Sunday, December 1, 2013

Can you remember your original goals?

I have a hobby, knitting.  I have been knitting since I was an undergrad at Indiana University, School of Business.  One of my marketing professors suggested that we teach ourselves something new.  Part of the goal was to demonstrate that we had reached a point in our academic careers that we could teach ourselves. Of course, he suggested that we continue to teach ourselves something new for the rest of our lives.  The objective is to increase our ability to converse with our customers.  As we broadened our experiences, we had greater subjects to be able to discuss.  Ultimately, this approach resulted in my returning to school to become a scientist.  I actually only intended to take 1-2 courses to learn some chemistry.  My first chemistry course was so interesting that I read the entire chemistry book by the middle of the semester.  My professor took be aside and asked me whether I was working in the right field, reminding me that life is more interesting if we are passionate about our work.

Fast forward, and I have a PhD in Biochemistry.  I love the work that I have done and I want to do more.  But a few years ago, I started knitting again.  At first I thought my desire to knit was to create things for my young son, but I did finally realize that something was missing in my work life.  I was not asking the questions that I wanted to ask. Actually, let me clarify, my then boss had a habit of using my projects as the platform for recruiting new students or postdocs. Countless times, when I interviewed a postdoc or grad student for the lab, the person would say: "I was told to get the details of what you are working on right now, as I will take over the project". Thus, I was never able to complete a story. So I turned to knitting, where I could control the project.

I joined an online knitting community "Ravelry".  It is a fantastic community where you can join sub-groups based on your interests.  One of the groups I joined was "Scientific Knitters".  We discuss knitting, but mostly we discuss science, career, co-workers, experiments, etc.  Currently, we have a very young member of the group who is just learning about chemistry, biology, physics, and experimentation.  This member is actually a high school student, thus very young.  For the rest of the post, I will call this person "Y" for young.  Y wants to be the first person to create a eukaryotic cell, from scratch.  Seems that Y is enamored by synthetic biology (and knitting).  But what has made Y so interesting is the pursuit.  Like any new student, Y has just enough information to ask great questions, but not enough experience to understand how to perform the work.  This is typical of a student.  I was at that stage once.  But we change during training.  We learn to dig deeper to fully understand to science behind our results.  We question everything, so that we can provide well informed answers to reviewers.

However, there is another change that takes place.  During graduate school, we have requirements that must be met, course work, qualifying exams, committee meetings, and more.  A labmate called these things "hoops" and suggested to all graduate students: "just jump through the hoops" "do not protest, as the hoop will remain until you finally jump, so jump and get it over with".  This was the best advice I was given in grad school.  I did as I was told and advanced to graduation fairly easily.  But I was surprised that during my postdoc, I was expected to jump through "postdoc-hoops" AND additional, non-training hoops.  My mentor would throw out this odd hoops that were not informative, instead, obstacles to slow me down.  I realized that most of the postdocs had these extra hoops thrown in the way, as did new faculty.  Not everyone jumped, some resisted, some found ways around the hoops.  It seemed that postdoc and beyond was more of a lesson in learning which hoops were important.  Great lesson, but it changes our thinking.  We expect our trainees to jump through hoops to satisfy our requirements.  Ultimately, we spend too much time thinking about hoops rather than about science.

As a result, I am ignoring hoops.  Fortunately, I joined a great lab, with talented, goal-oriented individuals and a PI insatiable curiosity.  It is refreshing and a wonderful reminder of why I am a scientist.  Of course, Y reminds me of my original goal to become an experimentalist.  I want to understand how alterations in a cell's transcriptional identity leads to disease and how we can characterize and monitor these changes.  I want to touch the transcripts, read the sequence, and see the changes in function.  I want to understand how the transcriptome is regulated, temporally, spatially, and developmentally.  There is so much to do, way to too much work to be bothered by extraneous hoops.

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