Standing on the edge of a precipice

I will end this year as I began it, with the dream of a wily, confident and adventurous eight year old. I have been one of the fortunate ones. I have always known what I wanted to do for a living. It was not continuously romantic (certainly didn’t feel that way while dissecting a human brain) but it was always there and it was comforting. I, unlike like some others, never found it predictable or boring but felt bolstered by the fact that I was moving in the right direction. But now, placed under extreme stress of being the only person in the world working on a particular project, significant personal changes and new responsibility, I have the current feeling that my clearly defined path has become a bushy wilderness- one out of which a tiger could leap out and take me.


I’m sure that this is a common feeling for people approaching the milestone of 30 and probably has more to do with the feeling of mortality and less to do with the piling up of experiments you will never complete. Nevertheless, with 3 years to go to the big 3-0, I am acutely aware that I have particular comforts that I take for granted. As I close in on my final PhD year, I can feel the sense of loss of my eternal student status. I will now have to get a real job. What I do is challenging and often down right impossible but I have some very real perks. Starting the work day really whenever I feel I need to is a blessing. I have also realised, with a surmountable sadness, that at some point I will have to leave my wonderful lab – my scientific home for the last 5 years and 3 degrees. There is an incredible comfort in knowing where the pipettes or the hidden stash of reagents are. Having worked in the States for a couple of months, returning to my lab is nothing short of an epic homecoming.

Ultimately, at our core, scientists are creatures of habit. We need things just so – so that we can trace back to the point of a potential mistake. One needs to be in a routine so that methodically we can work out if that discovery was real or just a slip of the pipette. Life is a series of habits, and now I must shortly break them. The thought horrifies me. Looking forward, I’m sure there is a great amount of exciting new challenges to be had. Really though, all it feels like is a distant haze that is just beyond the steep precipice of doom that has recently presented itself. I have emerged from 2016, a year fraught with its own unique challenges (a Trump, a Brexit, a Zuma, a Gupta or 2) and I can’t see a fully cleared path.december-handover Instead, I catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye.

But, ever the optimist, I will keep looking until one reveals itself to me. I might need to use a panga to clear my own path, but this uncertainty too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone; but it will pass. Uncertainty leaves many different doors open and quite excitingly, in science as in life, we can find ourselves on quite a different journey than what we started out on. Openness to a swift change in direction is what leads us to the best discoveries. Life after a PhD is as confusing as life during one, but is just where stuff  gets good. It’s going to be a hell of a journey. Best grab my panga.

Globe-trotting for Dummies

Hell, if one believes in these sorts of things, would be a wifi connection that keeps kicking you out. In fact, having landed 1 hour ago at Heathrow, I have spent all my time mindlessly clicking “join”. The definition of insanity is trying things the same way expecting a different outcome and yet here I sit, idly. I could be typing the 42 million papers I have to write up, or conversing with my travel partner but no, 21st century rules dictate that I must have my nose firmly attached to some sort of technology. Welcome to the world of travel for international conferences.

I have been extremely fortunate to be part of a lab that thinks big and requires that all the students be regularly exposed to international conferences. It fosters great collaboration and gives you the confidence you need to succeed in this field. Having said that; travelling does have its strains. A guide, then, and a bit of a diary for you, dear reader, on the day in the life of an exhausted, “hangry”, excitable traveller!

My little collection of name tags from conferences!
My little collection of name tags from conferences!

In the last 2 months I have been to Melbourne and Chicago for conferences. Things NOT to do include:

1) Getting stuck in a turnstile in the middle of the American Midwest.

2) Avoid checking your ticket until the last possible second in order to approve the way your lab is sending you (A 9 hour layover in New York and a 12 hour layover in London have literally sapped my soul of vitality)

3) Try not to offer your colleague something to try that you later discover contains the only thing that she is allergic to.

4) Wear high heels that are twice your height in a city where you walk everywhere. Turns out buildings look pretty grim when your feet need to be amputated because of exceptional blistering.

5) Mumble your name to a Starbucks barista. The result:smolin

Despite the series or unfortunate events, there are many things that I recommend you should do:

1) Bask in the glory of all the collective genius in your field in one place

2) Make use of networking lunches that allow you to chat to other principle investigators and get their input. It can be a little scary and a bit awkward to start but it really is worthwhile.

3) Make time to socialise with peers from other labs around the world and have some truly awesome conversations about their PhD experience; it makes you realise that you are not alone in a global village sort of way.

4) Be confident in your work. After all, there is no one that knows it quite like you do.

5) Feel super privileged if you come from a lab where you get individualised attention, because you will realise quickly that that is not the norm.

6) Enjoy the science! There will be some very exciting things presented. Take the opportunity to ask these people questions — after all, at heart we are all still the 8-year olds playing with chemistry sets, trying not to lose the sense of wonder.

7) Learn from how people present and try to incorporate the things you like into your own style: conferences have nearly always added something to my repertoire.

8) Use your free time to hang out with your lab mates. Conferences are a nice time to share a meal and have a fulfilling conversation and explore the city! These people, like you, have the same core passion for science and that, in my book, makes them immediately interesting.

A bit of the Morris/Moore lab+ honorary members in Chi-town!
A bit of the Morris/Moore lab+ honorary members in Chi-town!

Ultimately conferences help you grow and connect with something greater than the sequence that just won’t work or the cells that refuse to stay alive. Science is about solving a puzzle; the only one that matters. Learning to do it with other people may result in some spats about where to look  or fit the next piece and some people may be critical of what the shape of your piece is but you get it done a lot quicker. Conferences are a wonderful and sometimes scary part of sciencing. Do it often, if not for yourself, then for the puzzle enthusiast in you screaming for the corner piece.