One year on

This time last year, I was a newly-minted PhD, still revising my dissertation. I had just accepted my job at Briggs, and I was preparing for a conference, a vacation, and a new routine.

I don't remember much of my defense. My parents came to see it, even though it was a Wednesday afternoon and a 10-hour drive from their home. I was sleep-deprived and panicky. I couldn't remember the order of my slides, even though I'd given many variations of that same talk all the way through grad school. When I finished my talk, I cried.

My defense wasn't advertised beyond a poster on the seminar board alongside a dozen other defenses scheduled for the same week. Besides my committee and labmates, almost no one came. I'd been a bit disappointed about this when I started, but that turned to relief and gratitude when I was dabbing my eyes and pulling myself together most of an hour later.

I don't remember what questions the audience asked, and only one of the questions from my committee afterward. One committee member asked for a set of values in a tone of voice that, to me, implied I hadn't done my due diligence. Seeing as that value was highlighted in a table, sleep-deprived me lost patience and told said committee member to read the dissertation. I think I said something like "you'll find that on page 47 in table 2.3," but my internal dialogue was closer to "you obviously didn't bother to read my dissertation," so it's entirely possible that I said something else.

We celebrated in a conference room around the corner from my lab office. My labmates made me a goofy paper hat decorated with pictures of things they associated with me. It was very sweet of them, and moreso because it was a surprise. The hat is now a lab tradition, and I hope it continues. I am Graduate #1. I got to see the start of a lot of lab traditions.

I turned in my dissertation a month later, and continued to work in the lab, wrapping up projects and working on a collaboration up until I left for the conference (and subsequent vacation) in Europe. When I got back, everything was different.

I started at Lyman Briggs College in August.1 It was a new job at a new place, with new colleagues and new students, and I had to learn everything. Where is the copier? What are the college policies? Who do I ask for X or Y? Where to I park my car? What order will we cover the course material in? How deep do we dive into each chapter? How does the course website work? What resources are available? And on and on and on. An overwhelming amount of newness in my environment and also in what was expected of me.

It took me most of the fall semester to get used to being a professor. Some aspects, like delivering lectures, holding office hours, and making copies were familiar. But others -- being the authority the learning assistants turned to, handling grade disputes, offering feedback to colleagues with much more experience than myself -- took a big shift in mindset.

I have learned a lot in the past year. No longer a student, but an instructor, still I continue to grow and learn. Last year, I'd made and given a small handful of lectures. One year on, I've not just delivered 120 lectures to hundreds of students, I've also kept up the routine. When you're a grad student interviewing for a job, you can refine a teaching demo over the course of a week or more. When you're teaching, one awesome talk on Monday is not enough. You've got to be ready for class on Wednesday and Friday as well.

Academia is a flexible place to work. I can grade in my office or at home. I can decide to eat lunch with a friend near home, rather than spending a day on campus. Inspirations for lecture and practice problems can come form anywhere. But academia is also a rigid place to work. When I have a lecture, I must be there. I can't reschedule it. One hundred twenty-five students will be there, whether I am or not. One year on, I'm still getting the hang of this combination of rigidly structured and fully unstructured time.

When I started at Briggs, few people had seriously called me "Dr. Haas." It took a while to get used to; not just the title change (thought it was a much faster transition than when I changed my name after marriage), but the notion that I was a doctor of some sort. I couldn't tell my students to go ask their professor -- that professor was me!

I'd look at Facebook and see friends from high school, college and my time as an exchange student, and I'd see the great things they'd done, places they'd gone, children they'd had, careers they'd built, and I'd think "What have I done with my life?" And then my husband would point out that none of the people in question had doctorates in chemistry, that I'd spent five years in pursuit of that degree, and that I should very much give myself a break.

You see, despite five years of graduate school and all it entailed, it was (and sometimes still is) easy to forget I'd actually gotten a PhD. It's my own flavor of Impostor Syndrome, I guess. That nagging feeling that there'd been some mistake. That I wasn't really good enough for a PhD from a highly ranked university. That they gave me a PhD to get rid of me because they pitied me, but I'd gotten too far for them to kick me out.

One year on, I answer to "Dr. Haas," "Doc," "Professor," and occassionally "Prof Haas" without blinking. I've stopped feeling like the mail room is off-limits, or like I'm a child in an adults-only space. I am less surprised when a colleague asks for my input or feedback.

When I started I feared for the way I'd measure up to stereotypes. I dressed up a little; I wore khakis and slacks. I addressed emails to students more formally than my usual style. I checked and double-checked my work for errors so my students wouldn't see me fail.

One year on, I'm in skirts every Friday. It started as "Formal Fridays" in my mind, but soon became "Fearless Fridays" when I discovered that dressing like myself gave me a confidence boost. I can tackle so much more in my dress boots and a skirt than in my fall semester "uniform."

One year on, I still make mistakes. Having yet to achieve apotheosis, I expect the mistakes will continue. ;-) But I'm learning. I make new and different mistakes, and my ability to make corrections -- and let the students and learning assistants correct me -- can be evidence to my students that you don't have to be right all the time. When it comes to dealing with students, I've relaxed.

Last year my colleagues were strangers. My freshmen hadn't yet graduated high school. I had a plan for only one year. One year on, my colleagues are mentors and friends, my students have settled into college life, and my one-year job is at an end.

It has been a real delight to work at Briggs with such wonderful, supportive, creative faculty (and staff!) and highly motivated students. The students may not all love chemistry, but they do see the value in it. They challenge me and surprise me. They are funny and insightful and earnest. They bring me so much joy. I am sad to go.

But I won't be sad forever. This spring I accepted a tenure-stream position at Misericorida University. I have new colleagues, new students and a new plan. I'm thrilled, even as I start to take farewell of Briggs and MSU. I have more to learn, more ways to grow, and another good place to do it.

So here's to another year. Wish me luck.

1: Lyman Briggs College (aka Briggs) is a residential science college at Michigan State University: all of the students are science majors of one sort or another. In addition to taking intensive, group-focused introductory science and math courses together, the students also take courses on the history, philosophy and sociology (aka HPS) of science. It's a pretty cool place to work, and I'd have loved it as a student there.

What's next

I defended my thesis in April, and turned in my dissertation at the end of May, but I haven't left my grad lab yet. Here's what I've been up to, and what's coming up next.

Wrapping up

First I'm wrapping up some things. I've been revising and polishing two papers (one is done and submitted, the other will follow shortly), doing a few experiments for my last project, and getting things ready to hand off to the next person.

Most of my dissertation work was about watching the motions of one protein, TcpP, that is involved in the pathway for producing cholera toxin in Vibrio cholerae. Cholera toxin is the compound (a protein complex) that makes you so very sick if you contract cholera. TcpP (along with another protein, ToxR) activates the transcription1 of the toxT gene. The ToxT protein activates transcription of the cholera toxin genes.

Aside from its role in cholera toxin production, TcpP is interesting because it (and ToxR, too) is bound to the inner membrane of the bacterium. In order to activate transcription, TcpP and ToxR must bind to the DNA, but somehow they manage to do this without leaving the membrane. Since DNA tends to be compacted into the center of the cell2, it's pretty remarkable that two proteins on the membrane can find a specific region of DNA and bind to it. There aren't many proteins that bind DNA while bound to a cellular membrane, but there are a few besides these two.

To learn more about TcpP and how it pulls off this trick, we labeled it with a fluorescent protein and watched it move around the cell. My part of this project is done. Another grad student will watch ToxR move around to learn more about how these two proteins interact. So I'm updating my index of data files, checking that any protocols I've revised are up to date, and commenting the Matlab code I've written that he might use for analysis.

My other dissertation project was a collaboration with my labmate Jess, who has been studying fluorescence enhancement by plasmonic surfaces. I've been learning about plasmon-enhanced fluorescence for years, and it still seems a little bit sci-fi to me: by shining light on metal nanoparticles, you can create an enhanced electric field that makes fluorescent molecules shine brighter and longer.3 Jess has been enhancing fluorescent proteins using nano-structured gold surfaces. A while back we began pairing my fluorescently labeled bacteria with her plasmonic surfaces, to see if we can get enhancement inside live cells. We had some success [$] with our initial experiments, and the project has grown from there. Just because my dissertation is done doesn't mean this project is, though. I've been busy with experiments and trouble-shooting throughout June, and Jess will carry it on after I leave.

Shipping out

My last week as a Biteen lab member will not be spent in lab, but at the Single-Molecule Approaches to Biology Gordon Research Conference in Italy. I like the GRC conference style, and I can't wait to hear all the latest and greatest research in the field. It doesn't hurt that the conference is at a resort in Tuscany, either.

After the conference, it's time for vacation. My husband will meet me in Italy, and we'll tour parts of Italy and Germany and visit some friends of mine from my time as an exchange student. Then it's back to the States so my husband can get back to work and I can enjoy a couple of weeks of unemployment (and prepare for the next job).

Moving on

Mid-August I start my new job. For the next year, I will be a visiting instructor at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State. (Yes, I'm going to be an adjunct.) I'm excited to move to Briggs: the program is interesting, the faculty I've met have all been delightful people, and this job feels like the right thing for me right now.4 Briggs students take science classes that emphasize active learning, and "HPS" courses (history, philosophy and sociology of science) that give them context for science in their lives. As I said to several people while interviewing, Briggs is the kind of place I'd have loved to attend as an undergrad. I'm delighted to teach there. It's gonna be great.

1: transcription: just like you can talk about transcribing text, i.e. copying words from one place to another, we talk about transcribing genes: copying nucleic acid "words." The nucleic acids are slightly different—DNA is copied into RNA—but both kinds of nucleic acid "words" are the instructions for building proteins.

The process of decoding RNA to protein parts is called "translation." Again, it's just like text, translating from one language (e.g. French, or, in the case of genes, nucleic acids) to another (e.g. English or, for proteins, amino acids). Stitch those translated words together, and you get functional sentences (or proteins!).

2: In eukaryotic cells, such as your own human cells, DNA is stored in the cell nucleus. Bacteria don't have nuclei, but they still keep their DNA kind of bundled up in the middle.

3: It's more complicated than that, but that's the general idea.

4: It's a one-year position, and that suits me fine. My long-term goal is still to get a tenure-track position or a permanent position off the tenure path—I want more certainty in my employment than adjuncting is likely to supply. For the next year, though, I'm very happy to teach at Briggs.

A one-year appointment also means I will go through the whole job application process again this fall. Yay

Many kinds of good scientist

I saw this article by Adam Ruben make the rounds on Twitter a few days ago. Then I saw the article spreading on Facebook, with friends from grad school saying things like "So true!" and "That's totally me!" so I took a look.

He had me until the grants ("I dread writing grants…") but then I realized I wasn't even a third of the way through his list. It just went on and on, with an increasing tone of whininess. The post spirals out into a humble brag. By the time I got to the mice he's killed, I just grumbled, "Okay, dude, we get it. Poor you."

If you can sift through it, though, he makes some points about the culture of academic science that are worth expanding on.

I am not a priestess of Science

  • I don’t sit at home reading journals on the weekend.
  • I have skipped talks at scientific conferences for social purposes.
  • Sometimes I see sunshine on the lawn outside the lab window and realize that I’d rather be outside in the sun.
  • I have gone home at 5 p.m.

I love being a scientist, but I have a mighty big problem with the idea that as a scientist (or more broadly, as an academic) I'm supposed to "devote my life" to my work. That's not called Science, that's called Workaholism. If that’s what you enjoy, then by all means do it, but don’t expect me to have the same desires.

Here's my own confession: I worked roughly 8:30-5:30 five days a week through grad school. Sometimes I would keep working when I got home, but that didn't happen every week, much less every day. I came in to work or worked at home a few weekends, but I never made it a routine thing.

It's not that I wasn't dedicated to science or my research project. It's not that I didn't care, or that I was lazy. It's that I needed balance. For the most part, I leave work at work, and I am home at home. Balance for me means lunchtime chatter with friends, Friday date nights with my husband, and brunch with the in-laws. It means taking holidays and coming to work focused. We talk and talk about "work–life balance," but the cultural incentives are heavily on the side of more work and not at all balanced.

The summer after my freshman year, I spent about three months as an REU-type student at Duquesne University. It was awesome, and I learned so very much. An important part of what I learned, though, was that I needed to Stop. I lived in a dorm, worked in the lab, and knew almost no one besides the people I worked with. I ate breakfast in the dorm room, lunch in the lab break room, and dinner back in the dorm room. I had a crappy-to-okay Internet connection, I didn't know my way around Pittsburgh (and was honestly a little frightened of wandering the city alone), and I was too shy to get to know the other girls on my floor, so I stayed in and read research papers. I read a lot of articles that summer. I still have them all, in a cardboard box tucked at the back of a closet. I didn't understand half of what they said on the first read-through, so I read them over and over, looked up terms online, asked questions in the lab, and just tried to work it all out through context. At the end of the summer, I was praised for my efforts, but I was also teetering towards burn-out. I hadn’t spent enough time away from science.

I have been very careful since then to take breaks and disconnect from work. I have sought balance. And I have advised newer students to be mindful of their own balance. I love my science very much, but I refuse to pass on the idea that the only way to succeed in science is as part of a monastic order.

I am not a priestess of Science. I got a PhD all the same.

A PhD is not proof of knowing everything

  • I remember about 1% of the organic chemistry I learned in college. Multivariable calculus? Even less.
  • I have felt certain that the 22-year-old intern knows more about certain subjects than I do.
  • I have pretended to know what I’m talking about.
  • I find science difficult.
  • I have worked as a teaching assistant for classes in which I did not understand the material.
  • I have taught facts and techniques to students that I only myself learned the day before.
  • I have feigned familiarity with scientific publications I haven’t read. 1

A PhD is not proof of knowing anything. It's rewarded for "Persistence to a high Degree" as much as anything. It's not about facts you've memorized, or stuff you can recall on demand–no matter what certain committee members may say. It's about learning something new. And that new stuff wasn't in the classes you took. (As I've discussed with some friends and labmates before: course material covers stuff someone already knows; research is stuff we don't know yet.)

The work you do in a PhD is, as a rule, highly specialized and focused. I spent most of 5 years watching one protein in one pathway in one kind of bacteria. I am the world's expert on the motion of that protein. Yippee. I don't have equal expertise for other bacteria, or even other proteins in the same bacteria, much less other aspects of microbiology, microscopy and the rest. But I do have some expertise, and I have much more in these particular fields than a friend who has studied the thermodynamics of two dimensional structures, or another friend who has studied the surface chemistry of semiconductors. The three of us have each spent 5 years studying chemistry, and we have each earned a PhD for doing so, but we would not be able to pick up each other's projects on a whim. It would take more time and more learning. The need to learn something new doesn't make us bad scientists.

We have got to get over the idea that we must know everything, that everyone around us knows everything and expects the same of us. It's just not true, and it sets unrealistic expectations.

Academics posture too much

  • I have asked questions at seminars not because I wanted to know the answers but because I wanted to demonstrate that I was paying attention.
  • I have worried more about accolades than about content.

I don't understand why seminars start with the speaker's professional biography. It's not like it'll convince me to come see the talk: I'm already there, sitting in a seat. And if you were to tell me the speaker is from Nowhere State and has done absolutely nothing of note, I'm still not about to get up and leave. Will the talk be better because I now know that Dr. I-Never-Heard-Of worked with Dr. Famous? Fame, publication record and grant money are no guarantees for talk quality, yet those are the things chosen for introductions.2

With fame so highly valued, I suppose it's no surprise that people (in my experience, mostly men) feel the need to show off. Asking a question brings you to the attention of the seminar speaker and the audience. If you don't care about the answer, please don't ask the question; you're just wasting everyone else's time with your ego-stroking. Let someone else ask the question they care about. This counts double for "questions" that don't ask anything. Those are called statements. Keep them to yourself during the open Q&A.

Most scientists don't communicate well

  • I can’t read most scientific papers unless I devote my full attention, usually with a browser window open to look up terms on Wikipedia.
  • When a visiting scientist gives a colloquium, more often than not I don’t understand what he or she is saying. This even happens sometimes with research I really should be familiar with.
  • When I ask scientists to tell me about their research, I nod and tell them it’s interesting even if I don’t understand it at all.
  • I have used big science words to sound important to colleagues.

I like words. I like big, fancy words and unusual words and old words hardly anyone uses, but if you study too long for words of four syllables,3 I lose patience. Tell me how you rowed the boat gently down the stream, but not how you 'propelled the craft placidly through the liquid solution.’4 I'll know you're smart by the clarity of your point, not the frills in your sentences or the jargon you use. You don't have to emulate Newton and hide your knowledge in nonsense sentences.

Scientists are people

  • Sometimes science feels like it’s made of the same politics, pettiness, and ridiculousness that underlie any other job.

Sorry to break it to you, fella, but science is like any other job. There are politics and pettiness, rudeness and ridiculousness. There are easily bruised egos. There are liars and cheats. There are people doing this job, flaws, fears and all. We scientists aren't a special case.

This is what a scientist looks like

As a counter to Ruben's concept of a scientist, here is my own list:

  • Science is my job, not my life.
  • I do not know everything.
  • I do not need to know everything.
  • I do not learn by pretending to know.
  • My knowledge is not spoiled by sharing it with others.
  • I am not perfect.
  • I am a scientist anyway.

1: Another article I read this week was on feigning cultural literacy. It's worth a read. There's a lot of overlap here.

2: Possibly the worst scientific talk I have ever sat through was given by a Nobel laureate; it was absolutely dreadful.

3: “…he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?” – Mr. Bingley, Pride & Prejudice

4: In case you're not familiar with the “sophisticated version" of "Row Your Boat"

Propel, propel, propel your craft
Placidly down the liquid solution.
Ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically,
Existence is but an illusion.

They call me Dr. Haas

Good morning. How are you? I'm Dr. Worm Haas.
I'm interested in things.

As of today, I've officially completed all the requirements for my PhD.

So I'm not a real worm, but I am a real doctor.1

Dr. Worm has been stuck in my head for a few days. Now you too can share in my joy/misery.

1: As my grandmother joked: I'm not a "real" doctor, either because I'm not "the kind that helps people." (She agrees that a PhD is helpful, too.)

The importance of Sunday brunch

My in-laws came for a visit last weekend. We usually see them every 4-6 weeks, but thanks to various winter storms, it had been more than two months since our last visit together. When they come out to see us, we often spend Saturday at our house and Sunday morning we go to a diner for brunch before they make the long drive back to Pennsylvania.

Last weekend I was acting as a host for a prospective grad student. I spent Saturday running around the chemistry building, answering questions about the department and the city, and trying to be helpful and informative. I took my recruit from one faculty appointment to the next, manned the group poster alongside my labmates, and went to dinner with the recruits. I also tried very hard not to be The Jaded Grad Student, which I have been falling into a lot lately.

It was a full day, from breakfast in the morning to drinks and mingling in the evening, with a bunch of running up and down stairs in between. While my recruit was meeting with faculty, I tried to make bite-sized progress on my thesis, though it’s hard to get very far in 10- or 15-minute increments.

I arrived home after my in-laws had left, but the usual plans for brunch had been made. Sunday morning we met at the usual diner and had our usual catching-up chitchat. We exchanged hugs and good wishes and then headed back to our respective homes.

Recently, while talking to someone about my progress on my thesis, I mentioned going to Sunday brunch with my in-laws, and that we hadn’t visited in months. They said “But you’re so busy! You can have brunch with them twelve times after your thesis is done.”

Well, no. I totally disagree.

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Graduation Ahead

Today I had (most of) my pre-defense data meeting.1 My committee has declared me ready to write my thesis, and on track for graduation by or before August of next year. I'd like to be done by May, but that means t's crossed, i's dotted and revisions revised by April, and I still have another project to complete by then. Summer will get here soon enough.

I am glad to have an end in sight. I don't want to be a grad student forever, and some days it feels like it's already been forever since I started.

1: One committee member had to reschedule, so I get to give the same talk all over again tomorrow. I don't mind it a bit, though, because I always enjoy our meetings; I learn something new from him every time.