Wednesday, 26 November 2014


I grew up in a family that was quite synchretic in its attitude to traditions. My mother is French, but from Alsace, which celebrates Christmas in the Germanic style (on the 24th of December in the evening, with cured meats, choral music, and white wine). My father is English, which means church on Christmas morning, stockings, roast goose, plum pudding and plenty of brandy. We lived in Belgium for four years, and there picked up yet another Christmas variant (December 6th, St Nicolas, chocolate coins in slippers laid out by the fire). And we did Hallowe'en long before it was widely observed in the UK, I now realise, because my mother's neighbour in West London when my brother and sister were young was an American women with two young daughters. Thus, my family collects holiday traditions, and as a rule, sticks to them.
Thanksgiving is not a holiday in the United Kingdom or in France. This is obvious if you know its history, but the traditions we are raised with seem so natural to us that I have more than once had to explain this to Americans. In much the same way, I am still not used to not having a four day weekend for Easter (in England, both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays). Yet as I have now been in the US for six years, and have a American fiance, Thanksgiving is very much part of my own branch of the family's holiday traditions. In the years I have been here, I have had the good fortune to enjoy many different thanksgivings varieties: a gathering of international waifs and strays in a small apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan, in a room barely big enough to hold us all was my first. The next year, it was a huge clan of Connecticut Jewish Americans in an old house outside Phili (hosted by that same former American neighbour who'd introduced our family to Hallowe'en).  For the past few years, it's been at my soon-to-be-in-laws house outside DC, where they make two turkeys (one roasted, one smoked). We'll be headed out there shortly. And I'll be spending next week in the gym.
Thanksgiving is an oddity in the American calendar. A day held holy, where everyone must find somewhere to go and belong. Uniquely, it is a time when the ordinary and day to day must be suspended. It's as if all the energy and focus that Europeans spread across a year's worth of holidays is shoved into one weekend, where it is considered normal to fly across the country, or drive 12 hours, all to eat the same food with the same people. The tradition of hospitality attached to Thanksgiving, which requires that you invite anyone in your home who may have nowhere to go, is a wonderful thing. It's very clear to me why it is such an important holiday to so many here, in a way that sterotyped movies focused around turkey mishaps never quite capture.
Throughout graduate school, my mother would come to visit for Thanksgiving. She would spend a week with me in the US. We built a series of traditions around that week, just the two of us. A day wandering around DC, a trip to Phili to visit her friend, dinner at a particular restaurant in Baltimore. Thus, in that week, we re-affirmed each other's place in our lives, even though we were an ocean apart.
Each family, each person, each group of friends, builds a personal narrative of traditions with the holidays, places and times that we encounter throughout lives. Some of these traditions survive almost unchanged throughout huge chunks of our lives. The 24th of December in my family is merely a slight modification of the Holiday my mother learnt from her parents. Some are entirely new, arriving with new people or new places entering our lives. Some are abandoned, or modified. Some are created to mark new life stages. In this pattern of shared traditions across time and space, the ebb and flow of our lives, and our connections to our history, both personal and larger, are made explicit. A year full of public and private holidays to be celebrated in particular ways is a marker of a life lived in the company of others.
Happy thanksgiving.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Rekindling the fire

After I finished my master's degree, about nine years ago, I was at a loss as to what to do next. A Ph.D. seemed too much of a commitment at that age. I wanted to get a proper job, and see what the real world had to offer and if I could be content there. Problem was, I had no idea what one did in the real world.
I had almost no professional experience. I wrote amateurish, over eager cover letters and sent my woefully short CVs out to scientific publishing houses. I wrote clumsy mock articles for science journalist internships. I was basically directionless. I eventually took a job as a website content editor and translator for a half arsed start up animation and comic book company based in London county hall. I learnt a lot on that job, mostly that anything that looks too good to be true on paper probably is, and that throwing everything  at the wall to see what sticks can work great for management, but is a great way to fuck over enthusiastic young people.
The job offered no guidance. I had no idea what I was doing, how well I was doing, and what was expected of me. I felt out of my depth, frustrated, and unhappy. That's when I found the web forum fo a popular webcomic dedicated to graduate students. I leapt in. I checked threads at all hours of the day, and late into the night. Within a few months, my posting was through the roof. I have a lot to thank that forum for. It gave me a community when I felt isolated professionally, encouraged me to overcome my fear of graduate school, and taught me a lot about passionate and intelligent people. It was also an emotional minefield, that would at roughly three to six month interludes erupt into belligerent arguing. Those forum fights were emotionally exhausting to those involved, and seemed difficult to contextualise to those outside the forums. Sound familiar? The forum became a crutch to escape my dissatisfaction with my professional life. The six month I spent unemployed, and the nine months I spent in that job with no clear direction and no idea what was going to happen the next day, let alone in a month, destroyed what had up to then been a pretty solid work ethic and discipline that had successfully carried me through high school, college and my master's degree.
Eventually, I realised that the job was bad for me, so I didn't even wait to hear whether or not I got into graduate school. I found another job, one that was more focused and more serious, with a much better boss. I rediscovered some (though not all) my work ethic. And eventually, I was accepted into graduate school in the US and left. The forum faded and was eventually disbanded, though I found I had lost interest sometime shortly after starting my PhD. During my PhD, I was stressd, but overall happy. I almost never had trouble motivating myself to do what needed to be done. I was an independent adult for the first time, and it felt great. Seriously, balancing my own budget at the end of every month made me feel like a kid imagines being a grown up feels like.
Five years later, I was back where I had been after my masters. I had finished the PhD, and was looking into a gaping unknown. My visa had expired and in focusing on finishing my dissertation I found myself without publications and without a job. I had to move back to the UK, leaving behind a life I had spent five years building, including a four year relationship. My partner and I agreed to go long distance, but it was terrifying to do that with no set end date, and no idea under what circumstances we could be back together.
So, at 29, I moved back in to my mother's house in London. After five heavily goal directed years, in which I had grown as a person and a scientist, in which I had begun to achieve some degree of professional recognition, suddenly nothing. The result was a return to that feeling I had had in my first job of frustrated aimlessness, combined with a fair dose of humiliation. Amid that frustration and isolation, a good friend and fellow scientist introduced me to science twitter. It was great. I found colleagues and scientists I could chat to in almost real time. I kept abreast of developments in my field. I found out about job opportunities. I commiserated about the job market. And I got involved in many large twitter spats that were emotionally draining. I found a voice yes, but man I used it a lot.
That year of my life was not, in many ways, a good one for me. It contained many good things (the birth of my nephews and niece, time with my family, time to rediscover my home town), but professionally, despite submitting my first two papers (and getting one accepted), giving several invited seminars and getting four postdoc interviews, it felt like stagnation, if not regression. And, as before, my work ethic went to pot. I was listless and unmotivated. I drank too much. And I spent a lot of time on twitter. It was clear to me that I was angry, and burned out. Yet I couldn't muster the willpower to change my slew of bad behaviors. I was in licking my wounds mode. This scared me: I've always prided myself on my willpower. Yet suddenly, I couldn't stop myself from tweeting when I should be working, from not wasting my days playing Skyrim, and from not engaging in alarmingly regular drinking. Don't get me wrong, I love twitter, love video games and enjoy a good beer, but even I could tell this was no longer quite healthy.
Eventually, through networking, good luck and some people willing to go to bat for me in a big way, I landed my current postdoc. And as soon as I started, things started to change. The first three  months, I was in the office at 8 every day and staying til six. I probably achieved more in those first few months than I had in the entire previous year. In January, my now fiance came to join me out here. Suddenly we had our life back.
But my bad habits hadn't left. I had the energy for work again, but everything else was still off kilter. I'm one of those people who's always on top of his paper work (taxes filed a month before the deadline, paperwork submitted with weeks to spare), but things were still slipping through my fingers. I missed bills (something I NEVER do). I also had almost zero energy to do anything outside of work. I've always been a voracious reader, but I suspect this year I've read fewer books that at any other time in my life. And limiting my drinking has proved harder than I had wanted.
And then there's twitter. Its use as a crutch in that year in the wilderness made it difficult to shake the habit, but there's no denying that I tweet more than is sensible, given all the other things I need to do.
A year in I finally feel myself returning to a better version of me. As the winter is settling in, I'm looking forward to making my way through a backlog of books. I'm exercising regularly again. I'm making a concerted effort to be more disciplined about non work tasks, and the drinking is finally getting under control. And then last week, after the turmoil of shirstorm, and the wonderful response to my post, I realised I was also ready to reboot my relationship with twitter. So I'm taking a twitter break (I'm still lurking, so no saying mean things about me thinking I won't find out). I need to devote this new energy to tasks closer to hand: my research, my papers, my impending wedding.
A friend of mine told me, as I was entering my final year of graduate school, that six months to a year of unemployment was getting increasingly common between completing a PhD and starting a postdoc in palaeontology. Even if we disregard the economic lunacy and unsustainability of this arrangement, the psychological and emotional toll it takes on young researchers is huge. If you are in this situation, be honest with yourself about how exhausted you are, and be aware of any bad behaviors you may have accumulated as coping mechanism. Give yourself time, and be gentle, and you will find your way back to a version of you you prefer. It's taken me a year. And that means next year can only be better.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Confessions of a teenage dirtbag: Thoughts on shirtstorm

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I went through a bit of a skater boy/snow bum phase. It was the closest thing I ever got to a teenage rebellion: wearing baggy jeans, big graphic T shirts, skater boy trainers. I went to a rather prim French school in central London, and then to university at Cambridge - a place that for all its charms is the definition of stuffy englishness - so in those middle class settings, my look was enough to raise a few eyebrows.
Picture 1: Snow Bum PaleoGould

Part of my collection,some of my favorite shirts, had 'classic' fifties and sixties pin ups on them. One of them, my favorite T shirt for many years, was a red Von Dutch number with a girl in an 8-ball bra holding a monkey wrench on the back. I still have it. It's faded with the years, and has now been relegated to a gym shirt. And maybe, after today, it won't even be worn as that.
The purpose of this post is not to whine that Matt Taylor of the European Space Agency has ruined forever my ability to wear pin up shirts. It is rather to ask the question about why he, and I, would choose to wear such a garment. Irrespective of your stance on the artistic value of Pin Up art, questions can fairly be asked about wearing what amounts to mild erotica to work.
The truth of the matter is, I always wore those shirts to provoke.  As I mentioned, I went to stuffy environments. And wearing these shirts that skirted lines of decency (and make no mistake, I knew they did), was a form of provocation. I distinctly remember there were times and places I would not were them. Is it not odd that these commercially available garments of mild provocation should use as their weapons women's bodies? Isn't it odd that I would never go to lecture wearing a T shirt with a Tom of Finland image on it? No, it isn't actually odd at all.
When Matt Taylor put on that shirt today, it was not, as has been suggested, that he doesn't care about clothes. It is clear that he has given his aesthetic great thought. He put on that shirt to provoke the stuffy media perceptions of scientist. He put on that shirt to loudly proclaim that he wasn't part of the Establishment. He put on that shirt for the same reason I used to put on my graphic Ts of pin up girls to lectures at Cambridge university. And, in doing so, he abused and belittled women. He probably didn't even realise it. He probably just thought he was being cheeky.
Our aesthetic choices are not free. That applies to subcultures like Rockabilly as much as it does to mainstream preppy campus outfits. The imagery of rockabilly and classic sci-fi, by reaching into the past, necessarily dredges up sexism with it. These images and styles cannot be worn uncritically. You have to interrogate your aesthetic choices. Otherwise you end up wearing a sexist shirt on a world platform, and casting a shadow over a great scientific achievement.

There's another issue I want to address, which I think resonates more in the UK than it does to American audiences. Because there is a class aspect to this too. Americans looking and listening to Matt Taylor hear a white dude with a British accent. Brits hear someone who's from a social background that doesn't normally get to speak for British science. People who got to speak for British Science when I was growing looked like this.

Sir Patrick Moore, late astronomer royal

Sir David Attenborough
 Matt Taylor was being presented as a working class hero, and that's important. With Britain the most unequal society in Europe, we need to encourage people from non traditional backgrounds into science, and we need to break the snobbery that makes people think that scientists look and sound, well, like me. But that doesn't mean we get to give Matt Taylor a pass. Today he failed as an ambassador for science. In doing so, he failed not only young women, but young working class children too. The solution is not to gloss over Matt Taylor' mistake. The solution is to find more working class people, men and women, to speak for science in the public eye. The solution is to expect more.

When you stick it to the man, be careful that you don't throw women, or anyone else under the bus in the process. And when you become the head of a major international space project, remember that you are no longer quite the underdog you once were. In fact you have power, and visibility, and a platform. You will be judged on how you make use of them.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Spell. It. Out.

Last night, a twitter fight erupted on where one should encourage trainees to publish. Specifically, whether it was appropriate to encourage trainees to publish in a trendy but untested open access journal, given that publication venues counts in hiring and promotions. Proflikesubstance wrote a thoughtful response (read the comments, for once).
I am very invested in this conversation. I am a postdoc in neurophysiology with two publications. Not two publications from my postdoc. Two publications period. One is in PLoS ONE, one is a decent society journal from my old field, vertebrate palaeontology. Here's the thing, my old field doesn't have high impact journals. I'm trying to get a third paper in what vertebrate palaeontology considers a high impact journal. The IF is less than five. My decent society journal is less than 2. In my new field, that shit don't fly. Compared to the neuroscientist I share a department with, my publication record is a joke.
Now, here's where I get annoyed. There are people in my field who would, and have told me, that I am already at a huge disadvantage compared to my peers. People who would tell me to seriously look at alternative careers. People I respect who've tweeted such advice. I am aware of this. I am not playing games anymore. I need to know what I need to do to restack the deck in my favour. So I am tired of people, well intentioned people whose advice on many things I trust, pussy footing around the issue of where I should publish.
Whenever the topic of open access comes up, proponents argue that they have placed postdocs into faculty positions without glam pubs. Detractors then darkly mutter about the selection committees' expectations and promotions and tenure requirements. Yet when it comes to specifics, nada. No one is willing to say HOW they whittle down those three hundred applications to a shortlist of five. I've yet to see anyone go on the record and say "yup, I chucked everyone who didn't have a CNS paper" or conversely "I looked up the candidates' H index and ranked them that way". Or, "our process is opaque, and I'm not sure how I came up with shortlist, but looking back on it, yes most had a CNS paper". Or "actually, it was the K99/R00 that did it".
Our department has NSF type comparative primatology people as well as neuroscientists in it. Recently, we had a seminar speaker meet the postdocs. He was a neuroscientist. The anthropology postdocs on NSF money talked about how, after two years, they were heading onto the job market. The neuro postdocs, and the speaker, all did a double take, as for them, no one was job market ready with less than five years of postdoc and at least a dozen papers, not even considering journal impact. This is the complex quagmire of tacit expectations a postdoc is supposed to navigate as they gauge where to publish and how much.
I'm currently awkwardly straddling paleontology, physiology and neurology, and I'm competitive for anatomy teaching positions. I know what the standards in many different fields are, and they change a lot. As I mentioned, in my old field, it's almost impossible to reach the kind of impact that neuroscientists get. And NIH money is out of the question. So I know for a fact that paleontologists have very different publication profiles to neuroscientists. As a trainee, I need you, as senior people who have been on hiring committees and tenure and promotion committees to level with me. Tell me what I need, what you expect in terms of publication. Spell it out by field, by university, by department. Tell me how you deal with people from radically different background when you do broad searches (like a ecology and evolutionary biology position, for example). Stop it with the dark hints.