Update + Story (“Fixation”)

Hey readers :).

I’m currently in Woods Hole, MA, attending the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines summer school! They’ve got us very booked—lectures from 9am-9pm for the next three weeks. So not much off-time, but the lectures have been great, and the people—my fellow students, the TAs, and the faculty—are awesome. I’ve also started swimming in the ocean every morning, since it’s literally 5 blocks away from my dorm (I feel like those circumstances make me contractually obligated to go, and my best friend from college, Tiffany, agrees.)

The view out my window at Woods Hole
It’s real pretty, guys









Given that there’s not much off-time, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have for writing, but luckily I have some stuff I’ve saved up for this week! I submitted an entry to Tipbox’s writing competition a few weeks ago, prompt below. Looking at the winning entries, this wasn’t quite what they were looking for, but I thought it was fun to write :).

In other news, I had a wonderful time at the Effective Altruism Global conference last week. I finally have some pictures, even—here’s me and my friend Claire at the Palace of Fine Arts in SF, and a panel of famous (whoo! Fan-personing so hard) people presenting on Effective Altruism in the Media. I also got to meet a bunch of new people as well as hang out with older friends—I really love that community of people :).

Me and Claire!
That’s Prof. William MacAskill, A.J. Jacobs, Julia Galef, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (ALL SO IMPRESSIVE, GAH.) (Also, Joe Gordon-Levitt wears mismatched socks.)

See you all later—I’m back to being inundated in science! 😛


ps. (I did a proper blog post, readers. I feel like I haven’t done a proper blog post with pictures and links and normality and such for years.)



What do we want?

We want you to write a short article about your time in science: maybe you have an awesome story about how you landed your PhD; maybe you have some great advice on what to do afterwards; perhaps there are some things you’d like to tell your younger self; maybe all your experiments failed, the gel tank burst into flames, and your supervisor decided it was all your fault, but somehow you persevered! Whatever it is, we want to hear about it. We want you to inspire other scientists (failing that, just making them interested or moderately amused works for us).

Some specifics:

  • 1,000 word limit
  • Add as many images as you like (make sure you own these images, though!)
  • Write something genuine, something that other scientists will relate to
  • When you submit your entry, include a picture of yourself (if you want to), a short bio (who you are, what you do, where you work – 50 words max), your blog if you have one, and your twitter handle if you have one”



“Heather’s an expert fixater,” Rebecca informs me proudly, and I frown, bewildered.

“An expert what?”

“Fixater,” Heather chimes in. “Focusing on a fixation cross when doing a psychophysics task.”

Ah. I’ve been introduced to psychophysics—the branch of psychology that studies how people perceive physical stimuli. We’re a color vision lab, doing cognitive neuroscience, so “psychophysics task” roughly translates to “staring at barely-visible colors on a computer screen.”

“Uh, can’t everyone stare at a fixation cross at the center of a screen?”

Heather and Rebecca turn to me. They’re standing together: the elders educating my newborn, undergrad self.

“No,” one of them says; I can’t recall which. “No, it actually takes a lot of practice to be good at fixation; normal people’s eyes make a lot of tiny twitches, and that makes it hard to use the eyetracker.”

“I can stare for hours,” Heather says.

“I’m working on it,” Rebecca announces.

And that’s that, apparently. The gauntlet has been thrown, and I fearfully conclude that to join this lab I’d better become a hell of a fixater.

It’s a bit of a patchwork family, this new lab whose coattails I’m clinging to. We’re all women, except our PI and all of the other researchers in our hallway—and I’m the youngest, staring up at the various queens of the roost. Heather and Rebecca aren’t ruling class yet, but they are the people who take me under their wing after I’ve done some helpless flailing. They’re astonished by my lack of MATLAB skills. I’m astonished I exhibit any competency at anything research-related.

They throw me into the deep end; they debug my code. They bring me with them to the communal coffee area to meet people; they get frustrated that I don’t know how to cite things. They walk me through the arduous process of getting the proper ID card; they shake their heads as I growl at the eyetracker. I figure out public transport for the first time to travel to lab.

“Monica,” Heather says, “It’s time to get you acclimated to doing psychophysics.”

“Uh,” I say, both excited and preemptively overwhelmed.

“You’ve written your MATLAB code to analyze the data, but we’d like you to get some experience as a subject as well.”

“UH,” I opine more urgently, because this might be the moment. A year awaited, now finally arrived: I’m going to become a master fixater.

“Do not even talk to me about staircases,” I complain to Rebecca, who is laughing at me. “Staircase procedures are the worst.”

“Fun to program, too,” she replies, smirking. In this recent study, we’re trying to determine the edges of color detection ability, so we’ve been squinting at faint blue and red circles all day. In a staircase procedure, whenever you get a trial right, the next trial is harder, and whenever you get a trial wrong, you get sent back a few steps easier. You don’t even start the real task until you’ve sorted out your decision boundary with a gazillion staircases.

I’m a complainer, though—we’ve both been doing this task, and sure enough Rebecca has better discrimination than me. I sigh, and we go and collect Heather and the new postdoc for lunch.

“Want to come over for dinner?” Rebecca asks, on the way back.

“Yeah,” I confirm, smiling. Rebecca and Heather are roommates, and have been teaching me how to make colorful stir-fry in the heat of the summers, and the oddities of Daleks and Dr. Who.

I’m in the box where we do these experiments, staring at the blue and red circles. Beep, goes the machine when I get the trial right. Silence, when I get it wrong. I’m in a box, so I can’t see anyone, not that I could look away from the screen due to the eyetracker anyway, but I can hear them mutedly through the walls.

Rebecca and Heather are griping over who’s the best at something-or-other again. I grin: if either of those two doesn’t have a clear advantage in a research domain, they’ll outcompete each other to ridiculous proficiency. My PI comes in, has a conversation with another lab member. He leaves, more chatter, then just the drone of machines and air conditioning.

Beep. Beep. Silence.

Ooh, I think. That’s a long string of wrong answers.

They don’t pay us for this stuff, but I know I’m going to get shit when I come out of the box if the quiet goes on too long. The experiment has mandatory auditory feedback, and the room’s a handful of driven, zealous people, and there’s nowhere else I mean to be than sitting in a dark box, waiting for a beep.

Rebecca and I come in late and stay late—running the computer for each other, sitting in the box. It’s quiet around midnight, and we bring podcasts and reading. I sleep on the couch in the hallway’s kitchen when it’s too late to return to the dorms.

Heather analyzes the data; I have my own projects, my own thesis project. Late in the summer we’re invited to the annual lab barbeque. I know my PI’s place and his kids by now. I have my own set of baby ducklings, new undergrads, to herd and mentor.

“Remember when we first met?” Heather asks.

I do. Heather and Rebecca didn’t like me much, then. They thought I was too full of myself, before they taught me MATLAB and what to wear to a conference and how to make tea right. Now Heather is off to post-graduate study, and Rebecca knows more about how to do anything in lab than anybody.

“Wow, your eyes don’t move,” one of my new labmates tells me, where I’m in a testing room in England, having moved there for my Masters.

I smile. Patchwork families, all of them, hierarchies and competition and teaching and affection, and I look forward to belonging in this one as much as the last.

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s called fixating.”

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