I am a young scientist

I am a young scientist. Ridiculously young, according to some of my colleagues.

I’m 23. I’m the most traditional of traditional students, I guess: no gap year, no work break, no time off for family or health reasons. I’m lucky! I went straight from school to university, where I did a 3 year bachelors degree followed by a one year undergraduate MSci. This is pretty standard in the UK, where most bachelors degrees are 3 years, and a Masters, whether taught or research, is usually one year – although tacking it on to the end of a undergrad degree, as I did, is unusual. Most people graduate first, but since the fees are so much higher for a graduate masters I took the cheaper option, since I had it! Compare this to most of the rest of Europe, or the US, where undergrad degrees tend to be 4 years plus 2 years for a masters degree… aaaaaand, yep, I’m 23, I’m a second-year PhD student, and I’m the youngest in the lab. I’m younger than both the first year students! (One took a similar path to me but is still somehow older, and the other has worked for a while.)

Why am I talking about this? Well, for me, my age affects my confidence in the lab. When I hear “Oh wow, I’m a decade older than you” or “You look, like, sixteen. To me!” or “at your age you should/shouldn’t do x” – it doesn’t make me feel like a colleague, like a peer. I feel like looking, and being, younger than the average student, means that I can be taken less seriously. It doesn’t feel like a compliment (even though I suspect most of the comments are meant to be).  It’s not okay to say “You’re so old!”, why is it okay to say “you’re so young!”?

I wish I had some advice to give about how I’ve dealt with it, but I don’t, really, other than venting (like this). It’s important to remember that you have exactly the same right to be there as your fellow students – yes, they might have a few more years of experience, yes, they might have more degrees than you, but you were still accepted into the same PhD program. You deserve to be there. Don’t let imposter syndrome get you down.

Having said that, I do think a year or two of break between masters and PhD would have been helpful for me. Not so much for the lab experience as the life experience. Being an adult is difficult, damnit, and I may have forgotten to pay rent for a few days, or given up on cooking dinner and bought takeaway, or procrastinated doing a necessary errand because it couldn’t be done online in my PJs with a cup of tea, a few too many times in my first year. It would have be nice to learn how to deal with the stuff that comes with renting privately, and living with a partner rather than a handful of friends, and having a less flexible schedule, while I wasn’t also having to deal with the stress of starting a PhD. A few standing orders, a whiteboard, and some fiddling of how we share tasks later and we’re coping pretty well with being adults, thankfully 🙂 Given the chance, though, I would take a short break, and I’d definitely recommend others to do so if they have the chance.

— Bob


On navigating politics and the importance of female mentors

One of things I find hardest about being a graduate student is navigating interactions with others of varied statuses around me. My institute now is very different, culturally, from my undergraduate institution, despite being in the same country and only a couple of hours away. I think a lot of that comes from being an institute, rather than a university department – of course we are connected with a university, but there are no undergrads around, and very few Masters students. There are few teaching responsibilities for PIs, and none for postdocs or PhD students. There is no departmental tea room!*

Here, the only people who ask questions in seminars are PIs and senior postdocs and people who don’t know yet. People don’t hang around after seminars and debate or chat; work always takes priority over networking. The culture is less relaxed, but more than that, it’s unclear even what is and is not acceptable. There are few opportunities to observe how others interact with each other – to see who is gregarious and who of few words, to see if and how other students will approach a PI with a question. The politics of how and what and when I am supposed to speak to others about their work, about my work, to ask for help, to collaborate – it escapes me. And of course there are no written rules, no induction course, nothing to go by except what observation you can.

Maybe I’m just slow at this – I certainly wasn’t the most socially skilled as a child – but I wish there was a little more guidance available on navigating departmental and intra-lab politics. The title of this post by Athene Donald – On being Feisty and Unconventional – made me smile because I figure that’s what I’m doomed to be. I’ve always been feisty, even when shy, and eventually a part of me says sod convention, whatever it is around here, and speak my mind.

I’m probably going to grow up to be one of Hope Jahren’s ‘difficult women‘. I’d quite like that, actually 🙂

But what I’d really like is a local female mentor to help me tread the line between ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’. Between ‘feisty’ and ‘rude’. Between ‘confident’ and crossing boundaries.
I have two assigned academic mentors, both male, along with my two male supervisors… People talk about the importance of mentors, of multiple mentors… but, erm, how do you find one, if you want one, in the first place?

— BoB

*probably what I miss most; I think a department-wide tea break is great for building community.

What I’m Reading

Yeah, this didn’t happen on Sunday. Oops. I will try to stick to my self-imposed schedule better in future!

eLife is one! eLife is one of my favourite journals: they’re open access, they publish reviews along with the paper, they have a system for associating supplementary figures with the main ones, and I recently discovered they like to look out for early career researchers. Plus, eLife Lens seems to be a nice way to read papers online.

PLoS Biology is ten! They have selected ten articles from the past decade to feature in this celebratory collection – worth reading.

What to wear to do science: it shouldn’t matter, but people will judge you no matter what you wear. It seems from the comments that what is the norm varies a lot between disciplines. Where I am, my (male) boss regularly wears cargo shorts and t-shirts with holes in; one clinician in the department can usually be found in a shirt, tie, and suit trousers, except for the days he wears a tracksuit!

Do you know what sexual harrassment looks like?

PubMed is trialling allowing authors to comment on papers – currently it’s in a closed pilot phase, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out. I suspect that the majority of papers will receive no comments, while some will really spark debate – same as happens already, really… More here.

MozFest, a festival / conference / gathering dedicated to using the internet to do interesting, important, open things, was this weekend, and the new Mozilla Science website was released. These are the guys exploring the idea of peer code review for scientific software, and I can’t wait to see what else they come up with.

A year of attempts to exercise

I was not a sporty child. I have terrible hand-eye coordination – at primary school I was still learning to bounce a ball off a wall and back to myself while the other kids got to throw balls at each other 😦

But, I realise the importance of exercise. Not only does it keep you physically healthy, it can benefit your mental health, too. Since starting my PhD I’ve been trying to incorporate exercise into my routine, because there was no way doing a PhD wasn’t going to increase my stress level

Here are some of my attempts so far:

  1. Running! I started the Couch To 5K programme, which takes you from jogging in short intervals to running 5km non-stop, theoretically in as little as 8 weeks. I got to week 6, last autumn, but while I enjoyed running in intervals, once I had to run for 20+ minutes at a time… I got bored. I am slightly ashamed to admit that my willpower is not sufficient to get me through even half an hour of exercise against my body’s complaints. I tried audiobooks, music, podcasts… and then it got to be dark and cold and wet in the evenings and I stopped trying 😦
  2. Bouldering – my partner is a rock climbing fan, and he persuaded me to give it a try. I do really enjoy bouldering, but I don’t find it relaxing! There’s a big problem-solving aspect to it, and while I know that it works for some people, I can’t focus on bouldering problems when I’m stressed out by something else.
  3. Jujitsu – well, okay, I thought about trying this but the classes aren’t at a convenient time. I knew that if it was a choice between finishing an experiment and getting some exercise in, I’d probably choose the experiment. Yep, I’m that obsessed. Plus, see previously mentioned lack of coordination.
  4. Running –  again! Recently I started going running with a few of my labmates. Amazingly, even the first time I went with them, I ran for 20 minutes without stopping and without getting bored. It seems that for me, company is a much better motivator / distractor than anything else. Unfortunately, the evenings are too dark now for the running time that works best for us all (~6pm), given that we work in a slightly-dodgy, not well lit area. Which brings me to…
  5. The gym! Tonight I went to the gym with some of the people from running. We did a mix of things – a bit of treadmill, a bit of bike, a bit of rowing, a bit of weights. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m not sure why I’d been putting off checking out the gym. I used to go during my last couple of years of undergrad, and I did enjoy it. Our gym is free for students (yay!) so I really have no excuse now. As long as I can persuade my workout buddies to come with me 🙂

So, the moral of my attempts and partial successes at becoming someone who exercises regularly? What works for others may not work for you. Some people are into yoga, some #bikedouchery cycling, but whatever they do, no matter how much they love it, if you don’t, you aren’t going to stick with it. If you are not naturally inclined to exercise (like me) then finding something that you enjoy, and that you can fit into an existing schedule rather than carving out time to fit in something new, will be key.

So, what’s your sport / activity of choice? How do you fit it into your schedule? Teach me your wise ways in the comments!

Sunday Morning Science: What I’m Reading

A note on Sunday mornings: during my undergrad, briefly, someone ran a Sunday morning science discussion group. My friend S. and I would turn up, gigantic mugs of tea in hand, to talk about designer babies, or genetically modified food, for an hour or so, then we’d all go and have a full English brunch. S. and I were the only ones who ever brought our own caffeine… I wonder what the others thought about that. Anyway, I like the idea of Sunday mornings as a time to reflect on scientific happenings, so here’s my round-up of things I’ve found interesting and worth a read this week.

The anatomy of successful computational biology software – interviews with authors of widely-used tools.

How to make scientific software sustainable. With a The Princess Bride reference!

For cat people, see through your pet’s eyes. I wonder if the differences in colour vision help cats to see their prey?

Gross but cool: think you have a nematode infection in your mouth, but your doctor doesn’t believe you? Why not pull it out yourself and do a genetic analysis? Not to mention take pictures and show all your colleagues.

It’s impossible to ignore the sexual harrassment revelations that have occurred this week, and I like  this post by Jason Thibault as an overview and timeline, with links to many of the original posts. It’s also interesting to compare the reaction of the atheism/secularism community. I had no idea it was possible to have a “pro-harrassment” faction! :/ One post that isn’t linked there, that I think is important, is this post by Janet Stemwedel. Read this if you’re wondering why the women involved didn’t report events immediately. (I also like her blog in general)

I’d also like to add a link to DNLee’s original post on The Urban Scientist, as with everything that’s happened since I think it’s important to remember the events that spurred Monica Byrne to come forward. Seeing one person be brave can help others find their courage.

And finally, to make the wet lab biologist in you smile: That’s not how you pipette!

— Bob

(yesss, I got this posted while it’s still morning here!)

Not-quite-harrassment and (lack of) professional conduct

I’ve been lucky enough in my career so far to not have experienced any much overt sexism, or had harrassment or assault directed at me, unlike these ladies (and many more). What I have experienced in the last year, though, is the ignorance of young, mostly white, heterosexual men about how people who aren’t them experience the world. My PhD lab is pretty international – I doubled the numbers of British students – and pretty gender balanced. Somehow, even this diverse group of highly educated people manages to contain some complete bigots – racist, sexist, classist. The thing that most affected me (read: pissed me off) was the way some of my fellow students would talk about the women in our department.

For the sake of anonymity, I won’t describe in detail – suffice to say they had a codeword, for whether a girl was “hot enough” or not. New starter? Is she, isn’t she? What’s she wearing today? She looks goood. Don’t you think she’s attractive? Does she have a boyfriend?

It took me a year to get the words together. First, I didn’t know the guys well; then, I knew they didn’t mean any harm; then I realised that it didn’t matter what they meant, the comments could still cause harm – but I couldn’t vocalise my thoughts coherently. Then I still couldn’t vocalise my thoughts as coherently as I’d have liked, but I got fed up and told them off anyway. I’m not sure how effective it was. I’m not sure I convinced them that it’s degrading to judge female colleagues – women who are there to work, to do awesome science! – on their appearance, that even if they are joking, such comments can cause harm to those around them. I’m afraid they agreed not to make such comments at work just to avoid upsetting me. I’m afraid they’ll treat me differently – that we won’t be friends – from now on. (Then again, I don’t want my friends to talk like that either, not just my colleagues). But, there have been no incidents of this behaviour since, at least not within my hearing.

The thing that the recent science-writing-harrassment-deluge has brought home to me is how hard it is to speak up against these sorts of behaviour. Posts like this:

You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you — if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can’t just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

And this:

It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it.

… I really recognise those feelings. And the thing is, I’m… well… kinda a belligerent person. I always used to get in trouble at school for being stubborn. I do try to consider my opinions before I form them or if new evidence appears, but I generally have no problems stating them, and backing them up, and arguing about them. I’m not usually worried about not being liked. I’d rather be a good person than a good scientist – maybe that’s something I shouldn’t admit. And if it took me a year to tell these guys they were out of line? These being fellow students, not people in a position of power? What about less short-tempered strong-minded women? What would I do if it was my boss saying this?

I have another data point: another female student in my lab tried, somewhat, to tell them off when she first started. But, she said to me (paraphrased), she realised they were just young guys joking around, and she’d rather be liked than make a fuss. And this woman is the other most outspoken person in the lab, the only other person to call out the blatant classism we overheard one day. It makes me sad that we feel this way.

My opinion is that this kind of inappropriate, disrespectful behaviour can come from a blurring of the lines between professional and personal life. In academia, work takes up so much of your time and has so few rules, so few expectations – e.g. no dress codes! – that it doesn’t always feel like a job. Often, you socialise with the same people you work with. And it becomes really easy to act the same way in the lab as you on a boys’ night, or down the pub with your close friends. Note, I’m not condoning objectifying women or being racist in those situations – but there’s no denying that it happens. I don’t have the energy and I don’t think it’s my business to tell people what they should or shouldn’t say in the pub – but at work, it’s different. None of these racist, sexual, derogatory comments would be acceptable in a normal workplace. As much as it may not always feel like it, as PhD students / postdocs / academic staff, we are in a professional environment and we should act like it.
The question is, how to get this message across? Professional conduct codes for students? (Do some institutions already have this?) Mandatory diversity / privilege awareness training? Suggestions welcomed, as well as anything you know of that is already in place.
Edit: to add a link to this post, How Not to Be That Dude – perhaps this should be required reading for first year PhDs!
 — Bob


The new students started today; I’m officially a second year PhD student.

This is just a little bit scary, given that I still haven’t finished the experiment that will prove my experimental system can be used to tackle the main question of my PhD… or got really any results… but at least I do feel like I’ve learned something already. Even if it’s things like “trust no one protocol, always double check”, “always google error messages” and “my boss isn’t as scary as he looks”.

Two things I’ve learnt have lead me to decide that I ought to be blogging: one, that I’m really out of practice at writing, and two, that if I want something to change then I’d better start doing it myself.

So hello and welcome, to the blog of a grumpy but optimistic PhD student working somewhere on the border between molecular biology and bioinformatics. Hopefully I’ll learn something from this, too, in the next few years – and hopefully you might too 🙂