This is who you're reading about

My photo
Wilkommen to my blog - my name is Karin Purshouse, and I'm a doctor in the UK. If you're looking for ramblings on life as a junior doctor, my attempts to dual-moonlight as a scientist and balancing all that madness with a life, you've come to the right place. I'm currently a doctor/research trainee in oncology after spending a year doing research in the USA. All original content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving baking...
I'll keep this short and sweet, but much like my Christmas lovin' last year, I like to take the opportunity of these significant holidays to say a little woop woop for all the good things going on in hopes that you will do the same.  Especially having just celebrated this, my first thanksgiving!  Of all the American things I have experienced so far, this may be my favourite.  I was welcomed first into the home of a friend in New Haven, and then later in the day New York to have Thanksgiving dinner with a lovely couple who had invited me along with a few other international students.  And today I put the world to rights with various Fulbright folks who continue to add shine and sparkle to my life with their refreshing and new outlook on things I normally only get to discuss with other medics and scientists.  I refer you to Hello Science, Meet Art to why that matters, to me at least.  Perhaps I will come out of this year the well-rounded young lady I claimed/hoped/strove to be when I started medical school?
Thanksgiving food...

Life mantra?
So I am thankful for the old friends I have, and their messages, Skype calls (often at hideous times [for them] of night with the time difference back in the UK), Whatsapps and emails.  I am equally thankful for all these new friends that have entered my world, both by welcoming me into their community or by letting me share this awesome emigration adventure with them.

They are also incredibly polite about the fact that I seem to be making it something of a ritual that I explain my research to each and every one of them on the back of a napkin.  Perhaps I should be testing at the end of the year...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Concepts of Open-ness - OpenCon 2014

I left my scarf in the cafeteria at the US Senate on Capitol Hill.

Well, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say. 

It was not the only surprising and overwhelming thing that happened at OpenCon2014, an open access conference for early career types like me. 

Appreciating that readers of my blog are a mixed audience (seriously, message me, because I would love to know who you are!), open access is all about making research openly available.  It is the strangest thing that research which is publicly funded is then submitted to a journal, whereupon it is peer reviewed for free by fellow scientists (for no reward, professional or otherwise), and somehow it gets spat out the other end with a price tag.  And a hefty one at that.  Of course there are some editing costs.  But when even Harvard University is struggling to pay for the rising cost of journal subscription, it’s a clue that something is wrong. You can read about Open Access on some of my other blog posts. 

Co-founder of PLoS, Patrick Brown
OpenCon2014 was an international meeting of 175 students and early career researchers from over 40 countries in Washington DC.  Over the weekend we heard some of the most compelling and diverse arguments in favour of Open Access, Open Data and Open Education from equally compelling and diverse speakers.  Highlights for me were Patrick Brown, Co-founder of PLoS (Public Library of Science, now probably the biggest completely open access journal) describing how he set up PLoS despite having no experience of publishing. Peter Murray-Rust described the potential of text and content-mining to actually maximize the potential of existing research.  And finally, one of the most affecting talks for me personally was by Erin McKiernan talking about what we can do as early career researchers (she is herself one).  We spent Monday on Capitol Hill meeting relevant political figures in the Senate. Wow. Directly lobbying HELP committee members. Awesome.  In the afternoon a group of us went to the National Institutes of Health (NIH – who fund most publicly-funded American research) to discuss ‘openness’.

I could go on about how amazing this weekend has been, how inspired I feel, how excited I am about the projects and plans we have for the coming year.

But I am also scared. For one thing, I realised the extent to which I know nothing about data management and access.  Yes, I am part of the ‘digital, internet generation’, and have no computer phobias.  But that does not mean I’m an expert.  My experience of software is pretty much limited to Word, Excel, Powerpoint and PDFs.  I have never worked on ‘code’.  Managing data is something I find incredibly challenging.  Organising my data so someone else can use it later on – well, where does one start?
In addition, I am not so much an early career researcher as an embryonic one.  I can still count the number of publications I have on my hands. And most of the time I am the middle-ish author.  How does one leverage preference over an open access journal when often these decisions are made when I’ve already moved on geographically, and when I’m authorship small-fry?  And when any publication at all is a requirement on a job application?
These are not meant to be excuses, and I have considered how I’m going to tackle all of these (a MOOC on data management, contacting my librarian at Yale and asking for help from OpenCon peeps re the former, and initiating early conversations and just being bold on the email front re the latter), but it just reflects some of the challenges facing baby researchers like me.  And if we’re the keen ones, for whom Open Access is a clear ‘Yes’, then I can understand how it seems too great a mountain to climb for less interested peers. 

I guess the key is to keep the fear in check and just power on with the support of my fellow open accessers, and continue to spread the word.  I really believe that open access and open data is the only way forward, and not only that, it’s better than the current status quo.   I want my research to be useful to anyone who wants to read and use it, and not just those who can afford to do so. 

But despite any fa├žade or game face, I am somewhat daunted.  So if anyone wants to help me on the journey, I’d be glad for the company.

(Also if anyone finds my scarf, it’s actually the only one I brought to the USA from home and it was one of my favourites.  My neck is henceforth very cold.  It is forest green with burnt orange flowers bought originally in Dublin.  If found, message me.  Kind regards, KRP.)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hello Science, meet Art.

There's a certain image that is conjured in one's mind when one thinks of a scientist, and perhaps a doctor.  When I was a child, if you'd told me I'd end up doing what I do now, I'd have laughed.  Psh. Sounds boring.

It's not, of course.  It completely rocks (except when your gel doesn't transfer to your membrane because you thought the bottle said 'methanol' when it actually said 'transfer buffer'.  Doh.).

However, I like to think of myself as a bit of a chameleon, not least because my own family is a bit of a pick-n-mix of skills and activities, and therefore the notion of just being interested in your own field is a little alien to me.  But how well do science and art really mix?  They are different worlds.  The first inhabited by bespectacled nerds, often in white coats with beige outfits underneath, hermitting away with a pencil tucked behind their ear, muttering mysteriously and scribbling away in what might as well be Klingon.  The second, perhaps also bespectacled but undoubtedly more trendy specimens, not an inch of beige in sight, pondering life and the meaning of it all.

(Those were stereotypes I just described there, by the way, in case you missed that.  I'm not trying to suggest these are accurate or fair.)

I'd like to think I inhabit the former whilst having all limbs healthily outstretched to the latter.  I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York this weekend and embraced the opportunity to stretch my thoughts to, well, MY thoughts.  The feelings evoked by paintings I've only ever seen on my computer screen, as well as those I've never seen before.  I went to listen to the poet laureate, Charles Wright, who gave a reading at Yale.  Sadly I suspect copyright laws prevent reproductions here, but having reread some of his work at home I was struck for the second time (the first obviously being when I heard it in the flesh) how some of his words resonated with me.  And yesterday I went to hear a piano recital by Boris Berman, master of all things Prokofiev.

Even Rabbie Burns (Scottish poet) features in NYC!
Interestingly, I think the main value to me of keeping my head in the artistic world is that it keeps me human.  When I'm being a doctor, it gives me a way to explain or explore my feelings and emotions.  When I'm being a scientist, I think it reminds me that really science is art, shrouded in formulae, chemicals and protocols.  I don't think either of these should be underestimated.  As a doctor, I am so often required to have emotions and feelings on an 'as required' basis, as if feelings were controlled by a tap, and sometimes that's really hard.  There are patients whose final hours I remember so vividly that I still see them now; the look on a patient's face when they know their hour is here.  There's something reassuring about listening to a piece of music or seeing a painting that evokes those feelings again, but in a safer environment.  Perhaps the composer or artist had a similar experience?  It is almost a relief that someone has managed to convert that emotion into another art form, and you can find a way to deal with it.  Equally as a scientist, it is so easy to get bogged down in this, that or the other assay, and forget that it is flipping amazing what you are doing.  That sort of helps when your experiment doesn't work for the twentieth time.  Because when it works the twenty-first time, it's beautiful.

So I'm quite content to be a bunch of contradictions; I think without it, science or medicine would have no meaning or joy to me.  It does mean you'll have to tolerate my hippy music if you're working near me in the lab.  Soz.