söndag 8 september 2013

An update after a long absence

It's been almost six months since the last time I wrote any blog. Just like you suspected, loads of things have happened in-between, so the lack of update from my side is rather a symptom of laziness than eventlessness.

My last entry was on March 31st this year. Second week in April, me and my significant other flew to China on vacation. It was more of a vacation for her, since I was unemployed and enjoyed de facto holiday almost everyday. We went to her hometown, a city in southern China known for its entrepreneurial spirit and significant role in business sectors. I must say that over the past 6 years, I have taken many things for granted. I never even thought China would be so different than how I remembered it. The differences also go both ways, the good and the bad. Sometimes it was amusing, like when you see an elderly person making himself instant noodles in a metallic tea cup using the plane's tea water, when it turned out the takeoff was postponed. But when you see another senior standing up, digging through luggage in the overhead locker seconds before the touchdown despite the crewmen's insistence, that was just outrageous.

There was one week between my last entry and the trip to China. To put it short, the problem I encountered, as recited in my last entry, was due to liabilities with a job (PhD) offer. Always playing safe, I talked to two more PIs to make sure I won't suddenly find myself stranded in case everybody retracts their offers. With the SCIENCE paper in my portfolio and other materials to complement, I managed to get myself two meetings with two PIs in one week. Both guys expressed strong interest in adding me to their roster, and we decided to arrange interview sessions after my trip. Other than these two guys, one more invitation to interview came along the first hour I landed in Beijing. It felt absolutely fantastic to be on the choosing end again. Securing my position also secured my vacation, otherwise I might very well end up spending three weeks away in constant anxiety.

I have to say in academia, going for many job interview helps a lot. It gets you familiar with the people. Especially in Switzerland where scientific communities are not densely populated, collaboration between groups and even universities in different cities are common. Researchers sometimes work with e.g. one group in Bern and another in Zurich. Considering it only takes 1 hour to travel between most two cities in Switzerland, scientific collaboration is possible, and very commonplace (conversely, lack of collaboration within Swiss scientific community usually implies underlying problems of the group). Interviews can provide you with valuable "unpublished information" about the group. This is about understanding their research better than from reading papers and knowing how they relate to other groups and external players, e.g. companies. Even if you can only accept one job offer in the end, what you learned from the interviewers may offer insights for future collaborations. Nevertheless, I wouldn't advice anyone to apply to 100 groups within the Swiss border. Words get around quickly, it leaves an impression of being extremely unfocused. Besides, every PhD interview takes about one day and it is tiresome. If you want to find offers within a reasonable time frame, you simply have to go for your 1st tier choices, which usually aren't that many anyway.

Other than science, I have seen political factors at work. I'm going to mention a few. I applied to two PIs within one department, one received a prestigious research grant and was aggressively expanding. The other guy was more laid back, or passive. I strongly suspect the "aggressive" PI made a deal with his "passive" friend, since he decided to let go of me. What's more, during one interview, a Nobel Prize laureate who founded the department came to hear my presentation. The founding father/laureate even came to congratulate me afterwards. Without proof, I can only speculate that my interviewer invited the laureate to impress me. If so, then it was a flattering and surprising move to woo me. To other young, aspiring scientists out there (well not necessarily younger than me), I can only stress the importance of politics even in science. It matters who you work for. After all, wherever there is people, there is "Jiang Hu".

In the end, I picked one offer in ETH Zurich. It's true that my first PhD experience left me a not-so-slight grudge against the ETH system. My girlfriend encouraged me however, she said that given my qualifications, I could even aim higher (than ETH) if I wanted. Considering the pros and cons with each offer, I picked one that would make me happiest. A rainy day in May, I received an envelope with ETH logo on it. I quickly tore it up, it contained a card and a letter. The first line said "welcome back". From that moment on, I knew for sure I was back into the ETH system. The 2nd chance was for us both. Due to somebody who gave me terrible recommendations, the deal I got started with a probational period of 6 months. This time, I will make it work!

söndag 31 mars 2013






用某歌手的话来说,我这几天,“很惶恐我的未来”。也许你猜到了说这话的人是信乐团的Chris。我对这个乐队其实并不了解,只是几年前听过他们一首《One night in 北京》。最近的紧张,愤怒,担忧和压抑,我很想寻找个途径发泄。跟亲朋好友倾诉是一种方式,但诉苦诉得多了对别人也是负担。我非常不想让自己的怨天尤人把自己心理状态放置在受害者的角度,这样只会令人丧失斗志。于是我翻出来了信乐团的《海阔天空》,跟着原声学这首歌,熟悉了之后自己K歌。一方面是倾诉,另一方面是寻找我能在KTV里面唱好的歌曲。

我不会说无病呻吟地认为自己没有实现自己的梦想,从小时候的IBO,后来的美国之旅以及我在SCIENCE上文章的发表,这都是我实现的梦想。只是此时的我处于一个生活和职业生涯的低谷期,有时看不清自己的未来。这就像得感冒一样,虽然是小病,但脑袋烧得厉害的时候很难想象几天后痊愈时的轻松。这首歌里我最喜欢的歌词,是那句“日落是沉潜,日出是成熟,只要是光一定会灿烂的”。我现在不就是处于日落的沉潜期吗?另一首我这两天发掘出来的歌曲,是加拿大歌手Billy Klippert 的《Death & Love》。你也许听出来这首歌的旋律是信乐团的《死了都要爱》。这两首都不是原版,都是韩国某歌曲的翻唱。相对于国内某些213的狂热歌迷,我不会为了包庇自己喜欢的歌手而愣把翻唱说成原唱。而事实上翻唱太多缺乏新意是我几年前决定不听华语歌曲的原因之一,后来听到了周董等人具有中国风的原版创作,我才恢复了对中文歌曲的兴趣。

相比信乐团的翻唱,我更喜欢Billy Klippert的版本。英文版唱的是战争,Billy的声音比阿信浑厚许多,歌词也成熟多了,总体感觉歌曲的人格更加完整。我试着用音乐伴奏唱这两首歌。几天前,每次唱到一半我总忍不住流泪,发泄的目的算是达到了。这半年多来的委屈,无助,误解,狂喜之后的低潮,大半都伴随着歌曲化成泪水流出来了。每次流泪我都无法继续唱下去。我此时终于明白了为何职业歌手能被称为歌手,而我这种业余的只能是麦霸。几周前看《我是歌手》里面黄绮珊等人含泪表演,每一首歌都能感动场上无数听众。那时的我精神还麻木,有些无法理解为何场上那么多歌手和观众都被唱哭。现在终于明白把人唱哭得并不是歌曲本身,而是歌曲背后给人带来的回忆和思绪。而且我也知道了在哭泣的时候还能唱好一首曲子有多么难,只有多年的演艺生涯才能给歌手们如此过硬的本领。

在我得到好的offer之前,我应该不能在KTV里面唱《Death & Love》了。相比《海阔天空》,这首歌十分消极,它的目的是纯发泄,毫无振奋可言。希望有一天我能把两首歌唱好,融入自己的感情而又不影响演唱。但愿那天能早点到来!

lördag 23 mars 2013

Praying for good karma...

I'm so restless these days... Because I'm waiting for an important answer.

Almost three weeks ago, I had a full-day interview in Zurich, with two professors whom my Swedish supervisor Prof. A recommended for me. Both are good guys conducting very interesting research. The day looked like this: I traveled to Zurich from Basel in the morning. By the time I arrived, it was 11 o'clock. The professor who welcomed me told me they had a small program just for me. First I was going to have lunch with the other professor (since he was busy with teaching assignments that day), followed by approximately 1 hour each with two of the experimental researchers (these two perform biological experiments, the other half of the group is doing in silico computer modelling work). Then I'd get back to my host, discuss a bit about the science. The day would finish with me giving a presentation in front of FIVE research groups! When I first booked in my time for the presentation, I thought it was for two groups only, namely each PI will bring their own group to the talk. As I found out later, the presentation was actually a joint meeting between five groups with very tight collaboration. One group was sort of a spin-off from another group. The PI was recently granted professorship in Zurich, before he was a junior group leader on SNF-grants. To show the relations between these five groups, I'll just number them as 1 to 5 for now. Group 1 hosted the PI of group 2 some years ago, while the spin-off group (call it number 3) I mentioned is from group 2. Group 4 is led by a seasoned professor who is about to retire. They hope to let the guy running group 5 to take over the full professor spot once the group 4 guy leaves. By the way, the group 5 leader has only been in Zurich for one year. My day was reserved for PI 1 and 2, I've also met PI 3 in February.

So my day began. I really enjoyed the conversation with everybody I spent time talking to. Especially when I spoke to the professors, they were able to have intelligent and scientific discussion while still giving me the decent share of attention. This is quite important in my opinion. I believe how your future boss treats you can be hinted by his/her behavior during the interview session. To be honest the interview for my last PhD position was a bit strange. There were clear signs that something was not right, but I didn't pay attention. After a whole day of activities, I think I liked what I saw. The group was doing interesting things, they had very good collaborations as a science lab should do. I believe I made a good impression overall with my presentation and chatting with the fellow researchers. One of the senior researcher I talked to, if I'm not gravely mistaken, I think he likes me. To make it sound overly optimistic, I feel the team chemistry is already there even before I start. My heart tells me I would like to work there.

Now I'm still waiting for the professors to come back to me and tell me they'd hire me. Even though this is not the only lab I'm applying to, this is certainly one of the best. Everyday that went without them giving me an answer is driving me crazy. I want to ask them about their decisions, although I don't want to push them in any way that makes me disservice. If I still don't get reply within the next few days, I'd send them an email to ask. In the meantime, I'm asking you, my reader, to give me your blessings. Wish me luck and wish me have enough good karma to get an excellent PhD position!

Thank you!

fredag 8 februari 2013

Les Miserables the Movie!

I'm writing this to take a break from job-searching, or PhD-searching, whatever it is. Should have posted it two weeks ago. Well, better late than never.

First of all, I prefer the pronouciation "le miz", it's short, neat and sounds beautiful compared to the "le meeser-a-bles". Anyway, I watched the movie last week and liked it. For musical movies, you really need to love musicals to appreciate them. I know when some people (e.g. my father) watch musicals, they only think about how silly it is to see people singing all the conversations instead of talking, even at moments of life and death. I agree that some musical movies overplay the drama and stuff in scenes where time freeze so the vocalists could express their momentary thoughts vocally (a.k.a. High School Musical). These instances are stupid indeed. Musical overall however, is an art form, and as art, it has the freedom to detach itself from reality. It's an acquired flavor, you need to appreciate it before you can enjoy it. Some people do, some never do.

Spoiler warning here!

The movie has quite a hype of itself, most notably Anne Hathaway's portrayal of the character Fantine. She cut off her long hair during filming, as demanded by the story of her character. Her painfully emotional version of the song "I dreamed a dream" is widely heard since it's featured in the movie trailer. Since I sometimes measure success by details, with my standard, Anne has proven to be an admirable actress/singer combined. Take this example. When she was singing a verse about how Fantine still wishes her past lover (the father of her illegitimate daughter Cossette) to come back and so they could "live the years together", in the extremely short-lived instant through the sad song, her face was suddenly full of spirit and optimism that her eyes literally glimmered. In the next moment, she lamented over how some dreams could never be fulfilled. By then her hope was completely replaced by despair, as she closed her eyes and let tears cover her face. The total screen time of Hathaway was shorter than I expected. Not even halfway into the movie, her character was dead. For her portrayal of Fantine, Hathaway has secured her numerous prizes as well as the nomination of Academy Award for best supporting actress. Although I'm still skeptical as to how short her role was in the movie, I agree that the recognition of her efforts in Les Miserables is completely understandable.

Hugh Jackman did a splendid job as Jean Valjean, you'd never expect anything less from this great actor. A little gossip about the guy: his wife is 13 years older than him (which makes her 57). He's not the typical womanizer-type of a famous actor, which makes him even more special. The problem with Jackman is, since he's known to be great, any great work from this guy doesn't come out as a surprise. Therefore, you'd be more amazed at how some previously unknown actor/actress rise up to the top. This brings me to my next topic, the character Eponine.

Eponine is played by Samantha Barks, an English actress who sang in theater, but never appeared in any movie before Les Miserables. Her portrayal of Eponine basically stole the show with her strong presence and touching performances. Eponine is the daughter of the Thenardier family, a bunch of thieves, burglars and fraudsters. Eponine however, turned out to be innocent and kind-hearted. She had an unrequited infatuation with Marius Pontmercy. Marius on the other hand, was in love with Cossette and even had Eponine running errands so he could meet Cossette. Dressed as a street girl in rags, Eponine was pretty for her crowd. She was good-looking, her voice stunning, and her story of a heart-breaker is something most people could relate with. All these factors contributed to the popularity of her character. Eponine later died at the hands of a Parisian soldier as she took a bullet for Marius. Her death-scene was a bit strange, from the camera angle, it looked like she was actively committing suicide by placing the soldier's musket on her chest. Then the weapon fired and she suffered a mortal wound. Couldn't she have just pushed it away, so she could save her loved one without sacrificing herself? Now think from the soldier's perspective. If you are the man on the firing end of the musket, you got your aim on your target, but suddenly another enemy combatant came and tried to grab your weapon. What would you do? A natural reaction would be fighting off the sudden assailant with your gun. So Eponine didn't try to get herself killed, she was just not powerful enough to wrestle with a well-trained soldier (or maybe she did want to die, but then the scene could have been played better). I think Eponine is a better supporting character than Fantine, partly because she leaves a stronger presence in the story.

Having Russell Crowe playing Inspector Javert was another good decision. From other works I've mostly seen Javert portrayed as a shrewd and cruel figure. Although I believe that Javert is not necessarily evil, it's his uncompromising devotion to the law in contrast to Valjean's kindness that made him spiteful. When the antagonist wears the face of the noble gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius, it really blurs the "black and white" morality of the story. The struggle between Valjean and Javert is never about good and evil, they are just two men with different perspectives. It's another symbolization of the friction between the upper-class society and the commoners, which is basically what Les Miserables is about. The story is very sad at times, the narrative however, makes you focus on the unyielding, positive force of life and of love. Even if you don't like musical, this movie is still a must-see. The real musical-lovers should have watched it before reading my review.

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
echoes the beating of the drums,
There is a life about to start
when tomorrow comes!
     - Enjolras, Do you hear the people sing?

måndag 14 januari 2013

Met a friend yesterday...

Lucky me. I got myself this friend in Zurich a year ago during the interview. We exchanged a few emails over the past year, but didn't do much more than that. This guy, he works at an institute that seems somewhat interesting for me at the moment. I asked for his advice, explained my situation to him. He suggested at once that we should meet and he would try to help me. How fortunate that the world still has good people around.

My friend, he totally recommended his institute as a good workplace. As our conversation went on, more and more was revealed. The epicenter of our talk was nevertheless about how you survive as a PhD student, an universal topic in academy. I realized, although with some initial shock, how trivial and commonplace it is for people to not complete one's first PhD. To be precise, how trivial it is to change group, if you are doing your PhD outside Sweden. Maybe the word "Sweden" can be swapped for "Scandinavia", but since I haven't involved myself with PhDs from Denmark, Norway and Finland, I cannot say the latter for sure.

So my friend got his master degree a couple of years before we ran into each other. During the time lapse between his master and the good PhD he enjoys so much nowadays, he tried a first PhD somewhere else. It was the first time he told me about this particular experience. I don't want to reveal his identity, so let's just say his first PhD was in an native English-speaking country. My friend doesn't wanna start talk about it, because once he starts he can't stop. The biggest problem of that place, as he told me, was corruption. The corruption came from the higher echelon of the institute. They tried to attract skillful people to their place, give them the resources to expand the area of expertise of the overall institute. Once the establishment phase is over, the institute kick you out, so they can take over your stuff. My friend's old boss from his first PhD got fired eventually, sometime after my friend left the group. For the professor it was not a big deal, he quickly secured another professorship in another country. Doing PhD in that English-speaking country required visa, even for EU-citizens. My friend had to wait for more than six months to get a visa. He left the group six months after entering the country. This practically means that he "lost" one year in the process.

Every scenario like this teaches you something valuable about life. My friend became much more careful after coming back to Europe. He walked carefully among the would-be employers, watching out for signs of misdeeds along the way. During one lab visit in Zurich, he was interested in the scientific methodology of the lab, but one hesitant answer from a seemingly traumatized PhD gave him second thoughts. As it later turned out, his suspicions were right. Nowadays he is enjoying his daily work in the lab that he carefully sifted out among the ones he applied. What about that lab in Zurich, did they find somebody? Yes, my friend said, a girl from his group got an offer, but from what my friend saw happening afterwards, she didn't stay there. He reminded me about some other guys we knew from the interview, let's call them Mr. K and Mr. M. They didn't stay in Zurich either. M was not heard from again. K started PhD somewhere in Germany, but he got into trouble with the guy shortly after he started and was forced to leave. He was on a short visa in Germany, before the visa expired he tried to apply to the same institute as my friend. It didn't work. After that, my friend has not heard from K. The last example he gave me was his postdoc supervisor, who sort of left the research field for good. She also went to two places for PhD, the first didn't work out and she graduated from her second. She was my friend's hands-on supervisor. Before she left the lab she taught him very well, a good supervisor.

The more stories like this I hear, the less I worry about myself, although you would say that my worry is completely unnecessary. The conclusion is, outside of Sweden, it happens that PhD candidates change places in pursuit of finding what they truly want. Turning the statement around, it also implies "in Sweden, it's rare that PhD candidates leave". Right now I don't want to explore further to explain why this disparity exists. To be frank I don't even know why I wrote this blog entry in the first place.

onsdag 19 december 2012

How I made a successful master thesis

This story recounts how my name appeared in SCIENCE in October 2012. With the information I have disclosed in my blog, it should be extremely easy for you to find out my real name, unless you already know me. Hint number one is that you don't need to look up "Leo Kinmann" in PubMed. Nevertheless, if you really want to read it, I leave it to you to find that paper online. It should be obvious enough after reading this entry.

During iGEM 2011, I heard from a PhD supervisor of our team, Erik, that his boss (hence on refer to as Professor A) is a resourceful and agreeable professor. Indeed, one of the professors who organized the team claimed that Prof. A is so rich that he literally swims in money. Donald Duck's rich uncle anyone? By the way the rich uncle's name is Scrooge McDuck. Perhaps due to the difficulty of making the name sound native in other languages, it is often translated into something that completely lacks resemblance to the original. In Swedish for example, the name became "Joakim von Anka". 

Stop right there! We are off-topic. 

Anyway, initially I wanted to work for another guy whose field of interest was much closer to synthetic biology. This guy had problem of his own, since he moved to my university very recently, he had yet to mark his own turf. Funding was not his strong element at the moment. My past experiences has taught me to avoid under-funded research groups. Since Prof. A combined plentiful grants with benevolent leadership, I made my choice easily. It wasn't difficult to walk away from synthetic biology back then, because the entire university did not have any good lab in the field. I'd rather take a good deal in terms of research group than joining a group that works on something remotely closer to synthetic biology but lacks the necessary resources to do good research. Going for the group rather than the research direction proved to be crucial.

I contacted Prof. A during November, having Erik as my reference person. Thanks to the good words he put in for me, Prof. A picked me. I could choose from two small projects. One was in the field of evolutionary biology, the other involved antibiotic resistance. Since I had not prior experience in either field, I had no preference. I did have my thoughts though. First, antibiotic resistance was bread-and-butter to Prof. A. It seemed promising in the long term, the group just published a fairly groundbreaking paper. If I wanted to stay in the same group for PhD, it might be a wise choice. Erik warned me that working with antibiotic resistance could become very repetitive, and I wouldn't like it. The evolutionary biology project was more of a leap of faith, I knew next to nothing of the field. The work seemed more stimulating though, and the postdoc who would supervise me was extremely competent. With Erik's advice and some consideration, I picked the project in evolutionary biology. I wanted to try something new. In retrospect, I think I might have heard from Prof. A or my postdoc supervisor that they were going to publish the work of which my thesis is part of, but it was never a conscious choice from my side to jump onto an almost-finishing project. It was more of me trying to avoid something that Erik told me I wouldn't like, I trusted him and I still trust him today. I don't know if I can give any advice on how to choose master project, perhaps some of it was "avoid something you know you won't like", some of it being pure luck, and finally, "if you can, try to be as much of a freeloader as possible"? Be opportunistic, be lucky and think smart. But remember, none of them would matter if you don't work hard.

So I started, my postdoc supervisor Jocke helped me to write the thesis plan. He knew exactly what experiments needed to be done. Basically, my work was to characterize around 30 mutant variants of a gene by seeing how each genotype influenced the growth rate of the bacterial host. Having a detailed, realistic plan that you can actually follow always work. I ran the final phase of experiments so Jocke could focus on summarizing his data from the past 2 years and writing up the manuscript. I always tried to challenge my thesis plan by seeing how many days I could get ahead by working fast. Needless to say, not every experiment worked on the first try. In the middle, we lost more than one month on technicality issues and tried some side experiments that turned out to be fruitless. Luckily, Jocke was good enough to figure out what went wrong, so we could proceed as planned. I'm not lying here when I say that I worked my ass off for this project, especially when it became clear to me that my name could appear in the subsequent manuscript if I manage to have publishable data. For many weeks I tried to look ahead of what lies before me, to see if there is still enough time for me to finish with a good amount of data before my relocation to Switzerland for my PhD. I didn't take any breaks during Easter (although I did take some days off the week after to spend with my girlfriend in Paris), worked everyday of the week during the last two months, just to make sure I can get things done on time. My biggest fear was not managing to start the most relevant experiments that produced data, or not getting enough data to qualify for authorship. The more towards the end, the more I pushed for insane working hours. I remember one evening I dined with my girlfriend at a downtown restaurant. She left for choir rehearsal afterwards, and I headed back to lab. When the rehearsal was over around 10pm, she had to wait for me because I was barely finished. Another day, she had a gathering with her soprano friends. I had dinner myself after 11pm in a shabby downtown Subway, while people outside were roaring in the nightclubs. I got home about half an hour earlier than her, which was around midnight. Next to the final month I fought my way to the most relevant experiments: measuring bacterial growth rates using a machine called Bioscreen. Bioscreen is an extremely convenient tool. It upgraded the standard growth curve measurements with high-throughput, enabling the researcher to closely monitor the growth of 200 bacterial samples at a time. Since my bacteria grew slowly, each run in Bioscreen took two days. Furthermore, the preparation before loading into the machine could take up to three days. I scheduled my work so I could prepare for the next setup while one experiment was running. That machine? I occupied it for more than one month. It didn't get much rest, neither did I. I was glad that Prof. A actually purchased such an useful equipment. If he asked me to do the standard growth curve plotting, it may have taken me years to get the same amount of data that I obtained within less than two months. Advanced machinery exist for a reason, they are essential components of any arms race that turns the tide of war, academic as well as military. My master thesis presentation was held on June 5th. Prior to this date, I should have handed in the first draft of my thesis. The tricky thing was that I had no spare time to just sit down and write, away from experiments. I had experiments running during the daytime; evenings were dedicated to data processing; bulk of my thesis were written during late nights and weekends. Everyday I felt I was a fully stretched bowstring, pulled out to its absolute maximum. Any more force and I would've snapped. I pushed myself to achieve co-authorship; Dr. Jocke pushed me to perform scientifically strict experiments; Prof. A pushed for publication of the paper. Our synergy put together has pushed forth the ultimate result we wanted, I'd say that was the way of good science.

To summarize it all, I want to say the following:

1. people is more important than research topic. Join a lab where you can focus your mind on science and not money is crucial. Also one must choose supervisor wisely. Good people brings you success, as it has brought me. I have seen examples where the opposite worked out very bad. What the hell, I'm one shiny example of both theses! But don't go to the other extreme and replace competence with nicety!

2. if you can choose projects, be opportunistic if you can, but always be smart! The factor you cannot control is luck. The choice you make is the chance you seize, the other half is what you do with the chance firmly held in your hands. Hard work is a necessity or prerequisite to success.

3. design your experiments so you can plan ahead and follow the plan. If future experiments don't seem that obvious, you should make them that obvious.

4. advanced machinery can turn the tide of war, just think about how tanks ended WWI, and nukes WWII. I believe the same thing can be said for competitions in academia. With good equipment, experiments that takes years to finish can be done within months. The time-scale difference is rather exponential. Imagine how many competitors you can scoop by getting ahead years of time running the same experiments.

I finished my last piece of work on June 15th 2012. I left the lab that day, having compile all my data and given them to Dr. Jocke. I was saddened by the fact that I would hardly see the place again. Our manuscript was finished my Prof. A and Dr. Jocke. My data was presented in the paper in figures and tables. Out of four authors, my name was behind Jocke's. Prof. A submitted the manuscript to SCIENCE. It took almost four months from submission to publication. The reviews were excellent, so Jocke didn't have to do much extra work. For publishing in SCIENCE, it was as fast as it could get. I count all my blessings to thank the higher power of granting me such fortune. Two other guys who started their master theses at the same time as me, they weren't so lucky. Not until I was on my way out did I realize how good Prof. A's group was. I could've stayed, and I heard that Prof. A really wanted to keep me for PhD. But due to the circumstances, I chose another path. Another thing that saddened me a bit was that I spent too much time working so I barely got to know the people I worked with. Erik said I would've blended in very well. Right now, this lone wolf have yet to find another herd. 

tisdag 4 december 2012

PhD and Aloe vera

Hello, I'm back.

I really shouldn't write long blog posts. For me I tend to put too many details in them, resulting in posts that never get finished, and thus, never get published. So this time, I'm gonna keep it short.

My last entry was about PhD interviews in Zurich. I passed the interview, and got a job offer. The lab of my employer is located in Basel, Switzerland. I started the PhD on July 1st this year. 5 months later, I'm leaving the group and have to find a new place. Lots of things happened in between. To keep my promise of keeping the text relatively short, I'll have to skip them for now. Basically, things didn't work out between me and my professor, that's why I'm leaving. In my life so far I have made a few good decisions, and some of them were based on walking away from things that didn't work. One example is the Math Olympics in high school. Despite the efforts I put in after more than 2 years of competing in mathematics on a national level, I knew I couldn't make it to the national team and be happy at the same time. Math competitions brought me nothing but misery. So I decided to go for Biology Olympics during the last year of high school, by then I had less than one year to prepare. With renewed effort driven by the genuine interest in this new-found direction, my result was ranked the highest among all Scandinavian countries in the International Biology Olympics that year. I also earned a silver medal. From then I learned that walking away could be equally important as seizing opportunities. Sometimes you really need to stand and fight, just like other times when you really need to run. Walking away is not a defeat, it's a tactical retreat that lets you fight another day. In fact, if you never walked away from what you dislike, you will not have the space and availability to discover true happiness and success. Leaving this lab, I think, will turn out to be one of those "walk away" victories. I have started applying to other labs already. Furthermore, in October I officially became a 2nd author of an article in SCIENCE. With this in my hand, there is nothing I fear. The story about how I managed to put my name in this prestigious journal of scientific community, will also be told another time. Not today.

I once got curious as to how difficult it would be to manufacture your own antibiotics, I mean home-made antibiotics. The things I read on the internet showed me how difficult it is. You need to have sterile equipment, sterile water, media and sterile air for ventilation. Besides, the handling procedure required makes it almost impossible to try at home. While penicillin cannot be made easily, other options of antimicrobial treatment were readily available. Silver for example, kills almost any known microorganism. I recalled stories from childhood, of how ancient people found treatment for diseases by drinking water from silver containers. Aloe vera on the other hand, is a true natural replacement for many antibiotics.

It's hard to remember when I first saw people using it. My grandma (mother's mother) seemed to have used the plant her whole life. She used to put leaves or branches of Aloe vera into hot water, making it an easy tea. Whenever kids like me hurt ourselves, she would come around to pick a leaf, tear it open, and apply the juicy interior of the thick, succulent branch on our wounds. She knew all the tricks long before Aloe vera made commercial successes, sold in supermarkets as gels, creams or drinkable juices. In places where state-of-art medicine is scarce, Aloe vera can make up for the lack of technical advancement. Since Aloe vera is essentially a desert plant (originating from northern Africa), it's very easy to grow it at home. My mom got some branches of the plant from her mother. They grew so fast in flower pots so she had to constantly buy new and bigger pots to split the plants and let them expand. I think next time I go home I will pick up some branches from my mother and try to grow them at my home in Switzerland.

And finally, a funny picture. If you don't understand Chinese, the captions say (from left to right, up and down): before becoming a grad student; dreaming of life as a grad student; in grad school; looks like this everyday; supervisor comes to check; being asked of recent work progress; thinking back to bachelor graduation; imagining life after grad school.

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It's not that I see the life of PhD as something horrible. Although there is no doubt that every PhD student must have recognized themselves in these pictures at some point of their time.