I’m a #reallifescientist

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and I’m about to deviate even further from my normal routine by sharing a rather personal post. OK, a very personal post.  But as someone who values science advocacy and outreach, I feel this post is nonetheless important to share with both the general public, and young aspiring scientists.

I think one of the triggers that has caused me to write this post has been this hashtag going around Twitter, #reallifescientist (and other derivations, such as #overlyhonestmethods#reallivescientist, #realcdnsci, etc.). The general sentiment is that if we as scientists show ourselves doing normal, everyday science, perhaps we will seem less like cold, calculating figures in white lab coats, and more like real people just doing real jobs. Scientists are usually perceived as “apart” from the average person, and have generally done a lousy job at communicating what it is we do, or, more importantly, why we do it. The hashtag #reallifescientist is an attempt to reclaim the title of “scientist” in a way that humanizes us. We’ve realized that we have screwed up colossally. In a world of “alternative facts” and outright, dangerous denial of human induced climate change, it is the scientists who are admitting we were wrong.

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Let me be clear: we are not wrong about climate change (and a debate on the topic is beyond the scope of this post). Rather, we as scientists, who are used to failure and trying new approaches, have pin-pointed our lack of communication skills as a major problem. We’ve started to realize that we have isolated ourselves so much that the general public doesn’t understand us or the work we do. We have realized our mistakes and have been pushing for better science communication. We are trying to get out of our ivory towers and have conversations with the average person about how science can benefit them. We’re listening to the concerns of the oil workers whose livelihoods are affected by our push against fossil fuels. We’re honing our elevator pitches, crowd sourcing our questions with citizen science, making YouTube videos, marching on Washington, and taking to Twitter with hashtags like #reallifescientist.

Scientists, like myself, are trained to be logical, critical, and “publish, or perish”.  In asking for advice as to whether writing this post was a good idea, a friend and fellow scientist told me that our unwillingness to speak out about personal issues makes us seem “superhuman” to one another.  So what does that make the non-scientist think?

On Fire” by Gunshow

I’m about to share some very personal information.  I’m taking a professional “risk” in telling such a personal story, but I feel it is important to share.  With hashtags like #reallifescientist emerging on Twitter, and the debate about whether or not science should become involved in politics, I see an underlying need for us to speak out as people, not just scientists.  I also want young, aspiring scientists who may be struggling to keep up with midterms, relationships, mental health, and an uncertain future that yes, science is hard, but don’t you dare give up.  So here is my story:

I’m a #reallifescientist who works on both fossil and modern ocean ecosystems. I am part of a growing field called conservation palaeobiology, which seeks to use the fossil record as a way of understanding modern ecological crises. My PhD looks at the ecological implications of ocean acidification (caused by increased absorption of carbon dioxide into the oceans) through time. Given the drastic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to humans and greenhouse gases, ocean acidification is an absolutely exploding topic of research. And yes, I’m riding the wave because I’m a #reallifescientist who will also be looking for a job in the near future.

I’m a #reallifescientist in the midst of a massive, 8 – 9 month long project at Bodega Marine Laboratory in California (I know, lucky me, I’ve missed the Canadian winter – just kidding, I really miss it). I’m investigating how ocean acidification, as well as the fear of predation, affects shell growth in two different species of snails. The idea is that if snails can’t grow their shells as well in acidic oceans, they may be more susceptible to predation by shell-crushing crabs. If the crabs are able to just wipe out all of the snails, then the crabs have nothing to eat and crab fisheries may be devastated. Or there may be an explosion of the foods that the snails used to eat, which could displace other organisms. Generally, if you mess with the snails, the whole food web may unravel.

The project is incredibly time consuming, consisting of daily water changes which take about 3 hours, photography and measurements of 320 snails, thousands of water and chemical samples and analyses, field work to get food for the snails, plus data entry and analysis. I work at the lab all day, then come home and do data entry all night. I’m lucky if I go to bed by 1, then I get up early to bike 8 kilometres to the lab, rain or shine. I knew what I was getting into, but it’s difficult all the same.  I also know that many grad students struggle with similar work loads.

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Helping with water samples at Bodega Marine Laboratory.  Photo credit: Priya Shukla (please check out her amazing diversity in STEM blog, the Prosaic Mosaic)

I’m a #reallifescientist, but this is the most I’ve written since arriving to California. I’ve only read about 5 papers too. I’m trying not to feel too bad about that because my biggest goal when I started my PhD was to recognize and fight impostor syndrome (the general feeling that you are not good or smart enough, and sooner or later, you’ll be outed as an “impostor”). As I said, I basically live and breathe this project, so everything else will just have to wait. I have learned a lot about modern ecology, and met so many amazing minds, which was the goal in coming to BML.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I am bad at statistics. Again, I recognize impostor syndrome, but I also recognize that there are skills which I need to improve upon. It’s important that everyone understands that scientists can’t be good at everything, and there are lots of different kinds of “smarts”. I’m really good at intuitively understanding organisms and recognizing patterns in nature, and I really like looking at how organisms interact. But put a formula in front of me, or ask me which test I should use to confirm the pattern I think I’m seeing, and my mind is usually blank. I’m usually right about the pattern, but just not good at knowing how to put a number to it.

I’m a #reallifescientist and a Vanier Scholar, which basically means that the Canadian government gave me a lot of money to do science. This is not meant to be a brag, but more to show that:

  1. Despite being rather horrible at statistics, I am still a good scientist. I have several lead authored papers in good journals, and I know I crushed my master’s degree.
  2. Invertebrate palaeontology and conservation palaeobiology are important and valid fields of study. Vanier scholarships are the biggest awards Canadian grad students can get. Snails and brachiopods may not be as flashy as the dinosaurs I thought I was going to study when I applied for university as a teen, but I find the real world impacts of palaeoecology much more satisfying.
  3. Yes, Canadian taxpayers, you are paying me to change snail water, but don’t worry, I am working hard for the money, and should have at least a couple of papers to show for it.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also tired. I started my PhD in September of 2015. I felt confident. I’d survived my Master’s well, and was a contender for several major scholarships. I had a really cool project lined up, and felt a PhD would give me lots of time to learn all of the statistics I needed to know. And then my world began to fall apart.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a niece. My aunt was sick with terminal cancer of the throat when I started my PhD, and even after suffering a stroke, it took her three weeks to die. It was agony to watch her, my mom, my aunts, and the rest of the family go through the pain of such a slow death. I got into a routine of calling my mom, the youngest in a family of six kids, every day after school to see if my aunt was still alive, hoping, every time, that she was gone. That it would be over. It was the first time my mom had lost a sibling, and it was horrible to watch her go through that pain, knowing that as the youngest in the family, it is likely going to happen again and again.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a spouse. I started my PhD two weeks after getting married (I was writing my Vanier scholarship application two days before the wedding), but had to move out of my house and to a different city to do so. My husband has been so amazingly supportive, but I constantly struggle with the guilt of my decision to put our life on hold to pursue my career. I know I’m doing what I need to, but it is hard because I know I’m hurting him by making him lonely. It’s hard because I miss him too.

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Just an engineer and a scientist, studying light reflection at the Montreal Science Centre

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a grandchild. My grandmother, and last remaining grandparent, died very unexpectedly this fall.  I have been struggling with her death much more than I expected. I think it’s because we were so close. She and I were such kindred spirits, and while I lived far away, I called her regularly. We talked about anything and everything, for hours at a time. I feel like she understood me better than anyone, even my husband. She was up to date on all of my science pursuits, and had even attempted to read my latest publications. She was a writer too. In fact, they found her at the kitchen table, pen in hand, having just completed her first novel.  We just had this connection. But she had been busy. I had been busy. And I forgot to call her. And then it was too late.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a friend. My best friend from high school lost her dad when she was 10. Now, she’s pregnant with a second child that her mom might not get to see. Her mom is gravely ill with cancer, so much so that my friend and her long time fiancé decided to get married this past weekend, just to make sure that her mom was there for the wedding. I’m sad for my friend, and sad that I can’t be there for her. I’ve watched two other close friends lose parents to cancer, and never figured out how to help. I mean, how can you?

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a sister. When I started my PhD, I moved in with her. Shortly after my aunt died, my sister found out that she had a brain tumor. This has been a horrible, recurring nightmare in my life because my husband, then boyfriend, almost died of a brain tumor when we were 20. My husband, it turns out, was the lucky one. He had surgery, and has been perfectly fine ever since. My sister has not been so lucky. She had her first surgery in January of 2016, and while the surgery itself went fine, the surgeons were not able to get all of the tumor. My sister went on various drugs to see if they could control the tumor, but nothing worked. So on Halloween, she went in for a second surgery. I had booked plane tickets to come down to California, and had to reschedule them because the surgery was so last minute. We expected the surgery to go as well as the first one, and it did, but because it was a repeat surgery, they had to put a lumbar stint in her back for a few days. I left for California the day before she was released from the hospital, feeling satisfied that she was on the mend.

I plunged right into my work when I arrived to California, and then joined most of the lab in attending a professional conference in Monterey at the end of the week. Then I got a call that my sister was back in the hospital having contracted a resilient form of bacterial meningitis from the lumbar stint. She was to be in isolation for three weeks, but we merely viewed this as an inconvenience for her.

On one night of the conference, we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I spent the evening ogling all of the beautiful ocean displays. Meanwhile, my sister had lost the ability to walk over the course of a few hours, and her throat had inexplicably closed up. They called a code blue on her, and had to force a breathing tube down her throat and drill a hole in her head to relieve pressure on her brain from the meningitis. I found out the next morning in the middle of the conference, and sort of forgot where I was.

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The BML crew at Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I didn’t know that a code blue had just been called on my sister. Photo credit: Gabriel Ng

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I broke down in the middle of a professional conference. A professor I had never met before came up to me, gave me a big hug, and held my hands as I tried to breathe.  I don’t even know her name. I wanted to come home, but my parents told me that my sister was going to be fine. That I should just wait because it looked like she was recovering. But by the Monday after we had returned from the conference, my mom told me to come home. My sister’s cerebellum had been pushed down into her spinal column, preventing circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid, and causing paralysis. They had to do an emergency surgery to remove part of the back of her skull and a small piece of the lowest brain to make room for her cerebellum. I booked the next available flight, but it wasn’t until Tuesday evening. That Monday night, laying in bed in a different country with no way to get home, was the worst night of my life. And I had already experienced my boyfriend going through emergency brain surgery.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I abandoned my project because who cares about science, or funding, or US Visas, when your sister might be dying? I got home the night after her surgery, and my husband, who had driven up to take care of my parents, picked me up from the airport and took me to the hospital in the middle of the night to see my sister. She had so many tubes, screens, and sensors hooked up to her.

She spent the next two and a half weeks in ICU. It was really touch and go for the first two weeks, and we really didn’t know if she was going to be OK, let alone ever be able to walk again. But after almost two weeks, she was finally able to breathe on her own.  Regaining mobility took a little longer.

I stayed for just over three weeks before I returned to California, and when I left, she had just taken her first few steps with a walking machine. She was in the hospital for two months, but is thankfully now on the mend. She is still working on her balance and regaining strength in her muscles, but hopefully my mom will be able to go home in a few weeks, and my sister will be able to live on her own again.  After everything she’s been through, part of the tumor is still there, but they will not operate on her again. She’s been started on some drugs to control the tumor, so wish us luck that the drugs work this time.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but coming back to California, just for a project, has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It’s both the reason I am “stuck” here, and the thing keeping me sane (or busy). I expected some homesickness with this trip, but I miss my sister terribly. I’ve met so many amazing, kind people here, and if it weren’t for them, I’m sure I would be very unwell right now. But, I panic every time I don’t hear from my family in a few days. I know it is unnecessary, but having been through this once before with my husband, I know it takes a while for the paranoia and fear to go away. Not to mention the guilt of not being there for my sister, let alone my husband, and my friend.

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My sister is the superhuman.

Thankfully, I might be starting to see some results with my experiments.

After all, I’m a #reallifescientist, and none of my personal problems are stopping me from doing a damn good job.  Sure, I chose sleep over collecting shell measurements in February, but the loss of a few data points is not going to kill my project.  My mind may be focused on my sister rather than writing my methods section, but at least I’m writing something.  My goal is to submit the results of this project to a journal by the end of the year. Even if I don’t make that deadline, I know I will get it done, and will do it well. I also have to complete my candidacy exam soon after I return to Canada. But I plan to take a long holiday first.

Science takes time, and sometimes our personal lives make it hard to stay motivated.  We may be burdened with family tragedies, relationship issues, personal obligations, or poor mental and physical health. But even if we struggle, or fall behind on the endless proposals, deadlines, and mountains of data, we will continue to work, and do it well.  So be kind to yourself.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m a human being first.  And I know I’m not alone.

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Looking for some more information?  Check out these and many other resources:
Science Advocacy:
What early-career researchers can do to advocate for science, Science Magazine
The Science of Science Advocacy, The Scientist
The so-so state of science communication in Canada, University Affairs
Social media:
“A Facebook-Style Shift in How Science is Shared”, The New York Times
Sh*t Academics Say (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blog)
#overlyhonestmethods#reallifescientist#realcdnsci#reallivescientist, #academic
Impostor Syndrome:
“Your Project is Good Enough for a Talk” by fellow Canadian palaeontologist, Pseudoplocephalus
Sakulku, J. and Alexander, J. 2011. The Impostor Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioural Science. 6:73-92.
“No, you’re not an Impostor”, Science Magazine
“Feel like a fraud?”, American Psychological Association
Work/Life Balance in Academia:
The Professor is In blog
“Can scientists really have work/life balance?”, Nature Jobs
Mental Health in Academia:
“Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia”, The Guardian
For parents:
“The Superwoman fallacy: what it really takes to be an academic and parent”, The Guardian
Science advocacy and communication:
“What scientists should talk about: their personal stories”, The Guardian (this is from 2013!)
What early-career researchers can do to advocate for science, Science Magazine
The Science of Science Advocacy, The Scientist
The so-so state of science communication in Canada, University Affairs
The Prosaic Mosaic, Medium
The Bearded Lady Project
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3 thoughts on “I’m a #reallifescientist

  1. This is a good post, Kristina. You’ve had a really rough go lately and I hope things look up for your sister and for yourself. You should feel proud of your academic accomplishments, but I also bet everyone around you is really proud of how you’ve been there for your friends and family, too. You are an inspiration, and I’ll look forward to seeing your paper published!

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  2. Kristina, this was inspiring. That so much can be going on and yet you stand strong, is nothing short of amazing. As well, your bravery in sharing is stunning. Thank you so much. Your PhD will certainly be well earned and well deserved. Continue your fight and know that you’ve left a strong impression on me as a reader, an undergrad, and -hopefully someday- future #reallifescientist.

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  3. Wow, you are a very strong woman to make it through all that and continue on. I’m sure it feels like it’s the only choice you have, but you’re very courageous to push through. Keep doing the best you can. Trust that you’re making the right decisions even when they are difficult to make. You are strong and smart and doing the best you can.

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