This single word describes my current state quite accurately. In the beginning of April, an unpredictable event knocked the ground out from under my feet. Due to unfortunate external circumstances, the place I loved working at had to drastically downsize its staff in order to stay afloat. As my daughter likes to sing “like a small boat on the ocean”, I have been drifting ever since.
A couple months ago, I read a great article on how a super organized person decided to take a break from his “to do” list and enjoy some less structured time. It is really unfortunate that I cannot find the original article to reference here, because it was downright hilarious. The author wrote about how he usually planned his time to the minute. After reading about the potential benefits of relaxation and spontaneity., he decided to spend one day outside of his comfort zone of “to do “lists and try to enjoy some time off. This decision was immediately followed by him frantically thinking about how to best spend his time off. Basically defeating the purpose of the exercise of relaxation and spontaneity.
This week I feel the same way. My husband is attending a Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy retreat, where significant others are welcome to join the conference attendees at the resort. We first attended a Parker retreat this April. It was held at a luxury resort in Napa valley, and while my husband was attending the talks, I got a chance to hike, go to the gym and attend a spa. When he told me a few months ago that he is attending this meeting again this fall, I said – “I’m coming!”. This time we had to go to great lengths to arrange for childcare, but I was determined not to miss this opportunity to take some time off from the grunt work of daily life.
Similarly to the author I referred to earlier, I have put such great hope on these 3 days, that despite having complete freedom for a change, I did not know how to accomplish everything. It was borderline ridiculous in that I almost thought that my spa appointments would interfere with my productivity. To make matters worse (or better), around the same time I came across the concept of bullet journaling. On the one hand, it allowed me to plan my time off better. But on the other, it added more articles to my “to read” list for this mini-vacation. This is why, I decided to truncate my previous post, and break it up into 2 parts, as I still need to read up on bullet journaling and how it relates to other forms of notebook keeping. Stay tuned for Part II of this mini-series.
A few weeks ago, my daughter was invited to a birthday party at the Museum of Mathematics. There was a number of interesting puzzles, one of which I recognized as a puzzle that was given to us in 1st grade back in Russia. It tugged at my heartstrings. I clearly remember how our teacher would walk around the classroom and personally dump out and mix up the pieces on each student’s desk. The very first assignment was to make them all fit back in the box. I still remember the correct solution layout. When I was in high school, I recreated this puzzle from scratch for my favorite biology teacher, who also liked brainteasers. Surprisingly, he was able to come up with a completely different arrangement from the one I was taught. I guess there really is more than one way to skin a cat. Similarly, life can be organized in different ways as well.
Though in a lot of cases, the ever growing to do list feels more like this depiction of my daughter at the museum.
“Thinking outside the box” has become a bit of a cliché. But in science it is more important than ever. As the base of human knowledge propels ahead with lightning speed, it takes a special set of skills and knowledge to be on the cutting edge of innovation.
When I was in graduate school, there was a relatively popular depiction of the concept of a Ph.D. You can find the full schematic at “The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.” Briefly, if you imagine the whole pool of human knowledge as a large circle, in elementary school you start out by learning a small subset located at the center. Each step of the educational process, from high school to college and graduate degrees, brings you closer and closer to the outer limits. But with each level of higher education, you also limit your field and specialize. Finally, in graduate school, you push at the boundary and make a tiny, microscopic dent – and that dent is called a Ph.D. While its size and impact, relative to the large picture, may seem laughably minuscule, the key lies in the fact that it managed to break through the limits of the “box” (or circle in this case).
Because of this, science cannot be pursued with a cookie cutter approach. It needs to be innovative, revolutionizing and pushing the limits to achieve real breakthroughs. This concept inspired my most recent project at NeuroBead. To capture this concept, I not only took a flat image of a cell and made it 3 dimensional – reaching beyond the surface at which it was taken; I made it reach outside the boundaries of its frame.
The image that inspired this work was taken at a high magnification (63X). High magnification and resolution usually requires the sacrifice of having a limited field of view. But the elaborate dendritic tree of this beautiful neuron does not end there. It reaches beyond the frame that was forced on it by a microscope. It reaches outside the “box,” to sense its surrounding environment and send signals to its center – the cell body. This feeling of reaching for something beyond the visible first resonated with me when this neuron was tucked into the car during our move, but still reached its dendrites beyond its limits. It looked like an octopus spreading its tentacles and trying to escape from its assigned frame. It was reaching for the “adjacent possible.”
Moreover, this particular confocal image stood out from the majority. The three most traditional colors used in confocal microscopy are blue, red and green. If these colors overlap, or “colocalize”, they can make a new color, such as yellow. These simple colors can create magnificent images in confocal microscopy. But, this particular image was portrayed in cyan and magenta colors that only show up relatively rarely in scientific publications, making this image even more unique.
And check out my Etsy shop for the currently available pieces of wall art inspired by microscopy images!
Last weekend was very intense for me. There was a lot of shopping and family activities. Overall, it was good, but I barely got any time to myself. Over the course of this week, I have been making time to dedicate to NeuroBead every evening, but it was still inadvertently getting mixed with discussions of housework and errands.
Yesterday, I finally got the option to come home about 20 minutes later. I spent these 20 minutes in a nearby park, doodling in my sketchbook, putting the beading details on the neuron I drew on Tuesday.
I wonder why drawing tiny details on a delicate neuron in the midst of the bustling New York City is so therapeutic for me. I truly enjoyed that little stretch of peace, and am now looking forward to implementing this project in 3D.
Yesterday I attended a talk by one of my colleagues. He was giving an update on a project we are both heavily involved in. The key difference is that he works on animal models (in vivo), mainly asking “what” type of questions; whereas I work at the cellular level (in vitro) focusing on the “why” and “how”.
While I cannot delve into the details of his project, I will say this much – the study used mice as an animal model to study effects of a drug on spatial learning and memory. The main brain region responsible for this type of learning is the hippocampus. A battery of behavioral tests was used to determine the effects of treatment on hippocampal function.
One of these tests is a classical paradigm in behavioral neuroscience, called the Morris water maze. Rodents typically dislike water, but if they need to survive from drowning they can swim and float. The Morris water maze consists of a large circular pool filled with opaque water. In one quadrant of the pool, the scientist places a small circular platform that can be used by the mouse to escape from the water. The platform can be made visible, by placing it above the water level, or invisible, by submerging it just beneath the water. A mouse is placed in the the pool, and is timed for how long it will take to find the platform and escape. If an animal shows good learning over multiple trials, the amount of time it takes to get to the platform progressively decreases over the period of training. As a final test, the scientist can completely remove the platform from the pool and measure how much time the mouse will spend in the correct quadrant of the pool in search for the platform.
Despite this technique not being new to me, I went home thinking about it in more abstract terms. As I was going to bed last night, it hit me that the Morris water maze can serve as a great metaphor for life in general. While the rodent test typically does not last for more than a few minutes, we all go through life stumbling, “swimming” and searching for our ultimate destination. The path can be circular, tortured and quite murky. And some people may have visible goals in sight, whereas others may be searching for something hidden. Some mice give up and try to float instead of swimming, analogous to some people just trying to get by. Still others may come to what they consider their correct destination, and not find anything there.
A lot of people say that happiness is in the journey rather than destination. But unless you have a goal in mind, you might as well just be floating. How do we uncover our hidden platforms, and can there be more than one? Or are all of them just moving targets?
I am a scientist. I live for data. I love testing new hypotheses. In any conversation, work related or not, I look for hard facts rather than impressions. While this may serve me well in some instances, particularly in the lab, in other parts of my life it sometimes leads to some obsessive and neurotic tendencies.
A few years ago, while I was obsessing over spending enough time with my daughter, I came across a very useful self help book – “168 Hours” by Laura Vanderkam. The book beautifully outlines how, with a little thought, you can find enough time for anything in your life. It just takes a little habit of time tracking.
Tracking? Data? Numbers? Sign me up!
For years I have been a closeted pedometer user until Fitbit came out and made step tracking trendy. No surprises here – I wear my Fitbit like my life depends on it. More on that later. After reading the book, I eagerly started looking for an iPhone time management app. By that time, I was already familiar with Stephen Covey’s principle of Rocks and Pebbles, but as a true INTJ, I was looking for further improvements. After downloading the app, I began to track the way I spent my time, aiming for accuracy down to the minutes. The data that came from this self experimentation was quite eye opening. Here I will only share what it looked like over the last couple of months. One thing I can say for certain is that it certainly helped with taming the “mother’s guilt”.
So here are my results from August. It was a busy month. We were getting ready to move into our new apartment, and there was a ton of errands to take care of. Not much time for my own interests.
In her book, Laura Vanderkam writes about interviewing a very successful woman, who while running a multimillion dollar business, could not resist a going for muddy hike on a weekday morning. Her formula was simple. She focused on spending her time on nurturing three things: herself, her family and her career. I have tried living by this formula and some months are more successful than others. In August, I clearly did not find much time to nurture myself.
As we were unpacking in our new place, September did not show much promise either. But here is where the second bit of data comes in. Remember the Fitbit? Guess what? Not surprisingly, this lack of balance was taking a toll on my mental state, and that came through in the steady rise of my basal heart rate.
Notice the sharp fall around September 22nd? That is when I made time for returning to NeuroBead, and working on my art into the night.
If there are any scientists reading this post, I realize that this is a pretty weak correlative study, with many other factors happening on a daily basis that could have skewed my results. But to me it is solid evidence for the vital importance of art and creativity in my life.
In the majority of scientific techniques, the word “background” has a very negative connotation. It usually implies that your detection method picked up something else besides the specific signal you were looking for. People even go as far as calling their images “dirty”. In microscopy, that non-specific “noise” usually appears in the form of either randomly scattered bright pixels, or as a general haze of autofluorescence all around your cells. In contrast, high quality images usually have a very clean, black background, that when printed has a glossy feel to it. To capture this quality, I use shiny black satin as the backdrop for NeuroBead renderings. It gives the piece a clean and crisp look that allows the cells to really pop forward.
In my daily life there is also a lot of background noise. I have two daughters who have an unlimited amount of energy. It does not take much for them to put me out of focus and make me feel scatterbrained. But when I find some time to sit down a make my artwork, I can zoom in with a laser like focus and find myself in a state of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Last night, I was talking to someone on the phone, and the topic of NeuroBead came up. The conversation suddenly took a sharp turn and a series of questions was fired at me.
“Why do you want/need to do this?”
“Don’t you have enough on your plate already?”
“As it is you barely find any free time. How will you manage?”
I think there is a logical order to these well-meaning questions. First comes the “why” and if the reason is good enough, the “hows” will fall into place. For me, it is because the creative process allows me to concentrate on my inner world and at least temporarily drown out the background noise. It brings my life into focus.
Check out this growth cone here!