Crossroads

Dear me,

It might be slightly confusing to receive a letter from your future self, but time is made of wibbly wobbly timy wimy stuff. A thing which in time you will come to understand in a few years, after watching a year’s worth of Doctor Who episodes – at a moment when in fact you should be working on that 300 page manuscript. But here we are then, four years apart. Not a lifetime. Merely a PhD.

But are we so different, you and I? Both at crossroads in our life. Both marked by what we have been through in these past few years. Both ready for a new challenge. I remember you, on that first day of your PhD, excited and scared at the same time, scared of the plunge into the unknown. Like a first day at a new school. New people, new rules, a new rythm. I feel very much the same now. With a new, unknown path in my life – new colleagues, new rules. And just like you, I know everything will be fine in the end.

But then again, we are different. You are colder, more analytical, unforgiving. You have been trained to be a logical mind, excluding the unexpected, the impulsive, the human aspect. And this has made you hurt people along the road, has led you to make decisions which, with hindsight, you will learn to regret. You are more reckless than I am, unbound by the limits which you will discover and which will impose themselves on your work quite soon. Factors which you will have to take into account. People to reckon with. Yes, people. Those others in the world around you. People with expectations, feelings and emotions. They too, will be part of the quest onto which you embark.

But there will be love too. There too, you are well on the road to discovery. You have just spent your first journey on a different continent with the person you hold most dear in this world. For the first time, really, you have seen what it means to share the road, to share memories. Keep her close, for she will show you how to become the person I am now. To see the world beyond science. There is nothing more fulfilling than to share your daily experiences with the person you love. Without that person, those moments would exist in your memories alone

Your research path will be littered with moments of both joy and dissapointment. Some will drive you to despair. Some will push you forward. There is no advice i can give you other than this: remember why you embarked upon this journey. Remember why you love what you do. Why you chose to spend hours in the lab, to repeat failed experiments time and time again. Because you are a scientist. Because whatever happens, you learn from what you do, what you cause, what you mess up.

There will be tough decisions too. Decisions which will change everything that follows in a radical way. Decisions which will separate you from what you held most dear. Those choices won’t be easy, and they will break you to pieces at first. But after a while you will see that the choices you made were not a spur of the moment but had been there for a while, waiting for you to see them.

You are about to embark on the most exciting journey of your life so far. Four years of research among people who in time will become dear friends. You will forge new friendships. You will travel. A lot. You will see the world through the window of your plane, train or bus. You will see frangrant harbours at the end of the world, smell the spices and the urban chaos of cities near and far. You will see jungles of bamboo, small notes handwritten by Darwin, famous giraffes, cities rebuilt and forgotten. Cherish those moments, for they will change you forever.

And now, i must leave you and embark upon my own voyage. Where it will lead me I do not know. I know i will make mistakes. But i’ll let you know. I’ll write you again.

At the next crossroads.

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The Hidden Footnotes

Image

There it is then. Right there on my table.

Four years of my life, compressed into 260 pages of a small coffee table book.

It’s quite terrifying, really: to see that such a long period – four years. that’s four times 365 days – can be compressed into a book that small. Of course, it’s in very small print, but still. To realise that it all ends here, with a tiny book weighing just a few hundred grams. It holds everything I’ve done during the 1460 days of my PhD. The endless hours in the lab. The long days of data processing. The failed experiments. The successes. All of it.

There are people who doubt the need for such a volume. After all, the main currency of academia is measured in publications. In visibility. In journal papers. Why write a book no one will read? After all, publishing the data is all that matters, no?

I’m terribly sorry. But I disagree.

A PhD is more than just a quest to produce and publish data. It is an apprenticeship. A degree. It exists to turn inexperienced, undisciplined BA or MA students into researchers. It is there to slowly guide them towards the ability to ask questions and solve them by doing solid science. And when all is done, to write it all down into a document with a clear scientific narrative. Of course, most of the questions will remain unsolved. But that is how science works. And that too is part of the learning process, as is publishing journal papers.

Writing papers is part of how science works. You need to get the results out there so they can be discussed. Sadly perhaps, it has also become an important part of academia and university politics. And that goes way beyond the scientific aim of what a journal paper actually should be. A coherent story built around solid data. And a PhD is a chance, perhaps the only chance you’ll ever get, to write several of those stories and place them into a context. To frame them into the bigger picture of which they are an inherent part.

My PhD is about the effects of radioactivity on plants. But while it’s new and exciting fundamental research, it still exists within a context of pollution, public opinion and policy. Things which are briefly mentioned by research papers in the first paragraph of the introduction as context, but then hastily forgotten when the exciting data are discussed at the end. And that is alright. But there is a reason why a PhD takes this long. It covers a lot of ground, formulates a lot of questions. More than it can ever hope to answer. And when you put all this work together, you have to ask yourself: What does this mean for the bigger picture? Scientists aren’t there to make policy. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t think about the questions related to their work. Writing a PhD is therefore an exercise in framing your research questions into a bigger picture. And it doesn’t really matter if there is not really a good conclusion waiting at the end. Some questions are just meant to be asked, not to be answered..

There’s another thing, though, that strikes me when I look at this picture.

There are a lot of things that the little book does not tell. Hundreds of events and facts which aren’t visually documented into its pages. These last four years, I have lived through several of the most emotional moments of my life so far, both personal and professional. These four years have seen joy, outrageous joy and excitement, but also disappointment, anxiety, fear, several nervous breakdowns. And just recently, they have been witness to one of the saddest and toughest decisions I have ever had to make. And all of that, all of these emotions, are there when I look at this book. When I leaf through its pages. When I read the conclusions. They are there when I remember how I really needed to catch this flight to England just when the experiment failed on page 123. How I really had a very good walk in the park just before I wrote page 200. How I presented the results of chapter 6 at a conference after only 3 hours of sleep.

They are the hidden footnotes to the story, notes to what have been four of the most delightful, terrifying, fulfilling and stressful years of my life.

If I were to write them all down, I would need more than 260 pages.

And most certainly a much larger coffee table.

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgements to a PhD dissertation rarely find their way into the open. Hidden in plain sight at the front of the volume that represents four years of my life resides a chapter that was incredibly difficult to write, but will probably be skipped by most readers interested in the science. How do you thank everyone, in just 3 pages? And how do you thank the people who, for four years, have been there at the sideline, but will never get to see the paper version of the book?

There’s an obvious solution: to bring it out into the open. To blog it. Not in its final form, though. There will be some modifications here. But also some additions which will not make it into the final volume.  Writing an online version of the acknowledgments allows me to add a paragraph for you, dear online reader, Twitter follower or Facebook friend. Because you were part of this too.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A wise man once said that a PhD is a lonely business. A task which, much like quests in Arthurian tales or in fairy tales, has to be performed alone to prove one’s worth. To slay a dragon, save the damsel, and publish five papers about it. A task which, once completed, opens the castle gates and wins eternal grants and glory.

But that’s not entirely accurate..

A PhD, dear readers, is a Wagner opera. Sometimes tedious, sometimes eventful, but above all a long and exciting journey past trolls, through caverns, swamps and mythical lands to find enchanted rings and swords. But like in any quest, the hero of the PhD drama does not have to be alone.  A team of people and institutions has accompanied me throughout my travels through science. This chapter, this prelude to the Ride of Valkyries that follows, is for them.

Above all I wish to thank my supervisors Nele and Ann. I could not have wished for two better supervisors than my own. For four years, they have followed me, kept up with all the sudden plot twists, developments and changes to the libretto. Their experience and advice has been of most precious value to me. While other projects and quests crossed their path, they have always taken their time to steer me back onto the right path of research. With all my heart, thank you.

I’d like to thank Nathalie, Jaco, Hildegarde and Hans for their counselling and input into my work throughout these four years. In this respect, I also wish to thank the members of the jury for their critical evaluation and comments which have made this thesis a stronger and more robust work of science. Furthermore, such a long and perilous journey could not have been completed without the financial, administrative support of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK●CEN) and the University of Hasselt.

Every good opera has a strong supporting cast to accompany the dramatic moments. To share in the joy of successful experiments, to peer for hours and hours over small eppendorf tubes to place miniscule Arabidopsis seeds on agar (why oh why didn’t I choose beans as a model plant?). To freeze thousands of little seedlings to an icy death. To spend hours in darkened rooms to watch amputated leaves photosynthesise. To provide coffee, chocolate, cake and support. My most profound thanks to all the people (past and present) of the Biosphere Impact Studies Unit. Thank you for these four wonderful years of my life. You have been like family.

There has to be a special mention for my train colleagues here. Sharing two hours each day in a confined space on wheels creates a bond. Especially when that space is usually late or subject to the mysteries of railway operations. Their good humour has on many occasions saved my mood of the day to come.

Between the days of eppendorf labelling and failed PCR’s, there were always the moments of relaxation and comfort among friends. Some had their own quest, and exchanged hints on how to tackle the dragons and save the treasure. Some did not have a clue what I was raving on about (Plants? Mutants?), but nodded quietly and smiled. Some were lost along the way and some arrived late on the scene. But all were part of this thesis. All contributed in their way to make this voyage through research bearable, by giving their advice, their support, their friendship and their love. This is as much your work as mine.

A tous mes amis français qui m’ont suivi lors de mon voyage scientifique… à tous mes amis périgourdins qui m’accompagnent depuis tout ce temps (certains depuis plus de 20 ans)…cette thèse est la votre aussi. Une grande partie de cet ouvrage a été écrit dans mon pays d’adoption, cette terre d’accueil qui s’appelle le Périgord. A travers ces pages vous verrez, je l’espère, le canard, les noix et le Monbazillac qui ont accompagné ces moments d’écriture et les promenades dans la Bessède, peut-être même les moments de repos au bord de la Dordogne. Ecoutez, les gascons, c’est la Gascogne !

For four years I have posted, blogged, tweeted and ranted about this thesis, about the frustrations and the joys of being a PhD student. About the quest i voluntarily undertook. And for all these years, my Facebook friends, my Twitter followers and the readers of my blog have been there, as a chorus to this play. And it would be unfair not to mention you in this chapter. My online presence has become more than just a pastime. It has become an extension of who i am as a scientist, gradually learning me how to communicate science to my peers and to the audience. Some of those anonymous faces on an avatar have become more than that and have crossed to border into ‘the real life’, have become acquaintances, colleagues, dare I say..friends? For all of you across the world, spectators to my journey. Thank you. The rants about my PhD will end soon. But this is not the end, really. While i’m leaving academia, I will still be a scientist, a hedgehog enthusiast, and before all a biologist. I will continue to tweet, blog and post , only with a slightly different hat on. and yes, #ArabidopsisRocks

And finally, but most importantly, I could not have done any of this this without my family. Without both the moral and financial support my parents have given me throughout all these years of study and research. Without the support only a brother and sisters can give to their ‘little brother’. And perhaps most of all, this PhD thesis is my parents’. I could not have done this without the assurance and advice of my father. Without my mother,  who sadly cannot be here today to see the result of all the support and love she has given me. I hope I would have made her proud.

For you, dear reader, who is about to relive this journey, this four year quest, through my eyes. Don’t let the technicalities of the libretto, the formulas and the strange world of radiation discourage you.

There will be music.

Why i’m leaving academia (but not Science)

I’m leaving academia. There, i’ve said it. Those few words which are apparently enough to incite outrage, unbelief and feelings of treason. For some reason, finding a job outside the world of universities, lectureships and tenure track sparks a fierce debate among fellow academics and the inevitable question “why on Earth would you want to do that?”. A more accurate question, of course, would be just “Why?” At least, that is one which deserves an honest answer. In fact, there are several reasons… First of all, it isn’t as if I haven’t tried to find a job inside academia. I’ve tried hard. I’ve spent quite some time sending CV’s, writing nice letters on why I’m the best, the only one, the alpha and the omega of [insert field name] . But let’s face it: Finding a post-doc position isn’t easy, let alone in times of financial crisis. Chances of finding a post-doc in a niche field like mine are even worse. Not zero, of course, but let’s say it’s quite hard. So inevitably you venture outside of the scope of your PhD field (Radioecology, in my case), and you start to expand your horizon to related fields (say, ecotoxicology), sending even more letters, pictures and CV’s. All that while writing a 250-page PhD manuscript. So whenever people tell me i ‘should have tried harder’, my blood pressure rises. Of course, in the end something will turn up. Something always turns up, doesn’t it? Well, yes. But what if it’s not what you want? After all, research is a bit of a romantic relationship with your subject. There are days when you bounce around the lab, happy with the results that the Machine that Goes Ping has produced (fellow scientists, if the PCR machine goes Ping, you’re doing it wrong). There are the dark days when things go wrong and you’re ready to quit. There are days when you look like this:

A Typical Happy Academic

There are days when you’re ready to commit murder. Or at least inject someone with a GUS-construct. (or perhaps that’s just me). But the bottom line is: it has to match. Your subject is your baby, your friend, your prrrecious. And a PhD is (for most) that one time when you have near complete control of where your research goes. Which road you take. There are others to help you, but it’s up to you to find the yellow brick road. So choosing a post-doc is not as easy as “let’s just do that”. After all, you’re giving away your baby (after 4 years, in my case), and are ready to adopt a new one, which has to be a challenge. (“These are the labnotes of the PhD enterprise. Our mission, to find strange new results. Discover new anomalies in the machines. To boldly go, where no one has gone before”) Which brings me to the second reason: the challenge. After four years, i know most of the ins and outs of my field and of research. I know when the PCR machine is going to give me an error just by the slight delay in the appearance of the dashboard window. I know by the happy purrs of the centrifuge that she is in complete balance. I know when not to enter my supervisors’ office. All these things are part of the apprenticeship that is a PhD. So do i want more of that? Why…yes! But not necessarily.

Because there are so many things I do not know.

How, for example, will my research influence ‘the bigger picture’? Will someone pick up those results and build upon them in the future, letting science run its natural course? It is a big part of the frustration in fundamental research, and I think a lot of people can relate. You’re working on one thing, but you rarely see the end of it.  In a way, that’s a good thing, because it keeps research going. But when you look at the 250 pages of research which represent 4 years of your life, it comes as a bit of a shock.

What does legislation within my field of environmental science look like? I’m in the study of radioactivity, so it’s a bit of a tricky subject, but up until a few  weeks ago I had only a vague notion of how the national legislation surrounding radioactive exposure is structured. These are things of no concern in fundamental research, but of major concern in policy. A side of things you rarely see from inside the lab. These are things that four years of labwork can’t teach you and, most of the time, won’t teach you. Including policy chapters in an otherwise research-based PhD dissertation is a bit of a taboo in most fields of life sciences.

So , there you have it. My main reason: to seek new horizons. To learn things that research can’t tell me. And hopefully to teach things that research has taught me. To use my background as a researcher to analyse problems and to bring scientific thinking to the table. After all, that is the main thing a PhD trains you to do.

And another thing…

This might all sound as if i’m leaving science behind out of some kind of frustration. But no. This is wrong in two ways: i’m not frustrated by research. You occasionally do get frustrated DURING research. Actually quite a lot. Some weeks you’re frustrated all the time. Some days you stare pointlessly at oversized molecules in front of an expensive microscope…ALL THE TIME.  But I love research. I really do. I adore every minute of it. From the irony of getting the liquid nitrogen from the storage tank outside when it’s -15°C in winter to playing the pipetting robot when processing hundreds of samples. And why? Because there’s a point in there. And it’s the science.

You see, by choosing a job in policy (or any job outside of academia) you’re not suddenly transformed into a different human being. You remain a scientist. Because you don’t become a scientist the moment you step into the lab for the first time and write on the cover of you lab notebook. Nor do you become a scientist by wearing a ridiculous hat.

You become a scientist by adopting rational and critical thinking. It’s a process that can begin at a very early age, and gradually evolves towards a desire to apply these values to a problem. But some people are scientists without actually looking like the people in the pictures above. Scientists walk among us, hidden in plain sight. Some might even be close friends,  sit on the bus, play in the kindergarten. Science is a state of mind.

So while i’m leaving academia, i’m not leaving science. One does not simply walk out of science.