Life on planet Academia

Why are dingleberries brown? That’s just the way shit is.

– Sgt Abraham Ford

Find what you love and let it kill you.. are these really the words to live by? Ever since I was little I was a hopeless nerd obsessing over minutiae of anything that science teachers threw at me – equations, leaf venation classifications, atomic orbitals. Choosing my PhD topic took many years of scientific maturation and every day I get excited (overwhelmed?) by the amount of unanswered questions in the field.

As a stubborn and relentlessly persistent nerd I have always followed my passion. The best decision I have made in life by far was ignoring family pleas to study a less obscure topic; I love my field and shrug at the thought of doing something I don’t enjoy for a living. Today, however, I find myself at crossroads. I always thought that talent nurtured by hard work were the ultimate formula for success but each day academia reminds me how naive I am to think that we get what we deserve.

People don’t get what they deserve. They just get what they get.

Dr Gregory House

I am not the first or the last person saying that the current culture measuring scientific impact in academia is flawed. Today becoming a PI is a lot like winning MegaMillions lottery – so much of our hard work depends on pure luck. And for the first time in my life I feel like I don’t have a plan to overcome these odds.

Existentially yours,

AM

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Tribute

Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in our hearts.
― A.A. Milne

Whoever said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend has never owned a ferret. The little catsnake noodle can turn the worst day around with its playful dooking and is a remedy for all sorrows. It is with a heavy heart that I must say goodbye to the sweetest and gentlest little soul that I have had a privilege to have in my care and which has sadly passed away last night.

I choose to see the universe, life and death through the lens of science in which chaos is the ultimate equilibrium. Eventually everything will transition from order to disorder and this change is measured in entropy. I believe that much like physical variables in nature, all living creatures go through a similar process that we call ageing. When an ageing system reaches its maximum entropy, i.e. when life can no longer be sustained, it results in death. Daniel Hershey, a chemical engineer, describes life as a spring-wound watch in which the timepiece can stop in two possible ways – either the internal mechanism eventually winds down or it fails leading to a premature demise. Perhaps this is why I chose to study ageing and rejuvenation. Living organisms are open systems continuously exchanging energy with their surrounding environment. Are we able to intervene and increase the time required to reach the maximum entropy? To what extent? Can we slow it down indefinitely?

I’ve gone off on a tangent here. Goodnight, buddy.

AM

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PhD: taking BS to a new level

I tell you, I’m a man who believes that I died 20 years ago. And I live like a man who is dead already. I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything.

– Malcolm X

PhDs are hard. But I think that the scholars pursuing doctorate degrees are much harder on themselves than they need to be, and it doesn’t make their lives easier.

For the past couple of months I have been going through phases of guilt, burn-out and existential dread. Cambridge is an unhealthy environment for overachievers because we can never achieve perfection here. The harder we work, the more follow-up questions and limitations we discover. For me what started as an elegant project turned into a butterfly effect of academic thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my research and I can’t describe how badly I want to make it work. So badly that after every botched experiment I feel like a failure and a fraud. I’m convinced that my problem is that I lack focus and am unable to accept the fact that I can realistically achieve about 15% of all my goals during a 3-year PhD. Hence, I end up doing too many experiments at a time and all I gain out of them is exhaustion that leads to careless and unsystematic science.

I’m glad I am in a position, where I have my mentors, lab colleagues and friends to talk about this. I am very excited about my field and I would still love to have my lab someday (even though some days I have to force myself to soldier on). Unfortunately, I’ve met fellow doctorate students who found the stress too overwhelming, and they decided not to continue with their PhD studies. If this is something that sounds familiar, there’s the Coping with Success and Failure event organised by the School of Clinical Medicine and Academic Women’s Forum (it’s free and not shameless advertising). You are most certainly not alone.

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Yours truly,

AM

Brit 1.0

“I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.”

– Gene Debs

Earlier this month I have officially become British. I still remember the first day I arrived in the UK to pursue a career in biomedical research  in spite of the family’s disapproval. On 20 August 2010 I arrived in Glasgow Airport, which greeted me with scorching heat and dense, humid air. You could tell straight away that I was not there for a holiday as I was wearing my warmest parka and knee high boots to save luggage space (you can take a girl out of Eastern Europe but…).

That day my luggage contained:

  • 1 x full ride Genetics BSc offer at the University of Glasgow
  • comfy clothes, favorite mug and a laptop
  • 1 x long-term boyfriend
  • £ 400 to start an independent life
  • (Minus childhood friends)
  • (Minus family support)

At that time I didn’t know that in 6 years time I will choose this country to be my home. The beginning was tough but over time I adapted and made new friends. I look back and see how many things have changed and evolved; nothing has stayed constant. Today everything is different except for my passion for science.

On the 22 January 2017 my luggage contains:

  • 1 x Genetics MSci
  • 1 x Stem Cell MRes
  • 1 x full ride Stem Cell Neuroscience PhD at Cambridge
  • wardrobe full of uncomfortable evening dresses (but ermahgherd they are gorgeous)
  • (Plus a supportive family)
  • (Minus a long-term boyfriend)
  • (Plus friends for life)
  • (Plus curiosity and excitement of what lies ahead)

Ta ta for now,

AM

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2016: a recap

Can somebody just let me out of here? If I die in a cage I lose a bet.

(c) Rick Sanchez

Hola cabrones,

I will not surprise anyone by saying that 2016 has been a bizarre year for many of us on all levels – from world events to personal moment-to-moment experiences. I specifically chose this word to describe the past 365 days because I believe that year recaps are like dead people: you either say something nice or nothing at all. So here it goes…

Leo won an Oscar

Let’s start with the good news. For me his role as Arthur Rimbaud in the “Total eclipse” remains the most memorable (so here’s a suggestion if you are considering rewatching”Sharknado” on Netflix).

2017 resolution: Appreciate dad bods.

Adapting to the Bubble

I’ve finally found peace with the working culture in Cambridge. Initially it was a shock to the system – just like most overachievers joining the university I became painfully average. I overcame this when I started thinking about the questions I want to ask in my project and stopped comparing my achievements to others.

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

– Chuck Palahniuk

2017 resolution: Do what you love and love what you do.

Organising a 100K conference

It took us almost two years of work and we didn’t sleep for a week while running it but I can’t even begin to describe how much I have grown (and greyed?) while being on the committee. Thank you to my insanely organised team for making this ambitious event a success. Also after it was over I had too much wine.

Photo credit: Toryn Dalton 😉

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2017 resolution: Continue the legacy.

Trumpland

Recently I went on an impromptu mini-holiday to the States to check it out as a potential postdoc destination. The trip was during the first two weeks of Donald Trump being the president-elect, and hence ill-timed. However, for the sake of everyone’s zen I will not discuss politics here.

The first city I visited was Boston – the land of lobster, Boston Bruins and Cambridge Jr. The academic vibe in Harvard and MIT was something that inspired me to have confidence in my own research project and be proud to call myself a scientist.  Then I visited New York, where pizza rats were fighting pigeons in the battle for the Central Park supremacy. It’s a gorgeous city, really.

Overall, I am considering the States as a potential country to do my postdoc in. I liked the people, the food and also the guys on Tinder are really hot.

2017 resolution: Start thinking about postdocs.

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(Ice) hockey

You don’t have to be mental to play ice hockey but it helps. This year I wanted to do a sport because plain squatting in the gym is not comme il faut. My rowing career ended before it even started mostly because I am obsessive about my PhD and the only reason I will ever get up at 4am is to do a lab experiment. Then I decided to try ice hockey because I have been thinking about it for quite a bit but didn’t have the guts to try. All I can say is ice hockey is tough and not an easy sport to pick up but it is extremely rewarding. Shout-out to my supportive and inclusive team, I’m really happy I joined.

2017 resolution: Hustle, hit and never quit (especially because there’s so much to learn like omg lolcats).

IMG-20161112-WA0011.jpgBrexit

How can I forget the B word? I am not being melodramatic saying  that my face was producing profuse amounts of tears and snot that morning. I am terrified of what lies ahead. Nonetheless, after the dust had settled I continued with my application for the British citizenship and am happy to announce that I have officially become a Brit ver.1.0. I am forever grateful for all the amazing  people I met along the way and being able to make the world a better place one scientific idea at a time. This is what becoming one with the Avatar’s Na’vi must feel like.

2017 resolution: Love and cherish my adoptive country.

In summary, if 2016 was  a fictional character it would be Ramsay Bolton. But today we say adieu, 2016, adieu!

Yours truly,

AM

A very Cambridge graduation

And everything I done before is just a stepping stone
And now I’m here I’m gonna step on everybody’s toes

Nah they ain’t ready for man, trust me ain’t ready for man

Skrapz – They Ain’t Ready

Hurrah! This weekend  I received a Cambridge Master of Research (MRes) degree as part of the Wellcome Trust 1+3 programme in Stem Cell Biology & Medicine. For those who don’t know it’s sort of a shampoo + conditioner degree where you get both a Master’s  and a PhD in one go.

While some people might argue that my integrated degree is not a big deal, I beg to differ – academically this has been a very tough year that tested all my knowledge and research experience as well as communication skills. By the end of this year I have learned the following:

  1. How to type a 6K word scientific report in 24h
  2. How to write a research project proposal
  3. How to apply for a grant for the said project
  4. How to stay zen, when all my experiments go tits up
  5. More than 5h of sleep is for the weak
  6. Unattainability is a construct.
  7. I have no fear.
  8. I am meta.                                     (c) AcademicsSay

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the graduation ceremony  and it was truly an experience. For example, in order to receive my degree I had to pull the Praelector’s finger, while he was presenting me in Latin to the Regent House. As you might have guessed this weekend I came up with a record number of fart jokes. Mischief aside, the ceremony itself was beautiful and has been held this way for the past several hundred years. I am excited to become part of the community, which has educated many notable alumni including 96 Nobel laureates to date (no pressure, fellow Cantabs) and look forward to graduation #2 – this time receiving a doctorate degree.

Yours sincerely (subject to contract),

AM

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Overachievers anonymous

Till the roof comes off, till the lights go out
Till my legs give out, can’t shut my mouth.
Till the smoke clears out. Am I high? Perhaps
I’ma rip this shit till my bones collapse.

‘Till I Collapse

Another week has passed in the busy Cambridge bubble and I am getting that familiar feeling of exhaustion mixed with guilt for spending time on unimportant things such as sleep, food and human contact. And yet, pushing my physical and mental health to its limits by cramming my calendar makes me feel content.

I am a workaholic. My vice is accepting more responsibilities because I love what I do. Perhaps now I have learned the true meaning of (allegedly) Bukowski’s drunken brilliance – find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all.

As a PhD student I have the privilege of managing my time as I please and yet I refuse to do less. Not sure if “in spite” has ever been an acceptable reason to do anything but I’m pretty sure that’s how it all began – nothing is more satisfying than proving people who didn’t think much of me wrong. Later it turned into a full blown Stockholm syndrome; I go through the daily struggle of taking off my science hat and switching off. Hence the reason I decided to pick up a new sport to fuel my brain with endorphins and almost forcefully distract it from thinking about work.

If you feel the same, you are not alone. Most importantly, don’t let yourself burn out and accept your limits. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help.

Love, licks and lollipops,

AM

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