Working as a Researcher: A Rant

Sorry for the lateness of this post! I have no internet at home until the weekend so I’m essentially using internet from elsewhere to write (i.e. find pictures) and upload this.

 

So last time, I covered the Pros and Cons of doing a PhD/Postdoc. This time I’ve decided to post a pure and simple rant about my first few months at my current workplace and the frustrations I’ve been dealing with just in this past week. It’s not because I’m simply all about work (maybe I am) but I find this therapeutic and it’s good to let you guys know in case I’m cranky when we next meet (thanks for organising our get together H!).

 

So to refresh your memory in case you’ve forgotten and/or simply don’t care, I’m a researcher.

 

I work at a Research Intensive Institute where there are people who work both in the wet lab (i.e. cells, animal or human tissue, animals, etc. for those of you who remember from my previous post) and dry lab (i.e. computers (either hardware or software) like yours truly). We have all sorts of research going on at my Institute and everyone’s doing something different and working as well as they can together despite their different disciplines, which is nice.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Sharing is Caring (about yourself) in Research.

 

That’s where the “good” things end however, so here starts my RANT. This post covers the woes and miseries of a computational researcher but anyone reading this who works in the wet lab may be able to relate:

 

  1. Tech Support don’t understand you or what you’re trying to do.

This for a computational researcher who relies on fast working machines to do their work, and for who the virtual environment is essentially their lab, is A PAIN IN THE BACKSIDE. Not only is your time wasted with trivial backwards and forwards emails over a tiny issue, in which you know exactly what you need and the Support staff do not, but the amount of time taken to resolve the issue severely impedes your work progress. At my Institute, the Tech Support staff can also restrict your access to the computers even if your jobs are unknowingly taking up too much time and data crunch to finish. This is essentially like telling a working professional that because their work is taking too long and hogging resources, they’re banned from the office. This might be a relief to some but for a researcher we need to work to progress. While I understand the importance of sharing resources and while I’m not purposely trying to hog these resources (i.e. no idea if the process is taking too much crunch because Support staff can see this), it’s wholly unfair when this happens and makes me think that Support staff don’t understand what research is.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Definition of Research.

 

Research is the act of finding something about something that NO ONE ELSE (not your friends or family, not the text books we had to force feed into our brains to pass with a good GPA, and certainly not your Supervisors) knows.

 

It requires:

 

Time . . .

Figure 3

Figure 3: Good time spent doing Research.

 

. . . Money . . .

Figure 4

Figure 4: How Research is Funded.

 

. . . and Resources . . .

Figure 5

Figure 5: How Research Resources should be organised.

 

. . . to do it right. If any of those things are missing you’re not in an environment where you can do good research.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Research Progression is important.

 

In my case, the “Resources” bit can sometimes go awry. It also goes without saying that if the Institute didn’t need me to do their research, they’d have hired the Tech Support staff to do it for them. In such cases where the “Support” is only a namesake title, the Researcher has to strive ahead and figure out their own solution.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Research Progression is Important (PART 2).

 

I was doing this until Tech Support came back with a solution of their own. The problem is they have the super powered computers I need to do work. My own PC can’t handle that level of crunch and also doesn’t have the software compatibilities to run the programs I need. Hence, we must get along for the duration of my sentence Postdoc.

 

  1. Tech support staff can have poorer communication skills than Researcher.

Basically, when explaining computer related issues, Tech Support have it all in their head but what actually comes out of their mouth looks something like this:

Figure 8

Figure 8: Research Comprehension.

 

I’ve now learnt to email rather than meet up so everything is in writing. Their written information is marginally better than their spoken information.

 

So, this post was all about my woes and miseries with a select group from my Institute. Hopefully next time I’ll have something good to report but I rather doubt it.

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Figure 9: Government here I come.

~ Gelato

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snapshots

When this group blog started, I knew I’d cop out at some stage and just copy a post from my regular blog because I didn’t have time to write an extra, original piece for this blog. I mean, I did want to, but time is such a limited commodity right now. But, instead of just copying and pasting a post onto here, I thought I’d share a few because why not.

In the last few months, these are probably the more significant posts I’ve done:

On superfluity

One of the lessons from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that has stuck with me the most since reading it earlier this year is that much of what we say, do and think is unnecessary or superfluous. I’ve been working at cutting out or stopping myself from engaging in unnecessary thoughts and actions, and I feel like it’s saved me a bit of time for more important things. But it’s a process, and I’m still working on it. After all, I need more time.

On literature

In July I started reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I got my copy of this Russian classic in grade 12, but have put off reading it all this time because I didn’t think I could handle it – all those complex Russian names, all those characters and storylines, the sheer length of the novel… To be fair, I always have so many other books on my To Be Read list, so often it wasn’t intentionally avoided. This year I finally decided to tackle it, and I’m so glad I did. Maybe this was the right year for it. I do wonder sometimes if I were to read a book at a different stage in my life if I’d appreciate it as much or in the same way…

On one of my favourite parts of Japan

Yes, I’m still trying to get through documenting my Japan trip from February, and at this stage I’m wondering if I’ll ever complete it, but at least I managed to do a post on one of my favourite parts of the trip: Chion-in Temple. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, try to include this in your itinerary.

On writing and inspiration

Brisbane held its annual Writers Festival about a week ago, and I was lucky enough to have a day off to attend some panel discussions. There will be more posts to come on my blog (I’m aiming to do one for each panel discussion), but I thought I’d just link to the first one for now.

On accomplishments

Umm… I don’t really know how to summarise/explain this one without just repeating what I wrote in the actual post. Basically, I wrote up a To Do List and an Accomplished List. Not a bucket list. Slightly different. I recommend it for anyone feeling a bit lost or disorientated, or even if you’re just bored.

Possibilities and uncertainties

I’ve always grappled with uncertainty in life. You’d think that after moving around so many times as a kid (and even as an adult), from country to country, city to city; I’d be more adaptable and comfortable with uncertainty. But perhaps it is my open-minded personality that I think of all the possibilities out there, and wonder what the best option is, amongst so many factors in life.

I suppose my life has been filled with a lot of strange circumstances that most people wouldn’t need to deal with. Like my parents moving to a completely foreign country that I’ve never even been to; just as I graduate and get my first job in another country. Or my friends/family being scattered all across the globe. It makes it very difficult to know where home is anymore.

Even now, I’m unsure of so many things in life. Will I be staying in Singapore for a long time more? Will I move back to Australia, or move to another country entirely? Will I still want to work as a dietitian for the rest of my life? If I do, which area of dietetics do I want to work in (clinical, private, research, teaching, food industry, community/public health, digital healthcare, media etc)? Or do I want to study something else or open up a business? When will my boyfriend and I be ready to move to the next stage in life? What if I have kids/a family, would I still be working?

Life has been so unpredictable and I never expected I’d be staying in Singapore for more than a few years. Or been in two cross-cultural relationships here. I suppose this kind of uncertainty and spontaneity in my life makes it beautiful and exciting in its own way, even though it is incredibly daunting as well. I think if not for my parents moving around, I would never have dared move out on my own to a completely new country either. And perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, even though I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice, and how different things might have been if my life were more predictable and stable if I stayed in Australia. Sure it has not been easy, but anything worthwhile in life never comes easy. I don’t regret anything about my road less travelled, even if my mind is wandering in uncertainty about the future.

The Outback

I may have just been a bit late in posting- sorry gals, quite a bit on my plate at the moment!

But anyway, so I went away on a road trip from 1 – 16 August with G and his parents. We drove two separate cars, and bought a walkie talkie to aid communicating when we were driving past remote places (which happened a lot).

The above is a map of the places we stopped at – it goes from A – G.

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A = Goondiwindi Queensland

B= Gundabooka National Park, NSW

C = Broken Hill, NSW

D= Flinders Ranges National Park, SA

E= Adelaide, SA

F = Mt Gambier, SA

G = Halls Gap, Grampians National Park, VIC

Highlights:

  1. Driving an incredible amount of kilometres ( just under 7000 km) in 2 weeks 1 day

To get to see the places that we saw, it meant we had to drive a fair bit. Driving itself is quite the experience, in that you see the gradual change in landscape – as we headed west, the soil became redder and redder. You also get to see a LOT of animals – I reckon I’ve seen hundreds of kangaroos, emus, goats, sheep and rabbits(dead and alive).

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brokenhill.jpg

  1. Eating “mixed feral antipasto” at Parachilna

parachilna.jpg

It was actually very tasty. I kept the labels and have since made it into a post card. Driving to the hotel (Petrie) was also quite a 4WD experience – problem was we weren’t driving 4WD. Lol

 

  1. Seeing some incredible landscapes (dessert, ocean and mountain all in one trip)

We did about 8 bushwalks through our trip – and saw some magnificent places.

grampians.jpgbrokenhill1.jpg

  1. Outback life is tough

Outback is poetic but it is also a testimony of how tough life would have been and is for people who live there. We tuned into the local radio when we were in Broken Hill and the surroundings and they spent so much time talking about how many millilitres of rainwater everyone got.  There are also some mental health resilience programs in place for rural communities. Enuff said.

I also don’t like what mining does to towns…

  1. Outback tells you quite a lot about early settlement in Australia

I almost wonder if some kind of frontier mindset is subtly embedded in Australia culture…

  1. Walkie talkies are pretty good at picking up signals (from everywhere)

To facilitate communication between the cars we bought a walkie talkie. It turned out to be very very useful to communicate topics like:

  • Toilet break
  • How far it is to the next town
  • When it is safe to overtake
  • Funny things you see along the way
  • How much petrol is in your tank… and how long can your car hold out for

The walkie talkie we got also picked up all sorts of signals… sometimes farmers conversations. Lol It was funny I tell you, especially because we spoke in Cantonese. I wonder what they thought about us.

All in all, I’d recommend the trip 🙂

Pistachio and lemon curd cake

I have been super lazy with cooking/baking lately so the Wednesday Ekka holiday was the perfect opportunity to actually make something. This is a recipe by the Australian Women’s Weekly.

Ingredients

Lemon curd

3 medium eggs
1 1/2 tbsp lemon rind, finely grated
1/2 cup (125ml) lemon juice, freshly squeezed
3/4 cup (165g) caster (superfine) sugar
100 g unsalted butter

Pistachio cake

1 1/4 cups (160g) finely chopped pistachios
125 g unsalted butter
1 cup (220g) caster (superfine) sugar
1 tbsp lemon rind, finely grated
3 eggs
2/3 cup (100g) cake flour
1 tsp baking powder

Method

  1. To make lemon curd, combine eggs, rind, juice and sugar in a medium heatproof bowl; set over a medium saucepan of simmering water. Stir about 10 minutes or until mixture thickens and thickly coats the back of a spoon.
  2. Gradually add butter, stirring until smooth between additions. Strain mixture into a medium bowl. Cover surface with plastic wrap; cool. Refrigerate for 3 hours or until chilled.
  3. Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 22cm (9-inch) springform pan; line base and side with two layers of baking paper. Spray the side lining paper with oil, avoiding the base. Place 1/4 cup (45g) of pistachios in the pan; rotate pan on its side to coat side with pistachios.
  4. Beat butter, sugar and rind in a medium bowl with an electric mixer for 3 minutes until pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until combined.
  5. Sift flour and baking powder into a small bowl, add 2/3 cup (90g) of the nuts; stir to combine. Using a large metal spoon, fold dry ingredients into egg mixture until just combined.
  6. Spoon cake mixture into pan; drop pan on work surface to settle the mixture. Spread 1 cup (200g) of the curd over batter, levelling the surface; scatter evenly with remaining pistachios. Cover remaining curd; refrigerate.
  7. Bake cake for 40 minutes; cover surface with a round of baking paper to prevent nuts burning, then bake a further 10 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean (the top will still be slightly wobbly).
  8. Serve cake warm or at room temperature with remaining lemon curd.

Tips

You can finely chop the pistachios in a food processor if you like; use the pulse button, in bursts, for an even texture.

Cake flour is lower in protein than plain (all-purpose) flour so it produces a finer, more tender crumb in baking.

This cake is best made on the day of serving.

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Overstimulated

I was having a little moment of panic when I saw that there had been no blog post for this week before I checked and realised it was my turn again. I blame this on my still-on-holiday-mode brain. 

So yes, I did just come back from my almost month long holiday this week. I am still jet lagged, as evidenced by my current 3AM wake-ups. The first two days I got back I actually slept and woke up quite normally and I thought “Sweeeeeet! No jet lag!”. Clearly spoke too soon. Then the 3AM wide-awake-ness started. First time it happened, I tried to go back to sleep until my alarm, of course to no avail. This morning, I did the smart thing and just gave up after an hour of scrolling through my phone in the dark. Or maybe it’s not a smart thing? If any of you have tips on how to get over jet lag, please feel free to share. 

Now the holiday itself. Geez, I don’t want to bog you down on all the details of the 4 weeks, but I’d like to share my big takeaways.

1. Women’s football (this is orange for a reason!)
If you didn’t know already, the primary purpose of my holiday was to go watch the UEFA Women’s Euros 2017. It is a competition held every 4 years between 16 (largest contingent to date) Europeans teams, where the winning team would be crowned champions of Europe. In terms of competitiveness, I had expected the usual suspects to dominate the groups (Germany – champions for the past 22 years; Sweden; France; England), with some blow out games here and there. In terms of fan support, I guess I wasn’t really sure. Whilst I hoped that lots of people would come out to support these female athletes, I also knew that there is still deep prejudice that run within society about female sports. (Interesting documentary on the history of women’s football in England for anyone who is interested. In a gist, bunch of males decided to ban women’s football almost 100 years ago because it got too popular.)

Reality versus expectations? Well, what can I say. Nobody, and I mean nobody, would have predicted some of the results that eventuated. 3 of the 4 giants (listed above) were knocked out (rather convincingly) in the quarterfinals. I think the only reason all 4 didn’t get knocked out was because England played France in the quarters because France did worse than expected in the group stage and ended up in second place (I even booked my tickets based on the assumption that Eng v Fra would be a semi, not a quarter). It was absolutely fantastic to see the quality in all the games and the improved performance of the smaller (investment in women’s football-wise) nations. It made the whole tournament super interesting to watch. I didn’t know about many of the European players before the tournament, but I am now even more actively trying to learn more about them and follow their careers, because many deserve much more recognition.

And with regards to the fans, my goodness. That was probably one of the funnest parts! Fans made the effort to travel across to Netherlands from all over Europe to watch these games (even though it’s Europe, it’s still a fair bit of effort to arrange flights/ferries, accommodation, etc). Not only did the fans turn up, they turned up in numbers, and they turned up vocal. Special shoutout to the Icelandic fans, who arguably had to travel the furthest. And even though by the end of the second game, they knew their team would not make it out of the group stage, they still came and gave massive support for all group games. In fact, the media reported that 1% of their total population made the trek across the sea to watch. I still remember one afternoon as I was coming back to the apartment, I stumbled across where the Icelandic fans were hanging out before the game and they had taken over the whole square! Their Icelandic thunder clap will also leave you a little breathless.  The other special shoutout has to go out to the Dutch supporters. I have never personally experienced so much support for a female sporting team before this tournament. Every single one of the Dutch games were sold out. When I talked to the locals about the tournament, many of them actually knew how the team was performing (it helped that the Dutch team were performing superbly). My most memorable day of the trip was the final’s day. I decided that I wanted to take part on the pre-game celebrations and fan walk to the stadium. That was probably the best decision of my life (not even exaggerating). There were an endless number of fans (though completely outnumbered, there were still a vocal group of Danish fans); a band; copious amounts of singing and dancing and chanting. I’m seriously not exaggerating when I say that I could not see the beginning nor the end of the fans during that walk to the stadium. Can’t upload my own video but here is another on Youtube (lol in fact, I see myself at around 6:17). Seriously, please watch, even if just for one minute. Re-watching some of these now is bringing me to tears of happiness. After the Dutch team won the final, I was driving back to Amsterdam and on my way, I saw fans out in the highway overhead bridges waving their flags and scarves in celebration – another thing I was not expecting. Thank you Oranje fans for these wonderful memories. 

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Not just in Netherlands, but for some of the other teams also received massive welcomes back home for their champion efforts (Denmark; Austria). Hopefully this translates to more financial investment in those programs too. 

This trip further cemented my love for the women’s game and my admiration for these athletes. 

2. The world is a big, big place
It doesn’t matter how much research you do, nor whether you know someone from that country, when you actually travel and stay long enough in one new culture/country, you will learn many new things about it. This is why I like to travel deeply (when I say this, I mean that I am not a massive fan of the whirlwind travel itinerary, which often happens for European destinations). Things I learnt about the Dutch? From my short time, I would say most (all that I met) Dutch people were very welcoming (everyone I asked for help was willing and all I saw on the streets that I made eye contact with said hello); quite pragmatic (developed from my interaction with people I met on the work trips); and super efficient (automated systems for check-in, including for check-in luggage that cuts down the time to about 15 minutes?!!). From my friend who has lived there, their view is that the Dutch is maybe too tough (examples raised by them were GPs telling people to just rest and symptoms will go away for everything; and also children riding through the rain and having no change of clothes being viewed as normal and expected). Which is understandable given that more than half the country is below sea level so they’ve not exactly had easy living conditions. Speaking with one taxi driver who was an immigrant, he noted that the Dutch is nice to you to your face, but talk behind your back (I guess all cultures do that?). Also, from a German perspective, the Dutch really dislike the Germans on a national level (this was from just one account). And that’s just the people. There is so much history to be learnt from each place too. Too much to detail but for me, as someone who knew very little about European history, it was a great learning experience. And the best way I did that was going on a number of walking tours in the various cities I went to, each with an English guide, all had extensive knowledge of the topic. This trip was a reminder to me that traveling is not only a great way to relax, but also an first hand experience to learn about another part of the world. 

3. Journey of self discovery
I know, sounds a little cliché, especially because I did not travel alone. However, I might as well have. I won’t go into any details here, but I think what needs to be said are that:

  • gut instincts need to be trusted more often than not (and I have a little regret not trusting mine);
  • people are freaking weird as fuck – usually not necessarily a bad thing, except when their weirdness really does not align with your weirdness; 
  • even I am amazed by my own tolerance sometimes, but that I’m getting older (and have lesser time on this planet) so my tolerance for bullshit is quickly diminishing;
  • learning how to deal with difficult people is a never ending journey for me because I do not like confrontations;
  • traveling alone is actually not all that scary if you keep an open mind, plus it’s a great way to meet new people; and
  • I am really sucky at riding a bike.

 

All in all though, I would not have traded this experience for anything. As with all things in life, you can’t have everything exactly how you want it. It’s really what you make of the opportunities you do have and how you view setbacks and deviations that define the big picture. 

balance

These days I struggle with ‘balance’ in my life. Trying to get the perfect (or near perfect) combination of socialising with friends/family, keeping up with course work, making time for hobbies/interests, eating well, adequate sleep, moderate exercising and overall being a good human being is a struggle.

I don’t know about you guys but I for one do not have a good formula, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have it. But that’s life and for the meantime whilst I’m still at uni, I’ll just have to put up with it. Priorities, you know.

Now don’t get me wrong, on the occasion I do splurge and hang out with family/friends but they are a rarity these days. I’ve learnt to savour these binge sessions to help me through the endless articles and essays.

Maybe someday soon, when my life isn’t in a transitional phase, I’ll be able to find balance or decent sleep. I’m willing to settle for sleep. Sleep comes in handy after 15 hrs of staring at a screen, researching the one topic, going down rabbit hole after another till you know longer read words as words but weird squiggly things. Sleep is good.

 

Angel

p.s. I really hope all these grey hairs are worth it