Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tricks versus ideas

For my entire scientific life I have come up with new experiments by using tricks. With this I mean: reading papers and combining ideas, for example other people used behavioral test A with drug X, I did behavioral test B with drug X. Or behavioral test A with drug Y in brain region 1 to be extra special. But this is not the stuff that Nobel prizes are made of.

Because essentially these were just tricks to come up with new experiments. Today I was reading a paper and I had a glimpse of a new idea. It wasn’t very clear and I couldn’t really write it down in a comprehensible way. But I’m sure that when I think about it longer I will get at what that glimpse was about. And more importantly: it made me so enthusiastic! It was like in this little glimpse I realized what science was about; combining information and adding your own ideas in order to come up with testable hypotheses. It was awesome.

If only I could recreate what I was thinking in that short glimpsy moment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reading a paper fast

This morning, I overheard someone in the lab say:"We'll put that somewhere deep in the discussion; I never read the discussion anyway". This person said that if ze reads a papers fast, ze'll read the results section to figure out what the paper is about. To me that was kind of weird, because if I read a paper fast I'll read the abstract, look at the figures and then read the discussion. Because there the authors will summarize their findings but also put them in perspective and hint at future directions.

What do you read when you quickly scan through a paper?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Breastfeeding in public

One day a beautiful mural appeared on the side of a building I bike past when cycling home from work:
Only when you look closer, you can see that the woman in the mural is breastfeeding a baby.

And that she has another child leaning into her back.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Clarification about doing what you’re told to do

When PI tells you to do something you don’t want to do, just say yes and then don’t do it. 

This made some of the PIs on twitter pretty angry. Understandably so, because I am always incredibly mad when the tech that I supervise doesn’t do what I ask hir to do. So let me clarify things a bit.

When your PI tells you to use concentration X of drug Y, do so. And if you have good reasons to change that, tell your PI the reasons why and only after ze approved, you can change your protocol. When your PI tells you to handle your animals before your experiment and you’re too lazy to do it but don’t say so, you run the risk of ruining your experiment because your animals are stressed and you don’t want that.

The situation I was thinking about when writing that you shouldn’t do what your PI tells you to do is for example when your PI comes back from a meeting full of enthusiastic ideas for experiments. Ze starts explaining to you in all hir enthusiasm what you should be doing. You hear hundreds of potential experiments, and instead of getting really excited about the science, all you can think is: ”What is my mom going to say when I’m in the lab during Christmas AGAIN*?!?” In this case, just be enthusiastic with your PI, and then wait till the storm passes and ze starts to think realistically about these experiments. Think about what you want to do, and what you think makes no sense at all, and then talk about it in a week or so.

*My mom was very understanding when I was running behavioral experiments during Christmas 3 years in a row. It helped that my parents live only a 2 hour drive away from the lab, so I was just in time for dinner.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Advice to the grad-student-me

The other day SciCurious wrote a post about “Knowing what you know now”, talking about what advice you would give yourself if you could go back in time. She got the idea from The Molecular Ecologist who is hosting a carnival about it. All together this will probably create a boat load of excellent advice for grad students, post-docs and young faculty! But knowing myself, I will probably think that I know it better than anyone else and not take all that good advice. Although maybe I would from myself… As a giver of unsolicited advice, here is my two cents: (it’s mostly very practical advice)

Write down everything, even the most trivial things. You may think you will remember the sequence of turning on machines for a certain experiment, but if you don’t use it for a year you won’t.

Don’t start to do an experiment without thinking it through. Even something simple as putting a rat on an elevated plus maze can fail.

Don’t think an experiment through too much, because if you realize the full extent of a 24 hour time course when you have to take samples every 2 hours, you may not even want to start the experiment.

When your PI tells you to do something you don’t want to do, just say yes and then don’t do it. Don't make a fuss about it in a meeting. Ze will most likely have forgotten you talked about it. The only exception to this rule is when the same thing keeps coming up at different meetings. Think about it and if you really don’t want to do it,just say so.

Then some very specific advice: In my home country, the grant system for post-docs and early faculty allows a certain number of years after obtaining your PhD in which you can apply for those grants. However, since the grant deadlines are sometimes only once a year, it can make a huge difference if you’ve defended your thesis on 12/20/09 or on 1/5/10, because in the latter case you will be allowed to apply for the grant a whole year longer (grant deadline is the first week of January for the post-doc grant). No one tells you about this but it may make or break your career. So the take-home message here is: Know what the rules are before you start!

Yes, that's MY hand holding MY thesis!
And I want to end with my most important advice, which is enjoy it! Even if science sometimes makes you cry I find it very important to enjoy what I’m doing. Celebrate the small things, even if that means dancing around in the lab when your positive control is actually positive. Celebrate the big things big! A good way to celebrate finishing your PhD is by getting your thesis printed as a book. In the home country that is required, but even if it’s not, it’s awesome to have your own book on your shelf to remind yourself of the blood, sweat and tears time and energy you dedicated to getting your PhD.