Breaking up is hard to do

I have been busy lately. Busy times, life-wise and mind-wise. This past weekend, I would have had enough things to do to keep me entertained the whole time, but despite that I decided to go into a short trip. One big meeting was being held nearby and I knew my former PI and my former collaborator were attending to it – I decided it was a good opportunity to catch up. When I was in academia, my collaborator and I used to have weekly lab meetings through Skype. Before (and after) that we were always good friends, but after I left academia our conversations became scarce, and I miss her a lot.

Initially I was not attending to the meeting. I was only going to be there for one whole day, and the registration was far too expensive (I checked). But then the miracle of the multiplication of the badges happened and before I could notice there I was, in the conference. I attended to a couple of talks, what was very interesting at first, but brought me a certain feeling of nostalgia. In the end of the day, even though new data could bring me new ideas, I am not doing in academia anymore and those new ideas could never be put into practice.

Then I went to the poster session. There were only a couple of rows with posters about my previous research, so it was easy to go through all of them. I stopped by a poster that was being presented by a student. I listened to presentation, made comments, asked questions. By the end, the student tried to read my badge (that was strategically hidden) and asked where I was, what my research was about. I froze from a second, told her that I was not in academia anymore, but used to work with that topic. Mentioned the last paper I published as a first author and she immediately recognized it. Bittersweet feeling again, as she suggested a possible follow up to the paper.

While wandering around the poster session, I saw a lot of the researchers I knew there. They were all busy talking to poster presenters, and normally I’d just stay around, until I’d talk to them. Some of them saw me and waved. Some of them I didn’t really wanted them to see me. I started to feel extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t really understand what was going on at that moment, but I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Someone mentioned an interesting talk was going to happen after the poster session. The topic was delightful, and the speaker was an old friend of mine. But at some point I simply realized that this was not my life anymore, I had no reason for being there. That was part of my past, a past I left behind and that I don’t want to come back. So I just picked up my stuff and walked back to the hotel.

You know how they say that after you break up with someone, you need to meet that person again to see if you’re fully over it? That’s how it felt like. Two years ago I broke up with academia, ending a relationship of almost 20 years. It was tough in the beginning, but after a while you don’t think that much about your ex, and you end up forgetting your feelings about it. This past weekend I met my lover again. I realized that, although I still have feelings for it, breaking up was the right thing to do. But as every long term relationship breakup, it still hurts when you meet.

I feel stronger now. I feel I gave one more step leaving the past where it belongs and looking forward my future. Will we meet again? Certainly. But I know next time it will be different. A lot less painful. And easier.

PS> the lover break up analogy was probably used by several people before. But the first that comes to my mind is this post from Lenny Teytelman “Dear Academia, I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me.” It is worth a reading!

A different kind of Spring cleaning

This past week was a tough one for me. First, because I’ve got sick – some sort of nasty cold that prostrated me for a good couple of days. But also, because I had a very important conversation to my bosses on Thursday. During the past couple of months my sales haven’t been that good. I blamed it on the academic environment, lack of funding, etc – but was told other academic territories have been doing good, despite the funding crisis. As an independent contractor, I don’t have to reach quota on my sales, but I do receive a base salary, and a certain amount of sales is expected from me!

My bosses were beyond understandable. They could have fired me. They could have put me into straight commission. But they didn’t. They told me something was wrong and they wanted to help me fix it. I told them that if I knew what was wrong, I’d have already fixed it, because of course, I want to sell more (and make more money). They told me to talk to others, and reflect about what I may have been doing wrong and how to fix it.

Being sick, I’ve spent the last couple of days stuck at home. You know when you feel your life needs cleaning and organizing ,and you start by your house? So as I was feeling better today, I did A LOT of cleaning – and trashed tons of things around my house, specially in my office. As I was doing it, I also had time to reflect about life and do some sort of spring cleaning of the inside.

One of the main things I realized is that although I’m now on the other side of the sales process, I still feel like an insider. Meaning, I still care way too much about all the professors, and I still want THEM to get the best price, the best deal. When I close a sale, I’m happy, because of my paycheck, of course, but mainly because I know how much this means to them, and how happy they will be to have a nice instrument such as the ones I sale. My sales usually are not less than 50k, and can easily go to the six figures. So, I know it’s a big step, a big commitment.

But now I’ve got to change this. I need to care more about my sales, my numbers. One part of me is ready to take the pledge, and be a better salesperson ASAP. But can I? It might be possible that I’m just not good at this, and don’t have the right personality for it. When I was hired, I remember telling my (now) boss how I knew I could not be the car dealer type of person that would push anything to my customer. I was hired mainly because of my academic roots, and ironically it seems that this is what is preventing me to succeed in this career.

That brings me to the other point. Do I want to succeed in this career? When I left academia, I didn’t really leave, but was pushed away from it. I didn’t really have time to explore all the possibilities and this sales job was a nice surprise to be honest. I never saw myself doing something like that, but maybe because of my extroverted and social personality, maybe because I’m still somewhat related to science and academia – I ended up enjoying my new job. And that’s the key: I enjoy what I do, but I don’t LOVE what I do. Not the way I used to love when I was in academia.

Since last SFN I’ve been saying I want to get a job doing Science Outreach. I attended to the AAAS meeting last month and absolutely loved every second I’ve spent there, discussing how to make better science, more accessible, more reproducible, more open. That’s where my passion is, and that’s what I should pursue. I am more than ready to move on. It’s time to stop talking and start working towards it.

On giving up laziness for lent – #40LentPain

I grew up catholic. Although I don’t practice anymore, I still consider myself a “cafeteria catholic”, picking up only what works best for me. During many years, I’ve given up something for lent (alcohol, sweets…). Not for penance, but I still think no matter the reasons you choose to give up something, it is a good thing to reflect about your habits, realize what you might be overdoing and focus on making positive behavioral changes.

This past weekend I was at a Mardi Gras party and we started discussing. We came up with this idea, to give up laziness for lent and exercise during the 40 days! Many of us exercise regularly, but committing to do it every single day, including weekends, it’s a whole new level! That’s why I turned out to Twitter and asked for help.

So here’s the deal, overall we agreed to count either 15 minutes of strength training or 30 minutes of cardio as “exercise”. But if you joined, or decide to join, it is your challenge, and what you consider as exercise could be different. Regardless, peer-support reading the hashtag on Twitter always works for me. Personally, it is going to be tough. After my half-marathon I’ve got shin splints and was diagnosed with meralgia paresthetica. Not a big deal, it is not painful, but it is very annoying! It is a condition that gives you tingling and numbness in your thigh cause by nerve compression. Although the doctor does not know exactly why it happened, he doesn’t want me to run until we do further testing (in a month). I have all the sadz……

But one of the main possible reasons for this condition to happen is weight gain. I know I have been putting on weight over the last two years, so even though the doctor does not really believe this is the cause, it’s never a bad idea to try to improve your eating and exercise habits and lose some weight.

Thanks to all tweeps that joined the challenge! I’ve put together a Twitter list, and will follow the hashtag, for personal motivation and to show support. It is hard to give up habits, and it is even harder to build new ones. Here’s for a healthier and better US!

 

 

My first #AAASmtg: on Public Engagement

One of the big focus of the #AAASmtg was on Science Communication and Public Engagement. This is understandable and expected, due to the actual general distrust of science and when more than 70% of the population cannot name a single actual living scientist. How can they believe and trust something (or someone) that they cannot relate to?

But who are “they”? Who’s your audience? Saying just “the general public” is not enough, it is just too broad. Yes, you should speak in a language that is accessible to non-scientists, but you should also focus on your audience. You can reach people many ways – but in the end people listen to their peers, and we must be aware of this community engagement. That’s why it is important to think about the community engagement versus individual engagements! In order to do that, it is important to engage decision-makers. This requires a long-time engagement, partnership, and building trust. There are three different types of engagement: conventional (top down), thick (slow, better results, but hard to do), and thin (fast and easy). Thick and thin do complement each other – important to work on both!

Shut up and listen. Scientists are used to communicate their research through talks, in a monologue form. But communicating science should be a dialogue! You need to be able to communicate your research to laypeople and by the end answer the question “so what?”, giving details and directions. It is not that you have to abandon all your knowledge. (“Don’t be such a scientist” @sciencequiche). Don’t give up your expertise! After people understand you, they will value your expertise and there’s an increase of trust. Trust is the key word here, and this is a two-way street that can only be achieved if you stop just talking but start to listen as well!

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Most scientists agree that they should do Science outreach, and many believe they already do so. But data from a PEW RESEARCH study show that although scientists do engage with other citizens, they are less likely to talk to reporters, use social media, or write blogs. One of the main reasons is because all those engagements TAKE TIME, and time is precious in academia! But the big problem is that most scientists don’t see public engagements as something that can improve their career. Science outreach is not motivated by the institutions, and in many cases, discouraged. That’s why it is important to build a community on your institution, where science outreach is normal and accepted.

 

Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. This is not an easy task, as our research usually is so specialized and requires a lot of background knowledge to be fully explained and understood. Currently, science journalism is the major mean through which the public acknowledges scientific discoveries. Scientists usually do not like that, as there is an eternal battle between objectivity vs subjectivity (and there is a lot more about this that I won’t cover in this blog post, but let’s say that this relationship… is complicated!). But not all scientists work with research that will make the NYTimes. Those are only a few percentage of us, and it is important to share not only the big eureka moments, but the small bricks of basic science that eventually will build the wall of knowledge!

Overall, scientists should do more public engagement. But besides being aware of this and communicating your science with people around you, one should learn how to communicate it. Also, public engagement is not something a scientist do just because you “should” do it. We are passionate about our science, our research – it can be fun to pass this to the public. And the more you interact, the more you learn to communicate your science in a broader (and more reachable) language.

PS: This is the third post of my series “My first #AAASmtg”. Here are the links to previous posts about expectations and personal impressions.
PS 2: Further reading: “Science Communication to the General Public: Why We Need to Teach Undergraduate and Graduate Students this Skill as Part of Their Formal Scientific Training

My first #AAASmtg: post-meeting personal impressions

Someone on Twitter described the AAASmtg to me as “overwhelming”. I’ve thought nothing could be more overwhelming than attending to the Society for Neuroscience meeting and dealing with 30k people! Well, it turns it can. It’s not the size of the conference or the amount of people. There is just SO. MUCH. GOING. ON.

There are so many talks happening at the same time, (and such interesting talks) that is tough to choose which one to attend. But once you finally decide which session you’re going, the talks were so rich that really sparks your interest. Besides, loved how the speakers (usually 2-3) would give their take on the subject in about 20 minutes, leaving a really long time for questions and open discussion.

I am still thinking. I am still digesting. I am still choosing which topics I want to cover here on my blog. Planning to write a blog series covering some of the topics discussed and my opinion about them. If you want to have a taste of all sessions I’ve attended, you can check the Storify I’ve created with my tweets and RT from the conference. But for now I am going to talk about my personal experience during the meeting, which was quite remarkable!

One of the first things I realized when I’ve got to the meeting was that your badge has your name and supposedly your institution’s name immediately under it. I left mine blank when I registered, simply because I’m not linked to any academic institution any more, and the name of my company wouldn’t matter less in this context. But of course I added my Twitter handle to my badge (keep wondering why the conference doesn’t add it already?!?)

After a couple of interactions, I wished my real name wasn’t on my badge. As I heard on a TED podcast today, “When we go online, we present a digital version of ourselves”. It turns that although I tend to be very truthful and honest on Twitter, my IRL and my Twitter persona live totally different lives, with totally different goals. The persona that attended to #AAASmtg was not the neuroscientist that turned into a sales person, but my digital version, the passionate scientist that loves to advocate and discuss Science. It felt liberating to introduce myself mainly by my Twitter handle, one because it is so much easier for people to say it than my real name, and also because I’ve heard many times “oh, I follow you on Twitter!” 🙂

But I needed a label. A short description for when I didn’t have enough time to tell my whole story. So I started telling people that I was a “SciComm enthusiastic”. It worked, and I like the sound of it. Not sure if it’s the right one for me, but it was the best I could find (I should have thought about this ahead of time…). I believe my Twitter voice, our DiversityJC, and our RecoveringAcademic podcast are all forms of SciComm. But not only! A big part of me loves to discuss and advocate for Science, in all aspects. How can we increase federal funding for research? How can we fight the publish or perish culture? How can we deal with the reproducibility crises that it’s going on?

In a way those (and many other) concerns were addressed during the #AAASmtg. But I feel that now is the time to think and digest all discussions and put them into action! Unfortunately most of them don’t depend only on ourselves. But acknowledging and discussing the problems and concerns is a big step into figuring out how to address them. Until I find a way where I can actively work towards this, I’ll use my voice. My words. My passion. Let’s keep trying to find where and how I can keep serving for the common good… of SCIENCE!

 

 

Before you do problem solving you have to do problem finding


Earlier this week, I’ve listened to the last episode of the NPR Hidden Brain podcast: How Silicon Valley Can Help You Get Unstuck (Thanks Ian, for the suggestion!). It is a really good one, and you should listen when you have some time. I could totally relate to the first story of the podcast, about a young woman that suddenly realized she wasn’t the person she wanted to be. I believe this have happened to me recently, after the SFN meeting, and I wrote about it here. As the woman from the podcast, I still don’t know exactly what I want to be, but I’m sure that the ideal version of me is out there, and I just have to find her.

Everybody feels stuck at some point. And most of the time, people don’t really know where they want to go, to begin with. People complain that they don’t know what to do with their lives, and they want to find the right pathway (that is already there, and we just need to find it). What people usually don’t realize is that there’s not only one right destination, there are many. In the podcast, Dave Evans, a former product designer from Apple describe design thinking. According to Google, design thinking “refers to creative strategies designers utilize during the process of designing”. However, this can be applied to our lives as well. There isn’t just one life, or one career, for any of us. So what we need to do is create several prototypes – create three completely different variations of your life, try some different things, and finally choose the one you WANT to be.

I see many people posting their New Year’s resolutions for 2017. I never do that. I don’t really believe that a new year will begin and I can magically turn into a new person. I am more of a person that suddenly decides things need to change, and just do it. It may take a long time to get to that point, but it doesn’t have to come with a new year, or a Monday. For example, it took me years to decide to quit smoking, and I finally did it on December 26th, 2013. Four days before the new year, and on a Friday! Anyways, I decided to try this prototype design of my life, and here are my three possible pathways for me:

  1. Continue working in Biotech Sales: Let’s be fair. I am far from unhappy with my work. After one year and a half, I feel much more comfortable doing it. I’ve become better at dealing with my customers and I’m already making more money that I was doing as a postdoc. I like the idea of doing a job that is based on creating relationships. As an extreme social person, I love being the hub connecting all teams from my company to the customer. But working home by myself is still a challenge. I wished I could travel to do more visits. Maybe I can try to work on that. Also, I’d like to move into a more administrative position, where I could manage promotions and strategies specifically to the academic environment. I know how both worlds work and I fell I could help make them interact better.
  2. Science Outreach: In the last months, I’ve been spending more and more time doing side projects on the internet. Running our #DiversityJC and #RecoveringAcademic podcast is very exciting, but also, very time-consuming. But I do it, simply because I love doing them. I love the idea to advocate, to help. I also love Science very much. My ideal Science Outreach job would be one where I would need to deal with lots of people, organize events, travel to many conferences, and advocate for Science. Is there a job like that? I am not sure, need to do some research about it.
  3. Come back to academia: About six months ago, my former PI approached me asking for help to write a new R21 grant. As a mathematician, he wanted the view of a neuroscientist on it. We did it, and we are waiting for the review. It took much longer that I thought it would, but it felt good to read neuroscience articles and think! Coming back to academia as a full time researcher is not my ideal plan, but I miss the Science aspect of it, the scientific thinking. I believe if I could do it as a side project, either with option number 1 or 2, I’d take it.

Actually it turns out it was tough to choose only three pathways! I’ve thought about many, many more. My favorite one so far is option number 2. But still very vague. Maybe I need to turn it into three different sub-options? I may do that in a later post, stay tuned!

Disclosure: I don’t have my shit together (yet?)

Just left #sfn16 and as always it was lovely to have the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. This was my 14th SFN meeting, and the second I attended after I left academia. I still get a lot of “how are you enjoying your new job”, but this year I heard from more than one person that I seem happy. And lighter.

And they are right. I am happy, but overall, I am a happy person and I do my best to adapt to new situations. And I was particularly happy to have this break from all the election’s anxiety. But during this meeting, a couple of people reached to me looking for advice, comfort, or to discuss leaving academia. Met a few listeners from our #RecoveringAcademic podcast and that was great! It is really rewarding to see that we are making a contribution to the field, and to those academics that are struggling to find a direction to go.

But that made me think: Who am I to give advice to those people? I’ve been there before, so I can share my experience, my history (and I’m happy to do so). But part of me feels like I don’t have my shit together (yet?) and make me feel like an impostor. Last week after the election results I’ve spent a good time looking for jobs abroad. After giving some thought, I realized I shouldn’t leave and give up everything I fought hard to get. I’ve been in the US for 9 years, and despite being extremely sad, disappointed, and afraid – running away is not the best option. Attending to SFN was a bittersweet experience. This year I tried to do more networking related to my actual job, but still had my itinerary filled with posters from my past research. When I’m there in the middle of a poster session from the topic I’ve worked from 20 years, I just can’t avoid feeling a bit nostalgic. Also, another part of me feels pathetic for still wanting to attend to those meetings, as if this is a frivolous attempt to hold to a life that’s not mine anymore. I am happy with my job. But I also miss neuroscience and everything that is involved with that.

Now I traveled to one of my company’s training and the anxiety of having to face my (mostly) republican co-workers is killing me. I’ve thought about giving an excuse and not attending. But I have to be professional, I have to attend, and I will have to work hard on my poker face during this meeting. It’s not going to be easy, and part of me feels it’s going to be a real test to see if I can keep going on this path or if I should made this a layover towards something else. Let’s see.