Thursday, August 29, 2013

This is your brain on pregnancy

Last pregnancy, I did mostly experimental work and very little writing. That was nice, as my auto-pilot worked very well, but my thinking and focus abilities seemed a bit disturbed by being pregnant. This time around, I still need to finish 4 grants before this baby is due by the end of November. Truth be told, one is a resubmission and the other three have been in the making for a couple months, so I still think this is very doable. However, I do feel that some days my ability to stay focused and remember where I read something, or which paper to refer to seems a bit off. Is this really a pregnancy thing? Is something happening to my brain?! The all-knowing Dr. Oz says the following about it

 “Dr. Oz says a woman's brain also shrinks by about 8 percent. "You don't lose cells. The cells get smaller," he says. "It might be because you're focused on one thing, but the good news is after you give birth, your brain begins to rewire quickly. … Your brain actually gets more powerful than before you got pregnant."

Apparently he knows more than the rest of us, because the only data I could find were structural MRI studies showing that indeed the brain shrinks a bit, and the ventricles containing cerebrospinal fluid get a bit bigger when you are pregnant. The 8% (that you read on a lot of popular pregnancy websites by the way) seems to be a bit much too, as this study for example just finds a change of approximately 4% in brain size (in healthy pregnant women that is, women with preeclampsia have more brain shrinkage). And with MRI there is really no way that one can say that this is your cells shrinking and especially not that after birth your brain rewires quickly: you can simply not see that on an MRI.

Yes, this is your brain on pregnancy, from this study. A is the pre-pregnant brain, and B is the pregnant brain, at full term. Note that the ventricles are enlarged in B. (Are you also that annoyed by popular science magazines saying “this is your brain on… [insert whatever] and then show a picture of an MRI? Me too!)

So yes, your brain gets a bit smaller when you are pregnant. But does a 4% decrease in size affect your ability to write grants? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

There's so much emptiness here!

Coming from a country that's just a little bigger than the state of Maryland, but with more than three times as many inhabitants, I am not used to seeing a lot of empty land. Wherever you are in my homecountry, you're usually just a short car (or bicycle!) ride away from the nearest supermarket. However, here in the States I am always astounded by the amount of emptiness, for example when we were driving through Wyoming on our way back from Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

 Look at that, there's just NOTHING there! It always gives me a bit of reverse claustrophobia. Is there a word for that?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

#PubScience #scimom edition

Yesterday I stayed up past my normal bedtime to participate in #PubScience organized by @DrIsis and @MTomasson. We talked about being a parent in science, and you can watch the episode here and below (do it! It’s a lot of fun and an interesting conversation).

I had to leave about an hour in because BlueEyes woke up and needed some comforting. And then I fell asleep, because as I said: this was past my tired-pregnant-self bedtime. Talking about being a scimom.

What I wanted to clarify is that when I talked about one of the parents stepping back to make sure the other can excel in their job, both Dr. Isis and Dr. Rubidium said that that was a very privileged situation being able to take a step back. I agree that parents that have to work double shifts at McDonalds in order to be able to support their families probably have a way harder time than us academics do. But while there are usually people that have a harder time than others in whichever aspect of their life, for me this is still an issue in my life and therefore worth discussing. I see people around me where one of the parents decide to take a step back, taking a job where you are not expected to travel to meetings, you are not expected to work late nights to make deadlines and you don’t need to be in the lab on the weekend because your experiments require that. By doing this, they give up the dream of becoming a tenure track scientist. Even though I think doing this will increase the chances for my husband (and the other way around) neither of us is ready to do this.

Also, while we were discussing all this, on twitter some people were wondering if, after hearing all this, they were ever going to want to have babies. I have this to say about that (and I may have said this before on my blog or anywhere else): For me, having a baby was an entirely different desire than wanting to be a kick-ass scientist (preferable in academia). I know I would be very sad if I would be forced to leave science because I cannot work hard enough/publish enough papers/get enough grants, but I would have been heartbroken if I didn’t have kids. So for me it’s not kids or career, it’s kids and then see how far I can get in my career.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Should I stay or should I go? –part 2

Part 1 can be found here and is about staying in Europe or going for a post-doc abroad. This one is about staying in academia or not. I’m clearly not the only one pondering this.

I know I’ve written about this before, but the question whether I am going to stay in academia or not came on the foreground a bit more after having received a faculty position rejection (from the homecountry) and a fellowship rejection. I guess it is safe to guestimate that given my CV and ideas I usually rank in the top 15-20% when applying for grants and fellowships (yup, the n is large enough to guestimate this from). Given the current funding situation, this might not be enough. And FYI, the homecountry (to which we are sure we will return now that husband has a position there) does not have the equivalent of SLACs, so the option to do research there does not exist. 

I gave myself another year(ish) to get a position and/or grants and if that doesn’t work, I’m going to look for something else. But is that a good strategy or should I start looking now and determine what skills I need and get those skills now? And won’t that take away from the energy that I need to spend on getting myself from the top 15-20% to the top 10 or whatever % that is necessary to succeed? How do other people do this? Can you do both at the same time? Please enlighten me, people who have successfully transitioned out of academia AND people who have looked outside academia but decided to stay (and anyone else with something useful to say)!

Friday, August 2, 2013

What's in my desk?

Obviously I'm procrastinating finishing my to-do list, so here's my contribution to Dr. Isis' What's in your Desk-Meme.
1. Three nutmegs. A colleague gave them over a year ago, but what are you going to do with whole nutmegs..?

2. A converter-thing to plug my apple laptop into the projector. Sadly said apple laptop died 3 years ago.

3. An empty vial of Alexa Fluor 568.

4. A laser pointer that is also a pen. However, the laser pointer doesn't work anymore.

5. A whole bunch of invitations to my thesis defense and party, they were supposed to go into my thesis booklet, but I forgot.

6. A whole bunch of cage cards from experimental animals that are no longer with us.

7. Empty (and used for crackers) ziplock bags. You never know when they might come in handy.

Outside the picture but in my drawer (because it's kind of awkward to take a picture of your drawer with 3 other people in your office: Shea lip butter from The Body Shop and an empty tiny vial of Ralph Lauren Glamorous.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

On gender-neutral toys

I really appreciate that my parents tried to raise us with gender-neutral toys. My brother and I both had a doll (my brother had a boy-doll and I had a girl-doll, with actual boy and girl bodyparts!), we both had legos and we both had musical instruments. Of course this only worked up to a certain level, because my brother liked building things with legos, while I like playing stories with the lego-people (and later I really liked my barbies). But I’m really grateful for the message that you can do the same thing whether you are a boy or a girl.

I think this was easier back in the 80s, judging from the type of legos adds you had then.
I think this add is awesome, it instantly makes me want to play with legos!

Nowadays, in some stores it seems that gender-neutral toys are non-existent in some stores (check out  this post from Dr. Isis for example). However, we do try to give BlueEyes the notion that you can play with whatever you want. He has a doll, pans to cook with (but in our house cooking is not necessary a women’s job anyway), and trains and cars. 

But last weekend we went to get him a helmet for on his balance bike. At target they only have helmets with Disney princesses or with cars. And BlueEyes liked the pink one with Disney princesses the most. On the one hand I wanted him to be free to choose which one he wanted, but I was also a bit afraid about the judgment from the older kids in our neighborhood and the kids at his daycare. So in the end I persuaded him into thinking that the blue helmet with a car on it was more comfortable than the pink one with the Disney princesses and he happily agreed. But I still feel a bit bad about forcing him into society’s strait-jacket of gender-marketed toys. Where are the gender-neutral helmets, Target??!