Embracing the permanence of change


Managing change can be the mental equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Image: cleveland.com

The truest of truisms is that everything changes and nothing is certain. Except, of course, for death, taxes and the alignment of grant application deadlines with the busiest times of year.

Change is a permanent state of being in research, where topics can switch direction on the whim of a funding body embracing a new buzzword, and everything that you’ve been working towards for months or years becomes suddenly irrelevant. It’s enough to drive anyone under their lab bench in a foetal position.

Change-management needs to be considered an essential ability of researchers and yet this is one skill that’s not usually part of PhD training. During a PhD, there is one project that continues until completion, regardless of any shifts in research interests. Even when the entire topic disappears, like when a government stopped global warming, the PhDs continued.

And as tough as PhD research is and as many problems that crop during this research, it is nowhere near as psychologically traumatising as shelving all your research just before the project bears fruit.

Shifting project directions on a proverbial pin-head takes a kind of mental dexterity that would make any Cirque-de-Soleil performer jealous. Developing these abilities should be encouraged more during PhDs but probably not to the extent of forcing major change onto students.

With experience and practice in research skills, suddenly changing topics is not only possible but also potentially exciting. But only after the researcher has been coaxed from under their bench. There must be an adjustment phase. Usually involving both chocolate and wine.

Shelved research doesn’t have to die and so there’s no need for an extended period of mourning. With proper labels* and document management, such research can be put into temporary stasis from which it can be reborn. Probably in a new and improved format with a funky new buzzword in the title.

In the meantime, there is opportunity to take on another challenge and a new topic full of exciting problems to tackle. The new collaborations formed and approaches developed may even assist in solving past research problems.

With change comes opportunity and with the right skills and sufficient supplies of chocolate, it can be embraced.

*A hard lesson well learnt!

The Olympics of scientific conferences


The Olympics closing ceremony resembles the close of a good scientific conference

The truly great thing about the Olympic games is the closing ceremony. Not because I’m anti-sport as some may suggest, but because this is when the athletes dispense with any animosity towards their competitors and enter the arena as friends. This is much like scientific conferences.

One of the key perks of being in research is going to conferences in far away lands. Having said that, my last conference was in my home town, but either way it’s always a great opportunity to meet with your peers.

Conferences can bring moments of great triumph and exhilaration. Like when you see the name tag of the person across from you at the lunch table and realise that you’ve read absolutely all their papers and follow their work obsessively.

You want to go over to them immediately and gush about how inspirational their work has been but you kind of want to be cool as well.The triumph is when you get the nerve to hold a normal conversation with them without them thinking your crazy. I’m still working on that last bit.

Occasional moments of exhilaration also occur when someone reads your name badge and approaches you to gush about your work. This never gets old. Ever. The struggle for me is to also be cool about it and not give them a great big bear hug of gratitude.

Then there are moments of despair. Like when someone presents their data exactly in your field but they’ve done it better. And with the most advanced technology. And are ready to publish. But always from despair rises hope, usually in the form of a new collaboration.

All this networking is exhausting. But by the end of a good international conference, any barriers between countries have been broken down, new alliances have formed and new ideas are set in motion. This is science at its best.

Now to follow up on all these leads and get some new data to present at the next conference. The training for the next event never ends and that’s just how we like it.



Ripple effects of science funding


Funding research supports much more than just great research. Image: asterisk.apod.com


The Australian election is looming and promises for funding are being thrown around in all directions including at science. But this money can’t be banked on. Asking for credit with a promise of repayment as soon as 1) Candidate A gets elected and 2) they fulfil their election promises is unlikely to fly. At least not with any reputable broker.

Most of research funding depends on the whims of governments. And if government doesn’t fund research, businesses will. As soon as businesses fund research, however, any results are often deemed biased and dismissed, regardless of how stringently the research was conducted. The conflict of interest cannot be overlooked.

Which points the finger back at the government. Research is in the public interest – it is the public who ultimately benefit from the results after all – and it needs to be funded by independent bodies. Which are ultimately funded by taxes. And nobody likes taxes.

But funding research has many other benefits that are worth the tax. Most obviously it provides jobs for researchers and, being a researcher, this makes me very happy. But also the process of doing research provides employment for many more non-researchers from all areas.

Here are some of the people employed directly or indirectly by research funding.

  1. Finance managers, HR managers, payroll officers – No point getting funding if there’s no way to manage it, nor if there’s no way to get staff and pay them. Basically research doesn’t happen without a solid admin team.
  2. IT gurus – Science, like most other industries, needs IT. Particularly for managing so many different instruments as well as all the data and communications throughout the business. Research grinds to a halt as soon as the network stops working, making on-hand IT staff invaluable.
  3. Equipment suppliers, manufacturers, primary producers – Science needs stuff. LOTS of stuff. From everywhere. This includes glassware, solvents, gloves, little plastic tubes, printer paper and sticky tape. To get all these different items, we need people who supply them. And people to make them in the first place and people to get the raw materials for the manufacturers to make the stuff.
  4. Communications managers – Scientists do good science but few do good talking. Anyone skilled in communications is an essential asset for any research industry to let people know the outcomes of the research and manage any media interest that may come about. Best not to let untrained researchers into that space.
  5. Receptionists, research administrators, managerial assistants – These are the key go-to people for getting things done, organising paperwork, managing meetings and communal resources. Important activities that always take more time than expected. Having staff dedicated to handling this sort of thing allow for more efficient research.
  6. Food providers, including cafes, food vans, supermarkets and fast food chains – OK, this one might be stretching the boundaries, but research like other businesses employ people and people need food. This gives opportunities for local eateries and food manufacturers, particularly those that provide good coffee. The vending machine guy at my work also does a roaring trade alongside the steady stream of charity fundraiser chocolates that are readily available and readily consumed.

Whether it be for applied science projects, as is the focus of the Innovation Boom, or for fundamental science projects that produce the necessary scientific knowledge for the applied projects to actually work, funding research provides community-wide benefits.

This includes employment and income for people across a broad range of industries, not just for scientists, as well as the benefits that come from the results of that research.

It’s win-win-win, really.

The great research swap


Transitioning into different research topics is like leaping from Halo to reality. Completely different terrains but some skills are similar. Image credit: forbes.com


Changing research topic is a big challenge in research. A PhD is like being completely absorbed in particular online role-playing game where you know all about the allegiances of other players and the strengths and limitations of your character.

And then after the PhD, it’s expected that you side step from your PhD topic into a completely new topic. Much like launching into a whole new game where you don’t know the landscape nor what you have to work with to navigate the terrain. The whole process is disorientating and yet it’s absolutely essential.

Conquering a new world can be exciting and it’s great for boasting a new post doc’s CV. But organisational restructures can also leave experienced researchers with years of research suddenly shelved and a directive to tackle a whole new topic. This is where those that are most flexible in their research will survive.

Luckily there are some skills that are universal for all research topics.

The most obvious is how to conduct research. No matter what the topic, solid experimental design underpins everything in research. These skills are invaluable and can go anywhere. Much like a foldable bicycle.

Secondly, there are enough processes in research that any self-respecting scientist with OCD can use to cope when faced with a new project. Here’s a summary of some of the processes for conquering the new research topic:

  1. Scour the literature and get up to speed with the field. Definitely check out the latest review papers and follow the papers references there.
  2. Learn methods and practice them til confident of reproducible results.
  3. Design some experiments and get that science happening.
  4. Write up a paper. It’s like putting a flag up and staking your claim on the new topic.

One thing to remember is to keep tabs on the former topic just in case the wind changes and the old topic becomes new again. Writing a review paper is great motivation to keep up with the literature in that field. The additional citations that inevitably follow are just a bonus.

The shift in topic is can be invigorating when it’s planned and can be frightening when it isn’t. Happily, the new world can be conquered in a systematic way and, if successful, the skills of project transitions can be added to the list of transferable skills acquired in research.

Of course playing different online RPGs is sure to help as well.

Fun times, lab style


Almost as hilarious as putting biohazard tape on your lunchbox

Working in the lab could be repetitive if not for the collective efforts of fellow researchers. Every week someone in the lab makes the effort to do something frivolous, purely for entertainment.tumblr_n04zgvjn8m1rqudgzo1_1280

Printout appears on noticeboards reminding giving helpful advice for researchers and lab visitors. I have a magnet that moves around this pictograph depending on how the week is going.

Inspirational quotes are also written on the whiteboard once a week by a diligent part-timer.  Motivational stuff like “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” and sometimes truth: “a clear conscience is a sign of a bad memory”.

The drive of light-heartedness even creates highly sophisticated equipment with bullet-hole stickers on the sides and hilarious names for these instruments. We have the complete set of Thunderbirds characters for our instruments and we’re starting on a set of animated characters from Toy Story.

Oddly, justifications for new instruments such as “because if we just get a Buzz Lightyear we’ll have a complete set” don’t get much traction with the funding body.

While the general motivation is good-natured, there are tensions arising from such displays. Currently a silent battle rages in our lab played out by the Stop sign on the door to one lab. Sometimes it reads “Stop – Food-grade glassware only”, but more often it reads “Stop – in the name of love” and recently Stop – Hammer time.” This is likely to change again as the next wave of PhD students build the courage to add their version.

Little things like this make the lab more enjoyable. And reassures us that we are hilarious. Even if only other researchers think so.

Engaging the work experience kid


Making routine science interesting for work experience kids can be a challenge. Image: pinecrestdayschool.com

Work experience is a valuable lesson for all school kids. Particularly when it makes you realise exactly what you don’t want to do in life. Ever. And that’s an important lesson.

So when it was announced that we would be taking on a work experience kid for a few days, I was keen to show her how cool and amazing science can be to encourage her to want to pursue a scientific career.

Unfortunately, when it came to my turn to dazzle the WEK with science, I was changing the water for my dialysis samples. I tried to make it interesting and gave her some hands-on experience by letting her refill the container with water but it still lacked some scientific sparkle.

Then I tried to impress the WEK with scientific equipment and showed her how compounds are separated using HPLC. I explained the principles of compound separation and then demonstrate how to prepare the samples. It was pretty complex stuff but she was very quick and could summarise the procedure:

Me: Now we need to pipette 40 µL of sample into 2 mL screw-capped HPLC vials with 300 µL inserts.

WEK: So like, transfer the samples from one container to another?

Me: Um…yeah.

And that, my friends, is science in action. Transferring samples into different containers is the basis of my day-to-lab work. It didn’t get much better when I showed her the resulting chromatogram and explained the very scientific way in which these data are processed:

Me: We now need to draw little lines under these curves on the computer and record the numbers that come up.

WEK: <smiles and nods politely>

While work experience teaches students about the real world, it is also educational for those already in the real world. For example, I learned that a Year 10 chemistry student can do my job. At least, the lab component. And that’s a pretty big component.

One thing that must be learned by aspiring researchers is that the most interesting and challenging part of science is not conducting the experiments. It is identifying a knowledge gap, designing the experiments to give the required information, and, my favourite bit, making sense of the data from those experiments.

This is the fun part of research but unfortunately it is not necessarily communicated to a student on a few days of work experience. Not even with my repeated explanations that may have only served to make me feel better.

I just hope the novelty of working in a real lab with real experiments was interesting enough so that science isn’t on the list of things the WEK never wants to do again.

Coordinating the Great Research Project Conjunction


The converging of research projects in this world is almost as disastrous as a Great Planetary Conjunction in other worlds. Image: greatconjunction.tumblr.com


Timing is the greatest challenge with natural products. No matter how beautifully constructed an experimental design and the hours that go into planning each experiment, inevitably Nature will come along and mess it all up. This week, despite my well-constructed project proposals with suitable distances between each set of analyses, I’ve ended up with three large projects converging on a single analytical time point.

Two projects are just kicking off thanks to harvest times coming together and one is the final time point of an existing project and none of them have any rights to be invading on the other.

After my inevitable melt down that came with the Great Realisation of the Impending Conjunction and the subsequent hours of therapy, I’ve realised that things might not be as bad as they seem. The key to controlling such as dilemma always comes back to the basic principles of Do, Delegate or Delete.

Ideally, I’d like to Do everything. This is mostly because I have a few control issues and difficulty letting go but that’s a topic for a-whole-nother therapy session. In this case I simply can’t do everything without sacrificing a few things, like sleep. And that’s not happening. So, grudgingly, I will prioritise the very long list of analyses and do only those in the absolutely-essential-must-be-done-now category.

Other tasks will have to be Delegated to colleagues who might have a spare moment from their own trials to run a few samples for me. Usually the analysis itself isn’t difficult, just time consuming, and unfortunately that’s something I’m short on. Borrowing some minutes from other people is enormously beneficial to me and not a burden on them, kind of like crowd-funding for time.

Delegating to work experience students might also be an option. Piling work on an unsuspecting student is apparently fine as long as the forms say ‘work experience’ and not ‘slave labour’, even if the latter is more accurate. Not that I’ve tried this yet, but at the moment, anything is looking good. And I’m sure the experience will be enjoyable for the student in an eye-opening, real-life experience kind of way.

As for anything else that can’t be met in the required timeframe for analysis, it might have to be Deleted from the to do list. This is where prioritisation is critical. Do I really need to measure everything possible just because I can?

In these days of being able to measure absolutely everything, we really need to assess if it is worth the amount of work if nothing is significantly different. So maybe I can cull a few experiments or samples and only look at only the most influential without compromising the integrity of the experimental design. Not that I’d actually dispose of those other samples, just in case there was a difference. I would need more a lot more therapy to get over that kind of trauma.

Things are looking much less stressful now with my new and improved planning strategy for the Great Project Conjunction. I might even have time for a coffee.