Wednesday, 17 July 2013

End of the first PhD year - should I switch careers to Lion Taming?

I’m picking another career. Surely it’s not too late to change? I’ll just do something low key and not stressful, like lion taming or mountain climbing. SURELY anything must be better than this???!!

These thoughts were running through my head like a roller coaster train last week. AGAIN. If you've studied for a PhD and are not hugely organised AND overly smart AND very lucky and therefore very successful, they’ll probably be fairly familiar to you. Last week saw two VERY long days in the lab, gathering data that turned out to not be very useful. Gathering data for me involves some pretty intricate micro surgery that it has taken me a rather long time to get my head around. I remember the first time I attempted to cannulate. The post-doc training me was kind, helpful and gave a clear demonstration of how to slide the tube into the vessel. It took all of 2 minutes for him. When, two hours later, with shaking hands and a sweaty brow, I likened the chance of me getting the cannula in, to Narnia really existing out the back of the lab cupboard, he gently took the cannula and just finished the job himself. I’m never going to get this, I thought miserably. Five months on from that, I face different challenges. Today, I thought about throttling my computer when my code failed to produce the desired result, yet again, despite no errors or warnings appearing on the screen. To be perfectly honest, there are days when I wonder if I’ll ever discover anything of any use to anyone during the course of my PhD.

I know I'm not alone. A quick Google search reveals that there's actually a site entitled 'I did a PhD and did NOT go mad', a Facebook group called 'PhD stress' where the header says "How's my research going? F*** you, that's how', numerous websites offering ways to manage PhD stress and of course, chats to my lovely, and importantly, honest, fellow PhD sufferers. It seems to be fairly par for the course to be feeling this way. I can also, although I prefer not to, recall several friends with PhDs (who made their minds up career wise rather sooner than I did) who advised me not to do a PhD, due to the severe and debilitating stress that came with one. 

But I read up on other jobs to see if perhaps the rational idea of switching career yet again at almost thirty could be the right one and I just can’t seem to get excited about any of them. None of them offer the opportunity to roll five career paths into one. To spend my days, teaching, writing, learning new incredible skills, to attempt to pick apart the brain, the most fascinating organ I have ever come across. To program, to present and to discuss ideas with some clever and interesting colleagues. Whilst I remember the first time I ever tried and failed to cannulate with abject misery, I also remember the first time I succeeded as well. The rush of elation that comes when your body achieves something you thought impossible is outstanding. I remember the feeling of pride I felt when I first saw my name on an academic poster and when I gave my first talk to a group of my peers at a conference. And funnily enough, despite the fact that I have no guarantees on where my research is headed, I’m gaining so much just from the journey that most of the time I feel like this is the best job in the world.

PS If I'm going to believe everything a Google search tells me, I have to concede that actually, a PhD may not be the best job in the world, and in fact, caretaker of the island below, is.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Modern Day Caveman; #moderndayproblems

By NeuroGirl Kira Shaw

I hold a personal fascination with evolution and have often found myself wondering “how can the modern man be related back to our ancestral forefathers?” Man has walked the earth for over 30,000 years. During this period, time has ensured many characteristics have been passed forward onto modern man. In this context I opted to select new-world problems and relate them back to life-or-death survival skills which have been honed and refined across our evolutionary development. The experiences of our pre-historic relatives have shaped the way the “modern caveman” reacts in 21st century situations, including challenges such as crossing busy roads, navigating the supermarket and attracting sexual partners.

Crossing a busy road can be related to dodging and out-witting potential predators stalking the savannah. Cars, vans and buses can out-muscle and out-run us, much like a hungry sabre-toothed tiger hunting for food. Humans can use their advanced visual cortex and frontal lobes to spot oncoming vehicles and formulate a plan to avoid a collision. Whilst previous predatory encounters have aided in the development of our visual and planning systems, being in close proximity with large vehicles rarely elicits the fight/flight response in contemporary Homo sapiens. An example of a present day problem that does cause a rush of adrenaline to kick-in is public speaking. Your ‘average Joe’ has few ravenous predators eyeing up his limbs, but instead fears the ridicule of a peer or competitor following public humiliation. Everyone has experienced those butterflies in their stomach as they step up in front of the judging eyes; the shaky hands as they try to hold their notes steady, and the lump in their throat as they utter their first sentence. Public speaking presents no danger to our immediate survival, yet our survival systems go into overdrive. In environments where humans can flourish, social standing grows increasingly important, meaning our most basic drives and instincts can be applied to ensuring the protection of our popularity, rather than the protection of our life.  

Not only have our survival priorities changed over time, but our modern day mating ground has also been transformed. The nightclub is an ideal venue for single individuals to gather and compete.  Sexual prowess is demonstrated via rhythmic and sensual dance moves, and societal status and worth can be exaggerated with a rather large bar tab. Now let’s compare the successful singletons in the nightclub to our sexually successful forefathers. Our ancestors valued male breadwinners who could hunt and provide, and women who could gather berries and bear strong children. In keeping with these traditions females may demonstrate their sexual worth by wearing tight clothes that highlight their youthful and ample assets. Rather than the old practice of clubbing the female over the head, the male flirting tactic has evolved overtime with the offering of a J├Ągerbomb (though arguably, the two tactics have the same after-effect of an aching head in the morning!). The acceptance of this gift of a drink is a positive sign, and hence the modern day couple is born. 

Once things have become more serious between our modern couple, one particular challenge they will face when feeding the family is where the next meal might come from. Though in modern times, this involves navigating the supermarket shelves, as opposed to our ancestors’ long journey to find a water source. The water source is entwined with an abundance of food and amenities conveniently situated in one location. This wealth of resources must be processed carefully, and the efficient Homo sapien will take only what they need and what they can carry. Upon entering Tesco, most of you will find yourselves heading directly to your usual purchases, filling the trolley with foods you know won’t go to waste. Your advanced frontal lobes will be of use to you again as they aid you with decision-making and forward planning: “I won’t need as much salad this week as we’re eating out on Tuesday”. Once our couple do reach the salad aisle those gathering skills, which have passed down through the generations, will prove very useful. The efficient shopper is able to locate the greenest spinach leaves and the lesser bruised banana skins. Our complex and perfect eye, baffling to even Charles Darwin himself, is drawn to the brightest and clearest colours, trained to pick out only the fruit and vegetables which fall into this category.

Whilst it may be difficult to imagine how our ancestors’ way of life has anything to do with modern day survival, their survival pressures and the resultant brain development is entwined in everything we do! Our evolutionary history has allowed us to overcome the challenges faced in night clubs, busy roads and supermarkets. So next time you go to the shop and pick up that loaf of bread, be sure to thank your great-great-great-(recurring) grandparents.