Withdrawal Symptoms

As a new PI what advice is likely to be of assistance? Eight of us old hands were recently asked by the THE to write some words of wisdom, which newly-minted PI’s may or may not have found useful. Their tenor varied. There was ‘Don’t worry: we are all just making it up as we go along’ from Cambridge colleague Ottoline Leyser – which sounds quite encouraging. Alternatively, readers were told ‘Conflict within the lab will be a given, and you should read up on interest-based conflict resolution’ from US-based Kathy Barker, which I found slightly terrifying and not particularly close to my own experience.  And, I should add, I have never read up on conflict resolution, interest-based or otherwise. Perhaps I should have done. I did once attend a university staff development course on ‘Dealing with Difficult People’ which I found entirely useless and when I asked the course leader privately for some specific advice I was told that there are simply some people you will never be able to work with.

However, what struck me about these eight brief articles was that none of us discussed what we had felt as we moved on to leading our own group – other than a couple of contributors referring to angst (I think you can take that feeling as read). There is an awkward period of transition when you move from being an expert in your own, personal hands-on research to the person who gets stuck in the office and who is meant to know the answers to other people’s problems. I well remember the transition and my overwhelming feeling was of withdrawal symptoms. I missed doing my own thing, the joy of doing experiments and seeing my ideas blossom – or indeed bite the dust.

There was an interregnum, a period of a year or two when I still tried to fit in experiments in the gaps between lecturing (and writing lectures), thinking about – and penning – research proposals, trying to set up a functioning laboratory with the necessary equipment, talking to students and postdocs (and prospective students and interviewing postdocs), and all those other things that you don’t factor in when you land your first independent position but which eat up your time. I used to try to sneak into the lab for an hour or two….but an hour or two, for most sorts of experiments, just isn’t sufficient. Preparation of samples, for instance, might require a whole day of different steps which have to be fitted into that time-frame, not a series of two hour stints several days apart. Aligning the electron microscope might itself devour a large part of the time available before you ever get to look expectantly at your new specimen.

Above all I missed the excitement that looking at my new samples yielded and the feeling that something, anything, might be just around the corner which would illuminate and elucidate my thoughts. The work I had been doing at that time of transition involved looking at the deformation of thin polymer films in the electron microscope and the effect of different processing conditions on the structure within liquid crystalline polymers by light and electron microscopy. Progress depended on being familiar with the different possible textures and structures and hence required experience and what I always thought of as the skill of ‘pattern recognition’. Above all, it required a knowledge of the umpteen different kinds of artefact that could be introduced: by electron beam damage, by mishandling the sample or by misusing the microscope.

And then suddenly I wasn’t able to satisfy my own curiosity; I found myself having to attempt to get the same excitement from looking at someone else’s micrographs and to work out, from what they told me, whether or not I believed that what they were showing me was real and not just the product of yet another kind of meaningless glitch in preparation or handling. It simply didn’t fulfill me in the same way.

Of course in time you move on, the loss of the first person thrill fades and you get used to living your research through someone else’s hands. In time you learn how to quiz the students about their procedures so that time is not wasted on the worthless artefactual (even if beautiful) side-tracks The frustration that something that would have taken you an afternoon takes them a fortnight and it’s still not quite right begins to fade. At a later point the equipment will have changed so radically that you aren’t even capable of doing the experiment anyhow, and are regarded merely as a nuisance and possibly a danger if you stray into the laboratory. (Of course not all PIs completely stop doing hands-on stuff, different disciplines will make it easier or harder to keep your hand in. One of my professors even required me to (re)teach him sample preparation so he could do some consultancy work at the weekend.)

It is a sad fact that people get promoted to PI in large part because of their own first person skills in research, and then they have to stop working that way. Instead they are supposed to acquire a completely new set of skills, often with little training or even advice (points that the THE writers make clearly). Angst, panic and incompetence may all unfortunately ensue. A decent organisation should be able to rectify the lack of training, mentors and sponsors should supply advice to aid the unwary make the transition to full independence, but I am not sure there is any simple answer to the withdrawal symptoms I’m describing here. Instead, all the newly-crowned PI can do is to attempt to impart their own wisdom and experimental green fingers to the novices in their care. It isn’t the same, but in time it is possible to find a new enjoyment in watching the next generation flower and flourish. The memories of making personal discoveries down the microscope (NMR/ PCR/ Mass Spec/… insert instrument of choice) wither over time. The assistance offered to those who pass through the research team should not.

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Freeing the Brain

I’ve been away for the past week somewhere where I really could escape my email. (My previous post about whether one should read email on holiday was written with feeling!) When I go away I particularly like to go somewhere with water, frequently close to the sea. This year I had the pleasure of staying in a cottage overlooking the River Wye. I could sit in the sitting room watching the water go by from a height of around 30 feet above the river. It was a very strange sensation looking out at the trees in front of me but not looking at ground level (see photo). Temporarily I was confused; it was like sitting up in the treetop canopy, observing pigeons and tits at eye level. It felt quite bizarre.

Wye in Hay copy

But to return to the water. Why Is watching water so soothing? I have known how much the sight of shape-shifting, moving water means to me ever since I worked in the Lake District during my gap year. I well recall sitting, watching – for long periods – a mountain stream tumble down, feeling relaxed by the sight of the ever-changing torrent. The constant fluctuations of the water make up something always fresh and new and hence a renewal (bringing hope and revitalisation perhaps, that can accompany renewal). Something both restful to the soul yet turbulent in itself. The flames in an old-fashioned coal fire must have had a similar hypnotic effect, producing Rorschach Test-like shapes for the mind to ponder or simply setting the brain free from its usual trammels.

In a lively river there is always something different to catch the eye, yet one doesn’t have to think about the meaning of any of it (unless one wants, but personally I try to keep fluid dynamics and a physicist’s brain out of it). I think this is why it is possible to watch indefinitely whilst leaving the mind at liberty to roam where it will, email-free.  I believe such a wandering mind enables the tangles of an academic year to sort themselves out a little. Battles, alliances and misalliances can be sorted through and put in the proper pigeonholes without the pressure of proximity to burden the process. The imagination can run riot to freshen ideas for future grants or collaborations. Such sifting is a great way of clearing the brain for the year ahead. People may say that this is what dreams are for but I have never found them in the least bit helpful, or even generally obviously relevant (anxiety-dreams apart). On the contrary if they are genuinely telling me about my subconscious ramblings then they would seem to imply some disturbing directions of travel. I certainly don’t wake thinking that now I have organised my brain.

On this occasion just to be able to watch the rippling river flow past below me – even if double glazing meant I couldn’t hear its pleasing splash – meant that I could relax enough in an easy, mindless way. The pleasure was enhanced by the occasional glimpse of a blue streak of kingfisher flying past; or the sight of it perched on the far bank in the branches of a willow whilst myself still perched on my comfortable sofa. (The downside of having seen it sitting there once, however, was that I was constantly picking up my binoculars to look for it again.)

I come back I trust with muscles well exercised from hill walks as well as well as a brain rested by my river-watching. The new academic year beckons with its myriad new challenges. I hope, like the river patterns, I return revitalised.

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Failure in Real Life

Before my university term starts, I have two dates towards the end of September to talk to young women. One of these is directed at girls of school age, the other women at PhD level, to try to encourage them that science and women mix perfectly well and careers in science may be satisfying and fruitful (note, I don’t just mean academic science either). Inevitably this leads me to reflect on how to portray my ‘life story’. I wrote about this challenge before, since I find it hard to strike a happy medium between talking about all the things that have gone wrong and the wish to encourage others that things are not impossible.

Reading Stuart Firestein’s recent book ‘Failure’ has given me a new way of considering this problem. Firestein is considering the important question provided in his sub-title ‘Why Science is so Successful’. In it he explores a host of knotty topics, including why the way we teach the Scientific Method is likely to put many children off science for ever and why we should have a better repository of the outcomes of unsuccessful experiments. It is a provocative though fairly light read, and it is probably even more important that it should be read by non-scientists than by those practicing scientists who implicitly should know the stuff anyhow (though may not be conscious of all of it).

So what has failure in science got to do with my life story? The chapter on ‘The arc of failure’ neatly points out what is wrong with the Whiggish, teleological so-familiar narrative of  great man has a great idea, leaps out of the bath shrieking Eureka and the world is forever changed (I paraphrase the much more elegant prose Firestein actually uses). He feels that the accurate portrayal of how science progresses is not well-served by such a narrative: it is simply not the reality of how science gets done. Reality is much more about years of perseverance and a lot of dead-ends before something notable happens, which may, rarely, be transformational in the field (or at least result in a publication). Reality is about a lot of experiments which quite simply don’t work and, as he says, the reasons for failure make up much of what is interesting in science.

Life stories are similar in their trajectory. Everyone, at whatever level, will have experienced the misery of having had their most cherished idea, written into a grant proposal and submitted with cheerful anticipation of a happy outcome, end up being trashed by some risk-averse committee. No one I know, however successful, has failed to find themselves charging down a dead end from time to time, or seen a desirable target snatched away from them. And no one has always known precisely where they’re heading, with each staging post on the way mapped out and successfully and successively ticked off. The arc of life is just another version of the arc of failure Firestein describes.

I have always illustrated my career with examples of these dead ends, because I think it matters. I make it clear that I did not start off aiming for where I’ve ended up, and there were some notably bad decisions en route. Maybe I should stress this more. Additionally, most of these were my decisions, not things done to me by others out to trip up the unwary female.  I do not want young women to assume that life is designed to be hard for them in science, even if unfortunately still too often that may turn out to be the case. As the recent coverage of the CV of failures made plain, many people have many setbacks and it doesn’t have to mean THE END.

But, as in my recent post on resilience, I also think it is important to recognize that one bad decision does not necessarily mean the end of one’s dreams (although of course it might), nor that if things go wrong it means that it is impossible to pick oneself up and start again – be it in the same direction or another. I suspect at 16 being told that your life is going to be an ‘arc of failure’ might not convey a palatable, let alone encouraging message, however true it may be. So, while seeing the parallels between Firestein’s description of how science is done and the reality of the scientist’s life, I suspect a little more optimism may be required for the latter. Exactly how much negativity one can allow to creep in may depend on the age of the audience: the older the audience is, I would hope the more robust, so that although cynicism may increase I would also hope so would the knowledge that if you’ve failed once it doesn’t mean you’ll always fail.

So, armed with the insight Firestein’s book has given me, I will consider again how to balance the ups and downs of my life in each of my forthcoming talks. I will consider the extent to which I can be encouraging as I dissect those mistaken decisions and the times I got snubbed, rejected and otherwise knocked back. No doubt this, like the rest of life, will give me an opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

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Flexible Working or Never Switched Off?

A number of years ago I noticed that the secretary to the committee I was chairing was regularly sending me emails late at night. Concerned the organisation was overloading the woman so that she could only catch up by working 10 or 12 hour days, I inquired gently what was going on. ‘It’s my choice’, she said, ‘I like having time at the end of the school day to be with my children so I make up the hours by doing email late at night from home. I’m not being overworked.’ I was reassured in this case. Nevertheless, creeping hours of work can (and often do) affect many of us.

It is hard to know when flexible working ceases and never switching-off starts. I no longer have children at home to worry about, but I still like the flexibility academic life offers: flexibility to go shopping not at a weekend or over lunch, or to stick a visit to my mother (or now my mother’s emptying house) on the end of a London morning meeting. Flexibility not to feel guilty for doing so. Then when I work at the weekend or during the evening I think nothing of it. I’m not counting the hours. For me, that works fine. I’d like to think other people similarly choose to work to suit their own lives but realise this is an impossible luxury for many.

However maybe my expectations aren’t always so clear. As a leader perhaps I am conveying the wrong message by emailing at times to suit me. This was brought home to me when, after returning from a trip away and trying to clear my email in the evening, I fired off an email while things were fresh in my mind. It wasn’t urgent; the need for a reply was not pressing. Imagine my embarrassment when I got up the next morning to find the recipient sending me a reply at 0730 apologising for the delay. No, I thought, that wasn’t necessary. I replied and pointed out that, just because I chose to work at night, I had no expectation others would or should. However, that may not be sufficient to reassure junior colleagues – and I certainly don’t automatically put such a health warning on every message sent outside core hours. Nevertheless, I believe ‘forbidding’ out of hours emails will make things harder for those who want to tailor their own hours of work to suit their circumstances, at least as much as ease the burden who those who feel a pressure to be forever online.

Holiday provides another decision minefield. Your thought might be ‘I’m just keeping an eye on things’; or perhaps ‘the world will grind to a halt if I don’t know what’s happening and respond even though I’m meant to be totally relaxing and forgetting the cares of work’; or (the old-fashioned form that I suspect fewer and fewer of us adopt) ‘I’m on holiday; I don’t want to know’. It used to be the norm for people to vanish for a few weeks over the summer and, when communication was via snailmail or landline, that was that. These days this view may be commoner in Poppleton University than in any real institution. Perhaps your working world can carry on fine if you genuinely forget work for a week (or two), but expectations of rapid turn-around of correspondence are higher than they used to be. For me, the question is whether it is better to know what is being stored up against your return and know that it’s not so bad, or to spend a week resolutely not checking the inbox but still worrying about what’s unknowingly arriving. Now I have a PA who keeps an eye on things in my absence, I can rely on her to text me if there’s something I really do need to know (possibly even act upon) which can take the pressure off the sneaky peeking at the inbox. Nevertheless, the real drawback is if you peek and then find that there is a major disaster looming, a situation I am glad to say has not yet hit me.

Email is a fantastic boon and simultaneously a nightmare incubus/succubus (I am unsure of the gender of email!). It sucks life out of our free time, means we are in danger of never switching off, and yet also means that when a swift response is needed, the means is there to achieve it. One only has to read depressing nineteenth century novels, especially those pre-dating the telegraph, to realise the extent of misery caused by the absence of rapid means of contact. Your son might be lying in a wretched state, critically injured in the Crimea, but the turn-around of weeks first to hear the sad news, and then the necessity of relying on boat to take you back to watch him potentially breath his last must have added immeasurably to the pain of loss. Now email/text and aeroplane (not to mention modern healthcare) would lead to a totally different story.

I come down on the side of thinking out of hours working to fit in with the other elements of personal life is a plus. I like the freedom to choose my modus operandi of examining my inbox and hope recipients of my messages understand that I appreciate others may not choose the same way of life. However, holidays…..for me personally the jury is still out as to the optimum way of proceeding.

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Why Didn’t I Become a Biologist?

The question in the title is not a rhetorical question. I find it strange when I look back at my early years, why I ended up so convinced I wanted to be a physicist, particularly as there was no family member who could conceivably have talked to me about the joys of physical science.  As I sort through the contents of my late mother’s house, everything points to the fact that I should have become a biologist of some sort. Yet I was never tempted.  I can laughingly say my biology teacher put me off because she terrified me – which she did, being a fierce, smart and independent woman of the ‘old school’, whereas I had an excellent and kind physics teacher . Nevertheless the reality is that by the time I started biology lessons I had already made my decision: we started separate physics and chemistry lessons in (what would now be called) Y8, but biology not for at least another year and I had internally already chosen.

At primary school, from around 8 years old I fell in love with ornithology. My mother, also bitten with the same bug, would take me off to Hampstead Heath after school and at weekends to see what we could find. The answer was usually quite a lot, a much more diverse set of birds than would typically turn up in an urban garden. Birds such as snipe and wheatears could be spotted at appropriate times of year, birds not likely to be found on your bird-table, or even spotted skulking at the bottom of any wild garden spots in London.

Systematically we recorded these birds. I have always remembered this, but it was brought once more into sharp focus finding the files and notebooks my mother and I (with a little help from my sister) laboriously compiled, now that I am sorting through her house. From 1962 on, for around 10 years, there are neat accounts year on year: the recordings of the first swallow or chiffchaff in spring, or the passage of skylarks overhead on a bright, clear winter’s day. It is chastening to think magpies were then sufficiently rare (!) that every single one we saw was meticulously recorded. Birds now rare to non-existent in this country – red backed shrike, pied flycatcher – are also captured in these files, noted down on the few occasions we came across them.  Also intriguing are the absences: for instance, not a single cormorant, now regularly to be found on the ponds on the Heath. No doubt there are plenty of similar London record books, but now I’ve found them again and dusted them down (and they certainly needed dusting) I don’t feel I can just toss them out.

I also found my primary school ‘project’ book, intended to be written on a topic of light relief at the end of my last school year. Inevitably it describes the birds I’d seen on the Heath, illustrated in my childish and incompetent hand. And, perhaps most strangely of all, I’ve come across a handsome tome ‘Birds in Britain’  by Kenneth Richmond, published in 1962 and bought by me, as my childish script inside the cover shows, with a Christmas book token (that early predecessor of an Amazon voucher)at the end of that year. I suspect I never read the book. Reading it now – and it turns out to be a wonderful book, written in flowing prose, describing the habits and habitats of just about every UK bird then to be found within these shores – I cannot imagine I could possibly have comprehended it let alone enjoyed it at the time. I was 9!

Take these sentences describing a duck unlikely to grace the ponds of Hampstead Heath but one I well recall from holidays in Scotland at the time:

Solid as a barge, stolid in temperament, the Eider is designed for a life full of hard knocks. Imperturbable in the heaviest swell, it rides out the worst storms with negligent ease, sleeping on reefs until they are awash, sliding off into its element, the white boil of surf at the foot of the cliffs.

A wonderful if slightly anthropomorphic description. Did it set my pre-teen heart racing, or did I just like possessing the handsome book as a means of conveying that gravitas I completely lacked? Or was I merely desperate to look grown-up when set loose in a book shop with no idea what I wanted to buy (and I do recall Christmas book-token-spending as being a dreadfully difficult task, full of indecision and anxiety I’d get it wrong: it was such a rare thing to buy a book new, rather than rely on the books already in the house or temporarily imported from the library, the latter full of warnings about not bringing books back if anyone in the house was in quarantine!)

As a practicing scientist I am also amused by the author’s irritation with academic attitudes:

Nowadays even the simplest article submitted to the editors of ornithological journals has to be laid out on the lines of a learned paper, couched in the contemporary jargon and studded with references.

Plus ça change.

So, by the age of 9 or 10 I was a clear systematiser, used to recording events (if not experiments) and with an absolute fascination with the natural world. Yet a mere two or three years later, I was absolutely clear I wanted to be a physicist. I wasn’t thinking of careers – financially rewarding or otherwise – in making that choice. I wasn’t thinking that as a female physicist I could stand out in a crowd much better than as a biologist or that I wanted to be a rarity like a red-backed shrike. Of course not. I wasn’t thinking of a career at all, I was merely following my nose. Yet never did I feel the slightest temptation to study biology for any longer than I absolutely had to, which was probably only about one year before I chose my O levels and dropped it like a hot potato.

Do I regret this? Not really. For all my physics research has steadily moved towards the biological realm over the last 30 years, the biology my generation was taught was simply systematising, labelling, recalling the names of obscure parts of plant and animal anatomy. It simply didn’t appeal. I recall I really felt I had hit the pits when we did an experiment to find out which side of a leaf gave out more water vapour, although why that specific investigation caused me such ire I can no longer reconstruct. The other biology experiment I recall, although it is one that caused me embarrassment rather than ire, involved Fehling’s Solution A and B and a potato. Maybe this could be thought of as an early introduction to experiments on starch, which formed so much a part of my research life from the 1980’s onwards, but it sticks in my mind due to the vigour with which the complex in the test tube shot out of the tube across the lab during overheating and the unsurprising consequent irritation of the teacher. Then, as through so much of my later career, I was a clumsy experimenter.

So, now forced to confront these different manifestations of my early days as a twitcher, reminded how much time and effort I put into ornithology (tick-lists from numerous coach trips to the best birding haunts within a 75 mile radius of London testify to the time commitment I put in) and the fun I got out of it, I am still left pondering why physics grabbed me. Asked, as I so often am, what inspired me to go into physics I simply have no convincing answer. It wasn’t a study of the night sky, or men landing on the moon; nor was it linked to Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech.  I liked it and it made sense to me. It was as simple as that.

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