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.