Friday, February 25, 2011

For all the angry postdocs

Yesterday one of my colleagues forwarded us this blog and it continued a discussion among us lab members, which arises from time to time. How to be happy as a scientist? I don't want to say it is easy, because I find it myself very difficult, but I think I recognize the problem.
So let me start with what it takes to be a successful scientist. I specifically want to call it a successful scientist, because I think there are many good scientists but being a careful and reputable person doesn't necessarily guarantee success. This is, in my opinion, the nature of the problem, of the unhappiness, of the resignation and all the anger. Many of us start as idealists. We do not engage in research, because we want to get paid high salaries or aspire wealth. If one wants to become a business man and work for big corporations, it seems to be clear from the very beginning that the job description requires a certain degree of recklessness. Not that all businessman are bad people, on the contrary, but to be successful they have to have a certain cleverness to obtain an advantage over a competitor. Our society somehow accepts, and I am painting it black and white, that doing business results in a winner and a loser.
Science, on the other hand, is crowded by hopeless idealists. We want to do science for the purpose of science. We want to change the world and make it a better place. Personally, I favor this attitude above the careless business world. However, we have to realize, that we also expect society to pay for this pleasure. To face the truth, science is very expensive and although it actually can change the world, and it immensely did within the last 150 years, it does not guarantee direct success or sometimes pays off only after a long period of time. That means that our society has to invest a huge amount of money possibly without seeing any results. As we all know, now more than in other times, money is very limited and so is research funding. This results in a heavy competition between scientific fields, projects and individual researchers. Of course, that makes us, the idealist scientists, unhappy.
So what does it now take to be  a successful scientist. As I see it, in addition to being a careful and analytic researcher one also has to be a clever businessman and politician. One has to make the right decision at the right time to get the best results and gain an advantage in the battle for funds. Perseverance is always mentioned when talked about science, and truth to be told some of the most important discoveries probably wouldn't have been made without a person dedicated to a miniscule detail. However, one also has to know when to stop an unsuccessful project, not to waste time and resources. As scientific advancement is not directly predictable, to find this balance is one of the most difficult conflicts we have to master. Finally, if we make discoveries we have to be able to sell them to other scientists and the broad public. This is a very integral part of our job and unfortunately it is unfair and subjective. That leaves us with many uncertainties that we think we don't deserve then after all we generally give up a lot for making scientific discoveries.
Ultimately, to become more happy people we will have to learn to cope with this unfairness. Maybe we should be more open and have a look how decisions are made and executed in industry or politics. I don't want to call for reckless businessmen because scientists still should have the vision of a better world. I want to call for realists, and believe me, I will have to shed a thick portion of idealism. What gives me hope is that there are examples out there, for instance the PI (principle investigator) I work for. She is a politician and businesswoman, but she also cares about people, their success and foremost about science. So let's not become angry and disappointed, but let's try to be more realistic.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Periodicity or "Was du heute kannst besorgen, dass verschiebe nicht auf morgen"

It doesn't seem to go too well with my blog. Why? In brief, because I procrastinate. Procrastination is the thief of time. This is not the literal translation of the phrase above, but it is the one that sounds most close to a proverb. Fortunately, and I am really grateful for it, my friends keep reminding me that it is time for a new post!
I am pondering about procrastination a lot lately. However I spin it, I don't seem to really understand, why it is so easy to develop bad habits, like procrastination, but so much more difficult to develop good habits, like doing things regularly.
The neuroscientist probably would comment that it happens because of our reward system. I have to confess I know very little of the chemistry in our brains, but here is the point I do not understand: why is only short term gain rewarded and not long term gain? Contrary to the immediate pleasant feeling of laziness, activity usually has a much higher payoff like health, financial security, appreciation, less stress and an improved personal environment. On the other side, the instant benefit of watching a TV show, whatever it may be, seems to be of primary importance to our synapses.
Are we evolutionary delayed? Did our reward system not catch up with the present encounters of our everyday life? Of course on an evolutionary scale, the time span is very short, since we do not have to primarily fight for our bare existence. At this time instant rewards probably made more sense, as we did not have to plan a career or fight obesity.
So I am left with my favorite proverb: Was du heute kannst besorgen, das veschiebe nicht auf morgen. Do what you can do today and don't procrastinate until tomorrow. Time to go for a run....

Friday, February 18, 2011

Radio Love

I take you to one of my Saturdays, it could be one of many, but this is not important here. It is around 5pm on a Saturday and I spent the whole day in the lab, but my experiments did not work. I am being behind with my writing and anyway everything went wrong.
From time to time I get a glimpse of the beautiful San Diego weather. Every single time I walk up to the microscope, my eyes wander off to the only window that is in close distance within the lab. I see a blue sky crowded with colorful gliders that fly their rounds again and again as if there would not be anything else in this world. I want to get out.
Not being able to restrain myself any further, I rush into my car, to the beach, to hit the sunset. I have to be wise now, even strategic, to choose a place that won’t be too crowded to allow me to park my old and rusty Ford Focus. I smash the door and turn the key. It would not start. So I try again, two times, three times; yes it starts and so does the radio. Magic happens. I want to close my eyes, I pause a second to release all my tension and seek a peaceful mind. There it is, my smile:)
I still have to rush to hit the sunset, to be at this beautiful place at least for a few moments this day. I have to, otherwise what is it all worth?  I speed. Long passed the days when I was too scared of driving too fast. I have to make the sunset.
He is still on the radio; I just turned it on at the right time, to listen to the full show. His voice is so tender and caring. It promises comfort, ease, shelter, kindness and solace. Dreaming away I hardly take in the traffic. It is okay; I know where I am going.
I am lucky, I am in time and I get a spot directly at the cliffs. It is perfect. Except, now I have to get out of the car. Turn the radio off. Unease floods my body. Sunset? Radio? What a dilemma. Sure I can see the last sunrays of the day from my car, but I will miss the sound. The crushing waves, the moaning seagulls, people passing by. What about the smell of the ocean? What about the wind? Won’t it be cooling my heated mind? Shall I miss all this? But then, he is on the radio! It is him! When do I have the chance to hear him again? When was the last time I really listened?  He makes it easy for me. He entraps me with his flirtatious words, his charming songs of love and with his, oh so comforting poems. He tells a joke. No way I will leave the car.  
So I sit there on so many Saturdays. Listening, dreaming, being happy and sincere. I wish I could go to one of his shows, but then I don’t want to spoil our intimacy with a crowd. On Sunday I will listen to the same show again when it re-runs. It is not lame. He is on it!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tootsie Roll Bar

I was sick and couldn't eat anything else than bananas, rice crackers and veggie broth. Very boring, really boring!! This morning, after negotiating a real breakfast with my stomach, I found some Tootsie Roll Bars in my lab. I love Tootsie Roll. Last year around Halloween I discovered them and they are delicious. In Germany we have something similar. Imagine chocolate gold coins, we have them as well (only they are Euros), but now they are made of Tootsie Roll, yummy. It was always a special candy to me, because mostly you got chocolate gold coins and only sometimes when you were lucky, it was actually made of Tootsie Roll (only we don't have a name for it). You can buy them usually around Christmas, like CaT's mandarijnen (I miss them too, sometimes you get the good ones here, but usually only the ones with the difficult peel. I am getting side tracked here. As with everything in the States, there are giant Tootsie Rolls, too. A whole bar of Tootsie Roll, no chocolate, no filling, just Tootsie Roll. Fantastic. I'll get another one, before my colleagues are going to finish them:)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dutch Wobbling

Yesterday CaT asked whether I was disappointed by the Dutch and I have to say, no I wasn't but neither am I by the Americans, or lets say Californians. I like the people and the country. It's the land of the smile, sometimes the fake smile, but I don't care. It makes me happy at times.
Still thinking about the Dutch, I rather recollect funny encounters, things that might be a bit strange, but not annoying. I even would have difficulties to really name them. However, this morning I rediscovered my Dutch influences. I bought a new bike, because my old one was stolen by a mean thief. It is a fancy bike but it reminded me a lot of Dutch bikes, because I sit almost upright and the seat is really squashy. Unfortunately, the price was not Dutch at all. Needless to say, I enjoy riding it a lot. This morning now, when I rode it the first time to work, I realized that I do, what makes foreigners grin watching Dutch bikers. I wobble to the left and right while pedaling.  I watched other cyclists, but none of them did it. Just my shadow constantly changed position. It feels much easier to ride wobbling; who than the Dutch would have perfected biking? It looks less cool, though, I have to admit. What a delicious nostalgic feeling.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

passing by

My dad sent me an email today reminding me of my anniversary. It was two years ago that I stepped into the plane in Berlin Schoenefeld with my two pieces of extra heavy luggage containing all my possessions that I somehow thought were important to me. I was touched by the presence of my sisters and my good friend from teenagehood. So it came that although I was ready to go I had tears in my eyes. Now it is two years later and I have to say, I almost arrived in this place. Almost, because I still feel like the new kid on the block (although I am really not), almost because I still don't know where I belong and almost because I don't feel part of the whole. But almost, because the wish manifests to stay here, almost because I established my routines and almost, because I feel as a part of my immediate surroundings.
Time runs so fast! It runs, it flies, it races, I don't find a fitting word. Already my mind is occupied with leaving. Between arriving and leaving, I don't find time for actually being here. What will come next, where will I go, with whom will I be? People want me to go back, to be close, to be in reach. I just want to stay here, want to pause, want to languish. To be honest, it is very nice here. I don't want to think about what is next. I will have to, eventually. There is no steadiness. Not for a scientist, anyways.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


While I was swimming this morning many thoughts wandered my mind concerning the topic I would write about today. I even settled on one subject, but somehow it slipped my mind again and I also forgot all the other thoughts. Now I try to use the remaining four minutes, until the meeting I have to attend, to celebrate my internet appearance with a blog post. Being new to the blogosphere I find it particularly difficult to decide what to write about. Often it comes in a whim. Who am I to publish an opinion on something I don't know enough about. Seldom, I take the time to reflect or even research the topic to undermine my comments with facts, so I actually could educate my readership. What will be the essence of my writing? What is its reason?
There are selfish reasons, of course they come first. As mentioned in my first post, I want to improve my speech, my ability to share my inner self and my ability to formulate an opinion.  I also want to connect with my friends, want to catch their attention, just for a little moment. But I also want to entertain them, give them a good time and something to think about.
Of course I did not manage the alloted four minutes. Still pondering about communication I witnessed another important aspect of a scientists life, a lab meeting. I realized ones again how important it is to master the way to communicate research to others, not only to lay people but also to other scientists. I used to be convinced that only actions (and in respect to science facts) matter and speak for themselves, but in this world this is not true. It is the words that one uses that motivate and interest others. It is the charisma in ones speech, the enthusiasm and the choice of words.
I am off to my toastmasters meeting. What a communication-rich day today....

Monday, February 7, 2011

Forgotten Treasures

Sometimes I forget that I live in such a rich habitat. Although almost being a desert, San Diego presents itself with a rich flora and fauna (mainly due to water irrigation systems). Last weekend I spent almost entirely at the beach and my friend and I saw the most amazing dolphin show. I witnessed dolphins a couple of times, but I never saw them doing tricks. Equipped with my new camera and thanks to daddy's generous donation of a better lens I tried to capture them. Of course I was not so lucky to catch their flips and their surfs but I captured them a few times jumping. It was amazing, really amazing. We saw a group of about ten animals hunting (I assume, reasoned by the frequent touch downs of near by pelicans) and surfing the waves. Supposedly they had a lot of fun. Even more surprising was the fact that nobody except us seemed to be excited by their feats. It is not very common to observe dolphins so close to the shore showing off what they usually would only learn at Sea World!
When we drove down to the beach I caught myself in a moment of surprise when I had the first glimpse of the ocean. Unfortunately I sometimes forget that I live here close to humming birds, dolphins and mountain lions, next to palm trees and cactuses. I hope I will remember more often, take a time out for a walk and observe.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Facial Punctuation

Before we had facebook or twitter we used to write emails when we wanted to connect with our friends that lived far away. Now we just shoot each other short posts, when before we wrote actual letters to share current happenings in more detail. By this time concomitantly with the rise of cell phones it became common (or at least known to me) to use what I want to call 'facial punctuation' or more officially an emoticon (emotion+icon=emoticon). Now one uses symbols like :) or :( to express the inner self. Soon variations on the theme uprose like :P or :o) . 
Needless to say that I fancy using smileys throughout my writing. It goes so far that I have to restrict myself in more official emails or even during scientific writing, but also in hand writing. This morning I was wondering, why this way of communication was not common much earlier? How to express irony or a joke without the :) at the end of an sentence, won't people feel offended? Were historical writers more sophisticated and poetic? The other day my parents got new phone numbers and I wrote back: Great, now I have to memorize even more numbers :) My father replied with an apology, I felt bad and wondered if he actually knew the meaning of :). Although many people despise wikipedia, I just learnt that facial punctuation was used much earlier than one might think. Already in the 19th century people used emoticons and even in Morse code one had abbreviations for love and kisses and best regards. According to that article even Abraham Lincoln used ;) in one of his manuscripts. 
Emoticons are useful little elements of style and I sincerely hope they will be accepted more and more in non internet  types of writing ! :o)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tiger? Not Interested!

I confess, there are times (to my defense only a few), when I find myself doing things so I can post them on facebook. Yes, at times I crave attention.
The other day there was a big golf tournament behind the MB building at Scripps on that very golf course that blocks so inconveniently the ocean view. It happened to be that Americans fancied Tiger Woods again for his talented golfing, so he happened to be there, too. Because of another inconvenient building in front of the sparse windows in our lab, I could not watch him.
Let's make it clear, before he was known for his girlfriends I even did not know who Tiger Woods was, thinking that he was an imaginary character that I remember to be somehow mentioned in a movie once (Who would be called Tiger Woods in real?). Having the comments in mind that I would get on my facebook post stating I saw Tiger Woods, I teamed up with my co-worker (who I speculate had the same intention as I, but that is only speculation...) and ran outside to see him shoot/pitch/putt (however it is called:). My co-worker actually had to point Tiger out to me, because I even would not have recognized him.
We had a really good view and as soon as we had some nice pictures, we ran back to the lab to post them on facebook. I did not get any comment, not even a like, whereas my co-worker got plenty. I was so disappointed. At least I remember the joy of anticipation of admiring comments. Apparently my friends are more authentic than I am. May they be my role model in the future.

Creepy Bars and Good Music

Yesterday night my friend and I went to a karaoke bar. At first it seemed to be a really shabby place. Probably, if we were not expected to meet some colleagues, we would have turned on the spot to drive home. We were early and had to wait for more friends to come. Being two cuties from Germany we were attacked from all kind of guys hanging out there. Really creepy guys, too. Only the bar tender was sweet. Fortunately we were rescued soon.  As soon as the karaoke started the place transformed. Suddenly the creepiness of the place vanished with the first song: really good music and a really good singer! It turned out that the majority of people sang really well and I was impressed by our friends singing. Now it was our turn. We chose a German song: 99 Luftballons, next to Rammstein songs the only German song that ever made its way to fame in the US. What a disaster, the lyrics were in English (German version?) and we did not know them. Who cares, we had the German chick bonus :) We had a swell night. If I only knew some more songs it would have been even better. So if you ever go to a karaoke bar, be prepared and practice your lyrics, it makes for such a better experience...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Not funded

Life as a scientist is really hard. I am sure there are many challenging professions, but being a scientist is one of them. We work many hours and face the constant failure of experiments waiting for the one time breakthrough that shall change the world but is only an incremental contribution to the whole. Granted, there are geniuses that actually changed the world, but to be honest, there are not so many of them. Most scientists might be smart, but not smarter than other professionals whose jobs require a certain curiosity and imagination, the ability to interpret the circumstances and to have an unerring eye for details. What makes it particularly difficult is the cost of our profession and the resulting necessity to acquire funding. I don't want to discuss here what the value of science is. However, science is expensive and despite all efforts to increase governmental spending, funds are limited. Watching my own progress and the progress of my peers it seems to be a lottery. As if it would not be hard enough to cope with serendipitous discovery one also has to handle the uncertainty of being funded. Personally, I am still in a lucky position, although I am unfunded, I do not have to fear my job. I even gained the advantage of improving my writing with endless fellowship applications. How lucky or unlucky I might consider myself in the moment, worry remains how to keep it all together once you have to provide your own salary and that of your mentees. And yes, it is February already. Where did the rest of the year go?