Thursday, March 9, 2017

attending science conferences in early pregnancy

Traveling to neuroscience conferences has been such a major part of the last 7 years of my life that I now consider myself a pro. What I am absolutely not a pro at is traveling while pregnant.

This year on International Women's Day, I attended my first scientific conference as a pregnant woman.

This week, I am 16 weeks pregnant. I am starting to show. And I flew from California to Maryland for the first conference of my post doc. It was a long (fortunately non-stop) flight. It was a week of putting myself in front of new people and assertively introducing myself, and semi-hiding my condition.

Here is what I learned about flying during early pregnancy:

1. Nobody is going to offer to help you. I was able to lift my own carry-on into the overhead storage, but if you are not, find a nice looking person to ask for help. It's not worth the round ligament pain.

2. Whether it's to pee every 20 minutes (me) or just to get up every hour or so to stretch your legs and relieve your back (me) or belly cramps (me), you are likely to turn a few eyes. People are nosy on planes -- what else do they have to look at? What helped me was to make sure I got an aisle seat, and sit toward the middle/back of the plane where families tend to sit. Families will be moving around as much as you are. No one will judge you. If you strategically cradle your fledgling baby-bump, someone will likely even ask you how far along you are.

Here is what I learned about conference attendance during early pregnancy:

1. Stay hydrated. Most conferences provide water and chamomile tea for those stringently avoiding caffeine. Do not shy away from keeping hydrated in order to avoid getting up during one of the day's 22 seminars. Because I have Crohn's disease, I am comfortable going to the bathroom whenever I have to, sometimes wherever I have to. I have built up a mild immunity to people judging me for getting up to leave the room every 20 minutes. But if you are uncomfortable, sit in an outside edge seat or toward the back (I personally hate the back).

2. Bring snacks. Although continental breakfasts are typically safe (breads, fruit, yogurt), lunch is always a toss-up and dinner can be as well. Because I also have Crohn's disease, my diet excludes dairy and red meat. If the salad is pre-dressed, if the potatoes are doused in cream sauce, if the only protein is steak -- forget about it. With my personal pregnancy restrictions (no deli meat, no hotel fish, etc.) I am even more limited. I kept apples and carrot sticks in my bag throughout the conference. I splurged on room service so that Neonate and I could have late night nourishment when needed.

3. Not drinking coffee is really hard. I'm not normally a coffee drinker; tea is my hot beverage of choice. At conferences, however, I depend on 1-3 cups of coffee a day to keep me at attention and socially present. Since my body is not used to high input of caffeine, it's not something I'm about to test during my pregnancy so I've just avoided coffee altogether. I'm finding that this means that during my many walks to the restroom throughout the day, I quicken my pace and take a few stairs for stimulation. But I also skip out on a session here or there to lay down and relax (and again, to give my back some relief).

I ended up having a great time over my three day event. Have fun and put yourself out there. People are not nearly as observant as your nerves give them credit for.

Monday, March 6, 2017

on challenging your post doctoral mentor

When I interviewed at my now postdoc lab, I was told by my mentor and lab personnel that he was good at getting grants. When I pointedly asked if he was good at helping his students and postdocs get grants, the answers I got were more along the lines of "he is invested in our future and is good at helping us and being available."

At the time, I did not recognize this as a misdirection.

In my 6 months, I have been preparing to apply for 3 fellowships, all of which are specific to first-year postdocs. This preparation includes some confidence in my own grant writing skills: I was particularly well trained in graduate school, I have a good track record, I am good at it.

In my postdoc, this self-knowledge has seemed to fly out the window. There is something to be said for waiting to challenge your boss and colleagues until you understand their approaches and methods. All labs have a different style, all lab PI's do things a bit differently. And so, I initially questioned but did not challenge my boss, even though his input on my fellowship proposals seemed wildly inappropriate for the fellowship goals:
We had a brief meeting after I showed him my first draft, and he made suggestions about the experimental approach that I thought were very extravagant and outside the goals of the fellowship. When I asked whether he thought this would be problematic for reviewers, he said, "absolutely not. Reviewers should be able to look at the track record of our lab and conclude that we are obviously equipped to do whatever we propose." That is paraphrasing, of course, but it was a huge red flag. Nevertheless, I believed that my mentor simply did things differently and it had obviously worked for him. For him. And I chose to go with it and compromise out of trust because he is my mentor.
Only weeks later did I learn that although my mentor may be good at getting his own grants, he has a terrible track record of helping his students and postdocs get grants. Seconds after learning this I realized that I should have challenged him earlier on; it might have made all of the difference if I had just pushed back harder. I beat myself up for days, simultaneously trying to rescue my grant proposal without totally discarding my mentor's input. This was the end of my career, I thought. He has sabotaged me. I have sabotaged myself.

I made my first deadline. The other two are coming up in two weeks. If I somehow manage to get them submitted in acceptable form it will be no small miracle.

As I navigate several situations like this with my post doctoral advisor, the most important thing that I am learning is that putting trust in your mentor or boss is not a weakness. It is their job to rise to the occasion of leadership. Caution as you learn to understand your mentor's personality, communication style and ego is not a weakness -- just the opposite, it reflects your propensity to learn and adapt. And should you lose out on an opportunity during this learning period, before you are prepared to straight-up disagree, be kind to yourself. There will be other -- although, perhaps different -- opportunities.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

New year, new healthcare

As I mentioned briefly last post, HMO healthcare was unsustainable given the options in my current system. I was advised by my new gastroenterologist -- the singular physician who I like and have kept from my HMO plan -- that PPO was the only way to go for an individual with a chronic illness.

And boy, was he right.

As of January 1st, 2017, I have been covered by the PPO plan offered by my University for postdoctoral researchers. It is much more expensive than the postdoc HMO, but much less expensive than most other insurance policies available to those not employed by non-profit or government organizations:

  • the providers are better, 
  • provider options are more diverse,
  • I am not beholden to a curmudgeonly primary care physician who begrudges that his job is largely to dish out referrals to specialists,
  • and I don't have to drive 45 min to every single appointment.
One of the better decisions I have made in my life, and a not-insignificant motivation to stick it out for another year or so in my current job position.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Black Hole of Early Postdocdom

If I were ever directly asked in an interview what my biggest weakness is, what I would say out loud is my risk of over-commitment which can lead to burn-out if I am not mindful. But that is not my actual biggest weakness as a professional.

My biggest weakness is fear of appearing less than independent. Which often leads me to a lack of asking for help, even when I know this might speed things along. Which leads to stunted progress and lack of momentum.

I have spent the first month of my post doc in a Sisyphus-style loop of working as independently as possible, then running into a major road-block which forces me to overcome my fear of being burdensome to ask for a small bit of advice from a colleague/mentor. From there, I begin pushing my rock uphill again.

In the lab that I was incredibly fortunate to join, there are teams of scientists whose independent research is connected by a common theme (i.e., a disease, a biological systems function). When I interviewed to join the lab, I met my likely future teammates and was thrilled to be able to work alongside and get to know them. However, the week before I started my PI advised a complete project switch [allegedly] based on facilitating my career goals. Now, I don't really have a team. I am isolated both conceptually and geographically from everyone except the lab manager (who is fabulous, but not the person from whom I need to absorb training).

My "team" consists of two tangential and very senior [read: checked out or physically not around] lab members, who I have to force to meet together once a month, and who I occasionally see individually during the week. I am pursuing experiments on my own using techniques that I have never used, in an environment where I have not been shown the rules of conduct (e.g., which centrifuges are so old they have particularities, or that we have a core of microscopes instead of our own). This forces me to ask any one of the 52 members of the lab where things are, how to arrange time on apparatus, and how to generally function in this world.

Everyone is very kind and helpful with small or vague bits of information, but without teammates I am not being trained, nor ingesting information about my new field beyond the literature. I am trouble-shooting in re-inventing the wheel when I should instead be trouble-shooting new questions and pursuing experiments that at least have the illusion of forward momentum.

I have always been in smaller labs prior to my post doc, but this massive operation with 12 postdocs among many others is a whole new world for me. Etiquette is different. Expectations are different. Independence is different. I have met with my new PI once since I started 6 weeks ago, and still being in the early stage of needing to appear competent was too scared to bring up any questions of real substance.


The black hole of Early Postdocdom is eclipsed only by the ominous cloud that is HMO health insurance, and the anxiety over missing my first treatment in 7 years due to inherent absurdities of the "system".

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

first guest post!

Earlier this week I was thrilled to be able to write a guest post for the Portrait of a Scientist as a Young Woman blog, of which I have been a huge fan for several years.

My first day at New Job is tomorrow.  I expect it to be slow-going, as my project focus has changed drastically since I interviewed.  In the midst of relief that I hadn't spent all summer becoming an expert in my earlier project (procrastination, for the win!), I am beginning to feel the true weight of entering into the unique position of post doc, a.k.a, Expert Novice.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

on taking "time off"

Free time is a strange thing.

When I arranged the time interval graduation and beginning my postdoc, I was advised by several reputable and wide-ranging sources to take 2-3 months off if at all possible. It was, so I did.

I approached this time with dread, fearing that in three months away from the bench I would lose pipetting and critical thinking skills alike. That I would swiftly facilitate moving to New Job City and spend two months traveling but mostly bored out of my mind. That is not even remotely what happened.

It took two beastly months to move to New Job City, during which I also became H.K.'s interim administrative assistant as he generously moved his expanding Company to said city. When the dust began to settle, I worked furiously for weeks to transfer medical referrals and authorizations so that I would not miss my next treatment. A nightmare, which culminated yesterday in the most sketch and traumatizing infusion I have ever experienced [in 7 years, y'all].

The "to-read" tower beside my bed has been marginally reduced. Our new domicile now feels like a Home. I have taken up and played a substantial amount of Hearthstone. I've indulged in some delicious wine. Last week, our typical world travel logistics reversed as I followed H.K. to Europe for one of his conventions.

It's been time well-spent, and now that I have one week left before New Job begins, I am feeling a bit of panic. Because contrary to my early anticipation, I am not sure that I'm ready for it to be over. I'm mildly afraid to return to the bench, because although these last three months have been productive, I wanted to do so much more. And concern lingers that I may have forgotten how to pipet or design experiments.

Then, of course, there is the existential deliberation over whether the ability to refrain from reading literature for three months -- excepting the occasional abstract (which shocks me to my core, btw) -- means that I am not a serious scientist.


Through all of this, the Crohn's baby has been restless. Unleashing a roller coaster tantrum the likes of which I have not experienced in years. Although I have semi-successfully transitioned to a New Job City Gastroenterologist, and been "controlling" symptoms with diet, over-the-counter and donation-accepting remedies... let's just say I spent plenty of Euros visiting Europe's public toiletten/s.

Friday, July 22, 2016

new beginnings

It seems to have been 3 years since I either gave up on and/or forgot about writing here.  But having some time on my hands to revisit some old posts and comments, I'm so very glad to have these memories, thought processes and states of mind cataloged.

Two months ago, I successfully defended my PhD, something which I could barely fathom in a realistic way when I started this blog.  Not only that, I will be starting a post doctoral fellowship in September in a lab whose size, prestige, momentum, warmth and [dare I say] luxurious environment I was not prepared for.  Once again, H.K. and I relocated for my career.  He and his career are flourishing.  All of this I can review in a later post.  It is likely worth reflecting in summary on my graduate experience and finding the way forward.

For now, a period has ended, and there is a way forward.  But for the first time in my conscience existence, I don't know where it will lead.  And that is both terrifying and exulting.