Friday, October 10, 2008

The joys, and despairs, of data

So, I started out this rotation in a situation fundamentally different from any other lab I have worked in -- whereas in the other labs I have gone through, I have been given a project in its infancy, with no data and (in most cases) not even a system set up, and have worked through the beginning parts of a project, months after months with no results, this time I was given a partial data set.

Of course, I can already think of a few more libraries that would be interesting to add to the data set, but as a start this is absolutely and fundamentally different -- for the past three weeks, I have had to analyze massive quantities of data, rather than starting a system with which I could collect data.

The remarkable thing is, at this point, I think said data will turn out to be actually interesting; I have reasons to believe that something very significant is happening over developmental time. The epigenetic markers that I am assessing correspond to transcriptional markers at slightly later time points. It's wonderful; I can show the cells reprogramming epigenetically as well as in gene-expression patterns. In many ways, a perfect study. I have more things I want to do with this data before I'm sure, but I have (I think good) reason to be very, very hopeful.

On the other hand, I don't feel like I'm doing any work. No matter how much time I program, crunch numbers, make charts and graphs that accurately display the data (a misleading graph made right off caused me and my PI to be even more hopeful than it turns out was prudent), I don't feel like I'm doing any work. In part because it's analysis, and I've always been in the mindset that work was getting data, and the analysis didn't take much time at all. That's not the paradigm in the lab (and in particular the project) I'm in: here, getting huge amounts of data is relatively easy, and figuring out what that data means is much harder. In another part is that there are very few clear stopping points, or perhaps too many clear stopping points. I end up spending far too much time (more time than I can perhaps afford) on my rotation project as opposed to my classwork. (At least no one really cares about grades anymore.) I program and crunch numbers until 7:00 and only then realize that perhaps I should leave lab.

I've signed up for activities to try to fix that. Starting next friday, I'm volunteering to teach science to small children. There are journal clubs as well, and a couple people who hang silks in the rock climbing room (also just hanging in the rock climbing room, or perhaps more accurately bouldering in the rock climbing room until I can find a partner). And I'm on the listhost for any swing dance events (although it didn't look like there was anything as regular as Java Jive in Chicago). So hopefully my days will fill up with events, so that I won't just hole myself up in lab crunching numbers -- since Mr. Pham mentioned it, I have been afraid of Ning's fate: a hermit, sitting in lab all day calculating constants.

The other thing that I seem to be tripping up in is how much independence I need, want, and should have. I'm used to research as an undergrad, with a post-doc mentor who, to put it kindly, was very mothering. She wanted to know every step, and she supervised many of them. Not only would this make absolutely no sense with regards to analysing this data set, but that is very much not what the post-doc I'm working with now is like. She is, it seems, barely older than I am; just out of her thesis work in, if not the same lab, then certainly Stanford. (On a side note, it seems like a ton of people do that here -- there are so many people starting postdocs in the lab in which they did their dissertations, so many very young post-docs. I'm used to an older group, for whatever reason.) She seems more like a friend than a mentor. Add to that the fact that she's been working on other things while the data analysis is all me, and I'm left very much on my own. Which is not a bad thing, especially since I think that this sort of data analysis is not as nicely adapted to supervision and mothering as day-to-day labwork. But I have been left feeling a little bit confused. Pleased, that I can set my own hours and figure it out on my own and as long as I get results to my own satisfaction, everyone else will be thrilled (at least so far), but a bit discomfited because I am used to a certain variety of connection and I am notably not getting it.

I think that it's entirely possible that over the course of the quarter I will grow to enjoy my newfound independence so much that moving to a lab where I once again have a mentor-babysitter the way I sometimes felt I had in the Singh Lab would be a grave disappointment. And it is certainly true that this novel experience will be good for me. After all, the two things (two of the things? the two primary things?) that I wanted to learn in Graduate School were 1) how to stand up and be independent (not reclusive, but independent) in lab and 2) how to finish a project.

Hopefully, this lesson in data analysis will help me along my way towards both goals.

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