We're a little crazy, about science!

When you don’t want to say no

In undergrad I had a discussion with my advisor, or rather he was more of a mentor, he wasn’t technically an advisor. It went something like this, I don’t know what to do next because it all seems so interesting. He argued that it was a good problem to have and while I have generally narrowed down my focus (I am doing a PhD after all), I still have an issue with focusing my excitement. It’s like being at Disneyland and trying to force yourself to go on just a single ride your entire trip. I don’t wanna, I want all the knowledge!

If I had to sum up my PhD experience thus far in one word or less it would be, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” A little more seriously I would explain a PhD like this, you come in starting fresh and ask a question. Okay great, well technically your PhD should be about answering that question, simple right? No, because that question leads to five other questions, and those questions lead to even more questions. By the time you’re a few years into it you’re up to your eyeballs in questions, you’ve forgotten the original question all together, and your afraid to attempt to even start searching for answers.

Okay that last bit, that’s not true. We dive in head first and try anyway, a PhD isn’t about finding something new. It’s about asking a unique question, even if it turns out that the answer is no, not a real thing. I’ve seen it happen in and you still get your PhD because now we know something we didn’t before, even if it isn’t as exciting as finding something cool.

What does that have to do with the topic of the day? I would say everything. Here’s the short version. I asked a question, which meant I found myself needing to answer about 50 other questions before I could even think about tackling my initial question. What started off as a simple curiosity turned out to be a long complex journey. The problem is I still want to know the answer and so I’ve been hunting for the answers to all the other questions that came up along the way.

I’m constantly busy with stuff. If you’ve been around here for more than a single post you know that it always comes down to the wire. Deadlines are constantly coming up and work is always left to be done. It’s been hectic and somewhat painful. This term especially because of the amount of classwork we are given. So you would think I would say no to new things. It would after all be the prudent thing to do. I’m already swamped with stuff to do so why add more to the plate when I can’t clear a damn thing off of it?

The answer is because I’m an idiot. The story goes something like this among other things, I’ve been collecting data for other projects with my Co-PI. He’s very hands on, so we do the work together… mostly. It was a very interesting experiment and the answers could actually help me with one of my main questions I want answered. The problem with collecting data is the analysis part.

My Co-PI reached out to me earlier this week with a proposition, I had collected the data and I have the most experience in his lab. The data are complex and there are a lot of questions we could ask from this dataset and a whole lot of questions we could answer using it. It’s a big job and even though the data have been processed and is in a form ready for analysis he asked if I could spend 6-12 hours going over it and looking at it to see what I find. Yeah 6-12 hours… sure.

No, it would be a simple thing to say. He wouldn’t take offence and he’s already suggested that I had a lot going on so it wouldn’t hurt his feelings if I said no. I mean all I had to do was say no so I could focus on the other stuff I need to do. Easy, I can say no. So what did I say?

I said yes, because I’m an idiot.

I also said yes because this experiment was so cool and I put a lot of time and effort into collecting the data. I’m excited to be the first to see what we have. Like I said, there’s just so much I want to know and while this dataset is complex and could answer several questions, that’s just scratching the surface of what I’m interested in finding out. The spinal cord just had to be super complicated, so any one question will have a multitude of other questions that need answering along side it.

Frankly, it’s the same issue with the brain. Both the brain and the spinal cord are complex neural structures. If I had to pick (and I don’t want to!!!!!!!) I would say the brain is the more complex of the two, but both are extremely difficult to figure out and have their own questions and problems. In my opinion a more thorough understanding of the spinal cord and how it works will give us answers to questions about functions in the brain. The spinal cord and brain are both made up of the same stuff and really it’s convenient to think of them as separate entities, but I like to think of the spinal cord as the tail of the brain.

Once again I feel like I’m all over the place. Back to the point, I said yes because I was excited. It’s stuff like this that drew me to research to begin with and it’s what keeps me going. There are times where I want to give up, but then I remember that by poking around this dataset I’ll be the first to know something new that we’ve never known and there’s a magic there that just makes me happy. So I said yes, because I really didn’t want to say no.

And that’s the story of how I got even more work to do. That’s basically the story of getting your PhD in a nutshell.


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