Starting my work with radioactivity1 again today, I took it upon myself to try and track down a lab coat that fits. The lab has a small collection of archaic2 lab coats that I looked through, but unfortunately none of them fit. Because they were just all wadded up & shoved into the shelf (and because I’m a bit of a neat freak), I opted to fold them back up to save some space. As I was working through them, one of the lab coats crunched when I smoothed it out.

I tracked down the culprit: one of the pockets was harbouring an (extremely) old latex glove that was falling apart. As I was explaining what the source of the crunch was to the technician, I exclaimed that it looked rather terrible and it was “old and crunchy.”
At which point, it could be subsequently heard in my head being voiced by my good colleague Tom still back in Buffalo, “Like your mom, yeaaaaaahhhhhh!” Despite that immaturity, still one of the most rational & logically minded individuals I know. And a great sounding board when I need it.

Zetti’s may have been shitty pizza more oft than not, but man I kind of miss those escapes from the lab for lunch. Thank god we started going to My Burger Bar during my last year there instead!

1Having worked with tritium in the past, I sort of loathed radioactivity; no convenient means by which to detect it. Thankfully, 32P is way easier to detect & monitor! So I can go home and not be worried about sucking radioactive wing sauce off of my fingers to mutagenize my gonads & germ layers, 2-week half-life or not.
2These lab coats are very likely older than the undergraduate students in the lab, and likely threatening to be older than myself, I’d hazard.

Time and time again, I’m terrible at keeping up with this thing. But also as in the past, time to update with some big news.

Thesis is pretty close to done. In the necessity of this stage of my dissertation, I’ve also secured a postdoctoral position in order to continue my work in academic research. Hurrah! Once I have successfully defended my thesis and finished up my residuals in the my current lab, I’ll be moving on to the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada. I’m extremely pumped about this! I’m going to get some legit, useful, and beautiful biochemistry in my tool-belt in the lab up there. It’s borderline biological chemistry, it’s that great!

Not only am I getting to delve into new research, I’m delving into a new home, and even a new country at that. Canada is not exactly new, but Toronto is a relatively undiscovered gem for me. Migrating from Minot, ND to Fargo, ND, and subsequently Fargo to Buffalo, NY, I have progressively moved to larger and larger cities. I really thought that would go the other direction after Buffalo, but I apparently predicted that one wrong!

Until recently, I have really felt like I’ve been stuck on an island, trying to finish this degree with no idea when or where I was going next. Now, I have the destination in sight, and although I know what I should expect, I similarly feel like I have no idea what to expect. I can prepare a laundry list of what I expect to have to deal with, but I feel like there is so much uncertainty ahead.

This is the plan for at least the next two to three years. I have three years secured, with the expectation and hope that I can procure a postdoctoral fellowship to boost my CV and establish my own support. This could potentially go beyond three years, especially if I can further diversify and publish work. Granted, this time frame should not be nearly as long as my graduate school career, it will likely be another significant piece of my life before reaching permanence.

I feel like a sailor, getting ready to set sail. I have the destination set, and I have no idea how long I will be there, nor what to expect. I just need to try and put it all out of my mind for the next month or two to finish up this whole PhD thing first!

This weekend is the yearly Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in the Biomedical Sciences (IGPBS) primary recruitment weekend. I have been solicited for help every year since I joined the program as the students have been stated as one of the largest factors for coming to the program here at the University at Buffalo. It struck me just recently that this will be the 5th year I have helped out with this endeavor. It really shows my age in the program, and reminds me I need to be wrapping things up within the next 12-18 months. I cannot seem to wrap my mind around that thought at this very moment, but every now and then it hits me while I’m working in the lab, and completely sidetracks my focus for an hour or two. At my progression within the program, I become more and more disconnected from the current coursework/courseload that the students are expected to take, and really only become knowledgeable within my own department in the context of available research projects and who does/does not have funding available for prospective students. I may be a shining example of what the program is capable of, but my age is becoming a bit more of a bane than a boon at this point!

In regards to finishing, I need to sit down and hash out just what couple experiments left that I need to finish up my current publication in progress. I have the primary experiments done; I need to wrap up the couple loose ends and decide exactly what the “story” that I am going to tell will be. This isn’t my strong point in research by any means (my communication issues have always been a little off-kilter), but I really have to do this and force myself to learn from it if I intend to keep instigating my own research and publishing it.

Anyways, back to the recruitment weekend stuff. With the recent reshuffling of the administration that runs the program, our off-campus venues have significantly changed from what they have been in previous years. In years’ past, we typically started off the weekend with a casual mixer between graduate students and prospective students Thursday evening at Tully’s on Niagara Falls Blvd, followed by dinner Friday night at somewhere a little more upscale1 like Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, and finally ending the weekend with a breakfast session at the hotel at which they are staying2 followed by an optional/voluntary tour of some typical areas that students find housing in.

Of the above locales, only the hotel is staying the same. Thursday evening, we will be classing it up downtown at the Chocolate Bar on Chippewa. The reviews look tantalizing! Friday evening, it will be fine dining at Shanghai Red’s. I have mixed thoughts about this as Yelp has an all over the field reviews mix on the restaurant; we’ll see. Hopefully it will turn out well. If nothing else, I know it has a nice view of Lake Erie!

1Traditionally this has been Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, although two years ago it was at Sean Patrick’s in Getzville during that lovely spring blizzard that stranded a pair of students here (whom I ended up fetching from the airport and returning to the Hotel Indigo in that accursed weather).
2For the past two or three years, the hotel used has been the Hotel Indigo, which I cannot complain about for its trendy rooms and nice atmosphere. I will, however, adamantly chastise them for their very mediocre dining choices/hours and rather expensive yet limited breakfast menu. The blizzard strandees were nigh left to starve there because I didn’t realize they lacked a regular kitchen service/hours there!

The sciences are starting to feel the crunch of the economy, but in a slightly different means than one might expect. For the past couple years, the National Institutes of Health have been been cutting funding, both intramurally and extramurally. In fact, from what I understand, this is the first time that funds have actually been cut from extramural budgets prior to their expiration/date for renewal. This is making renewals for research funding through NIH even harder, as they are being awarded a smaller budget each year and they are forced to either fund for less, or fund fewer grants.

NIH isn’t the only organization that is impacted by this fund slashing. The National Science Foundation is also feeling the grip of this, as it seems they are being far more selective in their pre-doctoral awards. I was encouraged to apply for this award when I joined the biochemistry department, as were the other new students to the department. Unfortunately, not a single one of us was awarded the grant, nor even an honorable mention. Granted, I don’t think mine was outstanding, but I felt that at least one of our class would’ve had the material to get at least an honorable mention. After looking at previous years’ awards and that year’s awards, it became apparent that the predominant award winners were in mostly engineering and chemistry related fields. Combine that with the fact that my “critiques” were asking for things that I simply could not fit into the application (we’re only allowed two pages for each portion of the research proposal, I wrote nearly ten pages for my departmental research proposal), it makes me wonder if I wasn’t writing over the application, and not for it. Irrespective of that, it seemed that certain sciences were favored more than the others. I’ll discuss that further in another post.

With all these pressures as a researcher these days, what is a prospective doctoral candidate to do? I heard that a doctoral candidate that I know may actually be opting to leave with just a Master’s instead. Frankly, in the interests of his own financial security, this isn’t a bad decision. With a MS degree, you’re not overly qualified to work a position like a research technician in a lab, and you’re not so inexperienced that you’d be stuck with trivial and repetitious tasks. That, and you’re less dependent upon competitive funding; it’s no longer your responsibility, as you simply find a job with a primary investigator who does have funding (as opposed to being the one who has to hunt and apply for the funding). Looking at how many people are graduating with doctoral degrees compared to the past, and the large deficit in government funding, there’s a large push towards the stress of industrial doctoral positions. Sure, they pay well and are usually bleeding edge, but with that comes the stress of keeping up with that edge and driving results and deadlines.

Hearing that college is the new high school for the job market isn’t exactly reassuring. It’s bad enough the doctoral degrees are getting devalued through other means, and not just through dilution effects. Is it really worth the money to work for these degrees now, or should we just hand over our loan money to the creditors directly?