Guest Post: How a two hour commute changed my research (for the better)

This guest post is written by Amanda Keener, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill in Microbiology and Immunology interested in science writing. You can check out more pieces from Amanda at http://amandabkeener.wordpress.com/. Here she offers excellent advice on maximizing productivity and minimizing stress in grad school. The floor is yours Amanda!  

I’ll never forget the time I responded to my lab mate’s complaints about his twenty minute commute to campus by asking “well, why do live so far away?”  To me, there was no reason to live more than a few miles away from lab. I expected to work long hours and had no desire to have to do more than hop on a free town bus or a bicycle at the end of the day.  I found a happy little rental in a walkable, well-bused part of town and stayed there for over three years.  In that time, I met a guy, he moved to a thousand miles away, we stayed together, we got engaged,  he moved back to my state and we decided to get married.  His new job was two hours away from my happy little rental, so we’d both have to make sacrifices if we wanted to live together. This is how I ended up commuting fifty miles to lab each way—a situation I mourned and resented at first.  I now recognize the positive impacts it’s has had on my research, and see lessons in it that other students may also find useful.

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Partitioning real life from lab

I’m quite effective at keeping my private life out of work, but I sure have trouble keeping work out of my private life.  My research could be on my mind at any time of day, any day of the week—especially when something in lab isn’t going right.  It was hard not to feel guilty about not being in lab when I lived only two miles away.

Being fifty miles away is actually kind of freeing.  I’m not tempted to beat myself up over not going to lab on the weekend.  I’ve had to discern what’s urgent and what’s not. On weekdays, the drive home is a fantastic “de-fusing” period that allows me reset before I walk in the door. I have a completely separate, satisfying life at home, and I’m allowed to enjoy it even if I’m in the midst of troubleshooting frustrations at lab.

Intentional scheduling

Once I moved I knew I had to shape up my schedule. Commuting costs me two hours a day and I can no longer run home for dinner during an incubation or set up an experiment that would require a 5 minute step on a Saturday or Sunday. My time is now starkly partitioned. I plan my experiments weeks in advance and only schedule certain types of assays on certain days of the week.  This means I have built-in time for planning experiments and writing up results.  It also means that on long experiment days I can immediately start working without spending an hour in the morning drinking coffee and writing protocols.  This works especially well for long term animal studies because it lets me give my PI (and myself) realistic expectations for my progress.  I am more flexible with shorter day-to-day experiments, but set weekly deadlines so I don’t put anything off for too long.

Fine-tuning my research

My first couple of years in lab were defined by a pattern of constant, often thoughtless “doing.” I felt that as long as I was active, I must be making progress. But a pile of uninterpretable data isn’t exactly progress. I realized if I was going to justify my new commuting lifestyle, I needed to be more critical about which experiments absolutely had to be done to answer a specific question. I stopped doing experiments just because they were suggested by my advisor or a collaborator in passing.  I decided I would only set up experiments that I felt truly fit into my research plan.

Of course this hinged on actually having a research plan, so I had to commit to one that I could point to when my PI brought up rabbit trail experiments to do. This doesn’t mean she can’t convince me that an experiment fits, but it forces her to take a comprehensive view of my project, even if just for an hour before she gives me a list of things to do and goes off to think about someone else’s project, a grant, invoices, etc. (I’m not against exploratory or risky research. I just don’t think it’s advisable for a graduate student late in her career.)

Respect for my time

Before moving, I thought nothing of a quick trip to lab over the weekend. This strategy often backfired, though, because I was more likely to put off tasks during week and dissipate my focus and productivity in lab. Moving has forced me to be more efficient while I’m in lab, and to reserve weekends for reading and writing. If there are enough tasks to fill up several hours on a Saturday, I consider the drive worthwhile, but taking control of my calendar helps me avoid that. What it really comes down to is having respect for my time.

Respecting my time helped relieve that guilty feeling that used to come when I left lab at 3pm, even if I intended to spend the rest of the evening analyzing data. I came to realize I’m not in a corporate job, I’m not a customer service representative and I don’t have to hang around until someone needs my services. I am in lab to learn skills, do experiments, and confer with my advisor and others about my science. There is an appropriate level of making yourself available to help others in the lab, so I’ve had to learn to communicate my schedule to be respectful of their time as well.

Carpooling

About six months into my commuting life I found a carpool buddy on a listserv. He too is a grad student and is commuting due to his and his wife’s job circumstances. Carpooling (and commiserating) with a fellow grad student has had a great impact on my outlook on school. In the past, I could go for months without having a conversation with another student about troubles in lab and the frustration of an uncertain future. My isolation gave me a sense that I was the only one having those troubles. Comparing experiences and brainstorming several times a week with another student has broadened my perspective.

No regrets

Sometimes I really miss this one long steep hill that I used to ride my bike down on the way home from work. I would bounce my front tire up and down while the houses and trees whooshed past me on either side. But at the end of my ride, all there was to come home to was Skype.  I don’t regret the trade-off I made. Yes there are many downsides—like increasing my carbon footprint—but I’m glad to have had a chance to redefine my approach and outlook on lab research. My situation won’t last much longer, and in the meantime, I just offset my carbon footprint by eating less red meat.

You Know You’re in a Chemistry Lab If

Recently I’ve been consuming copious amounts of LOTR and it triggered the memory of a realization I came to about a year ago. I had accompanied my roommate to a party thrown by her lab, overflowing with analytical chemists. The big news circulating the party was that “The Hobbit” would now be released in three parts instead of two. This was received with some trepidation that the story would be unnecessarily drawn out, countered with more intel that actually the footage would include appendices from the LOTR trilogy to beef up the plot. And yes, I did contribute quite a bit to this conversation. That’s mainly because I had participated in the exact same conversation earlier that day with the people in my lab (an organic lab).

This led to the realization that lab conversations, as they are conducted by similarly science minded people, are probably not as unique as I might have thought. In fact maybe my concerns and yet barely contained excitement for the forthcoming “Ender’s Game” movie are being expressed right now in another lab. All of this to say, I’ve been inspired to put this list together:

You know you’re in a chemistry lab if…

-Someone nearby is quoting from Futurama, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, LOTR, Firefly or Battlestar Galactica and at least one other person recognizes it almost immediately

-It takes approximately 3-5 minutes to clear the room when the fire alarm goes off, but only 15 seconds if someone announces “free food” – if you’ve missed the aforementioned announcement no one is coming back for you

-There is a stash of middle-shelf liquor within reach in case you have a really shitty day or the reviews for your manuscript you sent out 29 days ago finally come back or the latter causes the former

-You joke about getting cancer in your old age from exposure to chemicals in lab, but when you accidentally spill half a liter of DCM on your arms, your worry secretly grows

-All of your best glassware mysteriously disappears when you go on vacation – as an older and shrewder member of the lab you have done well to hide that precious 25 mL two-neck round bottom flask

-At least one person in your vicinity is having a meltdown because their cumulative exams/orals/independent proposal/defense is coming soon and they don’t feel nearly prepared enough

-You have at least one skunky beer tucked away in your desk from the last lab happy hour 5 months ago

Beer in desk

Exhibit A – Skunky beer next to emergency shower change of clothes *god forbid*

-Someone makes a compound that smells either really good or really bad and everyone congregates to evaluate and express their opinion – “I think it smells like licorice with a tinge of burnt rubber”

-You feel guilty when you’re not there – more on that here

-Half of the people around you are listening to podcasts in their headphones, and probably the same one

-Survival plans in case of a zombie apocalypse have been seriously discussed, specifically if basic chemistry knowledge will or will not be helpful post-Armageddon

-You’re waiting til after 6PM to post this to your blog 😉

This may vary as I have of course based this off of my own experiences in a single lab space for the past four years with the same people. I’d be delighted to hear your own staples of lab life, pleasant or not, you choose, just comment here or use #youknowyouareinlabif on twitter!

Rewriting History – The Art of Presenting Research

Chart of seminar attn levels

[Note: attention levels only reach 100% at the very beginning, when people are scoping out the snacks.. ooo teddy grahams, what a nice surprise]

A few weeks ago, my labmate Andrew and I were chatting about grad school reform (a recurring topic) as we rotavapped, and he shared with me some interesting observations about research talks. He began by pointing out that as young graduate students, we are taught that the key to giving a good research talk is to tell a compelling story. We also learn that if it is beneficial to the “story,” it is perfectly acceptable to present results out of chronological order. And it was this common practice of rearranging findings that left him feeling unsettled.

My first instinct was to reply that of course, people do that all the time because logical progressions help the audience absorb large amounts of data and follow the presenter’s thought process. Ah ok now I see what you’re getting at.. the latter part of that statement is not always true. In fact, it’s rare that the sequence of events presented in a seminar reflect the actual timeline. While chemists generally do start off with well precedented and grant worthy hypotheses, a lot of research is still done pretty empirically. And after a reaction has failed about 15 times you start resorting to those random/obscure reagents and hope the chemistry gods will just take pity and reward your perseverance.

Here’s the heart of the matter: is the reorganization of data actually dishonest and who does this really benefit? While this practice doesn’t violate ethical guidelines nearly to the extent of fraudulent data, there is some degree of misrepresentation. Also, let me say that I have seen talks where the presenter is pretty forthright and will admit they took a shot in the dark and were only able to later rationalize the result. I think audiences are receptive to honesty because we’re all too familiar with the process of coming up with an idea, testing it, having it fail and repeating until you arrive at something publishable. So would it be better for people to hear the buttoned up version that flatters someone’s intellectual prowess, or the factual series of events accompanied by real-time interpretations (hit or miss) of the results.

Personally, I’m not sure which I would prefer. Failed reactions don’t always lend themselves to exciting talks, but there is certainly value in sharing this information to save others from the same dead end. I especially enjoy when speakers acknowledge the role of serendipity, because 1) it’s true and 2) it doesn’t perpetuate this image of scientists as all-knowing (which is not true).

I’d be interested to find out if this is a common practice across other scientific fields or if its evolution is specific to organic chemistry. In any case, we shouldn’t accept these norms just because everyone does it; instead we need to be critically assessing the way we communicate and perform science. Scientists seek the truth of natural phenomena through experimentation, but our job doesn’t end once we’ve obtained the data. The federal funding system dictates that we share our knowledge with the community, but how we do so is entirely up to us.

That Ever-Present Grad School Guilt

I saw this tweet on Sunday and thought ‘good for you Josh!’.. followed by.. ‘yea, enjoy that rare moment of grad school work/life balance’.. then.. ‘hmm wait but you are still working on a Sunday…’ And for some context, I was thinking all of this while running columns in lab where I spent most of my day. (Note – but of course I had to be there because I didn’t come in Saturday)

While collecting fractions I began to wonder.. why is it that any absence from lab is accompanied by such acute feelings of guilt? Why do we wait at our desks til 6 or 7pm even though we’ve already run the days columns, set up X amount of reactions that have to go overnight, are waiting on compounds to arrive and are too tired to actually absorb another paper? And why was I compelled to add that sidenote about making up for labtime missed on Saturday? (Which I literally cannot bring myself to delete – probably for fear of being called out by a mysterious synthetic watchgroup for misrepresenting my work schedule)

Yes, this guilty behaviour is self-inflicted and in theory we should be able to regulate when and to what extent we experience this annoying emotion. However, I think this reaction is pretty prevalent across graduate students. So what are the underlying factors, real or perceived, that contribute to this pressure that we should be spending an alarming portion of our time in lab.

The lion’s share of expectations probably come from your advisor, who has a vested interest in students working long hours because it should result in papers, grants, tenure and overall strengthen their chemical legacy. PIs are pretty explicit about the amount of hours (reasonable or not) they want you to be in lab, and can tie this to your graduation date, over which they have complete control.  (That sentence screams for grad program reforms, which I look forward to discussing in a separate and future post) So yes, this pressure is real, and it’s pretty much out of your hands so just figure out how to operate at really high stress levels.

That leaves us to consider influences that can actually be dealt with, namely expectations that we perceive from our peers and impose on ourselves.  A certain department’s reputation for back-breaking hours may be perpetuated by students who either have been indoctrinated to this policy or simply do not want to call attention to themselves by bucking the norm.  Perpetuation may take the form of simply adhering to the policies, or going one step further and judging the reputation of others who do not put in the requisite hours. This could effectively make you feel bad, but (and I’ve alluded to this), it can do little else.

As for self-induced standards, that is to be expected among a group of highly ambitious people in graduate programs.  However, the key to avoiding guilt lies in setting respectable yet attainable goals for yourself. We have to recognize that energy spent worrying is energy wasted, and instead find a way to channel this remorse into future productive accomplishments. Lastly, try to take as many Sunday’s off as possible. It is after all the only day you can stay away from lab guilt-free.