#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 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.

Chemistry picture of the week: #altchemjobs

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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

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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 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 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.