Wednesday, 25 October 2017

What goes into a paper

I'm currently analysing data on what will probably be the final paper from the project I joined the lab to work on four years ago. This project was to look at the effect of a specific nerve lesion on behavior and function at multiple levels. We've looked at performance (how well the function is achieved), kinematics (how the structures which perform the function move), and neuromuscular physiology (when the muscles which perform the function are active). For this last paper I'm attempting to synthesize these different strands of data to understand something about mechanisms, and if they could potentially be targets for intervention.
On my end, the synthesis has taken months of lining up different data sets, verifying they are properly synchronized, figuring out discrepancies. It's been painstaking. Most days I've had between two or four spreadsheets open, generally half of which are metadata telling me how two different data sources line up. As I was reaching the end of this process, finally getting close to the dataset I needed for my analysis, it struck me that this was data we'd gathered two years ago. I'd been working on it for over a year. Furthermore, the datasets I was working with weren't raw data, they were themselves measurements of muscle activity and performance that former techs and summer students had also spent months to years working on. Cumulatively, the person hours spent on the data set I was assembling was staggering.
There is a paper in review from our lab right now whose entire results section is summarized in one very simple, very elegant graph. Six means with error bars. Those six means with error bars represent two months of caring for over twenty baby animals. Hours of understanding what our measurements meant. Hours of students and techs pouring over videos and chart recordings. Cross checks and visualizations and arguments and sick animals and broken equipment, all distilled down to one figure, six points.
My dissertation papers are the result of four years of work. I know this because I'm the only person that worked on them, and they took me four years. But if that is true, then this paper, that has in some ways also taken me four years, yet builds on the work of close to half a dozen people, is the result of two or three times that many years. And it will be maybe eight pages long, at most?
Academic papers, with their brevity and elisions, their straightforward narratives, are poor monuments to the sheer time consuming, physical work that goes into their production. The only clue in an academic paper of how many hours have been spent on it lies in the length of the author list. Those unsung middle authors are the only monument we allow to the effort that goes into our sleek, polished productions. And maybe, that is not good enough.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Stravinksy and inspiration

Yesterday evening, I went to do something I love and have not done in a long time. I went to the orchestra. The performance was of one of my favorite pieces of music: Stravinsky's the Rite of Spring. It was a piece so controversial in its day it managed to start both a riot (at its first performance in conjunction with Diaghilev's ballet), and a standing ovation (when performed as a standalone piece a few years later). Even now, after nearly one hundred years, there are few repertoire pieces like it. It is a stew of ideas that would influence all the major currents of classical music in the 20th century (minimalist composition, dissonance, even elements of serialism). And it inspired one of the greatest, strangest meetings of high art, popular culture, and science: the magnificent Rite of Spring sequence from (of all people) Walt Disney's bizarre flawed masterpiece Fantasia:

That sequence is, for obvious reasons, close to my heart. And in its daring combination of science, imagination, and revolutionary music, let it be my inspiration for the coming months.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Continental drift of the heart

The Mistress of the Animals has a new series of posts up, on dealing with less than ideal job situations. Go read them, they are useful, and make good points. And, as is Potnia's wont, a very important meta-point: what, at any given point in your life, is important to you, and what, at any point in your life, is worth putting up with?

The twist is that what matters, what is important, what you need, want and value, does not remain constant, nor is it always clear to oneself. Some of our values and priorities are like the Hawaiian volcanic hotspot, arising straight from our core and remaining fixed even as immense changes pass over our surface. Yet these hotspots are few. More often, things we think are massive and perennial are like the summit of Everest: superficially imposing, but in actuality a temporary wrinkle on the surface of our ever changing selves. We often change without knowing it, only recognising much later that things we once valued, were once utmost priorities, have shifted to peripheral importance and we are in fact organising our lives and decisions around new mountains.

Ten years ago this month, I moved to America for the first time. What did I want ten years ago? What was important? So important that to pursue a PhD I could have pursued at home in less time, I traveled to America, willingly moving to a city I had never even visited to start a PhD with an advisor I had never met? I remember why I did it: a desire for adventure, and a fear of getting bogged down. I lived in central London. I had good degrees and a good job and I could easily see myself never moving far from where I had grown up, devoting all my efforts to keeping a toe hold in the immensely comfortable, yet predictable life I had in London. I looked at the life my mother had led, which, while far from easy, had involved travels around the world by the time she was thirty, who had lived in three countries, and I balked at how stayed the profile of my own twenties was becoming. The furthest I had moved from home was Cambridge, a 45 minute train journey from King's Cross. In my master's degree, I met a diverse cohort of people from all over the United Kingdom and further, whose path to that masters, while more winding, and perhaps less easy than mine, still had given them a host of life experiences that made me stop and think. So, I resolved to have my own adventure, and to go pursue all my dreams at once: America, a fresh start, and a Ph.D. I applied to four programs, was interviewed at two, got into one, and with the blessings of my friends and family, boarded a plane and landed in Baltimore airport on August 20th 2007, with two suitcases, an address, and the name of a person I'd never met who was going to pick me up and take me to my first apartment I had rented without seeing.

And what a fresh start it was. For the first week I slept on an air mattress on the floor, and had only my laptop perched on my suitcase as furniture. The very first day I had my first encounter with how little London had prepared me for an American city. I left my apartment in Mount Vernon in search of food and some basic housewares. Despite walking from North Avenue, to Lexington Market, to the inner Harbour, I could not find a home ware store, and returned home with four cheap glasses, and a an overpriced saucepan from the convenience store down the road. It wasn't until the middle of the week when my new fellow graduate students took me to the Target on the outskirts of the city I was actually able to buy what I needed. The first five years I lived in America were the  adventure I hadwanted. I lived in and discovered a whole new city. I made many new friends. I did field work in India and Wyoming, and travelled all over the United States collecting data, spending weeks in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York city. And yet, by the time the adventure ended, already, subtly, the need for adventure had been replaced by other priorities. The desire for some stability, to be able to build a life with my partner, and the growing realisation that my increasing desire to be back home with my old friends and family was getting less and less likely to be easily combined with my desire for a fulfilling personal and professional life.

Ten years later, America is no longer an adventure, even though I have moved away once, and moved back to a new part of the country. America is a reality in my life, a part of it far more profoundly than I ever thought, at twenty three, it would be. It looms like mount Everest, or like the width of the Atlantic Ocean, in my decision making. My priorities now do not feature America, they must accommodate it. My desire to see my husband happy and fulfilled professionally means we are likely here at least another six year, probably more. My desire to be a good son, brother, and uncle, means I must continue to find ways to fly home often. My desire to have a successful career in academics mean I must continue to work hard, travel, be flexible and take opportunities. America is the geographic and political chess board on which I try to make my moves. And I know it now, I know it well. But whereas once, the fact I lived in America was a goal in itself, that time is long gone.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Why your society should have an LBGT+ science event

I don't normally blog in direct response to twitter, but this thread from the wonderful Alex Bond invites a response from personal experience.
Please read this thread to learn what not to do when approached by LBGT+ scientists asking for greater representation in the societies they are members of. Specifically, I want to address this point with a personal story to illustrate how wrong headed an attitude this is. As I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I had only recently come out when I started graduate school. From the beginning, navigating outness in my career and navigating the world of science were intertwined. When I came to Johns Hopkins, the LBGT association at the school of medicine was more or less moribund (a good friend of mine who came along a few years later has since kickstarted it and then some). And my department, while I had an out colleague, did not really discuss these things. For my first year in graduate school, I was out to my fellow graduate students, and that was it.
So, when in the fall of my second year I went to my first meeting of my society, I associated being professional in science with being in the closet. But I was uncomfortable with this. Such feelings put a distance between you and fellow attendees, particularly at a conference where out of hours socialising is important (and enjoyable). Being professionally closeted involves eliding a lot of questions.
On the second night of the conference, I noticed a little sign on the noticeboard: "LBGT members dinner will be tomorrow evening at this location, at this time". And suddenly I knew I was not alone. I knew there were others like me in this place, in this society, and that they were welcome.
Ironically, I didn't go to the LBGT dinner that year. I wasn't ready for it. Wasn't ready to be identified as a gay scientist. But even without going, it mattered. And when I went back two years later, I definitely went, and have gone every year since. Each time, a new grad student, or indeed someone more senior, turns up slightly sheepishly, and they are welcome, and they are made a little more comfortable.
But even then, the LBGT dinner (which has been running for years) has always been held at a distance. It was the initiative of one or two people, who have organised it for over a decade, and maintain the mailing list. Getting it listed on the website as an official society event has been a struggle. And every so often you hear someone grumble when they notice the sign "why do they need one?". Which is really the answer to that question.
There is, among a certain generation of scientists, a belief that things were better when we didn't discuss these things. And they'll often say: "well everyone knew X was gay, he (it is invariably a he) just didn't make a fuss about it". If you believe this, I urge to ask X how they felt. You will probably hear a different story, of getting invited to considerably fewer social events, and never with a partner. Of being passed up for promotions and committees, of advisors suddenly becoming frosty and distant. Not talking about it was not about decorum, it was about protection, and being resigned to lesser treatment.
Every time an LBGT person enters a new space, they look for clues as to how out they can be. The older and more establishment a crowd (so most scientific conferences), the more they will assume they have to be reserved. This is difficult, isolating, and honestly just damned unpleasant. And all it takes to start to make it better is a sign on a noticeboard. Is that really so much?*

*No, it isn't and you should do more, but start with that.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Let's talk about my science

Let's talk about our lab's science. We're wrapping up experiments for the summer. Long, tiring experiments that have gone pretty well I think. I'm just finishing up the last part of the data collection which may form the preliminary data for a grant proposal.
(Good thing I have that spousal green card. Shit that's up for renewal this year. Didn't the DOJ just come out with a thing about federal protection for LBGT persons? I need to check up on that. Better get that re application started)
... Sorry got side tracked. As I was saying preliminary data for a grant
(Wait, what are NIH paylines now? And isn't the federal budget going to be slashed?)
... Which is good because scientifically I'm feeling ready to spread my wings as I've mentioned before. I have a couple of papers in review, two more about to be submitted and will probably get at least one more out to review by fall. One of the ones in review is entirely my side project, and the one I aim to submit is my own devising even if it's out of my PIs project. So I'm ready to start looking for paths out of the postdoc.
(In the context of a university sector in financial crisis and a flooded job market).
Of course, it's a bit tricky because the husband got into a pre med masters program locally
(So that's six years of education. What is tuition these days? How much do residents make? I wonder what medicine as a profession will look like in six years).
So I need to stay local for a bit longer
(All the local universities are in crisis because of a massively reduced state subsidy, a new funding formula, tuition caps, and debts accrued from unsustainable growth policies).
But I would like to remain professionally competitive enough to have the possibility of being back home in the UK with my family one day.
(I wonder where the UK will be in six years? OH GOD NO DO NOT THINK ABOUT THAT)
But yeah, I would really like to talk about my science.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Reflections on outness 2: a game of you

When I wrote the first Pride month post, I had vaguely planned on writing a series of them. But life got in the way and to be honest, I couldn't really come up with anything around which to crystallize another post. Then yesterday the following picture popped up on facebook:
It is the cross-stitch sampler my aunt made as a wedding gift for my husband and mine's wedding. And, with my aunt's recent passing, and Pride month, I was once again struck by its singular power as a cultural artefact.
For that cross-stitch sampler is undeniably, unequivocally from one place: Alsace, the region of France my mother comes from. The motifs, the use of red thread on white cloth, the costumes worn by the two figures are found on hundreds of such similar wedding gifts made throughout Alsace over the centuries. My brother and sister each have one. My aunt herself had one. And she would have learnt how to do this from her mother and aunts, who would have learnt it from their mother and aunts.
My aunt always claimed she had no creativity: she just researched and reproduced Alsatian motifs from books and museum exhibits. And yet in this, she must have created. For as much as this object is undeniably, clearly Alsatian, yet in another I am almost certain there are no two like it. In the simple, radical gesture of putting two male figures in the center, my aunt changed the pattern. In doing so, she did two things: reaffirmed my identity as an Alsatian man, and expanded the iconography, and indeed to some entire scope of Alsatian identity. She argued, through this, that traditions could be expanded, that identities were compatible.
A similar thing happened at the London wedding we held a few months after our wedding in West Virginia for those friends and family who couldn't make it to America. That wedding was held in my old church. The church my siblings and I were all confirmed in. The church on whose council my mother sits. It is an old church, with a complex history: founded by French protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution under Louis the XIVth four hundred and fifty years ago, it has survived in London's Soho, serving a complex community of recent French expats, and old Huguenots families tied together primarily by a shared history. It is not exactly the most active, or radical of churches.
After a debate, the church agreed to celebrate our marriage. It was a full wedding ceremony. And, suddenly, our gay marriage was also, well, the marriage in my family's church, with all the trappings and politics that entails. As I joked, I am the only one my mother's three children to have had a good French protestant wedding. And it was true. Even as it was also an expansion of what a good French protestant wedding can be.
There is a lot of discussion at every Pride about identity, and assimilation, and passing. Much of it is important, and sad. And some of it reflects false dichotomies. There is no a priori reason that traditional identities of culture, religion, and family cannot be expanded to include new identities of gender, and sexuality. Yet that requires a transformation, an expansion of the old culture. And that comes through the willingness of individuals to expand their definitions, to invent new iconographies and languages and symbols, to say "You are gay, and you belong, and you are welcome".
Identities are complex things. We all have many, and they exist in tension. But, as I have known since someone first asked me "which are you more, French or English?" those tensions derive primarily from the boundary policing of identity by others. My aunt's cross stitch sampler is a reminder we always have the power to go another way: not to police the borders of identity and community, but to open them with gifts of welcome.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Reflections on outness 1: ten years

As I sit down to write a post on this pride month, the realisation suddenly strikes me: I've been out for ten years. The coincidence seems too unlikely, too easy, so I reach for my diary. Volume III. Tuesday March 26 2007. The day I told her.

I told my mother first. It is not a path I recommend if it can be avoided. But coming out narratives are personal, and shaped by factor beyond the sexuality of the individuals involved. My own family history had made secrets a dangerous, toxic, poisonous thing. If I wanted to be able to rebuild from this, I could not keep this a secret from her. Not once I'd decided to act on it. And meeting a boy will suddenly make the insurmountable seem inevitable.

It was not an easy conversation... and it did not end for many many years. It was mostly, other than on a few fateful occasions, had in things unsaid. Silences on the phone. Requests made in passing. Awkwardly formal lunches. It was not, by any outside standards, a difficult coming out. But it required finding a language to speak about things we had never spoken about. And it coincided, I think, with an emancipation of mine. I could not put my life on hold forever, on so many fronts. Eventually, sooner perhaps than either of us expected, she caught up with me. And, as is her wont, has more than kept pace. She has broken down doors for me and my husband now. How little I thought, in that awkward, tense, angry conversation ten years ago, when so much was not said, that might be the case.

It is a difficult balance, working with people who you love who are coming to terms with something they have never really bothered to think about. You come, the son, the brother, the friend, that they think they know so well, and you tell them that you are not what they have assumed. And yet, on the other hand, you remind them, over and over and over, that you are who they know. To comfort them yes, but also because it is true. I was the classic good gay boy: I built a defence from my goodness. My good grades, my kindness, the fact I didn't get in trouble. But those things pre dated my emergent sexual anxiety. They were there to be used as weapons and defences and bargaining chips once the revelation of my differentness came, but those were exapted functions.

To me, coming out was not a clean break with my previous self. Psychologically, it was a long and complex process, rooted in a complex relationship with men, women, and masculinity. You cannot be raised with two very different concepts of masculinity and femininity (the French and the British) and not interrogate those concepts and what they mean, how they function, how they affect you as a person. And my father's abandonment of us in my early teens did not simplify matters. And so to this day, that brief version of me who existed from 2001 to 2006, who called himself "straight, but took a while to get there", I consider authentic and valid. He was doing the best he could with a psychology that was complex, in an environment that demanded simplicity. An environment that reduced attraction to sex.

A few months after I came out, I moved to America. To this day I do not know if the two events are linked. Was my burgeoning awareness of my differentness a hidden motive behind my resolve to leave? Did the realisation I was leaving precipitate an awakening, a coming to terms? All I know is that I have never felt so lost and rootless as a person as I did my first year in America, despite the intellectual satisfaction of grad school. I remember writing that I felt like a mist, less and less certain of what I was or who I was. In the end, I rooted myself again not through a new found identity, but through a project of going through all my papers and scraps of life since high school and scrapbooking my own life. Rebuilding the continuity I felt I had broken by being different, and by leaving.

I am fortunate now. That break is barely visible. All the friends and family I knew before I came out are fully woven into the new life, mingling with the new ones. My out self, my closeted self, my not gay self, almost seamlessly woven together again. If there is perhaps a slight unevenness in the tapestry, where things had to be woven together after the fact to hide a tear, well, no one notices.