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When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments

 

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You want personal? I give you personal. My year in California; it will be the year of many things, but it will definitely be the year of trying triathlon. Of tri-ing.
I started with an experience in the three sports amounting to only a poor 8 months of running. No swimming (ever, I didn’t even know how to). No biking (ever, I didn’t even have a bike). No idea whatsoever of what a transition is, or why three sports in a row is so much more difficult than the mere sum of the three.

That was a big challenge, but I was there for the challenge. Otherwise I wouldn’t have picked the university team that was (and remained) the USA champions (UCLA Triathlon). An amazing team that awed me and inspired me, but that also made me feel ridiculously slow, fat, old and generally unfit. Because triathlon is everything but easy. Oh, yes, I have sweated, I have bled, I have ached and moaned. I have discovered what it means to be so oxygen deprived that even clutching the pool side I couldn’t catch up my breath and was slowly drifting into both asphyxiation and panic. I have seen people faint and collapse around me during races and wondered whether I was next. I now know what it’s like to see white spots while swimming, to feel lost in the ocean, to feel unable to climb further up a slope, to run for hours on giant blisters, to keep going even as darkness pulls around, to puke on the side of the road or to stay awake all night long with a body full of hormones and pains after a race.

I have lost sleep; I have lost weight; I have lost toenails; I have lost pride; but I have never lost focus nor courage. I never gave up, even when the rest of the team was so effortlessly losing me in swims, in rides and in runs. Even when my highest achievements were dwarfed by the lowest of theirs. I have found determination, I have found strength in my microscopic progresses. I have found sound advice and kind encouragement. I have found a coach, and mentor and a team.

And I have found pleasure. I have found pleasure in progressively feeling stronger, faster, tougher, more enduring. And I have found pleasure in fighting my fears, in overcoming my limitations, in pushing my limits, in never, ever giving up. I found pleasure in stringing races, in running in Death Valley, in biking with Marines, in passing so many racers in the ocean. I come back to France having now run 7 half-marathons, three marathons and four triathlons, many in difficult conditions. I was pleased to finish within the first 20% racers at my last semi-marathon, which was one week after my last triathlon, itself 5 days after my last marathon. My overall feeling is that although I have never been skilled, I have pushed myself, and never failed.

So, this is supposed to be a blog somehow related to scientific research?! WTF? Ok, here’s the message. First, research is relatively easy; even a PhD is relatively easy. Believe me. There are much harder endeavors, stop complaining if you are. Second, whatever your goals, you can reach them if you put your mind into it. Nothing is out of your reach. If you don’t push away your limits, you’ll remain limited. Third, hard work, tenacity, courage and strength of will can go a long way towards compensating lack of skills or other disadvantages in our academic world (such as being young, being a woman or being a non-English speaker). Last, even difficult, painful, long endeavors can provide pleasure, sometimes just because you managed to overcome the obstacles you once believed to be insuperable.

Now, that’s done; Note to self: second step, give this text to my PhD just before I give them some additional, hard work.

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