The places I’ve been

It’s almost hard to believe that it’s been three months since I posted here. Those months have flown by, so it seems like it must be longer. Yet so much has happened, it seems almost impossible that it spanned just three months.

When January began, I had just started looking for jobs, expecting that the process would take at least 6 months, and more likely, 9 or 12. Maybe even more. I was looking for opportunities to connect and network.

Since January:

  • I made a fairly significant contribution to a grant being written for the lab.
  • I was offered a job.
  • I travelled to Chicago for the AAAS Annual Meeting.
  • I spent two weeks on vacation in Japan and South Korea with my partner. (My only prior international travel – Thanksgiving in Bermuda.)
  • I wrapped up my postdoc projects (my core project and a collaboration) as best I could in a short time frame. (There’s still a bit of remote work lingering.)
  • I wrote a piece for ScienceCareers about networking.
  • I ran an intro to social media workshop for postdocs.
  • I moved to a new city.
  • I started that new job – a step in a new direction, a life beyond the bench.

I couldn’t have done all this without a great deal of support and encouragement from friends and the online community.

Now that I’m beginning to settle into the new job, I’m hoping to not be such a stranger around here. And as I’ll be heading to Experimental Biology 2014 as an official blogger for the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology next weekend, be on the lookout for some science around these parts!

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The job vs. the career

This week, a group gave me a seat at a table with a mic and a few other current or former postdocs. We were there to share our experience with other postdocs about how to make the most of it. The moderator ended with this question:

What one piece of advice would you give to postdocs?

I knew what I had to say to that. I shared some brief thoughts with those postdocs and subsequently on Twitter last night. It’s advice that I give, because I feel it’s something I needed to hear 5 years ago. This is what my experience has taught me, and I wish I’d figured it out sooner. Here it is, with a little further expansion.

A postdoc is a job. And it’s a temporary job.

We tend to pontificate that postdocs are training positions. We almost treat it as an extension of graduate school, I think. Research research research. Seminar. Research. Meeting. Research… You get the point. It can be tough to shift out of the mentality. You often don’t have very concrete deadlines or contract termination dates. You know we’re going to be here for a few years. You work hard. You maybe think wistfully of the next step and all the other things you should be doing. Then you look up one day and those few years have passed. (And in the current funding climate, those few years may be fewer than they were for your predecessors.)

You should be thinking about where you want to go next and what you need to get there.

While it’s important to be a focused researcher, it’s easy to become engulfed in the day-to-day grind and to lose sight of the “after” life. Sometimes, leaving grad school, you have no idea what you want, so you figure, why not take a postdoc for a few years? Things will become clearer, right? Sometimes you start your postdoc absolutely certain of where you’re going after it. You might be right – but you might also find a few years down the road that you’ve been chasing something without knowing why.

Wherever you are on that spectrum, take the time to think – I mean, really think – about your future. What’s your longterm goal? What’s the next position on the path? What things do you have and what things do you need to make that step? Many of the things you’ll need are multi-purpose. It’s OK if it’s not immediately clear. It’s OK if it changes. It’s OK to have backup plans. The important thing is that your career planning isn’t on cruise control

Then look for opportunities to get what you need.

I’ve said it before. No one is more invested in your career than you are. Take the initiative to find opportunities that can help you advance – education, networking, specific experience. It pains me to hear 30(ish) year olds say, “I wish [my PI] had told me about [opportunity] (before it was too late to be of use to me).” Your PI is not the be-all, end-all information database. We’re adults. We can do this. It takes time and effort. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone. But these are things you can do.

Where do you find those opportunities? Lectures and courses through your institution and their affiliates. Events run by local organizations. Online courses. Networking – face-to-face and online. If your institution has a training, career development, or postdoc affairs office, chances are they can point you to some valuable resources in your area. Talk to mentors and other postdocs. Get out of the lab and talk to people outside your academic sphere.

Research is your primary job responsibility. Publications are a measure of productivity. They’re important. No one will argue that. But alone they’re not sufficient. 

Get your research done and, as possible, published. It’s important for your adviser and for you. Publications are the deliverable in academic research – but depending on where you’re going next and your prior record, the weight they carry differs.

I initially noted that research and publications alone aren’t sufficient, especially when looking outside academia. But I think this is true, regardless of where you go. In academia, proposal writing and communication matters. If you want to work at a liberal arts college, teaching experience matters. Regulatory affairs, experience in trials or FDA approval processes. Science or medical writing, communication with specific target audiences – often who aren’t experts in the field. Every science career requires some skill or experience that you’re not going to get strictly from research.

Basically, do more. Some of it can build out of things you’re already doing. Some of it may require new ventures. I get that thinking about it is exhausting. But this is about your career - and this postdoc is but a small piece of it.

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Return to Running

Over the last few months, I’ve slacked off in the fitness department. But now it’s time to bring it back.

As added motivation, I agreed to run a half marathon with Dr24Hours in May. There’s now a whole little team of Twitter scis involved. This is an excellent prompt for me to get out the door and run in the cold and snow that has beset my base city, to commit to hitting the gym when I really would rather not.

If you’re looking for a concrete goal, think about joining us! And any immunology folks out there, the event coincides with the annual AAI meeting in Pittsburgh this year.

Now…

Time to get out the door and run like hell.

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Incredible gifts

Christmas.

I know it’s not everyone’s schtick. But I grew up in a household and region in which the majority of folks identified as some Christian denomination that deemed it acceptable to celebrate Christmas in December (there are at least a couple that don’t). Over the years, the holiday has lost the religious overtones. It’s essentially a time for the family to gather, although I’m the only one who lives far away from all the others. But the houses are decked with trees, lights, stockings, tiny villages, snowpeople, and sundry other seasonal decor. There’s baking and candy making and a few hours of cooking for a special dinner with the family around the table.  The kids are the major focus for the gifts, but the adults exchange a few tokens of affection too.

Christmas 2013 was a very different holiday.

My dad has a new partner. They started dating just about a year ago. She moved in this summer. They’re engaged but no date has been set.

I am now divorced. This was the first visit with family since the process was common knowledge. Although I traveled alone for the holiday with the family this year, I’ve been dating this incredible guy for some months now. Charming and thoughtful, he brings warmth and joy into my life. I can be myself and discover myself.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve found myself reflecting. On my past, present, and future. On events I thought I’d processed. On things others left behind.

Against this backdrop, the story unfolds. The ribbon and paper fall away.

I’ve mentioned it before, but when I was kid, my older brother wrote what was essentially Star Trek fan fiction in screenplay format. They were typed on our first family computer, a DOS machine from the pre-Windows era. The word processor was Lotus Works. The pages were printed by a dot matrix printer. My brother, dad, and I would do readthroughs, each of us picking up a few of the characters and using different voices for each. Many hours were expended in this way – and gladly, even then.

When my dad’s partner moved in this summer, rooms and closets were rearranged. As they cleaned out a closet, his partner found a stack of my brother’s screenplays. She thought something should be done with them, so for part of my brother’s Christmas present, they organized and bound the original scripts and revisions. There was also a notebook of notes such as his ship’s crew roster and sketches of its interior and exterior design. Needless to say, my brother was surprised and pleased by the gift.

Soon after my brother opened his gift, I was a handed a present to open. I unwrapped and opened the box. Inside, I found of those binders for collecting and writing recipes.

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Something about it teased some distant neurons in my brain. It felt familiar. Even before my dad told me to look inside, I had a suspicion that the pages weren’t blank. I opened to a random section. My breath caught. My eyes teared. I barely stopped short of crying as I saw the elegant script on the pages and cards.

IMG2231It was my mother’s handwriting. The binder was filled with recipes that she had saved and transferred over the years.

Later, as I took a closer look at the dishes included, I realized how much more it was than ink on paper, even beyond the treasure of it being my mom’s. Dinners with family, big potluck meals with friends, canning food, edible homemade goodies at holidays – all were a part of our family. The kitchen, often with the dining room table right in the middle of it, was a central feature of many a family event and tradition. And some of the recipes in this book hold wonderful memories of them.

Like the one that is my grandmother’s recipe for pickled beets – which kind of unnerved me as a kid. These big squished spheres in this deep purple juice didn’t seem natural. I was an adult before I realized it was the beets that colored the pickling juice, not the other way around. I finally tried them several years ago and found them to be delicious.

Or there’s the recipe for sweet potato souffle from a dinner theater in Ohio. A dear family friend who’d been the music instructor at a local community college (my mom, brother, dad, and I all attended at one point or other, and all but my dad participated in the choir) once performed in musical there, when he took a break from teaching to make a go at theater. My parents and I made a weekend trip to see it. The dish appeared at many family functions thereafter. That friend was also the pianist for my wedding. He was delightful. Another friend lost but who left behind bright memories.

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Tucked at the back is a recipe written on a piece of paper from a notepad, the page smudged with something from its preparation. This one a butterscotch apple cake, originally made by one of my elementary school teachers. She had made little loaves for each of the students to take home, at Christmas break,  I think. It was delicious. My mom wanted the recipe. I’ve actually thought of it sporadically, wishing I had the recipe but assuming it was lost forever.

IMG2237And then there’s this one, actually recorded by my dad. It’s incredibly simple. But it’s a longstanding holiday tradition. For as long as I can recall, every year at Christmas, we’d put this recipe to use. My brother and I would go to school loaded up with bags of fudge for our teachers. Our parents would take a bin to work and to family and friends and elder neighbors in our community. It’s a tradition that continues even now, with my dad, with me, with my brother and sister-in-law.

What my brother and I received this year were simple, inexpensive gifts. And the richest and most incredible I’ve ever seen.

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The story of a dog

 This is the story of a dog. This dog.

He joined me for coffee this morning. His name is Beethoven. He’s my dad’s dog.

He started off as a cute little fuzzball. He’s now 6 years old – and still pretty damn cute. The epitome of the friendly, playful dog.

My family never had a dog when I was growing up. We were a (reluctant) cat family. We just kind of adopted a few cats that showed up at our doorstep, and they were tolerated.

I’d been in grad school a while when Beethoven joined the family. Beethoven was a bit of a surprise. My mom played piano for friends’ church on Sunday mornings, had for years. It essentially started as a Christmas present. Knowing they hadn’t had a pianist for months, she showed up to play for Christmas Eve service. They asked her to serve in their regular service, for pay, and since her own church’s services were on Saturdays, she agreed – and she loved it.

Her Sunday tradition was to pick up a newspaper at the convenience store after church. One Sunday, an older man was there with a litter of pups, giving them away. You, my bright readers, will intuit that she went home w one. There was one male in the litter, which the man had considered keeping… but for some reason, he thought Mom might like him.  The man had only one request: Give him name that started with a ‘B’.

My dad was not particularly ecstatic when Mom got home carrying a little furball in her arms. But Beethoven quickly won his way into everyone’s hearts.

At the time, Mom had been undergoing cancer treatment for about a year. Nonpolyposis colorectal cancer. She was only 47, so it wasn’t screening but physical illness that led to the diagnosis. It had been diagnosed at stage 4. Five-year survival rates were not good. Mom was a nurse in an oncology clinic, so she understood the odds. She was upbeat – and realistic.

A few months after she came home with Beethoven, scans showed the metastases were no longer shrinking. And then a few more months later, they were growing. Less than a year after coming home with that little furball, Mom died. The cancerous nodes on her liver and lungs overtaxed her system.

Later, Dad commented on his initial annoyance at the new furry family member. And that he thought Mom was well aware of what she was doing…

She was upbeat. She willing to follow her oncologist’s recommendations. But she knew that one day she’d likely be gone.

And so, I think, Mom brought B home, in part for the joy he’d bring her but in part for the companionship he’d offer when she was gone.

He did. He continues to do so (even as Dad starts a new chapter w a new partner). And he reminds me of her thoughtfulness in little things.

It’s OK to remember. It’s OK to move forward. It’s OK to grieve. To be sad. But also to find joy & happiness. Even, or may especially, in the memories of those we’ve lost. It’s OK to grieve. To be sad. But also to find joy & happiness. Even, or maybe especially, in the memories of those we’ve lost.

Difficult as it is, it’s amazing to find space, tolerance, gentleness for myself to experience those emotion – sometimes simultaneously – and to find myself in a place where I can share that story with you.

Many of my friends and acquaintances have experienced loss – death, relationships, things less tangible but no less real. Many in this community have suffered such losses this very year. You might be way ahead of me on this. But if not…

Grief has no rules & no timetables. It can take months or years. It can return unexpectedly. It can accompany seemingly polar opposite emotions. There is no “should” to how you feel. Be gentle with yourself. Take care of you.

Thanks for “listening”. For being supportive. For telling your own griefs and joys. For making this a space where I can share. For being reminders of the kindness & goodness in the world.

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Note: This is an edited and expanded version of a story I posted on Twitter on Dec. 21, 2013. 

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