Monday, November 29, 2010

Career Seminar

While attending a Gordon conference last June, I was approached by a graduate student and invited to give a seminar at their institution. However, I was not invited to give a science talk, but a career talk. Apparently, doing research at a non-profit organization is a career path with which not many people are familiar. To be honest, I never considered it until I was offered this position...

Even though I was very familiar with research when I started my graduate studies, I was never doubtful that I would follow the academic path. All the discussions I had with other students always referred to the age long debate between academia and industry. Hence, I was naively convinced that if I wanted to do basic science instead of having my research dictated by stakeholders, navigating through the academic pipeline was my only option. For me, alternatives comprised choosing between small or large settings -- such as teaching colleges and R01 Universities. The doubt was always the ratio between teaching and research.

Somewhere during my graduate studies, I realized that the scientific universe was not so black and white. I became aware of government laboratories and research institutes, both linked and independent from academic institutions. Not to mention start-up companies -- in contrast to large corporations whose name are easy to recognize. As I was set on bench science, I never investigated any of the alternative careers in law, business or journalism. However, it was not until my postdoc options started waning -- mostly due to family constraints -- that I started questioning my true options. And when I thought my options were truly dim, a new path arose from an unforeseen quarter: a non-profit research center.

When I thought of non-profits, the image that came to my mind was humanitarian organizations and NGOs -- not laboratory research. After investigating the topic, I realized that large research institutes such as Scripps fall under this category. I also became aware not only that there are several large institutes spread around the country, but that there are also small ones whose names are mostly unknown. Nevertheless, the parallel in the for-profit world is very clear: big companies started out as small companies -- and there are many small start-up companies out there.

Hence, I am heading out this week to tell a group of graduate students and postdocs that there are small non-profit research centers out there. Places where one can do a postdoc or even find a more long-term position. Places where you can do science at a more independent level, as long as you can bring in funding for your research -- which is also true in academia. It is not a career that would suit many people, as it requires independence and self-motivation in high levels and comprises a degree of isolation. Nonetheless, it is worth including as a career option and students should know we exist.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Have you ever visited It is a wonderful charity that connects donors with classroom teachers in need. I just created a Science Bloggers for Students Page to help support low-income science and math classrooms. And I am inviting you to help support this project.

The average public school teacher spends $500 - $700 on classroom supplies out of his/her own pocket, and many students still go without critical supplies they need to learn. The way this website works is by teachers posting requests (microscopes, DNA kits, field trips to the zoo), and anyone can help fund them. Many companies and foundations help sponsor these projects by doubling the amount given by donors!

More than 50 science bloggers have joined together for a month to help fund science projects on In the first week alone almost $15,000 were donated, which will help more than nine thousand students! There is even a competition going on to see which blogger can bring the most donations. I know I am a small fish, but every dollar counts. You can visit my Science Bloggers for Students Page to make a donation. I have chosen projects that I would like to see funded, but feel free to browse around for projects that you find important.

Thanks in advance for your support!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

And then one day it's done...

The genetic/biochemical screen, I mean. The screen that has consumed my working hours throughout this past year. The screen that was supposed to be high-throughput but was not. The screen that made me, for the first time in my life, consider abandoning science. I was on the verge of trading the lab for a scrapbook store - despite the odds of opening any sort of business in this tanked economy and the fact that I have never worked in a store in my life. I was feeling truly desperate this summer.

I am not an "-omics" person, I am a mechanism person. I never liked the large-scale experiments that try to list all the players in the game. I prefer to look at a player and seek out its role and how it plays the game. But when you are looking at pathways you need players, and you cannot just rely on what others have found. Sometimes you just need to go fishing or you will only eat someone else's fried fish.

As much as I tried this past year to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel - the candidates that should come out of this screen - the work itself distressed me. Even though the pilot studies gave me candidates and I knew I would be getting a lot of possible players from the screen. Even though the majority of the screen was accomplished in six months. Even though I had help from my technician.

After a lot of pondering I think I discovered what my aversion to this screen was. Yes, it was tedious doing the same experiments week after week, but I have done boring experiments before - there is not much excitement in Michaelis-Menten curves. Boring was not the problem. I believe my exasperation was due to the lack of perfection; the fact that I knew I was missing things.

Screens are sloppy by nature, even the best-planed ones. It is unfathomable to test each of the 6000 mutants individually, in triplicate experiments with at least three data points each - that I can do for the however many candidates I get from the screen. In a screen you throw a net and pull out what gets caught. It is not perfect; it is extensive but not exhaustive. And there is a limited amount of time and money one can spend on the first step before moving to the next - interesting - phase.

I never thought I would say I hated anything, let alone something at work, until now. I am positive I never want to do another screen in my life, but I know there is another one that should be started next year. We even got a shiny new toy for it. I just have to hope that my sanity will survive it..

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It takes a village...

Dada has been gone for a week now, but we still have another 12 days before he gets back. He was visiting his parents for a few days while his dad had heart surgery. As things went well, he left them for a conference this week. Tomorrow he heads back to his parents house and hopefully Papa will return home from the hospital this weekend. Then Dada is off to China - for a week. I have managed to take care of the kids, get work done and even enjoy my hobbies - mainly because I am not on my own.

The kids go to a wonderful daycare that has extended hours - so even if I do not get to drop them off before 10 am, I can pick them up by 7 pm. Even my gym has child care services, so I can work out at the end of the day (if I manage to leave early) or on Saturdays. I have a wonderful technician at work that keeps my cultures moving forward, even if I am not paying attention to them. She sets up my experiments so all I need to do is perform the assays. And for the "after hours" my parents are in town to help me out. We have been going over to my father's house for dinner most nights, where they even bathe the kids and get them to brush their teeth before we return home. I only have more than stories and good night kisses to take care of at night when we dine out with my parents because they do not feel like cooking. Even tomorrow, when my parents will not be in town, a good friend of mine has invited us over for dinner.

I rely on my support group to get me though the craziness of work and family life - I do not think I could manage it all without them. At least not without going crazy... It takes a village to keep a mother sane.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

35, Oh My!

May is a birthday month - a large percentage of my family celebrate their birthday this month, myself included. When I am in Brazil it is a month full of parties, my family loves excuses to get together and be together. The phone rings all day with calls from well-wishers; my e-mail is full of happy messages.

However, among all the messages and presents, the birthday data was the best of all. After eight months of optimizing the assay and setting up the screen, then the four months of screening of less than half of the population, I was getting worried that I was wasting my time and effort. Oh the joy of seeing ten candidates emerge after two days of struggling with data analysis was very encouraging - especially with the conference I am attending coming up in two weeks!

This birthday is a big one, even though it is not the big one. I feel the impact of 35, but I was not dreading the date as I did before I turned 30. I now have many things to celebrate, such as two adorable sons, a big house and a job for the next four years. My life seems stable enough, my project seems to be coming together. I still want things, but I do not feel like I need anything - other than first author publications...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The conundrum of the vanities

I never thought of myself as a vain person. In my mind vanity was always associated with beauty, and I never considered myself beautiful. Even when I occasionally felt displeased with my appearance, I was never unhappy with it. I have always felt a healthy amount of self worth and I was always able to look past the mirror when the image was not to my liking.

Through the years I have encountered situations where I wish I could change some minor flaw that bothered me at the time. I remember consulting an orthodontist some years ago about my gathered front teeth. When the price came out at $5,000 I decided that vanity was not worth that much. I had the money saved up, but I could not see myself spending it on a "perfect smile" - especially considering all the other minor problems I could see in the mirror. I had never striven for perfection, and it seemed the wrong aspect to channel my efforts. After much deliberation, I ended up buying my husband a plasma screen with the money; something more worthy of the investment. And the whole family has enjoyed it all these years...

Now once again I am facing a similar conundrum... but this time the mirror is winning. I hate looking at the "mommy belly" I acquired after two 8+ lb babies and two cesarean sections. I am not overweight, but I still look pregnant. I hate being asked if I am expecting again. A year of abdominal exercises at the gym has produced unnoticeable results, as the muscles have separated in what is called diastasis recti. No amount of exercise will fix it.

I am contemplating having the muscles sewn back together. Not a tummy-tuck - no plastic surgery - just a laproscopic procedure to attach the muscles that have been separated during pregnancy. My condition is not bad enough to cause a hernia, so it is indeed a cosmetic procedure. My insurance will probably not cover it and the recovery of abdominal surgery is not very pleasant - I know...

However, is it really vanity or can it be referred to as well being? If it really - truly - bothers me and diminishes my feelings of self-contentment? Or have I misplaced my confidence and self-worth? My internal bonfires are raging....

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bumps & Humps

Science careers are not easy, but most people are not aware of the bumps and humps involved until they have started driving down that road. How many of us asked our professors or others in the field how difficult it was for them before we chose to major in STEM? But we started driving nonetheless and - always sooner than expected - encountered our own challenges. Everyone's path is different, with their own bumps and humps. Some are minor, some are major; some discourage you, others test your determination. Once again I took my wondering to the blog wide world to put together another Scientiae Carnival. I asked for bumps and humps, and that is what I got. So here I invite you to go Bump! Bump! on this multi-hump Wump.*

To start off, let us all congratulate Micro Dr. O, who blogs at The Tightrope, on her soon-to-be-bump. Buckle your seat belt, you are in for quite a ride! Juggling career and family can be quite a challenge, but I would say it is very much worth the struggle. There will be many bumps in the way, not just the one you can see in the mirror. We should also wish Rocket Scientista good luck. She is worried she will go insane while trying to overcome this major hump in her doctoral studies - her comprehensive exam. She is preparing herself as best she can and I am sure she will get over this hump without breaking down. It is just a test, just the hardest test!

Some of the bumps are indeed major life changing events, and it takes courage and determination to get past them. Other bumps are daily life bumps, that slow our progress but do not change our path. Though sometimes it is hard to figure out which kind of bump you are going through until you have gone past it. JaneB, who blogs at Now, what was I doing?, thinks it is like driving down a road. Her drive was full of bumps and humps that could be perceived as major setbacks, but she encourages us to think about the journey, not just the destination. Taking the motorway can seem very monotonous some times...

Liberal Arts Lady deliberately avoided the highway because she thought a secondary road would provide a more pleasant drive:
I like to think that I came to a SLAC to allow for a more reasonable life, one not ruled by the power of the external funding agency, one where I might someday have a free evening once in a while. I like to think that this reasonable life is still possible, out there somewhere over the tenure rainbow. Or maybe I should stop waiting for that mythical future and try to create a more sustainable life for myself right now.
Independent of which kind of road you chose to drive on, it most likely will not be smooth the entire way - or the second time around. Amy at This is what a computer scientist looks like is driving on a very bumpy teaching road. Even though the last time she taught a particular section it was a smooth drive, this time around she is falling into potholes. She wonders if it is the road or her driving. Kylie at PodBlack Cat is also wondering what can be done to improve the teaching road. Magic?

But what do you do when things get too tough? Canadian GirlPostdoc in America only feels motivated to keep driving when she focus on things for which she is grateful, instead of ruminating on the many bumps in her road. Alyssa at Apple Pie and the Universe writes that she has encountered a million and one bumps on the road to turning a nearby observatory into an outreach program. As she describes the challenges she has run into, she also asks when is it time to walk away. Ms. PhD, who blogs at Young Female Scientist, also is wondering when do you know that it is time to get off the road. She seems to keep hitting the same bumps over and over, and she wonders if she is just driving around in circles or if this road will actually go somewhere. Will she feel like a quitter if she changes her path or will she find herself on a better road?

My own road is uncharacteristically smooth and colorful right now, but I am not sure where it is headed. I am not sure I am even in Kansas anymore... I probably should have packed those ruby slippers...

* Just in case you have never seen a Wump...

From "One Fish,Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" by Dr Seuss

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The unmarked road...

I have been at my new job for a year and a month now, but I noticed I have written very little about work this past year. I wrote about how I came about this project, and how unexpectedly my extremely bumpy road went smooth. The craziness in my life seems to be always family-related, hence I have been writing more about those tidbits. I started thinking of how to write about work, but nothing occurred to me. And then I had to fill out a Gordon Conference application and I hit a question I could not answer. Am I working in academia, industry or government? My first reaction was "none of the above" - but that was not an option...

I work for a non-profit foundation; we are a group of ~15 research scientists under a head scientist who started this whole thing. We are independent from the University, even though most of us used to be associated with it. We have federal funding and we rent public office/lab space in town. We work on basic science, generating knowledge that will hopefully lead to future applications. Not your standard research setting...

At first it hit me that I might have left the academic pipeline by mistake, but there is no reason why this job would prevent me from rejoining a university in the future. The more I think about where I am and how I got here, the more I see myself on this unmarked road. I took a turn off the main road, which was full of bumps and traffic. This new road was not on my map, and, having turned off my GPS years ago, I am not sure where it leads. It has only minor bumps, and seems to go straight for miles.

However, there are no other cars on this road and no speed limit. I have to set my own pace and that has proven more difficult than I imagined at first. I find myself enjoying the scenery instead of putting the miles on the car. I stop and look around; I stop to smell the flowers. I do not feel like I am losing a race; I do not feel like I need to drive through the night. I am moving forward, but not at a highway pace. There is so much more than the road on this drive. And as I do not need to watch out for traffic and speeding cars with crazy drivers, I can look around more. I notice the sky, I notice the fields by which I drive. But most of all, I enjoy the drive itself.

I guess my lack of anxiety is due to the fact that this road keeps going and my gas tank is three quarters full. Maybe in a couple of years I will worry about whether there will be an exit for the highway at the end. Maybe I will start wondering if there is a gas station on this road... but for now I have no worries. As long as I keep moving I feel like I am getting somewhere - even if it is not where I had intended to go.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Traveling with toddlers

Last month we took a two week vacation to Italy. Dada had a conference there and we decided to make a family trip out of it. We left ten days before the conference, and my mother joined us for the second (and conference) week, which luckily coincided with her Spring Break.

It was not the first time we traveled with the boys. We had taken them sailing in the Chesapeake Bay for a week back in 2008, we had visited my extended family in Brazil in 2009, and last Christmas we went to England for ten days. Planes are not a challenge, unless we fail to convince the kids to go to sleep. However, this was the first time we did not stay at someone's house - this was the first hotel trip

Staying at hotels was not a problem, we found several that had triple and quadruple rooms that let you add a baby crib (sometimes free of charge). We took the trip slow, not expecting to see twenty cities in ten days. We spent our whole first week in Venice so we could actually enjoy it. The first couple of days were mellow, with only one tourist attraction before lunch and nap time. But by the end of the week we managed to see three small museums in a single day!

The kids enjoyed themselves immensely and if you ask my four year old he will tell you the armory in the Doge Palace in Venice was his favorite place. My two year old was completely in awe of the fresco ceilings at the Basilica of St. Marco. After that he would look up every time he entered a room, just to make sure he was not missing anything. By the time we got to the conference site they were ready to be kids and hit the play park all day long.

We did not run into many problems, at least none that we could not work around. We realized that lunch and dinner out was too taxing on the boys, so we had lunch at a restaurant then a picnic dinner in our hotel room more than half the time. We tried to incorporate nap time every day, even if some days it was a little later than normal. We tried to focus on what we got to see, not what we were missing.

Apparently traveling with toddlers is not a common thing to do. I lost count of the number of people that called us brave throughout the trip. I am glad we introduced our kids to traveling early, and that it has not been too difficult. Dada and I love traveling, and there are still so many places to go, so many things to see... And academic vacations are such a great excuse!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Holiday Traditions

This weekend we took down the dead tree and the decorations from our front porch. We made turkey soup with the frozen carcass leftover from Thanksgiving. We cleaned the house and did laundry - removing the last traces of our winter vacation. The end-of-year holidays are officially over...

Through the years we have slowly accumulated a series of traditions at our house. We celebrate the holidays with feasts for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We light Hanukkah candles (most) nights, we decorate a Christmas tree with a Star of David on top (like them), and we head out of town for a family vacation the last week of the year. Many of these are a blend of practices that Dada and I enjoyed while growing up, while others came about perchance - like shelling half a bushel of oysters as a prelude to our Thanksgiving dinner.

I grew up Jewish, with an emphasis on the -ish. The non-practicing secular kind that recounts the history but shuns the religion. I had great-grandfathers from both sides that broke off with Judaism as a religion but brought up their family respecting and propagating its traditions. We always celebrated the food holidays, and for me being Jewish has always been associated with the flavors and smells from my grandmother's kitchen - dishes that I attempt to recreate at my own home, thus passing on these traditions to the next generation.

Dada is not religious either, his parents having deserted their church-of-choice during the civil rights movement. Throughout his early years they celebrated the Christmas holidays with a family vacation - most likely bare-boat sailing in the Caribbean. Their holiday practices also include a mountain of presents, accumulated throughout the year - as well as anything else that can be wrapped for the occasion. I found this assortment of gifts overwhelming at first - as much as two weeks on a 40-foot boat with my future in-laws. However, now this sea of presents has even engulfed my parents, despite the "small gift for you, big gift to share" philosophy they had while I was growing up.

We have always celebrated Christmas at my house by feasting with relatives and receiving presents at midnight. Santa did not seem to care that we were Jewish. I was in my teens before I realized that there was a religious aspect of the holiday for which we were not accounting, as the word for Christmas in Portuguese - Natal - has no Christ in it. I always assumed my mother preferred her craft projects over an expensive plastic tree - and they were definitely fun to make. I never experienced any sense of guilt for enjoying Christmas, or receiving chocolate eggs from the Easter Bunny for that matter. I never felt constrained over what we could celebrate or what we could not. We enjoyed the holidays with no strings attached, and this is a tradition I want to make sure I pass on to my kids.