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!

Decisions, productivity, and the power of habits

I thought it was just me, but it really seems that no one likes to make decisions. I’ve just listened to the Ted Radio Hour podcast episode called “Decisions, decisions, decisions” from March 10th. In this episode, they discuss a lot how making decisions is hard, and not only big decisions – but also small decisions like what to eat for breakfast (or what spaghetti sauce to buy!). But more importantly, they discuss how most people simply do not make a decision unless they are “forced to”. The example they cite is how organ donation varies among several countries in Europe. It turns that the “decision” to be an organ donor has little to do with consciousness – but with the fact that in some countries the DMV has an option “check this box if you want to be an organ donor” versus “check this box if you DO NOT want to be an organ donor” when you apply for your driver’s license.

This past week I also started listening to the Advanced Selling Podcast. Of course, they cover a lot of specific selling tips and advices, but they spend a lot of episodes discussing productivity. Knowing where and when you should spend your time and energy. Learning how to differentiate something that will turn into a sale from others that will just waste your time. After taking a critical look at my current prospects, I realized how I was spending a lot of time (and energy) in opportunities that definitely were not going to turn into real business any time soon. Although this was put through the specific goal of selling your product, I believe this can be transferred to other careers, and even to other aspects of your life!

At first, these two topics may seem unrelated. You might ask, what decisions have to do with productivity? That brings me to a third interesting thing that I’ve started doing this week. I was invited by TheNewishPI and Veronika Cheplygina to join an Habitica group. I am still a newbie in the “game” and trying to figure things out, but basically this is an online task management application. You add your habits, daily goals, and to dos – and receive bonus and rewards for completing them. It may seem silly, but it seems to be working for me! There’s the reward component of gaining (virtual) gold medals and going to a new level. But also, and more importantly in my opinion, because it prevents you from making decisions!

I’ll explain. We all have habits we want to keep. Eat healthy. Exercise. Read more. Several, many more. Or others! But whenever it comes to the point where you are going to perform those habits, there are always two or more options. Should I eat salad for dinner or just pick up some junk food on my way back home? Should I stop by the gym or head to the bar for a beer? Sometimes you make the *right* decision and avoid the fries and the beer – or you go to the bar AFTER you’ve exercised 😉 But my point is, if you have previously decided what habits or tasks you want to achieve, it is just like the European DMV form – the default option is your desired one, and you don’t have to think about it! Does this make any sense?

One example I can bring from my life has to do with running and exercising. I’re recently run a half-marathon and believe me, I am no professional runner. Overweight and in my 40s, it took careful planning. I researched online, I talked to many other runners – and I finally came up with an excel sheet with a training plan for about 2 months or so, with activity, mileage, and intensity. Of course there were some hiccups, but in general I was able to follow it pretty closely. Even if I was tired or not feeling like it, it was in my schedule, and I didn’t really think about it, I’d just go and do it. Now that I’m not training for any competition I spend way too much time deciding if I’m going for a walk, a run, or to the gym. Meh, I’m too tired and have too much to do, so I’ll just skip it for today.

So here is my take home message: set up your personal habits and goals in a way that prevents you from having to take a decision on a daily basis. Set up your desired goal as your default option, and you’ll have to think and actually check that little box, deciding NOT TO do it. Realizing this has been working for me so far, and I hope it does for you too!

 

Paciência (Patience)

Mesmo quando tudo pede
um pouco mais de calma
até quando o corpo pede
um pouco mais de alma
A vida nāo pára…Enquanto o tempo acelera
e pede pressa
Eu me recuso, faço hora,
vou na valsa
A vida é tão rara…Enquanto todo mundo
espera a cura do mal
E a loucura finge
que isso tudo é normal
Eu finjo ter paciência…

O mundo vai girando,
cada vez mais veloz
A gente espera do mundo,
e o mundo espera de nós
Um pouco mais de paciência…

Será que é tempo que lhe falta para perceber?
Será que temos esse tempo para perder?
E quem quer saber?
A vida é tão rara
Tão rara…

Even when everything asks
for a little more calmness
Even when the body requires
a little more soul
life does not stop…While time speeds up
and asks to hurry
I refuse, take my time
and slow down as a waltz
life is so precious…While everybody expects
the cure for evil,
and madness pretends
that everything is normal
I pretend to be patient…

And the world goes around
even faster
We expect from the world
and the world expects from us
a little more patience…

Do we lack time to realize it?

Do we have this time to waste?

And who wants to know?
Life is so precious…
So precious…

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.

My first #AAASmtg: on Reproducibility and Open Access

At first I was planning to write two separate posts on each one of those issues. Reproducibility and Open Access were extensively discussed during the #AAASmtg, and even if I wanted it would be impossible to share all with you. Also, they were discussed in totally separated sessions, and they apparently are two totally separate issues, I can’t help to see them as two big problems mainly caused by our system.

Yes, reproducibility is a real problem. According to a Nature’s survey, more than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.There has been a scary big number of published articles being retracted due to reproducibility problems. Not only experiments can give us different results when repeated, but sometimes the same data can be interpreted differently among researchers. The attempt to replicate key cancer studies with the “Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology” is bringing more questions than answers.

Yes, science should be open and accessible to all. Most scientific research is funded by federal grants, which is supported largely by our taxes. It is logically expected to be open to the public that is actually paying for it. Open Access brings more transparency to research and can also stimulate curiosity and interest – bringing more attention to science! Openness not only regarding published articles, but also Open Data – where other researchers can access, analyze, and collaborate.

But both reproducibility and open access fall under the problem of how our system works.

Scientists are mainly judged by the number of publications, and the impact factor of the journals where they publish. One of the main requirements for publication of a scientific article is NOVELTY. Neither replication nor negative studies are encouraged to be published. Even though I totally agree when Jessica Polka said at the #AAASmtg that “We need a culture where people read papers and not the name of the journal”, unfortunately both funding and hiring committees still care about journal titles and metrics when judging scientist’s achievements.

The “publish or perish” culture not only incentive publishing unreliable data, but also decreases the quality of science. Tight funding and the increasing competition may encourage falsehood and misconduct in academia. Probably not deliberately, but who has time (and money) to repeat that experiment with those two outliers? There is a lot of cherry-picking and p-hacking that can be easily performed by the analyzer. If you don’t believe me, you should try Nate Silver’s example of how to Hack Your Way To Scientific Glory.

Landing an academic job, getting funding, and publishing science is tough business! As professor Sydney Brenner points out in this interview:

Even God wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments (creating the universe), but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently?  And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal (The Bible).

 

Who’s to blame? Open Access defenders blame publishers. Publishers blame academics. Academics blame funding agencies. Potential solutions? Besides a cultural change in the system, where science would be more important than metrics, reproducibility and negative results should be supported and encouraged. Some publishers are contributing to this, as Nature published a manifesto for reproducible science and Elsevier creating developing a new article type especially for replication studies.  A new kind of paper combining the flexibility of basic research with the rigour of clinical trials was recently proposed by some researchers. Data sharing and the recent incentive to use preprints in biological science can also help with this, as data and research drafts are open to other researchers feedback, and possible problems with replications.

The scientific world is paying more attention to quality of research, replication, data analysis. Change seems to be coming. Hopefully funders, publishers, and hiring committees will change along as well.

PS: This is my fourth post within the series of “My first #AAASmtg”. Previous posts include expectationspersonal impressions, and public engagement.

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!

screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-8-47-42-pm

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