#RealTimeChem week: New chemistry circumstances

This post is written for the #RealTimeChem week blog carnival, themed “New elements in chemistry” in celebration of the naming of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. 

At the time of writing, I’ve been back to research for two solid months, following an interruption to my studies due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I have previously written about my experience with this illness – a tale of woe that began over a year ago already. How time flies when you’re desperate not to waste a moment of your precious PhD scholarship!

I digress. In my previous post, I wrote about my experience with CFS and its impact on the quality of my life. It is one thing, however, to live with a chronic condition, and another entirely to return to research while still battling it. I’ve been steering clear of this blog out of the desire to conserve my energy reserves, but the #RealTimeChem week blog carnival theme is just too perfectly suited to my situation to ignore. “Are you adapting to a new life situation that’s affecting your chemistry?” asks the prompt. Yes! Yes I am!

There is a fundamental disconnect between the approach to chronic illness and to research. When doing research, your work and thoughts are rarely focused on the short-term, but instead looking into the future: at the big picture you will paint using your individual pieces of data. More practically, there are always more people who want to use an analytical instrument than there are time for in one day, so early sample preparation and pre-booking your time slot is important. On the other hand, the best-laid plans of mice and people with CFS often go awry. You can’t control when the illness raises its ugly head, so you can’t plan any days you might need to take off. You need to take things day by day, listening to the demands of your body. Moreover, as I talked about in my previous post, I have had a slew of neurological symptoms related to CFS that have tangibly impaired my ability to plan ahead. It’s an unfortunate double-whammy of short-sightedness. Thankfully, my supervisor has lost none of his foresight and from the moment of my return, suggested weekly meetings to discuss my progress. I take notes at these meetings so that plans or ideas we’ve had don’t go forgotten, even when my brain is at its worst. Additionally, I have taken to occasionally taking some time off simply to sit down, think about the experiments I’m running that day or week, and really ask myself why I’m doing them.

I do have days when I’m so confused about what I’m supposed to be doing and what I’m trying to achieve that I feel like bursting into helpless tears. Amusingly, it has become difficult to draw a line between “I’m doing research and I have no idea what I’m doing” and “my brain is foggy from CFS and I have no idea what I’m doing.” As the latter kind of confusion is alleviated by my recovery, the former grows; when CFS fogs up my mind, I don’t have the foresight to worry about the future of my project. In some ways, too, these new circumstances feel very familiar. This research-related helpless confusion is one I have felt, without fail, at the beginning of each research project in the past.

The second major limitation of chronic illness is also related to time, but in a more physical sense. As soon as I returned from sick leave, I successfully applied to change my candidature from full-time to part-time. Even so, I am only gradually becoming capable of meeting these reduced contact hours. In a positive aside, through sheer desensitisation, I’m learning to let go of the guilt that I used to feel on sick days. If I need to take a day off, I need to take a day off. Besides, guilt is an incredibly energy-consuming process, and I have come to accept that there is nothing to be achieved by maintaining it.

From my reduced working hours arises another ugly feeling that feels so much like deja-vu: frustration. Research chemistry is slow and labour-intensive. This is best summarised by words that aren’t mine:

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Borrowed with love from   slideshare.net/freerudite

This is, of course, an entirely universal experience in research. I’m simply feeling it more strongly now, perhaps, that I can feel weeks slipping by so quickly without much to show for them at all. The rate of trials has been reduced, so the errors simply feel more prevalent. This frustration is managed best by the company of my favourite coworkers, a glass of wine and sunny weekend days spent far from the lab.

On some days, I already feel like my old self: juggling obligations, pondering on ideas and constructing elaborate plans. I wake up tired, but it doesn’t feel like a life-sapping exhaustion, but more like a tiredness can be cured by some cups of coffee. I still regularly have to remind myself to slow down, because I’m prone to enthusiasm resulting in great bursts of effort that can burn through my energy reserves in a few measly hours. As a whole, I’m learning to manage my situation as it slowly, but surely improves.

At this point, I can cautiously permit myself this: I think I’m going to be alright.

As always, I thank the gorgeous community on Twitter for their support. If you haven’t found me yet, I tweet as @Lady_Beaker. I can also be reached via the comments, or by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com.

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Chemistry picture of the week: Ugrad-postgrad relations

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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

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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 PhD resolution for 2016

As the year is starting up, I — like most everyone — reflect back on the past year and consider my hopes and expectations for the future.

For me, last year began with great motivation and enthusiasm toward my new group and project. The year then descended into predictable frustration and self-doubt when results weren’t instant and easy. About four months in, I finally made my breakthrough, but my progress was greatly impeded by the fog of exhaustion and disorientation brought on by my extended illness. Despite this, I managed to push through and have a handful of interesting results to elaborate on. This work is not nearly finished, which is beginning to worry me — my supervisor told me halfway through the year that he would love for me to have this thesis chapter done and dusted by March-April 2016. Additionally, the self-doubt intensified by my illness still lurks at the back of my mind. For the last few months of 2015, I was not sure whether I was simply lazy or still recovering, but I never felt as though I was working the hardest I possibly could.

During the year, I have become at home in my new group — there are several group members I can now confidently call good friends. I’m slowly making myself familiar to the academic staff in the building through demonstrating, seminars, social events and such. I have joined the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) as a student member, as well as the Australian Science Communicators. I attended a few events organised by the former over the course of the year, although mostly only to catch up with co-workers from my old university.

This is where I stand. When thinking about New Year’s resolutions, I don’t like to make extensive lists. I feel as though the greater the number of goals, the greater the chance of failure — and the greater the number of failures, the easier it is to simply give up. Instead, I like to think of a few important things I would like to keep in the back of my mind as I start the new year. Habits take time to make and change, so I like to give myself some wiggle-room. On this track, I started thinking of a few things I would like to focus on in the coming year. I thought perhaps I should give myself a single goal in the categories of academia that are important to me right now: my research, networking, teaching and communicating. The more I thought about it, however, the clearer it became that all of those goals could be smushed into a single idea, which is the following:

Push your boundaries.

It is so easy to do what is comfortable and familiar. Continuing on a track of your research that is perhaps boring or bordering on stamp-collecting, but will most likely produce results. Using advice or suggestions your supervisor or co-workers have made without exploring on your own. Not attending large social events because meeting several new people in a new environment makes you feel uncomfortable. Shying away from pushing  — or even asking — for a publication with a supervisor who might be more focused on students further along in their studies than you. Neglecting to take opportunities to engage with undergraduate students because you aren’t sure you’re the best person for the job. Neglecting to take on larger challenges in addition to your research because you’re afraid of how much of your free time it’ll consume. Arriving late to work because getting out of bed in the morning is one of the hardest little things to do for an evening person.

These are just a few things where pushing myself to do the slightly uncomfortable thing will greatly benefit me. It has been a mentality I have tried to cultivate even throughout 2015, but this year, I want to push even harder. Some decisions I will regret, I am sure, but as the saying goes — what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

If you’d like to share what your resolutions for 2016 are, you can find me in the comments, by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com or on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker, where I tweet about the daily life of a PhD student in chemistry.

Demonstrator’s vow

For those not in the know, or for those whose universities operate differently to those in Australia, chemistry postgraduate students here from Honours to PhD get the chance to teach undergraduates in a small capacity. During a chemistry major, alongside lectures and tutorials, undergraduates undergo a certain amount of lab work in small groups (15-20 students) supervised by a postgraduate student. This postgraduate student is called the “demonstrator,” because their role is primarily to demonstrate proper laboratory technique and etiquette. For the postgraduate student, this usually gives a small income stream to supplement our scholarships and also gives us teaching experience, crucial for those seeking to further themselves in academia.

At this point, I have demonstrated for two classes, one in each semester of my Honours year last year. It is the beginning of second semester here at the University of Melbourne now, and I have been assigned my first first year class at this university. As I prepare, I reflect back on my successes and failures last year. To my shame, I have to admit that there are more of the latter than there are of the former. Especially as my Honours year drew to a close, I let my stress and exhaustion bleed into the teaching labs and I’m afraid I wasn’t as good of a teacher as I could have been. To right this, and to honour all the amazing chemistry teachers I have had in school and in university, I wanted to devise a sort of code of honour — a vow — to guide myself and other potential demonstrators in the coming semester.

As a demonstrator, I vow that:

  • I will convey my love and enthusiasm for chemistry in every move I make in the teaching laboratories. I will endeavour to make the students’ experience a positive one so they may be encouraged to return in later years.
  • I will prepare well for the lesson beforehand and know all the material front, back and sideways. Confidence in the material should instil the students’ confidence in me.
  • I will try to provide a broader context for all practicals, especially the boring, repetitive ones. I will emphasise that chemistry is still primarily an experimental science and learning practical skills is learning chemistry.
  • I will be an unyielding enforcer of safety rules in the laboratory.
  • I will dig deep for a fountain of patience, remembering how nervous I was in my first year practicals. I will not be visibly annoyed at repetitive questions or silly mistakes. Although it goes against everything I stand for on this Earth, I will make a mighty effort to resist the constant urge to snark.
  • I will guide my students to the correct answers — without spoon-feeding them — by encouraging them to think like chemists.
  • I will mark reports fairly but stick to my guns if students question my marking. I will try to provide positive feedback and help my students grow. I will not shame them for their mistakes, even in writing.
  • I will be patient with my unpaid free time, which will inevitably be consumed in the duties of demonstrating, like class preparation, report marking and slow students finishing in the lab. Demonstrating takes up so little of the year — there will be other weeks for other things.

If any veteran demonstrators have wisdom to add to this list, I would be more than happy to hear about it. Perhaps even more importantly, if you are a current undergraduate and either love or hate something your demonstrator does, let me — us — know; we’re still learning, too.

You can contact me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com, in the comments or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker, tweeting about my chemistry life.

Chemistry picture of the week: Knowledge

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A significant portion of a PhD in synthetic chemistry is spent in the lab, either trying to make things that nobody has ever made before, or trying to make them in a way nobody has ever used before. When something works, we aim to publish it in a scientific journal and/or put it in our theses. Most of the time, when something doesn’t work, there isn’t much you can do with the effort you have expended on it, unless you are fortunate enough to accidentally make something you didn’t actually intend to make. There is an encouraging saying that negative results are still results, but the reality is that no journal will publish an account of a scientist unsuccessfully trying to make something a hundred ways. This is unfortunate, since there is a lot of knowledge to be gained from things that don’t work. Currently, the only way to get this knowledge is through personal communication with coworkers who have worked on a project similar to yours before, and have discovered all the pitfalls before you. Another unfortunate fact is that in the scientific world at this particular point in time, one cannot succeed without a formidable publication record. It is almost more important how much you have published and in what journals than how “good of a scientist” you are.

All too often, science doesn’t quite behave the way you would want it to, and the thing that you are trying desperately to make is very elusive. We end up spending weeks, even months trying different variations of the thing to no real end. That is precious time of our scholarships essentially wasted. This makes it very difficult to weigh up the importance of synthetic lab work with the second aim of a PhD: learning. A chemistry PhD — just like a PhD in any subject anywhere — is about consolidating and refining one’s knowledge in one’s field. This is impossible to achieve by simply working in the lab day in and day out. Sure, practical skills are honed only by using them, and interpretation of your own data can teach you about how your own chemistry works, but, as I noted on Twitter a few weeks ago, the literature is often smarter than you. Furthering one’s knowledge can encompass anything from reviews of the literature relevant to one’s research topic, attending seminars, teaching, reading books and consulting peers.

I am currently struggling with balancing these two major objectives of my PhD. Every moment I spend at my desk instead of my lab feels wasted, especially since I’m one of those unfortunate cases that doesn’t have much of anything to put in my thesis as of yet. The project I’m working on is proving to be quite challenging. So, I’m finding it hard to stay out of the lab to read books and trawl the literature. And, simultaneously, as I choose to spend yet another day working in the lab rather than sitting at my desk reading, I feel guilty about that too: as though I’m choosing simply to throw things together blindly, hoping that they stick, rather than rationally planning my next step with reference to empirical evidence.

I’m hoping that once I have a bit of a base to stand on in terms of concrete positive results, I can feel more confident about what my project really is about. With that basis, perhaps I can also have a better starting point in terms of expanding my knowledge — more practically, which topics to read up on. I have this gut feeling that this might just be an empty hope, however. I think science is in many ways about constant uncertainty, and that as a young scientist, I’m going to have to deal with it outside the realm of my chemistry, too. This is crystallised in what a senior coworker said to me a couple of months ago when comforting me as I was feeling lost: “Science is a bit like that. At some point you realise that everybody is making it up as they go.”

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