September 30, 2011

A Day in a Life of a Scientist (the naive version)

To be honest, when I was in high school, applying to engineering schools, I did not give much thought to what a day in a life of a scientist or an engineer might look like. There are lots of things that I did not give much thought to (like why I was applying to engineering schools in the first place), but if I were to come up with what my naive brain would have thought back then, a typical day in a life of a scientist would sound something like this.

You get in to work early and pour yourself a second cup of tea (because you already had your first one with breakfast at home) while quickly checking email. You glance at the To-Do list lying on your desk and smile with anticipation of an exciting day ahead of you. Because every day in your life is exciting! How could it not be, if your job is to do meaningful research in a state-of-the-art lab? You are developing a cutting edge device that will be invaluable for treatment of cancer. Your work is contributing greatly to the world, and you couldn't be more satisfied.

After answering a few emails regarding that paper you are going to publish next month, you put on your lab coat and head to the lab. Some of your coworkers are already there, looking quite busy and engaged with their own work at their work stations. Which are not really work stations, but perfectly organized lab benches, where you waste no time finding the supplies you need for today's experiment. You set up your experiment while chatting with the scientist across the lab from you about that party you all went to last Friday. Because your work allows you to keep sane hours, and you have time for things like parties and hobbies.

You concentrate hard on your work, monitoring the experiment while planning your next steps in this project. At lunch time, you go out to eat with your coworkers because you get along with them splendidly. You talk about current events and things happening in your lives. No one complains about work because what is there to complain about?

You get back from lunch, and head back to the lab, maybe checking your email one more time. You take your laptop to the lab so that you can work on that paper while waiting for the experiment to finish. You are so engrossed in your work that you don't notice how time flies. Before you know it, it's time to get out of the office and go to your tango class, which is conveniently located only five blocks away. You check your email one last time, update your To-Do list so that you are ready to start right away in the morning, turn off your computer and head out.

Needless to say, this isn't exactly how a day in my life as a scientist/engineer turned out to be. Stay tuned for a post on a REAL day in a life of a scientist, coming soon.

September 8, 2011

Kicking butt into gear

Two days ago, I came home after work, popped in a workout DVD, and exercised for thirty minutes. Let me explain how huge of an accomplishment that is. When it comes to exercise, I could be best described as a lazy, lethargic sloth. No matter how many resolutions I make to incorporate exercise of any form into my life on a regular basis, I inevitably fall off the wagon, every time. As a result, I've had years of practice of coming up with perfectly reasonable excuses to keep my butt firmly planted on the couch. Here is a sample:

"Morning workout? No way that's happening. I am not a morning person. In fact, I'm not even functional until about one p.m."
"Lunch-time exercise? And what am I going to do after that, stink for the rest of the day? Besides, lunch time is for eating!"
"After work, before dinner workout? Hmm, well that would be nice, except that I get ravenously hungry around four p.m., and by the time I get home, all I can think about is FOOD."
"Exercise in the evening? But I'm so full from dinner! And I'm sleepy!"

See? There is just no good time during the day to fit in exercise. No doctor and their cholesterol-lowering exercise-benefits lectures could convince me otherwise. And besides, exercising is BORING. Who wants to add another chore to their already never-ending list of things that are waiting to be done? Not me!

And yet, I did find a couple of reasons to pop in that DVD two days ago. I kept hearing about people combating stress, depression, and anxiety with exercise. Supposedly, those endorphins do something to the brain's chemistry to make one feel... better. And between work and wedding planning, I was feeling mighty stressed out. I also noticed that after a month of doing absolutely zero exercising, my body was starting to feel all achy and stiff. So, a week ago, I made another resolution and purchased Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred DVD.

Just to make it clear, I am not trying to lose weight. I know people buy this DVD to shed pounds quickly, but that is not my goal. I may be a lazy sloth, but I'm a sloth who likes her weight. So, if anything, I'd like to tone up a bit. But even that is a secondary goal. Mainly, I just want to build a routine where I spend some time on a regular basis being active. 30 Day Shred has three workouts (levels 1, 2, and 3) that are twenty minutes each (but actually, more like thirty minutes with warmup and cool down). It may not seem like a lot, but Jillian promises me that those twenty minutes are highly effective as far as exercise goes. And I am working hard to convince myself that thirty minutes a day is not such a huge sacrifice to make!

So, two days ago, I made sure to have a snack at four o'clock, so that I wouldn't have any excuses to be a lazy couch potato when I got home. And two days later, I can tell you that the level 1 workout sequence totally kicked my butt. Or, rather, my arms and shoulders. It only now occurred to me to take some pain killers for those sore muscles. So, whatever Jillian is prescribing seems to be working, and I hope to keep up with the DVD, even if not on a daily basis (because yesterday, I could barely chop an onion, never mind lift weights).

September 6, 2011

Science vs/and Writing

Mathematics and engineering have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up with two mathematics teachers and two engineers, I was surrounded by it. So, naturally, when it came time to make choices about my future career, I leaned toward the technical fields. Perhaps "choices" is not the right word to use, though, as options outside of engineering (or at least medicine) were not really presented to me as viable ways of making a living. Or at least, not a decent living with a steady paycheck and a guaranteed job. (Which, by the way, ha! Like any job can be guaranteed in this market.) On some level, I can understand this logic. If you are an engineer or a doctor, and you work hard, you will earn a steady paycheck (at least, this was the case when I was making all these choices). On the other hand, you can work your ass off till you have no ass left, but you might still not earn much if you are say, a writer. Sure, you can be a successful and money-making writer, but it's not "guaranteed" no matter how hard you work.

Of course, none of these thoughts went through my mind as I took an exam to get into a specialized math and science high school, which, to be fair, provided a well-rounded education, that I took full advantage of. My bizarre senior year schedule included second year calculus, second year computer science, AP chemistry, and two English classes, including a creative writing workshop. I also didn't think too hard about all of my interests (math, chemistry, foreign languages, writing) when I applied to various engineering schools at prestigious universities. I somehow remained clueless to the fact that if you are in an engineering school at a university, you are not allowed to select a major from that university's liberal arts college. So when it came time to select a major during my sophomore year in college, I chose chemical engineering because it seemed to be the closest thing to what interested me (chemistry) and was available through the engineering school. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening - it turned out that chemical engineering had little to do with chemistry. Oops! How is that for making uninformed life decisions?

I successfully graduated, got a job, wasn't too excited about it, and so... I went off to grad school. I was looking for something different this time, but I wasn't entirely sure what exactly it was. Sounds like I was totally ready to make a decision about graduate studies and invest tons of money in a masters program... right? Still not thinking outside the box, but trying to push the box's limits a little bit, I switched majors to a different, but closely related, engineering field. Going for something completely outside of engineering did not even occur to me at that time. You could say, I was subconsciously playing it safe - stick with what you know, my brain was telling me, and so I did.

One year and oodles of debt later, I had a masters degree and a job offer that sounded super exciting (this was about a month before the market crashed). It turned out though, as it often does, that job descriptions tend to sound incredibly better on paper than they actually are in real life. I suppose that's how it goes in life. Certainly, I've seen many people deal with this, accept the facts, and move on with their lives. But I have also discovered a small minority of people who love their jobs, who look forward to Mondays, and are excited to stay late to get more accomplished. And so I thought to myself, why can't I be one of those people? This little thought snuck into my brain and made itself comfortable there, amid the general chaos that usually resides in my head.

At the same time, I began to notice something else. The day-to-day process of doing science and engineering left me mostly uninspired. But there was a part of my job that I looked forward to, and it involved writing. During the seasonal onslaught of grant proposals, I spent many long nights planning and outlining and putting words down on paper. Sure, I may have publicly bitched to the world about the lack of sleep and the caffeine-induced tremors, but secretly, I enjoyed the writing process. As I acknowledged this to myself, I recalled another time when I thoroughly enjoyed writing - in high school, when I made time in my schedule to take all the creative writing classes that were offered (all three of them).

And so I find myself now, slowly approaching that scary place where I can no longer be satisfied with where I am, and there is a need to take the next step. I am even more inspired to do this when I read about other women taking these next steps right now, the economy be damned! The question now is not whether I should do anything about that little thought in my head, but how do I move forward. Am I really ready to leave science, and is that even necessary? Is there a way to combine my background in science and engineering with my desire to write? I think the answer is yes, and it's just a matter of time before I figure it out. Meanwhile, I'll be cheering on the brave souls that are reaching for their dreams despite the fear and the "common sense" logic of staying put until the economy digs itself out of the hole that it's in (whenever that may be).