Dealing with Disappointment

One of the least glamorous (and least well-known, I think) aspects of science is how many setbacks, difficulties, and tedious tasks we scientists are faced with. However, it comprises the daily grind for pretty much all scientists, and is one of the things that makes science difficult. I’ve been having a rough couple of research weeks, where my experiments keep failing. But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post for two reasons: 1) I want to bring up the un-glamorous side to research, because it’s often overlooked (especially in discussions of funding science) and 2) because I want to share/explain why I think there’s a pretty strong correlation between scientists and “nerds”/”geeks”.

Science research doesn’t work the way it seems to on TV or in movies. Most shows not only grossly underestimate the amount of time it actually takes to run assays (like genetic tests); many also make troubleshooting seem like all you have to do is chat about options with your colleagues. I only wish it was that easy! In reality, you chat about ideas with your peers, then implement one idea (with the appropriate controls), and evaluate the results. Often you have to test out many different options (each one taking as long or longer than the original assay) before landing on something that works.

Because of this tedium, it is easy to understand why science fiction and fantasy often appeal to scientists–I can only imagine a world where technology does all of the hard work for me, or where magic would do the heavy lifting. It can be incredibly reviving to escape to a fictional world that doesn’t have to be governed by the same rules the real world is governed by. Personally, escaping into a book is one of the best ways to deal with disappointment in my research. Other than reading and watching TV (i.e., escaping into a fictional world), I haven’t had all that many extra-curricular activities during grad school. This week, I’ve realized I need to start doing something that gives me the sense of accomplishment that I’m completely lacking in the lab. For instance, I decided to make myself a Halloween costume this year, and just sewing a hem this evening made me feel confident, competent, and like I can actually finish a project and do something tangible! I don’t know how much sewing I’ll really do, but it’s great to have it as a possibility, and I’m hoping to continue exploring my non-science-y options in the little free time I have.

Does anyone else have similar experiences, either with grad school or in other professions? How do you cope with disappointment in the workplace?

Why Doctor Who makes me a better scientist

Doctor Who is a British television phenomenon that I’ve recently become (a little) obsessed with. It’s a fantastic show, and if you haven’t seen it I recommend you check it out on Netflix. But in the course of watching it, I realize it’s actually making me into a better scientist. Here’s why:

1. The universe is exciting.
The Doctor, despite being ancient, is excited and energized by the new (and old) things he discovers. This excitement is imperative for scientists, because otherwise it’s way too easy to get bogged down in all the mundane and tedious tasks that go along with the cool, exciting discoveries.

2. You can’t work alone.

Repeatedly, the doctor goes off on his own without a companion. This usually doesn’t work out well, and his companions, when the leave him, remind him not to be alone for too long. It makes him even more of a mad man with a box. In science, collaboration is important and you really can’t get away with being completely isolated. In fact, you there is no way to be a good scientist without at least getting feedback from other scientists. And bouncing ideas off colleagues is a great way to develop and improve research ideas.

3. The scientific method is one of the most useful tools out there (other than a sonic screwdriver)

The doctor and his companions often find themselves in tight spots, trying to figure out alien races and wars without knowing much going into it. The doctor, perhaps without even realizing it, utilizes the scientific method. He observes the situation he’s in, he makes a guess (hypothesis) about what he thinks is going on based on what he already knows, he devises some way to try to get himself and his friends out of the mess or to resolve the situation, and then tries out that method. Then he sees how well it works, and if it doesn’t work he goes back and takes another guess or tries out another method. This is basically the scientific method.

Since scientists aren’t armed with sonic screwdrivers or TARDISes (yet!), the best we can do is use the scientific method. And luckily, I think that’s the doctor’s best tool in his toolkit.

4. It’s ok to not know things and be wrong.

The doctor usually admits (or is forced to admit by his companions) when he doesn’t know what’s going on or that he’s wrong. And instead of this being a bad thing, it usually leads to more fun and excitement because then he gets to figure out why that’s the case! In science, you’re almost always in the position of not knowing things (otherwise there wouldn’t be science to do!), and you pretty much have to be wrong at least sometimes. So it’s good to be reminded by the doctor that it’s not just ok to be wrong or confused–it’s an exciting opportunity!

5. Always keep trying to improve

The doctor seems to be constantly fiddling with the TARDIS, trying to make her work better, or adding rooms, or whatnot (I’m so excited for the upcoming episode, Journey to the center of the TARDIS!). And that’s what scientists should be constantly doing–analyzing the available tools and analyses and trying to figure out how to make them work better/more efficiently.

So this is my justification for why Doctor Who (and probably plenty of other shows like it) are a good thing for a developing scientist to watch. That and it’s wonderful and addicting. So go out there and explore this lovely universe we live in.

Gamer Girls and Misogyny

Recently there’s been quite a bit of negativity directed towards female gamers, and Felicia Day has been one of the most prominently attacked people so far. First there were the comments on the music video for her jaunty tune, Gamer Girl, Country BoyThen, Ryan Perez, who used to be a gaming blogger for Destructoid, went on an unprovoked Twitter rampage against Felicia Day. He mostly got negative responses (including distancing himself/being fired from Destructoid), but he also found support from other men on the internet. Although Perez apologized to Felicia Day, he didn’t seem to see anything really wrong with the intent behind his post, just that he posted it (and then got a lot of flack). These two instances are just attacks on one of the more prominent female gamers in the community; other women have gotten hurt by the misogyny in the industry.  I don’t know why there’s this idea that women playing games is a threatening idea to men, or why men feel the need to be so misogynistic on the internet. I would be tempted to say that it’s because of the whole anonymity-on-the-internet thing that gives people the freedom to express themselves without fear of repercussions. However, recent research shows that there’s not really that effect at all, and that people who are jerks on the internet are most likely jerks in real life too. Not to mention the fact that if people are just expressing their true thoughts on the internet, why is it that they think women can be insulted simply for being women (who, in this case, happen to enjoy playing games)? There’s something inherently wrong, and I don’t know how to fix it. But I think awareness that this is happening will help. Part of it probably has to do with the marginalization of women by the government (I’m referring to all the women’s reproductive health stuff that’s been going on), but there’s got to be more going on. Now that I’m done ranting, does anyone have any idea why this is a widespread thing that’s happening?

My advice to everyone, on the internet and off, is to quote Wil Wheaton: Don’t Be A Dick.

5 Lessons For Start-ups From ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ – Forbes

This article goes through 5 important lessons that can be learned from Buffy but that are often overlooked. The usual lessons Buffy teaches us are about friendship, good vs evil, women’s empowerment, etc. However, Buffy can also teach us a great deal about how to be a good start up business. 5 Lessons For Start-ups From ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ – Forbes tells you what those lessons are. Also at Forbes are 5 Leadership Lessons from James T. Kirk and 5 Lessons in Freelancing from Han Solo. Go learn something new!

Ex-Pats are Decent Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors?

Charlie Jane Anders at i09.com put together a comprehensive list of sci-fi/fantasy authors who also happened to live abroad. Included are J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Shelley, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Madeleine L’Engle, H.G. Wells, and many more. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of our most beloved classic sci-fi/fantasy authors traveled out of their homeland and saw a bit more of the world, because one thing all of them have in common is their fantastic world-building. Traveling is one way to spark the imagination, because you realize there is more to the world than the limited amount you had already seen. And living in another place for any extended period of time opens your eyes to other cultures, languages, and people, which can help an author infuse life into their made-up cultures, languages, and people (or so I imagine). Anyway, the list is pretty interesting, so go check it out!

Coolest On-Screen Spaceships

What on-screen spaceship is your favorite? Entertainment Weekly put together their top 23 spaceships, which include Prometheus, Serenity, and more. I think my all-time favorite is the Millenium Falcon, as it was one of the first cool spaceships I ever saw on-screen, and thus brings with it a certain amount of nostalgia. Not to mention that it’s super awesome! Which spaceship(s) do you prefer? Post your answer in the comments!