Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Over at Neurotic Physiology and other bloggers over at Scientopia have posted "what are you thankful for?"  This includes an item, a person, and an idea.

I really like this concept, and maybe if you had contacted me a week ago, I would have a thoughtful, meaningful answer to these questions.* (the reason for this is below)
Instead, you get my half-assed answers:

My item that I'm thankful for:  coffee and the old coffee maker given to me and the Mr. when we move to the town where the MRU is.
My parents bought us a super nice espresso maker as an actual wedding gift, but as we were packing up, my mom found an old drip coffee maker they never used.  This thing has a timer, and THAT is priceless.  A lot of times I have to get up at about 4am for some long experiments.  There's something entirely comforting about having the coffee ready as soon as I drag myself out of bed.

The person I'm thankful for:  easily this could go to the Mr., as he keeps everything sane in the household.  However, I think that as far as my academic career's one of my non-advisor mentors.

In confession, my PI is an amazing scientist, but is also one of the busiest.  I can't say my PI is the most encouraging person, and that's ok.  Some of my classmates have very enthusiastic and animated PI's, and they benefit from the overflow of that effervescent passion.  While I would have loved to have landed in such a situation, I'm ok with the reality I have.  My PI is often too busy, and they tend to run the lab like the business that it is.  When I have times of low morale, it's good when I have to go to another facility for some experiments.  At that location I get to see one of my committee members, who is also the enthusiastic and passionate type.  Our conversations give me inspiration, and they fire me up for my ideas and my research.  In that regard, I am very thankful. 

As for my idea...
A friend once joked, "If you don't feel like a complete fraud who's in over their head, you're not stretching your abilities enough."  
I think one of the bigger mental challenges that grad school has presented is the sense of being overwhelmed.  I feel like I have more contact with various specialists in many different fields, and while talking to them you have to know exactly what they're talking about.  And most of the time it feels like I have to wing it, and then later read up on it.  

I bought a chemistry model kit after a discussion with one of our collaborators, a biochemist who knows all sugars backwards and forwards.  I could follow the discussion, but I knew that I needed to be able to look at several different molecules, regardless of how they were presented on the page, and know what from what.  It's like having to learn to think like a microbiologist, a biochemist, and a geneticist all at the same time.  When I feel overwhelmed, and "in over my head," I remind myself that this probably happens to every grad student at some point.  Unfortunately, due to the unique structure of my program, I'm kinda isolated and don't have the constant camaraderie that my peers benefit from, so this is only a guess.  The alternative is that I'm just a complete idiot...

Unfortunately, after the explosion on Saturday things continued to all go downhill.  (By the way, my PI said she had never seen or heard of an anaerobic culture causing a glass 1L bottle to explode, but perhaps the bottle had been compromised in some way which lead to its demise.)
I had been harvesting cells for both some anaerobic cultures and some VERY slow growing aerobic cultures.  I was on my feet pretty much all of Saturday and Sunday, and I still hadn't started a paper that was due on Monday.  Monday rolls around, and I'm on track.  I think, I'll get this stuff sorted and that experiment started....and then I can get home and start on my paper.

And about halfway through the day, my PI and I were looking at the data, and slowly....but then very surely, we realized that all of that work was for naught.  Despite harvesting all the cells that I had, it wasn't enough.  There was no way of knowing this until we got there.  I think I saw genuine sympathy in my PI's face.  I was exhausted, and I understood that I was about to be cheated out of my Thanksgiving Day weekend.

Frustration and anger gripped me all day Monday, and I realized I had to snap back into it to churn out a paper by 10pm that evening.  Tuesday I woke in a zombie state and sat through another class.  More stuff surfaced that I have to get done.  The numbness helped in my resignation that there will be no rest until I board a plane for the UK in late December.  The project manager of our grant has requested a review of all data on the 16th, and due to the DLM, we are scrambling to get his data.  (There's more to that story, but that's another post.)

So sometime around 10pm tonight, the Mr, the Spoiled Rotten Cat and I will trek up to my parents for Thursday and Friday, and then we'll be back on Saturday for me to continue harvesting cells.  I'm ok with this now, but earlier I'm not sure I was.

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