An autumn breeze flutters the paperwork on my desk: a credit card bill; a daily report from my son’s nursery (complete with meals, sleep times and nappy composition); a manuscript I’m proofing for a colleague – all held down by a paperweight commemorating the Silver Edition of Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry, swag from a long-ago microbiology conference expo.
The desk is a mess: spent candles, empty tea mugs, a ball-and-stick Cochrane’s of Oxford model of penicillin G I use to teach undergraduates. (The plastic straws making up the square lactam ring, I notice, are bent with the strain of being in a suboptimal conformation for so long. I can relate.) The blues hover just beyond rational perception, rather like the halo of silvery-white on the periphery of my new spectacles: easy to screen out but always present.
I find it difficult to understand why I am feeling so out of sorts about my scientific career. I tell myself that it’s the bad cold that’s laid me low. Or possibly an end-of-summer hangover, the logical shock of returning to reality after time off. I just finished my first fortnight back and had to deal with a grant deadline, a lab full of young researchers needing my guidance, and frantic preparation for a new term of teaching. And this, on top of the constant background hum of various administrative headaches familiar to any principle investigator – broken equipment, safety cabinet maintenance, staff contract issues, website updates, scheduling conflicts, BSc project proposals, committee tasks. Massive email chains copying in too many or the wrong people.
Perhaps most pressing, next week a new project I’m leading will officially kick off. Our goal is to bring a novel microcapsulated drug formulation through preclinical testing to a small clinical trial in patients with chronic urinary tract infection. This step is exciting, but also stressful: we are underwritten by angel investor funding and we are expected to deliver good return on their financial faith in our science. There will be tight budgets, non-negotiable milestones. After my experience in industry, I know the drill, but it will take some mental readjustments to throw off the more relaxed attitudes of academia for this portion of my time.
I think the stress would be easier to deal with if I had a better sense of job security, of my own worth. But at the moment, these elude me. I feel old, tired, uninspired and uninspiring; I move through the world, but I leave no mark.
All I can do is wait for the spell to pass.