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My trainwreck postdoc interview

I’ve known for a few years that I didn’t want to pursue a career in academic science. For you non-scientists, the academic career path is traditionally PhD -> postdoc -> professor. Although times are changing, many of us still feel pressured to follow this path. After all, that was the path our advisors chose, so obviously it’s the best and smartest and only option. Unfortunately, I gave in to this pressure because I was too chicken to tell my advisor I wanted to become an industry scientist. I was afraid he would treat me differently, or have less interest in completing my second paper – so I applied for a postdoc position in a high profile lab and was granted an interview.

Before I get into the gorey details of how the interview went, allow me a brief preface. Part of training to be a scientist is learning to deal with failure. We come up with a perfect hypothesis and we design the most flawless experiment of all time. Yet when we go to actually do it, everything fails. Maybe we forgot the right controls, or spilled the samples, or accidentally lit the lab bench on fire (it happens). Often, we actually execute the experiment perfectly but the results are just… inconclusive. And even MORE often, the results are conclusive but prove the perfect hypothesis to be perfectly wrong. In short, becoming a scientist involves a (metric) buttload of failure.

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Science – 60% of the time, it fails every time

So it’s surprising that I was so unprepared for my first, and maybe biggest, professional failure. I’ve never heard anyone talk openly about bombing a postdoc interview, but I can’t be the only one, right? RIGHT GUYS? So I want to share my story, because it might be nice for others to know that failure happens and it’s not the end of the world. Plus, the story is pretty funny in retrospect. It’s long, but join me if you want to re-live one of the most mortifying failures of my life.

As I mentioned in the last post, my boyfriend had gotten a promotion that limited my job search to Austin, TX. Because I knew zero labs in this area, I went on the interwebs and eventually found a group that was doing amazing science. I decided to apply despite the fact they specialized in a field I knew nothing about (development) using a model organism I know nothing about (frogs). I had also never met the PI of this lab, so I tried to make my application more enticing by offering to visit on my own dime. I believe this was the first in a long series of mistakes I made. Normally labs pay for their postdoc candidates to fly out, so I’m sure my inquiry reeked of thinly veiled desperation. Miraculously though, the cold call paid off and I was granted an interview.

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Two months later I flew down for the big event. It was Friday the 13th, which turns out was just so fitting. I didn’t feel confident at all, but I’m insanely competitive and told myself I had to get this job offer… because I was a winner, goddamnit! Well you know who lies to themselves about what they really want in life? Spoiler alert – it’s not winners!

Anyway, the interview spanned the entire day… 8am to 8pm. The main event was a one-hour presentation on my research scheduled for that afternoon. Quite a few people attended, including postdocs and grad students from another lab. I was about 5 minutes into my talk when it struck me that the audience was utterly uninterested. My research was outside their field, and although some of them politely nodded as I spoke, more than one person was either sleeping or blatantly playing on their phone. #rude #wtf

Near the end of the talk I began presenting my newest data, with full disclosure that the findings were preliminary. To my excitement the audience finally engaged. Some postdocs asked great questions, generated interesting discussion, and provided useful feedback. I knew the talk had gone poorly, but I felt like it was turning around. That is, until the professor leaned back, put his hands behind his head and declared that my new findings were, in his actual words, “total bullshit.”

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This PI is well known for speaking his mind and I was aware of that fact. He’d been intense and aggressive the whole day, so I wasn’t surprised by the blunt (cough*unprofessional*cough) damnation of my latest research. What bothered me more was that it was spoken with such finality. He offered no explanation as to why he didn’t like it, and it wasn’t spoken in a constructive manner that opened dialog to better experimental ideas or conclusions. He slammed the door on intellectual discussion, leaving me with no recourse other than nodding my big dumb head and saying, “Okay.”

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Being an opinionated lady myself, I totally respect other strongly opinionated folks. But I’m not used to rejection, so it was extra hard to hear someone I considered super intelligent dismiss me.

I didn’t belong there, but to my great humiliation I was the last person in the room to realize it.

Unfortunately, I still had several hours of meetings scheduled with other lab members. We all knew that I wouldn’t be hired, which was *hella* awkward. At the end of the night I went for dinner and drinks with a few postdocs. I slammed a margarita in an effort to swallow my feels, forgetting that I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and hadn’t drank water the entire day.

I was that girl who got accidentally drunk at a job interview, the cherry on top of my steaming hot mess of a performance. It was embarrassing – zero out of ten stars, would not recommend.

I spent a long time making excuses, trying to convince myself that the interview imploded because of how the PI was such a pompous jerk and that of course it was all his fault and definitely couldn’t have been my own inadequacies for the job. But you know what? Eventually I realized that yeah, maybe he was an asshole – but so was I! I contacted him about a job that I didn’t honestly want, and when I showed up I didn’t even “bring it.” Even though this guy was kind of a dick, I probably would have been too if someone sought me out and then wasted so much of my time.

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Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. In fact, the PI has literally never contacted me or responded to my emails since – which I consider crazy unprofessional no matter the circumstances – but it’s okay. Going through the whole process was humbling. It solidified my decision to leave academic science and gave me the courage to tell my advisor. I started earnestly searching for jobs in biotech (more on that later), a process that wasn’t really any easier but felt a hell of a lot more authentic! The final lesson of my PhD was that being a scientist meant always telling the truth, ESPECIALLY TO YOURSELF DUMMY!

So, I survived. And if you ever experience professional failure, you will survive too. Shit happens, just make sure you gain some insight to your own shortcomings in the process.

…And maybe don’t order a margarita until the interview is over.

FABstracts – back from the dead

A lot has changed in the last two years. I completed my PhD, did a short-term postdoc, and moved across the country to start a new job in biotech. Needless to say, my free time was zero and I didn’t have the energy to keep up with this site. But the spark was reignited a few days ago, when I learned that some of my friends are starting a science blog. I’m excited because their ideas will make for some damn sexy science-ed. It also reminded me how much I loved writing FABstracts. So I’ve decided to resume my position as your profane expert on all things biological, physiological, mucosal, and fecal.

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But fiiiiirst, I want to write a few posts about my experience finishing grad school. As it turns out, getting my PhD was shockingly anticlimactic. I defended my thesis in front of my friends and family, everyone clapped and we had champagne, and then… that was it. I went back to work in my same lab because I still had to finish writing and submitting my second research paper. My title officially changed to postdoc (yay me!), but my daily routine was identical. I had no idea what to do with my life and I was secretly scared out of my gourd.

No one warned me about any of this, so I just want to share my experience with anyone who might be going through a similar transition. You should know you aren’t alone in your sweaty-palmed panic.

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Or pits, if you’re blessed with superhero glands like mine

Frankly, I expected that earning my PhD would mean I was hot shit. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I really thought employers would be psyched… nay, SALIVATING… to hire someone with my credentials. I was just so educated now, you know? But the ivory tower was taller than I realized, because my head was in the goddamn clouds. Apparently street cred is way more important to potential employers, who do not consider a shiny new degree equivalent to actual industry experience.

To complicate matters, my boyfriend was offered a promotion across the country… in Austin, TX. We’re both career-oriented hustlers, and after much discussion we decided he should take the opportunity since I had no job offers on the table. He would move down right away, and I would remain in Seattle until I secured a job. It was great for him, but vastly narrowed my career opportunities. Also… Texas. It was a hard pill for me to swallow.

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Texas?

I pouted and raged for a few months after we made the choice to move, which of course wasn’t fair to either of us. I’m thankful he had the patience to wait out my self-absorbed temper tantrum, because as it turns out… Austin is rad as hell! The real problem was that I was scared of change and terrified to enter the real world.

Shout out to Ben and Jerry for truly carrying me through this phase of my life.

In the next couple of posts I’ll tell you about the postdoc interview I bombed, the choice to move to Texas and how I dealt with the risk to my own career, and my eye-opening journey into biotech. Hopefully I can provide some insight, moral support, and especially humor to show anyone in this life stage that it’s okay! We’re all on the struggle bus together.

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Beep beep, bitches!

Once that’s done we can return to your regularly scheduled science bits and poop jokes, I promise. UGH I MISSED YOU GUYS SO HARD!!!!! ❤

Fecal Transplants

Let’s kick off the new year with a bang – by talking about the wildly successful medical procedure known as fecal microbiota transplantation… or poo poo transplant.

It’s not an Urban Dictionary term, it’s a real thing. In fact, it has an almost perfect success rate when treating Clostridium difficile infections. That’s big news because not only have C. diff cases tripled over the last decade, but the emergence of a hypervirulent strain makes it more difficult to treat. In just the United States, C. diff infects an estimated 3 million and kills ~100K annually.

It’s a nasty infection that causes inflammation in the colon and potentially life threatening diarrhea. Even worse, it’s prone to recurrence – so many patients will suffer from it again and again. Usually it’s treated with vancomycin, an antibiotic that only cures it about 30% of the time. However, the Mayo Clinic reports that simple and cheap fecal transplants have 90% cure rate with only a SINGLE treatment. Amazing.

So how the heck does putting someone else’s goodies up your tushy cure such a nasty illness? Doctors believe that your healthy gut bacteria normally protect you from invading pathogens like C. difficile. However, antibiotics taken for other infections can kill the healthy gut bacteria and allow bad guys to take hold. By overwhelming the system with someone else’s healthy bacteria, the normal balance is restored and the infection can be cured permanently. Ta-da!

Yay poop!

So what exactly does a fecal transplant involve? Well typically you have to ask a really close friend or spouse to do you a solid (lol) and poop in a bag. The doctor infuses the stool with saline, runs it over a filter to remove solid particles, and then uses the bacteria-rich poo broth to give you the best cleanse you’ve ever had. It’s most commonly administered via enema, but it can also be delivered through a colonoscope or through a tube snaked up your nose and through your stomach.

If these routes are freaking you out, just be glad you didn’t live in ancient China. Reports of fecal transplants exist from way back then, only then they mixed poop and water and made you drink it. It was called “yellow soup,” and I like to imagine it came with a complimentary dose of opium.

The Pu-Pu platter has come a long way

Although this shit is effective its use is still controversial because safety regulations are lacking. Donors are screened for pathogens before harvest, but we aren’t quite sure what is transmissible via fecal transplant. We also aren’t sure what works best for harvesting and liquifying the donor stool. For example… blenders are commonly used, but they might reduce the therapeutic poo-tential by introducing too much oxygen and killing beneficial anaerobic bacteria.

The FDA has classified human feces as an experimental drug (so congrats, you’re all drug mules now), bringing us one step closer to using this method as a first line treatment. There’s evidence that it may also benefit patients with irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and other neurological diseases. Hopefully once we learn more about the safety and long term effects of fecal transplants, more doctors and patients will get over the ick factor and be down with the brown.

So there ya have it – poop can save lives.

Rat Park

Drug abuse is a bad thing – anyone who’s taken a D.A.R.E. class or watched the downward spiral of Lindsay Lohan knows this. It’s not news either, we humans have experienced addiction for centuries. Opium is one of our historical favorites, but these days there are plenty of addictive drugs readily available if you know who to ask.

It’s interesting that addicts are often considered weak and immoral (often blamed for “choosing” their lifestyle), because a large body of scientific evidence goes against these ideas. Instead, scientists actually believe that addiction is a complex disease stemming from both genetic and environmental factors. It is not a choice, and we should all work to undo the stigma surrounding addiction so that we can provide better care for those who suffer from it. This applies to more than drug and alcohol addictions. Gambling, for example, can wreak just as much havoc as substance abuse.

It’s challenging to study drug addiction in the lab because the government has strict regulations on controlled substances (lol, thanks Obama). But some studies do exist! Many of them use rats with surgically implanted devices that deliver precise drug doses. The animals are housed alone in special cages and trained to perform a task for drug infusions, like pressing a lever. Using this method many (but not all) will develop addiction and scientists can study their brains to learn more about how it all happens. They can also use these studies to develop lifesaving drugs like naloxone, the antidote for morphine overdose.

Despite all my rage…

But does a rat in solitary confinement really teach us about the experience of human addicts? Addiction is complex, there seem to be genetic predispositions as well as powerful social influences. We have to build our foundation of the bare basics before we can get anywhere, and that’s why scientists often design their experiments this way. It minimalizes variables and theoretically simplifies the results.

But it’s crucial for scientists to consider the effects of simplifying when they interpret their results. This became strikingly clear in the late 70’s, when Professor Bruce Alexander and his team of scientists compared drug abuse habits between isolated, caged rats and those kept in an open, social living space dubbed “Rat Park.”

Behold – rat paradise!

Their results are clear. When given an enriched environment, the rats were less interested in taking drugs. They didn’t want to start taking drugs, or return to them if they were already addicted when they entered Rat Park.

This comic by Stuart McMillen describes the experiments exquisitely. He really hits the nail on the head about why and how the work was done, and more importantly, what this means for human health. Please read it, I promise you’ll enjoy it. It might even change your perspective on addiction!

The following are three panels summarizing the big picture, but you can click here to read the rest. Quite frankly, McMillen is a badass storyteller.

The take home message is this: because addiction has strong social aspects it is important to consider these factors when designing experiments, and even more so when interpreting results. The more we can understand the psychological, physical, and chemical aspects of drug dependence, the better equipped we will be to treat individuals that suffer from addiction.

 

Seeing Sound

In the video below you can see real life sound waves traveling through air. It’s pretty trippy. And how did they do it? Why, with Schlieren Flow Visualization of course!

If you’ve never heard of Schlieren Flow Visualization, don’t feel bad. The video does a good job explaining the method but just to recap – they utilize some clever tricks to capture a focused beam of light with a camera. Light travels through a medium (in this case, air) and is affected by changes in density of that medium. An extreme example is when a light beam passes through a prism, causing the different wavelengths to diffract into separate colors.

In the case of sound waves, however, there are very subtle changes in air density as the wave causes the air to compress. (It’s these pressure changes that cause your ear drum to vibrate and allow you to perceive sound). Although sound waves aren’t nearly enough to split light into rainbows, Schlieren Flow Visualization provides enough contrast to capture their shadowy forms. It’s neat. My favorite is the firecracker.

Check it out!

Trajectory of Rosetta

I just found this and had to share as a follow up post. This shows the trajectory of the Rosetta spacecraft over the last decade, demonstrating all the clever ways scientists were able to hack planetary gravity assists.

Think about how much math went into this calculation! They had to know:

  • Exactly where the comet was in 2004
  • Exactly where it would be in 2014
  • What direction to launch Rosetta
  • What day to launch it
  • Where the planets would be
  • How much their gravity would accelerate and deflect the orbit of Rosetta
  • HOW TO DO MAD CALCULUS

Anyway I’m glad someone payed attention in math class, I was too busy playing Snake on my graphing calculator.

… guys – it literally just occurred to me that kids today probably don’t play games on their calculators. Now I feel sad.

Comet Song

By  now I’m sure you’ve heard that the European Space Agency has successfully landed a spacecraft on Comet 67P. Yay humans! To help you understand why this mission is cool, I’ve assembled a list of fun facts for you. So do your brain a favor and feed it.

Fun Fact #1: Comet 67P is the short name for the comet. Its full name is Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after the two scientists that discovered it in 1969. It’s a chunk of ice and dust about 2.5 miles across with an orbital period of ~6.5 years. It also vaguely resembles a rubber duck, which is sweet.

Scientists quack me up.

Fun Fact #2: The Rosetta space probe was launched a DECADE ago by the European Space Agency with many goals, only one of which was to send a landing module to the surface. The mission also hopes to determine its chemical makeup using various tools, including a 9in drill bit on the landing module that will harvest samples from below the suface for analysis. It will also send radio waves through the body of the comet to be picked up by the Rosetta orbiter on the opposite side, so that we can gain clues about what’s inside. All of this will be taking place as the comet approaches the sun so we can observe how the comet’s environment changes as it warms up.

Fun Fact #3: The comet is SINGING!!! Well, sorta – they aren’t really sound waves. Rather, the orbiter detected oscillations in the magnetic field coming from the comet. Essentially the magnetic field is vibrating between 40-50 millihertz, orders of magnitude below what our crappy ears can detect. So scientists pumped these frequencies up to something we could hear and… well… it’s actually pretty creepy. More like space dolphin than rubber ducky.

 

Fun Fact #4: It smells like shit. For real. Kathrin Altwegg, the bosslady for the Rosetta Orbiter Sensor for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA) project puts it more delicately:

“The perfume of 67P/C-G is quite strong, with the odour of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), horse stable (ammonia), and the pungent, suffocating odour of formaldehyde. This is mixed with the faint, bitter, almond-like aroma of hydrogen cyanide. Add some whiff of alcohol (methanol) to this mixture, paired with the vinegar-like aroma of sulphur dioxide and a hint of the sweet aromatic scent of carbon disulphide, and you arrive at the ‘perfume’ of our comet.”

Fun Fact #5: I want to be friends with the lead scientist on the Rosetta mission. His name is Matt Taylor and he seems like a cool guy. He wore this crazy shirt for the televised event and I genuinely love that he let his freak flag fly. Science is awesome and shouldn’t be stereotyped as a bunch of stuffy pencil pushing geeks. Whatever brand of weirdo you are, you can make history. This guy knows what’s important and it sure as hell wasn’t his outfit – it was the fact that he just plunked a science lab onto a moving target thousands of miles away in space. Sexist nature of your shirt aside, you are metal as f***, sir.

Literally covered in ladies…

… until some party pooper made him cover up

I wonder if he would have regretted this tattoo if the lander had crashed?

MOST FUN FACT OF THEM ALL: There are real reasons to do this mission, not just because we wanted to see if we could. Scientists believe comets were important in setting the stage for life on Earth. During the infancy of our planet, comet impacts may have seeded Earth with the goodies we needed for life to begin, such the ingredients for nucleic acids (DNA) and amino acids (proteins). They also carry hella water, so it’s likely they contributed a lot of it to our great blue orb. Observing Comet 67P could give more evidence for these theories, and will get us just a little closer to understanding where the heck we came from.