What I got

14 March, 2008

In early November of 2000, I was in New Orleans at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference. My boyfriend had come along, and we were staying in a beautiful bed-and-breakfast that, needless to say, was NOT on the conference hotels list. It was the internet boom–we ate so well that, to this day, our friends are sick of hearing about this trip. The election was going on–you may recall the election of November 2000 and how, er, stimulating it was. It was my first conference, my first presentation, and I was utterly psyched. SFN is infamous for its size (over 25,000 attendees) and its scope (“neuroscience” can mean almost anything, and at this conference, it does). All the posters and science to see and absorb…and then in the evening, all the ancillary events. Panels, interest groups, receptions, and I belonged there. Everything was possible.

As was my wont, I went to a career panel. I knew even during my undergrad years that academia was not for me, and that I was interested in an “alternative career” (a disgusting ivory tower phrase for the outside world, IMO). Of course, being an idiot who went to grad school for only the dimmest of reasons, I had no idea what I wanted beyond that. So I tried to go to a lot of panels and read a lot of books about “alternative careers.” This panel was not specifically about that–it was intended to present the diversity of options that would lay before me someday in the distant future. Good enough. I vaguely remember that it had a representative from the classic academia tenure track, a science writer, and somebody else–probably a researcher/administrator from industry or biotech.

But I CLEARLY remember the man who represented science policy. He described his days as a science and technology policy fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He had worked in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which did what it sounds like it’d do: assess technology for Congress. An intertube describes it this way: “The OTA was created in 1972 to provide Congress objective analyses of major public policy issues related to scientific and technological change.” A Congresscritter would come to them and ask for a report on any topic under the sun. They’d research it and write it up in a nonpartisan fashion. Another quote:

Holt pointed out how many of the OTA reports, from over a decade ago, are still timely and pertinent, including reports like “Retiring old cars: Programs to save gasoline and reduce emissions,” “Renewing our energy future,” “Potential environmental impacts of bioenergy crop production,” “Innovation and commercialization of emerging technologies,” and “Testing in America’s schools: Asking the right questions.”

This sounded like pure heaven. Then, as now, I was a dilettante, interested in too many things, and I was beginning to see just how fucking stupid I had been to go to graduate school, the entire POINT of which is to train you in specialization. The idea that I could grow up and use my prospective science and research skillz to tackle all sorts of different projects–and for a purpose? To a specific end? (I was also beginning to realize that my penchant for efficiency might have been useful day-to-day, but could never have a place in research as a lifelong endeavour.) Turns out the guy was there specifically to promote the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship that had gotten him to OTA. One needed one’s Ph.D. in hand to apply. Still, I took the application packet and read it cover to cover.

I did the same thing at my next conference, and the next, and at local panels, and eventually I was going to panels and I already knew everything they were saying about the fellowships. When I’d network and discuss science policy, I’d hear about the fellowships and how many doors they opened. In dark research moments I’d read about science policy and notice that nearly everything I read was written by a former fellow. While writing my dissertation, I found an ad for a related job in the back of the journal Science, cut it out and taped it in the “escapism” corner of my desk, near the photos of Paris and the ocean at Sharm el-Sheikh (a resort in Egypt where my sister had spent a summer). When considering jobs, the fact that my current job would put me in DC, where I would have top networking opportunities and learn incredible amounts purely by osmosis, was a consideration.

When I got here, I picked every brain I knew, developed my network, picked their brains, and then asked THEM for people whose brains I could pick. And picked them. All of them said the same thing. You must apply for the AAAS fellowship, it’s invaluable, it’s great, it’s perfect experience and perfect for the resume. They all said it was very competitive and then said they had gotten it on the first try. They all took great pride in telling me a particular insider “secret” about the system, such that when I spoke to a new person and I heard them get quieter and conspiratorial, I knew what was coming. I acted surprised each time.

The time finally came: my career had reached a turning point. I was on top of my field and had to either fight to stay there or bow out. The deadlines and start dates and end dates of my commitments and the fellowship lined up perfectly. So I applied. I came out to my boss as an alternative-career lover. I converted valuable research-world patrons into references in fields where they were virtually unknown. I spent valuable research time, time that our rivals were using to do science, writing my application. I doubted my decision when research went well, stood by it when not. I wrote and wrote and wrote about myself (the app was an essay, a CV, another essay, and a biography). I asked for help from aforementioned network. When they started giving me contradictory advice based on their personalities, I knew I had worked it for all it was worth. I sent it in and I waited. I got an interview and one last hoop: write a one-page memo about something and in the interview you will present it and we will ask questions. I sat down to write the memo and I realized that, after all these years of saying “I want to do science policy,” I didn’t know what “policy” meant. I figured it out. I sent it in. I interviewed.

I got the email at noon today: I got the fellowship. Now it’s 8. And I have no idea what to do now.

The best feeling in research

22 February, 2008

When your experiment succeeds late on a Friday! Sends you home right!

(The worst feeling: well, you can figure it out.)

Aaaaah, what a nice feeling. I’ve been out of it, lab-wise, for weeks. This week I finally snap into what’s going on, step on people’s toes in my struggle to make them explain it to me, and in two days I’ve solved a problem that had been tripping the lab up for weeks.

That’s just how I roll.

(And now off I go to my phone-less, internet-less home, and neighbors who practice good wireless network security techniques. Damn them! Damn you, Verizon! Goodbye, sweet Internets…)

the coffeeshop matrix

13 January, 2008

Once, this blog broke ground with its characterization of the “Woo Girl.” The post made quite a splash, but as is common in science, following up is harder than it looks.

Let’s explore a new idea. I’ve been working more at coffeeshops the last few months and it is time to do a rigorous comparison. By which I mean, graphs. All we need is 3 variables, and we can graph coffeeshop quality. In 3-D And color.  In 3-D color! Maybe even rotating 3-D color!! Doesn’t that thrill you? You can even pick the colors.

And all we need to make it happen is your data! In the comments, please classify DC-area coffeeshops that you know well on at least these three measures:

  • Ambience
  • Internets/work
  • Fare

We can, of course, think of many other judging criteria: we could break any of those categories down into their own three subgroups, for example. But at a minimum please at least give a 1-10 rating on the above three factors for each establishment.

Here is an example.

CRUMBS AND COFFEE: Adams Morgan, on Columbia above 18th

  • Ambience: 3. Fluorescent lighting, soft-rock music station, small, not terribly comfy chairs, fluorescent lighting, and does not make you feel all “I’m cool, I’m in a coffeshop, I have tattoos and a think tank job which lets me telecommute and I am blogging RIGHT NOW,” which another area cafe, which shall remain nameless, aims for. No, it doesn’t go for anything ambience-wise (which of course makes today’s creative class hipster feel an “I’m too cool to care about tattoos and blogging, and also, actual workmen who do actual work come in here every now and then which makes me feel like I am communing with the working class” ambience). In the plus column, smallness is such that it never really feels crowded, non-chatty counter service, large windows mitigate the lighting, and you’d be surprised how often a soft-rock-station tune will make you sing along or at least send you down memory lane.
  • Internets: 6. Great free wi-fi which is on 7 days a week, unlike another area cafe, which shall remain nameless. Outlet situation moderate to good although some serious tripwire situations can occur (yay, MacBook Pro with the magnetic power dingus). Tables and counter a bit too high and close for comfort.
  • Fare: 7. Ice cream as well as the regular array of pastry/sandwiches. Unpretentious selection but lackluster presentation. I don’t think I’ve actually had the coffee, I’m transitioning to tea…but I can report that they don’t use cereal-bowl-sized cups like another area mugs, which shall remain nameless. This is much of the reason for the high score, in fact.  I hate those mugs with the passion of, hmm, let’s say 19 suns.

Let’s hear it! Science needs YOU!

Notes

15 March, 2007

Some email subject lines today:

Subject: Urgent massage

If you ask me, all massages are urgent.

Subject: Temporary Stance Against Windows Vista Use

“DON’T GO IN THERE!

I haven’t posted much about my latest (re-)obsession, which is hip-hop. I’m sad I missed these ladies, who were in town on Monday night (just resubmitted the paper, and worked basically straight through Sunday noon until last night midnight to get it out once and for all). I cannot get over the awesomeness of hardcore feminist MCs. One of them is named Hesta Prynne (Ph.D., have not yet figured out if that’s true and if so in what). Hip-hop* lyrics never sound as cool typed out (I just tried it), so you should check them out yourself.

I got a post in me someday about the paradoxes of working at Tryst. They support the laptop-worky lifestyle on the surface, but don’t give free refills. This is meant to keep people ordering, but one can nurse the dive-in cups most drinks come in for a long time. The service is absolutely awful, but since there are no free refills if they came around more they’d make more money. There are precious few power plugs, so if you get one you tend to camp out, making the place crowded, which would seem to make more money for them, but they don’t work that (see “awful service” above). I think they should get outside the box and charge for free refills by the hour. Say, base price for the first drink and a dollar or so for refills piecemeal or hourly, for all their major drinks? Yeah, but that means more work for their servers and if they wanted more work they would just come around more and make more on actual drinks. Hmm.

Your last note for this beautiful wintry-mix friday: a fascinating story of the consequences of mania.

Car salesman sells new car to woman with bipolar disorder who only came in to have the oil changed in the other, six-month-old, car she bought from them. But she was in a manic state, and easily persuaded to buy a whole new car she totally didn’t need.

Hilarity, and a lawsuit, ensue.

What do you think, hymes? Is she responsible for her actions? (Of course others may comment–I just know hymes will have an opinion :) )


*I find no phrase more difficult to type, for some reason. When I saw Brown Sugar a few years ago, I remember thinking how awful it’d be for me to write a book about hip-hop like Sanaa Lathan’s character was doing.

That’d be pretty silly of you. I call today’s exhibits “have you guys heard of IM?” I just had the following exchange over email.

Collaborator 1: Was our meeting set for tomorrow 2:30?

Me: I have Thursday at 2 in my notes.

C1: (Other Scientist) may be able to come to the meeting, do you still want me to propose that collaboration with him?

Me: [forwarding this suggestion to two labmates] What do you two think?

Labmate 1: I’ll be back tomorrow at 2, will call to discuss this.

82 lines this took. Due to the lovely business-world habit of never deleting anything — not even signatures — from replies/forwarded emails, that last email in the chain was eighty fricking two lines. I can see the point of preserving the paper trail, and do heartily approve of it in theory, but it bothers me aesthetically. And we haven’t even heard from Labmate 2 yet. Who has a long sig.

For Exhibit B, however, we have my interactions with Boss’ Boss, which are characterized by emails so short that the junk Outlook adds after my name in the “To” line is longer than their entire content. He takes the UNIX-command attitude towards communication — if it can be expressed in two or three letters, it will be. He includes a .sig of a few lines — but it has no contact information, just titles. See what I mean? Wouldn’t IM be perfect for both of those?

Waitaminnit you say. Interactions with Boss’ Boss? Who terrified you so in May? Why yes indeed. As I said at the time, he is just a glowery-faced guy who was thinking hard, and nothing was personal. In the intervening months there have been many opportunities for me to make other impressions on him. He’s currently preparing for his own big review of the kind that my boss went through in June, and we collaborate with him on the genetic side of his work, so he is emailing us a lot lately with little questions about this or that gene. And when my boss was out of town last month, guess who got the questions?

Back to work. The fascinating genetic papers that have recently come out, my tentative implementation of the GTD system, and my musings on turning that untrustable age will have to wait.

exposure

21 June, 2006

Originally uploaded by techne.

Now that it’s summer, I have learned what f/22 is for. I had only used the high f-stops before for things like long exposures in dark bars. Well, now I’m shooting stuff outdoors at noon in the brightest light of the year — Honfest a few weekends ago, and last weekend I shot the DC Boxcar Derby for a local newspaper. Thank goodness I had that Honfest experience, because I really learned an AWFUL lot that day that was vital for the Derby. Like what f/22 is for. :)

I’m told that low-light work, which I pretty much get cause I’ve been doing it almost exclusively for the better part of a year, is much harder. Still, I have felt slightly ridiculous lately as I mess up so damn many shots trying to learn how to handle summer light. It’s made me realize why I never got this deep into photography before, despite having the desire. I would have wasted so much time and film by this point it would have discouraged me right out of it. Stuff like dropping off/picking up film in a timely fashion is precisely the sort of life task that I am terrible at. In contrast (ha!) I thrive on digital’s instant feedback.

It’s sort of like languages. Studying for an hour every day, day in and day out…I learn nothing because I get so little reinforcement because the progress is so slow. So I was awful at languages at school. Immersion, though, that would work for me, and when my language courses were more immersion-style, I did much better. Gee, I know it’s shocking, from a blogger whose theme is obsession, that learning languages obsessively is better than measuredly.

OK, back to work. My PI’s big defense-like thing was yesterday. He won’t hear formally for some weeks, but he got excellent feedback, pretty much instantaneously. It’s a frighteningly exciting time to be in this field, and to be where we are. I’ll blog more about it someday. There’s so many good science blogs though, I hesitate to make this into one. I’d really appreciate it if my readership could comment about how much science they do or don’t want to hear. Remember, I can explain anythign to anybody, so if you really do want to understand what I do, we can do that. Or I can just post the fun stuff.

He Should Go Back to "Dude"
White guy: Nigga, please.
White girl: That's not okay. Don't say that.
White guy: Nigga, thank you?
–L train

What an interesting week it's been. The data has been pouring in to such a degree that yesterday, when we heard that a particular long-awaited chunk was finally ready, we all groaned "nooooo!" I've only been in the lab a year or so, but for the lab this is the culmination of years of work. Several disparate strains of work are coming together
all at once. And as the fellow I'm RIGHT IN IT. I've been at the lab until 9 or 10 every night–because I WANT to be, which is odd for me ;) Things are also coming together for me as far as learning all the programs and analyses I need to know. I had been feeling bad because I hadn't really been on top of it, but this is why: I can only learn when I have actual data I care about to learn on.

It's been a decent photography week too. I rescued my gala pictures:

look momb

(Will you look at that hair? I only discovered this year that I had curly hair. It's been fun to play with–it has to be coaxed into it, but boy is it worth it.) (also this is my favorite dress ever, I think.)

Retrospective

I've also been pretty happy with my going-around-town sort of shots:

Work ShoesAnd this weekend promises to be teh awesome, as the flickrites descend on HonFest and Roller Derby. Yes, it's a Very Baltimore Weekend for me. Were I seeing the Orioles tonight instead of the Nats it would round it out nicely. But these should be a lot of fun to shoot. AND THE WEATHER IS STILL HOLDING! HALLELUJAH!

Well, off to it! Today my boss and I meet with BB to discuss our awesome data. We also met with another bigwig this week over his data which we are analyzing and it's supporting ours. And after the meeting on Monday I blogged about, these people know who I am, because I apparently made an impression at one point by talking about the work in terms of patients and how the results would help them. Let's all try not to think about why that would be such a memorable thing to talk about at these levels. (Well, OK, y'all know me….I was also gesticulating in full "I'm trying to convince you with my passion" mode. That's a fairly memorable thing, esp for bigwigs to have it done to them by a lowly fellow. But I've never been known for my ability to be inhibited by status when the true yardstick in the room ought to be ideas. And now they all know that.)

grab bag

6 June, 2006

DC LIFE I don't know what I did to deserve this amazing, fabulous, lovely perfect weather which would be nice even for a temperate city much less a Southern one. The summer misery is my only real problem with living in DC. (Well, that and disenfranchisement.) Even when it was hot last week I was not too upset, figuring I had had my lovely perfect spring and it was OK for summer to start now. So getting ANOTHER nice week….hell, I was CHILLY when I got home tonight. Chilly! In June in DC! Hallelujah!

BASEBALL I've been neglecting one of my obsessions. Why? Because the Cubs had an incredible May…an incredibly BAD May. Their worst May ever and close to their worst month ever…they went 7 and 22, and they pretty much deserved it, too. It was painful even from here. Add that to the fact that I was out of town a lot in May and so couldn't get to any Nats games until Memorial Day — and that their month wasn't so hot either — and baseball's been on the back burner. I expect to be going more now that I'm in town for a few solid weeks. I have not even scored a game all year. I kinda miss it, I'm done with taking bad ballpark shots from my seats.

I do have a sorta-baseball story though, from my friend's wedding in MN. One night at a bar I found myself being wingmanned while a groomsman put the moves on a bridesmaid. Now, the wingmen were married, but had not told us this yet, instead preferring to go to their buddy's wedding alone and ringless and flirt with cute girls. When we found out, we were tres amused and almost started a side bet on how long they could go without mentioning their wives.

Anyway, the bar: I was bored but baseball was on the TV, which made up for it. Wingman and I watched the day's late games finish, and then the recap of the MLB day, all the while talking that nice relaxing baseball chatter. After a bit I found myself double-teamed (heh) as the baseball talk had lured Other Wingman away from his bridesmaid to join our convo. Blah blah, Dusty, Nomar, Barry Bonds (they were from LA)…after about 3 innings of this, the lured one exclaimed, "I don't get it! How is it that a cute baseball fan like you isn't married??"

I should have pointed out how a wife who talked baseball all the time might not be the boon he imagined, but I was laughing too hard. If I had a nickel for every married guy who's swooned over me cause of baseball….well that's about how cheap talk is, cause I'd still be single!  Sheesh.  I do not have this availability problem with fans of other sports. Maybe I just don't know other sports as well? (A few hours later, the wives got a shout-out, but the kids remained unmentioned.)

PHOTOGRAPHY I would love to show you pictures of me at the high-class function I was getting ready for last Saturday when I posted. I took pictures of myself right before leaving with my SLR, and brought my p&s camera to the event itself. But the card from the small camera is showing up blank and the card from the big camera is flaking out because I was playing with shooting in RAW again for a few days, which for some reason is causing all kinds of odd behavior I've never before seen. I'll try photorescue tomorrow, but grr. Grr!!

SCIENCE Remember my stressful presentation, which had to happen even though I was underprepared, and for which many bigwigs including my boss' boss (BB) showed up? Today was odd, because I got to see my PI go through the EXACT SAME THING.

PI has a massive presentation to give in two weeks. In 20 minutes he has to justify his last 5 years of funding and make a case for his next 5 years of funding. Today was the only day one colleague could attend a run-through, so he presented an early draft, and I think it's when he referred to its roughness that I started to see the similarities, because I had said almost the exact same thing. He availed himself far better than I did of course (he had all weekend to prep!) but still, it was disorienting to see him stand in the same spot I had stood in and have the same experience I had had — even in front of the same people. Yes, BB was there, as was Hilarious Iconoclastic Brit, Deceptively Quiet Guy, and a few other less colorful people.

It got even weirder when I realized that the process he was about to go through was JUST like a thesis defense. "Stand up in front of a critical panel of people senior to you, present the story of the last 5 years of your work in support of the document you submitted to them a bit ago, and defend your own value as a researcher; if we like what we hear and how you respond to our grilling, we will give you a cookie." He's an MD, the closest he's been to a defense was probably mine, a year ago, when he sat on my committee.

And I am right in the middle of this, my friends. Oh yes. We fellows will also appear before the board, to speak to his mentoring abilities. More directly though, we've been analyzing some data that just came in, along with some data which has been sitting around for a while, and damned if they don't point in the same direction. This is, er, not the norm for the field. So a lot of this very recent stuff is going in the presentation.

This has been a good science week, because I've finally figured out how to use the specialized, legacy, poorly documented and quirky software programs we use for analysis. Oh, and? The direction it's all pointing in? I called it months ago. "There is a smoking gun!" I said. "It's right there!" I said, pointing. "I'd bet the farm it's the XYZ gene!" I said, "although I am glad I don't have a farm to actually bet!" So the TOLD YA SO! song is going on in my head a lot lately. (Not that anyone argued with me, but they were scientifically, that is to say appropriately, skeptical.)

that’s a relief

1 June, 2006

For the first time this week, I didn't come in from my (long hot miserable humid asthmatic) commute to an email reminding me publicly of some or other ball I'd dropped out of carelessness.

We're gonna call this an improvement on my week so far. Yeah, the last 12 or so hours have definitely helped to turn this week around in time for the weekend…

In other news, if you want to waste a little time subverting the dominant paradigm, check out this site

take one

11 May, 2006

poster session, Biology of Genomes meeting, Cold Spring Harbor Labs, originally uploaded by techne.

 

latest obsession

9 May, 2006

Just might be science for a while. I think I might be totally and completely boring about it, too. Please do let me know which bits are interesting and which aren't. If any are interesting at all…
I'm giving a poster this week. Unfortunately, I knew I could rely on my "if I wait until the last minute and then stress the fuck out and work like mad, it'll all get done" strategy, which has been field-tested to within an inch of its usefulness. The part I always forget about that strategy, which works brilliantly, is JUST how much the stress sucks. And for how long. But I also forget just how sublime it is once I do take off thinking. It's been a while since I got to do this, just think, figure stuff out….since I defended, in fact.

The scale is different now. The meetings I'm presenting at are smaller. I'm on the field's bleeding edge, working on a very hot topic, and I speak for my lab, so if I'm wrong, it might be a major embarrassment. This sort of error is not unheard of.

This afternoon I walked into what I thought would be a casual presentation of the poster so far to the other authors. That's what my PI said in his email about it, anyway. Which was sent to 8 people. Ha! Not only, NOT ONLY were there ~20 people there, but one of them was my BOSS' BOSS. Let's call him BB. The head of a very important research division at NIMH. Sitting in that alpha-male conference room seat, on the long side of the table facing the door. Probably walked over from his (ahem) OTHER office, on the other side of campus; a 10 minute walk in the life of a busy man. There, to hear me present my data.

Why? Because the email my boss sent said:

(Techne) in my lab has come up with a solution to (bleeding-edge problem), with r^2 values that go over 0.95.

r, you see, is the correlation coefficient of how related two things are. It goes from 0 to 1. So r^2 > 0.95 is hair-tearingly-out awesome, read-the-sentence-again awesome. And I have 0.96. (Every little bit matters.)

The thing about data this cool is, nobody cares if you, oh, hmm, say, are underprepared and tongue-tied and flustered because BB's sitting right across from you staring at you while you search for the words to the stats you only just learned but have to sound competent on and your PI said it'd just be casual and coauthors and friends, but head of the program, yo!! Who never smiles! Even when he's happy!

No — really, honestly, nobody cares. Because it's good enough that once the basics are finally out your PI, who is very good at this sort of thing, deftly takes over from you to guide the conversation. And you, seeing that your PI has your back and that he's also performing for BB, can relax and chime in at a level that redeems you somewhat, cause you know this is totally not about you, which is freeing. And it's a fabulous and interesting pure-science bliss awesome conversation of the type you love, and everyone's already forgotten about your "uh, uh" and remembers only the 0.96. Which you leave up on the screen, really really big.

(0.98*0.98=0.96)

And at the end they all sincerely thank you and say "great work! really great!" and they mean every bit of it, because you might have just saved them millions of dollars and/or months or years of time and given them the key to Huge Discovery, and now everyone knows who you are, and by the end of the week people outside NIH will too.

I became Dr. Techne.

April 2005

(Click through photo for notes!)

Last year's celebratory beverages: Yellow Label and Krug (thanks PAH, you always class up the joint). This year's: as many Toledo Lounge $3 G&Ts as I can drink. Doctorates for everybody!

How timely

23 March, 2006

Fits that I’d find this blogger in a week with some truly dizzying research ups and downs: he’s blogged on the best and the worst parts of science.  Also on the taxonomy of biologists, which inspired these taxonomies of physicists and anthropologists.

Media attention!

22 March, 2006

Listen.

UPDATE: False alarm. What happened was, a guy in the lab was all “we’re on NPR!” We recently had a very big paper published, so this is not unlikely. (“We” means “people I sit next to”: most of this was before I arrived.) I have no idea how he heard, but he was listening on streaming internet and had also heard that we would be on ABC World News Tonight. So we listen to the second half, hear nothing and figure we were in the first half. But we’re nowhere! This is about some other group’s analysis of the dataset (which is SO HUGE, many papers will be coming out of it). Good for them and all, but, bummer.

I spent the bulk of Thursday at Walter Reed, giving presentations to middle schoolers about the brain (it’s Brain Awareness Week, you see). I have to say: it was the best “work” day I’ve had in some time.

First of all, I love teaching. It’s my backup career (I know too many teachers to want to do it unless I have to), but I like kids, I like explaining things to anyone so they’ll understand, and I like science. Oh, and performing. ;) (Boy do I miss performing…) There were 10, 12 groups of around a half dozen each. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about teaching is how differently people react and respond to the same situation (as in, when I show them the same slides I’m showing everyone else). And this was a presentation on visual perception, so it was all the old tricks like:

which were, of course, new to the kids.

I was also reminded of the joys of the smart engaged kid. One group was particularly sharp. The kind of kids who, as you are beginning, ask a question 3 steps ahead of where you were going to go, and you have to switch gears to match them without jumping up and yelling “YES! EXACTLY!!” and doing the dance of “aha moment” joy.

What else? Well, I had my camera of course. And I was at the Museum of Health and Medicine. Iron lungs! Civil War surgical implements! Trichobezoars! Deformed fetuses! Clicky clicky. Here is one of the less stomach turning shots, be sure to check out my flickr set for more!
Three children, Museum of Health and Medicine, Walter Reed Army Medical Center
I didn’t have a chance to go around the grounds, which would also have been fun….but perhaps dangerous, with a big ol’ lens, to walk around idly shooting a military facility. Our NIH IDs got us on campus very easily though….

What else was good? Jumping ahead some, I came back to NIH and had my weekly stats class. Instead of a chore, this class has turned out to be a real pleasure. I learned stats backwards, by doing, while writing my papers two years ago. Now I am learning the basis of what I was doing then, and since I already worked a lot out empirically in the process, it’s aha moment a gogo as the prof draws connection after connection. The proverbial lightbulb goes off like 3x an hour in that class.

In addition to being very good, the prof is hilarious. He’s Chinese, been here over 25 years, and fluent in broken English. Yeah I didn’t think it was possible either but it’s the best way to describe the way he talks. He doesn’t hunt for words and speaks normally, even fast (fluent) but funky stuff comes out (broken) which nevertheless makes perfect sense (English). Examples:
“[a particular test] has the appealing of the simplicity.”
“[if you do this part wrong,] all of sudden, you will find out, the data will not be such a neat.”
“let me kind of the test you” and “this is sort of the joking, but…”
“use linear contrast to…better understanding the meaningful of a lot of the things.” (when he gets stuck in a sentence like he did here, it often gets very Chinglish on the climb out.)
“Once we talk this, maybe we can call it today.” (my favorite)
“[re intelligence/education and regression to the mean providing hope to the disadvantaged] So, if children come from the low level of the background, they should not feel depressed.” (also, the letter a being “the low level of the caricater,” meaning ASCII/alphabetically it’d come first.)

he also makes jokes:
“usually the funding will not be forever.” (my other favorite)
“Don’t mess with this! Like Texas.”
“[re regression to the mean again] If your father is Bill Gate and your mother is like a Lady Bill Gate the children will be Bill Gate squared? no. it’s not like this.”
(and a lot more jokes that are too long to write down)

But the real thing that made today the awesome was a conversation I had at lunch that made my career goals jump into focus. Long story short, I was talking to a public liason person from NIMH about health care delivery and what researchers could do to help their results get disseminated to mental health practicioners (which is a topic I’ve been working on for a panel I’m co-organizing with another fellow at NIMH). The idea is, there’s a lot we are learning about the function of the brain that can be of very direct use to not only psychiatrists but even therapists and social workers doing talk therapy. How to get this info to them, and get them to implement it, and sooner than “we’ll just train the next generation, this crop of practicioners knows what they’re doing”? In discussing various programs that try and do this this woman said musingly, “What we really need is for research to TRANSLATE results to the public and practicioners…”

“Translate?” That’s the word I’ve used to describe my primary skill and interest for years now. To have my chief strength come out of the mouth of someone in the field as she described how to address the problem I am interested in….it was like a curtain going up. And the rest of the conversation, and the other work I’ve been doing with this health care panel, is like getting handed a script.

And that script says “Don’t stay up this late all the damn time, you have work to do.”

Went around today with no aim or purpose. It was fun to just stop whenever I saw a good idea and do something about it. I am really getting my footing not just with my equipment but with the social aspects of walking around with a big camera taking pictures of random things. It’s a fabulous icebreaker in pretty much every context. I’m thinking I should have cards to tell people about my flickr page, but will that look like I’m trying to sell stuff? SHOULD I be trying to sell stuff, what with all the cute-kid pics I take? How good should I be before I can do that?

Thought on looking at today’s yield: Must get lens hood for the 17-40.

Had what is apparently the common Canon 300D “take a series in RAW, wait 5 minutes for the card to write them, have all sorts of photo-worthy things happen as it does.” Today was a cute as all get-out little girl, 18 months or less, who ran up to me, smiled, mugged, the whole bit. Rita unfroze and I got the back of her head as she turned away. Curses! (I got more of her later, but less smiley. Coincidentally, the girl’s father just got his PhD. Boy are we thick on the ground in this town.)

Glasses and viewfinders really go poorly together. How do you nearsighted photo-taking readers handle it? My rubber eyepiece smudges the glasses, and I can’t see the whole frame with them on. The diopter correction dingus works, but then I have to walk around blind or take them off and on a lot. (At one point I tried walking around with the glasses off and the camera to my eye. It was very…something, especially since I did it wide, at 28ish mm. I’m sure there’s some fancy theoretical concept applicable to the experience of giving up your sight to see as a camera does. Besides “fuckin’ trippy, dude.”)

I bled to get a shot today, I think it might even be first photography blood. I was at Haines Point and bored of all the ground angles of the sculpture there–you know, the Man with the Hand and the Rock in the Sand (as we call it in my family). So I climbed a tree. I had climbed a stand of bamboo an hour earlier. Spring brings out the monkey in me I guess.

Of course, I was a dumbass about it, too excited about the idea to execute it well. I picked the tree that was nearest when I had the idea, which was not the easiest to climb, nor the one with the best sight line to MHRS, nor the one with the sturdiest branches, NOR the one with the optimum branch configuration. I needed one hand to balance myself at all times (esp since my legs were so sore from the Idiotarod). So? you are saying. Suck it up, shoot one-handed! Ah, Reader, I had the lensbaby on. For those not familiar with them, the lensbaby needs a hand for operation of its bellows, and the hand that’s doing that can’t keep focus and press the shutter.

I did find a workaround though. No damned way was I climbing that tree for nothing. (I pondered switching over to the 17-40, right up there precariously balanced 8 feet in the air. Now THAT would have been hilarious, changing lenses in a tree. As if I wasn’t enough of a sight having just heaved myself up into the tree in a nonchalantly undignified manner.) Unfortunately, in the lovely weather the sculpture was crawling with kids, and the plan–to wait it out and shoot real quick during a lull–was untenable in my precarious state. So it didn’t even work out. Garr! The blood was from an ankle scrape the tree inflicted.

Peer review

10 March, 2006

Science’s quality hinges on peer review. How it works: you submit a paper, and the editors of the journal pick a few people in your area (usually two–you can recommend names) and send the paper to them. They read it and recommend a course of action to the editor who makes the decision (reject, ask for revisions & do it all over again, accept). This is usually single-blinded (the author doesn’t know the who the reviewers are) but in practice, the reviewer has the option to sign their review, and fields are usually small enough and editors’ behavior predictable enough that one can sometimes guess who wrote the review. (Science is not a topic but a method of inquiry, and like anything it has its flaws–how this system maintains and even feeds those flaws is a fascinating topic for another post which I’ll only write if anyone wants to hear my take.)

I got one paper to review right after starting at NIH. It was from a journal my doctoral advisor serves on and I figured she had tossed it my way as a rite of passage, me being a Big PhD Now. Lately I’ve been wondering if I’d get any more from the “real world” (by “lately” I mean “earlier this week”). What should pop up in my inbox today but a review, plainly sent to me for advisor-independent reasons. It’s not bounce-worthy. It’s not glee-worthy. But it’s smile-worthy. Someone wants my opinion! I’m a part of the process!

Scientists would laugh at my considering the chance to be a reviewer 1) at all noteworthy, 2) something positive. I guess the bloom is still on the rose…

(Also, it’s in my old area, where I have footing. I still feel adrift in my new field. It’ll be nice, if totally escapist and procrastinatory, to think about that stuff for an hour or two.)

You always knew it

23 February, 2006

and now science has proved you right.

Sex with a partner is 400% better than sex with yourself.

Let the jokes begin.

Cause THAT’S not exciting

17 February, 2006

My PI is meeting next week with a bigwig.

This is a bigwig so big that many of you have heard of him. Yes, even nonscientists. And even if you can’t recall his name, you know what he did.

No I’m not kidding, you really do.

He wants to fund some bipolar research.

“This is your chance to present your ideas to [bigwig]“, says the PI to me and the other fellow.

So that’s what I’ll be thinking about this weekend!!

analysis of the

15 February, 2006



analysis of the, originally uploaded by techne.

My dissertation hard copies came in today.

Pardon me while I bask for a bit.

Partly in honor of the stats course I’m due to begin this evening , I bring you something truly bitchin’. Does science not rock?

OK, stats is its own thing apart from science. I’m actually coming to develop a large respect for statisticians as a class of scholars, starting a year or two ago when I started working closely with some special packages in R to analyze my doctoral research data. From the perspective of a blind user of statistics, methods often seem rigid and proscribed, but when you get under the hood it’s a lively field and all bets are off.

It’s been coursetastic around NIH lately. Last Thursday, I was getting trained on some equipment and my PI asked me how it was going. Good thing I’m getting good instincts about him, because I knew it was significant that he’d ask only me and ask me something so trivial. Turns out a course in the kind of genetics we do was starting THAT VERY MOMENT on the other side of campus, and there were some last-minute spots he had already sent another fellow (male, clinical…ahem) to take advantage of.  I spent a day and a half getting some of the best training in my area I could hope for.

I developed an academic crush at this course. One of the lecturers was a young woman, dressed stylishly (in an absolute sense–black turtleneck, hose and boots and patterned skirt–but ESPECIALLY stylishly for science), frighteningly sharp, crystal-clear, and respected in her (male-dominated) field. (I’m sure it didn’t hurt much that her first name sounded like a common male name.) An academic crush: “wow. I wish I could be a PhD like her. Good job, good position in the field, and didn’t have to desexualize herself to do it!”

Check yo’self

18 January, 2006

Here’s an idea ganked totally out of context from my good buddy Kees’ codeblog:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

Not a bad way to think about any career, really.

Kind of awesome to be able to say yes to #2, after so many years of grad school. I have been added to a large project at work and had a conference call today with many important and brilliant people. The questions we are struggling with get to the very core of how genetics is affecting mental illness (well, they get to the core after I’ve kicked them around, anyway). It’s pretty exciting to be arguing them in this everyday “how do we manage and analyze the data” sort of way.

Say what?

15 January, 2006

Reading the NYT magazine today I come across this:

I could see that research related to one’s identity – referred to in the academy as “mesearch” – could raise legitimate questions about scholarly objectivity.

I’ve never heard this term before. Is it actually used?

…The article turns out to be very interesting, adapted from a forthcoming book about “covering”: the decision members of a protected group must make about how much of their group identity to express, and how this turns into a civil rights issue for all of us. I recommend it.

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