Book review 2: I wish I’d made you angry earlier

I bought that book because I was intrigued by the title.

I wish I’d made you angry earlier is actually a series of essays on Science, Scientists, Humanity; written by Nobel-prize laureate Max Perutz.  (Amazon link here)

It is impossible to present Max Perutz in a few lines (That’s why we have Wikipedia); but basically, among his many achievements like solving structure of hemoglobin, he was also member and chairman of the Medical Research Council Laboratory (MRC) of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. It is just one of these places significantly enriched in Nobel Prize winners. (14 for that particular lab; like Fred Sanger, Watson & Crick, Sydney Brenner, …)

Getting back to our subject, his book was a delight to read. It is a series of essays that can be read more or less just by cherry picking the one you feel like reading at a precise moment. I like to say that it describes History and histories of science of the 20th century.

Thereby, it contains chapters about the making of the nuclear bombscience during cold warphilosophies of science, and the advent of molecular biology after WWII. (And more …)

I liked it because it does not contain meaningless gossips about scientists, but stories of the men and women behind famous scientist names. It makes these big names of science more human. The fact that they did their research in sometimes dramatic and difficult conditions makes you feel so lucky about our nowadays research conditions we tend to complain a lot about.

The preface is incredibly meaningful, and I probably read it about 10 times. Max Perutz notably writes : “Like children out on a treasure hunt, scientists don’t know what they will find”. This kind of sets the tone of the book.

One hidden jewel is Max Perutz’s “Commonplace Book” were he lists all the quotes of philosophers, scientists, writers that he likes. It’s such a pleasure to read them over and over.

I would definitely recommend this read to all people, scientists or not, who like to read about science. It is very accessible, witty, and clever.


PS: You’ll know why it is called “I wish I made you angry ealier” when you read it. That’s my cliffhanger.

Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.

For about a year now, we’ve been living in a post-Jobsian world. I know this sounds way to dramatic, but I like to make fun of my Apple geekness. Like a lot of people, I read  the biography of Steve Jobs, by Walter Issacson shortly after he passed away. I admit I was (and still am) quite fascinated by this personality and the incredible life he had. Despite the fact that he was probably self-centered, arrogant, and despotic; he was also incredibly visionary and clever.

I did enjoy reading more about this man, and complemented the book by watching some YouTube movies in their context. Somehow, iBooks did not manage to include them directly in the e-book. For shame.

Anyway, one of his very famous speeches is the one he gave to the students of Stanford in 2005. I find it quite inspirational, despite quite idealistic (but don’t we need it sometimes ?).

One of my favorite moment is that one:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

And also, he concludes with “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. “

*A PhD is just a job*

I could not disagree more with that statement.

Curiously, I hear it regularly here, in the Netherlands. In France, it would not come to any PhD student’s mind. Let me explain. The dutch system considers the PhD students like “researchers in training”, and treats them with a decent salary, and employment conditions anybody could ever dream of. In France, you’re paid more ore less minimum wage, you’re neither an employee, nor a student, and don’t get advantages from the one or the other.

Should I mention that dutch PhD’s are generally healthy and happy until the end of their thesis, sometimes built families, have kids, hobbies, and lives outside the lab while during their thesis. Situation in France (but I can talk only about my experience) is faaaaar away from that.

But … (there is always a but …) PhD student in the Netherlands are often older then their french counterpart. They have never-ending deadlines, and a very very relaxed study plan. Therefore, some master’s students from the lab are older then me, a second year PhD.

Also, the fact that they are considered like employees makes them  think that they are just employes. 9 to 5 job. A pay at the end of the month. Results to deliver. Working late in the evening or during week-end is more exceptional then normal. Métro-boulot-dodo like we would say in French. (Literally translated as subway-work-sleep)

And this is exactly what a PhD is not (at least in my opinion). I would never count my hours of work and stop when reaching what stipulates my contract. I work at night, and sometimes on week-end. And I don’t spend a day without thinking about my research.  Even after a 3 week vacation break, I have to admit. And sometimes I dream about perfect experiments and ideas that I forget in the morning. And I like it that way. I feel “tied” to my project forever. I love that feeling. Being “tied”, and paradoxically also free. Being paid to think, to be creative, to try things, to speculate indefinitely, to organize things just like you want. Of course sometimes you get angry, or doubtful, and hope you would not care about it that much and forget things for a few days. But this feeling never last very long, honestly.

I just hope it’s not some kind long-lasting “honeymoon phase” that will break like a bubble. I started my PhD 1 year and a half ago, (although it feels like yesterday), and hope this state will remain permanent. I cannot imagine myself doing anything else right now. And these are all the reasons why I would never call my PhD a job. A regular job does not obsess you that much, does not bring that much excitement, eagerness, motivation, and satisfaction. Waking up every day for something that you love and care so much about is such a gift. I hope I never loose this feeling. Otherwise, I’ll aways have this blog post to remember what it felt like. Some days, life feels just so sweet.

The 4 phases.

Sometimes, on the though path to the PhD,  problems, deceptions, or frustrations can arise. I noticed after this almost 1 year and a half of experience (already …) that I always go through the same 4 phases. Let me explain …

Phase 1 : Disappointment and discomfiture.

Duration : 2 to 4 hours. 

You got some reviewer’s comments back and your article is not publishable yet, your experiment majestically failed for the 3rd time, you just ended a crapy work meeting … and you enter the world of dissapointement. You just stare at the emptiness in front of you, or eat chocolate, and black-out. What the hell are you doing here ? Why did you ever go to research ? Or  even to university ? Are you really good enough for it ? Are you an impostor ? You start dreaming about  a 9 to 5 job, about opening a bakery in France, or raising goats in the mountains. Going back to a simplier life, because life in the lab went suddenly from nice to sucky. You wish you could go home, wrap yourself up in covers, and look at a feel-good movie. But no, your are still stuck in the lab for a few more hours. Time for phase 2.

Phase 2 : Anger and fury. 

Duration : 2 hours to 1 day 

Who the f*** this reviewer thinks  he is ? Why the hell is this experiment failing over and over ? Did somebody mess up the reagents ? The machine you’re using was probably built before World War II ? Why is this colleague suddenly so annoying ? Why is there always so much noise in this lab? Your computer runs on Windows ? … ? Yes, every.little.thing. makes you angry. Vapor gets out of your ears, and bubbles out of your mouth. And you blame everything on the others. People see it and leave you alone in your angriness.

Phase 3 : Acceptance or resilience

Duration : a few minutes 

Doing a PhD is exhausting enough, and the little energy you had left, you spent it on anger. You’re left with no other choice then accept the situation. Maybe that reviewer has a point. Maybe you should take a look at the protocol and at the literature, again. That meeting was not the worst after all. Maybe you contaminated the reagents yourself. It’s just human. Happens to everybody. You have to cope with it anyways. Life goes on.

Phase 4 : Re-motivation and blissful optimism.

Duration : A few hours (if you’re unlucky) to a few weeks (if you’re a lucky b*****d).

Suddenly, you can see the positive side of things again. You see the glass half full rather then help-empty. Suddenly, you grab your pipette and try this experiment again. You address the comments of the reviewers and think in your head “There, you’re happy now  ?”  In a gesture of complete altruism, you decide to put some order in the reagent stock. You make the most awesome PowerPoint slides ever. You write an entire page of organized “TO-DO’s” and truly think you can do it in 2 weeks. You consider coming in this week-end, and you actually do it. You love all you colleagues and feel blessed to be in such a great lab. Salty bubble, the famous song from the movie “Whatever works” is in your head. Enzymes digest DNA, antibodies catch your favorite protein, qPCR looks great, you repeat you experiment 3 times in a row, and nail your work presentation.

Sadly, life in the lab is hilly, and made of embushes. All you have to keep believing in is that after Phase 1 comes phase 2, phase 3, and phase 4. Again, and again, and again … until the END.