As I have written in a couple of recent posts (here, here and here), life has been a bit hectic recently. I have been feeling like I am having science withdrawal symptoms. Last week, I have finally received an offer for a new position that I have accepted. For the last 4 years, while I absolutely loved my job, it took me over 1.5 hours to commute in each direction. I wasn’t the favorite part of my day and took a lot of valuable time away from my work, family and personal life. Not to mention NeuroBead. Continue Reading
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.
Last year, when I founded NeuroBead, I based it on the idea that scientists like myself would want to see beautiful images from their research commemorated as pieces of art, that they could display on their walls. Many academic institutions, especially neuroscience departments, decorate their hallways with enlarged photos of cells that were taken under a microscope. These images are both gorgeous to look at and representative of the great scientific discoveries achieved by the researchers. They deserve to be preserved and remembered. Many departments and microscopy facilities even send out calls for best image competitions. I wanted to take this process one step further and portray this integration of science and visual art in a more creative form. Continue Reading
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.
When I was in college, happily trekking down my pre-med program, I happened to attend a talk by a guest speaker from Albert Einstein College of Medicine graduate school program. Two things from her talk have stuck with me through the years.
First, and likely the more important, is the fact that her talk served as the tipping point for me to seriously consider a career in research rather than medicine. Despite working in biological research labs since high school, I have never considered thinking of it as my ultimate career until this eye-opening seminar. Well, I am so glad that I did. From that point on, my mantra has become “I’d rather be dealing with test tubes than with patients”. Fast forward about ten years, and here I am, still dealing with test tubes, but working on a drug that is currently being tested in clinical trials to actually help patients.
The second, more whimsical detail from her talk stuck with me as a quote. While describing how going into a research career had impacted the rest of her life, she said “I met my husband next to the flow cytometer”. Well, guess what? A couple of years after attending this talk, I met my husband at the graduate school picnic during orientation week! Yes, we are both science nerds, and we speak the same language that transcends into other areas of our life as well.
When we got married and moved into our first apartment, we had a bit of a dilemma. There was a huge empty wall in our living room, and we could not come up with a way to decorate it. Well, scientists are problem solvers, right? Guess what we came up with? We decided to showcase our nerdiness and hang six large picture frames with blown up microscopy images of the cells we worked on.
I guess we have never intentionally taken pictures of this wall art, but here are a few shots I was able to find, starting with first months of my older daughter’s life.
The funny thing was that in the beginning, even our friends with medical degrees couldn’t quite put their finger on what was depicted in these pictures. They just perceived them as abstract art.
Since then, these pictures have followed us through two more apartments, and witnessed the early stages of our family life. It was particularly funny when a nanny we just hired asked us if these were pictures of cells.
My older daughter when she was a baby. Check out the background!
My daughter and husband chilling under the cells.
Now that we have finally bought a place and need to think about decorating it for the long-term, we had a brief conversation about where to hang these pictures. When I gently suggested updating them based on our more recent research, my husband immediately objected. The whole beauty of these cells comes down not only to the bright colors and intriguing cellular structures, but to the fact that these images came from our early days in science. When the passion began.
And speaking of passion, my next piece of wall art, a 3 dimensional neuron with spines, is almost ready for prime time. Stay tuned to get the first sneak peek of it at my Etsy shop NeuroBead! And follow me on Instagram to see the work in progress!
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?
Work and chores get done because the world needs them to be done. Art gets done because there is an internal need for it to happen.
This comment was posted in response to one of my recent posts on“Facts and Data.” My first internal response was: “Absolutely!” But then I paused for a second. There has been a lot of articles on LinkedIn on the topic of a rarely seen event of finding a job that you truly love. One that really gets you out of bed in the morning. Apparently, a very low percentage of people actually like, not to mention love, what they do for a living.
I think I have hit the jackpot on that! As cheesy as it may sound, I do love my job. As much as I think about work/life balance and keep track of how I spend my time; I still spend most of my time outside the lab thinking about science, or at least in scientific terms. I think it is now ingrained as a part of my personality, of who I am. When you are truly passionate about your work, the lines in “work/life balance ” become blurred.
Chores on the other hand… Don’t get me started. Since reading “168 Hours”, I have become a huge fan of outsourcing as much as I can, though in most cases it doesn’t really happen. That’s one of the areas I am still trying to improve.
But then it brings me to the next two questions.
- First, is there a general belief that jobs are like soulmates? That there is only one perfect one out there for each one of us. Personally, I don’t think it’s true in either case – professional calling or love life. No person and no job will be absolutely perfect. But it’s the value they bring that outshines their flaws. Just like we may be willing to put up with annoying habits of our loved ones, we make a conscious choice to tolerate the “rules of the game” in our professional lives. But there needs to be enough inspiration and personal satisfaction for us to make that choice.
- Second, the topic of internal need for art. Yes, I have it, I feel it, and I feel like I have lost a big part of myself in the years that I did not address this need. But why? The biological reward system has evolved to increase our chances of survival in tough times. For example, the satisfaction we get from a good meal is due to the fuel it provides for our body. Animals will learn to press a lever on cue, as long as they are rewarded with a food pellet. But what about art? Why does it bring us such satisfaction? Why do some people (but not others) crave it so much? And why do some people enjoy viewing art, whereas others primarily enjoy creating it? Maybe it is the next round of evolution…
Personally, I feel the most inspired when I can bridge my left hemisphere that thinks about complex biological problems, with my right, that craves a stream of artistic creativity. At NeuroBead, I get both!