Sugar Daddy: Looking both ways

[Editor’s note: another guest blogger has joined our team…]

Posted on behalf of Sugar Daddy:

I guess Sugar Daddy is a somewhat ironic nickname, as I am a graduate student, and my friends make anywhere from 2- to 5-fold more money than I do in the so-called “real world,” which I hope (for their sake) is nothing like the MTV reality TV show of the same name. But I do work with carbohydrates, so maybe we should just roll with it.

Anyway, I am in my fourth year of a PhD program working in a chemical biology lab. My research involves the proverbial “little bit of synthesis, little bit of biology,” and things have been going well. I guess you could say I’m living the chemical biology dream: synthesize a molecule, show that it has biological activity in cells, and then take it all the way to a living organism.

This week, I’ve been simultaneously thinking about the past and the future. It is recruiting season in our department, and therefore many wide-eyed first-year students are showing up asking to be told about the research projects in my lab. As I describe my work, which I can more or less do on autopilot, I start to reminisce about what it was like to be a first-year student – how random all the decisions I made then seem in hindsight. Did I choose my school because I “had a better gut feeling” about it? No, I tell myself, it was because I liked the students and professors I had met, and of course the research interested me the most as compared to other schools. And why did I pick this lab? Did I pick my project or was I gently nudged toward it? No complaints, but how much did I really know about what I was getting myself into at any stage of the game? Was I delusional, thinking that I had complete control over my scientific destiny, at least on the five-year timescale? As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

And speaking of “as sayings go,” the whole autopilot experience (of describing my project without really having to think too hard about what to say) reminds me of a moment in high school (where we really were naïve, that’s for sure), and specifically in English class. My teacher had us read “Politics and the English Language,” a 1946 essay by George Orwell about how the English language had deteriorated to the point that people merely strung together short familiar fragments rather than construct novel phrases and ideas. I think this essay should be required reading for every scientist, or at least those that will ever have to write a paper, book, or grant proposal. Okay, for the next first-year that shows up, I’m going to describe my project in a completely novel, illuminating way. Ugh, that certainly feels like it’ll be an endothermic process.

So, that was the thinking about the past. How about the future? A post-doc is on the horizon. (There, by the way, is Orwell’s thesis in action.) More on that next time. With all this thought about the past and the future, I suppose that doesn’t leave much time for the present. Guess I’ll wait until tomorrow to HPLC that compound…