Category Archives: Personal

A change will do me good

I’m alive! Yes, I see its been a whole YEAR since I last posted, and you might be wondering what’s up and if I’ve given up writing….well….it’s been quite a year, and 2017 is going to be very exciting I hope!  I’ll be moving on from my postdoc in the new year, so the past ~8 months have been solid paper-submissions/revisions/rapid missing data generation. My fellowship funding (from the Army) is running out at the end of the month, after getting 2 no-cost-extensions to spend the money over a longer period of time, and after a little over 5 years of post-doc’ing I am ready for a new challenge.  With the news today that my IBC paper has been accepted for publication in Oncotarget, I get to check off one more item on the list of loose ends 🙂  I’ll do a post explaining it more later once it is online officially!

job-circlesUnfortunately, right now the timing is not perfect for a direct transition into my new position at MD Anderson, however I am lucky to have a few people who really believe in me, and who have worked around the current restrictions to make it happen circuitously.  I will be transitioning into a permanent staff position at MD Anderson in the IBC clinic, as a member of the clinical research team, where I will get to directly work with patients. Direct patient impact is one of the key characteristics of what I have been working towards since graduate school, and my volunteering with the IBC Network only made this desire more firm.  I truly feel this move gets me pretty close to the center of the picture on the left 🙂

 

Soo…as of Jan 2, I’ll be doing a short 2nd transition postdoc in my new department (Breast Medical Oncology) until the position can be officially posted/I canchallengeaccepted be hired, but in the meantime I’ll be getting up to speed with the specifics of clinical trial management (i.e. learning my new job). It’ll be quite different from bench work no doubt, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy all the “newness” – new challenges, work routines, colleagues and variety of short- and long-term rewards that often seem so far off in lab research. I’m sure there’ll be things I miss from the lab too, but overall I’m excited and think this will be a positive career move for me.

 

With a job that is more around normal office hours with remote work possibility, I hope I’ll have even more time for writing, volunteering with the IBC Network, and perhaps some more travel and fun stuff.  However, as has been been my attitude regarding research throughout grad school and postdoc, doing my work well will still be my top priority, so don’t expect me to be partying every night.

 

With that news….3 busy last days of post-doc wrap-up to go!  I’d better get off to bed, since Tuesday am is coming up very soon.

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It’s “Embrace Your Geekness Day”!

Today, July 13th (I’m still up y’all) is Geekness Day or “Embrace Your Geekness Day” – what better excuse for a quick post on why I am TheCancerGeek (my current username on the internet). I actually didn’t know about this geek celebration day until SingleHop (a cloud hosting company) contacted some geeky bloggers including me, and gave us a couple of prompts for a post on geekdom.

“What makes me a geek?”

My journey into cancer geekdom started as a freshman in college, now almost 10 years ago, when I took a non-majors cancer biology course where I got a taste of basic cancer cell biology, and some insight into certain causes of cancer like genetic factors, environmental causes or oncogenic viruses (HPV and the like).

Fast forward to today. Geekyness about a scholarly topic means a deep and broad interest into something complex yet fascinating and you don’t care whether others share this obsession. To me cancer biology fits that definition – both something that is intrinsically interesting and yet a major societal problem to be involved with finding solutions to.

Even though in the lab, I study a very particular aspect of targeting inflammatory breast cancer, my overall cancer geekiness makes me seem a bit unfocused at times. I love reading about other aspects of cancer biology that span other disease contexts as well – how treatments have evolved over time, new areas of discovery in cancer immunotherapy, cancer metabolism, mechanisms of cancer cell plasticity, genetic screens for new combinatorial strategies etc. The research seems endless at times! I probably spend much longer than the average post doc reading both clinical papers and more translational articles about many topics. One of things I do in my “free” time is volunteer as a science advocate in 2 facebook groups run by the IBC Network. I love being challenged by members to explain something in lay terms, debunk badly written articles about research and especially love it if I’m asked a tough question that I don’t know the answer to — great excuse to go to pubmed or UpToDate and figure it out. Usually I learn more than what I set out to figure out (after all, that is truly what graduate level training is about – not simply knowing a set of facts about the problem you studied). And that’s how it goes when you are a geek – digging and digging yet some more.

“Favorite geek quote”

Confession: I am a quote collector! A few that I like about geeks/geekyness:

“Geeks are people who love something so much that all the details matter.” (Marissa Mayer)

 

“Being a geek is a great thing. I think we’re all geeks. Being a geek means you’re passionate about something and that defines your uniqueness. I would rather be passionate about something than be apathetic about everything.” (Masi Oka)

 

“If your culture doesn’t like geeks, you are in real trouble” (Bill Gates)

And finally,

Who is my geek role model?”

I would say none other than Dr Sally Church, of Pharma Strategy Blog (and founder of Icarus Consultants). Like me Sally has broad interests in oncology and it is really fun to discuss new research papers and talks from conferences with her. Even when she admits breast cancer is not her favorite disease site 😉 Not to mention Sally is a discerning user of the latest Apple technology like me! 🙂 #GeeksRule!

So my advice to others who think they might be geeks…. KeepCalmGeek

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Emotional investment in cancer research – how much is necessary for good research?

One of the thought-provoking articles that has come up repeatedly in my twitter feed this week, is an article in the NY Times about (and written by) a young woman who found out that she carries a BRCA1 mutation. After discussing the reasons behind wanting to know whether she carried the gene mutation, she mentions enrolling in a cancer biology class taught by a

“professor [who] filled his slides with dark oncological puns, lecturing with the almost robotic detachment I sometimes see in those who work closely with cancer”…

Reading this paragraph as a cancer researcher, I asked myself to what extent do I portray the robotic detachment she mentions, and does this lead to better research?  Its now a few days after I read the article but I don’t think I really have an answer yet.

To elaborate, my work now is really translational – if you ask me what the measure(s) of my success over the next few years is, here’s my answer: I would have designed a biomarker-driven treatment strategy for IBC patients that still appears promising after rigorous preclinical work including animal model testing and a clear understanding of mechanism. My data so far on my main project is coming along very nicely!

In addition, because I am in the TRIUMPH postdoctoral training program, I have the unique opportunity to be exposed to clinical issues at a deeper level than virtually any other PhD-track program in the country.  This year, in parallel with my lab research, I am engaging in rotations with various specialties within MDACC (pediatrics, medical oncology, radiation therapy, phase 1 trials, surgical oncology). In reflecting on my experiences so far, and talking with my peers, it is crystal clear to us why we are here.  Papers in nice high-IF journals, awards, invited talks etc are nice (and desirable qualifications for those of us who want to stay in academia), but at the end of the program, many of our goals include being able to see our work translate directly into patient care.

On top of these IRL opportunities, I have enjoyed interacting with a group of cancer survivors and patient advocates on social media and reading blogs, which has given me a deeper understanding of the impact of cancer on people’s lives than the average lab scientist, and made me even more driven to do clinically-relevant work. Time will tell whether time invested in such activities above and beyond my long days in lab, will actually make me a better researcher – but I have my suspicions it will.

In contrast, when thinking back to my PhD which was in a much more basic science-driven department, my success was measured by how elegantly I could prove a mechanism for some biological process (in my case how oxidative stress and DNA damage signals to particular pathways to regulate cell survival/death), and by most people’s definition, I was successful in this endeavor. Looking back at some of my peers I have to admit that I saw some of the “robotic detachment” mentioned in the article, not only from those who worked in cell lines/yeast on fundamental biology questions (like understanding all the binding partners of protein X or what genes ABC transcription factor regulates). Perhaps it was just such fundamental (and SLOW!) research combined with the struggles of grad school that made even the brightest students to sometimes appear uninspired.  However, even some of my colleagues who worked on mouse models of XYZ cancer seemed to care only enough to do their project to their committee’s satisfaction.  To be fair, some superficial level of detachment is probably necessary for working with animals that have to be sacrificed during/after the study, especially after the researcher induced disease (in the most humane way possible).  However deep down, I think that most cancer researchers aren’t very detached from their work. After all, cancer touches us all at some point whether individually or people close to us.  heart-robotMaybe its just a question of degree instead of a black-and-white detached or not attitude. Hey, maybe we can be robots WITH hearts – if that’s what it takes to make a real difference!

*****

What do you think fellow biomedical researchers? Do you feel detached from your work i.e. is it mainly just a fun/interesting way to make a living or are you deeply invested in the broader implications of your work?  Or is the reality of the disease you are working on so depressing that you need some objectivity to survive.

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PhD Defense Day!

Those of you who either know me IRL or follow me on twitter or facebook know that I defended my PhD successfully this past Friday. Yay!  After a relaxing weekend where I attempted to think as little as possible about science (didn’t succeed to ignore completely), I’m ready to get back in the lab tomorrow, start working on some of those experiments for our paper revision, and finish up the edits on my thesis and get all my paperwork squared away for graduating and postdoc stuff etc….I have a rather long list of demands on my time for the next 2 months that I will be in my PhD lab before moving.  But my blog has to start somewhere, so I guess I’ll write some about finishing up my PhD.

D-day was rather anti-climactic to be honest.  While I had a lot to be confident about (being a quite successful student with my own funding, lots of awards and more than the average number of publications etc), the last minute nerves still got to me, mainly felt in my stomach.  Haven’t had this sort of anxiety for many years – even though as an undergrad contemplating grad school, I was scared of the candidacy exam (after all, they could ask you ANYTHING – impossible to study, right?), once it actually came up, I was pretty confident since I knew I had nailed the written proposal, that the actual presentation and questioning were rather benign.

So why was I so nervous about my defense, since intellectually I knew that in my program virtually no-one actually fails at that point, that candidacy and committee meetings are the weed-out points?  Well, it was more to do with having rushed the writing of my thesis for various reasons that had me on edge.

Earlier in March-April I had 2 back-to-back conference trips (and then an immediate day-trip to Houston), when I told myself I would make good progress on my thesis, which I had only just outlined before leaving.  Coming back from them still on chapter 1, section 1.4, wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for ‘good progress” on a thesis that was due at least in draft form less than a week later to the graduate school (which I subsequently got a short extension for by being nice).  Somehow I still got it all together in time (basically pulling 16-18 hour writing days in a few coffeeshops, including a close-by 24-hour one), and got it off to my committee a whole 5 days before my defense.  After taking a day breather with no writing and no coffee (which by then I could feel was affecting my appetite and GI system), and taking care of some life stuff, I began my presentation 2 nights before my defense….still not nervous.  I mostly finished it that night, and just left some minor polishing to do on Thursday.  Then Thursday I pretty much became a nervous wreck as can be seen by some of my tweets and facebook postings (figure 1).

Me freaking out online

Figure 1: Me freaking out the night before

It was heartwarming however to see all the great tweets of support from my “twitter friends” most of whom I still (unfortunately) don’t know IRL yet….its impossible for me to select a single special one, so figure 2 has most of them.

Tweets from friends before defense

Figure 2: Look at all those sweet words of encouragement

Somehow I managed to get a good 4 hours of sleep on Thursday (normally if I’m that nervous I’ll stay up all night)…and in the morning, I got into one of my new favorite outfits, and I got ready to leave, with plenty time for a Starbucks tea stop (since it was also Earth Day and they had a promo for free tea/coffee if you brought in a reusable cup J ).

I arrived at the auditorium where my defense was held nice and early to setup, and test videoconference, and then I sit and chat with my friend Mary (thanks for trying to keep me calm!) on twitter until finally my PI and committee show up, and small audience, given that it was Good Friday afternoon.  PI begins and gives great introduction, and I’m still a bit nervous after her setting up all the high expectations, but once I’m a few slides into the background I settle down, and give probably one of my best talks ever…managed to slow down when going over data, and talk is perfectly timed, without any true run-throughs of this particular presentation (although large parts of it were similar to most recent student seminar in January).  So then closed grilling begins, and surprisingly it was rather mild, and my PI couldn’t even think of 1 scientific question (so she makes up some general grad student question on recruiting etc)…a total of  ~20 minutes pass before I get sent out for the committee to chat, and a minute or 2 later get called back in with the good (expected) news.  So that’s the story of my defense.  Glad it went so well, but wish I wasn’t so nervous.  PI even admitted later during champagne celebration outside the lab that it was the best thesis she’d read, and now that I’d pulled off that feat (writing the whole ~200 page masterpiece basically in 2 weeks) that I wouldn’t get to take a month off to write grants like some PIs do.

Final stats on my thesis (pre-edits, but these shouldn’t add a significant amount):

–       Pages = 200

–       Words =  34,738

–       Figures = 75

–       References = 206

Anyone else have any interesting stories about defenses? Or large writing projects?  Next time maybe I’ll delve more into how I managed to write it in that short of a time (other than writing for hours-upon-hours a day).  If anyone has any questions feel free to ask in the comments, and if the answer is long enough maybe I’ll make a special post for you.

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Setting up my blog, more content to come soon

Howdy everyone!  Just a quick opening post from me today since I’ve already spent a few hours working on this today.  I may not get back to this blog for a while, see below…This is not my first foray into the blogging world, but its been >5 years since I last blogged at Xanga. Yes its been that long….

To introduce myself:

I am a PhD student at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Smithville, TX, where I am studying cellular responses to cellular stresses such as DNA damage and ROS.  Grad school has been a long, difficult marathon (almost 7 years!), but I’m now in my final semester (finally!), about to defend my (yet-to-be-written) dissertation in April, and between now and then, I will be attending 2 back-to-back conferences on different coasts, so as you might guess I shouldn’t be spending much time reading/writing other stuff like this….After my defense, I will hopefully have time to start more serious blogging here, as I start transitioning to my TBD postdoctoral position somewhere else.

Apart from cancer research, I enjoy technology (am a Mac and iPhone lover), listening to and making music (I play the flute and played the piano when I was younger), travel when I have the opportunity, and general internet-ty stuff (twitter, forums etc).  At this point, I don’t imagine this blog will be too heavily focused on any one area.  Please let me know how I’m doing once I start some real posts.

If you need to contact me for any reason, feel free to email me: thecancergeek @ google’s email service.

Oh and the obligatory disclaimer: All my posts are my own opinion, and not that of any of my past or present employers.

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