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...