Individual development plans

Every year we write Individual Development Plans in grad school. It’s part of being on NIH grants or something. Classified into career goals and specific goals and annual goals and all different categories.

The thing I need to work on the most is fear
the thing I WANT to work on the most is fear
I am afraid
like legitimately afraid of so so many things
walking and talking to myself to write down on a sticky note a question to ask
preparation still took me probably an hour for a 5 minute task

this is why i can’t use my time efficiently
and that will improve my career the most
by allowing me to communicate
network
reach out to other scientists
talk to my PI

(Of course I did not write that on my IDP. I wrote things about professional goals and improving my writing ability and my ability to communicate my research as well as my ability to develop a project and other such reasonable goals.)

I wrote this first part months ago when I was actually filling out my IDP but it never turned into a full post.

Because I can plan experiments decently well, over short and mid-term ranges of time. I had a thesis proposal relatively well thought out, if not written yet. I had preliminary data. I can edit my scientific writing into something which is very consistent with how an early graduate student should be writing (there’s struggles with transitions, which all my writing and presentations have, but enough copies and those can be added). The hard part–where you pick a project–was already painfully done over a horrible few weeks of crying long long long ago.

But now that my thesis project–or at least what was to be my thesis project–has been apparently already done–I have to restart.

Which also wasn’t planned
not part of my plan
But that’s science
And at least I found out now only a year into it instead of in two or three years when it’s published and I’m halfway through a thesis that’s already been done
but…
still…

Restart the awful awful part of finding and choosing a project from the infinite possibilities of things that can be done in zebrafish development. I’m still in the same lab, but I have to switch my focus to something almost completely new, so that not even my months of reading will be all that helpful in writing up my thesis proposal.

All new
completely new

and absolutely terrifying

try not to panic
or to spend all day writing scripts to talk to my PI so that by the time I get to one where I am able to ask for help, he isn’t in his office anymore

Literally
can’t
ask for help

because I don’t know how to ask for help

instead I spent all day trying to write a script down to ask for it and by the time it finished I missed him and writing the word panic down in different shapes (as you can see at the top of the page)

And my apartment has unopened envelopes piling by table and dishes piling on the stove and counter and my dog gets walks and that is about it in things get managed. My fridge has milk and cheese in it and that’s it.

This is a norman rockwell puzzle. It took our lab about 2 weeks of lunches to finish.There are small pieces everywhere of my life. They all turned into bits and pieces.

We’ve been doing puzzles in lab in the break room. Little pieces slightly different shades of blue to sort through and put back together. That’s the sort of thing I know how to do. That’s the sort of thing I know how to sort through and rearrange and fix. You have all the time you need to sort and organize the pieces by color and shape and slowly put them back.

But real life has time limits. And you can’t lie out all the pieces on the ground in order until they match up. The pieces of real life don’t sit and wait there until I can sort out where they go. The longer real-life pieces wait, the farther they fall out of place and the harder they are to put back together.

I know this is jumbled and messy and doesn’t really make sense. But lots of everything is messy and jumbled and doesn’t make sense and full of fluff and stuff and mess so that’s the state of being anyway.

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Shampoo Thief

Here follows an example of my problem solving abilities:

Freshman year of college, my mom and I flew out to my new school and supplied me with all the various things one needs when living in a dorm. I was all set-up and prepared with multiple toothbrushes in case I dropped one and soft blankets because those are the best and notebooks for everything and lots of snacks. However, at some point in the semester, I ran out of shampoo and conditioner, as someone with relatively long and thick hair tends to do on a somewhat frequent basis.

The previous way in my life that this issue was dealt with was going into my parents’ bathroom and getting a new bottle from under the sink. Of course, this was not an option 2,000 miles away. I knew that theoretically people got shampoo by going to the store (although I was not super clear on what type of store sold shampoo besides Costco). But it was a Midwest winter and I was from Southern California. Also, I didn’t know how to get there and the only transportation I would have had was my feet.

So, the only logical answer was to become a shampoo thief until Christmas break, when I could resupply myself with shampoo.

Luckily, in our dorm, people kept their shower things in shower caddies on shelves right outside the shower. I was not brazen enough to grab an entire shower caddy and take it in the shower with me. Someone may have noticed that if I accidentally grabbed theirs. Nothing was labelled (and I didn’t know most of the people on my floor anyway, because faces). I did not have a plan for being confronted with stealing someone’s shampoo or any idea of what would happen if someone (accurately) accused me of that, especially since they would most likely catch me when I was clothed in only a towel, as I usually was immediately prior to showering.

The plan I came up with was much more complicated. I would only shower in the dead of night, when most other people are asleep. Since I lived in a dorm with a lot of other college students who also stayed up late, the dead of night meant at least 3 am. Then, mid-shower, I would sneak out to the shower caddies and grab a handful of shampoo and then dart back into the shower. (Later, I would repeat with conditioner). I would spread out my borrowing, so I wasn’t stealing only one person’s shampoo. I wouldn’t take anything from an almost-empty bottle (or anything that looked overly expensive). Since there is a lot of options of shampoo in the floor of an all-girls dorm, I never really used more than one or two showers worth of shampoo from anyone in the whole semester.

This was not the most comfortable way to shower, running in and out in the cold, in the middle of the night, but it was the only solution I could come up with. It also had the result of making me feel incredibly guilty every time I showered. It also made me rather tired, from staying up late a few nights a week in order to wash my hair.

Asking someone for help or advice literally never occurred to me. I could have asked boyfriend or other friends or my RA, who probably could have also figured out a solution or told me that I could buy shampoo with fake money at the store on campus that was literally visible from my dorm-room window. My mom literally asked me if I was washing my hair every time she called me and who I always answered yes and told the most recent time I had washed my hair (hiding the guilt of my stolen shampoo). If I told her I was running low on shampoo or had run out, I would have gotten more somehow, or at least directions on how to solve the problem.

Instead, you got my deepest darkest secret of freshmen year (I was not full of deep, dark secrets yet at that time in my life): the months I was a thief every time I showered. (Also, now that I’ve actually thought about this story, I find it amusing although I’d likely be just as impractical today).

telling autistic

Some more choosing-a-lab/grad-school-struggles randomly and when that happens I am not very good at writing at paragraphs or capitalizing or even really going back and editing it but also because I am still sort of mush on this topic and ideas right now. So sorry about that because I know lack of capitalization and even also inconsistent capitalization and punctuation can be distressing to read to me at least so here’s a heads up that it is all sorta meltymushy.

one problem i’ve found that I have with autism
and why i don’t want to tell people
or can’t

because for the longest time i would read stories of kids with autism–because its almost always kids in the stories
and i thought it couldn’t be real
because they sounded just like me–a bit younger often, and with a tendency to be boys—and I was not a boy no way who knows what boys were up to or how I could related to them
so i thought most of it was a new made-up craze
that things were overconcerned and overpathologized when it was just people being people

of course
eventually i realized that actually in these stories these kids who couldn’t really have something Named, couldn’t really all be that different
because it was things I did
things my family did
things I didn’t think at all were unusual because they were woven into my everyday life

that these things were not actual Things That Everyone Does
but rather, unusually unique to me and occasionally family members
and this group of autistic

I would keep reading the stories before I realized
because I recognized something similar
but also reading them trying to figure out what exactly it was that made these kids different

sometimes jealous of the more-overtly-things that meant they didn’t have to talk to people
or somehow were allowed to do things in public I knew that were not allowed but they were ok for them
not knowing how amazingly lucky and accepting my life had been–which is probably one big WHY that no one noticed things about me

and now i’m struggling with some things in school
contemplating telling people to see if that would help
—by people i mean official school people—
(although i don’t know who i would tell since i am not even in a lab)
but I’m afraid they won’t believe me

because just like my family was slow to believe when i told (some of) them
because it was just things that everyone did
i live in a world of science and scientists
and a lot a lot a lot of the things I do are not all that uncommon–at least compared to the general population
there is at least one professor who I am almost positive (upwards of 90%) is autistic too
and there are others with hints
and so i feel like it would be less believed
because the straits stand out less–which is sometimes good
but makes asking for help harder

—well, that and the fact that I don’t have any actual official paperwork of any sort saying i was autistic. probably a flaw at that time that i should have predicted coming up in the future

maybe when i get in a lab officially
i will eventually tell that PI
and help figure out solutions

In general, i’m not very good at telling people
i’ve told one person who asked directly
i have told 2 close friends
i told boyfriend

i wish people would ask directly
that is why i didn’t even tell the therapist/pysch person
because it didn’t come up in any of the questions she asked me

but i think it is very rare that people will do that
it has only happened once

so i probably shouldn’t hope for that

hows and whys

I have to choose a lab and that is no fun because they don’t really tell
you the hows or the whats or the whys and whenever I go to try and talk to
people, they just ask be questions. When what I am asking for isn’t the
questions but the process. What is the process for choosing a rotation. For
choosing a lab to work in. I would like a protocol. I would like some
directions other than “find a lab”. How do we find one? Once we have
identified one that we think we would like to join, how do we go about it.

They say go and talk to the faculty, but they don’t say what to talk about.
So I go in and talk and end up just as confused at the end with no specific
progress.

When I ask how to choose a lab, how to join a lab, they do not tell me.
They ask me questions that lead down a different path. I want to know how
to contact people. I want to know the how about it.

Even if I get the strength and spend days and days making the words and
walking around outside the building to prep before going in with explictly
said words “I would like to join your lab” it does not work. It doesn’t
come out… the words don’t want to listen at all. So I just sort of go
there and nod and murmur along and agree to all the things and say
everything is doing great and run quickly quickly quickly through the
little bit of the script I can still remember. And we end up more confused.
Both of us.

Once I tried to write it down on a post-it note I brought in.

Sometimes they ask me questions I haven’t prepared for and I have no answer
for and I scramble for them in bits and pieces and try to make words out of
things that aren’t words.

I know it is because there are multiple of us trying for the same lab and
there is so much that depends on it on funding and who to choose and what
to do but I do not know how to do it. I do not know the how.

And I’m terrified I’m too slow. I sort of already had one person tell me no
because I didn’t express interest and I don’t know how to show I can
express interest in a clear and obvious way. I know how to do it in the
ways my interest and happiness works. Although the lab I want to join was
the first, when I was less skilled at digging into the problems and hiding
in the data and building a home out of it. I’m afraid the other person or
people trying for this lab will win. Because they know the words and the
procedures and don’t seem to have to prep with words on a post-it note or
walk around and lie down in the grass afterwards to process and figure out.
And they know the words and the ways of people and all I have is the
long-ago memories of the brownies and blondies and other treats I brought
into lab in October November December.

Processing is not my strong point.
People is not my strong point.
Choosing is not my strong point.
Fighting is not my strong point.

Processing processing processing.

Why do I want to join your lab?

I know in the patterns. I know from the part of my brain that doesn’t think
in words. With the following of patterns. Where all the things come from
patterns. I can tell somehow. I know I was happy. I know I liked the work.
I don’t know the how the why the reasons, at least not in words. The part
of me that knows things like this doesn’t know in words, not always, and
there aren’t words or translations leftover.

But that’s not an adequate answer. That’s not a coherent explanation.
That’s not a convincing reason to choose me over someone else. If I can’t
articulate *why* I know, just that I know, it isn’t particularly helpful.

The hows and the whys and the words and the work and the reasons.

Some Easter Solutions

So for Thanksgiving, I went to Thanksgiving-holiday-celebrations with boyfriend’s family. And while it was fun, it was also overwhelming and completely drained and melted me down for much much longer than it should have been.

But, like I said before, boyfriend is important to me and his family is important to me. And they are physically close which is convenient for holidays (especially ones like Easter where I have to work the next day now that I am not at a Catholic school for the first time in my life). And I like them.

So I was glad when I was invited to Easter. And I was going to be prepared. I would handle the sound and take breaks and manage my overload-meltdown-awareness and everything would work out. And guess what? It actually did! There were mistakes and wrong turns and noises and surprises and I survived and enjoyed it.

Preperation

I was going to bring some sort of dessert, because I like baking and I was thoroughly trained to bring something whenever you visit. After musing over ideas for a while, I decided on carrot cake. But carrot cake was a no-go, when discussed with boyfriend. Apparently a large portion of his family is opposed to it. After some more thought, I remembered this beautiful Christmas dessert I made.

this is a plate of cream puffs covered in chocolate arranged in a tower on a wooden tableIt was not very difficult to make and very impressive looking. And also I really like cream puffs and chocolate and pastry cream, so it seemed like an all around good idea.  Of course, I had forgotten the fact that the old oven in my apartment is not nearly as reliable as the oven at my parents house. Even with the hanging thermometer I put inside so that I can roughly tell when things are finished preheating.

So I ended up with some very burnt cream puffs, from the first batch. (Like extremely burnt. Like they looked like charcoal briquettes. And sort of tasted like them, when I tried one in the vague hope that they had merely decided to darken without altering the flavor, or at least not in a way strong enough that I couldn’t hide it with chocolate. Alas, it was not to be.) And the second batch, which I took out in time, were not very puffy. So I didn’t bother making the cream, because it was only going to be for a few cream puffs, and that would be no good at all. Not enough dessert. Also, these cream puff adventures set the fire alarm off, and the windows in my apartment are very difficult to open (my roommate and I have to open them at the same time, because they either are very difficult to open or we are both very weak. It is probably a combination of both.)

So I went to my room and panicked a bit and was sad for a while. Then I got back to talking to some people (sadly not boyfriend, who was at Easter Vigil) and eventually one of my best friends, who is a baking machine (who makes all these wonderful delicious crazy dessert combinations that make me want to move to Colorado and be her general taste-tester) was kind enough to go through some basic easy things that I know how to make. So I settled on blondies, which are quick and delicious and reliable. 
One problem solved by asking for help.

The actual Easter dinner/family part

There were food and people. The same relatives I had met before/ enjoyed the company of. I actually preferred most of the food to Thanksgiving food. THERE WERE TWO TYPES OF MEAT! Also, boyfriend told me after Thanksgiving that I don’t have to eat everything and if I don’t like something it is ok not to finish it, so I didn’t have to spend any time trying to force myself to eat things that I strongly dislike AKA green beans while forcing my face to be a polite face (I’ve always assumed that I am able to decently maintain one, anyway.)
There were times where the conversations before lunch/dinner got too heated for me. There was an especially passionate discussion about college football players unionizing. I took breaks during those. I would go upstairs from the basement or out into the backyard. I spent a lot of time over this Easter sitting in the backyard or walking in circle around the house barefoot in the lawn. Spinning and flapping my arms. Watching the birds or the neighbor’s cat. It helped that it was deliciously warm outside and empty.
After a while, I would go back in (or I was called in when it was time to eat). I had milk with my dinner instead of wine like the adults, because I would much rather have milk. There were fun conversations with people I know well. After dinner we played board games. I really enjoy board games because they are a structured activity where you can still go outside them for conversations if you want, but they give you a structured starting point.
At several points, though, I was getting tired. Mostly of sitting in folding chairs. We spent a long time sitting around a table in chairs. After the meal, my family usually spreads out fairly quickly across the couches and the floors. I wanted to lie down or sit on the floor and that wasn’t happening. Other than that, things went well. I was tired, but mostly eaten-large-delicious-meal-tired not social-hangover-tired.
Problem solved by sensory and social breaks.

The drive home

So, I had already arranged to have boyfriend pick me up and drive me, even though it is a little out of his way, compared to him just going with his parents. I had reasoned that there was no way I would have been able to drive home safely after Thanksgiving. And certainly not with my roommate also there in the car. And boyfriend had offered to drive, so that was what we did.
Of course, there happened to be traffic. And boyfriend gets stressed by traffic (at least, I think he does). And so then I will pick up on it, or at least the Something Is Wrong part, and then be negatively affected. Especially after a long day, that can sometimes be enough to trigger meltdown. But I had managed myself well during the day, so I was able to deal with it. But then the road that we were going to take when we got off the highway was closed down by the police (because of a shooting). So we had to navigate a new way home. Luckily boyfriend has a smartphone, so we did have renaviagateable directions, but the part we had to navigate through was the not-safe part of the city between where I live and the highway. So it was a bit stressful. 
At the best of times, I am not good at giving directions. I get right and left mixed up a lot. Under pressure it gets much worse. And this wasn’t a particularly safe neighborhood (especially late at night), so we did want to minimize our wrong turns and circling-the-block-to-go-the-other-way type of navigation my family usually employs (which is assisted by our lack of navigational technology, admittedly). So that was a disaster.
BUT EVEN WITH ALL THAT, I WAS OK.
I was upset when we got out of the car, sure. And boyfriend walked me up to my apartment with my alcoholic root beer he bought me earlier in the week and we found a new way for him to get home (and researched why the police had blocked off that area, which was not reassuring at all) since the normal way he gets home was off-limits. But I calmed down enough for him to feel ok leaving, and then after half an hour of messing around on various electronic devices, I had pretty much calmed down completely. 
Problem solved by managing my resources during the rest of the day so I had enough left to deal with some unexpected problems.

The take-home message

I’m excited, guys! I used coping mechanisms today. And they worked so well. They made things so much more incredibly navigate-able and survivable. This is why it helps to know I am autistic. To know I need sensory breaks AND THAT THEY ARE OK. Because it lets me manage things I enjoy doing but that can be difficult.
Easter turned out so much better than Thanksgiving. 
Coping mechanisms can work!

Clingy

I like things to stay the same.

I like when people stay the same.
I want to be a clingy clingy girlfriend, but I can’t even really do that because he isn’t physically here, and it is hard to be clingy when you don’t see people in person. Because I want to just curl up in a ball all day and have boyfriend hug me forever, but I can’t because he isn’t here. That’s a once-a-week-thing, if schedules coincide and work out well.

I want someone to direct my life again. It was so nice when I was home and I did not have to decide the structure of my life. When food was just automatically produced at the times to eat. Time to sleep and time to wake up was generally predicted. Activities were planned.

I want to cling to things that are the same.
I don’t want to be a new real adult person.

I don’t want things to change.
I’ve been watching Arthur because it reminds me of things staying the same.
Always the same intro. 
Always the same people.
Always the same age.
It’s comforting.
But that’s not real life.

I have no idea how I am going to get through the self-structured-self-ordered grad school life for the next undetermined-amount-of-time-that-is-probably-between-five-and-seven-years.

I want structure.
I want order.

I want someone to tell me what to do.
I try googling for answers. But google doesn’t answer “what should I do with my life” or “what should I eat for dinner” or “what is wrong with me” or “please help me” or “what should I do now” or “I am lonely” or “why is boyfriend still at work” or so many other things. 
Google is not at adequate support network.
And the worst part, is I know that I have one. But I don’t utilize it. I know I can call my parents and talk. They have told me that several times. But Sundays are the day I call my parents. That is the day that I call them. And I don’t—can’t—tell people about this blah-ness, this I’m-not-sure-what’s-wrong-but-I’m-lost, the something is wrong.
I can’t ask for help when I don’t even know what is wrong or what I need help with.
Clingy clingy clingy clingy clingy clingy clingy. I just want things to be right and not wrong, so when I find moments that are more right, I want to grab them and not let go.

Stories and science

When asked what she wanted do with her life, my cousin said she wanted to help people tell her stories. She loves stories. She wants a job where she can help more stories get out into the world. She’s thinking of maybe trying to get in job in publishing or some sort of media. 

My world is made of stories. Stories that piece together things from before I have memories and from before I was around to make memories. Stories of my family, of my parents, of my grandparents. Stories from distant lands and stories from nearby.

I consumed them wholeheartedly, indiscriminately. All types of stories were open to me. Space travel and magic and dragons. Talking animals and every day people just living their life. Articles in the newspaper, National Geographic, the Economist, Time. Before school every day in middle school, I read the newspaper cover to cover.

Any world, any stories, I would read.

Then I got to high school, and something happened to the stories. It wasn’t enough anymore to know the stories. To learn and to love and look at the details. To play with the beautiful words. To go explore new worlds and new people. They had to be analyzed.

And while analysis can fully and properly improve the stories, it can be a killer of stories. Analysis can tie things together and can reveal the strings. It can reveal hidden patterns. It can clarify. But mostly it destroyed the stories.

It had to be written, and the way it had to be written was so that you presented options as facts. And that was misleading and incorrect. And lies. And I was not prepared to write lies.

And the way I saw stories, the way the colors and the feelings and thought and ideas and the way the stories all played out in my mind, the logical connections which could not be explained in words, but just were, the same way that the sky is blue (and how most people know this, but they also can’t explain it), the way the stories all connected, were wrong. If they couldn’t be stated as fact in words in double-spaced Times New Roman size 12 font in essay with 1 inch margins, they were wrong. If I couldn’t state ideas as fact, opinions as fact, undoing the years we spent learning the differences, the ideas of logical discourse, then it was wrong.

The first paper I wrote about how mockingbirds kill other birds children failed because the facts were deemed wrong. It didn’t matter that I’d seen it happen, that it was something I’ve known all my life, that I was probably the only person in that classroom who could could pick out a mockingbird, who knew where they nested. The idea that something I had known all my life was not common knowledge failed me. I cried the whole class I got that paper back, quietly at my desk, unwillingly because I was in public and this was not supposed to happen.

And so I began to push back from the stories. I had learned, and this lesson was reminded with every tear-filled night of screaming that I wouldn’t write lies every time a paper was due, with my mother trying to explain that it wasn’t lies. But I knew the difference. I would not state opinion as fact. There is a difference and I would respect it.

English class, which was full of stories, stories that I adored, which made my life worthwhile, began to be my least favorite, my most disliked. Because it was illogical, and I was expected to know this illogical approach, and accept it and learn it. Stories were no longer safe. The girl who still read at least a book everyday no longer looked forward to a class dedicated to stories.

And so I began to specialize.

And there were science classes. Real honest science classes. And they were precise. It never asked you to lie. You suggested things and supported hypotheses. Data indicated that something happened. Nothing could be proved. It was exact and honest.

I was finally in a math class where I learned something new. It still moved rather slowly, with lots of reviewing, but there were proofs and beautiful fun patterns and numbers. And the beauty of math was that it could be proved. It could fit perfectly in the boxes. Everything was clearly stated and it was honest.

And so I pulled away from the lies that were expected of me in English, but never from the stories.  would still read and reread complete books daily. The stories were honest, the analysis was not.

Science gave me a new family of stories to study. It gave me a process for finding stories about the universe. Those strange, beautiful, unimagineable stories of how we were formed and how we work. The world is built on stories. I always knew the world was built on stories.

The stories in books are still there. I still consume them lovingly and copiously, and now that I have left all formal education that requires me to analyze literature, they are free. They are beautiful. But the world also has stories, beautiful strange amazing stories. Connecting and ideas.  They let you see the strings and the connections. But the stories in people are hidden, and people are often not amenable to processes designed to reveal them. There is a secret code, a way to analyze there, written in a way I do not understand.

Science tells us so many amazing stories.

There is a sea anemone that lives upside down in the bottom of ice sheets. The genetic code is so incredibly conserved and you can swap genes between species and they are still functional. We know how many cells C. elegans has (959), and the lineage of each cell. Planarians can pretty much regenerate from anything. There’s that new paper floating around which I haven’t had time to look at in detail that claims you can create stem cells by bathing cells in acid. In the first twentyfour hours, a zebrafish goes from a single cell to a mini-fishy. Watch it. It’s incredible.

And there are so many more amazing stories out there.

And science comes with a process for uncovering more.

And that is why I am a scientist.