Some life lessons

I got asked by a postgrad student a few weeks ago about some of my experiences as a researcher. I kind of felt like I wasn’t the person to be asking as I worry that if I should actually impart advice to people that might actually listen to me, and I’d somehow feel responsible if things went tits up based on my advice. However, when I was new to the whole research thing I often blundered about in a vaguely directionless manner (both literally and metaphorically) and nuggets of advice were invaluable to me. Also, thinking about it, I started my PhD almost 10 years ago. I’ve grown up a lot, I’ve had a lot of experiences, and I’ve managed to work a few things out.

1. Accept that you’re crazy

Don’t tell me you’re in the lab at 11.30pm on Friday night because of “science”. You’re in the lab rather than a pub with your mates, or dancing in a club, or collapsed on the sofa watching Netflix fisting popcorn into your face, or in bed doing that sleep thing that is essential for mental health, because you’re crazy.

tina-fey-cheese

My perfect Saturday night

The sooner that you can accept this fact, the sooner you can progress to the other things I have indicated below. I’ve done plenty of quite frankly ridiculous things during my career in academia. I’ve driven to work at 2am because I was worried about a mouse I’d done brain surgery on, I’ve wrote my thesis in 16 hour shifts or until the sun came up, I’ve marked so many exams my hand has cramped, I fell in a watermaze trying to fish a rat out of a pool of shit filled water, I inadvertently put kisses at the end of an email to my PhD supervisor, and I also called my PhD supervisor “dad” once by accident (I should bring these up in psychotherapy).

Utilise your crazy as a basis for creativity and passion for learning.  Have weird unique ideas. Tell people about them. Laugh about all the dumb shit that goes wrong on a daily basis. Mental health actually comes with accepting that you do crazy things because you are passionate about your job, and believe in what you are doing.

Stop being a judgemental douche and accept that everyone here is in the same boat that’s sailing off to the looney bin. Plus you can legitimately use “I’m solely responsible for a colony of mutant mice” as an excuse to get out of jury duty.

liz1

2 Appreciate the little things

This is one thing I don’t do very often as the little awesome things get clouded in all the huge shit storms, or the daily bullshit that life throws at you. But I’ve realised that for the maintenance of my own mental health I sometimes have to take a step back and think “hey, I kicked arse at that”.

I spent my PhD looking for validation that what I was doing was ok, as I really didn’t have much confidence in myself. I judged myself too harshly on things in the past. I felt like paper getting rejected was basically the end of my career, and I would nit pick at things like a grammatical error in a publication with my name on. I didn’t celebrate the big things, or the little things, and in a job where you are constantly criticised and under scrutiny this got me down to breaking point. I don’t want to write down the celebratory worthy shit I didn’t acknowledge, I felt that it was never noticed by people in my department, so I shouldn’t take pride in it. This is shit. Don’t be me or my stupid brain. Who cares if your head of department doesn’t send you a congratulatory email when you win a prize. Buy yourself a new dress / bottle of expensive bourbon / a new TV – and every time you look at it remind yourself that you kick arse.

Leading a lab group taught me a lot about how I wanted to be treated, and in turn how I should treat myself. I like drinking and being sociable, so to celebrate getting papers accepted champagne and pizza is called for. I got an award last year and got to take friends with me to the ceremony where we got dressed up and drank free booze and celebrated things we achieved. Simultaneously, if you see someone else is doing well – TELL THEM. When I see someone I know just got an amazing paper – I fucking well congratulate those people.

Also, free food is good food. As is free wine. Never turn it down.

liz sandwich

3 Nobody is perfect, you in particular

As an extension of point 1, stop taking yourself so seriously. Take your job seriously, take your career seriously, take science seriously. But really, when you think about it, we’re all just cogs in a machine. I don’t want to have a heart attack at 42 because I’ve worried so much about the quality of my immunohistochemistry staining or whether I should have submitted a paper to a more highly regarded journal.

Sometimes things fuck up and go wrong. One time a skinner box actually set on fire while I was in the room. I don’t even know how that happened. I’ve learnt that if the machine makes a cracking noise as you use brute force to get something to go in to it, you’ve probably broken it. The lesson here is to stop pushing when you reach resistance, take a step back, and discover that the well plate is round the wrong way.

Ok, the lesson here really is don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t admit to making mistakes. You are human, and sometimes stuff goes wrong. The correct way to handle these situations is to fess up, have a cry (inward or outwardly – I favour the latter), then go down the pub, get drunk and laugh about yourself.

Furthermore to this, as I’ve now experienced fuck ups from the supervisory angle, by telling your supervisor of said fuck up, nine times out of ten something can be done about it to ameliorate the detrimental impact, or at least stop it from happening again. Win!

4 Don’t shy away from opportunities

Pre-2007 I’d never been on a plane by myself and I was really nervous about everything from how I was going to get to the airport, to how the hell I was meant to get through customs. I put on my big girl pants and went to America for a neuroscience conference where I knew no people. I was terrified. Guess what, I made some awesome friends that I still hit up for beers and crash space when I’m in America. I actually enjoy going to conferences, it’s the highlight of my work, but I used to worry about not knowing people there and looking like a no mates loser. Well, as we now know, from point 1, most of us share a mutual crazy, so just go chat to people.

Liz-Lemon-Another-Successful-Interaction-With-a-Man

Also, take business cards with you. Academia still uses these. Get really pretty ones made, not just scummy bits of shitty card with streaky printing on. People will coo over them, and if they don’t – point out how awesome they are. Someone important might remember you.

5 Stop comparing yourself to other people

I’m a competitive person, but I’m not going to lose sleep over the fact that there are people who are younger, cleverer, better funded, more cited and have incredible labs at top unis. I’m basically happy in the fact that I have a job that I enjoy and I get to do interesting research. A major component of my job is that get paid to play with rats and talk about science. I like both of these things. Imagine working a monotonous admin job you don’t care about. Suddenly having to do 6 hours of putting a rat in a box once a week isn’t so bad.

I used to sit and Pubmed search people I knew and get all sad that I didn’t have as many publications as them, and that I didn’t have a Nature paper, and then feel shit about myself. 99% of getting a Science/Nature paper is luck. Lots of people with Science/Nature papers are boring weirdos who live in laboratories thinking that they aren’t crazy, but there are also awesome people who have worked really hard and got lucky at the same time.

If I want to get competitive really my main strengths are that I’m really good at holding my booze and I have had some amazing drunken adventures. Further to this, I’m actually a pretty decent person, who cares about what they do.

2016 so far

 

IMG_8474

So, 2016 has been pretty exciting so far! I’m currently based in Toronto – at University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, learning lots about electrophysiology.

It’s also the most wonderful time of the year for researchers – grant writing season. It holds a special place in our hearts when you pour away hours of your life into writing beautifully crafted grants, with a < 12% chance of success. Awesome.

120068_ComputerSmash[1]

However, I’ve just had 2 papers published this week that focus on sex differences in memory and motivation in rats that are exposed to high-sucrose diets through adolescence. What do you know, girls ARE better than boys at spatial memory (after being exposed to sucrose). For once, we can thank our ever fluctuating hormones for something that isn’t feeling moody, or menstrual cramps. And also, congratuations to Kirsten for nailing her first 2 publications. Now, get that grad school scholarship.

New publications from my lab:

Abbott, K.N., Morris, M.J., Westbrook, R.F. & Reichelt, A.C. (2016) Sex-specific effects of daily exposure to sucrose on spatial memory performance in male and female rats, and implications for estrous cycle stage

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938416300348

Reichelt, A.C., Abbott, K.N., Westbrook, R.F. & Morris , M.J. (2016) Differential motivational profiles following adolescent sucrose access in male and female rats

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938416300361

Post graduate finances

Having been a student at uni for years and not really embracing certain adult things, this piece of writing resonated with me.
The fuck-off fund

The best thing I ever learnt at uni was to not live outside of my means. Resist the temptation to blow money on expensive cars and designer handbags and brand new technological trinkets. I’ve used public transport, my feet or a bike for 7 years rather than drive to work (I hate driving too). I buy my designer handbags on sale. I don’t see the point in a watch that shows me my text messages when my phone does the same thing.

I’m glad I’ve always had a bit of cash saved so I could escape if I needed to.

Merry End of Semester-ness

It’s nearly the end of semester. I’m wrapping up experiments. I’ve achieved a lot this year, aside from some “blips” where I got a bit down about everything.

Lab outputs

Alanna got a 1st class honours in her bachelors degree and Vimi got a 2.1! Super chuffed for them both.

I presented our research at – Winter Neurobiology of Learning and memory (Utah), Society for Study of Ingestive Behavior (Denver), International Society for Neurochemistry (Cairns), Inter-University Neuroscience and Mental Health Conference (Sydney), and I’m off to Switzerland next week for a symposium at EPFL, Lausanne.

Kirsten presented at Frontiers in Neurodevelopment Symposium (Sydney).

I got awarded a NSW Young Tall Poppy and SSIB New Investigator award…

Failed miserably at securing funding this year. Boo :(

Next year is going to be hectic…

Jan-April – I’ll be in Toronto at UTSC working with A/Prof Blake Richards! So excited to be learning new techniques, undeniably worried about dying of frostbite.

While I’m in Canada I’m hoping to travel about a bit to visit some lab based buddies at NYU / UMich. See how the other half live…

I’ve also got grants to write, gotta pay the research bills…

 

Now is the autumn of my ennui

A colleague of mine pointed out recently that my blog was sparse across 2015, as she enjoyed reading my posts and hoped I would write more, and I felt that I should apologise, which I understand to be a cardinal sin in blog writing. In honesty, I had wanted to write and pour my heart out onto anonymous pages about my experiences this year across the emptiness of the internet, but I felt that I couldn’t, for professionalism’s sake. Maybe I will one day be able to express in sincere words the helplessness, pain and fear that I experienced this year, and how punctate events left me feeling lost, empty and alone. (And how one day,  I will stop using descriptors in threes).

This is all I can say at the moment. When it rains in Sydney, it pours. The rain drenches you to your bones within seconds, and the sky is peppered with arcs of lightning striking indiscriminately, accompanied with rolling growls of hungry thunder. The concrete streets transform to rivers and the city vista becomes obscured by clouds. It is disorienting and visceral. Creatures cower under shelter waiting for the atmospheric tantrum to subside. The storms are acute and severe, yet transient, as the dark clouds unfurl to reveal piercingly blue skies, and the sun’s warmth dries up the murky puddles in the way a mother lovingly blots away streaks of tears from their distressed child’s face.

This is the only way I can describe the last 11 months. Weather metaphors. I am so British.

I have experienced emotions in contexts I could never imagine. I have felt distress to the point where I could not comprehend there was anything past the clouds that obscured my view. I made irrational escape plans. However, I found that throughout these storms I could be my own rock, albeit weather beaten, chilled and frayed. I found a radiance that was inside me that I thought had been drained from me, tapped away and consumed forever. I found a group of people with whom I could exchange and reciprocate this warmth and I stopped feeling that I needed to suit up in armor and battle my way through the storms. So concludes 2015.

While living in the UK, I always felt that the finale of the year was a somber affair. The nights close in, and a seeping darkness consumed my waking hours. Christmas festivities felt like a lackluster but desperate attempt to gaudily veil the lethargic disappointment that the conclusion of the year could muster. A population preoccupied with consumerism to conceal the fundamental emptiness of existence with items of ephemeral desire. (I accept no responsibility for my post-teenage weltschmerz.) However, here in upside-down land, the epilogue to the year is one of brightness and awareness as the new year unfurls, dawn breaking as opposed to nightfall and I feel like I am waking from an unsettling dream. Yes, the Christmas consumerism seems crass and out of place (like a dog walking on its hind legs), but with a self-aware lewdness that I can only describe in the conscious violation of my northern hemispheric winter idealisms.

I promise in 2016 I will write more, not just my academic papers, I will write about the events that shape my life, my adventures that I am so fortunate to experience.

 

All in the mind

Another update, you’d think I should be doing some research or something.
I was interviewed for All in the Mind on ABC RN a few weeks back, and the program has just gone to air. If you’d like to listen in to my dulcet English accent the link is here:

Diet on the brain

6868874-4x3-700x525

I’m a Tall Poppy!

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Young Tall Poppy from the Australian Institute of Science and Policy on Wednesday evening. Very exciting and honoured to have received this recognition for my research!

22_2015_tall_poppy_awards_250unsw_3

https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/unsw-physicist-pick-bunch-young-tall-poppy-awards

Woohoo!!

Congratulations are due to my two students Alanna and Vimi, who handed in their theses today! #ProudMama

Alanna Wong – Sucrose consumption during adolescence and adulthood – Impact on impulsive choices and motivation (2015)

Vimi Dogra – Impact of Sucrose Consumption on Social Behaviour in Adolescent and Adult Rats (2015)

alanna and vimi

I hugged some rats… running a fun discrimination task using the new Bussey-Saksida touchscreens! Hopefully we will get some interesting data!

meandrats

Just say no

Today marks the end of what I have been fondly referring to as “hell week” at work, and although it has been tough, it’s now over. Hell week arose by my own fault of saying “yes” to too many things, and then realising that there was no way I could do these things in combination at the same time. This included – giving two talks on work I have never presented before, helping out with a conference, undergraduate lecturing, two undergraduate neuroscience practicals, running 6 hours of behavioural training per day with new rats and finishing up two manuscript drafts.

So, somewhat sadly I realised that something had to give, and it was either my sanity or some of the tasks I’d managed to agree myself into. Rat training got delegated to sullen looking students, talks got written, lectures were given, volunteering with the conference was sternly rescinded and those manuscripts can wait til next week. It is really hard to say no to stuff but I realised that I need to put things into perspective about what really I am capable of doing, and also not letting myself get into this mess again. I will be calling upon my spirit animal, Grumpy Cat, more often from now on.

grumpy cat

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers