30 is the new 20, or it is?

I’ve been asked to sit on a panel of various early career researchers from Sydney in August as part of science week. I have to present and discuss “what keeps scientists up at night”. I think we are meant to discuss our preoccupation with science research and the like.

I’m torn. I normally crawl into bed about 11pm pretty much exhausted both physically and mentally. Things that keep me up at night usually include whether I’ve fucked something up in the lab, and I am about to get yelled at about it. Alternatively, there was the time that I got really involved in Plants vs Zombies on my phone and couldn’t sleep properly because I couldn’t stop playing it. I am also not one to work late at night, I’ve never pulled a work based “all nighter” (I have watched the sun rise over cans of cheap beer in a garden as a student though). Regardless, I need to present something that I worry about as a scientist.

I read an article on the conversation a while back that said that nowadays 30 is the new 20, except when it comes down to women’s reproductive health. The first part of that sentence is great. 30 is the new 20. So I’m notionally 21, and all that time spent at university studying for my undergraduate degree and then doing research for my PhD was time I invested into my now young adulthood. I don’t feel 31, and I’m pretty sure I don’t look 31. I’m obviously going to look older than my undergrad students, but I think I can get away with mid-20s when I’ve decided to make an effort.
At this stage I haven’t really invested in anything other than my career. I don’t own a house (or even have a mortgage), I don’t even own a car. In fact, other than my student debt that I really should be repaying, the most expensive thing I own is my laptop (and a lot of clothes and shoes).
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Blog on TheGuardian.com

I was delighted to be asked by Dr Dean Burnett (who used to entertain me in the lab back in my PhD days) to write a commentary on some recently published science (which we both thought was pretty limited and overstating a point), that he deemed close to my interests…

Exercise or bust? Breasts and physical activity 

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Weird things I miss about home

I still call Britain home. From the second I open my mouth to speak, people realise I’m not from Australia, and it has become a defining feature “Amy, you know? The British girl.” I don’t know whether this has hindered or enhanced my career in Australia, and regardless, science is universal – it shouldn’t matter whether the experiments are being done in London, Cape Town, Tokyo or Sydney, good science is good science.

I came to Sydney wanting change and success, and I have achieved both to an extent. But I miss my family and with an impending trip home (the first in 2 years) I am nervous to see whether the UK has changed in my absence (probably not). Australia is pretty much like Britain but with less people getting in my face, less rain, more sunshine and better coffee. I love my life here, I just miss my family.

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Scared I won’t burn that bright

I was the first person in my family to go to university and get a degree, I say this in the knowledge that one of my uncles once went to a university open day, and my gran would swear that he went to uni. But, out of my little family I was the first. My family come from working class roots, my dad is an engineer and my mum is a civil servant. They have good jobs and supported both my brother and myself through our undergraduate degrees, helping out with our rent while we supported ourselves financially with part time jobs to cover tuition fees. I worked in a bar through most of uni during term time and during holidays I worked as a lab tech, or a waitress, or anything else that would pay me.

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Being human

Scientists. What do they do all day? A google image search indicates that if you type in the word “scientist” you either get cartoons of crazy grey haired guys with a maniacal look about them, or some good looking model wearing fake glasses staring wistfully into some coloured liquids.

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But actual scientists… They’re not, like, real people are they? They don’t do boring, normal things like go grocery shopping, watch trashy TV shoes, go to the pub, or dear god, sometimes put their underwear on the wrong way round.

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Me… talking

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Listen to me discussing some exciting new memory research (that I didn’t do) on ABC’s “The World Today”

Here

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Finding your pace in research

Before I start, let me explain that I am a terrible runner, but having donned my trainers for many years and endured hours of mindless treadmill pounding or flailing around a park, I have discovered 2 things – 1) I have never encountered a “runner’s high”, unless it’s the feeling of sitting down on the sofa after going for a run, 2) I have not yet “found my running pace” (my preferred speed is walking).

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(I don’t look like this when I’m running. Even in silhouette form you would see my utter distaste for the exercise)

So, in running there is this concept of “finding your pace”, some kind of mythical sweet-spot where you are at your optimal speed without getting worn out. I imagine that one day I will be out running and I will magically find that I am no longer a sweating, panting, flustered mess of over-heating pain and am instead bounding effortlessly down the street, with a smile of genuine enjoyment pasted across my glowing face. Like a smug, athletic gazelle.

When I run, I am not in a place of zen, focused on maintaining my perfect speed; I am listening to loud music and trying to drown out my constant barrage of thoughts, mostly about how much I hate running, followed by wondering if I’ve run 5k already, only to discover I haven’t even hit a kilometer. One thing that has crossed my mind recently is that maybe research is like running…

At the moment I feel like I am caught up in this chaotic whirlwind of trying to think of novel and feasible experiments and then finding the time and energy to put it into practice. My mind seems scattered and so does my research plan, which seems like it consists of anything shiny that catches my eye – “I think neurogenesis is awesome this week! Oh, lets do some neuroimaging! Now lets do western blots! Lets play with immuohistochemistry! I want to study binging behaviour! Now lets do adolescence vs adulthood…”

I’d like to think that some of this is because I’m passionate about my work. I’m in a place (mentally) where I can rapidly generate ideas and have the drive to get on with experiments I’m excited about. But, I’m also worried that I am not focused enough, and that I haven’t yet found my niche… that one thing that I research that could make me the “expert”. Success in research seems to favour those who are really nifty at one thing, which is executed well. My old boss is awesome at memory reconsolidation, my PhD supervisor was great at behavioural assays in transgenic Alzheimer’s disease models. I’m really great at (… insert research here …).

Science doesn’t favour the jack of all trades approach, it’s nice to have a selection of skills, but they have to be all aimed at the same target. Like one of those ridiculous guns with missiles attached, the skill set you develop is your artillery, your research niche is the target that they get aimed at.

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“I often favour the classic AK-47, but with a flamethrower and grenade launcher add on”

(I know nothing about guns by the way). In the end you don’t need to have an artillery of weapons though. You just need to be really, really good with one thing. Like Hawkeye, you can totally nail everything with just a bow and arrow.

I digress. So, running and research…

I get this feeling that maybe, with time, you find your pace in research. That one thing that you can define yourself by. Then once you’ve got that sorted you’re on track. You get funding, you’ve got a niche that you can go to conferences and talk about. Your name becomes synonymous with your research. And then you can do some “fun” projects too that you’re interested in, but your niche is your bread and butter. But how you actually go about finding this is unbeknownst to me currently, in the same way that I will still try to sprint around the park and end up with stitch, ever hoping I’ll find that magic sweet spot.

 

 

Academic shaming

Shaming. It’s basically the act of making any person feel inferior. Whether it be based on someone’s appearance or an action, shaming cuts you to the emotional core. The aim is to hit you right where it hurts.

There is slut-shaming, fat-shaming… but is there academic shaming?

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*I bring in the exception of dog-shaming. That’s funny.

Academic shaming isn’t going to go viral on the internet. Nor are people going to protest it in the streets of the city.

But that feeling of utter dread at the pit of your stomach upon receiving that email from the editor of a journal you’ve submitted to, or seeing the hand raised by the outspoken researcher after a talk… conjuring feelings of inadequacy, and that your hard work is about to get ripped apart. I hate this.

Sometimes, academics forgo any semblance of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all”. And understandably, when someone is presenting research that you completely disagree with it is easy to point out the flaws, and what better place to do it than in front of an audience of peers. And after reviewing a paper that contains, in your opinion, methodological or interpretive flaws, why not let rip and shred it to pieces?

To academics and researchers, you publications and outputs (presentations of your work) are your currency. Without these you have no credit to play the research game, which involves scoring grants to further fund your work. Research is therefore a game that is intricately entwined in the presentation and reputation of the researcher, which comes down to how you sell yourself. Furthermore, very few get to the post-postdoc phase without their research being a part of your identity. So it’s not surprising that direct criticism feels personal.

Painful though the process may be, your skin becomes thicker. Like breaking in a new pair of boots, you have to keep up the process. The inevitable negative comments will arise, but on the upside they can be used when relevant/substantive to improve your work. Criticism is a feature of academic life and it sucks, but it can make your work stronger.

But I have to say the most important thing I have learned in dealing with the shit academia throws at me is having enjoyable life outside of my job.
By having meaningful things that make me feel good about myself in my free time, then I feel less dependent on my job to nurture my ego and less devastated by criticism. Hey my paper may have been squashed – but today I benched a PR with my gym buddies. Or although I got rejected from a fellowship, I get to go home and cuddle with my boyfriend and watch a movie. I can use these things to thicken my skin by distancing my work life from my personal life, because although I live and breathe my job daily, I don’t have to deal with these things all the time.

I leave you with a link… Peer review – it’s a battlefield

Eye update, 2 months later

I got the all clear last week from the eye surgeon, my ocular pressure had returned to normal (17/17) and all the inflammation has gone down. Which means no more eye drops for me (although I do still have some lubricating ones for if I get something in my eyes – like an eyelash or dust).

Vision is superb in most lighting conditions. In the daytime it’s awesome, at night it’s also very good. I went to see Queens of the Stoneage and Nine Inch Nails on Thursday and all the light show (although brilliant) was a little too glare-y for me at some points, although I was assured that other people found it like that with “natural” vision.

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