The Everlasting Search for the Right Conference

I just attended my last conference. A few months back, around November, I thought I had done just that, but turns out, I was lucky enough to a. get a bunch more of results and b. find a conference solely dedicated to my subject (phosphatases, just in case you were wondering) and on my way I was.

While I still stressed a bit about my presentation, the fact of knowing that I was pretty much done with the project AND the fact that everyone there was well acquainted with the subject, actually calmed me down. You would think that I would’ve been afraid of getting very hard questions, but you see, to quote one of the PIs I met this week: is not the hard questions that are a problem, is the dumb ones.

Now, I’ve always been told that there is no such thing as a dumb question, but that is not necessarily true. Here, the dumb question is the type that shows that the person wasn’t even listening to you in the first place. And the problem with these questions is that you can’t really dismiss them and you have to find a way to answer without showing that you are annoyed by this.

But let us go back to the conference itself. Because it was such a focused meeting, we were maybe 75 participants total. This was great, because it is much easier to mingle, and you would’ve been surprised as to how easy it was this time for me to approach people. I think I have mentioned before that I am very socially awkward. But here, the interest I had in meeting the people behind the research was greater than the fear of talking to strangers. Off course, there is also the fact that I have been super relaxed ever since I submitted my thesis, but that’s a different subject.

It saddens me greatly that it took me so long to find a conference like this. I learned a lot in three days, not only about my subject but many topics related to it. But most importantly. I learned about myself. I learned (or rather confirmed) that my struggle with socializing, even in a professional context, has to do more with the environment than with anything else.  And why is this important you ask? Because whether I like it or not, socializing is a big part of what we do. Even if the interactions are made through a computer (hi, nice to see you again) or in person, the fact is that in science we shouldn’t forget about the fact that our research isn’t and shouldn’t be just for ourselves, and part of accomplishing this is being able to talk to others about it, independent of the background. 

Being personable and finding a way to be comfortable makes it easier to talk about the complicated parts of your work, without making it complicated for the other person. Case in point, and you may laugh, but for the first time in my professional life, I did a talk and my voice didn’t tremble one single time. Did I manage to answer all of the questions? Well, no, there’s still some things we haven’t been able to answer on my project. But I didn’t freeze, even when a certain professor, known by making quite harsh questions (“I have 2 questions and a comment”) often oriented to destabilize you, was the one asking. And hey, I survived, didn’t I?

I also met great students, and several working on the same protein I do although in very different models. It is very exciting to see how many questions are being answered around it. After 7 years of working with it, it is always nice to see it in other mechanisms. 

This time I actually had a poster AND a talk to give, which had never happened to me. I have told you before that I preferred to have posters to talks, because it allows me to open one on one to people and I usually find that discussions are more productive, since the person coming to see your poster is either interested or a judge and in both cases there is a more genuine interaction. This time however, I was extremely lucky; since it was a very small audience, even for my talk I had the attention of (almost) all of the public and both during the poster session and during my talk I got very good comments and relevant questions that I feel can only advance the way I will discuss my results.  It is true that a couple of times I ended up answering “that is a great idea, I will pass the suggestion along, but since I am leaving the lab this summer, it will be someone else who answers your question in the future”. But the point remains that there were great ideas.

I wish I would have the opportunity to have more meetings like this through my PhD. That said, I don’t know if my research, or me for that matter, was ready before nowadays. In all, I am extremely happy with this last chance to share my results. Even better, I got to visit England for the first time. 

So what I am trying to say with this post, is that if you are still in the search for the right conference for you, don't despair. We all had to pass through symposiums, conferences, congresses etc, where our subject seems to be borderline relevant. But it's by attending this that we manage to identify what we like or dislike of a conference, and how, finally we can find the right match for  our research.

What has been your favorite meeting and why? 


This is the end…or is it?

Today I am not going to give advice, nor I am going to answer questions. Today I just want to talk to you about the roller coaster that has been the last couple of months and particularly the last couple of days.

Thanks to Facebook I can tell you that five years ago I was accepted to the PhD program I am presently enrolled. I mean, I could tell you more stuff, but this is the relevant one. I am a sucker for circularity and so I love that if five years ago I was at the beginning of the beginning, I am now at the beginning of the end. You guys, I have officially submitted my thesis for evaluation. I am also a sucker for puns or play on lyrics, hence my last tweet or status update. 

The thing is, if you would’ve asked me last Tuesday, I wasn’t going to do my submission that day. We’ve been working on my article first, and the initial plan was to submit that BEFORE submitting my thesis. Alas, and this is something I never thought I would say, thanks to the red tape involved in a thesis submission in my institute, I HAD to do the submission the day.

Since February and for a bit more than three months straight, I worked at the lab every single day of the month, and I mean every single day. Not one of those “oh I have to go a do a quick check up on my cells” no, no, it was full eight to ten hours’ days, every day. I had no weekends, balancing social appointment became even harder, and sleep was…well, let’s say limited. I was writing both my article and my thesis at the same time, so any incubation time was used there. Needless to say, I was exhausted. Finally, by the end of April I managed to send everything to my advisor, and then I had to wait for him.

Once again, we had a plan; he would have time to work on both documents, and we could do the submissions easily during May, right? WRONG. Grant renewals, congress applications, and whatever else came our way, and so I woke up on the 31st of May sure that this was just not going to happen this month. Was I disappointed, sure, I am someone who loves to stick to the plan, but then again, this year I’ve managed to let go of a lot of stuff I can really control (look at me being an adult!) and figured ok, let’s find out if I need to do any changes to register for another trimester.

Turns out it was going to be changes galore. So many of them and involved that my advisor just said: you know what, let’s just submit your thesis as it is. Panic? Me? Overthinking about the fact that at that point I had four hours or so to re format, polish my document and the fact that it was in French and I needed to track down someone who could check the language as well as the form, and give it back to me on time? Me?

Because this is how these things work, my computer froze, EndNote decided to act up, taking the longest time possible to update my links…and then, with 5 minutes to spare…I submitted on time.

A photo posted by CaroGomez (@carolikesbooks) on

I would love to tell you that a huge sense of relief filled me, but no. Turns out submitting your thesis electronically is actually very “unmomentous “, kind off when you want to hung up, putting down the phone in anger, but all you do is press a button. And yet…as I went home, this feeling of “well, you did it” started taking over, ever so slowly. And now we’re here.

I still need the whole submission to be accepted, to then be corrected, to then be re submitted by me after corrections, to then do my defense…so as you can see, it’s just the beginning of the end, and the end might as well take another three months from now (there was apparently a girl that took two whole years to finish the whole process, but she’s the outlier, thankfully) but the point is…I’m finally at the beginning of the final lap of my PhD. If I am being honest, almost nothing went according to plan in the past five years, but what I want to tell you today is, it was ok that it didn’t, for in the end, here I am.

Am I nervous for all what’s left to do? Certainly. But at the same time, I am very excited to complete this path and move on to the next.

That’s it for today. If you have any questions or comments, let me know!
The End by The Doors

Teach your children: Do I need to teach if I am working in research?

My cousin decided to study Biology just like I did (same university, hence same program). While she wants to go on a different research subject, so far she also wants to follow an academic pathway, and so she has asked me a lot of questions to subjects I wished I knew more about when I was starting. These will be a series of posts based on that premise. Please keep in mind all these posts will be based on personal experiences

What my cousin actually asked me was: Do I need to give classes if I want to stay in research? What I thought she was asking was if you need to be a teacher/professor, but what she was referring to was to be teaching assistant or aide (TA). Today I would like to address both.

Let’s start with being a TA. The truth is that you don’t HAVE to be a TA to stay in research, but I would say it is a worthy experience. Being a TA, especially for a class that you loved gives you not only the opportunity to share the knowledge and the love you had for that class, but also it allows you to practice your communication skills. Just the same way not all teaching methods worked for you, you will find a way to accommodate your speech to a bigger, heterogeneous audience. This will encourage you to find different ways to explain a similar concept and will broaden your knowledge of the it at the same time, since you will have to do some preparation for the class. Another advantage of it as usual is that it gives you another field of experience for your CV, which off course, doesn’t hurt.

Things that you might want to consider for this is that it’s going to take part of your time. Just like joining a research team early on is going to be demanding, so will be taking a TA position. The load of work you might get will depend not only on the class size, but the type of class and off course the availability of the teacher to begin with. Also keep in mind that not everyone is good at teaching. Over time you realize that you might understand a subject, but transmitting it to someone else is a different story. Everyone’s thought process is very unique, and sometimes things that completely make sense in your brain, might not be properly translated to others. There is a part of this that can be improved with practice, but it is something to keep in mind.

I personally have never been a TA. I applied for the position during my B.Sc., but was never selected, and at the institute where I did my M.Sc. and my PhD we don’t have undergrad students, which means there are no TA positions. I’ve had summer students, and that was fun. I was still able to pass some knowledge, work on my communication skills and all that in a smaller scale. If you really want to be a TA, I would say go for it!

Now, what about being a teacher/professor. It really is going to depend on where you are working, or rather where you establish your lab. If you are working with in industry, a private lab for example, chances are that you won’t be required to do so. However, if you are working with a university or an institute this can change. Depending on the system of your country and university, a principal investigator (PI) or research director might be adjunct, visiting, full-time, associate or assistant professor. All of these “levels” are related to your tenure level and to the amount of hours you might be giving to the institution. But even two tenured professors at the same institute might have widely different teaching schedules. My PI is a full time professor here, but is also an associated professor of another university in the city, which means he teaches in both, even though his lab is only associated with one of them. In a very particular case, he also has to go at least once a year to Brazil to give a 2 week course, as part of a grant. However, there are teachers here at the institute that also have the title of full-time professors, but never give classes, or are only in charge of one class a year. 

As you can see, either as a student (no matter what level) or as a research director, you don’t NEED to teach to do your research. However, it is through teaching others that knowledge can be passed on. Keep in mind that teaching is not only giving classes. If your goal is to have your own lab, you will also have to be able to teach your students how to work in the lab, particularly when you are starting and there is no one else to show the way. So trying the waters of teaching through TA positions or even tutoring is a great way to tune your teaching skills and test if you have it in you to teach others. 

Teach your Children by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Nude as the News: How important is it to follow Science news?

My cousin decided to study Biology just like I did (same university, hence same program). While she wants to go on a different research subject, so far she also wants to follow an academic pathway, and so she has asked me a lot of questions to subjects I wished I knew more about when I was starting. These will be a series of posts based on that premise. Please keep in mind all these posts will be based on personal experiences

How important is it to follow science news?

The short answer is, off course, very important. But allow me to elaborate. 

Just as it is important for you to follow the “general” news, as part of general knowledge, it is important for you to follow science news if want to work in science. As you will notice, there is a LOT of news and new sites and it can get overwhelming to know what to read/listen to.
Independent of the field you might want to work in, it is important that you know about the big developments in science in general. A relative good method to follow this is actually the science section of your local paper, just because usually the BIG developments will make it out specialized media. That said, take this reports with a pinch of salt. Unfortunately, many of this newspapers do not have a science writer on staff and might give the coverage to someone that could not be properly informed on the subject. I discussed this on a previous post

If you want a broad image but with a more focused angle, I would suggest podcasts or science blogs. These sources can give you the highlights and are produced by people with scientific backgrounds. I personally listen to Nature’s and Science’s podcast every week; they are short and will give you a good idea of what happened that week in several fields. Another podcast I enjoy is The Naked Scientist; now they also have specialized podcasts in Astronomy, Genetics and others. They will give an even more relaxed view of the developments in each field, but they will have all the supporting information. All these podcasts also have their own blogs, where you can get more information as well as the link to the studies they are referring to.

Something that can be very interesting as it will allow you to see different point of views is following science blogs, and you can do so through different methods. I personally love Science Borealis because it gathers a lot of different blogs which helps me to keep up to date and to hear different arguments on Canadian Science developments. And off course, there is social media. Twitter can be a source of news off course, just be sure you read the whole post before you retweet, and even then, don’t forget to fact check when possible.

As you’ll continue moving on your career, chances are that your interests will also become more specialized. While this doesn’t mean you won’t be interested anymore in the type of news discussed above, it does means that you’ll have a bit less time to follow EVERYTHING. Once again, specialized blogs or podcasts can help, but you’ll notice that it might not be enough when you start focusing on that specific side of your research only you and that other group in another continent are working on (I might be exaggerating just a bit here, but you get the gist). So, you’ll have to start looking for news, or rather papers about it quite often. Every once in a while, I do a PubMed search for certain keywords. While this doesn’t assure I won’t miss a particular article it helps to know what else is going on my field.  Through NCBI you can also set up alerts (like Google Alerts) for your specific keywords. Once again, you have to learn how to filter the information you’ll get and to set aside the documents that might be pertinent immediately and those that, while interesting, can wait a bit before you tackle them.

Nude as the News--Cat Power