We're a little crazy, about science!

Planning my dissertation

The word of the day is apocalypse, since that’s pretty much what I feel like is happening lately.

It will still be awhile before I can graduate. I’ve got roughly two years left (more if I’m unlucky, so definitely more) before I’m done and today I’ll be meeting with my school PI, previously my main-PI, but now that I’m working for my Co-PI I need to come up with new titles, to discuss my life’s work. Or at least my PhD life’s work, since this is a conversation overdue, but now needs to happen because of some good news we recently got.

Quick intro for those who are new. I’m a now fourth year PhD candidate (yay!) in neuroengineering. My BS and MS are in mechanical engineering and the transition was very painful so I guess it makes sense that I’m somewhat behind schedule (maybe). I’m studying spinal cord injury and how it affects communication with the brain in the hopes that the information will help guide treatments. Funding has been a constant issue for me and finding funding for something incredibly experimental, like what I’m proposing, hasn’t been easy. It’s a high risk, high reward type project, but not a lot of people want to commit the kind of funds needed to a project quite this… high risk. Let’s just say I’ve had several people (including my hospital-PI, that still feels weird I’ll need a better designation for everyone) tell me that it won’t work or can’t be done, but my thing has been, and continues to be that no one has tried, so you can’t say for certain.

Anyway the short version is that funding has been a pain to get and until recently it was non-existent. However, I was excited to announce a little bit ago that, even though the official announcement hasn’t been made, the proposal I wrote was excepted (here)! So, as if by magic, I now do not have to worry about funding my project for the next two years, which is how long I plan to be in the program so I will now have funding to the end of my degree. Boom!

Of course, with great funding comes great responsibility. Yes, I’ve made that joke before, no I don’t care, quit yelling at me.

I was asked today to meet with my school-PI (there has to be better names for this…) to go over the plan. As anyone who’s followed me for any amount of time knows, I really enjoy making plans, or at the very least I find it calming. The funding we got isn’t a ton of money, “just” $150,000 for two years (I think…) which sounds like a lot, but the university takes 20% outright and then there’s the salary for the PI that needs to come out of that, funding for collaborating PI’s (depending on the level of effort), funding for students (or in this case me, but that may not apply anymore), and then equipment. Basically not a lot of money, but enough that I should be okay with a modest amount of new equipment and careful spending.

Since the money is given up front we need to budget it for the next two years, which isn’t easy. I can barely budget for a month, much less two years. Luckily that’s where my school-PI comes in, since he has experience doing stuff like that. The more important timeline isn’t the budget timeline, it’s the work timeline. We need to coordinate when things will start, when they will get done, basically establish the milestones I need to hit if I want to graduate on time.

I already have a timeline in my head for how I want to go about doing the project, but it’s incredibly ambitious and it stresses me out a bit. We want 10 neurologically intact participants and 15 people with spinal cord injury. As with the money, twenty five people over two years sounds like a small number, but that’s about 2x more people than I was expecting. Ideally I would’ve worked with ten to twelve people total and that would’ve been a huge effort. Each experiment will take 4-6 hours each (or more) and even if I could work for 9 hours a day and had everyone ready to go right away it would still be ~9 days of non-stop effort.

Unfortunately there’s also setup and teardown that takes a significant amount of time. There’s reserving the space, coordinating with the people coming for the experiments, accommodating people with different levels of spinal cord injury, and getting that’s just data collection. Basically it’s a lot, it will take a significant amount of time to accomplish and this is maybe a full years worth of work just out of the gate. Trust me on this, I’ve learned it the hard way over the years, experiments take far more time than you expect.

Then I have to think about how long it will take to process the data. This is novel data we will be collecting, so I will have to be very thorough about how I deal with it. EEG equipment is extremely sensitive to artifacts, so movement will create an artifact, eye blinks, EMG, electrical noise from the powerlines in the walls even shows up in the recordings. So I suspect I will need extra time with the dataset to try to process everything in different ways, go back do it all again, then keep doing that until I get something worth using. This assumes I will even get something worth using, there’s always a possibility that I get absolutely nothing and the conclusion would be oops, the equipment really won’t let me do this cool thing I really want to do. Not ideal, but at least it will keep someone in the future from making the same mistake since success or failure, I will still get my PhD from the work.

So not only is there a high probability of failure, there’s also a high probability that I won’t be able to get everything done we want to accomplish, at least not in the timeframe we’re hoping to work in. I suspect the meeting will help clarify how we will try to tackle all of this since we should be getting funding as of this next school term. We’ll also need to discuss where the funding that was going to support me will go. My clinical-PI (nope, still don’t like the title, need a better one) is already requesting that some of the money goes to his lab to “purchase” my time since technically I’m a full-time employee.

All this to say, that today will be an interesting day and I hope that I will have some good news coming out of the meeting. My two PI’s are still not getting along all that well, so I’m hoping that this new influx of funding won’t cause any issues. I just need two more years and I’m done (I keep telling myself as if I really believed it), so it may be in their best interests to work together and help me graduate as quickly as possible.

What an exhausting six or so weeks it’s been. I don’t know how much more of this I can take, but damn it if I’m not going to push on to make it work… somehow.


3 responses

  1. Congratulations and good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    October 15, 2021 at 2:28 pm

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