Tag Archives: career

A long time coming

Not all the ice creams I make are swoon-worthy. Some are interesting and pair well with certain desserts, but can’t stand on their own. Some are fine, but are only that, and don’t quite hit the right note. Some, I’m too impatient for and I end up curdling the custard, or don’t let chill thoroughly before *trying* to churn. I’ve yet to make the perfect chocolate ice cream – it’s texture problem I haven’t yet sorted out. Some, and it’s a select few (I’m looking at you, Salted Caramel and Bourbon Brown Sugar), are simply divine. This one rises to that prestigious position: Toasted Coconut with Roasted Strawberry Swirl. I’ve now made it more times than I can count.

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Regardless of the less-than-stellar attempts I’ve encountered along the way, I adore making ice cream. A pursuit that people are unduly impressed by.

It’s delayed gratification at its finest and not for everyone. It requires an investment in some specialty (and some argue, unwieldy) equipment and is a serious time commitment. This particular ice cream requires a multitude of time-consuming steps. You could, much more easily, and certainly more quickly, run to the market and pick up a pint should the whim strike.

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But me, I like the process. Making the base, infusing the flavor, letting it develop (toasted coconut!), while contrasting the tastes and textures (slow roasted strawberry!), knowing that the payoff will be not only sweet, but also long lasting. (I can’t be the only one constantly astonished that something that I spent hours or even days on, can be devoured in an instant … or has the shelf life of three days.) Ice cream, if my self-restraint can be relied upon, can live in my freezer for several weeks and savored by the spoonful.

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It’s striking to me how similar it is to my life in academics.

Time-consuming, check.
Unwieldy investment, check.
Unduly impressive, check.
Delayed gratification ……………………….
                                                            ………………………………….……………………..….. check.
 

And can have the sweetest of payoffs. Decadent and indulgent, for sure.

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I recently signed the papers accepting a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of Biology at Emory University. My first bona fide job since graduating college a full decade ago.  A job that real people  have actually heard of (i.e. those outside of academics, because really, who else knows what a postdoc is?). It’s kind of a big deal. It’s not for everyone. And, quite honestly, it’s the first thing in a very long time that I am proud of. Without doubt, worth stopping and savoring. (Even more honestly: I’ve rapidly transitioned from awe and wonderment to terrified and overwhelmed.)

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I probably could have done something different with my life that hasn’t required the sacrifices. I’ve relocated twice now, (and soon going to do it again) to far reaches of the country where I know not a single soul. I could probably have been making much more money than I have as a graduate student or as a postdoc. When I told my family of my decision to go to graduate school, I was met with skeptical looks and unasked questions of why I’d want to stay in school for even longer than I had. I could have gone to the market and bought the ice cream in the freezer section or even gone to the specialty shop and bought the artisanal, fancy-pants ice cream for $12. That may have satisfied my desires. But I didn’t. I developed the skills and acquired the equipment to create whatever kind of ice cream my heart desires. And will take that with me in the future.

A long time coming, indeed.

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Toasted Coconut Ice Cream with Roasted Strawberry Swirl
Makes about 1 quart
 
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Toasted Coconut Ice Cream
1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided
¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split
5 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons rum
 
Roasted Strawberry Swirl
 1 lb strawberries, halved or quartered (depending on size)
3 tablespoons honey
**********

For ice cream: Spread coconut flakes on a baking dish. Toast at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, until toasted and fragrant. In a medium saucepan, combine milk, ½ cup cream, ½ cup sugar, salt, toasted coconut and vanilla bean. Heat until steam starts to rise, cover and remove from heat. Let coconut and vanilla steep for 1 hour. Pass mixture through mesh strainer and return to saucepan. Whisk together egg yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar in a large bowl. Rewarm the infused dairy mixture and slowly whisk in the egg yolks. Continue to heat until mixture is thickened. Strain again, into the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream. Chill thoroughly. Stir in rum and churn according to manufacturers instructions.

For the strawberries: In a large baking dish, gently toss strawberries and honey. Bake at 300 degrees for two hours, until juices are very thick. Puree and pass through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds. Chill thoroughly.

Layer the churned ice cream and strawberry puree in a freezer proof container. Freeze for at least 4 hours before serving. Because of the relatively high alcohol content, the ice cream will be fairly soft and has a two-fold benefit: easy to scoop and a touch of pina colada.

 

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Note to future self

You can take the girl out of hippie school, but you can’t take the hippie school out of the girl.  At Evergreen, at the end of every term instead of traditional grades, I got an evaluation of my performance and progress for that particular program (we didn’t have classes, instead we took interdisciplinary programs).  It was also encouraged (not required, as Evergreen never really “forced” you to do anything – man I loved that school!) that you write a self-evaluation.  What were your expectations for the program?  What skills have you developed?  How have you grown during the course of the term?  I always found it an useful exercise to honestly evaluate yourself (a sentiment humorously epitomized by this Threadless shirt).  Now, some people call me overly self-critical and think I hold myself to impossible standards, but I really do think that I can always do better than what I did.  I hold my potential in high esteem and don’t think I’ve ever completely maxed it out.  Is it any wonder that I am am still in an academic setting?

I’ve recently resubmitted a fellowship application.  After such a labor-intensive and eye-opening ordeal (one that I, as a scientist, will no doubt have to go through again) I am feeling the need to self-reflect over the things I’ve learned throughout the process.

1) I am not a multi-tasker. I may even have something akin to opposite of ADHD.  I knew that I should have been working on the fellowship a month prior to the actual deadline, instead I didn’t really start working on it until a week prior.  Partly because I didn’t exactly know how to approach it, partly because I am still not totally stoked about that project, partly because I’ve added significant responsibilities to mentor an undergraduate and a junior scientist and partly because I was working on a different, yet challenging computational project.  I’ve realized that my brain has to be fully committed to think about something before I can actually work on something.  And once I’ve committed – I’ll work like a maniac to get it down.  This sort of behavior does not lead to a stress-free life, but instead of forcing myself to change I am going to try and embrace it in the future.  I think that means being selfish with my time, really blocking off the time to work on grant-writing.  Which leads me to lesson #2.

2) I think before I act. Before I can write a single word down, or even sit at my computer, I need a couple of solid day just to think about what I am going to write about.  It always feels like wasted time because at the end of the day I don’t have a single thing to show for what I’ve down.  Yet, if I don’t let my ideas percolate, than I am utterly hopeless.  I’ve known this about myself since early in grad school, but it continues to frustrate me.  I am not one of those writes that just vomits all over the page and  cleans it up later.  I need cohesive thoughts and ideas before I can write my first draft.  I am a huge proponent of outlines.

3) I am in a love-hate relationship with editing.  I love fixing a sentence, making it clearer and more powerful.  I love seeing the changes that I make to the organization make ideas flow better.  These are tangible things that I can accomplish.  I even love the act of doing it.  I admit I am not perfect at it (I never diagrammed a sentence or learned the proper use of prepositional phrases), but I think I do a decent job of it.  But it is a painful job, agonizing over wordchoice and sentence organization.  It’s the good kind of pain though, kind of like when you’ve had your hair tied up all day and you finally let it down and our scalp just screams.  I just love that.  But, what I’ve learned is that it takes time to do it well.  You need space between edits or else you lose your objectivity.  And editing is something that must be done. Nobody, myself included, writes the perfect first draft.

4) Grant-writing is all about salesmanship and language.  This was perhaps the most novel and profound lesson learned.  (And I thank my adviser for opening eyes to it).  For a long time I was struggling with how to significantly change my proposal to make it more compelling.  There was no help from the reviewers comments, aside from requests for more statistical tests and experiments with clinical strains.  They seemed happy with the scope and scale of the question, my qualifications and my choice of sponsor.  So what to change?  Naively, I focused on the science (shocking I know, as I am a scientist), trying to think of new experiments to add.  I now know this was the wrong approach.  I needed to go from “There’s nothing really wrong…” to “Wow! This is the coolest thing ever!”  And to do that I needed to change the language and the context, and not necessarily the experiments, in my proposal.  I needed to articulate and lose the passive voice.  It’s an art that I have under-appreciated and clearly did not allot enough time for (as I was working up until the very, very last minute).  I must accept that it is not just about the science – it’s how you sell it.

5)  I am my own worst critic.  And I mean that in the most un-constructive way possible.  With only a few hours remaining before the lurking deadline, I turn all of all of my exhaustion, stress and worries in on myself.  Why was I so stupid to wait until the last minute? Why wasn’t I better at time management and multi-tasking? Why don’t the perfect sentences just flow from my brain through my fingertips to the keyboard?  Will I ever (or can I ever) learn to be a salesman for my science? Why wasn’t I clever enough to get this right the first time? I am not sure that I figured out the resolution for this last one.  Though I suppose acknowledgment is a tiny step in the right direction.

Lessons learned … and duly noted for future endeavors.

For the love of science?

I haven’t written about science in a while, despite it being something that I think about every single day.  Maybe that’s why I avoid writing about it (or maybe it’s just more fun to write about travel adventures or experiments in the kitchen).  But, by trade I am a scientist.  I spent four and a half years obtaining both a Bachelors of Arts and a Bachelors of Science, spending a significant time either in a science class or in the lab.  I then went on to spend five and a half years working on my PhD, with more than a significant amount of time at the bench, many times missing meals, sleep and social activities in pursuit of science.  For the love of science.  For the thrill of that elusive discovery (often times after many months of utter failure).  Because there is joy to be found in not only discovering things, but also in the discussion of ideas.  What is the interesting biological question?  How can this idea or hypothesis be tested?  What does this result imply?  Now where do we go from here?  One of the primary reasons I decided to go to graduate school is because I fell in love with science and its intellectual community.  And my graduate school experience was rich in intellectual community.  I mean it is almost an embarrassment of riches, with fungal biologists, evolutionary biologists and molecular biologists.  There were weekly seminars that brought in amazing scientists all over the world, monthly meetings with groups across campuses and even from neighboring universities and yearly meetings that took me all over the world.  It was one gigantic biology party for nearly six years.  It was easy to get excited and stay excited about your work when you had so many opportunities to share it with people who actually wanted to hear about it.  I never thought I was remarkable for loving graduate school, my thesis project or my thesis committee and adviser.  But perhaps I was.  I certainly knew many other students who didn’t share my feelings, but it seemed absurd to me to that they could be unhappy.

So how could I have fallen out of love with science?

I am not entirely sure.  I am not even entirely sure that I am not in love with science anymore, but I am pretty sure that I have been less than happy recently.  Yes, a huge part of that unhappiness is the fact that my significant other lives in the Florida swamps,  my family lives in the majestic Pacific Northwest and my friends have scattered across the country while I am in Minneapolis (with winter just around the corner).  So even if my scientific life were going beautifully, I would still have a big, dark, menacing rain cloud over my head.  But I think it goes beyond that. The rose-colored glasses have been ripped off my face and stomped upon.

That might be a little melodramatic, but you see where I am going.  Science is not for the faint of heart. It demands more than just a competent head on your shoulders.  You need to be more than just a respected colleague and a good adviser.  You need to be a publishing machine.  You need to be a grant-writing (and receiving) fiend.  You need to sell you little piece of arbitrary knowledge to the world as the most ground-breaking research out there (although it doesn’t hurt if you are part of the ole’ boys club).  There is no longer any joy in the discovery – it has now become an obligation and an expectation.

I think it is the obligations and expectations that has had me stewing.  The obligation to have a super-productive post-doc in order to have a fighting chance at finding a faculty position.  Is it worth it?  Is it worth busting your ass so that you can get a job where you have to continually bust your ass in order to succeed?  Not even to succeed, but just to keep your head above water?  When do you have time for the rest of your life?  Do you even get a life?  Friends, family, love?

I spent the weekend in Chicago, at a regional meeting regarding yeast biology.  I sometimes find these meetings to be double-edged swords.  On the one hand, it gives me immense joy to be completely immersed in scientific community.  I like meeting new people and talking science (especially yeast biology).  I like hearing good talks and asking pertinent questions.  I like drinking beer with people who are just as nerdy as I am.  While in the moment, I absolutely love being a scientist.  But then I get home and am suddenly full of doubts.  What if I am not good enough to cut it?  Why don’t I think that critically all of the time?  Why don’t I have those engaging, in-depth discussion with my colleagues on a daily basis?

Am I being too idealistic about what a life in science should be about?