Chemistry picture of the year: Burden

The Ring

This replica One Ring I’ve been carrying around for a better part of this year is symbolic of two things: the first is my undying love for the works of Tolkien, and the second is the different kind of burden I’ve been carrying. The fact that this is genuinely symbolic for me is, in itself, emblematic of my geekiness, but that’s beside the point.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know what this post is about, while those of you who have been following my blog since last year will be feeling a sense of déjà vu. I’m frustrated to report that these two periods of absence are related. Let me start at the beginning.

Following my confirmation in late February, I was preparing to present a colloquium (a short talk on a topic unrelated to my own research) to the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. I also picked up a social media management job at the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the role of president at a newly established cross-institution Young Chemists’ Group, increased my ballet dancing to two classes a week and adopted a cat. This seems like a lot to have had on my plate at once, but after recovering from my intense bout of glandular fever last year, I felt superhuman. My energy levels were through the roof, and I was determined to make up for those months spent juggling illness and PhD studies last year.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that I started slipping. At first, I started spending my weekends mostly asleep. I’d sleep 12-14 hours a night and often have up to a 3-hour nap during the day. I’d complain to my mother, a former nurse, about how I felt sick without having “any real symptoms.” I often felt disoriented during the day, and began struggling with word recollection — I even had trouble remembering names of people I’d encounter several times a week. I stopped dismissing these as side-effects of simple tiredness when, during a ballet class, I had to sway off the dance floor and lie down to avoid fainting. I went to see a doctor. Blood tests came back negative. He said to come back if I started feeling worse.

It became obvious to everyone that I was ill. I couldn’t go to the university on consecutive days: one day I would work, then sleep for two. I started feeling more lethargic, more confused, more dizzy. I stopped attending ballet, relinquished my presidency and had to return the cat to his foster carer. I missed meetings and appointments. I saw two other doctors. More blood tests and a chest X-ray came back negative. By this point, it was late April. My “diagnosis of exclusion,” as the third doctor put it, was chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s common for it to follow from a viral infection like glandular fever, he said, but uncommon for it to skip a couple of months like mine did. My symptoms fit all the diagnostic criteria.

My extremely supportive supervisor and I decided that the best course of action for me would be to take sick leave from June to August, inclusive. I was prepared to live on my savings, but to my delight, the scholarship department approved paid sick leave for almost the entire duration. I’d like to use this space to thank the University of Melbourne for its support of the sufferer of a still poorly-understood condition.

Recovery has been frustratingly slow, not the least because there is no medication or readily available treatment. I’m not a patient person by nature, but this illness has forced patience upon me. CFS, in my experience, isn’t something you can fight; it fights back. You try to push through it, to expand your limits, and you suffer the payback — if not immediately, then the following day. Really, this illness feels almost like it was crafted to make me do the absolute opposite of what I instinctively want to do. It’s the anti-me.

This is accurate also because my experience of CFS is primarily neurological. I still maintain that I have never felt exhaustion like I did during my bout of glandular fever last year, and yet, I am now less equipped to deal with the lethargy that I do feel. I often feel defeated by my illness. I need someone to tear me out of bed in the morning, or I will sleep until I’m good and ready. I’m often irrationally emotional and disoriented. My writing might feel different to read because of my difficulty to concentrate and access my mental faculties; my word recollection is still impaired, alongside my general memory. I struggle to keep on top of plans for more than a day in advance.

I’ve caught myself wishing that instead of CFS, I had an “actual physical illness.” I would wish that there was a pill I could take, or a treatment I could attend. And then I’d just feel guilty, because I can’t imagine how many people would wish what they had was as relatively benign as CFS. I’d feel guilty, because my father, a stage 4 bowel cancer survivor (in remission for over four years), would pity me and tell me that he understands how chronic illness feels. He also seems to believe that I will be better and stronger for this experience.

I have not yet had and aren’t convinced I will have some sort of illness-related epiphany. I do acknowledge that thanks to CFS, for the first time since basically the beginning of high school, I’ve been able to focus solely on what I and my body need. I’ve been able to remember how much I love spending time outside, instead of simply using that space beyond my front door as a gateway from where I am to where I need to go. I remember that research is attractive to me because I love doing things with my hands, from knitting to gardening. I get to enjoy the numerous wonderful doggies that people in my area take out on walks in the afternoon and I am occasionally privileged enough to get to pet. Currently, I don’t view these things as an equal exchange for my suffering, but my perspective may change with time. I don’t know if I’ll now magically become a better-adjusted person with a more balanced view of work and life. I’m skeptical, but I guess we’ll see.

Without doubt, I’m doing much better than I was at the beginning of my sick leave. I’m starting to feel more like myself, and my endurance of physical and mental exertion is increasing. I’m optimistic that within a couple more months, I’ll be back to normal. My supervisor continues to be supportive and has approved my plan to return to my studies part-time until the end of the year. I am wary of stories that recount people with CFS relapsing as they return to their normal lives after the worst is over, so I’ll have to remain diligent about not over-exerting myself.

It’s been a rocky start to my PhD studies for sure. I’m glad I’m not particularly superstitious, because if I were, I might have already walked away. Even so, I fear there may be a limit to the hardship I’ll endure. Here is to hoping my limits aren’t tested.

Thank you for reading this post. I’d like to offer a special thanks to all of my wonderful Tweeps who have supported me this year. If you or someone you know are suffering from CFS, please feel free to contact me to exchange stories. I found sharing experiences extremely helpful, since finding medical support was such an uphill struggle. As always, I can be contacted in the comments, by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com, and on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.

Advertisements

Chemistry picture of the week: #altchemjobs

20160303_110402

This desk is not the desk I work at at the University of Melbourne. This is a totally different desk in a totally different building! This post will be the story of how I got to this desk and what I do there, permeated with how excited I am about it all.

I joined the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) late last year in order to be involved in the Victorian Young Chemists Group, also formed last year. I was skimming the national newsletter for RACI early this year, when I came across a small section asking for volunteers to write parts of a coffee table book planned to be released as a part of the RACI centenary celebrations next year. As evident from this blog, science communication and writing are major loves of mine and a possible career path to follow after my graduation, so I penned an e-mail to the CEO stating my willingness to help, “despite only being a student.” I included a link to this very blog as an example of a more casual writing project.

What I wasn’t expecting was a call the very next day from a woman at the RACI national office who informed me that they would like to offer me a job, would I be available to come in for an interview?

Turns out, RACI had recently lost the student (thankfully not literally) who had been in control of their social media accounts. Several employees and committee members of RACI had since taken it upon themselves to post a little on these accounts, but since they also had other, arguably more important duties, the accounts were suffering. The national office was keen to employ someone with the specific purpose to control the social media accounts, with the aim to engage the wider chemistry community.

I went to the interview, and honestly, it was a little awkward. I had had a couple of hours to prepare relevant questions, which was helpful, but I don’t think either my employers or I really knew what we were looking for. Although I’m very active on social media daily in my personal life, I became irrationally afraid that doing social media for a corporation would be very different from what I do as an individual, and that I don’t have the necessary qualifications for the job. I’m also still very Finnish at heart, and although I’ve learnt to sell myself on paper, I tend to be very modest about my skills in person. Despite all of this, my employers still decided they would like to have me on board. We agreed that I would start after my confirmation.

When my first day arrived on the third of March, I was still a little afraid that I just wouldn’t know what I was doing. Once I was done with admin stuff and actually got to sit down at my desk and log on to the social media accounts, all of those doubts evaporated. I spend more time on Twitter than I’d really like to admit, and I’m pretty familiar with how social media operates. In just a couple of minutes, I found I was really just feeding my addiction and enjoying myself.

What totally blows my mind, though, is that I have a job now. I have a chemistry job! An #altchemjob! It feels good.

Do you have an #altchemjob? Do you want an #altchemjob? Let me know in the comments or on chemistryintersection@gmail.com. You can also tweet @Lady_Beaker.

 

Chemistry picture of the week: Ugrad-postgrad relations

20160224_153005

Lest I offend through the assumption that I’m referring to undergraduates as pigs (albeit really cute ones), I should begin by explaining the relation of this week’s picture to the title of this post. As a part of orientation week at the University of Melbourne, there were several activities around campus. I personally avoid the O-week activities with the attitude that they’re not really meant for me, but walking past this petting zoo, I just couldn’t resist. It was late in the day so the crowds had dissipated, and the tiny, pudgy piggies were too much for my poor softie heart.

O-week marks the beginning of the first teaching semester. For postgraduates, this is the time we re-adjust to the reality of sharing our campus with thousands of undergraduates. Virtually from November to March, we’ve only shared the campus with academics, administrators and summer semester undergraduates, who are but a small fraction of the whole student body. It’s been blissfully quiet. The commute to campus from the city centre has been swift and comfortable, the walkways have been empty and the lines to food outlets have been short. In the chemistry building specifically, the instruments in the teaching labs have been available at any hour of the day. Starting Monday, all of that will change.

I grudgingly admit to myself that I resent the undergraduates. Firstly, it’s difficult not to feel a little possessive of our habitat, the campus. We’re here every day for most of the year, while most undergrads only share our campus for 24 weeks per year. Surely, that means we have more right to it than they do? Realistically, that’s not true at all — those undergraduates have gained entrance by their own merit, and more than that, are accumulating significant debt just to come here every year. They pay for the operation of the university, and we benefit from the facilities that money buys. If anything, they have more right to this place than we do.

Secondly, a part of my resentment arises from the sheer volume of undergraduate students passing through these buildings yearly. Navigating crowds is unpleasant at best; at its worst, it triggers my anxiety, which can make me a flustered, unproductive mess for the rest of the day. When the vast majority of that crowd is made up of undergraduates, it’s hard not to blame them for that.

The volume of students also makes this resentment easier to cultivate. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that all of those faces in the crowd belong to individuals. Instead, they blur together, lumped into that broad category of “undergrads”. As we know from any sort of discrimination, it is much easier to project your negative feelings onto a group of people if you don’t associate with them personally. Even if unintentional, it’s really about dehumanisation — about talking about a group of people as an abstract label.

I would argue that this detachment between the students and faculty is to some extent cultivated by the modern university system. I feel like instead of being a part of the institution, the undergraduates simply pass through the turning cogs of a degree factory. When tertiary degrees are becoming increasingly common, the volume of students is becoming unmanageable. There is no way we can form personal connections with even just the thousands of first year chemistry students passing through our lecture halls each year. We do make a cursory attempt at it by having those smaller lab classes and tutorials with face-to-face time with postgraduate students as demonstrators or tutors. The postgraduate is still a teacher, though, and holds the undergraduate’s grades in their hands, which makes the relationship loaded. For the undergraduates, it may even cultivate resentment, if they feel that the teacher is not being fair or doing their job adequately.

There are two ways this gap between undergraduates and faculty could be bridged, I think. The first is by a social connection. A chemistry society — or, at the very least, a series of events through the postgraduate society — that involves all of faculty, postgraduates and undergraduates would form a community where communication between each group is encouraged.

The second is more personal, and it’s through humility. Remembering that the reason I’m a postgraduate student is because I’m passionate about chemistry and that I want to share that passion with others. The chemistry undergraduates are a perfect audience for that, really, since they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have at least the tiniest interest in science. If I don’t take advantage of a captive audience, well, that makes me a bad science communicator, doesn’t it?

You can leave your opinions in the comments below, contact me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.

Chemistry picture of the week: CONFIRMED

20160218_091600

After several weeks of working on a written report and a handful of intense days creating and practicing a related presentation, it arrived: the day of my confirmation. Given how nervous I’d been in early January when my supervisor and I reviewed my results, discussed panelists and finally set the date, I expected to be dying of anxiety. Instead, I felt surprisingly calm. I had run through my talk twice in front of audiences, and I’d edited my slides to make sure all the cues I needed were there. The only thing I was unsure about were the questions — you never know what the panel is going to ask. That’s almost helpful in controlling performance anxiety, though, because if you can’t control it, why worry about it?

The talk was scheduled as the first thing in the morning, and I am the furthest you can be from a morning person, but I still arrived an hour and a half early. The hour I spent looking through my slides one last time. The last half hour I spent in the room of my confirmation, strutting about and practicing ballet steps, feigning confidence until the confidence found me. Owning a space you’re about to give a presentation in is really helpful, actually. If there’s one thing you take away from this blog post, let it be that dancing in the room you’re about to give a talk in is a great way to get rid of nervous energy and to feel calm and confident.

The talk went well, although not quite as smoothly as the practice talk had gone. My voice went croaky a couple of times, and I had to settle with some less elegant word choices since my brain wasn’t working quite as fast. Still, I talked slowly and evenly, which goes against my natural instincts of prattling off my thoughts as fast as I physically can. I never froze and I remembered everything I had wanted to explain. I’m happy with how I did. I don’t really remember being asked anything difficult about my work specifically. Mostly, they gave me suggestions, which was nice – the perspective of another expert is always welcome. There were a few general chemistry questions about whether I’d considered the oxidation state of my metal and how I could tell the difference. I blanked on my first row transition metals, which annoyed me, especially since I easily listed them later in the day. I’m the type of personality that obsesses over insignificant failures like that, so I keep trying to push it out of my head so as not to get unreasonably angry with myself.

All in all, my panel was, in their words, “impressed” with the amount of work I’d done, commenting that I’d clearly been working hard. That was surprising for me to hear, since even though I know I have been, I didn’t think it showed from the results I had — which, frankly, feel meager to me. A lot of my time has been spent on wrestling with this infuriatingly complicated crystal structure, which isn’t conducive to the production of more concrete results.

There it is, though: my candidature has been confirmed. My panel assessed my work and believed that I could work the rest of the way through to the conclusion of a PhD. No longer a PhD candidate, I’m now a PhD student.

It feels good.

Share your own confirmation stories or questions in the comments, on Twitter with @Lady_Beaker, where I tweet about my daily life as a now-PhD student. You can also e-mail me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com.

Chemistry picture of the week: Australasian Crystallography School 2016

I have quickly gone from not having enough to having too much to talk about. The last two weeks have been busy and intense, and the upcoming six weeks are going to be all that, too. Please forgive me if I can’t find the time or energy to post properly for a while. I’ll do the best I can.

Crystallography school

Can you spot the network topology? Can you recognise the lecturer just from the top of his head? Answers at the bottom of the post!

I’m not sure if I’m more relieved or upset that this past week is now over. It’s definitely been the most intensely tiring week in my life since I was sick last year — but in a good way, where sleeping like a log actually picks you back up again. Yesterday was the last day of the Australasian Crystallography School. I have learnt so much this week, all the way from the basics of X-ray diffraction to the mathematical relationships between real and reciprocal space; from the history of crystallography to practical considerations in modelling, describing and publishing crystal structures.

I have planned for a long time to make an accessible introductory post to crystallography, and I thought that the week of the crystallography school would be perfect. I’d have the best context for it, I thought, and also have all the basic knowledge fresh in my mind. What I’m finding, though, is that my brain feels like it’s tearing at the seams. It’s like I have a squirming bag of facts knocking disjointedly around in my head.

Crystallography is really hard. Although a lot of the processes we use today are automated and hidden beneath the hood of shiny graphical user interfaces, understanding how to make a crystallographic model representative of your crystal and making sure it’s correct requires a lot of understanding of those inner workings. We need to understand the mathematics (to some extent), molecular and lattice symmetry and what the different patterns in diffraction images mean. We need to know about the experimental conditions that affect what we see and how they can make our jobs easier or more difficult. We have to be able to objectively model our structure based on the data instead of forcing it into the shape we want. There are so many things that can go wrong along the way, and we need to be able to troubleshoot.

Because a week is a short, short time for all of that, we were doing long days full of lectures and tutorials with breaks only for coffee (oh so much coffee) or food. I’ve literally filled a notebook with hastily scrawled notes as the lecturers were talking or the tutors were showing me how to do something — not to mention the additional information in lecture notes and the numerous fantastic recommendations for additional literature to give a more in-depth view on certain topics.

Realistically, to get the most out of this fantastic experience, I’m going to need to take a lot of time to digest all the information. That’s going to be a challenge in and of itself, since I think it’ll be important to start doing that as soon as possible — and there is still the looming confirmation, now only less than two weeks away. I’m going to need a lot of mental tenacity to keep with it, but I’m going to try.

What has delighted me the most, though, is that the school also reignited my passion for crystallography. I have lost that not a little in the past year, working on a system that is notoriously complicated — where working on it feels like bashing my head repeatedly at a brick wall. This school is a fantastic reminder of why I do what I do, even if the specific project I’m working on right now feels a bit soul-destroying.

I’d like to thank the Australian Synchrotron for hosting a great school, the school organising committee for nutting it all out and the lecturers and tutors for their respective great sessions. I’d also like to give a special mention to Dr Jack Clegg for the droves of good advice and his patience, and to Dr Alison Edwards also for her advice and fascinating perspectives on science and the scientific community. Prof. Simon Parsons deserves a mention for what were in my opinion the best lectures in the school.

Now for the answers to the questions above: the network has a diamond topology, and the top of the head belongs to Prof. Stuart Batten, my Honours supervisor from 2014.

You can reach me in the comments, by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com and find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.

 

Chemistry picture of the week: The baby bird

Baby bird

This week, my supervisor and I set my confirmation date for the 19th of February. After the meeting, the reality of what I needed to get done by that date really hit me, and I spent three days of the week floundering. My intention was to try to organise my results and figure out how to use them to tell a story, but in reality, I was just panicking and getting nothing productive done. Yesterday, I finally took my coworkers’ advice, put aside my own results and started working on my literature review instead. I thought that having some words on the page and flexing my technical writing muscles would only help when it came to actually writing about my work. As a result, though, I’ve had a pretty boring week, and don’t have any interesting chemistry stories to tell. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the baby bird.

The baby bird came into our lives on Wednesday in a cardboard box. One of my coworkers, a sweet soul who once rescued a stray cat and coos over just about any animal she meets on the street, walked into the office holding the box. She told us she found this little bird just outside the chemistry building. At this point, we realised that she meant she literally had the bird in the box, and crowded around it to have a peek. There it was, this little ball of feathers, huddled in a dim corner of the box. It chirped unhappily at us for shoving our faces at it. This coworker of mine asked for advice for what to do with the bird — she was convinced that its mother had abandoned it. We didn’t really have any good advice to give, apart from the obvious fact that she couldn’t keep it in the office. She reluctantly took the box outside. She tipped it over as a makeshift shelter and left the bird a little bowl of water.

We thought that would be that. The next morning, though, the baby bird was still there. My coworker took a second box outside, and told me she’d brought the bird some food. I never asked her what she’s attempting to feed the bird, but I spied a bowl in the second box that looked to be full of bird seed. Yesterday evening, as I left the building to head home, the bird was bravely exploring its new surroundings — that is, as long as I kept a reasonable distance. At this point, I began to suspect that the bird might be there to stay.

This morning proved me no different. A third box has been taken to join the other two, which are now wet from the heavy shower this morning. My caring coworker continues to look after the bird, while another is irrationally annoyed at her. I’m a softie, so while I don’t really want to meddle with the wild animal, I really hope that everything turns out alright for the little bird.

For posts about chemistry, stay tuned. In the meanwhile, you can contact me via e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com or find me on Twitter, where I tweet about chemistry stuff as @Lady_Beaker.

Chemistry picture of the week: Filtering

20151210_175123

In Australia, apart from the final talk of a PhD and obviously thesis submission, the most important event of one’s postgraduate degree is the first year confirmation. The confirmation occurs at the end of your first year, and is essentially a review of your work by your supervisor and a panel of other academics in the school. The academics’ job is to decide whether you’re suitable to be confirmed as a PhD candidate and to continue your research at the university. At the university I completed my undergraduate and honours, this was largely a formality — even the laziest of students always passed their confirmations and were allowed to continue. At the University of Melbourne, I have heard of students failing and having to resubmit. At the start of 2015, I saw two of my co-workers stressing out over their confirmations. Their nervousness was obvious — I even caught them practicing their talks in an isolated instrument room at the back of the lab. And this year, it’s my turn.

I’m a fairly fast writer once I get on a roll, so I’m not too concerned about the 30-odd pages we’re supposed to produce as the written report. I think if I leave that for the month of February, I’ll still have plenty of time — especially as I try to be organised with my data as I’ve talked about before. What I am currently concerned with is amassing as much hard data for my report as I can — so when I make a statement about my chemistry, I can refer to an experiment or measurement I’ve conducted to try to qualify or quantify that statement. As such, the last couple of weeks of December and the first weeks of 2016 have been largely spent avoiding attempts to synthesise new materials, instead repeating old reactions to yield plenty of material to conduct measurements and further experiments on. That means that my last month or so of work has consisted of a lot of filtering.

Most chemical reactions synthetic chemists perform are done in a solvent, which is a liquid such as water or ethanol that dissolves other chemicals. In many cases, the desired product is a solid, which means that you require a method to separate the solid from the remaining liquid. Enter filtering. Filtering may be familiar from filter coffee, which is made by passing boiling water through a filter paper holding coffee grounds. The end result is the extract of coffee without the solid coffee beans. Filtering works in the reverse: you start with a mixture of solid and liquid, and pass the mixture through a filter paper which catches the solid and deposits the liquid. To speed up the process, we use vacuum filtering, which pulls the liquid through much faster and also dries the remaining solid.

Here’s a secret, though: it’s deathly boring, particularly when you’re filtering tiny amounts and are trying to make sure you don’t lose any of your product. When it’s small crystals, you want to drop as much solid at a time onto the filter paper and always drop it on the same, small spot so that the solid can catch more solid. It’s a slow, painstaking process when you have vials and vials and vials to empty using this method. Afterward, I do get to look at my beautiful shiny crystals under the microscope to note the appearance of the bulk product, which does give a bit of satisfaction to the whole process. In the worst case scenario (which happens frustratingly often given how science tends to require a lot of trial and error), I end up wasting this little bit of product on an experiment that gives me no useful results, and I have to remake the material — which means filtering time is again upon me.

Amassing useful results for my confirmation report is difficult work, but it is immensely rewarding to watch the troves of data gathering and forming the beginnings of an interesting “story.” Every little piece gives me more insight into how my system works, and I really do love that. That sense of satisfaction is what makes it worth doing the repetitive, sometimes frustrating tasks it takes to get there.

For comments or queries, you can reach me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com, in the comments or on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker, where I tweet about the everyday happenings of my PhD.