Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Favorite Things

Well thought ideas that bring in grant money
Good looking data is sweeter than honey
Challenging projects that come out in print
These are a few of my favorite things

Heated discussions at GRC meetings
Puzzles and models damn right down intriguing
Smart people talking and networking
These are a few of my favorite things

PCR products that clone on first trying
Wacky ideas that set my thoughts flying
Brand new equipment for highthroughputing
These are a few of my favorite things

When the gel cracks
When the lab stinks
When the data is crap
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so mad

Here is some help on the sing-along:
(If you haven't heard much Pomplamoose, check them out here.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Docking at low tide

A loss, even when expected, is still a loss.

My grandfather was in the hospital for the past few weeks, battling a pneumonia that would not respond to antibiotics. At 96, the effort to heal exhausted him and breathing became difficult. To ease his suffering, he was sedated and put on a respirator for the past week. He continued to heal, and we waited. The sadness and anxiety were overwhelming at times - especially across the equator. The fear of not seeing him again, or hearing his voice on the phone while he tried to get a word in between my grandmother's chatter, constricted my throat and sent tears to my eyes. But we should not mourn the living...

The image that came to me again and again this past week was of our sailing trip last year. We spent a week sailing on the Chesapeake Bay with my in-laws. On the last day the wind waned and to make it to harbor at a decent time to drive back to their house, we brought down the sails and motored home. When we arrived the tide was too low to dock, so we sat in the cockpit waiting for the tide to rise enough to get into our slip. We could have been sailing, we should have been on our way home... Instead we were siting around waiting.

Waiting... and thinking - this week in the same manner, not at sea and not at dock. I have been remembering the good moments spent with my grandfather: how happy he was at my wedding; how he enjoyed his last visit to the US, just in time for the birth of my oldest son. I am immensely gratified that Dada and I were able to take the kids to see him in Brazil last May, and celebrate together his 96th birthday. He was having a great year, all four of his great-grandchildren came to visit! Yesterday the doctors decided to take my grandfather off his sedatives and give him a chance to wake up. However, he did not make it - he could not breath on his own. The mingled feeling of sadness and relief can be both numbing and overwhelming. I alternate from a state of tears to a sense of peace in minutes.

He had a life worth remembering, even if all I have are snippets of it in my mind: A veterinarian who hated cats & dogs. He married my grandmother in an arranged marriage, 13 years her senior - she accepted him because he liked tomatoes. He walked around the neighborhood daily, stopping to pull off vines and low branches from the trees in his path to help them grow. He saw a brother exiled for 15 years due to the military dictatorship that took over Brazil, when our famous scientists were kicked out of the country. After he retired he started compiling the history of veterinarians in Brazil, backwards through time - when he reached the early days of colonization he moved on to the rest of South America. He outlived both older and younger brothers. He lived a long life, embraced in a tight-knit family - even when spread across the globe.

After his 96 years of sailing through life, it was time to dock with the tide...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A small collection of forks

Looking back into my early years, there were not many major decisions I had to make, but they most definitely had a distinct impact on how my life has turned out. There were a few major forks in my path, some minor ones, and those daily decisions that can go unnoticed. As much as I am convinced I took the best path, there is no telling if going the other way would have had a positive or negative effect on my life. Albeit, it would certainly be a different life...

My strategy for deciding which path to follow also varied greatly depending on the situation. Most of the time I followed my 80% rule, including the stroll I am taking through the family lane. Nevertheless, some forks presented agonizing choices, which at the time needed stringent consideration and/or alternative tactics. When faced with the decision to continue my education in the US or return to Brazil, I settled the debate with a gamble. When deciding where to pursue my PhD, I followed my heart. In both cases I never looked back, and probably would have made the same choices if faced with similar options.

However, many of the minor choices I made hardly seemed like there was anything to consider at the time, but now I can see how I could have followed a hidden path. The one that comes to mind these days relates to when I fell in love with history of science as a junior in college. I felt that it was too late to become a history major - I was set on a career in biology since high-school. I vaguely remember considering a change of path, but not more than making an off-hand comment to my parents on the phone. Once my Dad pointed out that I could enjoy history as a hobby but that biology was a full-time deal, I was back in gear towards the career I had sought out to pursue. I am happy with my choice, but I always think of history as a "plan B". If I ever need a change... Amazingly, going back to school and taking a different path does not seem scary at all.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Life as my alter-ego

I wrote a short story while in college about a girl who switches places with her alter-ego for a day. They go about their day as they would normally, but their different attitudes impact their surroundings. They slightly modify each other's life, mainly by creating or dismissing opportunities. I was trying to work out that the little things in daily life could have an impact in my future just as much as the big decisions I made. These small doors that open and shut each day, and go mostly unnoticed...

My major goal in college was to turn into the person I wanted to be - not only heading towards a carrier in science, but also stepping out of the shy and introverted persona I had acquired through middle- and high-school. I wanted to stop living in my mind: I wanted to be the person who lived in my mind - the one who did the same things but differently...

Looking back, the turning point happened after I took a philosophy course. I felt lost as the physical world crumbled around me. Like Sophie, my mind opened up to the possibilities and nothing seemed real anymore. It took me a week or two to recover from that surreal experience, but the person who stepped back into the world was not the one who left it. I was more attuned to the world around me and more proactive.

Some days I still wonder where I would be if I had made different choices, but I don't regret any of the ones I made. The scenarios that pop into my head are not any more enticing than the world in which I live. The things I would have to do without are more important to me than what I would maybe gain. But it is still fun to think about the possibilities, and what life would be like as my alter-ego...

Friday, September 11, 2009

And then I heard crack...

I am sure many, if not all, working mothers have these moments. The ones where you are trying to do everything. The days you forget that supermom does not exist. In this particular case, I was trying to hold up the fort so that Dada could get off to work early. He had a huge multicollaborator multinational grant due and labor day weekend was coming up - 3 days without daycare...

So there I was going through the motions of getting the kids to daycare and myself to work, while cleaning up after breakfast and starting laundry. I got the kids downstairs and was putting on their shoes when I noticed I had socks for the wrong boy and was missing a sippy cup. So I tell them I will be right back, run up the stairs, gather what I am missing, and run back - all before the little one can get to the second steps. That is when I panicked - and supermom should never panic.

Baby brother can climb the whole staircase, but he gets so excited that he tends to stand up and say "yay" after every step - potentially falling backwards. Hence, I rushed to get around big brother, who was trying to keep little brother sitting, so I could be behind the little one if he tipped backwards. In my rush I jumped over the last step and heard a crack when my foot hit the tile floor. Fortunately, I did not panic then.

I sat down. I took a deep breath. The kids sat with me. I was asked "Are you OK Mamãe"? I took a deep breath. I got their shoes on. Big brother asked if he could "kiss and make it better". Its healing powers are amazing... I was up - with a bit of pain, but it was bearable. A 2 on the 1-10 scale could be walked on. The day could go on. I took the kids to daycare, got gas for the car, and went to work. Walking into the lab was when sanity started to return - maybe ice would help. By lunchtime I was still icing my foot when Dada called. I declined a lunch outing due to my episode that morning and heard reason shouted in my ear: I heard a crack!

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I called my mom to take me to the emergency clinic after Dada threatened to do it himself. I got x-rays, a dorsal fracture, a temporary splint, crutches, and appointment with an orthopedist for the next day*. The next day I got one of those "aircast" boots after another set of x-rays**, with instructions to avoid weight bearing on that foot at all costs. Hence, I was stuck at home for the long holiday weekend -and the following weeks - with Dada being superdad, superhusband and superscientist, and lots of help from my parents who even took the kids out of town for an entire day.

After spending the first week with my foot up or walking on crutches, I really hope the healing process will not take very long. And there is just so much work I can do from home, especially now that I finished the 1,000 Blast searches for our phylogeny paper. The doctor did mention I could be in a walking cast after 2 weeks, so I am keeping my fingers crossed. And I can hardly wait for Dada to get back. Did I mention that he had a conference this week too? I am very glad my parents are in town to help with the kids! This suppermommy is out of commission for a few weeks...

* my insurance is "great" so I needed 2 doctor visits to immobilize.
** didn't I say I had great insurance?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Month in review

First week. July was a month of visitations: we had relatives from Brazil and my in-laws in town. As much as I love my family dearly, it was nice to return to the peace and quiet of our everyday lives. The kids get a bit frantic from being off their normal schedule. Now they can settle into a more constant pattern of school days and home days, knowing what to expect.

I had spent the month of July delving into the notebooks of former students, many of which did not even sign their own name on them. I finally got the (published) experiments figured out and troubleshooted by the time August arrived. It was nice to have my new lab finally set up and be able to focus on experiments.

By the end of the week I got notice that we will be moving across the hall in September to make way for the chemical synthesis project that will be going on in our current lab. I also got a letter from the kids daycare saying they will be closing half an hour earlier, starting a week from now. We told the kids they might be changing school, to try to prepare them. We got two different responses: little brother continues to suck his thumb and assumes we know what we are doing, while big brother decides to make our life miserable in the meantime. There will be no peace this month...

Second week. Dada and I spent two mornings researching and visiting daycares that have extended hours. We really liked the accredited center a block from our house, so on the third day we took the kids for a visit. It went well, so I spent Thursday and Friday mornings there too - transitioning the kids to their new environment. They spent the mornings at the new school, then afternoons at the old one. Big brother is still acting up every morning, but once we get him clothed and in the car he behaves. I think he likes the new school, but after being at the same center for 3 years - since he was born! - the unfamiliarity of the new surroundings is a bit overwhelming.

Of course Mamae here is stressed out too, even re-living her own uprootings from way back when - creeping memories, hidden traumas... but I manage to get myself focused enough at work to keep my experiments going and plan out the new lab layout. I will miss having a window, but I will rejoice leaving the monster chemical hood (and all the noise it makes) behind.

Dada spends the weekend cleaning the house for the big party next week and clashing horns with our 3 year-old. From refusing to wear clothes to a hunger strike, we have a weekend as none before. As much as I remove baby brother from the arena, he gets stressed too. Or maybe more teeth are coming in to join the festivities...

Third week. The kids started officially at the new daycare, everybody is much calmer. We feel assured the change was for the better. Now Dada can focus on the grant he is writing and I can try to get as many experiments wrapped up before they start taking my benches apart.

We hosted a "welcome to grad school" party for Dada's department on Saturday. We had ~40 people over: faculty, students, postdocs and significant others. It is odd being binned with the latter when I was so used to being included in the middle two. I also find it amusing that many of our guests assumed that I did most of the prepping, when in fact all I did was buy the beer and make a salad - then spend the afternoon napping with the kids. The only compliments I did not refute were the ones concerning my well behaved kids. They are indeed a pleasure in company...

Fourth week is about to start... It seems like everything is back under control, but maybe it is too early to count victory. My lab move is scheduled for next week (or the following), so I can get a few more experiments done this week. I can also work on the review I should be writing.

Peace & quiet? I will not give up yet...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer thoughts

Ever since I finished my PhD five years ago, my research is not directly affected by the academic calendar - where the year is divided into three terms: football, spring and summer. Living in Florida, where we have warm weather 90% of the year, I can only tell that it is officially summer by the dwindling number of cars on the road when most of the students take off. But research never stops, and my husband and I managed to find a daycare for the kids that is open year-round (and almost all holidays) to avoid the summer lull. Hence, we can work most of the time and also take vacations at random times.

Many of our summer vacations were taken outside the university's official break weeks. Dada's teaching schedule is mainly a month out of a team-taught class, unless he offers a journal club. Mainly we need to plan around his field schedule. I still remember having to plan our wedding in Brazil in between pollinations and harvest. This year we went to Brazil for my grandfather's 96th birthday in mid-May, at the start of the summer term but before pollinations kicked in. Last year we went sailing with the kids on the Chesapeake Bay late August - fall semester had started but planting was done. A few years ago we went to England for a friend's wedding mid September and fall semester was in full swing.

It hit me today that, for the first time in my life, I am not associated with an academic institution. Nevertheless, as the academic calender has not affected my life in the last five years, I don't think I will notice much of a change. Living in a college town, I might still get caught up in the university schedule. However, working on the outskirts of town I might be able to ignore the hustle and bustle on campus. Maybe I'll even escape the football season pandemonium, but that might be hoping for too much...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Unintentional Propagation of Gender Bias

It all started with pink shoes - sparkly pink sneakers to be exact. My oldest son asked to buy shoes at a store, instead of them coming in the mail. At the store, I made an off-hand comment about pink being a girl color and now I am bombarded daily with questions on the gender of every color and everything else. Having a 3 year old tell me I cannot do something because I am a girl would be less offensive if he was not my own son. Now I have to dig myself out of this hole...

I have nothing against men wearing pink - or skirts - or whatever else they feel like wearing. But my son is 3, and the kids at daycare are merciless. I would rather he decided to fight the stigma when he is mature enough not to fall for the teasing. Nowadays he seems to fall apart when someone calls him a baby...

Moreover, I do not think I am the only one pointing out differences between boys and girls. He is probably hearing things at school too. Unfortunately it is not just which line to get in to use the potty... Some days he comes home with statements such as "girls like princesses and boys like action figures". Then Dada jumps up and says that boys like princesses too - they marry them. My reply is that I like action figures too - Aquaman was always my favorite. My son looks puzzled - is it because he is trying to comprehend that boys and girls can like the same things or is he trying to figure out who Aquaman is?

But how can we teach children about gender without pointing out some differences? I worry that making gender distinctions will unintentionally propagate gender discrimination - biases that I feel affronted by in my adult life. The basics are easy: Dada is a boy, Mama is a girl. Only mommies have babies in their bellies. The rest seems like only personal preferences. Mama can use Dada's tools when she needs to, including the sharp saw - and the drill. She just cannot pee standing up...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Organic & Natural

Maybe I am biased, but somehow the word "organic" does not inspire me to think wholesome food thoughts. Maybe it is because of those months I spent in organic lab... Anyway, what I really do not understand is why organic has been equated with healthy to the point of all other foods being called unhealthy. I do agree that some of the more widely consumed foods are indeed bad for you - even without watching Super Size Me. I also understand that large quantities of chemicals are indeed used in conventional agriculture as pesticides and herbicides, which might not be very appetizing or healthy. And I will not deny that I am a proponent of genetic engineering as a solution to many agriculture problems. Nevertheless, I feel that this health food movement reminds me of the vegan craze I was exposed to in college. Even though I am not an avid meat-eater, I still favored a more balanced diet.

My main concerns with the organic label are exactly what they are advertising as better. I worry about the shelf-life and after-opened life time because of the lack of preservatives. I know how easily (and fast) my cell culture media gets contaminated - even in the fridge - if my sterile technique is not as careful as it should be. Unfortunately there is no biosafety cabinet in my kitchen... The lack of pesticides spark my suspicions, especially where fungi are concerned. Aflatoxins are the first things that comes to my mind when I see packages of organic nuts or grains. Advertisements for lack of pesticides in produce that do not have the organic label are even more disconcerting, as I know that phosphite fertilizers used in large quantities will have a fungicide effect - because it is toxic! And as it is not a pesticide per se, its use is not regulated as such. However, there are indeed some products that I prefer to buy organic. Yogurt for instance, even though it has nothing to do with the fact that it is organic but because it is the only kind available made with whole milk. I just make sure I pay attention to the sell by dates.

Another major concern I have with organic farming is the "free-ride" factor. Janet D. Stemwedel at Adventures in Science and Ethics has a great post on why by not vaccinating your children you are counting on the protection gained from the vaccinated population - and this only works if only a few cases are exempt. I think the same can be said for organic farming. As long as more than 95% of the farming area is using pesticides, there is a general protection that can be correlated to herd immunity. However, once that threshold is met, we might notice an increase in food poisoning. Then again, considering that only the top 5% of the population can probably afford organic food, we might be far from reaching that point.

The main argument here is not whether there should be an organic option, but that organic farming is not sustainable. It cannot be done in large scale and it depends on the pesticide use of its neighbors. The more I think about this, the more I understand the reluctance towards genetically modified foods. If indeed one can engineer resistance to major pests and pesticide use goes down, then this herd immunity will disappear. The farmers most affected by this will be the ones conforming to organic standards. However, this is not an argument we hear in the media - most of the discussions center on what is natural. As most people do not know where their food comes from or why it tastes the way it does, this argument seems to be valid enough. Yet food is not natural at all. On the other hand, snake poison is natural, but I would not want it in my food.

Modern crops were domesticated for consumption, and most of the preferred varieties are mutants. Corn (maize) does not resemble at all its wild ancestor teosinte, and sweet corn has mutations that prevent it from turning sugar into starch. Conventional breeding has taken advantages of naturally occurring mutations, but has also developed new varieties by crossing established crops with wild relatives. Wild tomato is poisonous, but it has been used to improve the crop by crossing it to edible varieties. As far as I know, the selection of favorable varieties involves looks, shelf-life during transport to consumers and how it tasted to the farmer. I do not think safety concerns are as stringent for new varieties as they are for transgenic crops, where the effect of the inserted gene needs to be assessed with respect to undesired changes to the plant. When you cross two plants their entire genomes are mixed, hence you cannot attribute the phenotype change to a particular gene without extensive analysis.

I do not believe there is much out there that is truly natural, whether it is at the major supermarket or the farmers market. Humankind has imposed its will on food, mainly to grantee its own survival. Maybe I am a skeptic, but the health food craze scares me a bit. I stick with fresh produce and cook from scratch because I believe it is better - but mostly because I can afford it and I take the time to put in the effort. I stay away from artificial flavorings and sweeteners mostly because they make me sick. I try not to be instigated by advertisement; fat-free candy still has way to much sugar, and sugar-free does not mean it is not sweetened. If you favor organic labeled food, go ahead and splurge for them - but I will find it very hypocritical if you pair an organic meal with a diet soda.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I could have slept all night...

Bed! Bed! I couldn't stay in bed!
My house's too loud to try to settle down!
Sleep! Sleep! I couldn't sleep throughout.
Due to all the callings from the fawn!

I wished I'd slept all night!
I could have slept all night!
And still have slept some more.
Between one's potty trip,
The other's water sip
Just like the night before.

I never know when there'll be howling;
When all at once I'll wake in fright.
I only know when he
Began to call for me
I wouldn't sleep,
sleep more all night!

I could have slept all night!
I should have slept all night!
And still have slept some more.
I wish I'd closed my eyes
And let out some sighs
My head just not as sore.

I'll never know
Why my mind goes wondering.
Why all at once my thoughts take flight.
I only know when three
Shows on the clock at me.
I could not sleep, sleep more last night!

We can not stay up late,
Just like on our third date.
No days like those afore.
Now there is house and kids,
And other thousand things
We did not have before.

I never thought
Things changed dramatically.
How all at once our life took flight.
But then you roll towards me,
And whisper your plea
Who needs sleep, just sleep, tonight?

For the music check out the following YouTube video. This one has Audrey Hepburn singing, not the dubbed version from the movie.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

Who is the fairest of us all? Now that is a loaded question... Have you seen how many definitions of "fair" there are in the dictionary? Moreover, even if what we see in the mirror is fair, our judgment may not be. We seem to constantly compare ourselves to some ideal or another, and lo and behold we do not quite measure up. Once in a while I try to discuss this with Ihctap, but all she does is roll her eyes at me. Hence, I took my wondering to the blog wide world and I got a Scientiae Carnival out of it...

Indeed, there are women out there that face the mirror with confidence. Field Notes has been seeing many physical changes in her mirror, but these changes do not seem to affect her true identity. Pat at Fairer Science hopes she still is who she thinks she is. Academic at Journeys of an Academic knows she is following the right dream by the sparkling eyes she sees in the mirror. Kate at Academic Ecology hopes that leaving her twenties behind will not impair her self image or her ideals. Despite here stress, EcoGeoFemme at The Happy Scientist sees determination when she looks in the mirror and gears up to defend her dissertation. JaneB has a thorough description on how she sees herself up at her place. She seems to have a clear idea of who she is, for better or worse. The Ethical Paleontologist also has a very detailed portrait of the woman who looks back at her, even though she points out how strained their relationship is:
We are worse than best friends with our criticism of each other. Sometimes when I catch her gaze she looks absolutely repulsed by my body. In turn, I spot every lump and bump (although I also notice that the bitch always looks pretty damn good in the bedroom - if only she would look as good in the shop windows as I walk past).
As it happens, taking a fair look at oneself is harder than just looking in the mirror. Leigh at The Path Forward says that she purposefully hides her true self behind a protective image. Maria at Speech and Science sees her reflection in two opposing mirrors and ponders which one is telling the truth. Professor in Training has a difficult time reconciling the differences between what she perceives to what others around her see. Indie PhD pointed out that she tried to face herself at least three times before she decided "to stick to a list for now" due to too much baggage. Alas, even the Goddess seems to be having trouble...

Perfection seems to be a holy grail, sought but not found. Volcanista points out that one can eventually outgrow their teenage issues with the mirror:
If we’re talking body image, I’m past most or all of the issues I had as a girl and teen, the issues that most or all teenage girls have with thinking their bodies have problems because they don’t fit the beauty ideal. So physically, I generally like what I see, though everyone has their bad days when they notice all the little imperfections, and I’m no exception to that.
But that does not mean we are not trying to see how we measure up to other ideals. Career, family, society in general... Fia over at Academia and Me wrote that she has been trying to figure out who she is. A scientist? A mother? Adventurous? Zen? However, she never seems to measure up to her own standards. Karina at Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist is proud of who she has become, but she still believes she is not quite there. ScienceWoman tries to be realistic as she assesses her progress towards tenure, but she seems to look more at what is lacking than at what she has. DamnGoodTechnician feels inadequate because she sets the bar too high, even though she knows she is being unfair to herself:
Am I being fair to myself in doing this? Of course not. But does anyone see themselves fairly? I can't imagine that they do. My problem here is that I never measure myself against my peers, and instead I find someone who's better at whatever-it-is, and set them as the bar for competency. My comparisons are always against the postdocs or lab heads, and never against another tech. Essentially, I've come up with an invisible ruler to measure myself against. I can't see this ruler, and neither can anyone else, but this doesn't stop me from authoritatively saying, "Nope, I fell short again. See? Can't you see this line here? I totally missed it."
Are we just striving for personal growth, wanting to be better day after day? Or are we truly setting ourselves up for guilt and failure by unreasonable criticism? Are we being fair to ourselves? Melissa over at Confused at a Higher Level thinks it is "the lack of well-worn paths and the variety of personal perspectives upon looking in the mirror that makes the larger picture so difficult to discern." I think Jenny from A Natural Scientist would agree... She says she does not recognize the woman she sees in the mirror, as her life choices have taken her in such an unexpected direction. There is no right or wrong path to take, and how to proceed is not taught in a class or written in a book. I think Kylie from PodBlack Cat has an important point (I am purposely quoting out of her context of religious skepticism):
To assume that ‘teach X will automatically lead Y’ in this case, to me, leaves out other factors. The quality of teaching, the environment of the school, the home environment, the socio-economic status of the student, the pressure from peers and culture, even role-models… I’m just not confident that it’s as easy as ‘here’s a website’ or ‘here’s a book’.
Maybe we need more role models - Pat from Fairer Science points out that some subfields of science (and drag racing) are still lacking women. Maybe we need less guilt - Alice from Sciencewomen would probably second that, while she tells you how hard it is to be your own subject matter. Or maybe this is what blogging is all about - Kim over at All of My Faults Are Stress Related pointed out that bloggers might be looking for an outlet more than an audience. Mirror, mirror, on the web... As you look at yourself and interpret the image, I hope you interpret yours fairly!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dear Ihctap,

As I glanced at you this morning and reminded you to brush your hair, it hit me how crazy our life has become. When I tried to mention it to you, you just rolled your eyes and continued brushing your teeth. You seem to do this to me a lot nowadays - the rolling of the eyes bit. I notice it at the gym, while I try to lose this pregnancy belly that annoys me to no end. I notice it when I try to hide in the bathroom, to get some peace and quiet at the end of the day while chaos breaks out between dinner and bedtime.

Gone are the days when we had time for ourselves - time to play, time to chat. Now I hardly have time to greet you, and some days I wonder if you are still there. Some days I miss you more, miss the time we spent together when we were little. Growing up, you were the one who was always there for me, regardless of where we moved. The girl in the mirror... In our teens we commiserated together when the rest of the world didn't get it. You always understood me, and never told me I wasn't acting my age... even when you pointed out I didn't look it. You used to roll your eyes back then too... (Remember when we were out shopping and the shop assistant would try to tell me things would fit better in a few years when I turned 15? I was 15!)

We've been through so much together! Moving back and forth over the equator, living with family and without. You still insinuate that I don't look old enough to be who I am, or do what I do - and I sure don't think you have aged much either. But we really did make it through college and grad school. We've been hopping from postdoc to postdoc for the last few years in order to keep doing research. And, somehow, that other part of life caught up with us in the meantime... and we managed to integrate it to the scientist's life that we thought could define us by itself.

A scientist, a wife, a mother - you amaze me on a daily basis... I watch your kids playing with my kids, I see your family smiling at mine. I know you will always be there for me, no mater how crazy life turns out to be. You'll keep me focused and heading forward. And when I wonder how I got to this place and time, you'll roll your eyes at me. But if I ever ask you if this is the life I want, please point out the obvious: If I had the choice, I would travel the exact same road again - hindsight and all...


Ihctap & Patchi - best friends

Friday, June 19, 2009

Not an expert

I have changed fields three times since I defended my Ph.D. five years ago. All three changes were pretty drastic - different organisms and subject matter - as far as biochemistry will allow. My major incentive was the new techniques I was setting out to learn. I wanted to expand my tool kit and be able to tackle a problem in different ways. However, deep down, my options were limited by the fact that I did not want to move away from my family. I have learned more than I probably would have if I had moved, but after these five years I am lacking research I can call my own.

When I defended my dissertation on a particular plant family of kinases, I thought of myself as an expert in the field. I was ready to challenge the current model and show the world they needed to think outside the box. I knew the current literature but I could not see my advancement in that field without external input. There were many questions to be answered that required techniques that I needed to learn. Tools that very few other experts in the field were actually using.

In my search for practical knowledge I moved to an enzymology lab in which I worked on a metabolic enzyme from bacteria and it's relative from fungus. The enzyme itself was not fascinating to me - maybe because I'm not a chemist - but I learned enough kinetics and structure analysis to open my mind to the possibilities. It was daunting to think of how much I still needed to learn to be able to do what I wanted to do! However, money was short and I had to move on...

My rescue raft was a membrane biology lab, working with mammalian cell cultures. A whole new world... Hence, I immersed in the literature to become familiar with my new proteinaceous best friends and where they lived. I noticed that the learning process became easier with experience, and I managed to feel confident that I knew what I was doing - but not really an expert. Maybe if that postdoc opportunity had lasted longer I would have really gotten into it, but once again money dried up and I had to look for greener pastures.

Once again I find myself scrambling to get familiar with a completely different subject and the literature seems overwhelming at times. Now I'm working with yeast and hormones and unfamiliar second messengers. Who knows how long it will take to feel comfortable in this new environment? Expertise is far, far in the future... I know there is a lot to learn, but I also know that with effort, a day at a time, I will. I might even become an expert if I stay in this field long enough. It did take me almost six years for that Ph.D. after all...

Often enough I browse the literature of my Ph.D. field, and even though it is not foreign to me I know that I am not an expert there anymore. I might still instigate the current experts to expand their horizon, but I have not delved deep into the most recent publications to question the current assumptions. Free-time is lacking, with family and all, and hobbies are hobbies. There are many other things at which I am not an expert... some I care, and some I do not. Time will tell which of those status I change.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Joining the club

Better yet, Science Scouts. I figured I earned some badges through the years, so here are the ones I'm proud of:

The “talking science” badge was easy to get. I probably deserve a level 2 for marrying a scientist and talking science at meals & at bedtime... but then with kids and all I might be getting a little rusty.

As my PhD training was in Plant Molecular Biology, I can definitely say that the “plant kingdom rules!”.

Plant biology certainly has perks that most scientists don't appreciate. The “I’ve eaten what I study” badge comes from some very tasty green tomatoes.

But just because you can eat your model system doesn't mean your science will actually improve it. I've earned the “I’ve done science with no conceivable practical application” badge. Lots of fun, but very hard to sell to funding agencies... they don't quite buy the maybe.

I got the “I’m pretty confident around an open flame” badge recently, after setting the flow hood on fire twice and flaming my gloves once.

I fully deserve my “cloner” badge. And for my name on some high impact publications, I might even clone YFG for you...

Then, here are the ones I might have been better off without:

I got the “broken heart for science” badge for not being able to finish my PhD in under a year and move to Paris... I'm definitely better off without him.

The “what I do for science dictates my having to wash my hands before I use the toilet” badge. But that should be the least of my worries...

Friday, June 5, 2009

What do you know?

Kathleen V. Kudlinski has a great set of books about science and scientists. My 3 year old received "Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs!" as a gift from my in-laws and we enjoyed it so much that I bought "Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System" to add to our library. These are the kinds of books that show children that science is fun. Moreover, they portray scientists as young people, women & men, having fun with their work. They also expose kids to the scientific method and how what you know depends on how you interpret the data. Both books address how scientists reinterpret data and adapt their models to incorporate new data. The only things set in stone are the actual fossils...

One cannot understand science without taking into account the scientific method. An observation leads to a hypothesis. Experiments are performed to test this hypothesis and the data either supports it or not. The hypothesis is valid if it doesn't crumble under pressure. Once the data gathered starts forming a picture, one can propose a model. Any new data will be incorporated into the model or will lead to a reevaluation. With enough experiments giving it strength, a theory can be proposed. In science there is no such thing as "just a theory". All these scientific terms are strictly defined, but somehow not clearly defined to most people.

The misuse of the word "theory" irritates me incredibly, especially when one is trying to convey science to the general public. With so many theories right and left, no one will pay attention to the real ones. I am impressed that scientific journalism in major newspapers is not held to more stringent copy editing, nor major novel writers. Dan Brown's Deception Point was particularly aggravating because it portrayed a group of top notch scientists discussing data and assumptions. The first time one of them said "my theory is..." they should have been shot down with a "you mean hypothesis, right?". He missed a great opportunity to set a good example...

Apart from the faux pas on scientific terminology, Dan Brown's book was pretty good. It reminded me about how data interpretation can be founded on assumptions. And those assumptions might be incorrect or biased. A lot of what we know is based on assumptions, which, if shown to be incorrect, will lead to a reevaluation of the data that was interpreted based on those assumptions. Proof, truth... these are words that express absolutes. It is a lot easier to prove something wrong than to say it is right.

Part of my passion for science has always been the ever changing body of knowledge - the new discoveries, the reinterpretation of what we thought we knew. One of my favorite quotes, which really defined science for me, is from the movie Men in Black (1997):

1500 years ago, everybody "knew" that the earth was the center of the universe.
500 years ago, everybody "knew" that the earth was flat
Imagine what you'll "know" tomorrow.

I can guarantee that you will know you were wrong about something...

Friday, May 8, 2009

In sickness and in health

As I pop the first dose of the antibiotics I'm taking for a sinus infection, I wonder should I have called in sick? I am obviously not very productive, my sinus pain is killing me, and I can hardly focus. But at the same time it is not debilitating enough that I can't putter around the lab and get some things ordered or sorted out. It's not the flu, any of them, and I don't think I'm more contagious today than I have been all week. Should I have stayed home all week?

Given that I started my new job in April and I'm leaving on a pre-planned vacation this Sunday, I think my leave allotment is mostly spent. Not to mention the days I had to stay home with the kids when they caught this bug. How did you think I got it in the first place? Of course they didn't catch it together, one was out two days one week, the other a day a week later. And a week after that Mom started sniffling. My version didn't come with the fever they had (which is why they couldn't go to daycare) but it didn't leave after three days either.

I guess my own personal sick leave policy is the same as the kids' daycare: fever, vomit, diarrhea. If I'm feeling extra lousy I'll leave early and take a nap before the end-of-the-day family chaos begins. Most of the time I'll work through it, especially when I need to take healthy days off to take care of sick kids. Which is probably why my colds linger longer and this one got a bit nasty...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The mutual torture of weaning

By the beginning of April, nursing was limited to nights & weekends, and Baby was drinking well from the cup... bottles abandoned months ago. The freezer provisions allowed Mom to stop pumping at work. Even once a day was detracting from her productivity. Weekends were reduced to twice, then once during the day. All was going smoothly, we hit the one year mark formula-free. The transition to cow's milk was gradual: 20%, 50%, 100%... one week at a time. Now if we could only stop the waking up twice in the middle of the night...

The books & doctors say take out a feeding at a time, which worked well with Baby #1. However, this is a whole other person, with his own say in the matter. And he screams! The whole household is up through the night, exhaustion sets in. Instead of more sleep we are getting less. Tiredness will play tricks with your mind, the alarm clock displays random numbers. Mom gives in at the wrong time, the schedule is off. Dad, sleepwalking, will hand over Baby to a sleeping Mom, which she will notice attached to her breast hours later. Madness is looming in the horizon, so we return to the normal schedule before another attempt. Frustration is counter-productive...

Sleeping in for two days does wonders for your mind. Mom is sane again, regrouped, and ready for the next attempt. She tries the cup, with water or milk. She tries holding, cuddling, singing. She will not sleep through the night, but she will not give in... Then, out of the blue, Baby sleeps the whole night through. A blessing in disguise, engorgement sets in and the temptation to nurse in the morning is too enticing... resistance is futile. We try again the next night, the cup, the rocking... Two nights, three... not much sleep but the cup is now accepted. Baby gives in, resigned. A hug & a kiss, turn over and back to sleep...

Now we are down to the end-of-the-day feeding, but at least no nursing to sleep. The pleading eyes, the sad puppy expression... mercifully abandoned as pressure tactics. The screaming has mostly dwindled to Baby making sure his complaints are noted in the logs. Then he turns over and falls asleep...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ready, set...up

It is amazing how one's view on life can change without notice. A year ago all I knew for sure was that the baby inside me had to come out. I was ending my postdoc contract and had 8 week of comp-time to pay back after my maternity leave, due to my pre-term labor mandatory bed rest. Stuck-Here Town seemed like a dead-end road and I was miserable.

By the time I was ready to get out of the house, I was contacted by my first postdoc adviser, who needed help getting his lab back in gear. The "dead-end" sign morphed into a "no outlet" one... six months was all he could offer me. Better than no job at all... I was in limbo but I had gained some time. I kept telling myself it was a step back before the two forward ones that were just around the corner. Believe it or not, I was right... Out of the blue came this unexpected grant, shining a light in the dark tunnel. Five years... I haven't planned this far ahead since I started graduate school! The cherry on top is not being associated with GradSchool-Postdoc-Postdoc University anymore... after 10 years there.

So here I am, embarking on this new adventure, or at least provisioning the boat. It is amazing how much work goes into setting up a lab from scratch. Compound on that the fact that you need to provide for experiments you (and everyone else on the project) have never done before... voila! my current life (minus the kids, untidy house & all the other stuff I escape from every weekday morning). When I was propositioned last year, all this seemed like a dream. Now that I started and the money is ready to be spent, it is more like a fairytale... shopping spree et al.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

When You Got It, Flaunt It

I have noticed that many scientists keep well defined boundaries between their personal and professional lives. Some are particular about not talking about their family, and one might not even know if they are married or whether they have kids. This might lead to a respectable professional facade, but might not be sending the right message to aspiring scientists. The image they are sending is that there is no success in science unless work is your life, which should not be the case. I fear that many aspiring scientists abandon their career choice because of the lack of role models that show them that it is possible, although not easy, to bake their cake and eat it too.

I have found many posts in the blog wide world of scientists blurring the line between career and family, and I believe it is the right message to send. A well rounded individual should not forfeit one aspect of their well being over others. Moreover, life is complicated and most of the time beyond one's control. It would be enlightening for students to see that even with a complicated life, their professors still manage to get the work done (and by the deadlines).

I never kept my personal life a secret, and maybe I have paid a high price for that sometimes. However, I hope that I'm setting a good example to the students in my building with the little merging of personal/professional things I do on a regular basis...
  • I gave seminars & journal club while sporting very large pregnancy bellies. Work was a welcome distraction and I worked as long as I could health-wise. I even showed off my hard-to-find maternity labcoat. I attended seminars regularly, even the ones in nearby buildings. I cherished the smiles and chuckled with the "I thought you'd have popped by now" comments.
  • I'm the one who brings her kids to lab & department social gatherings unless they explicitly say no children. We take our kids everywhere and that is why we hear so many people say they are well behaved. However, I once took a baby to a dinner with an invited speaker, which was a bit of a distraction when you are trying to talk science. (Somehow the fact that the baby is there makes people want to talk about family instead... all barriers break loose...)
  • I'm the one pushing the stroller and totting an almost 3 year old into the department on a Saturday to do little things in lab that will make my week run smoother. If you ask me where their Dada is I'll tell you I'm giving him a 3 hour window to clean the house without distractions.
  • I have walked around the department every day for almost a year with the black bag and a heavy duty, bright orange, 10 ft extension cord. If you ask me what I'm doing, I'll tell you it's my milk pump, that I am heading for the ladies room with the couch and that I need the cord because the outlet is at the other side of the room.
It's the little things that blur the line between the personal & professional, and sends the message that scientists are people too.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Fair Labby [UPDATED]

Wouldn't It be Loverly?

It's rather fun right now, can't think about Paree.
The PI will be startin' up
A project jamboree.
No chance I'll be allowed a break to go an' pee!

Mmmm, Mmmm, wouldn't it be loverly?

All I want is a bench somewhere,
Far away from the lab in there.
Don't even need a chair,
Aow, wouldn't it be loverly?
Lots of mutants for me to seq',
Lots of time on FPLC.
Me gels, me blots, me reads,
Aow, wouldn't it be loverly?

Aow, so loverly sittin' abso-fuckin'-lutely still.
I would never grudge if spring
Crept over me windowsill.
No one's 'ead peakin' o'er me,
Peace an' quiet as one can be.
'ho cares to go with me,
Aow, wouldn't it be loverly?

Loverly, loverly, loverly, loverly

UPDATE: After Professor Anonymous' wonderful version of Grease, I decided to add the video for sound effects:

This version has Julie Andrews' voice dubbing Audrey Hepburn, which I thought was a great addition...

Monday, February 23, 2009

BBC's book list meme

In April 2003 the BBC's Big Read began the search for the nation's best-loved novel, here are the top 100 nominated books. Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of them. I've read 24, not that bad... Which ones have you read?

1) Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read.
2) Add a '+' to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star (*) those you plan on reading.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien x+
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen x+
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams x
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling x+
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne x
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis x+ (I read the whole Narnia series)
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (started 3 times, can't remember if I finished it... partial credit?)
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott x
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres *
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling x+
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling x+
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling x+
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien x+
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll x
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett * (I've read World without end first)
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl x
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson x
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen x+ (My favorite Austin novel)
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen x
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery x+ (I've read the whole series)
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas * (I read the 3 musketeers)
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell x+
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett x
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden *
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding x
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho x
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer x+ (The prodigal daughter is great too)
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot x (I've actually read the whole series)
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The paranoia of motherhood

I always thought I was a rational person, at least most of the time. However, I came to appreciate the fact that motherhood has made me quite fearful and paranoid with respect to the well being of my kids. I thought I could blame my early symptoms on the pregnancy hormone changes, but unlike my weight they have not receded much even after the "9 months up, 9 months down" period.

It all started with the fear of miscarriage in the first trimester, the never ending expectation of an unexpected bleeding. In my case, I did actually miscarry my first pregnancy, but it was discovered with a sonogram at 10 weeks. Hence my anxiety during my subsequent pregnancy over the first ultrasound appointment. As uneventful as my first pregnancy was, I was still in a state of constant dread of something going wrong. The second pregnancy was more difficult, and the anxiety was exacerbated. Spotting, possibility of twins, early contractions and pre-term labor scares... but my imagination was even more fertile than real life itself.

Then came the fear of giving birth and the well being of the child. The sleepless nights at the hospital under extensive medication for my cesarean made me paranoid about whether he was eating enough or breathing at all times. I even had my husband wake up the baby because I was worried he was sleeping too long. Hearing for his breath became an obsession from day one, and a cause of many sleepless nights through the first year. That is how I discovered my otosclerosis problem, I could hear or not his breathing depending on what ear I had on the pillow. Only afterward did it occur to me that I could not always hear the rain either...

As the first year of my second child comes to a close, the paranoia about autism creeps in once again, regardless of the milestones the baby has accomplished ahead of the curve... the lingering feeling that something might go wrong is always there and so I worry. I know there are many more years ahead and many more fears and paranoia... grade school, the teenage years, independence. Most of the issues are things I cannot control, all I can do is prepare my children for what they might encounter in life. And hopefully without passing on my worries to them, at least not in a debilitating way.

When my first child was born my brother asked my grandfather, who is in his mid nineties, whether now that his kids have grandchildren does he worry less about them. The question was pondered on for less than a minute before he shook his head and said no. I hope I have as many years to worry about my children...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

25 random things

I got this meme through one of those social networking sites. You are supposed to write 25 random things about yourself then tag others to do the same. I won't impose on anyone here, but if you write one let me know in the comments... it will be fun to read yours.

Here they are, the 25 things that I could think of, no specific order of importance.

1- I think to much, mostly about random things (like these). My thoughts keep me up at night, and the best thing I can do is write them out. I got tired of journals so I started this blog.

2- A very dear friend inspired me to write by letting me read his short stories. I've written a few short stories, but very few people have read them. Most are dispersed among my many journals.

3- I started writing two novels, one in college and one in grad school. They are both unfinished, even though I know how they end. I keep thinking it would be easier to find the time to write if I was writing on the computer, but I can't bring myself to type them up. I find it much more fun to write on paper.

4- Scrapbooking is the only activity I found that can keep me from thinking too much. I had an easier time during my second pregnancy's mandatory bed rest and maternity leave because of it.

5- As biased as it may sound, I think my kids are beautiful and (mostly) well behaved. But as a good Jewish mother I'm more than ready to point out their flaws to whoever compliments me on them.

6- As much as I've been enjoying motherhood, I could never be a stay at home mom. I felt like I was going crazy by the end of two months on maternity leave.

7- I actually enjoy going to the gym, but I haven't had time for it since I had my first son. If I had a few extra hours a week I would probably get more work done in the lab, straighten up the house and/or try to get more than 6 hours of sleep a day.

8- I hate my mommy tummy, but I couldn't expect less after 2 C-sections. The worst part is the number of people asking me if I'm pregnant again. I keep wanting to have a T-shirt made saying "The bun is out of the oven, these are leftovers". get one here :)

9- I had 2 C-sections because the babies were too big to come out on their own. Part of me wanted to have experienced a normal delivery, but most of me did not want to take the risk of harming the baby or myself.

10- I find personality tests, IQ quizzes and astrology very amusing. They occupied most of my procrastinating time during my Ph.D., along with the chick flicks that I dearly miss watching.

11- My sun sign is in Gemini, my rising sign in Pisces and my moon in Sagittarius... all the duality signs. I guess it explains why I thought I had multiple personality disorder in high school... or why I have a hard time making up my mind.

12- As far as I can tell, my astrological map has no earth signs, not even in minor positions. I guess that is why I married the most grounded person I have ever met.

13- My wedding dress cost 1/3 of my wedding budget, mostly because I wanted something simple. I'm very glad I got to wear it twice... It is now "preserved" in a box under my husband's bed at his parent's house.

14- If I could change one day of my life it would be the day of that party in second grade that I refused to slow dance with all the boys that asked me. I'm sure I would have had an easier time in middle & high school...

15- In total I have lived by myself for two months, while I was doing an internship after college. I was hardly at home though, as I was taking swing lessons and dancing every night of the week.

16- This town is growing on me, even though I hate the 9 months of Florida summer. As my husband once pointed out, we get to travel more living here than if we lived somewhere really nice. And I don't think we could afford a 3000 sq ft house with a pool anywhere else either...

17- The weirdest scold I ever received was from my mother. She reprimanded me for only taking challenging classes in college and no "easy A" class to boost my GPA. I still don't understand why I should have wasted time on those...

18- The best advice I ever received was from my dad. I was freaking out because I didn't know any successful female professors with kids & family, and I was in desperate need of a role model. He told me to ask him again in 20 years and he'd show me one.

19- I joined a social network site to keep in touch with my family in Brazil and found most of my grade school friends there. I joined another one to keep in touch with my grad school friends and found most of my college friends there.

20- I'm proud to have breast fed my first baby until he turned one year old and I'm close to doing the same with the second (3 months to go!). I guess it's my way of mothering them without worrying if I'm spending enough time with them.

21- As much as I complain about not having enough hours during the week, I still manage to pump at work and make baby food from scratch. Probably for the same mothering reasons as in #20.

22- I came to the USA convinced that I was only spending a year here. Deciding to stay the second year was the hardest choice I felt I had to make. All the other ones just happened while I was making other plans...

23- The most outrageous thing I have ever done was to fly to England with an expired student visa, not knowing if it could be renewed there or if they would send me back to Brazil. That is how I solved the dilemma in #22...

24- I'm a believer of positive thinking, and I'm sure that's how I got my kids to be born with their father's eyes. I thought my grandfather had blue eyes, but it was actually my great grandfather. It is easier to work the positive thinking thing if you think the odds are more in your favor...

25- When I feel blue & think that life sucks the last scene from Monty Python's "Life of Brian" pops into my head and I start singing "you gotta look at the bright side of life" to myself. It always helps...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Imperfect thoughts

I woke up today thinking about perfection, and how I unconsciously strive to achieve it. This train of thought probably crept into my mind because I have a paper to write that is far from perfect. I'm missing an experiment that I know would make the story more complete, but I don't have the time to go back to postdoc lab #2 to do it. Hence my writer's block, I think more about what I do not have than what I do.

I had an art teacher in high school who claimed that he did not give As to students because only G-d and he were perfect. When I got an A on a project in his class I realized he was probably not perfect either, as he could not spot my imperfections. My technique was far from perfect. But those were the early 1990s, when the existence of perfection was in question. Even Superman died...

My current postdoc mentor deems that perfection prevents progress, and I'm starting to agree with him... at least in my current scenario. I will be starting a new job in April and my goal is to start with a clean slate. No more "finishing up" while running back and forth between the old and the new. No more trying to work in two (or three) labs at the same time. My mission for these next couple of months is to tie up all my loose ends as best I can. And this includes writing up the paper as it stands today, without the what ifs.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Family, (un)defined.

When people ask me where I'm from, it always makes me stop for a moment or two before I can answer. The easy answer is that I'm from Brazil, but that does not describe me at all other than the fact that I speak Portuguese. So I always follow the "I wouldn't have guessed" remark with a bit more of information. I tell them that my father's family came from Greece and Turkey, and that my mother's family came from Russia and Romania. I feel that this history describes me better than my country of birth. It integrates for my fair skin and my Mediterranean features, and sets me apart from the classical Brazilian mixture of Portuguese, African and native Indians.

Most people are amazed at how diverse my family history is, and how far back my family can trace its roots. Our family tree has about 10 generations in it, along with many of the parallel branches from people who married in. Not only do we keep track of our relations, but we correspond and interact even though people are spread around the globe. To keep my wedding small (Brazilian standards, 200 guests), we settled on inviting the portion of the family tree that included my grandparents, their siblings and their descendents. My paternal grandmother was upset that her cousins (and their (grand)children) were not included. It was hard to please everyone, but I did not want to overwhelm the groom... and his family of 4.

When we got married I warned my husband that it was a one-way street; people marry into my family, not out - regardless of how the relationship turns out. And that includes the spouse's family too, in-laws are not "out-laws". Most of the ex-spouses (and their families) are still invited to all social gatherings, and it does not matter whether you interact well or not with someone. Everyone is invited, they are family. The seating arrangements for my wedding took a week to put together, to make sure that the people that were not talking to each other at the time were seated at opposite ends of the ballroom. Some disputes are temporary, others are longer lasting... but in the end it is all family.

Moving to the U.S., I was introduced to the concept of a nuclear family: parents & kids. It was a foreign concept for me, what about the cousins? If you ask my husband he will say that everyone is a "cousin" under my definition of family... but I don't think that is such a bad idea.