would all of this seem ridiculous? Is it worth all those hours and stress and time in the lab to know one tiny detail about one sub-aspect of neuroscience? I guess if you look at it like that it’s not. So I try to do things that I like and I do them in an amount of time that is reasonable. Because as much as I’m passionate about being a scientist and trying to become a professor someday, I don’t want to look back and realize that I’ve spent all of my time working like a headless chicken.

So what about you? Do you think you will regret your investment of time and energy when you decide to quit science? And if you have left academia do you regret your time as a grad student or a postdoc?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

On marriage and all other forms of commitment

This post is part of the Diversity in Science Carnival on Pride hosted by Gerty-Z.

When I was pregnant and went to the doctor for the first time I had to fill out the obvious form with my name, address and social security number. I also had to check a box for marital status and was surprised to see that there were only 2 options here in the US: single and married. At the time I wasn’t married so I had to check single. But I wasn’t single either; I was living together with Dr. BrownEyes and considering that we had been together for five years and had decided to move to a different country together and have a baby together it felt weird to check ‘single’. It especially felt weird (and a bit sad) when the nurse asked me in a hopeful but doubtful voice whether the father of the baby was going to be involved at all.

I was surprised to see only those two options, because back home (in the country that was the first in the world to legalize gay marriage over ten years ago) there are always more than two options to the question of marital status. For example you can choose the option ‘cohabitant’ if you are living together but you aren’t married. You can even make a legal ‘samenlevingscontract’, which by the way is not just meant for people who are in a romantic relationship but can also exist between two people who decide to live together (as friends or roommates). It can legally specify anything from who bought the couch and who bought the tv to what would happen with the children when one of the partners passes away. The next option is a registered partnership. This was initially meant for gay people before it was legal for them to get married, but can also be entered into by heterosexual couples. And then the final box you can check is ‘married’. I have to add that back home, marriage is by far not as big of a deal as here in the US and many of my friends, even those with children are not married.

That's really Dr. BrownEyes and me!
For me, the initial (but not very romantic) reason to get married was so that everything was automatically arranged for BlueEyes in case anything was to happen to either of us. However, now that I am married I have to admit that it feels different. Not just because it’s much harder and more expensive to split up, but also because now we are officially connected to each other (and because we got to have this awesome day and I got to walk around in a beautiful dress the whole day).

So why am I writing this blog post? I’m writing it because the situation with the nurse asking me if Dr. BrownEyes was going to be involved at all since we weren’t married made me feel a little bit what it would be like if you would always have to check the ‘single’ box, even though you had been living together with your partner for an eternity. And for me it wasn’t even that I wasn’t allowed to get married, I had just chosen not to do so. I can only imagine how left out you must feel if you cannot take part in all aspects of a society just because of the gender of your partner. It makes me sad and angry to think about that, and I hope that soon everyone will realize that legalizing gay marriage doesn’t mean the end of civilization or destruction of the institution of marriage. I'm also writing this post as a part of the diversity in science carnival for pride hosted by GertyZ.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Idea-generation anxiety

Even though I was considering writing a K99 a while ago, now Dr. BrownEyes and I have decided that plan A is going to be to move back home in about 2 years. Since back home there aren’t really tenure track positions like here in the US, most people that want to stay in academia will do a second postdoc that will then slowly move into an independent position when you’ve acquired money to hire someone. This means that you’re still under the umbrella of a full professor, which is just the way the system is. So we’re shortly going back home in August to network ourselves back into a postdoc position there, and talk about the grants that we should write (because they will probably offer us a contract for a year unless we get our own grant money). 

So far, the planning is all going well, but since it’s all pretty informal I only very recently realized that I should have something to say about what I want to do in the future. And that’s when I do realize that I might be somewhat of an imposter. Because I find it so hard to think of good, solid ideas for experiments to propose in a grant. So far, my PhD project was thought of mostly by my advisor, and my postdoc project that I’m working on now was thought of by me, but I’m currently not so sure if that was a good idea…. So now I have to come up with an idea that adheres to all of these criteria: it has to be fundable, it has to get publishable results within a relatively short period (3 yrs) of time, it has to fit within the lab that I’m going to (and since I’m interviewing at two different labs I should think of two slightly different projects), it has to have experiments that can be doable by undergrads so that I can get help, it should preferably have some pilot-data from my current postdoc, it would be nice if it has something sexy like optogenetics (or is that all 2009 now?), and it has to be interesting to me. I put this last reason last on purpose, because all this idea-generating anxiety sometimes makes me forget that I just have to think of something that interests me. What also makes me doubt my ability to generate interesting ideas is the fact that my attempts at getting postdoc grants has so far failed. Three out of four were rejected and I haven’t heard back from the fourth. 

So how do people do this? Just sit down and think of experiments to do? And how do you make rejected grants not doubt your ability to think of good ideas?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When is it enough?

Yesterday over at DrugMonkey, who congratulated everyone who got their NIH grants out, the discussion turned into a disgruntlement of postdocs talking about whether or not you could call being a postdoc slavery. I let the pessimist disgruntled postdoc in me come out again and commented this:
"Sure, being a postdoc is not literally slavery, and it was also my free choice to do this. But if I think about the fact that a large proportion of my paycheck goes to daycare and we had to move to a cheaper place to be able to pay for daycare, and I compare myself to friends who work in industry jobs, I sometimes feel a little sorry for myself. I love what I do, but it would just be nice if that paid slightly more."
To which DrugMonkey responded:
“Yet interestingly none of us chose those other industries where we'd be appropriately valued.

Well, that is not entirely true: this study shows that (at least in the UK but I don’t think this is an exception) only 12% of third year PhD students want to stay in academia. Maybe that’s because in that year they are all suffering from their PhD dip LINK, but it shows that not everyone WANTS to stay in academia. I don’t know what the numbers are for post-docs or even young faculty but from listening to friends and colleagues a lot of us are thinking about leaving academia. (you would think that this would make it easier for the rest of us to get enough grant money to stay in academia but I’m not sure that’s the case either).

To speak for myself: I would love to stay in academia and become a professor. I love to do research, think of new ideas and see how they turn into experiments and data. But I don’t love the idea that if I want a second child, I don’t know how we are going to pay for daycare. I don’t love that the past three grants that I’ve written have been rejected (all of them had funding percentages of less than 10%). And I don’t love that if I go to the home country lab that I’ve been talking to for after my postdoc, they can only offer me a year contract if I don’t have my own money by then (and with a year contract it will be impossible to buy a house and renting prices in the home country are insane). The fact that both Dr. BrownEyes and I are in the same position doesn’t help either. If one of us had a little more and/or steadier income that would make things easier (but then again; where in the world do you find that steady income nowadays). 

I don’t want to be such a pessimist and I generally have faith that things will turn out okay, but especially now that I have a baby I sometimes wonder: when is it enough? And when am I going to look for a steady job with more security? And are those even around?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Moving to another country often means speaking a different language. And even though English is obviously not my first language, I generally do okay speaking English, which is mostly because back home a lot of the television we watch are American shows that are subtitled (instead of dubbed like in France and Germany). But speaking a different language also means learning a whole set of different rules about how to say things in a polite way.

Because back home, my people are not just known for their liberal policy on weed, prostitution and euthanasia, but also for their directness. Let me give you a couple of examples of Americanisms as we like to call them:

Example 1. You want to ask a technician to run a PCR for you.
In American:
You: Hi, how are you?
Technician: I’m good, how are you?
You: I’m good, thanks. Did you have a good weekend?
Technician: I did, thanks, how about yourself?
You: It was fine thanks! How’s your dog doing?
Technician: Oh thanks for asking, he’s much better now that he has the new eye drops.
You: Oh good, I’m glad to hear that. Also, would you be willing to do this PCR for me please?
Technician: Sure, no problem.

In Dutch:
You: Good morning, can you do this PCR for me please?
Technician: Okay.
(and then later we’ll talk about the weekend and the dog)

Example 2. You’re in a labmeeting and someone shows data that don’t make sense because there is no proper control group. You think they should include that control group to even make the slightest chance to submit it somewhere
In American:
You: Thank you for that wonderful talk. Those are all very intriguing data. I was wondering one thing though, which is: what would you hypothesize would happen in the untreated group?

In Dutch:
You: Don’t you have a control group? It makes no sense to do these experiments and not have a proper control group. You can forget about sending this to any decent journal.

Example 3. You’re talking to your advisor about data. Your advisor tells you:
In American: Those are very interesting data.
In Dutch: Those are very nice and interesting data.

In American: Those are interesting data. Perhaps we should follow this up.
In Dutch: Those are crappy data. You have to do that experiment again.

In American: Those are interesting data (looking at a Western blot). What do you think that big black band is?
In Dutch: That is a horrible Western blot. There is only background staining and no real bands.

I have to say that I sometimes miss this directness because it makes it so much easier to understand what people are actually saying. I can imagine that for Americans that move to my home country, it has to be hard to get used to all this impoliteness and directness of saying things. I still sometimes make the ‘mistake’ of saying something in a way too direct tone in a labmeeting, but am definitely trying to work on my Americanisms. Example 3 by the way is (almost) an actual conversation between Dr. BrownEyes and his advisor. We have spent several evenings trying to figure out what his advisor’s Americanisms actually mean.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain – a review

Image source
As I said before, I like reading books about addiction, so when I read on twitter about this new book by Marc Lewis, a recovered addict turned neuroscientist, I immediately ordered it.

The book is Lewis’ biography that starts when he is sent to a boarding school where he has his first encounter with alcohol. As with all the other drugs that follow, he describes vividly how he feels upon taking those first sips and then gulps of alcohol. He enjoys that it makes him feel different and that for a while it takes away the depressed feelings he has because of not fitting in well in school. I quickly got carried away by the story and how well it is written. But then he says:”The cerebral cortex is the most complex structure on earth”, and that type of neuroscience-arrogance almost made me put down the book. And he continues to talk about the brain, and how alcohol, and all the subsequent drugs he takes modify brain chemistry and hijack the neural circuits used for learning and memory, thereby causing addiction. At first all this neuroscience talk kind of put me off, mostly because I felt that it interrupted the story he was telling, but also because I felt that Lewis sometimes oversimplified things or made too harsh statements just for the sake of telling a nice story. However, I think for the average lay-person it is an interesting mix of the story of Lewis’ life and the biology behind what drugs do to the brain and more importantly, that addiction is a brain-disease caused by the repeated taking of drugs, and not ‘just’ a couple of bad choices in life.

The story of his life continues to be very interesting and well written. He moves to California and continues to experiment with how he can modify and improve his mood. He first experiments with LSD: “The room swells and changes in shape and size. It becomes more than a room: an enormous space broken down into subspaces with gripping dramas unfold with each glance, each word spoken or withheld, each facial movement. The skin of those faces decomposes into exotic fabrics made of pores, features, facial hair that seems to grow while I stare, transfixed, horrified. I don’t need this much detail. I am overwhelmed by the acceleration itself.”

And later he takes other hallucinogens and eventually starts to use heroin. Using opioids is what truly gets him addicted, with horrible withdrawal when he quits for a while. It is also what drives him to start to break into doctor’s offices and go down a road of caring less and less about the world around him and more about getting high. I don’t want to spoil the end of the book, but the fact that Lewis is now a neuroscientist already tells that in the end he managed to overcome his addiction and change his lifestyle.