Let’s not give up just yet. Change might be ahead.

After last month’s rough patch, things have -fortunately- improved a bit. Just at the time I was jaded about the wonderful world of academia, a few little things happened. And they have the merit to put me back  in a more combative and optimistic state of mind.

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Everyone I’ve been talking about the worst sides of academia actually agreed with me on the system’s unsustainability. It’s bad, because it reflects how weary people are this days. It was also irritating, because most people would just say things like “It’s the system, it won’t change, you have to play the game …”. I deeply think my french education clashes with this. I simply can’t understand this attitude. Not doing anything against this consumes my energy bits by bits. Petitions, strikes, but more importantly, constructive changes and improvements are incredibly important to me.

A few events  -small or more consequent-, the past week proved me, once more, that I’m not the only one to think like that.  And it seems things could change for the best in the future.

First, let’s start with the smallest thing. Lego is starting to commercialize women scientist toys. It’s a very small step, but it deserves to be highlighted. And probably does a better promotion of women in science then that awful spot EU had managed to come up with a few years ago.

Second, I made a pact. With a friend of mine, a senior post-doc, and aspiring future PI. If we ever get in these positions, we will take action to improve the system. Not that we cannot start now. For example, I decided that my thesis committee will be approx. 50/50 men and woman. Because sometimes you have to force things before they seem normal. And I don’t want to defend in from of a committee with only 55+ men; even tough it’s almost a tradition at my university.

Third, the cherry on the cake. We received an email from our department’s administration, asking for a report on the research output from each PI. A report they want every 3 MONTHS. MONTHS. I will not even take the pain to explain how crazy that is. Anyway, one of the PI’s  send an email back (cc-ing everyone) saying that this was simply demotivating, un-inspired, and useless. I was so happy someone actually stood up and dared to say no. No to this non-sens. No to administrators who have no idea that a good research paper necessitates years of work. No to evaluating research on a simple count of papers. Whatever they contain. I, and a few more PhD’s were so happy about this that we decided to buy a bottle of excellent scotch as a sign of support to that PI.

So yes, I think it will be possible to change things, as long as enough people are willing to simply say no to non-sense. And I hope our generation will have that strength.

5000 words, 3.5 years, and …

and now it really starts. La merde. The past week has probably been one of the most hellish week of my PhD.

See, the last 3 years, a.k.a., phase 1, I’ve been happily working on a research project. Starting almost from scratch, developing hypotheses, performing lots fo experiments, and slowly building up enough data for a good research paper, making the final figures, and writing (summarizing) it in 5000 words. That was the good, innocent and enjoyable part of being a PhD student.

Then came phase 2. Submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. I don’t know when it will end.

Nooooo, I wasn’t cranky. No, I wasn’t sad. No, I did not feel like my main job had become formatting stuff in Word. And counting character numbers. And converting PDF’s. And all of this meaningless s*****, just to be done for one or two days, before it came back, again, without explanations. Or standard letters. No, I did not half-joke with my supervisor I would open a bakery after my PhD and be done with all this non-sense. No, we did not have that depressing debate at university, about non-existant career perspectives, burn-outs, and universities being ruthless and terrible employers.

So let me make it clear: I know that no paper ever gets accepted just like this. It’s normal that it gets rejected, and reviewed, and edited. Nevertheless, it’s hard, because this is my work. My project for the last 3 years. Week-ends and late evenings. Overall, very hard work. And I find it impossible to stay calm, neutral, unaffected, placid, and objective in that case. We are people, not emotionless humanoids.

Yes, this is all normal. And it will eventually go away, because, yeah, experiments need to be done. The classic 4 phases I described previously. (I’m almost in phase 4, by the way).

 It is a bit less normal that subjective (or do I want to say, profit and hype-driven) editorial decisions control your scientific career. And by this I mean, it is even less normal that an impact factor, which is nothing more then a stupid number, is almost the only, yes, only, indicator, on paper, of the quality of your science.

And you know the part that revolts and disgusts me deeply ? It’s that we, scientists, do nothing about this. Or let’s say, almost nothing. “It’s the system, you have to play the game, it’s a phase we all go trough, you’ll never change it, bla bla bla …” .Yes, we are scared people, collaborating with an unfair and stupid system that ultimately drives good scientists in an other direction. Or should I say, kicks them out as soon as they are not productive enough. But why should it matter when you have tenure, or publish enough, or get grants … everything’s fine, right ? And why should it matter when you know the expiration date of your career already ? Haha.

Now, the question that I haven’t figured out yet is, can I comply to these unwritten rules ? Can I accept and play that game ? When do you stop looking at yourself in the mirror ? Frankly, I have no idea. I’ve written on this blog mostly positive things about science (1,2,3,4, and many more). They remain true, and I do still enjoy all these things. This hasn’t changed.  But is the price to pay really worth it ? That’s the million dollar question. Bah. Future me will figure it out. For now, I have to get back to the paper factory sometimes called university.

And, if I ever make my way in there (less then 10% chances, yes), dear bloody system, I am coming for you. I’m not alone. And you don’t know who you’re messing with. Like all revolutions, this one will start when the last straw breaks the camel’s back.

 

–Sorry for slight excessive dramaturgy, I really needed to rant write this down and get it out of my head.

Flying to Brazil

Even drosophilists who spend most of their time in fly rooms are aware of this: The Football World Cup starts in less then a month. 

This means: live streaming games in the lab, going to pubs watch games after work, and … making bets and predictions!

I discovered a few weeks ago, via Twitter, this very cool tournament prediction contest—with a science twist, called SciTourney (created by Intergrated DNA technologies).

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Each of the 32 countries had been attributed a Drosophila gene name. And fly people know how to be creative when it comes to gene names ! For example, France is “Burgundy“, Australia is “Crocodile” and Japan is “Sumo“. It all makes perfect sense, right ?  Click here to see the full list! 

The ultimate question is to know which Drosophila gene will be dominant in Brazil ! (My prediction ? Toucan)

Anyone can participate to the tournament. It’s free, fun, and sooo nerdy ! (And there are a few prizes) The more, the merrier, right ? Join by clicking here.

It’s not everyday that football and flies come together. 

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Thinking about post-PhD life

There is no week, literally no week, since the beginning of the year, without discussions about what life will be after obtaining the PhD degree. Most of my friends started their PhD around the same time then me, and we are all reaching this phase of starting to think about what’s next. So here are some of the options:

The obvious (and easiest ?): Do a post-doc.

It’s an attractive option for many reasons: staying in academia (and enjoying it’s perks), starting a fresh and exciting new project, getting more experienced, gaining and sharing knowledge, teaching, travelling, meeting new people, and so on …But: 1 out of 10 post-docs (at the best) will make it in academia. So, why not make an exit earlier, and not risk being disappointed, discouraged, frustrated, jaded, and rejected by a ruthless academic world.

Plan B’s 

First, I guess they should be called plan A’s, since they concern most of PhD students. There are lots of things to do: Research and development in industry, science communication, teaching, project management. Science policy, global health. But also, owning a bar, a restaurant, a bakery, a bed and breakfast, a travel agency, a book store. Raising goats and making your own cheese.

I have plan B’s and plan A’s. And no idea what will happen (I mean, who does, really ?)

I enjoy research right now, which is easy to say when things go well, and when hard work is decently appreciated. So why not continue with a post-doc and go for it. Academia. I’d love to have my own fly lab some day. With an awesome fly room, full of flies, books, drawings, discussions, crossing schemes, and laughs. I have a picture of this in my head. But sometimes, luck can fail you. Life might get in the way. So, you can only hope for the best. Especially do your best, and never regret not giving it your best shot.

Closed doors generally open new ones. A this stage, i think it’s important to at least think about those things. Develop other skills. Writing this blog, developing the lab’s website, tweeting,  made me realize I like that kind of stuff. I love making my powerpoint slides and telling people what I do. All these skills I develop “on the side” might become truly useful someday.

Well, that was a short summary of things that go trough our minds these days. Nothing deep or insightful, but I guess i needed to write it down.

Can you … Count flies with your iPhone ?

… The answer is YES !

I got this question from a reader of this blog a few month ago on a previous post. I thought I would share the answer I had given him over here as well. Just in case a poor student, somewhere, spends time counting manually and googles something like “isn’t there a better way to do this ?” …

If you recall, I wrote about this app called Fast Counter, developed by Shazino, and available on the App Store. It does a very decent job counting bacteria on petri dishes, as long as there are not too small and dense.

For a drosophilist, the connection from counting colonies on a plate to counting flies on a pad is not too difficult to make. So I tried it by myself (because, really this was a high priority ;)) and it worked very well.

Of course, flies should not be too dense, and not sticking to each other. By setting the detection threshold in the app, you will actually get an extremely decent accurate number.

Here is an example of the read-out you get:

Experience_#16

Pretty good stuff, huh ?

Maximal number of flies you can count would be around 200-300, accuracy of course is better if you put less.

Have you eve tried it ? If so, what are your impressions ?

 

 

 

A new year, the last year

It’s been long since I have not written about anything here. As the title of this blog says it, this new year 2014 is officially the last one of my 4-year PhD track. It feels weird and right at the same time.

Weird because time goes by so fast, because I’m starting to seriously think about what I want to do next, and because I can actually see my PhD ending in a still-blurry but imaginable future.

Right because the 4th-year PhD student I am is so different from the 1st-year PhD student I was. I enjoy being in the lab so much more, I feel like I belong there. Right because I look forward to be a post-doc. It’s scary, but I guess the right kind of scary. The same I had before I started the PhD. Right because although I love the place I’m currently living in (The Netherlands), I can also see myself moving somewhere else. Some place more sunny, and maybe a bit of a bigger city.

I’m blogging not-so-regularly (to say the least) anymore because everything got busier, denser, intenser the last months. Paper writing, experiments of course, but also conferences, abstracts, student supervision, and having a life besides of this. And it works well right now. I generally enjoy this business, and somehow work more efficiently and productively in this context.

But I wanna try posting stuff here regularly in the coming year. For the few people out there it could be interesting for. And for myself, because I like this idea of holding a “mood board”, or “journal” of my PhD times.

So I’ll come back soon, hopefully with something more substantial then New year’s Resolutions.