Sabbatical

So, it’s been a while… about 3 years actually. A lot has changed.

I left my post-doc to try something different. I started to worry that the only reason I was “doing science” was that science was all I knew. I had been working in a lab since I was 18 years old, with an actual research position since I was 20. Maybe instead of a mid-life crisis, I was having a mid-career crisis. Is that a thing?

I took a position that might be classified as an alternative career in science, working in regulatory affairs, getting in vitro diagnostics cleared by the FDA. I had great hopes that my love for science would still be satisfied while having a greater contribution to the family bank account, regular hours, and without the fear of a lack of funding. Well, I was mostly right. The pay was pretty good – certainly better than post-doc pay. The hours were MUCH better, no midnight timepoints for me! But, I wasn’t scientifically challenged. In fact, I found myself challenging the scientists at my new company. Had they thought of this, did they consider that, etc. They didn’t appreciate it, although, my department was thankful for someone who could break through the science-ese. But I often found myself at the end of the research and development phase where these questions were just a little too late.

So, I started implementing some projects. To appease my need for academic collaboration, I started a “journal club” for my regulatory department to discuss relevant FDA guidances. I learned later that there are whole departments dedicated to this at larger pharmaceutical companies where it’s called “Regulatory Intelligence”. I also started a study group where entry level specialist could prepare together for the Regulatory Affairs Certification. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was recreating a collaborative research experience, just outside of the lab. All that distance was making me miss the lab, the research, the collaboration. I need to get back into research ASAP.

Having recently moved due to my husband’s career, I have an opportunity now to do just that. I have a little hurdle to jump, in that I need to explain my absence from the lab for a couple of years. While I might not be as up to speed on the latest and greatest breakthroughs, I don’t regret my “sabbatical” one bit. For me, it confirmed that yes, I am a scientist. That is what I am meant to do. Also, I was able to build enormously on those “translatable” skills that you hear about all the time but aren’t always possible, depending on your lab. I was able to:

  • Demonstrate ability to learn and apply new information outside of my specific training
  • Think strategically
  • Work cross-functionally and collaboratively
  • Develop communication skills
    • Lead meetings
    • Communicate in writing
    • Negotiate
  • Develop project management skills
    • Perform according to a schedule
    • Meet deadlines
    • Create management tools for tasks, schedules, tracking progress
  • Demonstrate flexibility
    • Worked on multiple assignments
    • Transitioned easily to new assignments according to business needs

So, if you’re thinking of trying an “alternative” career, go for it. You might just find something you love. You might just develop the skills necessary to be successful wherever you land.

phdplans

Of all the “successful” people I’ve met who have shared their career paths, not one of them was ever a straight line. I zigged a couple of years ago, now I’m ready to zag.

What’s your crooked line?

 

An Introvert’s Guide to Conference Networking

Conferences are a great way to meet a ton of people with interests directly relevant to your own.

It can also be terribly overwhelming and scary.

Here are some tricks that have worked for me, a tried and true introvert:

  1. Find the person who knows everyone.  Some people actually enjoy meeting new people. They make contacts and new friends as easily as they breathe. Find this person, become their friend, and begin to make new connections just from being in their presence.  Mention on the side that you’ve always wanted to meet so-and-so and they will make it happen.  Don’t worry, you’ll only be riding their coattails for a little while and then you’ll be launched into your own web of networks.
  2. Don’t go to every workshop. This may be shocking advice.  You (or your PI) pay a lot of money for you to attend and learn all that you can from a conference.  But, that’s not the only reason you go.  You attend conferences to make connections to others in your field.  The talks that are directly relevant, of course, go to those, but if there’s some less than inspiring talks coming up, take this chance to sit outside the event and chat with whoever else was bored.  It’s hard to have conversations when you are speed-dating your way through conference workshops.
  3. Use social media.  I’ve posted on this before, about how Twitter saved an introvert like me.  Seriously, get a Twitter account, start following people in your field, use that to build a network.  I even listed my Twitter handle on my title slide and (gasp!) pointed it out!  Yes, I think my PI shook his head a little, and maybe not in amusement (but then started following me).  If you’re not already, get on Linked In. I’m not totally convinced of its usefulness (why exactly did my Nana endorse my virology skills?), but if for nothing else, its a way to share your contact information with others.  Use facebook at your own risk, just edit the pictures from undergrad.
  4. Brand cloudBuild your brand before the conference. This goes along with the previous piece of advice.  You are a brand.  At every point in your career, when you are ready to make the next step, you need to sell yourself.  You need to convince others that you are the best person on the planet for your dream job and they would be remiss to pass you up.  Create a following.  Give something back to your field: publications, workshops, presentations, collaborations, tweets, blogposts, etc.  I actually had someone say that they were looking forward to meeting me at my last conference!  Little ole me?!?!  Branding.
  5. Become an event.  Present at your next meeting.  To introverts like me, it is terrifying, but so rewarding.  Build excitement around your talk.  Don’t be afraid to recruit your tweeps to your talk and anyone else using the conference hashtag.  By putting yourself out there, you become more available to someone who wants to ask you a question or meet you.
  6. businesscardsGo old school and give out business cards.  It may seem archaic, but, trust me, it works.  If your PI/institution won’t pay for them, it is so easy to get/make business cards these days.  Go on Vistaprint and plug in your information.  Use Microsoft Publisher template and print your own on card stock.  And, most importantly, give them out!  Unlike trading cards, the more you give out your business card, the more valuable they are!  Have you enjoyed talking with someone?  Give them a card.  Liked someone’s presentation but were too nervous to ask a question at the end? Give them a card.  Presenting a poster?  Have cards ready to hand out to any person who actually reads the full title.  Make the business card less dated by including your twitter handle, your linkedin connection, and any other form of social media you deem suitable in addition to the regular stuff.
  7. Don’t be afraid to approach the headline speaker.  Most people are completely honored and humbled to be asked to give a headline talk at a conference.  All of those people were once in your shoes, looking up and thinking, “Wow, what an amazing person/story/project, etc.”  If something in their talk struck you, don’t be afraid to walk right up to them and say so, politely of course.  One of the headline speakers at my last conference was speaking during the career development workshop.  She shared something personal in her talk that, being a mom, really got to me.  Somehow, I had no fear approaching her later and thanking her for being so candid.  We ended up having great conversation about the balance of parenting and career.
  8. Follow up. The networking doesn’t stop at the end of the conference.  Give it a couple weeks to let everyone get caught up on the work, chores, and sleep that were neglected while away.  But, reconnect with the people you found truly interesting, that you would like to collaborate with, that you would like more information about their system, etc. Send an email, include them in a tweet, remind them that you were awesome and they should stay in touch with you!

Become a social (media) butterfly

networkcolorWe hear it all the time: network, network, network. Meeting people and making connections is essential in today’s workplace.

However, not everyone is great at meeting new people. I am quite shy. When people question this trait of mine I tell them about my first day in 6th grade at a new school. Instead of talking to other kids and starting to make new friends, I found the only desk with no one around it, put my head down and cried.

Fast forward, almost 25 years, I am still terrible at making new friends. I’ve learned some strategies and coping mechanisms to overcome this in the workplace. However, at big meetings, the perfect opportunity to connect with a lot of people, I turn right back into that shy little girl from a quarter century ago.

 

Using Social Media to Build Your Network

Much like in a bar, that first sentence, that “pick up line”, can be so incredibly awkward.

“Hi! I’m so-and-so. Umm….”

I’ve found I need an “in”, a reason for approaching a person, other than for the sake of meeting them. At large conferences, this can often be achieved after seeing someone’s presentation.

“Hey! Great talk! I was interested in that slide where…”

But that doesn’t work all the time, and can sometimes still seem awkward. Here is the best pick-up line I’ve heard:

“Hi, I follow you on Twitter…”

That’s it. So easy. Of course, you need to actually be following them on Twitter for which you’ll need a Twitter account.

sciencebirdHere’s my personal story of how easy this is.

I recently attended the American Society for Virology annual meeting at Penn State. Approximately 1000 grad-student, post docs, and PIs attend this meeting each year. Many attendees have been going every year for decades. I had attended twice before, the sole representative from my lab, and didn’t have much success meeting people. Returning this year as a post doc in a new lab and field, I was determined to improve on my skills.

I had also recently signed up for twitter and was building my base of relevant researchers to follow. The science twitterverse is a bit smaller than others. Medical professionals have 100x as many twitterers. Check out #FOAMEd to see how powerful twitter can be: case reports, medical pearls, etc. It is more difficult sharing cutting edge science since we are all competing for the same money, but there is still much to be shared and gained from your fellow virologists, especially when it comes to networking.

As I walked through the first social event at ASV this year, I recognized one face after another, people that I followed on twitter. My nerves getting the best of me, I hesitated and gave up an opportunity to meet someone I practically new already. Finally, I gathered up my nerves and walked right up to a “big fish”, 5000+ followers, blogger, podcaster, and PI. It wasn’t awkward or weird. It was very natural. I started with, “I follow you on twitter and really enjoy the blogs and podcast”, and the conversation continued from there.

After that, it was really easy to approach people, especially when I already knew them from their twitter feed. The best experience was when someone approached me and said, “I’ve been dying to meet you, I’ve been following you on twitter!” Me?? I couldn’t believe it! But it proved the point that using social media can enhance your networking skills.

Top Secret Mission

 

agentcat

Within this packet of papers is your mission, should you choose to accept.  Read the enclosed materials, find the necessary resources, and then report back to me.  The experiment is top secret.  This message is scheduled to self-destruct in 3… 2… 1- BOOM!

While I was a student, my mentor often gave my lab mate little side projects here and there.  He never bothered me with these little projects and at the time, I was so thankful for that.  I was able to focus my energies on my thesis and get things done.  I graduated with one first author paper and one review article.  My lab mate graduated with one first author paper and was included on several others because of all those side projects.

The other day, my postdoc mentor handed me a stack of papers and gave me my first side project – for sh–s and giggles, he said.  I am beyond excited!  First, it’s a project for which there is relatively little published material, making the project idea seem novel and exciting – “no one else is even thinking of doing this!” are the thoughts going around in my little head.  Sure, it may be a total fail, but if its not…

This kind of excitement, while not rare, it not necessarily common.  I love my work, I love what I do, but most days, I come in, I get things done, I check off the list and move closer to completing the aims set forth for my project.  But this,… I have been thinking about this project day in and day out for the last three days.  I leave work and I take papers home with me to read!  I do lit searches on my iPhone while rocking the baby to sleep.  I wake up in the morning with new inspiration.

I do hope it turns out to be a great little project with new interesting information discovered at the end of it.  But even if it doesn’t, its a great reminder of how exciting science and research can and should be.  The feeling that you and your mentor had an idea that no one else had, that you are about to discover something completely new, that you could change the way your colleagues think about a protein, system, etc. is why we enter into research in the first place.  I wish I could tell you more about it, but I’m sworn to secrecy!

top secret

 

Sick baby and lost work (worth?)

I’ll post the final conclusion to my tribute to Edith Schoenrich (Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) soon, but I wanted to talk about my obvious absence lately.

Maybe you’ve noticed I haven’t blogged in a couple of weeks.  Maybe you’ve given up on “The Experience”.  Maybe you thought, “Well, that had potential, she just didn’t follow through.”  I worry about how many of you thought that, and I worry whether my boss thinks that.

In addition to having some jam-packed days in the lab (absence from blogging excuse), I’ve also had some sick baby days where I’ve been home taking care of my little ones.  Unfortunately, the baby just doesn’t want to take a bottle at home, and so it makes no sense for my husband to stay home with her, hungry and sick and miserable.  That means that whatever I’m planning in lab has to take a back seat.  Experiments are put off, ongoing assays are ruined, cells and materials get thrown away, materials wasted.  After being out, I come back to lab exhausted, frustrated, apologetic, and feeling like I’m on probation.

When I chose my postdoc, I was very aware of the fact that my boss was a family man, had young-ish kids, and would understand the occasional sick day.  And to his credit, any time I email him that one of the kids are sick and I need to stay home with them, he always replies positively.  I worry though.  Is he really okay with the time off?  He offers to take care of whatever is critical, but I certainly can’t ask him to do the 18 plates of TCID50 assays that would take me 6 hours to complete.  And, then, all of those resources are wasted, plates, cells, media, etc.

TCID50
TCID50 plates to determine virus titer

Our companies and institutions are all very clear in that sick days are part of our benefits package.  They all want to be seen at family friendly, striving to help achieve work/life balance for their employees.  It all looks great on paper.  But when you start to cash in and use those benefits (not abusing them at all), there seems to be some unspoken repuercussions.  Certainly my output and achievements will be affected and this will be reflected negatively upon review.

And so, back in lab now, I’m trying to make up for lost work days while still leaving in time to pick up the girls from daycare.  It makes for some stressful, hectic days.  It makes for long days for the girls too.  I’m looking forward to warmer weather, less sick time, and in general feeling more accomplished in all areas of life.

Part 2: A humble trail blazer

{Part 1}

Edyth (Hull) Schoenrich was born during a tumultuous time, on September 9, 1919.  Nations were recovering from the end of WWI and the loss of so many of its young men, either from war or Spanish Flu.  After decades of lobbying, women’s right to vote was gaining momentum and would be granted on a national level by a Constitutional Amendment.  Throughout her life, she would be witness to major changes in our country, from the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement.  At times, she may have even been an unknowing participant in creating that change.

Labor CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospital

we_won flappers-do-the-charleston2

As a young girl, Edyth was studious, curious, and adventurous, no doubt a troubling combination for a young girl of that time.  But she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to pursue her education, one that would leave a trail for others to follow.

During the height of the Great Depression, Edyth would attend Duke University, from 1937-1941, earning her Bachelor of Arts. She then went on to University of Chicago to earn a masters degree in Psychology.  There, she would meet her husband and begin a family.  Once again, she would shatter the mold and enter medical school, a highly unusual career choice at the time for a woman who was a young wife and mother.  She was one of three women in a class of 75.  Not without its struggles, she took it in stride, according to her anecdotes, using it as an opportunity to shine and stand out from the rest.  With her M.D., the Schoenrich family moved to Maryland where Dr. Edyth would work at Johns Hopkins Hospital and begin her legacy at the institution.

Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School were no strangers to the battleground of equal rights or the reformation of medical education.  The university was founded as a place to “to develop character and to make men,” according to University President Daniel Coit Gilman. Soon thereafter, in 1890, 15 chapters of the Women’s Medical School Fund across the nation would raise nearly half a million dollars for the school to become coeducational and admit women and men on the same terms, as well as requiring Bachelor degrees and education in science and language. Dr. Edyth would continue to change the course of history at the University through pursuing her dreams and ambitions.

Dr. Edyth worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital as an intern from 1948-1949. Continuing to excel, she became assistant resident in medicine 1949-1950 and then fellow from 1950-1951. In 1951, she was appointed chief resident in medicine, only the second woman to hold that position.  Despite her skill and competence, Dr. Edyth still faced predjudice and bigotry, passed up for promotion simply for being a woman.  Anger overcoming hurt, Dr. Edyth used that energy to find a positive outcome for the obstacles she faced and continued to forge ahead.

 

Resources:

http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/014300/014382/html/14382bio.html

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_286.html

http://www.answers.com/topic/johns-hopkins-university#ixzz2IoptfGki

Part 1: An inspiring woman, doctor, and leader

The other day, as I walked through the hospital to my building in an effort to avoid the sub-freezing temperatures outside, I was “stuck” behind a slower moving elderly woman.  Having no way around, I slowed down and started to wonder about who she was.  She was well dressed and walked with a manner that spoke of achievement. I wondered about what her journey to this point in her life must have been like, what struggles she faced, what was her greatest accomplishment.  As I day dreamed about the lady before me, I was reminded of another octogenarian that I was curious about.

As I walk through the halls of my building, the walls are adorned with many portraits.  One has always stood out to me.  Unlike most of the other portraits, it is of a woman, late in life but still vibrant, with a smile that is welcoming and encouraging.  Curious, I had to know more about the woman who is immortalized on the wall of Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.  She must have done great things to lay claim such an esteemed piece of real estate.  However, there was no placard under the portrait.  No name.  Nothing to follow up on.

portrait

The first time I held the door for her, I was surprised and doubtful at the same time.  Could this woman, that is escorted by security in a wheel chair, be the same as the one in the portrait? I was even more intrigued.  Since that first time, we often crossed paths, but I am too nervous and shy to introduce myself.

My Google searches proved fruitless, only having limited terms to search: “elderly lady portrait JHU Bloomberg”.  I finally admitted defeat and did some research the old-fashioned way.  I asked someone.  Approaching the security desk, I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question without sounding stalker-ish.  “I’m curious about the woman in the portrait.  I’ve seen her here and was wondering who she is.  She must be a very special lady to be honored this way.” The guard was a little skeptical at first, but she soon warmed up when she realized I was talking about Miss Edyth.  “Oh she is a special lady, all right!” Hang on, let me find out her last name for you.”  A couple of phone calls later, I was given a name.

I walked back to lab and sat at my desk.  My Google search was much more productive this time and I was quickly overwhelmed by the available information.  It was like opening Pandora’s Box!  At last, I could find out more about this woman who is so honored and revered.

Next post, find out who I am so enamoured with!

Power trips of the powerless

As part of being a post-doc in a new institution, I need to undergo training for equipment, procedures, etc. that I am already quite familiar with.  But, because of historical issues, my new department has put in place training modules that require assessment and approval before I can use their facilities.

One such area that I’ve had to address recently is the use of the microscope facilities.  Having limited experience, I welcomed the idea of actual microscope training by a qualified instructor.  Instead, the “training course” was a series of videos that identified each part of a microscope and the general turning on/off of each instrument.  That’s all acceptable, if unsatisfactory.

EarlyMicroscopeMammoth

The problem began when the assessment course was administered by the “Department Engineer”, essentially a glorified technician. (I went to an engineering college, and you sir, are no engineer.)  This “engineer” feels the need to exert his unfounded power on helpless post-docs and students to make himself feel better, all the while holding us captive because we can’t move on with our research until he says so.  The assessment course was written in broken English by him, of course, and he feels the need to lecture you on the questions you got wrong before allowing you to use the facilities.

Let me be perfectly honest, there is nothing that makes me twitch and shake with anger faster than being condescended to.

phd-frustration-072707s-crop

It is impossible to relate here the manner in which he corrected me on the room number (seriously, I know where the room is, why do I need to know the room number?), the fact that he is the department engineer responsible (with illustration of his “title” on his email signature), and that I underestimated the magnification required to see bacteria on a tape strip.  I doubt he could tell me the difference between bacteria and viruses, but that’s beside the point. Unfortunately, I did not meet his criteria for passing, he categorized my performance along with a specific racial group (so not cool, dude. way to be racist.), and I had to take the test again.

Luckily, this time, I did pass, but still with a few answers wrong, including, again, the room number. Ha!  Take that! He didn’t miss the opportunity to be condescending again, even in an email (highlighted):

microscope results

At least today, I can respond to this email with laughter instead of angry eye twitches.  My boss offered up a bottle of champagne to celebrate, or to use as a weapon, my choice.  At least my boss gets it.  I was this close to making Mr. Engineer address me as Dr.!

Juggling Act

doing it anyway

As a post-doc, wife, and a mother of two (2.5 years old and 9 months old), I’m often asked “How do you do it?”.

The truthful answer is – barely.

I’m certainly not excelling in any area of my life, whether as a post-doc, wife, or mother.  I’m really just getting by in each area. On top of that, I have no life.  Seriously, if you asked me today what I do for fun, I would have no idea how to answer you.  I used to do lots of things – go out with friends, go running or hiking, read a book, sew, go shopping, go to the movies, etc.  My weekends are now filled with laundry, errands, and wiping bums.

I love it.

You might not have expected that, right?  How could that be fun?  If not fun, it is incredibly fulfilling.  I have a job I love, a supportive husband, two beautiful girls, what more could I ask for?  Ok, maybe more sleep.

towel10 years ago, when I was struggling with the decision to go back to school or not, the lingering doubt in my mind was whether there would ever be a “good” time to have a family and would I be willing to make sacrifices in order to “have it all”.  Luckily, a good friend and colleague of mine had just finished her post-doc, was just starting her family, and wished she hadn’t waited, telling me that grad school was the most flexible time of her life.  I took her advice and experiences to heart and had my first daughter a few months after proposing my thesis research and my second just one month after defending that research.

In order to make it all work, I need support in every aspect of my life.  I need a husband that is willing to step in and assume some of my roles/duties when I need to go to work at midnight for growth curve media collection, and I need a boss that understands that daycare closes at 5:30 and I need to be out of here in time to pick up my littles.  It’s definitely a juggling act and one slip could cause everything to crash.  I live in a constant state of anxiety and guilt, feeling that I’m not living up to expectations.  But those expectations are only imposed by me.  If I stop to listen to the people around me, asking how I do it, it’s because we’re succeeding, somehow.

sleeping children

Somehow, my experiments get done.

Somehow, my children are clean, fed, and well behaved.

Somehow, my husband and I have 30 minutes each night to crash on the couch together and just catch our breath.

I tell myself, over and over, that all things are temporary and this crazy phase of life will soon pass…, only to be replaced by new kinds of crazy (think ballet lessons, grant deadlines, etc.).  But it’s working, and I have so much to be proud of.  So, while I may not be winning prestigious awards or getting nominated for Mommy-of-the-Year anytime soon, I am awarded with happy kids and a husband that love me, and slow-but-steady progression of research.

rosie

Also posted on my mummy blog at http://ticklebugz.blogspot.com/2013/01/juggling-act.html

Shiny and New

I’ve spent the last two weeks packing up a lab and then unpacking into our newly renovated space.  It is beautiful.

We have windows now.  Windows!

Work has been on hold until all the wrinkles associated with moving are ironed out, which translates nicely into our holiday break.  Working in academia definitely has its perks. 🙂

Soon, there will be scuff marks, lab tape residue, etc. but for now, it is just perfect.  Ahhhhh.

Our new space is full of green initiatives, like ambient light sensors that adjust according to how much light is coming in through the windows, smart thermostats, water saving fixtures, etc.  It was well worth the wait!