34-28 weeks til thesis…

Oooooh wow… Have I been slack at keeping to my schedule, or what?!?! Trying to cram 6 weeks into a single post means this is a long read, but captures a very exciting period in my life.

The last month or so has been an absolute whirlwind and the time I usually set aside for writing here has been swallowed up – along with my gym time – by other, more pressing pursuits… It’s no wonder I’m feeling so off kilter at the moment.

TL;DR – Things got crazy. Crazy-great. Took lots of opportunities. Tested out new ideas and skills. It paid off!

 

It all started when I saw advertisements for a couple of science/research competitions. The Queensland Women in STEM Research Prizes was being held for the first time. It involved a short video and written summary of your work in plain English terms to best communicate your research to the public, a description of the benefit to Queensland in the application of the research outcome, and the usual short biography and abridged CV (publications, collaborations, track record etc).

I thought, what the heck – why not throw my hat in the ring? You’ve got to be in it to win it, and all that. So, I wrote up my entry, filmed a 3 minute video describing my PhD research project on my camera-phone standing in my colleague’s office (I “live” in an open plan student space and that just wasn’t going to work for this), and uploaded it all.

Being the inaugural year, I had no previous submissions to read through to get a feel for what they were after. I had no yardstick by which to measure my entry. I was flying blind. All I could do was present ResearchMe in the way that I thought was best for the intrended audience.

Entries closed on a Friday and the following Monday I received an email saying that I had made it to next round – open for public voting in the People’s Choice Award category and for the panel of STEM experts to vote for the Jury Award, each category awarding a $5000 prize to put towards professional development courses, conference attendance, etc. I have no idea how many submissions they received, but I was super chuffed to just make the final 50 showcased on the competition website.

Then the competition went live and I was able to read through the other entries. The videos were slick, obviously edited and polished by university marketing and media teams, with voice-overs, background music, transitions. So fancy! These women already had decades-long careers behind them  – how on Earth did I think I was worthy of competing alongside these established powerhouses?

I promoted my entry through my social media accounts and distributed it through my workplace email, but didn’t really hold out a large amount of hope. I have a very big family, and they all voted for me (albeit very biased-ly), but aside from them, I didn’t expect to win popular votes. Seeing the quality of the competition had absolutely knocked the wind out of my sails. As I tracked the progress of the leaderboard in the People’s Choice Award category over the course of the fortnight of voting, it was pretty clear to see who the winner was going to be. She was a great writer – her entry was smooth, authoritative, and perfectly targeted for quotation by media outlets. It was obvious that she had training in writing this way, and had that je ne sais quoi that some people just possess.

I resigned myself to the reality that I was not going to win anything. The People’s Choice leader was streets ahead of the rest of us, and I never considered that I would even register on the Jury’s radar. There were well established research projects with already observable outcomes and impact, why would they vote for some chick working towards her PhD dream to cure AMD… yeah, sure, let’s vote for her…

But they did.

Out of 50 entrants, I was ranked 5th by the Jury. FIFTH!

Thinking about this still blows my tiny little squishy mind.

The Jury were so impressed by the entries that they decided they couldn’t give a single award. They instead split the prize money between the top 4, meaning I missed out on a prize by a single vote. I am not the least bit bitter about that, I am absolutely genuinely stoked! I went from assuming nothing would come of my entry – other than a great learning experience in how to craft responses to best suit the audience – to jumping around in excitement and disbelief.

Why on Earth did I ever doubt myself?! I called my Dad and he told me to stop underestimating the power of my efforts. He’s so wise 😀

 

The second thing that happened was yet another entry in a competition. This time it was the international science communication competition run by the British Council, called FameLab. There was a similar submission process: film a short video of yourself talking about your work plus answer a few questions in an online entry form. They specifically stated that the video need not be fancy, just filmed on your phone or ipad was perfectly acceptable. They also specified that powerpoint slides and scientific jargon were NOT to be used, and such entries would not be accepted. They were looking for passion shining through in the research stories.

Instead of public voting, the Council would select 12 entrants to progress to the State Final. I was pleasantly surprised when I got the call to say I had made the cut! I had a little under a fortnight to get my presentation ready, so it was all systems go!

The whole idea of the competition is to present live to an auditorium and make your work interesting, accessible, and creative. You are marked on content, charisma, and clarity. I knew I could handle the content and deliver it with clarity, but how does one measure one’s charisma? …And gain more of it!?

I’m a stage performer from way back (dance concerts and musical performances for the last 20+ years…) but I’m playing a character when I step out onto that stage. I’m not Me. I’m wearing an armour of costume and make-up. I’m not vulnerable when I dance or act, because it isn’t me or my knowledge on display; no-one’s going to ask probing questions once I finish and take a bow, they just clap politely and wait for the next performance. I had to find a way to channel my usual performance ready self into a stage-version of my true self.

It was scary. But I got there, eventually.

I figured out what it was that I can do that not many other people can – what sets me apart – and ran with it. I decided to present my work via poetry and props, and think about my clothes and make-up as my usual costume armoury.

I’m in a band. I play a few different instruments, I sing, and I write the lyrics to a lot of our songs. Sometimes, when I’m writing for pleasure (as opposed to writing research articles…) my brain slips into lyric-mode and I write in rhyme without really thinking about it. It was actually the caption I wrote to an instagram post that set me off on this tangent. I had just finished re-shooting some footage with our ridiculously talented social media officer (for a reimagining of my original video submission to upload to the research institute’s YouTube channel). We were filming in the lab under the harsh fluoro lights so I had thrown some make-up on to make sure there was still colour on my face when it was captured by the camera. I don’t usually look like this for labwork so, naturally, I snapped a lab-selfie for posterity. I captioned it thus:

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“I am a scientist. This is our lab. We work to cure blindness, now isn’t that fab!?”

These humble beginnings signalled the start to a very fun hour or so of drafting the poem which essentially presents my entire thesis in rhyming couplets – in less than three minutes! I didn’t name this blog Science Sonneteer for nothing…

As for the props… I crochet in my downtime. I like hobbies that give me a sense of accomplishment, a clear visual indicator of progress. This is especially important if I’ve had a bad research day (or week!) and things just haven’t worked out. It’s good to have an activity to fall back on to prove to myself that I am capable of producing good work, even if it is with yarn rather than cell culture.

My research uses silk from silkworms … so I crocheted one! No pattern, just winging it based on the shaping I learned from my previous amigumuri pursuits.

Here she is! My colleague has already told me she wants one for herself. Hey! If this research career thing doesn’t work out, I could always start a custom crochet business! 😉

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Eyes for the facial detail
The day of the competition, the British Council ran a full day program of media and communication training with people in radio and the scicomm industry. It was a fantastic day, getting to meet the other FameLab contestants, sharing our knowledge and experiences, and learning from people in the industry as to what makes a good presentation, a good interview, a good sound byte, a good career. I took copious notes and was inspired by the non-conventional career paths of many in the room.

Above all else, it was a great distraction from the inevitable nerves. As soon as training was over though, they kicked in. I ran over my set, again and again. Where do I pause, which words do I stress, when do I pick up and put down each prop. All the things I had done a hundred times rehearsing into the night at home.

I was the first to present (random draw). This is a blessing a curse, but I decided I would just give it my best (as I always aim to) because, really, that’s all I could do. The blessings of going first are not having the nervous wait until your turn and not being psyched out if you feel that someone before you is far far superior to you. The downsides to going first are that you have no idea what your competition is like (but this is less important to me, because I figure you just do the best you can regardless of anything else), and the biggest issue – you are the most distant memory when the judges are deliberating at the end of the competition.

I took to the stage and gave it my all. There was eye contact. There was variation of pitch and pause. There was body language/movement, but not so much that it was distracting (although, watching myself back, I need to work on my arm placement, but that’s OK). There were props (that could probably be bigger now that I’ve see them from the audience’s perspective). And there was passion! My gosh, was there passion. I hope that by showing the audience how interesting I find the work, they will also find it interesting.

The audience clapped politely. I took my bow. Then came the questions.

All perfectly handle-able.

Nothing questioning the validity of my work (providing evidence of peer review was part of the application process, so I assumed this wouldn’t be their line of questioning). More about me, what drew me to the research topic, and how I came to choose poetry as the form to present my work. Totally do-able!

Still, no matter well rehearsed my presentation may be, it’s the questions that make me nervous. I feel like it’s impossible to be prepared for every possibility. What if they ask me about a statistic that I haven’t memorised? What if they ask me about a related field that I haven’t read about? (Hello Imposter Syndrome!) All I could do was stand there and do my best to be charismatic while coming up with answers off the cuff.

I left the stage, heart pounding, head spinning. It was over. That was it. All done. All over in a flash!

I removed the mic and handed it to the next contender, then took my seat, sat back and enjoyed the rest of the presentations knowing that I had given it my absolute best. Over the course of the rest of the evening I learned about the complexity surrounding who is responsible for antibiotic resistance, using lasers to scan war relics to reconstruct history, using isoptopes in teeth and the surrounding environment to uncover the history and identities of a long deceased community of people taken as slaves, how small gopher’s teeth adapt over generations if larger species are removed from the ecosystem, how reflected UV light is damaging our construction workforce, and how high-throughput testing is enabling the search for new drugs sourced from nature. These are just a quick snapshot of the many fascinating science stories I got to hear at the FameLab Queensland State Final.

An Audience Choice Award poll was run while the Judges deliberated. I was blown away by the creativity and charisma of many of the other presenters. Yet again, I did not think that I would have a hope at winning, but was simply grateful to have been given the chance to have the experience. The Audience Choice award went to a lively, energetic, and enthusiastic researcher called Barbara Hadley who gave a comical, creative, engaging presentation about how cancer spreads through the bloodstream. Barbara also won the Runner Up Prize! At this point, I was quite sure I knew who had won – in my mind, it was NOT me, and I was happy to have lost to this other person.

When they announced the winner I was shocked.

Me.

It was me.

I had somehow managed to beat these 11 other passionate presenters; people who, in my mind at least, I had already happily lost to.

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It sunk in and I couldn’t wipe the grin and surprise off my face. It took forever to fall asleep that night. It still doesn’t feel real. But I’m off to Perth for the Australian National Finals in May. Just getting to the state level was a massive boost to my confidence in scicomm. Making it to Nationals is just unreal.

I love science. And I love the doors that my scientific endeavours are opening for me this year. I’m seeking out those doors and knocking on them – hard!- but I also have to give thanks the organisations on other side who are opening those doors and deeming me worthy of letting through, too.

I see this as the beginning of establishing myself as a science communicator; a job that didn’t even exist when I first fell in love with discovery and wonder as a child.

 

These achievements are keeping me “up” while my drafts are torn to shreds and pieced back together again in a better form, while I wait impatiently to hear back from equally busy collaborators and for reagents to arrive for my next set of experiments, while I struggle to trek along the windy and precarious path to completing my PhD.

If that fails, there’s always crochet 😉

 

36 weeks til thesis

Yet again… I manage to be a week behind in posting. I’m still finding my rhythm for 2016 and currently feel a bit behind the beat 😦

Ways I’m trying to address this:

  • Committing to physical activity at least three times a week, for at least half an hour per session – for mental and physical health, but also to help wear me out so I sleep better.
  • Treating myself better with how I choose to fuel my body – eating and drinking with health and nutrition at the forefront of my thinking, instead of the instinctual “I’m so freaking tired and time-poor, just gimme a double strength ice break and a tub of potato gems with gravy” standard lunch that was not helping my waistline (as a CVD risk factor), blood pressure, digestion, or anaemia at all! It was a vicious cycle. I wasn’t setting myself up for success at all. I now have the energy to stop and question those cravings instead of blindly following my first instinct, and I feel so much better for it.
  • Sticking to my Gantt chart – breaking those larger tasks down into manageable pieces for each day of the week and physically ticking them off the To Do list. I see progress on a daily basis because of that system which in turn encourages me and spurs me on for the next task.

Yoga and reading in the sunshine, a chicken stir fry with tonnes of fresh greens, and my To Do List for Week 36 – these are all on equal footings in my revised priorities for 2016 and beyond

I’m now considering blocking time for different tasks throughout the week. I’ve been hesitant to do this in the past, because unlike high school or uni with the same class times from week to week, each week of a PhD requires different things of me. Some weeks will be very lab intensive; I’ll only leave the lab to print results or eat. Other weeks are very literature (lit) heavy, with hardcore thinking and critical analysis of my and other’s work consuming all my energy and concentration.

There are some things that I would like to do on a weekly basis though, that occur no matter what kind of week I’m having; taking time to tend to my herb garden, lose myself in the therapeutic mindlessness (or mindfulness) and creative beauty of crochet, and reflecting on the week for this blog. But as yet, I have no set day of the week to do these things. Even if it’s only blocking out time in my evenings, leaving the days free for lit or lab work as required, I think it could help to have some routine around which night holds which activity. Yes! We’ll see how that goes 🙂

My baby basil and latest crochet creation

 

As for this week’s lab work… I learned how to use the fluorescence microscope and took a bunch of cool pictures comparing different preparations of my silk isolate (middle and bottom rows) to the background level of fluorescence from the plastic backing (top row).

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So preeeetty!

 

I harvested my expanded cell line and froze down 12 million – that should be enough for all of the experiments I want to set up from here on out. Woohoo!!

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AAAALL of the cells!

And last but not least, I created a template for the form of my research paper based on the Instructions to Authors set out by my target journal. I’m filling it in bit by bit now as I chip away at writing up the story to accompany the figures I presented to my supervisors last week.

 

Hugging strangers at the airport

Yep. I think I’ve finally lost my marbles… gone bonkers… round the bend… completely lost my inhibitions…

I hugged a complete stranger in the ladies’ bathroom of the Cairns airport.

I should probably give you some back story here. I don’t think I’ve actually gone mad, but considering the onlookers’ general approach was “desperately-trying-to-pretend-I-don’t-see-that-woman-crying-her-eyes-out-at-the-basin” as they hurriedly washed their hands, touched up their lippy, smoothed their hair and got the heck outta there, I was certainly in the minority by stopping to ask if she was ok.

All I did was imagine myself in her place. Crying. Hyperventilating. Inconsolable. All I would want is for someone, ANYONE, to ask if they could do anything to help. Maybe even sit and chat for a while. I would just not want to feel so alone.

So after I had washed my hands, and smoothed my hair… and contemplated the “seeming like a nosey creepy psycho:beneficial human interaction” risk ratio, I asked her, “Are you ok?”

It seemed too weak a way to start the conversation – I mean, she was obviously not ok – but how else does one begin?

Initially, she politely denied anything was wrong with the usual “Oh no, it’s ok… thanks” and seemed embarrassed as she suddenly become aware of all the other people in the bathroom who were trying not to be aware of her. She tried to get her breathing under some semblance of control and wiped her face. But I didn’t just turn and leave. How could I? Something serious had just happened in this person’s life and none of her usual support network were there to, well, support her through whatever this was.

I inclined my head and continued, “Are you sure? Is there anything I can do? You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong but if I can help in any way, I’d like to.”

At this, she burst into a fresh wave of tears and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much, but there’s really nothing anyone can do.”

She stood there, a metre away from me, arms limp and defeated by her side, and sobbed. Openly, heart-wrenchingly sobbed.

I’m not sure where all my caution went, but it was gone. There was nothing else for it; a person in need of a hug, is a person in need of a hug. Of course, being complete strangers, I didn’t force it upon her (I’m preeeeeetty sure that’s an offence) but the least I could do was offer. And she could decline it if she wished.

“I don’t know what else I can do, but (pause) would you like a hug?”

The look on her face completely changed.

Relief.

Comfort.

A glimmer of hope and happiness at being welcomed into someone else’s space.

Her arms sprang up and reached out towards me as she quietly yet emphatically replied, “Yes!”

We embraced. I patted her back and stroked her hair, but said nothing. This didn’t need words. She cried into the corner of my neck and shoulder and clutched at my back like it was a lifebuoy. What felt like minutes later, she slowly released her grip, took a step backwards, wiped her face and whispered, “Thank you. I really needed that.”

I told her that she was most welcome, and that I hoped whatever was causing her so much pain and sadness would soon resolve. Without being conscious of it, I almost bowed to her with my palms together as a gesture of peace and farewell.

We entered that ladies’ room as strangers, and left as strangers, but somewhere in between, she allowed me to be her rock to cling to in whatever storm she was caught in that day. I offered myself up as whatever she needed, while others left her to her own devices. A year ago, I probably would have been one of the onlookers. I’m not sure exactly what has changed me – a lot has happened this year – but the part of me that would have held back, just didn’t. I suppose I realised I had nothing to lose by offering, and that gave me the confidence to approach her. The worst she could have done was decline me and berate me for suggesting that I could even begin to help with what she was going through – and even that, I know, was an unlikely outcome and not exactly a huge ordeal for me to live through considering I would likely never see this person again.

So why tell you all this?

I want to share my experience of choosing to offer to make someone else’s hard time a little easier, rather than making my life easier by ignoring it; to pass on a piece of that confidence I found somewhere inside me to take the risk of being harshly rejected for the potential benefit of someone else’s mental health. Perhaps if you find yourself being the onlooker, instead contemplate taking the opportunity to offer help. It didn’t cost me cent to have that conversation with her, but it made a difference to how she coped with her situation that day. To have someone offer their attention, time, non-judgemental support, and even a simple but heartfelt hug, restores a little of your faith in humanity.

In other news, I finally took the chance to say something encouraging to a complete stranger! (see previous post)

You never know what hidden battles anyone else is fighting so spread peace, love and kindness always – but especially this festive season.

Peace be with you!*

*Full disclosure: Although this is typically a Catholic phrase, I am not Catholic. I am an atheist who really likes the sentiment captured in that phrase. All you really need to know about that is: I live my life by a code of values, ethics, and morals which generally boils downs to the same basic principles at the core of most religions. The only big differences are that: I acknowledge myself as the decider of my decisions and thus the bearer of the consequences, good and bad; and I trust that science holds the answers to how we came to be here, but we, as individuals, decide what we do while we are here.

But that’s a WHOLE OTHER POST that I may never actually write.

I feel it is important to note that atheism does not preclude me from caring about other people. It does not preclude me from being compassionate and hoping that all people can live with a sense of peace and contentment – actually, that is exactly what I strive for and is what I saw lacking in the woman’s life that day. I merely hoped to contribute, in some small way, to rebuilding her sense of inner peace – not because I think it will put me in good favour with an omnipotent being, but simply because if I were in her place I would hope that someone would do the same for me.