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!


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


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.


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.)


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.)