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Last week, I went to my first  Journal Club.  I guess I never went before because I am not a grad student and felt like it would be awkward, boy was that stupid. I’ve been missing out on fascinating presentations and even more fascinating faculty/student, student/student, and faculty/faculty interactions.  Before all this science stuff got started, way back in college-part-1, I was an art major – and I still love a good critique.

Finding (and with any luck properly articulating) flaws in reasoning, methods, process is a favorite past-time. So thank goodness I can direct these energies into science, because they could get pretty destructive on the home-front.

With that in mind, my critique of last week’s journal club presenter is two-fold. Firstly, the presentation involved an obscene amount of  “um”. Now, I prefer “um” to “like” any day, and nerves are nerves. But I did want to scream, “C’mon, just stop with that noise.” Secondly, the research was presented almost as if the presenter was a member of that research group. Pronouns like “we” snuck there way in there when all in the room are fully aware that the presenter was not involved in this research. Improper pronouns aside, there was no critique of methods, analysis, interpretations – no critique at all.

In my relatively unschooled opinion, the lack of critical insights really undermined the presentation. Partly because (so far as I can tell) no research is flawless, and partly because the audience would have been more engaged had the presenter done more than just summarize the paper. Most of the incoming questions were in the form of “Do you know if they or anyone has tried method X?” or “Have you seen analysis Y”, and most of the answers were “No, I haven’t come across that data”. It seemed like the audience wanted more. But the best question, from the head of the grad program (and a woman definitely in the running for best dressed faculty, but that’s another post) asked the presenter to assess the analysis methods used by the researchers. And our presenter nervously came through with a considered assessment, that would have made a much better bullet point  than most of the densely worded points that were dictated to us that afternoon.

Of course, this is in no way designed to insinuate that I could do better. Preparing for my first poster presentation brought me to tears, and promted a faculty member to remind me that “they can smell fear” (though the poster session went well, and was actualy a lot of fun)  – I will certainly make mistakes when my time comes. And I will certainly attend all Journal Club sessions from here on.



Another returning student, who works in different department and also has a lot riding her career change, was the first person I spoke to about the feeling of faking it. It’s not exactly a new feeling, and maybe is more tied up in the specifics of perfectionism than science itself –  but at the time I was surprised (and relieved) to hear this excellent scientist and technician admit that she felt like she was not actually smart enough to do the science that she wants to do.  This feeling was reiterated by a female grad student who I respect and often solicit for advice. When I told her that sometimes I feel like I’m faking it, she told me that she spent the  first few years of her PhD feeling like she’d accepted to the program by mistake and had not right to be there (obviously, she didn’t feel that way every minute of every day, and she got over it, thank god). So what makes some of us feel like big fakers?

Recently, in my new quest to read what other people write about their lives in science, I came acorss some posts on the topic of  Impostor Syndrome. Written in 2007 by an anonymous PhD student under the title I love Science, Really , this three-part post includes a link to a paper on the topic (with assessment quiz! I score a 69.) Briefly, the term Impostor Syndrome refers to the tendency of high achieving women to doubt their abilities and harbor fears that one day they will be exposed as frauds.  The focus of ILSR’s discussion was the prevalence of this feelingamong women in science.  And I wholeheartedly agree that this is a major dysfunction among women in this field. But would these women feel these same secret-faker-feeling  had they not chosen a career in science or academia?

While there are plenty of science-specific hurdles for women, I have to argue that this feeling is not limited to high achievement, or the sciences, or even specifically  to women. (A well timed voice from the radio says that  art is “a man’s world” as I write this.) But, a quick scan of my hard drive reveals I’ve never verbalized the impostor feeling to a man, and no man with whom I’ve been professionally acquainted has ever admitted his imposterhood to me. So maybe it is specific to some women, perfectionists, people with high standards, people who are really hard on themselves, people who define self-worth partially through work, or people who have staked it all on a certain endeavor for one reason or another.

So, what’s the appropriate response to someone who’s baring their faking fears? In no situation (yet)  have I given the right response, but I think it’s something really positive like “You’re great at what you do”,  not “Fake it ’til you make it”, which I will (with some embarrassment) admit I having said.   It’s a dark place, and I remain relieved that other people go there too. Below, a list of the moderately entertaining doubts I’ve harbored and the jobs they were attached to – a matching game.

Impostor’s thoughts

  • I am just pretending to be in charge, and when these kids figure that out there will be blood.
  • What if I screw up that regular customer’s order AGAIN!
  • I have no interest in making this bed/selling this cupcake/doing my boss’ bidding/painting this wall/packing this artwork/making this coffee – it’s hard to focus and I do a half assed job – if I can’t even do this right how will I ever do what I really want to do.
  • I guess I am doing well, but it’s just a matter of formulaic work, intelligence has nothing to do with it.
  • I should be too smart for food-service/house-painting/managing someone else’s bills, but maybe this is all I’m good  at.
  • I am not actually that creative,  and the more I force it the sooner I’ll wind up working in food-service again an justifying my lack of creative output as a choice I’ve made.
  • I am not actually that smart, faking it completely.

Imposter’s Jobs (there may be more than more correct match for each job)

Scientist, Baker, Barista, Nursing home assistant, Decorative painter, Art teacher, Artist, Artists’ assistant, Student part 1, Student part 2.

the Internet

Over the holiday break, I learned how to use the Internet correctly (spell check wants me  to capitalize, so as not to confuse the Internet with the slightly less holy internet). This means I now RSS things, maintain handy online calendaring system, keep things in places where I will be able to find them again, and began reading blogs on topics of interest. It has made my online time more effective, and I hope it will make my time here more useful too. So, on with the usefulness.

I work with chick embryos, so the illustration above, found here , entertains on a few different levels.  Recognizing  unanticipated bonus data, or just distinguishing between important and unimportant details seems to be one of the most useful skills in this field. I’d rank it right below the ability to recognize when data are saying something completely unexpected, or telling you that your experiment is flawed.  At this point, I have difficulty knowing the difference between a thing I’ve seen a couple of times and could quantify, and a thing I have seen a couple of times but have no real way to keeping track of or comparing with the other things I am keeping track of.

Besides things related directly to my research, I also try to keep track of other things. Re-training for a new career involves a lot of boyscout style orienteering. Being six to eight years behind the people my own age in the field, I have just beginning to understand how the world that I now inhabit works. What’s good, what’s bad, what’s just middling. So, I find myself in the dark woods of neuroscience often, sometimes with and sometimes without a compass. Last weekend, I attended a local SfN meeting with some interesting speakers from worlds outside of neuroscience (in the strict sense, anyway).  Robots that learn from and respond to their environment pattern after neuronal development to a certain extent.  This week, I found a visualization of patterning in citations. It is fascinating to see how isolated (or connected) different scientific disciplines are. In short – because I am out of time – robotics and computer science plus neuroscience equals some really interesting stuff.

My time on the computer is over now, and in keeping with certain new-year initiatives, I’ll publish this without making it perfect. (But reserve the right to fix it later. )



While not as informative as I would have hoped, here’s a fun image that I made in ImageJ.

ImageJ is a free NIH sponsored sciencey-photoshop program, minus the user friendly interface.

I spent all morning doing something that didn’t work

Matt the part-time lab tech says, “That’s science”, with a goofy smile.

Time, I say to myself, for some computer work. 

Here are some pictures of things that didn’t work.





More imaging

Look at that! 

This is a merger of two images of the same area of tissue (dorsal roots into neural tube) taken with the Multiphoton microscope today.