PI Quotes – 9 – “The most important experiments are the ones you don’t do”.

Some of the people I worked with have been a great inspiration for me. And overall, I really like to take a few steps back to think about how science works in general. The other day, trying to decide between which experiments to do first, I thought about what a great supervisor once told me: “The most important experiments are the ones you don’t do”.

In the same lines, Louis Armstrong once said that the most important notes were the ones he didn’t play; and Rodin said that the sculpting process was about removing the stone that was not part of the sculpture.

 

It is unsettling a first, but let me explain. In the case of scientific research, we all know that we have only limited amounts of time to discover new things, and make a point of it. Very often, I find myself in front of an ocean of possibilities, curiosities, and things that a want to try and test. One option to tackle this is to get students and let them help you. The other is to make choices, more or less rationally. Choosing, not what is the most important, and what is a bit less important, and leave it on the side for later. Only so that you uncover the main path, or the critical experiment. By the way, people now call this the “money experiment” or the “money figure”. Not sure I approve that appellation, but you get the idea.

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Being in the second-half of a PhD means doing this on a weekly basis, and I sometime regrets early days of innocent and random wanderings trough experiments. I am a least grateful that my PI let me do that for a while, if only it could last a bit longer …

The thrill

When people ask me why I do a PhD, I never really now what to answer … Is “because this is what I like to do” not enough ? But what do I actually like about it ? Some days, I am really not sure anymore; but then comes that moment. A defining moment reminding you why you like doing science. I think it applies to me, and I am sure it is true for many other scientists.

It’s the thrill.

The thrill when you suddenly think that are on the path of discovering something new.

It’s that moment of solitude that you generally don’t immediately share with anybody else. It’s that impression of having something truly great and novel, and the certainty that you are the first and only one in the world having that thought at that precise moment. These are the most magical and precious moments I had in my science life …

Of course, there are different kinds and levels of thrills. 

The intellectual thrill happens only when two neurons that never connected before suddenly do so. You have a new idea, no data to support it, but it sounds brilliant to you. Sadly, after a few days of evaluating the idea, or “submiting it for internal review” to you colleagues, you often leave it on the side of the road because you realize it was more science-fiction then science.

The practical thrill happens when you get new exciting data. It is more solid then the intellectual thrill, and is obviously more exciting. That kind of thrill can influence your next experiments and interests, and actually change or embellish your research project.

This week I had an “in silico” thrill while analyzing some data. It’s somewhere in between an intellectual and practical thrill (I am more a wet lab kind of person). Maybe in a week I will leave it in the back of my head, or toss it away; but for the moment I am still obsessed with it …

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10 simple rules …

Just discovered this a few days ago … a little series of articles from Plos Computational Biology entitled “10 simple rules …

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Pretty interesting and nice to read, these articles are giving advice to people in science of all levels and areas. Among the ones I liked the best were:

Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants

 Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published

 Ten Simple Rules for a Good Poster Presentation

 Ten Simple Rules for Making Good Oral Presentations

 Ten Simple Rules for Selecting a Postdoctoral Position (ahhhh)

 … and finally Ten Simple Rules for Graduate Students

In the latter, you will find the following recommendations:

Rule 1: Let Passion Be the Driving Force of Your Success

I could not agree more.

Rule 2: Select the Right Mentor, Project, and Laboratory

Essential, but also very very difficult to do. Often, it relies more on an impression, a gut feeling, a connection; then on a conscious or rational choice. Like Blaise Pascal once said, “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ignore”, which in english would translate as “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”.

Rule 4: Remember, Life Is All about Balance

True. True. True. We should not feel bad about it.

Rule 9: Build Confidence and a Thick Skin

For sure necessary to survive now and later on …

 

 

If you feel like reading more, all hyperlinks are already in the text. Ok, if you don’t feel like scrolling all the way up, here you go.

New things, old feelings.

My new years resolutions of writing regularly is sinking already; but hey … circumstances are exceptional. I’ve been busy sitting up a decent website for my lab, and busy doing things that were new for me.

Tout d’abord, my first student is graduating tomorrow. It’s strange, because not so long ago, I was graduating, and now I am sitting among the jury members. Not idea how this will turn out … probably fine tough.

And my student was so sad to leave the lab today, had a gift for me, and said she would not like to leave at all. Somehow, it made me feel like I had done my job right, despite the little obstacles on the road.

Ensuite, last week-end took place a 3 hours brainstorming session with our group, and our “homework” was to think about what the research directions could be, what the big questions of the field were, how we should approach them, etc …

Men this was tough. I never had to put that much thoughts in it, because it’s so easy to focus on your little PhD project, and keep the big picture blurry in the background. This was a good wake-up from the lethargy. And I realized abruptly how difficult that “job” really was. Making plans for things that cannot really be planned. Thinking about the conflicts between your ideal research plans, and the ones that take into account some strategy and avoid you crab nests. Deciding where to focus. And how much the costs in people, hands, and money would be.

Overall, I was relatively happy with the ideas I could put on paper under short notice, and maybe with more training and time, I could actually draw comprehensive and realistic research lines.

I’m so glad I’m not a PI just yet (maybe, eventually some day, but hey, …) and can enjoy the time where money comes in, and I get to worry only about my own projects. Ah, the luxury …

Halfway. *sigh*

Here I am. Halfway trough my PhD thesis. Already.

I did not even have that much time to think about it yet. Lab life, and life outside got more busy and hectic then usual; and somehow it does not fell that it will slow down anytime soon. Everybody tells me that a PhD goes like an exponential curve. A slow and relaxed start, but a fast acceleration towards the ends. Right know I can feel I am right at the moment of final acceleration -already- because let’s face it, 2 years is nothing in research time.

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So why not reflect on these 2 first years of being a PhD student. After my master’s, I though I knew already many things, and that doing a PhD would not be such a new experience. Well, could I have been more wrong ? I explained in a previous post what is is to be a happy PhD student, and how nice it can be. The amount of things I learned since two years is tremendous.

1. I am grateful to have landed in a such a good lab. Nice colleagues, nice atmosphere, and nice supervisor. I had just the right amount of supervision, and the right amount of space and liberty to blossom without to much pressure or competition. I think the most important thing I learned is a certain way to think about science; and a way of doing it in a realistic but also joyful and exciting manner. I am very conscious of all the things I still have to get a grasp at, but for the first time it feels like this is doable. It’s not that scary anymore.

2. Also, I feel like I belong to the scientific community now. As a candid, naive, new member; but member nevertheless. I am getting more and more interested in the history of science, scientists, and the way it truly works (or let’s say, always carries on despite of all the rest of the world events) . I have an growing list of book, articles, blogs I want to read, and only worry about the fact that I will never have enough time in my life to read about all the things  I’m interested in.

3. Also, just as importantly, I feel like I belong to this new generation of scientist that can make things change. (Yes, I am an optimistic) I will write about this much more in the coming months, but I see and hear science changing, voices raising. Scientist talk on twitter, blog about their research, ask for open access, text mining, alternative ways of publication, men/women equality, better work conditions, and recognition by society. It’s like we’re reaching this point where people are too unhappy to let the system go on. And I definitely want to be part of the change.

So now, 2 more years. To get more data, publish, make to most out of it, and figure out what will be next. We will see. I’ve never been too much of a planner.

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Student Quotes -1- “They don’t hire technicians anymore, they hire PhD students”

We have quite a lot of students around in the lab these days. They are either at the level of bachelors, technician school, masters, etc … and it’s quite funny to hear them talk about our world sometimes. Somehow, they are still “outsiders” and incredibly naive about things. But they can also be unbiased observers.

A few weeks ago, one of them said : “You know, they don’t hire technicians anymore, they hire PhD students”. Hummmmm ….. that kinda felt like a SLAP in the face. Although is was not meant like that. And I might be over-thinking it a little bit.

Somehow, it still felt like the secondary meaning of that remark had some truth. Sometimes, you do feel like a technician, with just some more theoretical knowledge. But you have to do the pipetting and the thinking/reading/writing; and the pressure of getting good data makes it difficult to keep these two activities balanced.

With my bench mate, we decided to tackle this problem by buying a big white board for our desk where we doodle ideas, sketches, etc … Standing in front of it, we talk about our weird observations and far-fetched theories. These moments of pure speculations going wild and wilder are among the best moments in our PhD’s.

So no, we are not technicians, but sometimes you have to actively work on it. 

On the way to Paperless-land / Episode 1 – Evernote

In parallel to my research project, I have more “geeky” project going on: achieving paperless-ness. I am not the most organized person, and accumulate stacks of papers with doodles, administrative stuff, research papers, train tickets, reimbursement files, etc … And I will not mention how tidy this still looks compared to other desks I saw in research labs in the past.

I took a resolution during my first year of PhD that until the end I would completely switch to a digital and organized system. To do so, I use some iPhone/iPad apps which are absolutely essential for that. The most important one is Evernote.

I take all my meeting/seminars/conference notes in it. It is synchronized with my other devices, computers (home and lab), and saved on the cloud. I am able to effortlessly organize it, and do in-text search if I look for a particular thing. If I’m having a “I-don’t-feel-like-taking-notes” day, I record the talk.

This App saved me so many random unreadable notes and doodles spread in different lab books already. And I can actually find back things that I know to have written down somewhere and at some point.

It’s free also, so try it out, people 🙂