To stay or to go: making the decision

In revisiting my academia to industry series, I’ve decided to write down some of the advice I’ve given in response to questions from those in academia since starting my job in industry. The scariest part of leaving academia was the venturing into the unknown. I’m going to write down things I wish I had known before starting this adventure, and you’re welcome to come along.

The first step on the journey from one career path to another is making the decision to go. Sometimes this happens organically. I have a friend whose postdoc advisor left her faculty position to help found a biotech startup, and my friend followed her from the University to the real world. Another friend who met someone at an academic conference and was offered a position in industry. These transitions happened seamlessly.

For me, it was a monumental decision that took me over a year to make, and another year to implement.

It started with an inkling, “I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.” I had started the career path towards the ivory tower with some basic understandings: I would never be wealthy, my choice of living locations would be limited, and I would work hard all the time. But I also saw some benefits in academia: I could pursue questions that I am interested in indefinitely. I could approach interesting ideas, and spend time collecting and analyzing data. I could hang out with people who are as passionate about biology as I am, indefinitely. And for a really long time that was enough. That was worth the sacrifices.

Until, gradually, it wasn’t.

When asked why I left, I have two answers: 1) death by 1000 cuts. I wanted to be able to pay off student loans, and live comfortably. I wanted to be able to work normal hours, with normal expectations of the jobs. I was really tired of being “required” to do things for which I was not being paid. And I wanted to be able to keep asking questions, and answering them with data, without having to constantly write grants begging for money. Finally, I wanted to stop worrying how we’re going to fund the lab, and paying for research out of pocket.  (I’m still paying off the costs of some of the experiments from my PhD).

And the second answer: 2) I was walking around London and realized I wanted a different life than the one I have. Hear me out. I have always been a big city girl, but through my academic career I kept moving from one small college town to another. I did my undergraduate, Masters, PhD and postdoc in relatively small cities and rural towns. I had to – I went where the job was. Where the research was. I don’t regret any of these decisions, but I was walking around one of my favorite cities in the world and I knew I wanted to be able to choose to live here. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the final cut. I still love biology, and this summer especially, I miss the field work. But I needed a life, in addition to a job. And I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to have that in the Ivory Tower, where working more hours and for more efforts than you will ever be paid is glorified and promoted.

But I also realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to just drop everything and leave (it’s not my style). So I started planning, finished up projects, did another full field season, and prepared. I’ll write about my preparation next week, but the decision to leave came gradually and then all at once. And it’s the first step to figuring out what’s next.

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The view from our field van/home during my last field season. No regrets, about then or now.

 

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A bear and its forebears

The spectacled (or Andean) bear – which turns out to be more common around Machu Picchu than previously believed – is the only South American bear, found in the ranges of the Andes from Venezuela in the north to Peru and Bolivia in the south.

But the species isn’t unique just for being the only bruin on a huge continent: it’s also the sole remaining representative of a bear family that once encompassed some of the all-out most formidable mammals ever to exist.

Want to read more? Check it out here.

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The Best April Fool’s Joke

I am rarely aware of what the date is. Along with struggling to remember which is “right” and “left” this is one of my most basic flaws.

So I’m almost never aware when it’s April Fool’s Day, and when I read the tweet from Richard Lenski:

I was fooled. I’ll admit it. But then I read the post, and realized, while hilarious, he was kidding.

See follow up post for confirmation. 30-years, 70,000 generations and we’re just scratching the surface.

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Are Rats Innocent of Spreading the Black Plague?

A new study suggests that human parasites—like fleas and lice—and not rats, may be responsible for spreading the Black Death that killed millions of people in Medieval Europe.

A personal favorite infectious disease of mine is the plague, what a perfect confluence of infection agent (the bacteria Yersinia pestis), susceptible population (do you know what passed as cleanliness standards in medieval Europe?), and good environmental factors (over crowding).

But it turns out that rats, previously thought to be the main culprits of spreading the plague, may not be responsible for spreading the Black Death (also, GREAT name).

Want to know more? Read about it here!

 

 

Oldest fossil on earth?

The history of life on earth is fascinating, and largely one of the reasons I started studying evolutionary biology.

There is solid evidence of life dating back to 3.5 billion years, at which point the earth was a billion years old.

Last August, Dr. Van Kranendonk and his colleagues reported discovering fossils in Greenland that are 3.7 billion years old and were once mats of bacteria that grew in shallow coastal waters.

But then, a new study, published in the journal Nature, Mattew S.Dodd, Dominic Papineau and their colleagues at University College London studied rocks that are older.

They came from a remote geological formation in Canada called Nuvvuagittuq, which stretches across four square miles on the coast of Hudson Bay.Researchers have variously estimated its age at 3.77 billion years or 4.22 billion years — just 340 million years after the formation of the planet.

Want to read more? Check it out at the Washington post!

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Iron-rich chert, shown here in red, containing ancient fossils was formed near hydrothermal vents on an ancient seafloor, according to a new study. 

 

What plague doctors can teach us about doing science

The bird mask wearing plague doctor.

They stuffed the beaks of their masks with aromatic flowers, spices, and perfume to ward off disease carrying miasmas.

Their lenses were darkened to avoid the evil eye which could have allowed an evil spirit to enter their bodies and give them the plague.

They practiced bloodletting and turned to barbers to do surgeries on their patients.

By today’s standards their methods were wrong. But that’s not really the whole story. We have the benefit of years of experience and science to be able to say we know better.

And ultimately understanding how they came to the above conclusions allows us to look at science in general, and the scientific method in particular.

Read about it here! 

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The Altered Arctic Food Chain

Food chains are complicated. That simple idea of a direct line from primary producer, to primary consumer, to top of the food chain is just that, overly simplified.

And given the complexity of these interactions (who eats who) it’s hard to predict what happens when the menu suddenly changes.

Which is what is happening right now in the Arctic, due to the effects of climate change.

Read about it over at the NYTimes!

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