Aging

I work on aging. Specifically, ways to ensure healthy brain aging to stave off neurodegenerative disease. Maybe this career direction suggests a preoccupation with aging? Maybe here’s why.

I’m taking to my Mum on the phone.

MUM: How’s the gluten free stuff going.

ME: Great. I feel a lot less bloated and it’s not difficult to do.

MUM: Yeah, because at your age your gut starts acting up. I remember a consultant saying to me about Nan “all old people become obsessed with their guts” and I came to realize as I got older that actually your gut does ruin your life.

Then follows a 5 minute monologue about how my Mum got podgier around the middle as she got older and how her gut is ruining her life.

ME: But I’ve always had this bloating. Even when I was at Oxford (and henceforth rowing and super-fit), even at Keele (and aged 18-22).

MUM: Yeah, but you find it gets worse now you’re older.

After the phone call finishes I walk to the living room where my husband sits eating a sandwich.

ME: I swear my Mum thinks I’m 45-years old.

HUSBAND: You’re only in your low thirties.

ME: I’m 37 this year.

HUSBAND: Shit, you’re old *chokes*.

 

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The 3pm panic.

Today has been a nice relaxing day. I planned out a talk that I need to give in February, made some food and spent the early afternoon reading something fairly edifying under a blanket on the sofa with my husband. All rather idyllic. Until my mind screams “I can’t be on this sofa anymore. I have to DO something”.

The thing is that there isn’t actually anything that NEEDS doing right now. I did all the cleaning on Boxing Day so the apartment is in a relatively pleasing state. I guess I could work on my presentation or next grant submission but I have a feeling that this festive period of comparative laziness is actually having quite a restorative effect on my motivation and creativity as well as my scientific luck (I ran a PCR with 7 year old Taq yesterday and it worked!). In fact the only issue is that it is 3pm and either my circadian clock or psyche has a strange relationship with 3pm.

It’s like 3pm is the defining part if the day. If I’m working on a manuscript or grant and close to a deadline, 3pm is always the the point at which the panic sets in: “It’s 3pm and I haven’t done enough work for it to be 3pm!!!”. I get inexplicably grumpy if I don’t feel that I’ve achieved all that I should have by 3pm. I don’t even need to look at the clock to know that it is 3pm. The feeling of restlessness let’s me know.

I wonder if this is linked to growing up in a country where the sun sets around 4pm in winter. My circadian clock wants me to do the things that need doing before it gets dark but if this is the case why does this still happen in summer when in the UK it doesn’t get dark until 10pm. Also, if this is the case then why doesn’t everyone in Northern Europe suffer from the 3pm panic or similar? Maybe it’s linked to growing up with my Grandmother who always seemed to want to accomplish all of the days chores by 3pm. Whatever it is, it is fully ingrained and a hard habit to break.

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The Library

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Today I had one of those rare moments of realization when you really remember who you are. On a cold December afternoon in Boston, following an afternoon of immigration appointments, with my arm raging at the tuberculin embedded in its epidermis, I joined a library. I didn’t expect such an unremarkable action to provoke such an emotional response.

After signing up for my library card I headed into the new arrivals section where my eyes fell upon the large print hardcovers. Immediately I was a little girl in Hackney library with my Nan. We used to spend hours in the library, it was the one place where I could hang out unsupervised and lose myself in all the pictures and stories while my Nan chose which large print hardcovers to take home that week.

I headed downstairs to the fiction section and remembered what it was like to browse (you know, IRL) and to read purely for pleasure. To be able to choose any book that took your fancy because you liked the dust jacket or the title. I’ve always loved book shops too, but book shops are tainted by fiscal restrictions and the knowledge that you can’t afford to take home all you want. With the library your only constraints are the 20-item limit (wow!) and your reading capabilities over a 3-week period.

Continuing my explorations I headed up to the second floor reference section, and suddenly there I was in Southend library poking around the biology section for my A-level assignments. Memories such as these are not particularly remarkable or life affirming, but seemed to provoke my mind to acknowledge “I was there once” with the unconscious implication of “and I am here now”. This latter thoughtfeeling was intensified when, while continuing through the stacks, I chanced upon a book written by someone that I know.  At that point I was completely immersed in the present moment, and became aware that those library-loving younger selves would never have imagined that this situation could arise.

 

 

 

 

 

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Almost depressed? Almost anxious?

Two Harvard faculty psychologists are releasing books on sub-clinical depression and anxiety. As someone who has experiences prolonged episodes of profound sadness without apparent cause, but has never considered herself ‘depressed’, I look forward to reading Dr Carson’s and Dr Marques’ books.

Link to the Harvard Gazette article here: http://tinyurl.com/mlwk57p

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Millennials and the generation gap in education.

Recently I finished tutoring small a group of second-year medical students for a compulsory neurobiology course. I found my tutor group to be highly engaged and motivated, as well as wonderfully smart. I had little problem encouraging the students to do more than what was required for them.

I quickly realized that I was among the younger tutors on the course. There were 3 or 4 clinicians of 65+, 6 to 8 clinicians and scientists in the 40 to 65 age range and three of us in the 30 to 40 age group. Having had such a positive experience with my group, I was surprised to hear words such as ‘entitled’ and ‘millennial’ crop up in tutor meetings. The main complaint seemed to be that the students did not want to do the work that was expected of them.

At this point I should mention that the tutorials were largely student-lead, with the students expected to take responsibility for their own learning and for disseminating information to peers in their group, and that this was the first time that the students had encountered this type of tutorial.

I think that the perception of entitlement and unwillingness may be have actually been a reflection of the uncertainty that the student’s felt in moving forward with the work. For the current generation education has been incredibly goal-orientated. You study for the test, you pass the test, and most often you forget what you learnt for the test. This is possibly a symptom of the vast amount of information students are expected to learn. Back when I was an undergrad we didn’t have the internet to utilize when searching for information. I spent a lot of time in the stacks of the library when I was writing my senior thesis, it was understood that time would be spent searching for information. Now, peer-reviewed original sources are only a few clicks away and the students are expected to know much more than previously. As there is so much to learn, intellectual curiosity is in danger of falling by the wayside.

It’s also hard for students to pursue intellectual curiosity in their own time as they have little time that isn’t spent studying and, in order to get ahead, they’re often taking on more practical activities related to their chosen profession. Maybe this is just the way it is for medical students, they need to be armed with the necessary knowledge before they go onto the wards (even though they’ll have the whole encyclopedia of medical knowledge on the device in the pocket of their white coat) so the alternative for the intellectually curious may be the PhD. Also, once qualified and finished with residency the intellectually curious will be able to pursue their interests should these entitled millennials not be too burnt out by then.

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All the Way

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All the Way previewed in Cambridge at the Loeb Drama Center last night and I was there! Written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Harvard alum Bill Rauch, this performance starred Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s 1963 and following the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr LBJ becomes an “accidental President”. From the outset he champions JFKs civil rights bill, primarily as a as a political maneuver to increase his chances of winning the  1964 election. However, as LBJ later explains to Dr Martin Luther King, a “war on poverty” is his primary goal which will be beneficial to people of all races. We learn how LBJ’s desire to help the poor stemmed from his own childhood experiences after his family was plunged into poverty.

The primary focus of the play is the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but LBJ the man is also given center stage. As history notes, the bill was met with significant resistance and LBJ encounters this in his own back yard from his inner circle of Southern democrats. We the audience see the decision making process behind the various iterations of the bill, and the political maneuvering that LBJ used to counter attempts by Republicans and Southern democrats to block the bill. Throughout the play LBJ’s huge personality and rough charisma is at the fore, and this goes a long way to keeping the audience engaged in a political play that runs over three hours. Prior A.R.T performances such as last year’s The Glass Menagerie have moved to Broadway, it will be interesting to see if cuts are made to the length of the play if All the Way follows them.

Although the play is quite long it is never boring. Momentum builds as we move towards the 1964 US election. The murder of the three Mississippi Civil Rights workers Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner and the riots that followed are covered. At times actors enter from the audience delivering speeches that made me want to stand and applaud. The stagecraft of the play is excellent. The set easily conjures the benches of the House and Senate and the interior of the Oval Office. Throughout the play characters sit in the benches and appear to overhear the events on the stage. This is a powerful device. especially in a scene where the Southern Democrat Good Ole Boys make disparaging remarks about black Americans while two black cast members sit in silence on either side. How would you modify your speech if you knew that the object of your ire was listening? At other times, those listening in appropriately enough include J Edgar Hoover.

All Cambridge performances of All the Way have sold out, no doubt in part due to the presence of Bryan Cranston in the lead role. Prior to watching the performance I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see past Walter White after binge watching Breaking Bad this spring on the insistence of my fiancee who is an avid fan. My concern was bourne out for about 5 seconds. Bryan Cranston makes the role of LBJ his own and it’s easy to become lost in the play to the exclusion of all else. Bryan Cranston isn’t the only familiar face in the Cambridge cast. This cast includes Michael McKean (Spinal Tap, Best in Show and most recently Family Tree), Dan Butler (The Silence of the Lambs, Quantum Leap, Frasier, Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Dakin Matthews (True Grit, Lincoln) among others.

Overall this is an excellent play. Highly entertaining and thought-provoking. It’ll be weird watching LBJ trying to evade capture by the FBI on Breaking Bad this Sunday evening.

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Choosing a postdoc lab

How to choose a postdoc lab? There are a lot of guides on the web to advise you. I’ve written this one from the perspective of getting your NEXT job.

1. Never think that you don’t have a choice and that “maybe this is the best I can get”. As a freshly-minted PhD you will never be more appealing to a PI than you are now. You’re cheap, and if you’re continuing with research training after finishing your PhD then you’re still enthusiastic. Postdocs are getting longer and transitions between postdoc positions happen, but are more difficult as money gets tighter.  You could be in your postdoc for as long, or longer than you were in your PhD lab. Cast your net broadly and choose wisely. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t worry, you will get other offers.

2. Choose a big name lab with a secure PI. This is purely observational, but every person I know who has gone on to start independent labs at the Assistant/Associate Professor level all come from big name labs. As yet I know of no-one who has come from a mid-level or small PI who has gone on to independence in a top-tier academic institution. If anyone knows of anyone who has done this then I’d love to hear about it.

Also, having a well-established PI means that they’re more likely to suggest that you apply for that dinky little pilot project foundation grant in your name since it will bolster your resume but is almost pointless for them. In short, you want to be assisted by your PI and not competing with them for the small stuff.

3. Get trained in a hot and sexy technique. You need to be a couple of years ahead of the curve here. On the occasions when institutions actually advertise faculty positions they more often ask for someone with a particular technique rather than a particular area of interest. You can see this in the ads for junior faculty on the job websites. Departments are always looking for people to do the things that their current faculty can’t, you will find it much easier to get a job at the end of your postdoc if you are that person.

4. Get your own grant and choose a very well-funded lab. Postdocs have little to no job security, you need to be in a place where you aren’t constantly in fear of losing your job. It is difficult to push for the non-bench related aspects of training anyway, it’s even harder when you feel as though you’re constantly just hanging on to your place in the lab.

5. Choose a lab with some hard money. Hard money pays for equipment, technicians and travel. You can have the best postdoc grant in the world but your research will be so much more productive if you’re in an environment with a good infrastructure.

6. Choose a lab in a department where the PIs have overlapping interests. Your
research will become tedious and stale if you’re not presenting and receiving useful feedback on a regular basis. If you’re in a department with disparate research interests then it’s likely that people aren’t going to be interested enough in what you’re doing to really listen and respond. A dynamic environment, even if competitive, is also more motivating than one where no-one has much interest in what anyone else is doing.

Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There’s also other things to consider that apply to evaluating any job. What’s the atmosphere like? Does the boss play favorites? What is the work ethos of the people around me? Can I survive on this salary? However, I hope that this list may have introduced some things to consider in the context of your longer-term career prospects.

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Bondir

This year I was lucky enough to go to Bondir for my birthday dinner with my fiancee. We were there on the evening before my birthday (a Thursday) due to the difficulty of getting a reservation that Friday (book early people!). Bondir has been on my must-try list since I walked past the place after first moving to Cambridge. It did not disappoint.

Inside the restaurant is cosy and the rustic touches lend charm without being too faux. Our waiter was very charming and very french. He was attentive and friendly without being intrusive and was well-versed with the intricacies of the menu.

My fiancee and I both had the prix fixe menu. Satisfying mouth feel and intricately blended flavors are the order of the day at Bondir. My Bresaola salad expertly melded the flavors of the salty, deliciously musty bresaola (which I think was aged in-house) with lighter notes of white asparagus and the sharp contrast of pickled radish.

The Salt Cod Brandade was the standout dish of the evening and the favorite of both my fiancee and I. The salt cod flavor was allowed to shine through and was complemented, rather than overwhelmed by being paired with both lobster and pancetta. I’d go back and eat this dish right now if I could.

For the main course I was torn between the local Scituate Scallops, the duck and the Tamworth Pork Shoulder. In the end I chose the Rouen Duck Breast and Confit Leg. Duck two ways! Double duck delicious! I got the best of both worlds with the perfectly cooked duck breast and the yummy, crispy duck confit. My fiancee had the Tamworth pork and that was delicious too.

For dessert I chose the Caramel Poached Rhubarb Tart. Unlike many places, Bondir doesn’t skimp on the desserts and the portions will be pleasing to dessert people everywhere. I am not a dessert person but managed to scarf down my dessert, the birthday confection kindly provided by the restaurant and wonderful mix of ices that my fiancee couldn’t manage to finish. It’s been a long while since I stuffed myself so gluttonously but it would have been a shame not to when the food is this good.

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Finding my way around

It looks as though the weather has broken in Boston after a week of ~100°F temps. This and the accompanying thunder means that my run has been cancelled so I’m doing some more work on the website. I’m new to WordPress and just finding my way around. I really like the interface so far. I’ve had some successes (actually creating the existing pages of the website) and some failures (attempting to create a child theme from the parent template). Using WP brings a whole new language into my life. I’m considering the merits of spending the time to learn HTML/CSS code but as with everything there’s a time cost to be considered.

There was an interesting article on Lifehacker recently talking about teaching kids to code. Given the fact that so much of day to day life now involves electronic media it makes perfect sense to teach this alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. I guess that’s a pretty persuasive argument for learning some sort of code. No-one wants to look like a total Luddite in the eyes of the younger generation.

Link here: http://lifehacker.com/how-and-why-to-teach-your-kids-to-code-510588878

 

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