Archive for: September, 2015

Topics of Interest

Currently a former neuroscientist turned stay-at-home mom, I get to stay home, and watch and play with my two girls.  Old habits do not die too quickly; I often find myself observing my kids as if they are my former experimental subjects, rats.  As they grow up and acquire new and more advanced skills, many questions have come up regarding what is going on in their brain and brain in general.  Here are some questions I might ask if I were choosing a topic of research right now:

  1. Lifetime taste memory?

As I watch my 2-year old put everything and anything in her mouth, I can imagine what each object tastes like: metal, plastic, fabric, paper, wood…  Although I have not actually tasted them recently, I am fairly certain that my ideas about how those objects taste are pretty accurate.  But how do I know?  When was the last time I actually put those items in my mouth?  Do I remember from the time I was an infant/toddler when I did the extensive savoring?  And would I remember those tastes forever?

 Though I could not find exact answers to my questions, I did find an interesting study that suggested that memory for taste forms as early as in utero.  According to the authors in this article, many flavors, e.g. garlic, carrots, vanilla and mint, are diffused into amniotic fluid and breastmilk.  In this particular study, three groups of mothers drank carrot juice either during pregnancy, lactation, or never.  When the babies started eating solid food several months after they were born, they were fed cereal prepared with carrot juice.  Their facial expressions during the first feeding were recorded. The babies born to mothers who drank carrot juice during pregnancy or lactation exhibited much less negative facial expressions than those born to mothers who never did.   

The authors suggested that less negative facial expressions are due to being already familiar with the taste via amniotic fluid or breast milk.  This is one way that food culture and preferences are passed on.  The ideas of how food taste are reinforced throughout the years after birth, but exposures to non-food stops at some point (hopefully).  Are memories of metallic and plastic taste actually retained for lifetime?

2. Bilingual brain

My husband and I speak English to each other in an English-speaking country, but we each have a second language.  Before our first daughter was born I declared to everyone around us that our daughter was going to be a trilingual.  After our daughters have been born, my husband has been very diligent in speaking his second language to them. I on the other hand have been slacking off (it is more difficult and takes more discipline than I thought!).  As a result (and attending an immersion preschool in my husband’s language), my almost 5-year old is a true bilingual.  She switches between two languages beautifully.  As I listen to my daughter and husband converse and have no idea what is being said, I wonder how language is processed by and represented in brain (not just a second language, but a first language as well).  

My 2-year old is at the point where she repeats everything she hears.  Her pronunciation of some words that I teach her of my second language is sometimes better than my 5-year old’s.  Experts discuss a “critical period” for learning a second language. When you learn a second language prior to the age of 12, you speak the second language with vastly few or no accent. From my small study with a sample size of two, there seems to be age-related smaller windows and/or stages for language reproducibility and acquisition.  I am certain there are actual studies on this, but it is still fun to observe in my kids.

[I want to expand more on this topic in a later post — there are many fascinating studies out there!]

3. Educational Neuroscience

While being a working neuroscientist, I had many conversations with my sister who was a high school English teacher.  She often expressed wishes to have taken courses in neuroscience during her teacher training so that she could understand how the brain works and have come up with more effective ways of teaching.  The discipline of Educational Neuroscience is emerging to bridge the gap between neuroscience research and classrooms.  As a mom with kids approaching school-age and with learning and memory research background it is of a particular interest.  Some neuroscience findings have already been applied and implemented in schools: delaying school start time and keeping recess and physical education.  Skepticism of bringing neuroscience to classroom is there and perhaps sometimes warranted, but if done correctly and carefully, I believe there is much Neuroscience can offer to devise a method/environment for efficient and effective learning.

As my daughters exhibit any behavior, I keep asking why and how. I just hope that there are no negative repercussions for observing (or parenting?) my daughters with this type of ulterior motives…


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I’ve made a huge mistake

This is it. I’m saying it out loud (well, writing it anonymously) for the first time… I’ve made a huge mistake. I am not on the right career path. And I don’t know how to move forward from here.

With each year that’s passed since graduate school, and each postdoc position it’s become more and more clear that a PI in academia, at least at a research-intensive university, is not the right job for me. Here are a few reasons.

1) I don’t have the passion.

I see other people who get so excited about new prospective techniques or experiments, or new lines of research and ideas for grants, and all I think is, “I wish I cared that much.” I just don’t care. Like, at all. I’ve always been pretty interested and even excited about my own projects and moving them forward, but it’s really hard for me to care about anything outside of my immediate field. And I also think about those people who are so passionate, “I hope they get the faculty positions they want… they definitely deserve it more than me.” It makes me really sad to hear about people who are so excited about the research but just don’t think it’s feasible for them to get to the place of running their own lab.

1b) I have other passions.

I’ve become a lot more excited about side projects I’ve been working on – science related, but outside the lab. I hear myself talk about these other projects with enthusiasm and ease that is completely lacking when I talk about my research, present or future.

2) I don’t have the vision.

I’m not exactly a “can’t see the forest for the trees” person, but I am learning that I don’t have a good sense of the big picture, or where the field (read: funding) is going and how to insert myself there. I’ve never cared about the latest tools or hot topics. I just want to do what I want and keep moving that forward. But that’s not the way to keep a lab funded for 30 years.

2b) I am really good at seeing other things.

I am a great problem solver, and good at seeing holes and what needs to happen to fill them. Somehow this doesn’t translate to a big-picture scientific vision.

3) I don’t like the environment.

Over time, I’ve been exposed more to the side of research I really detest – the cutthroat, competitive, nepotistic, money squandering, high-impact-chasing side of science. Or rather, scientists. I’m pretty sure I could play the game my way and maybe even change some things for the better, but I don’t even want to be a part of a world like that.

I do know that there are many reasons I’d be a great PI, but these three above are really telling me that this is not right for me. So, now what? I am well into my second postdoc, and starting to write a grant for a transition to independence… How do I get off this track? Do I look for a new job right now? Or just keep doing my postdoc for the foreseeable future but not take on any of the academic career-building moves I had planned? There are brief times when I think I can do this, and that’s part of what keeps pushing me forward, so I’m hesitant to give up when I have this momentum – I definitely wouldn’t want to regret jumping off the track because I know I wouldn’t be able to get back on.

It’s difficult to bring up with my mentors, especially with my current advisor. Like a previous poster described, I feel like I am letting them down or not living up to their expectations. Mostly, I feel like I appear flaky or indecisive, or worse, deceptive, and that’s not something I want to show to my bosses! I’m more inclined to wait until I have a plan and then present it and defend it if necessary… but on the other hand isn’t a mentor supposed to help you work through issues like this?

For those of you who left your original career path, did you wait until you had a clear path or job lined up, or did you jump ship as soon as you knew you weren’t on the right path?


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Income inequality: What does the wage gap at elite institutions tells us?

Sep 16 2015 Published by under college, wage gap

Today my advisor pointed me to an article that describes how 10 years out, alumni of his alma mater are some of the highest earners in the country whereas graduates of my college are some of the lowest earners. Although I think he showed me this so that he could feel superior (why, any member of the National Academy of Sciences needs to continue to impress their superiority on anyone is beyond me), what struck me was that the gender pay gap at his alma mater is greater than the average salary of alums at mine.

Why could this be? Why would some of the most prestigious institutions in our country have the highest difference in pay between men and women?

The especially startling thing about it is that many of the Ivy League schools have not just higher wage gaps, but multiple times the size of the wage gaps at other schools. There are many reasons, including those beyond academic quality, that students from certain schools might have higher wages than other schools. Are the same factors that contribute to this (certain types of connections, reputation, etc.) affecting the wage gap?

On the other hand, could the factors known to keep women’s salaries on average lower, like time off to care for children and “leaning back” to be more present in the home, exacerbated at power schools? One could imagine women married to men with high earning potential and high career pressure being more likely to take a step back from their own careers.

I think that this survey of salaries raises more questions than it answers. However, perhaps digging into disparities such as these could help us understand more about the causes of income inequality.


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A Portrait of the Scientist Maintaining Her Zen

Sep 11 2015 Published by under advice, coping, stress

Traditionally, labor day marks the beginning of the season when sh*t hits the academic fan. Grants are due, Deans present you with “opportunities to make your voice heard” on important committees, seminars pick up again and bite into your bench time, and maybe you’ve even decided to take or audit a class! In the spirit of making it through to the holidays with sanity intact, here are some stress management tips from us at PSYW. What are your tips? Feel free to add to the list in the comments!

Saraswatiphd:

Writing about stress management is a challenging exercise for me.  I feel like I should be a pro at this, but alas I am not.  I definitely have a lot of anxiety, and over the years, I have strived to channel it in proper/creative/positive outlets.  Sometimes it worked, other times not so much.  Hopefully, I will be able to recap some of the things that have helped me.  In addition to the really wonderful comments below regarding stress management, I would like to start with a few of my own:

Self reflection   

What helped me through times of stress was trying to understand what it was I really was stressed about.  For example, if I had a deadline that was causing me to feel anxious, I would ask questions like, “what is it about this particular deadline that is making me feel worried?”  I knew that I would finish it on time, but why all the unnecessary feelings of unease?  Was it because I wanted to make sure I could impress my boss or my colleagues with the quality of the final product?  Was it because if I missed the deadline, I would suffer consequences, for example judgement from those whose opinions I value?  Was it because deep down I suffer from impostor syndrome, and that little voice in my head would insist on telling me that “see, you shouldn’t be here, you can’t even produce in time for this deadline.”  Breaking down this feeling of anxiety, acknowledging it and trying to understand the underlying intensity of feelings would help me digest the situation piece by piece and ease the tension.

Indulging

Generally identifying what helps one bring down the temperature of the day to a steady state is tremendously helpful in managing stress.  Furthermore, taking time to indulge, to allow time to stand still and thoroughly dive in that pool of emotion that makes you feel good.  It can be small or large, but the effects can be lasting and deeply beneficial.  For me personally, I so covet the time with my friends on the weekends.  Every time I get together with them, I feel energized, happy and content – I carry this afterglow of positive energy for days on after.  The little things throughout the week to keep me balanced and centered, are typically like a walk outside, feeling the sun on my skin or the warmth of green grass on my bare feet, watching the dragonflies do their dance around a marshy pond, watching toddlers play in the sand.  Other things that make me happy are listening to podcasts by my favorite speakers (Tara Brach, Alan Watts, Tim Ferris) to and from work, cuddling with my four year old boys in the evening before bedtime, playing with my cats, drinking wine and watching our favorite shows at night with my husband once the boys are asleep, spending time in nature (hiking, camping, running), taking photos of the gorgeous Pacific Northwest outdoors – are all of the things on my list that make me feel oh so good.

Therapy

This is an obvious choice for helping with stress, be it seeing a therapist, starting medical treatment, or trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  But it’s not as simple as a “one pill treats all ailments.”  You really have to commit.  And it takes time.  Finding the right therapist or life coach with whom you have a deep meaningful connection can be very difficult, but so rewarding once you succeed.  That person can really help you unleash your potential and create a kinder space to help you find ways to regard yourself with empathy and respect.  Medical interventions can also be very helpful, however the stigma around seeking mental health help still exists.  Although I feel like things are getting better on that front.  Perhaps, finding a combination that works for each individual might be the proper approach.  For me, it has been seeing a brilliant, kind, thoughtful therapist in concert with deep breathing, meditation and acupuncture (I am sort of obsessed with the latter, perhaps I should write a whole post about it!) have helped me most.     

SweetScience:

I schedule my time obsessively – so that I can not think about anything but fun in my free time

I know most of us are list-makers and schedulers, but I think I carry it a little farther than most. My Google calendar reflects exactly what I’m doing, down to the half-hour, for every time in my work and housework day. If I can’t get to something (or more often don’t want to) I just drag it to the next day or week and don’t feel bad about it – it’s on my calendar, therefore it will get done. More importantly, since I know everything is already scheduled and planned to the best of my ability, I will not even think of it or feel like something is hanging over my head when I’m experiencing that precious blank time on my calendar.

I never take work home (except when I do)

This might be more of a talent than a tip, but I completely drop all thoughts of work when I walk out the door. I’ve accomplished what I wanted to for the day, or put it on my calendar for another time in the future, and now I don’t have to think about it at all. Of course things do arise that just don’t fit into the regular work day or need to get done ASAP, so when that happens I put it on my get it done, but I don’t let it bother me that it’s taking time away from something else – it’s just the next thing on my list and I’m checking it off, no stress.

fishprint:

Reality (Therapy)

My ideal system would involve exercise, yoga, meditation, and reserving time for me to do things I enjoy like cooking and knitting. But, LOL, I have a toddler and I’m trying to finish my PhD. I have no time, and I tend to put socializing above exercising, for better or worse. So, hopefully I can figure out how to fit in exercise soon, but this is what I do now. Most of my tips come straight from my therapist. I am working on recognize anxiety, recurring stressful patterns of thought (ruminating), and other unhealthy mental thought loops. When I catch myself generating stress in this way, I call myself out (ie, you’re ruminating and it’s not productive). Acknowledging and recognizing the stress-generating pattern of thought goes a long way for me towards stopping it. A classic stress-maker for me is any annoying but important meeting with university administration. For example, when I was trying to save my dependent benefits from getting cut last year, I would get extremely stressed in advance of meetings and spend time and energy playing out what I would say in different scenarios. This generated a lot of extra anxiety, and made the whole thing more difficult. And it was pointless. Any meeting is just a conversation once it gets going. I can not read people’s minds to know what they’ll actually say, and going into a meeting as a stressed out mess makes it difficult to listen. After some really miserable meetings, I recognized that I was exacerbating my anxiety by ruminating and was able to pretty much get it under control to get through an awful meeting with a university finance guy and a VP without crying or agreeing with them. I see the free, on-campus, student health therapists regularly. They are pros. And we have subsidized dependent health coverage on a university sponsored plan for one more year, no thanks to the finance guy.

Done > Almost Done

In terms of my daily work in the lab, there is certainly a significant amount of stress generated by the PhD process. It forces me to be largely self directed and motivated. The dark side of that, of course, is when you’re not making progress it feels like a personal failing. My most useful (and only) strategy here is to break things down into tiny attainable chunks. I combine that with my mantras, “No one cares about things that are almost done” and “Done > Almost Done” to try to keep all the projects progressing and keep closing out parts of a project that are done by making a small figure and adding it to the folder called “Dissertation”.

Naptime

Beyond the lab, I try to socialize when I can – maybe that’s why I feel like I have no time for exercise – and combine networking and socializing whenever possible to keep one eye on the future. I have a habit of overscheduling myself (and now my son). When I do that, a fun weekend turns into a harried race from one activity to the next and all the fun activities become stressful obligations. After the birth of my son, it became super important to be sure we all get downtime every day.  For us, limiting the number of activities to one scheduled activity per weekend day is the best way to make sure so one gets overstimulated and cranky. Sounds sounds like a nice problem to have – too much fun! – but it was making me stressed out. Now it no longer does, I get time for myself, my son gets a nap at the same time every day, and we all get unstructured time. I should have instituted an inflexible weekend naptime and a one activity per day rule when I was 25.

peírama:

schedule

Like those above, having things scheduled and on a to do list helps me not worry about them. I do not schedule most things down to the hour like SweetScience, but I do break things into chunks and put everything I know I have to do on a to-do list or on my calendar. Having a sense of what I have to do each day and what portion of the day I’d like to get them done makes me able to focus on each thing at it’s time and not worry about the rest.

breath

I am by no means a yogi, but I enjoy doing yoga when I have time and I like to carry the breathing practiced in yoga to my day. I learned a lot of yogi breathing techniques in preparing for my labors sans pain medication. One of my favorite breathing exercises is to take slow breaths, feeling each successive breath in a different part of my lungs. Doing this several times a day adds no time (do it in the elevator, while writing, anytime) brings relaxation to my body and peace to my mind.

gratitude

Sometimes I get anxious about how I am not exceeding in areas of life as much as I would like (the house is a mess! I don’t make as much money as I should! I don’t do enough creative activities with my children! …I know, ugh!). The thing that helps me most with this type of anxiety is active recognition of what I do have. I have a beautiful house. I have a wonderful family. I have a job I don’t hate that makes enough money. I live in a beautiful place. Just recognizing all the things I have to be grateful for is sometimes enough to keep the demons at bay. Again, this is a thing that can be done during other activities and thus adds no time to my busy schedule.

rest + exercise

I exercise several times weekly and try to make sure I get enough sleep. I think that these things are really important for mental health and general happiness and are not worth compromising on. I am not myself without rest and exercise, and reminding myself of that helps me get up at 5:30am to run in the dark and go to sleep at a reasonable hour even though there are sometimes things I’d rather (or maybe should) do.

StrongerThanFiction:

Advice?

This topic makes me shudder. There have definitely been times in my life where I have felt frantic and overwhelmed in academia, and somehow, I always got through it. I certainly don’t feel like I have a strategy to advise, because it seemed I was always changing my strategy. I would try listing things for a while, but my problem with that is that I would always end up putting things that are too big on the list – like “finish manuscript”, and that task took weeks and weeks. My list would become so long that it would end up making me feel sick, and I would throw it away. So, “break things down into tiny attainable chunks” seems like pretty solid advice that would have served me well.

Harnessing productivity

My current strategy is to take advantage of moments where I am feeling highly motivated and productive, and knock out as much as I can in those moments. I know myself enough know to know that those usually occur in the mornings, so I plan for the harder to tackle tasks every day in the morning, and save the more repetitive, easier, or rewarding things for the afternoon.

Always, though, is the underlying need for balance in my life to deal with the stress. Like peirama, exercise is key. It seems that the more exercise I get, the more energy I have.

I can’t do it all myself

For the times that the stress got really bad, I found it useful to seek the help of outside, neutral people. As a postdoc, the thing that helped me a ton was a bi-weekly massage. It sounds ridiculous and stuck-up, but it really did wonders for my mental health and balance. I always felt so relaxed after that, and it really made a difference in how I approached problems and tasks. And also, there are times I have gotten very down on myself for not succeeding like I should, and having a psychologist or therapist to talk to helped me put things in perspective. I thought of those conversations as adding tools to my toolbox.

Torschlusspanik:  

This is not my area of expertise — I thrived on putting myself in worst possible circumstances.  I was a master of procrastination and wasting time.  Maybe this was okay as a student, postdoc, and project scientist.  Yea, maybe I would not have survived as a professor…  When I was under much pressure and panic, CHOCOLATE helped.
I think we can all agree on that last one! What are your stress prevention tips or coping mechanisms? Leave a comment!


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Working Through: Fertility issues in the workplace

My husband and I stopped trying not to get pregnant 6 years ago. About 3 years ago we started trying to get pregnant and just over a year and a half ago I had my first miscarriage. We found out that there was no heart beat at 9weeks, confirmed it at 10weeks and had a D&C at 11weeks. One of the reasons why it took us so long to actively try to conceive was my fear of losing the pregnancy. I remember thinking that it would be an unsurvivable experience for me. Now I’m at a point where I can say that I appreciate the extra time before starting my family and the strength I found in myself and my relationship with my husband. That being said, miscarrying is horrible. Each time I lost a pregnancy I obsessed about all of the things I might have done wrong to cause the loss. Was I too stressed out, did I eat the wrong thing, was my shampoo poisoning the baby, did I touch the wrong thing at work?

A number of my closest friends and my sister were pregnant right around the time of my first pregnancy and it felt like my miscarriages made things awkward for us. They were worried that talking about their pregnancies/babies would hurt me, (and maybe they were a little right, I swore off of facebook for a while because it seemed like everyone was pregnant except me) but when they stopped complaining to me about swollen feet and colicky babies or telling me about the little joys like feeling the fist kicks and seeing first steps I felt even more isolated. I worried about talking to them too much about my miscarriages, I didn’t want to worry them about the viability of their own pregnancies. I knew it was irrational, but I felt that by talking with them about what happened my dark cloud would contaminate their happiness, which was the last thing I wanted. Friends asked me if I was seeing a fertility specialist (I’ve learned I shouldn’t call them infertility specialists because that sounds negative) which is a totally reasonable suggestion, but one that I was reluctant to follow up on for a long time. For me, this whole process has been confusing. On one hand, I want to be a strong feminist and be outspoken about the fact that I have had miscarriages to help other women feel less alone. On the other hand, I want to curl up in a ball and cry while telling myself/everyone that everything is fine and the next time will work out.

It has been almost a year since my last pregnancy. 4 months ago we finally started seeing a specialist. We did all the tests our Dr. recommended and everything is normal. There are little things that the Dr. points to and says this or that maybe on the low or high end of normal, but nothing that we can point to and say, yup that’s why it’s been so long or that’s why I’ve lost all of our prior pregnancies. The one good thing about all of this waiting, is somehow in the last few months I feel like I’ve come closer to a kind of acceptance in regards to this process. I am cautiously optimistic each month and each month I am disappointed, but it doesn’t devastate me each time.

All the while I have been struggling with these miscarriages and fertility issues I’ve been working, and it has not always been easy. At my last job I told my boss that I had miscarried and that I would need a D&C because I needed to take the following day off. She is a great boss and mentor and was as supportive as I could possibly have hoped for. About a year ago I changed jobs, and while I like my bosses, I chose to try to be more professional and less open about my struggle. It might be misplaced, but I worry that they will be mad/frustrated/disappointed/concerned-about-how-the-work-will-get-done if they find out that I am pregnant, and since I have had so many false starts I don’t want to have that negative interaction before I have to. Industry jobs are very volatile and I always want to put my best foot forward. Reasonable or not, I worry that people would consider (consciously or not) my future maternity leave against me if there was a restructuring of my department. While I stand by my decision to maintain my privacy in my professional life, it does pose some problems. Infertility testing and treatments are time consuming. There are a lot of timed tests that I/we have to go into the lab or clinic for. At first I would let people know that I had a doctors appointment, but then my boss started asking if I was ok and I got paranoid that he either thought I was really sick or he would assume that I was already pregnant or he would think I was interviewing for other jobs. So I now I’m trying to be more vague or slip out without saying anything, but that also feels very obvious and slightly disrespectful especially when I am missing meetings.   I worry that people will think that I am just shirking my work. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It would be great if more of the appointments could happen before/after work hours or of the weekends… but that’s just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.

I’m writing this post on the eve of my first IUI (intrauterine insemination… basically they collect the sperm spin it down and stick it into my uterus through a catheter, woo hoo!). This morning we went for the ultrasound and unfortunately my follicles were a little more ready than we expected… so I had to run out to the pharmacy and take my (injectable) ovulation stimulating medicine immediately. I had a meeting at 9:30am so I got the drug and injected myself in my car in the parking lot (there are no sharps containers in my work bathrooms, I didn’t feel right injecting myself in the lab where there are tons of sharps containers, and I didn’t want to wander around work with my needle and medicine so I decided my car was my best option). I know to people who have to give themselves injections all the time it probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was my first time injecting myself ever and it took a little bit to convince myself to stick the needle in, maybe it was a good thing I was running late for my meeting. It makes me wonder what things other than having a pumping room would make fertility struggles, pregnancy and having kids easier to balance with work? Does how hard it can be to get pregnant (especially for those of us no longer in our 20’s) have anything to do with the high attrition rate of women in science? I know it has impacted how much of a go-getter I am at work and how much I “lean in” since I don’t want to have to back out if I have an appointment/have a crappy pregnancy/go on maternity leave (and yes, I know this is exactly what Sandberg says not to do).

Overall, I’m excited and a little nervous about the IUI but I also appreciate that for the moment my life is beautiful as it is. My partnership with my husband is stronger now than ever and I have hope that our family will grow one way or another. In the mean time I’m trying to learn to be more chill/sneaky? about this personal process at work and I’m having an amazing time being an aunty to my niece and all my friends’ adorable babies.

One last thought for the moment. I really appreciated what Mark Zuckerberg did by posting his fertility struggles along with his pregnancy announcement. One thing that makes me extra thankful for the opportunity to share my experience anonymously is the ability to talk about the process before we have the safety of having a successful pregnancy. Thanks!


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