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.

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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.