Hello again :)

Dear readers,

Oh goodness, it has been TOO LONG. First I took a break because I was on vacation, and then I came back to Cambridge and discovered I had been overly ambitious in signing up participants for my behavioural experiment: all of a sudden I was facing the decision between blogging and sleeping. Tonight’s the first night when I’ve had time to sit down for two hours, and I have so much stored up to tell you :).

First, let’s start with vacation. Vacation was wonderful. My labmates here have grown accustomed to my idiosyncrasies (… “Monica, that’s a LOT of cheese,”) but there’s nothing quite like the people who you grew up with, who know implicitly how you think. And I think my family has relaxed with time—or my parents were just grateful to have us home—because there weren’t any tense moments the entire trip. It’s kind of miraculous, actually. One of the things that likely helped is that my sisters and I are older and are more in touch with what’s going on. Another is that we’re a family of introverts, so if you leave us be we’ll all just sit in a room with our various electronics together. And finally, most of our outings involved food and family, and both are wonderful and hard to get wrong :).

(As a side note, I’m considered pretty Asian in my lab at Cambridge. Which is interesting, because I identify with Chinese food but that’s about all that I was culturally raised with. However, in lab it’s becoming a relatively common inference—whenever my labmates see me and the Chinese post-doc do something similar in lab, it’s an “Asian thing” rather than a “Monica and Rui thing”. It kind of began when I mentioned that porridge was rice-based a few months ago, and we dissolved into discussions of what exactly pudding was from that point. I was also corrected today on what I called the “Asian stereotype” but soon realized was an “Asian-American” stereotype. I don’t know the population percentages here, but it’s very different from being at Wellesley and MIT, which both have large Asian-American populations.)

Then was Amsterdam, a three-day trip I scheduled in a month before it happened because: 1) I didn’t want to come back to Cambridge on a Friday, 2) I’d already be in the London-Heathrow airport, 3) I should travel in Europe, 4) It was the cheapest flight from London at the time. Amsterdam is a fascinating city, and became much easier to navigate once I realized that to get to the city center all you need to do is follow the tram tracks, and to get anywhere else you need to move perpendicular to them. I was a bit melancholy during my trip, however, probably because I’d just come from hanging out with family and all of a sudden I was in a hostel where I had to constantly watch my things. Also, I have a feeling that Amsterdam is best appreciated in summer, in which one of the common factors when I was there (cold, damp, windy) would be missing :). That said, I had a great time, and some great tours—the biking tour especially was wonderful, and the Van Gogh and Anne Frank museum are must-sees for anyone traveling there. I also liked wandering around the red light district—some of the women were dancing in the windows, but most of them were on their phones, and my favorite was the woman who was sitting in a chair reading a book, looking utterly bored :).

My return to Cambridge was surprisingly sweet, since I had been getting anxious about not doing any work. (…yes, this happens with me, and it had been building up before I left as well). It was such a relief to fall into my patterns again—getting back on my bike to cycle home, making food in the kitchen, having my room and clothes and habits again. And I soon starting working pretty hard, which—and I forget this every time—makes me quite happy. I always forget how much I like being productive until I am again. (I’m too busy right now—if I can’t exercise and sleep as much as I’d like, it’s too much, but I was on a nice boundary for a while there.)

What I’m busy with is running human participants for my experiment :). I’ve been running them two or three at the same time, from about 8am to 6pm, by myself. At first it was extremely stressful because of all of the detail work involved. I really dislike having to be perfect with many tiny things like data entry, day after day. I’m very good at detail work, but it’s not something I enjoy.

That said, MATLAB (my preferred programming language) came to my rescue. I don’t know how I did things without programming before. It turns out you can automate all sorts of detail-things that computers are very good at sorting out for you, and doing so decreased my stress levels enormously. There was then the issue of trying to get my boss to accept the plots that my code spat out—because when you program, you’re always compromising between the format that’s easiest for humans to understand and the format that’s easier to code. But I’ve learned that human interaction is all about compromise as well, and so my supervisor and I settled into a data format that meant a lot less stress for me in terms of detail-work, and that she could understand reasonably quickly.

My next stressor with running participants: …you know what, there are a few of them. One is the need to be correct all the time. You’re paying money and time if you mess up, and you’re also letting someone down. One of my main motivators in life is not let people down, so I place a lot of pressure on myself to do this correctly. Though I must say, by this point I’ve messed the data from quite a few people and now have a much more relaxed attitude due to experience :).

Next: uhm, small talk is hard. My experiment entails distracting participants every seven minutes with two-minute breaks, and it’s hard to figure out topics that you can get started right away, and keep going, within two minutes. Plus whenever you get to something meaty, you can’t actually discuss it within two minutes, and it’s hard to pick up where you left off when you’re both focusing on other things in the interim. But this challenge is something I’m actually very grateful for, because one of my goals here at Cambridge is to polish some of my people skills, and interacting with different people for eight hours a day certainly helps with that.

And a break, because this is my absolute favorite part of running participants: it’s so fun meeting people. I love meeting new people, and it’s wonderful to be able to talk with people long-term (I have my subjects come in six days consecutively) and been mandated to chat with them throughout. I’ve met so many interesting people, some of which I still meet up with, and it’s fabulous how much I’m learning about other cultures through talking with them. Now that my stress levels about other things have gone down, I’ve really been able to enjoy the experience, and running participants has been amazing.

And the thing is, I’m actually better at talking with people now, and calming down. It was so hard in the beginning— I started training another experimenter to help me about two weeks in, and was finally bursting out with how exhausting the whole experience was. My labmmate Joseph, who was in the common room at the time, immediately told me, “I know, I can hear it in your voice.” And that was exactly what I was trying to avoid, because I didn’t want participants hearing how hard it was, especially since I knew I’d see many of these people around in the future. Plus, our training rooms are really poorly organized architecturally, since they’re all right next to the kitchen and come off the common room, so my primary interaction with my labmmates for the past week had been shushing them.

It makes me worry how much people can tell in general—but wait, I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs, want to finish this first :).

What all of this boils down to is that I basically scheduled myself with too much social interaction and detail work in a day :). Plus I’d put myself in a situation where I had a lot of snap decisions to make at any point—I had to guess what my supervisor would like, since she was busy and had lots of other things to do, plus when anything went wrong, no one was around to figure it out but myself. I was reading about personality types in medicine the other day, and it provides a nice description of “work stressors” (see below).

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.13.38 PM
Citation

http://som.uthscsa.edu/StudentAffairs/documents/veritas-meyersbriggs.pdf

… which means I was hitting all of my work stressors HARD, and not having time to exercise, and coming home exhausted from not actually having done all that much “work” by my normal standards. I was really just kind of dreaming of the days I spent coding in front of my computer with a lunch break with my labmates, because those are pretty optimum days for me :). (Though I am good at presenting as an extrovert, I know. I really do think it might stem at least partly from being American.)

But it got better. I’m kind of amazed it got better, to the point where I’m quite enjoying my participants now. This is especially surprising to me because I’m so obsessed with personality, and I think personality is sort of fixed, so certain things will always be harder for me. But I guess it’s like any other skill—if you do it enough, it becomes less hard, so that small talk is habitual and not something I have to think about every time. And I realize that I do have strategies for dealing with things—automating things through code, giving myself a break about the decisions I make under uncertainty, reminding myself that given the number of things I’m doing, some of them have to go wrong. It’s a skill like anything else, and I’m very grateful for the crazy three weeks I’ve been doing it :).

(Rowing’s going well, by the way. I don’t know if I’ll be rowing all that I’d like to this term because of time constraints, but next term definitely. In rowing I’m very much in the stage where I’m thinking about every single thing I’m doing, but I have missed—so much—the feeling of being part of a team. And the feeling of pushing myself mentally. There is nothing like physically pushing yourself farther than you think you can go—I have never found anything like it academically, and I’d thought I’d lost it. Apparently, you don’t lose that willpower, and it was such a validating experience to find it there, waiting :)).

Hm :). All right, so that’s my work life! I’d said I wanted to get to a story when I was worried about whether people could see what I’m feeling, so I’m about to launch into that one :).

…You ever know those plans that are your defaults, your dream plan, your always-plan, the one you have in the back of your mind for years? I had plenty: what my undergrad college was going to be, whether I was going to be swim captain in high school, when I’m going to get married, you name it. I lost one today, one of my long-term ones. I put a lot of work towards my plans, especially the big ones, but as I learned in high school, sometimes it isn’t how hard you work, but whether you work right. And you might not know what right is at the time, or right might change. You do the best you can and you have your default plan and sometimes it doesn’t work out despite you trying your best.

I mentioned a one-liner summarizing this to a labmate of mine while he was busy emailing someone. A heartfelt but one-line comment, and then I went and took the bathroom break I’d been planning for a while. (Hm, on later perusal, I can see how this could be construed how it was.) Then I was leaning on the counter drinking my water bottle, just thinking about this. About what it changed. About what I needed to reevaluate.

He poked his head around the coat rack and asked me what I was thinking about.

… And I was like: what? You were listening? You thought to ask?

So he sat me down and told me not to think too much about it, and I had the usual interruptions to go talk to my participants, and when I came back and looked like I was staring at something he told me stories about how the same thing happened to him last year and to many of his friends. And he kind of hit my arm at some point and told me it would all be fine, and I turned to him and said, smiling: “You’re a comforter.”

Because I’m not a comforter. If someone looks like they’re in emotional distress, I back way out of the way, and go fetch someone who I think can help. (I’ve been doing this since 5th grade, by the way. I can’t believe how long this has been my default response.) “Really,” I told him a few times, “I’m just reevaluting.” Because at one point he said that “yes, it’s a s*** day, but it’s going to be fine,” and my internal response was: no, it’s not a crap day, it’s a change in my life—and of course I’m going to be fine, but I do need to think about it.

That’s how I deal with things—I sit on them for a while, let all of the emotions implode until I can pick them apart, then jabber at my friends until everything’s calm again. I’ve never had such an active interruption into this process, and the odd thing is, it might have helped. Because he just kept interrupting me, and so I couldn’t get into any of the serious stuff, and so it was just me poking at the negative emotions before he started to distract me again. And the fact that he noticed I was off about it, though I really hadn’t been behaving very differently besides the staring off into space business, and was reassuring me with so many different approaches might, in fact, have helped.

So there were several surprising things about that interaction. First, apparently that’s how you do comforting—just noticing, and empathizing (even if we view the situation differently). I’m happy to do this, and I do so with my friends, but they have to be calm about the situation, which I was. Second, I was surprisingly calm about the situation. I’m pretty sure he was expecting tears the first time he poked his head around the coat rack. But really, apparently this too gets better with each time it happens. Dreams don’t come through. Plans need to be changed. It’s a loss, especially since it’s a plan I’ve had for so long. But other plans have been lost. Other goals have failed to be met. I always run into fantastic people and opportunities anyway :).

I also really like the emphasis on being fine :). My mother does this as well—when we discuss anything negative, the parting phrase is “you’re going to be fine”. Well, yes, I know that, I have fantastic people and opportunities and some skills by this point: it’s definitely all going to be fine. My father says though that it’s to reassure herself more than anyone else. Perhaps it’s like the beautiful phrase “I’m sorry”—which in its most interesting use doesn’t express that you think it’s your fault, but that you feel bad for and feel for the other person. A stock phrase, then, to reassure the other person that you understand they’re working through something, and that you believe that they’ll emerge successfully on the other side.

I still have quite a bit of mental rearrangement to do, because like I said, it was a long term default plan and so had a number of underlying assumptions fastened to it that I need to shift around a bit. But I do give thanks to my labmate for stepping in when he did, because I no longer have the need to talk about it immediately, which is the first stage of my usual response, and I truly did enjoy that interaction. It was touching and fascinating and kind of him, and one can never underappreciate such kindness :).

Some quick things before I get into my last story, because they were things I wrote down that I’d like to mention:

  • One of my participants sat kitty-corner to Stephen Hawking at Formal Hall the other day. No f***ing way. I can’t believe I’m at Cambridge.
  • I have a serious opposition to anything that comes with a time commitment. I actually know what this stems from—as my best friend Tiffany has mentioned to me, when I say I’m going to do something, I’m legitimately going to do it, with absolute full effort. I’m always pretty cautious about committing that strongly to anything, whereas Tiffany says it’s much easier for her because she’s capable of doing things not full-tilt.
  • I get pretty fearful at rowing? About doing things wrong, really. And letting people down at rowing and work. Funny to think about fear in the context of my life. Much better to relax about everything—keeps me happy, faster, and everything gets done the same anyway in the long run :).
  • “Work life balance” is quite different depending on who you ask, and the culture of the work environment. These two components are separate—there are people who will work crazy hours but be apologetic about it and absolutely not expect anyone else to do it, and there are people who will work crazy hours and will be secretly annoyed at you for slacking. Also there are people who work normal hours. There are quite a few of those. (Did I mention my lab is awesome, by the way?)
  • My participants are funny people. One of them took one look at the stimulus I had up on the screen, and was moaning “Oh no,” through the door :).
  • I was about to go brush my teeth when I ran into my roommate about to go brush her teeth, and she dragged her friend who was staying over out of the guest room to introduce us. Turns out he does cognitive neuroscience. Turns out he applied to one of the same PhD programs I did. Turns out he applied to one of the same labs I did. Turns out he’ll be at the same interview weekend I will be. I’ll see him a few weeks not in pajamas. What are the odds.
  • One of my novice rowing mates told me “I have a talent.” I was like: uh… well, I have worked out for years, and done competitive sports for years, and still work out every day so this is why I can get fast times, and I’m a fast learner because I’ve worked with coaches for years, but… actually, no, there might be some talent buried in there, but let’s not affiliate this with talent, and talk about training instead. You can get better too with time!
  • US job posting to be an astronaut. I want to be an astronaut. (I don’t. But it’s awesome. I like the bit about “frequent travel” being a requirement.) https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/423817000
  • My language is very young. Why do I enjoy writing in slang and with rather unsophisticated vocabulary? I used to throw big words into my writing for the heck of it, and sometimes eloquence miraculously appears when I am speaking about topics I’ve thought a lot about and rehearsed (often science). Ah well. Until told otherwise, I will leave it as it is.
  • This scientist writes an excellent 10-page summary of his research and why it matters, unsimplified. It was a lovely read. I’d probably have an easier time of it since I’m working in psychology, but I love this post for many reasons. http://benjvincent.blogspot.co.uk/search?updated-min=2013-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&updated-max=2014-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&max-results=1

And finally, my last story about one of my interviewers for a PhD program. I was interviewed recently, but the second one was enlightening in so many respects.

First, she kept me calm. I didn’t know you could do this in interviews—by force of presence and expectation calm down your interviewee. Apparently, you do it by speaking very slowly and carefully, looking away from the interviewee, telling the interviewee to take some time to think about it, and then waiting with relaxed but expectant posture. Worked like a charm for me. It made me think about my responses and deliver them with the most coherence I could manage at the time.

Apparently, there is a correct answer to the question “What do you do when you encounter difficulties?” and I really should have figured out an answer to that before I started fumbling around. I got stuck internally on “uh, what difficulties exactly? Because it depends on the situation.” She let me bumble about with everything from “ask my labmates, ask my supervisor, be patient, figure it out, ask the internet, ask the internet, ask the internet,” before she finally put me out of my misery and asked me what I would do when my future paper got rejected from a publisher. Well, that I could do. Vent the emotions to other outlets—namely, my friends—and then figure out what use there was in the criticism, because there’s always something valid in criticism. She liked that response. Said I had the confidence to deal with it. I was like: uh, there’s confidence involved in that answer?? Sometimes I just feel like I’m so naïve to the workings of the world, and common responses and reactions to these situations.

And second—and I love this one, the situation was so unique— she asked me if I wanted to be a leader in my field. Okay, for all of you out there who will be interviewing in the future, if you’re ever asked if you want to be a leader in your field, you want to be a leader in your field. No questions asked, and I’ve been explicitly coached on this question for years, so I know the answer. She then asked whether I thought I could be a leader in my field, and I hadn’t practiced that one, but why not, really? It’s a young field, there’s a lot that can be done with the intersection of neuroscience, computational science, and psychology, especially in the social realm (which is what I’m interested in and fascinated about), and I’ve been put on the right track by a lot of people, so it’s a possibility. And I’m ambitious and career-focused, so nothing stopping me there. It’s not a possibility I’ve really thought about, since I’m still taking it one year at a time (grad school searching has been all-consuming), but it has occurred to me as a possibility.

She took me seriously. No one takes you seriously when you’re asked that kind of question—everyone knows the rote response—but she took me seriously. Said I had the potential to actually be a leader in my field, seemed like I could write and talk intelligently about my science, was driven and obviously cared about continual learning. But she told me that in order to get the kind of grants I needed to become that leader, I needed to be developing the 21st-century skills needed to be a scientist, not just a researcher. I needed to think about applying for things a year before I needed them. I needed to have excellent research and excellent science writing. I needed to have excellent normal writing and the ability to communicate, verbally and in writing, what importance my work had to the public. I would be asked to interviews in the future, or asked to talk about my work to the layman, and I had to do it well. I needed to pursue opportunities to present and give back to the community. I really needed to up my CV with these extra things in order to win the type of scholarships I needed to win.

It was exactly what I needed in that moment, when I was feeling dragged down by all the minutiae of organizing participants—something higher level, something to give me focus. Something that… well, put me higher than everyone else, told me, essentially, that I needed to do better, that what everyone around me was doing was not enough, that I had to have different expectations for myself. It’s been so long since it’s been put to me in that way—you’re coasting, you need to work harder, you need to work righter, you need to be better. Implicitly, yes, when my old supervisor would tell me apply for things I didn’t want to apply for. But needing straight up to be better, in these following ways… seeing a future for me that I hadn’t even visualized for myself… it’s an incredible comparison, vision, and extremely flattering and a bit intimidating for me. But I do best with expectations. Set them and I’ll meet them, especially if you continue to support me. I don’t know if she has the interest or time to continue to support me, but at least I’m looking for the opportunities now, even if I haven’t executed anything yet.

I thanked her for the advice—which was delivered off-the-book after the interview, in an intense stream of words accompanied by an intense focus and stare. She said that with people in my position, it just takes a nudge here and there. And that phrase just rang like a bell for me, because it’s one I’m so familiar with despite not being able to recall anyone telling me so in particular. My mother voices it frequently—that she just needs to redirect my attention a little bit. My old supervisor was doing it constantly—little moves here and there to change what I was doing. I hear it as “polishing”, I hear it as “nudging”, I hear it through an innumerable number of tiny corrections loving mentors around me have made. All of these people, this community, and this woman meeting me for the first time, conducting an interview which I’m not particularly great at, and seeing something to nudge just like an incredible number of people of other people who saw in me this same thing, whatever it is.

It’s potential. Isn’t it.

This neurosurgical resident recently died of cancer, and “wrote beautifully about his experience facing morality as a doctor and a patient.” (The New Yorker) He really is a beautiful writer, and it feels so tragic because he was so young, and had so many things ahead of him—a first child and the end of his residency, a loving family and many lives to save. I often view potential in financial terms—as in, I’m an incredible negative to society, because a lot of people have invested a lot in me, and I haven’t given anything back and will not for a while. But potential is deeper than that, I think—more moral than anything else. An innate sense of loss and failure when it fails to materialize into accomplishment, a sense of hope and motivation when we see its spark. And we outgrow it, but at different points for each person, connected what we feel they could have given—reflected through how we mourn people, about the feeling of missing them combined with what we know we and their future selves have lost.

It’s beautiful, natural, human then, to see potential and act upon it, to devote resources to watch it grow. Plenty of pressure of course for the recipients, but then it’s an opportunity as well, one that only lasts so long and can likely provide motivation for an entire life. To have potential forever…

I’m a lucky, lucky person is what I am, and one who needs to go to bed now :). Thanks so much for sticking with me, through the longest hiatus yet and this monster of a post, and much love and potential to all of your lives, wherever you are :).

Monica

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