Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Science is NOT Like an Action Movie

Is watching paint peel more exciting than this? Maybe I can try that this weekend?
Okay, I get it. We need more people interested in science, especially more women people and people of color and anyone else who is underrepresented in science and technology fields.

But this is not the way to do it. It is my personal opinion that this is completely misrepresenting science. This does not help scientists. Yes, science can be exciting, and is a worthwhile career. It can be rewarding, and fulfilling, and one can be very successful at it. But how many people will read this and go, "Oh cool!" only to HATE IT once they get into it (*tentatively raises hand, then quickly puts it down*)?

But science is very, very boring, too. It's frustrating, it's stressful, it's annoying and can consume your entire life. Want a PhD? Kiss your friends, your free time, and your life good-bye. The next 3-5 years (or longer, depending on how lazy you are or how much of a jerk your PI is) is going to be spent in the lab, and you will be expected to spend all of your time there. All of it. ALL. If you're not in the lab, your boss will be wondering why they're wasting their time on you. Try 12 hour days (or longer, depending on what your incubation times are), every day of the week. Meaning Saturdays and Sundays are days of the week, too. Oh, and you're not getting paid. Well, if you're lucky, you might be, but it won't be much better than minimum wage.

And once you get your PhD, you get to do your postdoc, where you're still expected to be in the lab most of your waking hours, but you do get paid. Peanuts.

Science is hard, and takes a certain type of person. You must be willing to fail. You have to be persistent and stubborn. Frustration is part of your daily routine. You have to put in the decade or so of being the cheap labor before you land a professorship. Oh. Yeah, well, good luck with that, too. Waiting tables just might make you as much money.

Has the picture been painted for you yet? Does this sound like an action movie yet? In this action movie, we get to watch as Indiana Jones is unable to pay his bills! Bam! In this movie, we get to see Tomb Raider wondering where her next grant will come from (because NIH is funding at about 15%)! Zoom! Will she be able to pay her lab manager for another year? Let's find out; the crying scenes are the best!

Here's a more realistic look at this article (here's the link again, because I'll be referencing it):

1. Well, yes, science is a mystery that we are all trying solve. But comparing the quest to Sherlock makes about as much sense as comparing the justice system to CSI: or Perry Mason. It takes YEARS, maybe DECADES, not a few minutes, to answer those scientific questions. Some scientists spend their entire lives looking at one question. Sound exciting yet?

2. HAHAHAHA! A caper? Really? Most labs do have a team, yes, many with different skills. Most of the time, though, we avoid talking with one another because we're trying to concentrate. No witty movie banter in any lab I've ever worked in. You know that biochemist down the hall? Yeah, I'm only talking to him if I have to, because...well, he's weird. And creepy. Most scientists are a bunch of antisocial weirdos with abnormal social skills. IT'S WHY WE GOT INTO SCIENCE, SO WE CAN WORK ALONE.

3. Does getting eaten by leeches or stricken with Ebola sound like fun?! Who wrote this?! And good luck finding that archaeologist who found the lost city. Most of them find pottery shards and petrified garbage piles (which is really, really useful actually!) Finding lost cities is a news-worthy event, and happens very, very, very, very rarely.

4. Yeah, no. The vast majority of science takes a long time. It's never a "race" unless you're the tortoise. Drugs (including vaccines) can take upwards of a decade to develop and test. All the "science" you see in action movies and TV has been crunched in order to provide a neat package for presentation. You really wouldn't want to wait the 2 hours (30 minutes if you have one of the fancy fast machines) for a PCR to run (nor the extra hour it takes to make and run the gel to visualize the DNA...or the hours sitting at the computer redesigning the primers three times because those didn't work, and running the *&^% PCR three more times...and running those get the idea).

5. True Crime: this one I can definitely agree with. But again, these processes take DECADES, not the few minutes in a science montage in your favorite TV show. Once the process has been developed, it still could take days to weeks to run. A typical genotyping experiment (say for determining the DNA profile of a criminal) could take a few hours up to a week, depending on what system you have and how many postdocs/technicians you can goad into doing it (and how busy their schedule is). And that's if they don't have a backlog.

6. If your lab blows up, it's a problem. You're out of a job, and you might be up for criminal charges. It's not really as cool as it sounds, unless you're the Mythbusters and you have a TV-sized budget, explosion experts, AND a safe place to blow stuff up. Most scientists I know do not blow things up for a living, though some chemists might qualify. And then it would be under completely controlled circumstances and with very small amounts, which isn't as exciting as this. The closest I've come to an explosion in my lab was when I would electrocute bacteria and the cuvette would spark and pop and I'd risk my own electrocution because it was too wet, not cold enough, or the salt balance was wrong. It also meant my experiment had failed and I needed to start over. Not as exciting as an explosion, sorry. I also burned off part of an eyebrow and some bangs when I got too close to a Bunsen burner. Does that count?

7.  Yes, there are scientists that do that. But the blowing up part, or the cool part of watching a house get shaken by a giant robot? Do you know how many hours, days, weeks (years?) went into the planning of those machines? Probably days worth of debugging code, too. And don't forget how long it takes to build, not including the time it takes to draft. They don't show that in the movies, do they?

8. I actually worked in a genomics lab with robots. True, they do the work of one lab tech much, much faster. But you know what? Guess what that lab tech gets to do instead? Fill the robots' water carboys, fill the tip boxes, and line up the plates. Press buttons. Try not to get their head knocked off their shoulders when the robot gets stuck and needs to be taken apart. Watch a robot do their job for them. Feel like Indiana Jones yet?

9. Landing a robot on a comet is one of the coolest things that has happened in recent years. Again, this is a super awesome experience, and hurray for those scientists. That moment is why we do this. But not every scientist gets that moment. The majority of that team is behind the scenes, doing the unexciting grunt work of all the math and debugging code. It probably took them years of boring work to get to that exciting point. But most labs' work isn't nearly as sexy or exciting as even that. The stark reality is that the most needed science, basic science research, is just not getting funded at the rate it should be. It's not cool enough. The vast majority of scientists will never, ever have anything exciting enough to make the news.

The take home message: the lucky scientists, whether they are lucky for the sexy research they are doing or because they just so happen to answer the right question, are the ones who get their Indiana Jones moments. But even that is just the tip of the iceberg. Movies can't show us the years of dull work that went into finding that temple, building that robot, or sequencing that genome.

Science is boring.

But some of the time, it's worth it. And that's why we do it, even though it's the most boring, annoying, frustrating, exciting, awful, fulfilling job out there.

photo credit: Novartis AG via photopin cc

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bisexual Erasure

Hi there, I'm bisexual!

Now that we got that out of the way, we can talk about something that is important to me. You see, I've been bisexual for a long time. Well, all my life, actually, but I didn't even know what homosexuality was until I was in high school, so of course I had no idea that I was bisexual. I remember when I first heard about being gay: it was when I was watching Clue, and Mr. Green came out of the closet. I had no idea what he had meant by it and asked my mortified mother, being too naive to know how embarrassing that was for her.

Later, I realized that I had been crushing on some of my female friends just as much as I had been crushing on the guys. In fact, crushing on girls was almost easier. Sleepovers, locker rooms... They never suspected anything, and I wasn't dumb enough to get caught staring; I behaved myself (probably because I was also extremely shy as a kid). But I knew, somehow, that it was "wrong" to like girls and kept my feelings hidden for a long, long time.

I did prefer men, however, and dated them exclusively (though I came really close with one particular girl in college...the sexual tension between us was as thick as pudding), and eventually got married to a man (who later also came out as bisexual!)

But you know what? I'm still bisexual. That hasn't changed. I still like to look at pretty women. And men.

Bisexual erasure is a real thing. It's the idea that people aren't really bi. They are either just straights "experimenting" or are actually gay and just haven't admitted it to themselves (or others) yet. It's a form of discrimination, often called monosexism (both gays and straight people are monosexual). People have actually asked me if I was still bisexual because I was married to a man."Shouldn't you just call yourself straight?" I've been asked.

No, no I shouldn't.

Being bisexual is as intrinsic to me as being gay is to gay people. I can't change it just because I got married. Gays have had this problem a long time, too. Just because they got married (to blend in, because of social pressure, because of hostile times in history, etc.) didn't mean they stopped being gay. They just had to hide it and suffer through a marriage they probably didn't really want. Luckily for me, I don't have to hide my bisexuality just because I'm married. I even got really lucky and found a man who later came out as bisexual himself.

For a long time, though, I did have to hide it. It was frustrating to explain to people that I was married to a man but still identified as bi. A lot of times I got confused looks. I wondered if people thought I was delusional or kidding myself and really was a lesbian. But I had tried out that label before I had met my husband, and I just couldn't do it. I still liked to look at men. And women.

So I just stopped talking about it. I didn't "come out" to friends because I thought it wasn't important. Yeah, I was still bi, but I was married. I bought into bisexual erasure. My identity wasn't important because of my relationship status.

That sucks.

This is the last weekend of Pride, and I'm going to be marching in Chicago's Pride Parade with the Bisexual Queer Alliance tomorrow. And I'm proud of that. I'm telling the world that I am bi, even though I am married to a man, and that's okay. I'm here, I'm not going anywhere, and I'm certainly not going to stop saying I'm bi.

You can't erase me. You can't shut me up, and you certainly can't label me as straight.

I'm bisexual, and I'm proud of it!

(BTW: I do realize that the term "bisexual" is a little dated, and doesn't cover the entire spectrum of gender identity. I've always said that it didn't matter to me what was - or wasn't - in someone's pants, and that still applies. It's what is part of being bi...we like it all! "Pansexual" might be more accurate, but way harder to explain.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Electronic Hijinks

I have always had a strange relationship with electronics. I love computers, even though most people my age distrust them to some degree. I was lucky; I grew up with computers because I had a father who was in engineering. We had computers - two of them - before most people even knew what a personal computer was.

Computers tend to obey me. They rarely break down (except printers...damn you printers!), rarely have severe problems, and I have never, ever lost a file at the last minute (okay, I did lose about 30,000 words of my Dark Crystal Author Quest submission once, but that was my iPad's fault).

Other types of electronics and I, however, do not get along so well.

Take elevators, for example. Let me tell you a story of the College of Nursing elevator. This lift really liked me, as in it followed me around. I didn't use it much on the way down; I usually took the stairs. My office was on the fourth floor, my lab on the second. With no one around to push the button, the doors would open for me on the fourth floor. I'd ignore it and take the stairs, only to have the doors open for me at the second floor, again with no one around to push the button.

This elevator liked me. It followed me.

The elevator in the College of Medicine was another story. It didn't like me. Any time I would get on, no matter how many people were in it (or not), the alarm would sound. When I stepped out of the elevator, the alarm would switch off. I got a lot of stares because of it.

Now, it's automatic doors. I guess my secret ninja skills have become so great that I no longer register on automatic door sensors. They won't open for me anymore, or they will open while I'm still thirty feet down the hall, then close just as I get to them - with no one else around.

What about you? Do you have any weird electronic hijinks stories? Do computers fritz out around you, like a certain Chicago wizard we all know and love? Do you have a pet elevator?

Photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Geek? Nerd? Writer?

Okay, so I'm not known for being consistent with blogging. I have three blogs and I barely write in any of them anymore. I suck.

I guess it's because I never know what to write about. I have lots of opinions about things, but I'm not always sure people want to read those opinions. So, yeah, I'm a little insecure about sharing things I like, especially since I am a nerdy geek. Or a geeky nerd. Or whatever. And a woman, and bad things tend to happen to opinionated women who have those strong opinions on geeky things.

I like Star Wars, and comic books, and video games. But I don't get much chance to do much about it. I work too much and I'm lazy. Yes, I just admitted that I'm lazy. But I am, and I'm trying not to be.

In other words, what I'm trying to say is that I am going to attempt to write more. I'm making writing a priority. I might even make a schedule, and put it in my calendar, and have it beep at me. Like I did for belly dance, and look how far that's gotten me! (Yep, this belly dancing writer is going to be teaching at Waking Persephone this year! Sweet!)

I will write about more than just writing here. I've contemplated renaming the blog, or just trashing this one and getting another. We'll see. I want to write about nerdy things and geeky things and stupid things. And writing. And dancing.

For now, thanks for reading, and hopefully this will all be worth something soon.