Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

I know I haven’t done much of a job at updating lately, but it feels like life has been coming at me at such a rate that I can hardly think my thoughts, much less organize them into a coherent blog post.  But since it’s these periods that are often later the most enjoyable for me to reflect back on, I thought I would jot down a few notes.  Gonna do this stream of consciousness “My Summer Vacation” style, though.

  1. Career stuff is similar to dating in that sometimes it just all falls into place and you wonder why you were torturing yourself with all those other options.  I have been ruminating over where to move next for probably the last year, but suddenly it just clicked that, hey, actually I don’t want to leave.  It’s OK to just do what you want instead of what Everyone Says.
  2. Said realization makes me really, really happy.
  3. I still reserve the right to change my mind later.
  4. Sometimes I was really in doubt about this whole PhD process- it can be a giant exhausting morass when you’re wading through the middle of it, and certainly nothing like any of the linear schooling periods I have gone through before (I discovered this comic this week that I think is a great summary of what a PhD really means: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/).  But the postdoc interviewing process has made me realize that I am a totally different person than I was three years ago when I first started.  I’m comfortable taking leadership roles and offering my “expert” opinion and defending my analyses to statisticians.  This might not sound revolutionary, but suddenly the idea of leading my own research team with my own ideas feels not sooo far off, something I’ve always found tremendously exciting.
  5. Getting older coincides with knowing yourself better and recently I’ve found that it has been affecting a lot of my decision making (in a positive way, let’s hope).  For example, for probably the first two years I lived in Europe I travelled like a crazy person to any spot I was invited to.  Now I know better what I like and what just isn’t worth the hassle and the extra carbon footprint.
  6. In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that as far as I remember I have avoided any and all recreational flights for all of 2017- all of my holidays have either been via train or tacked onto a flight I would have had to take for work regardless.
  7. However, I can’t really can’t act like this was some selfless resolution.  I’ve really had to buckle down to finish this whole PhD thing and would have turned down a lot of trips regardless.  Looming deadlines have a funny way of curtailing holiday plans.
  8. I desperately want to take an extended period of time off after completing my PhD and before embarking on a new adventure, but it might be hard to finagle.  So I’m reminding myself that having a great job trumps exotic vacations any day 🙂
  9. I’m just a little bit scared of the new position.  I’m going to be learning a whole lot.

That’s it, a little sneak peek into my running brain as I’m taking a break from writing up my latest manuscript at 7pm on a Monday.  Wish me luck, there’s a whole lot to do in the next few months!

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

At home.

Zurich is really a beautiful city.  I feel like I don’t talk about that enough- traveling is fun and all, but inhabiting the place you actually live is also fun.  And I love the place I live, even if it’s a bit of a rarity that I’m actually there on a weekend.  It’s a quaint little city perched on the lakeside under the towering shadow of the Alps, filled with cobblestone streets and soaring church spires and ABSOLUTELY NO trash or homeless people.  I still don’t know how they manage this last, but it often leads to the sensation that I am living in a happy little bubble far distant from the problems of the world.  I don’t know if this is good or bad for the psyche.

It’s no great secret that I love the mountains, but there’s a quieter sort of beauty to the rolling countryside around Zurich that I also love.  There’s no end to walking or running or cycling paths, all marked out with the usual Swiss perfectionism.  There are over 65,000km of marked trails in the country, which is more than the distance around the world!  And it’s very diverse- my natural inclination is to make a beeline for the glacier strewn mountains farther south, but the local “mountain” Uetliberg” is wonderful for a midweek hard jog or walk upwards through the woods, a wonderful view over lake Zurich awaiting you.  And it seems no matter where you go, you run into local farmers selling their wares, often by the honor system where they list the prices and leave self-serve homemade cheese and jam out in a little hut next to a bucket where you can drop the cash.

Last weekend was a pretty typical weekend “at home” and I thought for once it might be fun to record what a normal weekend in my doctoral student life in Zurich is like.  At almost three years in, Zurich is truly home for me, and it is so nice to have made a little circle of friends and acquaintances to relax and enjoy the springtime weather with.  One of my favorite parts of living here in Zurich (NOT in Switzerland as a whole, this is definitely not true in the countryside) is how international working life here is.  In just this weekend my friends mentioned here were: German, Swiss, Italian, Australian, Mexican, French, and Spanish.  No Americans at all on this particular weekend, although usually there is a smattering of them.

The blow by blow:

Friday

A normal 9-5 working day, although when the weather is so nice it can get hard to stay alllll the way until 5pm.  Every week a rotating group of PhDs at my institute gathers at 5pm for after work beers, and today a group of 5 or 6 of us go down to the river and have panache (lemonade and beer mixed, also known as Radler in high German) at a little open air bar. My friend has brought her toddler along, so we spend a lot of time blowing bubbles and quacking at ducks in different languages (animal sounds in different languages is one of my favorite conversational topics).

Afterwards a couple of us eat burritos and then head to my friend Dayra’s birthday party.  She has rented out a whole bar in the Langstrasse district, a part of Zurich known for its hard partying and (ahem) ladies of the night.  She has provided open bar, bowls of gummy bears, unicorn balloons, and even a homemade tres leches cake- A+ birthday party.

Saturday

I have a mission today.  That mission includes reviving my bike.  See, I don’t cycle in the winter for various reasons that boil down to the fact that I’m a wimp.  One December day I biked to work and then decided it was just entirely too cold to bike back.  It’s been there ever since.  I haven’t really checked on it, but I suspected that 1) the tires would be flat or even possibly have holes in them, as I already had to patch one last fall, and 2) it is covered with dust from the construction site next door to my office.

It was also a beautiful spring day in the 70s, and I decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking a meandering jog to the office by way of a trail by my house down to the lake. This turns into more of an obstacle course once I reach the lake, as approximately 3/4s of the mobile population of Zurich has decided that this is the place to be and are walking around sunning their pale winter legs.  Nevertheless, I make it to the office, drag my bike to a nearby bike store, and purchase two inner tubes for my tires.  Then I stare at my bike for a while, a little bemused.  I am just not the Fixit Type. Luckily I have friends who are.  I call my friend Heidi and show up at her door, dusty bike in tow, still in my sweaty running outfit and no makeup.  We have an awesome relaxing afternoon on her rooftop with her, her boyfriend, and another friend Anne while we hose down my bike and repair the brakes/tires.  After a full day of relaxing in the sun, I pedal home for the first time in 2017, pondering how nice it is to have friends who accept emergency calls from sweaty runners who need bike first aid.

Sunday

This same friend Heidi has now organized a bike tour for five of us along the Sihl river into the countryside.  I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to kick off biking for the first time with a full day 70ish km hilly tour, especially as I was already a little sore just from 40 minutes of biking home the day before, but overdoing it seems to be a general theme in my life.  Let’s just say, sore bums are the worst.

At home.

earthquakes & uncertainty

Last night there was an earthquake in Switzerland!  Random, petite, and only the second one of my life.

Besides earthquakes, my thoughts have been swirling a bit lately around uncertainty and how we humans deal with it.  Uncertainty is particularly rife in academia, for better or worse my current endeavor.  You become incredibly specialized and invest years in your education, betting that 1) your area of science will continue to be funded, a gamble that depends on a whole host of factors ranging from the political and economic climate to media coverage, and 2) that there will magically be a senior position in a good university open when you finally finish all of that onerous training.  The path to professorship in my field looks something like bachelors>masters>PhD>postdoc>second postdoc>assistant professor>full professor(with tenure??).  Less than one half of 1% of those PhD students make it to the professor level, and even fewer of those lucky PhD students are women (another topic for another day).

An added complexity here is that normally there are only a handful of universities doing really top level research in your area of expertise, so you must be willing to move almost anywhere to nab that perfect professor job.  And even before that, geographical mobility is rewarded on the grant level (to get top level postdoc grants in Switzerland you MUST leave Switzerland).

That, of course, leaves me in my current position.  I’m finishing up my PhD this year, which is both exciting! and means I am right smack dab in the middle of all that uncertainty again.  My preferred method of coping is premature nostalgia.  I found myself sitting at my desk last week, messing around in R with some really cool geospatial analyses, and thinking I LOVE MY JOB HOW CAN I LEAVE. I love my job- I mess around dreaming up and answering cool scientific questions and then writing it up for publication.  When I get stuck I have no end of brilliant colleagues to bug for help, and they are always willing to help me because 1) they are incredibly intellectually curious, and 2) they are also my very good friends and friends help friends.  When I want a coffee break or am not feeling excited by my work there is always someone who wants to take a walk with me through the lovely streets of Zurich to grab a needed afternoon dose of chocolate, and I almost always have time for social life and sports.

Maybe I would also have this if I left research and became a consultant or worked for a pharma company, to be fair.  There’s no guarantee either way.  And if I did go that route, I would at least be able to choose my geographical location and in some ways my future much more securely (I’m pretty sure pharma will be around for a while).  But…when I talk to other researchers about our projects, that’s when my heart beats a little faster.

I think that ultimately this year of uncertainty will be much more fun than in the past- one perk of getting older is that both my confidence in my own abilities and those actual abilities are exponentially higher than say right after university.  But in some ways, I think my decision this year will be a big one: whether I want to keep choosing the path of adventure, or choose the “safer” route.

earthquakes & uncertainty

I can’t pronounce my street name and other reasons I desperately need pronunciation help.

Funny story time.

I guess first a little background.  German has some extra vowel and consonant sounds and let’s just say that I did not exactly take to them.  At first I couldn’t really even hear the difference between ö and ü and ä.  Turns out these are kind of key differences so I’ve put some effort into differentiating them and might even say that I have mastered ä and ü.  Ö is still a crapshoot.

In July I moved to a new apartment with a long street name containing (you guessed it) the dreaded ö.  Looking back, I probably should have considered this as an exclusionary factor.  What followed is a string of phone and in person conversations where I seemed incapable of making the person on the other end understand where I live.  It doesn’t help that it is just as unclear what letter I am pronouncing when I attempt to spell it.

I was eating burritos the other week with a few friends and decided to relate the latest tale of confusion, which involved me trying to open a reward account at my favorite mountain sports store, fielding strange looks from the sales clerk, and finally ended with me finally going around behind the counter and typing in my address myself.  A Swiss friend said, “well, tell me your street name and I’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong.”  Turns out I was (of course) mispronouncing the ö sound yet again, but in such a way that made my street sound like the part of a man’s anatomy that I would prefer not to be volunteering as my street name.  This guy was in tears, seriously.

Anyway, today I presented something in German and afterwards was pointed to this video which is a lifesaver for another of my old nemeses and agents of confusion, the “ch” noise.  Which as you will see below is actually about five different specific noises depending on the vowel before it, 500 exceptions, and the position of the moon.   They have so many good other videos for all my pronunciation needs!!  I would like to pass it along to anyone else attempting to climb the German tower:

 

I can’t pronounce my street name and other reasons I desperately need pronunciation help.

ye gods, september!

So when did this happen?  August has flown by like a lovely sunsoaked afternoon on my balcony.

In an effort to remember what on earth it is I have been doing for the past month, here is the August highlights reel, in no particular order.

  1. Changed my first bike flat tire!  I felt quite accomplished.  It happened while at a small lake with two very cycle happy friends, luckily, and they had the kit to patch ‘er up.  Did you know that there is an inner tube inside your tire?  And that you have to make it blow bubbles to figure out where the hole is? (or holes in my case)  And that every single person walking by will stop to put in their 2 cents about the most optimal repair methods and wax nostalgic about the flat tires of their youth?  Yeah.
  2. Am completely dunzo with the first paper on the study I was running the first 1.5 years of my PhD.  Whoop.  Approved the final proofs last week and am I happy to see that sucker out the door!
  3. Discovered the added adrenaline thrill of Via Ferrata.  Via Ferratas date back to the WWI era in the Dolomites between Italy and Austria, where they were used to help everyday soldiers scramble over passes that normally only expert climbers could scale.  The essence of them is that there are a bunch of steel pegs or ladders stuck in crucial places, along with a steel cable in segments that you can attach your climbing harness to to avoid plummeting to your death.  DO NOT fall though, this is not like normal climbing where you have a partner to catch you painlessly.  This is gonna be painful.  Obviously there’s a whole scale of difficulty here- I’m hoping to graduate to the tough stuff soon!

via-ferrata1-lafouche

4.  Relatedly, staged a return to indoor climbing and bouldering!  I finally found some new partners who are around my level, and am slowly building up my strength.  Nice to do something other than running.

5. Discovering my inner OCD…for better or for worse.  I’m loving having my own place, and as I’ve gotten settled over the past month have realized that I LOVE cleaning.  But only when I’m cleaning my own stuff.  I love coming home to a spotless apartment 🙂

I’m sure there’s more, but for now I am done with my workday and off to IKEA.  This is the last time.  I swear.

 

 

ye gods, september!

getting nerdy in the netherlands

Most days I really love my job, but this past week was a particular highlight.  It combined three of my most favorite things: traveling, smart people, and cool science.  Even the sad world news of late can’t kill my happy buzz completely.

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To back up a step: a few months ago I applied to be University of Zürich’s representative to the LERU Summer School in the Netherlands.  Basically, it’s a “league of 21 leading European research universities” that have met certain criteria, and they put on a different summer training at one of the member schools every summer.

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I was super interested because this year’s theme was Data Stewardship. I’ve been working with a really novel data source in my latest research, and am really increasingly working with “Big Data,” another buzz word that I won’t torture you by unpacking now.  But it suffices to say that I find myself working closely with specialists from all fields, from computer scientists to statisticians to ethicists to psychologists to other epidemiologists, and I am increasingly convinced that this type of interdisciplinary collaboration on data analyses is the future of science.  And I feel like I’m making a lot of stuff up as I go along, which I guess is the foundation of science anyway.  But it would be nice to at least have a conversation with a bunch of other scientists going through the same stuff with their data.

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The week totally blew away my expectations.  There were so many prestigious speakers, from an IBM scientist working on Watson to legal experts on licensing in Open Science in the EU.  And the editor of Nature Genetics (Nature is like the bible of scientists, for those who aren’t familiar) took the time to spend an ENTIRE week just hanging out with us and even coaching us along on a publication when one started to take shape by the end of the week, which totally blew my mind.  I somehow ended up taking the lead on said publication, and spent quite a chunk of today setting up an Open Science Framework open source project so we can all collaborate on said publication in the upcoming weeks.  Fingers crossed, it would be amazing have something concrete to show for our discussions, and I think it’s important to widen this discussion to all scientists.

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The best part, though, was meeting so many brilliant and passionate people from all over the world.  The organizer is so passionate about the topic that he rented a room in our hotel one night just so he could stay late and continue discussing the many issues that had come up that day in the hotel bar.  The other PhDs were smart, but also incredibly fun and outgoing.  I went running with a new Finnish friend.  There were many, many science talks over a good Belgian (or occasionally Dutch) beer.  One night we went from a canal boat ride to late night Happy Meals, and just couldn’t stop laughing.  Another night I stayed up till 4am talking about life, the universe, and everything with a new Dutch friend.  (On another note, this week did not feature much sleep, as seems to be my life these days).

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And that’s not even touching on all the cool things I learned about the Dutch.  I really love the country.  It’s on the short list of potential countries I would consider for my postdoc, so I came with a particularly critical eye.  I do think I would have some troubles adjusting to the chilly temps, but everything else I just LOVED, from the active culture to the water everywhere to the handsome men towering tall into the sky.  AHEM.

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I have a feeling this is not my last brush with the Netherlands.

 

 

getting nerdy in the netherlands

Prosecco, balconies, plants, and other favorite things

This has been a pretty good month in the history of me. To top off all the happenings from previous blog post, my first manuscript on my dissertation topic was accepted provisionally for publication on Friday.  Woohoo!  One step closer to adding more letters to the end of my name.

phd retreat walk

And man does it feels good to be back in Switzerland in the summertime, grilling on balconies and drinking prosecco and watching the daylight stretch out past 10pm. I had a tinge of melancholia after my return from the US- it’s just that there are a whole lot of lovely people there and I wish I could blink and transport them to a cozy flat nearby, but it’s hard to stay sad when Switzerland is so beautiful.

view from a jog during the phd retreat

Moving went really well! Hardly any stress at all this time compared with the traumatic suddenness of last year’s move, despite the fact that this year’s move was a much bigger one. Much of which can be attributed to my excellent moving buddy, Michel, who not only rented and drove a giant van to move all my stuff and his couch, but also wrote out a precise moving time schedule complete with deadlines that made me nostalgic for Switzerland while in the middle of laid back Cali.

midway through the chaos

Weird fact: driving in Mexico was great fun, while the idea of driving in Switzerland gives me heart palpitations.  I think it has something to do with the comparative flexibility of rules in the two places.

welcome to my new view!

The apartment solo life is going great.  After getting back from our PhD retreat in a small Swiss town and perhaps doing a bit too much partying at Züri Fäscht,* I started IKEA assembling and unboxing away.  But what I was REALLY looking forward to was starting my mini balcony seed garden, which for some reason has been a growing obsession of mine.  I planted some basil, mint, parsley, pepper, and thyme seeds in mini greenhouses.  We shall see how my newfound attempt at a green thumb progresses.  The only setback on moving in was the discovery that the previous owner had the strangest taste in toilet seats ever.  As in BARBED WIRE IN PLASTIC. Cue pronto return trip to IKEA.


In totally unlike me form, I’m attempting to get in some solid work this weekend as I’ve got a jam packed week ahead of me before heading out of town yet again.  At least I’ve got pistachios and my own sunny balcony to do it on.  So cheers to all the Sunday afternoon enjoyment out there!  Oh, and happy Fourth of July!

*a major festival in Zürich that happens only every three years that is on this weekend. Something like 2 million people descend on a city of 300,000. It’s sort of like a combination of fair and an outdoor nightclub with every type of music and ambience you can imagine.  Side note: riding fair rides after drinking does interesting things to one’s stomach.

not even gonna mention at what time this photo was taken
Prosecco, balconies, plants, and other favorite things