Beating my first PhD weeks

To clear out something unusual first: till last year, I had never in my life been interested in obtaining a PhD. Do you remember how Harry Potter was fighting against some dark creatures that feed with human happiness? That is how I saw all the scientists – as the dementors, creatures that drain every good feeling long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless. My pharmacy studies didn’t really make a lot of difference as all the “evil” professors, paid by Lord Voldemort of course,  (now holding some of them in my highest regard) could not be, by any means of imagination, turned into humans. Honestly, I had never really tried to see them differently, so I failed by default here.

I hadn’t changed this viewpoint till I moved to Copenhagen for my masters course and met some wonderfully kind, genuine, passionate and soulful (and fully embodied as humans, if you must know) scientists there. Fair enough.

When my supervisor, still in Copenhagen, suggested me to think about embarking on a PhD later in life, I was in awe. I was in awe of him – that he could suggested something remotely similar as graduate school for me. For an ordinary person like me! Not Einsten-smart, not always relaying just on some logical assumptions (intuition sometimes rocks) nor having the proper language to communicate fluently and just for the sake of the fourth argument, I have a really loud laugh! I know there’s no reasonable connection between doing a PhD and having a loud laugh,  but still – I felt I was too ordinary for something so extraordinary as PhD is.

A few years later and here I am, being all smarty pants about the graduate school. To be fair, graduate school is a kindergarten of scientists. Only this time I need to learn how to think, read, write, interact with others “again” and, while doing so, trying hard not to sound as a google translate. 

To give myself a bit of comfort inside of this wondrous discomfort kingdom, I wrote down some hacks to get though the first weeks and which you might find useful as well:

  • find a coffee mug with a silly picture on it as it will, sometimes, prove to be more helpful and motivating than the caffeine intake
  • do the paperwork and fill all the important forms, including the contact information who will pick you up when you pass out in the lab
  • have a fully access to the UNI so you can fully work during the weekends. What?! Did you think that the cell babies can grow healthy without mommy feeding them regularly?
  • befriend with (almighty!) secretary who can sometimes prove to be more powerful than your supervisor
  • download the papers to read and check the relevant papers or phd thesises they cite,  and start thinking about your literature review, so you would know where your research fits
  • we are all social animals who sometimes crave to go out of the lab, so join in a sport, drama or simply beer o’clock club, whatever might help you to maintain your sanity and happiness


Language As a Tool of Science

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,” it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll


Personally, I do not like science fiction. But my inquiring mind does love science and its infinite fictions. One of these fictions is certainly my once-in-a-lifetime experience how is to be Alice in Wonderland. Do you remember a part when Alice went down to a rabbit hole and saw the door to a whole brave new world?  My inner nerd screams now “That is me! I am Alice, guys!”  And fully-embodied-Alice within me has figured out that a key for opening that door is communication.

This same key allows me to communicate science in a way that is not only appealing but also faithful to the lay audience.  Science Communication allows me to put down all the jargon barriers between scientists and non-scientists, making science more accessible, more “sexy”. Surely, Alice was well equipped with some great curiosity genes as well as passion for her discoveries which have helped her find the Almighty Hole.

However, there is one major difference between me and Lady Alice. Apart from the obvious – youth, her mother tongue is English and mine is not. Yet, I strongly believe that natives and non-natives have an equal chance to become successful science communicators in all aspects of communications and that this liberal mindset should be further encouraged. It is a common fact that English is nowadays one of those languages which one has got to know as it has claimed much of science and scholarly fields and understanding a scientist as a communicator, writer or a journalist depends essentially on language. Without the invaluable assets of scientific, as well as non-scientific language that gives sense to its logical activity, the scientific endeavour would not progress for long.

While Alice started pushing her scientific borders to unknown, there is also an insatiable appetite for knowledge today with people as enthusiastic about science as Alice has ever been. Surely, this places great responsibility on the shoulders of science communicators to get the message, and the science, right.  While scientific English is a number of things, it is non-scientific language that gives prominence to subjective expression and the (mis)conception of “PR” label in Science can erodes its integrity. That is why this same label is alleged with a lack of respect and a fear among all kinds of scientists. I have decided that I do not want to participate in encouraging this fright. In fact, I would like to openly oppose it.

My science-without-borders philosophy gained deeper root though my experiences abroad. It was at that time when I realized the crucial importance to be trained not just in research methodologies and analytical skills, but also in communication of scientific concepts to a layperson audience.  For doing that, we, non-natives need to blend into a bilingual mode and blur the linguistic boundaries that encompass us and use time as a cohesive device for effective science transmission. That, indeed, requires deliberate practice and careful attention to language. It surely takes time to strike a right balance of explaining technical concepts without using too much jargon. And it surely takes time to start understanding people who are limited in their scientific knowledge and venture out from our hidden little hole into the great wilderness of language.

You can call it whatever you want but internationalism is, in fact, quite similar to scientific research itself. You have to re-search, discover, learn how to think independently and responsibly and be taught many lessons in between. One of this life-lesson comes with appreciating the people and the world around you. Thus, struggling to learn another linguistic virtues, either scientific or non-scientific ones, adapting to a different culture with a different set of rules and learning the difference  between fiction and reality  – these are the lessons that stay with you, that shape your science, that change your communication.

Autoclaves LIKE IT HOT!

It’s not like there’s a whole aura of mystery around the whole art of “autoclave sterilization” as physical laws explaining it are quite ancient, relying on some simple “Napoleon Tricolori Tortellini Pasta”, based on the recipe that the old champ, known as Napoleon, might as well be enjoying  it.

Have you ever cooked your pasta in one of those old-fashioned pressure cookers? Well, in lab we have some giant pressure cookers for some extreme ways of cooking and we call them “Autoclaves”. But instead of cooking our lab pasta, we use them for killing off all kinds of horrible bugs that would otherwise survive a simple detergent washing.


Why would killing off bugs do us any good?

Be glad be very glad that our human eyes aren’t as powerful as electronic microscopes. If they were, you would see life around you crawling with all sorts of germs and world would seem as nasty as it is. And because we, lab mummies & daddies, wouldn’t like to hurt our little baby cells with any kind of bacterial contamination, we use Autoclave! Its power of stem can efficiently help our cell kiddos to stay healthy and happy as there is nothing more lab-satisfying when you peak down the microscope and see some cells smiling back! 🙂

How does this giant machine actually work?

You can easily imagine this autoclave machines as an over-sized ovens with lids that seal tightly and when you fill them with water (which works as a petrol for these guys) , they produce lots of high-pressure steam that “cooks” everything that’s inside.  This pressure actually allows water to boil at a temperature higher than its normal boiling point (121 degrees C) and while the germs refuse the philosophy of Marilyn Monroe’s movie “Some Like It Hot”, the heat simply allows the efficient penetration into the bacterial embodied wall and kills them off.

So, can bacteria just die out of heat?

Well, oversimplifying might kill us as well here. What actually happens is that this high pressure and temperature initiate the coagulation of protoplasm (“embodied wall”) so bacterial die and, of course, cease to reproduce.

You can think like that: autoclaving is killing every possible germ out there and the process is called “sterilization”. We use term SAL (Sterility Assurance Level) which describes the number of microbes that were destroyed by the sterilization process. Autoclave does truly a great job out there as it allows a possibility of 1 survival rate out of 1.000.000 microorganisms. Which basically means that the survival is closed to zero! So sterilization is here an affordable solution to keeping stray bacteria population under control.

Why does autoclave have cylindrical chamber and not squared ones, as oven does?

This is because cylinders are better to withstand extreme pressures than boxes in oven, whose edges become points of weakness that can break. The high-pressure in the autoclave makes them self-sealing, though for safety reasons – to ensure that the steam pressure cannot build up to a dangerous level.

Still yearning to dig deeper?

So, you get some water into autoclave and let the high-pressure to boil the water and do its job. Which is true, but only half true. The water will actually boil when H20 molecules will have enough energy to break free and escape from the liquid to form water vapour (stem) above it.

So, our water molecules had have they first breakthrough! Then they figured out how they can evacuate the dance floor while going wild on the music of Nelly “Getting Hot in Here”. They decide to take down their clothes and the hotter they are, the more energetic they become and the more easily they can escape.

But there is this HUGE and bigger-than-life security guy, known as Pressure. The higher (and more muscular) the pressure of the air above the water, the harder it is for our water dancers to break free.  But Autoclave Pressure Guys are built just anatomically correct so their strength and power allow our energetic dancers to form stem but not going extensively wild out there.
If you are one of the wild, passionate, creative and energetic molecules as well, you’ll get the picture of “how to surrender to masculine energy” here.

Ever tried to boil something at the top of the highest mountain in Norway?

I did. And it was disgusting. But the principle is quite similar to the one that I’ve described above.  While being at the high altitudes, the water boils at a lower temperature here. That’s because air pressure falls the higher up you go. For example, at the top of Norwegian-highest-mountain, the water boils at roughly 80 degrees which made my mountain-top tea tastes disgusting. Why? Because my water was boiling at too low temperature and even though it’s boiling, the water was too cold to “cook” my tea properly.

So, letting the high pressure to keep our water molecule just in the right vapor shape, might help autoclave to be one of the leading gentlemen who can reach for their full anti-bacterial potential and shielding our brave new world against harmful intruders.

Hello world!

The sole intention of this blog is to write about how my life evolves throughout my Doctoral Training study. So, hop in and come along for a drive through my

Grad School: A Tough Love

journey. I’ll embark on some existential Grad questions as:

  • Why starting a Doctoral Training in the first place?
  • Why befriend with the All-Mighty Secretary can be more than beneficial?
  • Starting a literature review: a blessing or a curse?
  • How to stay in the Happy PhD Zone?
  • Organize or Perish?
  • How to get through the “Valley Of PhD Shit” existential crisis?
  • How learning the importance of failure can help you boost your motivation?

as well as on my research topic about mysterious pharmacological waves behind G-protein Coupled Receptor (GPCR) and how all the others little molecular chipmunks actors are  contributing to its dimerization.

I will try my best to engage you while putting some of my science perks into the bare essentials and figuring out why some of leading dimerization gentlemen still keep much more surprises for us all.