Friday, December 3, 2010

My Self-deprecation Pet Peeve

***** As an early career scientist, striving to move humanity forward with solid, data driven results I want to thank the memebers of the media- both conventional and virtual, who chose to respect the embargo of my research. I am excited to share my results in person today, Dec 2, 2010 @ 2pm EST. This is only the begining...****.

From the website of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, PhD

This is the scientist that presented her paper at the NASA press conference today, the one that got all the buzz from mainstream press guessing NASA was gonna bring out Marvin the Martian like that zoo guy with the adorable cubs on The Late Show. It was definitely a let down for the USA Today crowd. And frankly as a person that has probably taken all the same chemical oceanography classes she has I don't really get it either. Plankton are all the time taking the wrong element out of seawater and putting it into their shells. They can make do with something else in the same column on the periodic table. So what she did was try to make something living in mud she collected from Mono Lake, where the pH is 10, take arsenic instead of phosphorus out of the growing medium she put it in. Not a great leap for an oceanographer to think of that. And it worked. She grew some bacteria in an arsenic broth and tested the DNA. The big news today was that the arsenic was substituted for phosphorus right in the DNA.

Well ok. That's a good topic for a paper. I don't know that it's a whole lot more interesting to me than ordinary stuff like Dr. Hay's discovery that seaweed poisons coral if the parrot fish aren't there to eat it. It just happened to be funded by NASA so she got a press conference.

I was out having lunch at the Japanese place by myself when the press conference started. I got a link from Spaceflightnow's twitter feed for live streaming to iPhone and I put in my headphones and watched and listened while I ate my bento box. The video kept dropping out but I could still hear them. I laughed out loud when she said there was only 20something femtograms of phosphorus in her sample. FEMTOgrams? She said that's not nearly as much as you would expect from adding up all that should be in the component parts. I got what she meant, but that still cracks me up. Femto is the one after pico, 10 to the -15 power. That's a decimal point, 12 zeros and a 1. A quadrillionth of a gram. Sometimes in the electronics biz we used capacitor values in femtofarads, and that is about the only time I've EVER heard anybody find a use for that little of something. I'm actually more impressed that they can measure elemental ratios that precisely than I was with the actual ability of the bacteria to grow in arsenic.

In the body of her talk and in the question and answer section Felisa Wolfe-Simon, PhD kept pointing out how much younger she was than everybody else. She would remark that somebody else was "VERY experienced" and how she was "an early career scientist." It started to get on my nerves. I'm sure people don't do this on purpose. One of my favorite professors at FSU, a good 10 years younger than me, introduced a Professor Emeritus speaker at our Thursday Chemical Oceanography lecture one day -- "Dr. Winchester is very experienced and has been around so much longer than me..." and I muttered under my breath, "Oh, stop bragging." Dr. Froelich next to me BURST out laughing. I was so embarrassed. But I get that they mean it to show respect to the older people, it just comes across weird to me.

So how old is this woman? What is she going on about? I googled "How old is Felisa Wolfe-Simon" and I got a link to her website. Oh how cute, her banner is the symbol for iron with lisa after it. That would be like if my website was named Somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it.

Her CV is on the website, so I can kind of guess how old she is. She got a bachelor's degree in music and one in art in 2000, so if I'm generous and figure she finished when she was 21 like I did then she's 31 now. Seriously? And she's going on about early career? By the time I was 31 I was a complete washed-up has-been! So yeah it kinda tweeked me when this lively speaker kept pointing out to all her weathered colleagues on the platform that she was planning to build a whole career on this one discovery that frankly reminded me a little bit of 8th grade science fair when the person next to me at the state science fair in Athens did "The Effect of Alcohol on Earthworms." I was expecting a terrarium with a community of earthworms and they would routinely dribble some alcohol on the soil and see if the earthworms would crawl away from it. Yeah, no. They got a styrofoam cup of red wrigglers at the bait store, picked some worms out and dropped them in a glass of gin. It wasn't even a beaker or a flask or something sciency looking. It was along the lines of a Flintstones jellybean jar. "Conclusion: Earthworms sink in alcohol." Now I grant you her conclusion, "Bacteria grown in arsenic without access to phosphorus will use arsenic in their DNA instead," is a lot more advanced than "They don't float." Especially given that whole femto thing. But she did PUT them in ARSENIC. They don't normally live like that anymore than earthworms live in gin.
I'm just in a pissy mood and have been for a while if you can't tell. Probably since about 2000 honestly, when my career options dwindled to varying degrees of demeaning. I'm annoyed that this ingenue got paid to go to graduate school in Oceanography without even a Bachelor of Science degree and I had to pay my own way. I'm annoyed that at 21 she understood the hoops you have to jump through to be a professional scientist and I just skittered off on some doomed entrepreneurial path of destruction. Why didn't anybody TELL me?! I guess it wouldn't have mattered. I can't just go along with stuff like that -- career paths laid out like a damn board game. I just never was one to grab the tail of the elephant in front of me and walk the line. I mean, that's his TAIL! I'm not touching that with my NOSE!

Of course maybe things would be different if I'd spent my 20's gestating in the womb of academia. Instead I was out there making the world safe for digital television and cell phones and shit like that. By the time I was 31 I had already made the most money in a year I will probably ever make. It was already becoming difficult for me to get consulting work because I was too old. People were glad to hire a new grad to do something they'd never done before, but at 31 they expected me to have an specialty -- to have done one thing over and over again. Well fuck that. That's just not what I do. I do things that haven't been done before! I'm an innovator, a problem solver, a generalist. Well I was. I guess that's just how I think. Clearly the opposite of Ironlisa who looks at people as occupying different steps on a staircase of ... what? I just don't get her model. In my experience if you have a bunch of narrow niche experts and no generalist who can translate one to another the real innovation never happens. They can't communicate. As an relative imbecile I can still advance the process. Let's call me the enzymes. Or for the people that didn't take chemical oceanography, I'm the Chance cards in the board game. Or I would be if I was allowed to play.

I waffle between wanting to be involved in interesting things and wanting to be a hermit. Today I guess I was forced to think about whether I feel like swimming after all those ships that have already sailed. I know I could catch up and scramble up into the dingy and tag along. But the water is cold and choppy and nobody messes with me here in the lagoon of my virtual desert island. There is foraging to do before dark. Bon voyage, HMS Career Path!


  1. Wow. The typo in the quotation ("begining" with one "n") is from the original. Apparently she's too busy following the elephants in front of her (or posting clips of her oboe playing, or whatever) to employ a spellchecker in advance of her big day in the spotlight.

    On an unrelated note, I'm interested to what extent you've thought about the odd datum that all the lamentable incidents in your derailed career path share a common variable. That is, I wonder if it's as obvious from the inside as it appears to be from the outside that the differences between your scientific career and that of (say) ironlisa are based not only on the vagaries of random events, but also on the choices you've made, and continue to make.

    That sounds snarky when put that way, for which I apologize. I enjoy your take on things, and the fact that you're on this kind of interesting alternative career track makes for entertaining reading. Tolkien wrote:

    "Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway."

    Your having to deal with career setbacks and un-self-aware idiots and other gruesome things makes for a good tale, but speaking for myself I'd rather you have days that are good to spend, even if the telling suffers as a result.

  2. I tend to just take opportunities as they come instead of taking a strategic long term approach to my working life. I'm sure that has everything to do with my situation. I only had the option to go to one college. The strategic move would have been to find the subject where I had some natural talent and would be top in my class and get a loan if it took more than 4 years. Not pick the major with the least number of hours required for graduation so I could graduate within the 4 years my dad would pay for. I just had no idea what I was doing. I had no plan what I was going to do for a job. I made good money in college with writing and photography and I think it warped my perception. I didn't associate the things I did for money with things I studied in school. My role models were professors who were so much smarter than me I never for a second thought I could succeed in academia, professional engineers like my dad who told me the PE exam was so hard I'd probably never pass it, field scientists who spent way too much time with snake guts, and elementary school teachers who sold stories on the side. I should have gone to more career fairs.

  3. A nice followup article from Ed Yong summarizes some of the other scholarly pushback (besides yours) that ironlisa has been getting:

  4. I've been following all the arsenic aftermath with great interest. I notice everybody is being very careful not to criticize the researchers directly. My experience in oceanography graduate school taught me that my hyper-emotions are excellent at detecting the bona-fide scientist. I also have a very sensitive alarm for people who lack a full appreciation for what they don't know. I'm glad people who have the expertise to apply rigorous logical analysis to the chemistry are around to prove me right so much of the time.