Tus fuss (1)


The main actors.

My Tus paper in the news, those interested can start reading up. Again, more to follow


Supporting conversations

During a recent conversation with a technician, let’s call him ‘Cherry Maker’ (CM, not to be confused with cherry picker), I wanted to know what being support staff meant to him. “Assimilation.” he answered, and after seeing my puzzled face, he added: “It’s becoming what you always dreaded as a researcher.” “Well”, I said, “isn’t that a bit dramatic?” CM: “No! I find it quite funny. When I was a young grad student a long time ago, I found the sight of a technician going home at 5, irrespective of the status of the experiment, horrifying. Same when a technician’s interest in a paper did not go beyond his/her own contribution.”

The distorted views of academia. This image is really spot on (@biomatushik – http://sotak.info/sci.jpg)

“Now” he said with an ironic smile, “I can just feel those looks from grad students as soon as I leave for home at around 5! Look Bojk,” CM said in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, “you PhDs like to think it’s all about you and your research, but as a technician you have come to realize that hierarchy and continuity come first, then comes a whole lot of nothing and other stuff, and then come the PhDs…” Me: “So where’s the assimilation part in this and why is this funny?” CM: “Because I realize now that every researcher-turned-support unavoidably assimilates towards this other way of thinking, irrespective of the initial world view. It’s nurture pur sang!”

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Scientific lubricant

Remember me writing about how stressful life as a last-year grad student was? How many of us walk around sleep deprived, nervous and pale in the face? Forget about all that, life as a final year grad student rocks!

Climbing peaks in Aspen: single-molecule biophysicists in the Rockies. (Steve Block’s Single-Molecule Biophysics meeting, Aspen, CO)

Let me tell you why. For the better part of 3 years you have spent an innumerable amount of time trying to figure out why you are the right (wo)man for the job, messing up, experimenting with flexible working hours, procrastinating, doing useful and less useful experiments, isolating yourself from family/friends/daylight, feeling insecure about your future and ignoring important e-mails from department secretaries. You may even have contemplated quitting, or at least pondered what life would be like as a diving instructor, mountaineering guide or Buddhist monk. But now all of a sudden the mist that clouded you so hopelessly has cleared up as if being burnt away by the morning sun: now you have a story to tell. This means it’s conference time!

And some more in the Alps (Kavli institute Delft retreat, Courchevel, France). 

Those outside academia might now be wondering whether the clearing of the above-mentioned mist also took away my last bit of sanity, but those in science know better. For scientists may not earn six-figure salaries, they will not find themselves surrounded by groupies on a regular basis, and they may have to spend days on end measuring in a basement, but I have to say: they sure know how to treat themselves to a proper intellectual retreat.

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Back to reality

And yet another academic year kicks off again. What year is this? 2014, check. Which year did I start? 2011, check. Whoa! Wait a minute – three years have gone by?! How did that happen? Why didn’t anybody tell me?! So my last year has started?? Oh boy [picture me becoming pale in the face], in a year’s time I’m expected to have written a book, drawn some very profound and groundbreaking conclusions and am expected to head off to the next step in my career? Oh boy!

“Ah”, I hear post-docs thinking, “the final year grad student – been there, done that. Feel so sorry for those guys (NOT!)…” Well, I guess last-year grads are easy to recognize: walking hastily through the corridor, a bit pale faced, sleep deprived, maybe a nervous twitch or two. You’ve got it, that’s us. To be honest, I actually don’t feel all of this (yet), but the what’s next? question has definitely been popping up in my mind more often these days. Three years ago, doing a Ph.D. to me was a form of safe and comfortable intellectual escapism, curiosity-driven but also having that delightful feeling of being allowed to not think about what next? for the following three years. But here I am again: what’s next?

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Will work for food.

Like all nationalities, the Dutch have something with food. However, unlike quite a few other nationalities, for the Dutch ‘having something with food’ does not mean ‘having a sophisticated cuisine’. The Dutch approach to life – sober, functional, yet efficient – also holds for their eating habits. Though sliced bread is officially an American invention, the Dutch deserve a prize for so eagerly embracing this concept. Indeed, with their endless plain cheese or peanut butter sandwiches, the Dutch are often ridiculed as being prepared to eat anything. Having grown up in Belgium – the culinary buffer zone between France and The Netherlands – I definitely also sensed a gradient (a step function, actually) of culinary complexity when crossing the border.

From those new to The Netherlands, I have heard personal accounts of going through various stages of surprise, to astonishment, disbelief, disgust, rebellion, and finally to acceptance by sticking with home cooking. While home cooking might be a good alternative meaning for ‘going Dutch’, it is only then that people realize that the supermarkets do not offer what could be bought abroad.

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Leaving, on a jet plane

Imagine the following: You’re a Ph.D. candidate (Well, that shouldn’t be too hard for many of you…), the project you have spent the past 12 months working on seems to produce some interesting results. At a national conference they have recognized and acknowledged this by letting you give a presentation. Then you sign up for a large international conference, THE yearly conference of the field so to speak, and even there you are selected to give a talk. That’s great news! Right?

The group picture taken to celebrate the 10th anneversary of the Delft Kavli Institute, aren’t we the lively bunch?

But wait, you also have a sister. She is a professional snowboarder. She has spent the past 12 years training her (pardon my French) ass off and seems to be getting some interesting results. She’s the straight-A student of the national competition so to speak. And she shows this by winning the national championship in her discipline for 5 years in a row. Then she signs up for international competitions, and this seems to run pretty well. So well indeed that they have selected her… – okay, this is where all resemblances stop I am afraid – to head for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Now that is what I would call great news!

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Go, go, go!

The start of the new academic year always has something special to it. After the calm of summer, the air is suddenly filled with the buzz of new students on campus grounds. A fresh batch of slightly disoriented, ever younger-looking students once more roam the hallways of our Applied Physics building. The weather – after the short, reasonably-dry-and-not-too-cold period the Dutch call summer – characteristically turns sour as deluges become a daily recurring event (somehow always peaking when I am on my way to or from work, irrespective of the time-of-day). Then there is the yearly Kavli day; always a friendly reminder that we are all part of something bigger. The day that the exchange of awkward or wary glances between BN and QN grad students along the corridors actually becomes a careful exchange of words, or even experiences…

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Keep it fundamental

As a young kid I was a collector of almost anything one can think of. Natural objects such as rocks, (dried) plants, animal skeletons and insects had my particular interest. I spent hours looking at insect wings and drawing them as I saw them through the objective of my kiddy microscope. Or growing salt crystals with my home chemistry set. In hindsight it must be no wonder for my parents that I ended up doing a PhD in the natural sciences. Because at our Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, people are pursuing exactly what I was practicing for back in the days: purely curiosity-driven research: fundamental research, often without a direct apparent practical application. Take the viral polymerase molecular motors I’m observing through my microscope-for-grown-ups these days; in the far future this may lead to novel anti-viral vaccines, but as for now, all we really want to do is understand how nature works. People in the lab are not in it for the money, they are driven by curiosity.

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On peer pressure

As an editor of The Lancet once stated: “We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.” Though stated quite bluntly, those familiar with the process would quite likely tend to agree to some extent – or admit that though useful, peer review (PR) is a time-consuming and inefficient process, to say the least.

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Sweat Matters

Since my entire professional life is English spoken, my writing here could also somewhat reflect this fact. As a member of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience here in Delft, I took the opportunity to contribute to the quarterly newsletter with a piece of semi-colloquial writing of my choosing. The entire newsletter can be found here, my column starts here!

Sweat Matters

Success is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration – almost a Thomas Edison quote, were it not that this American Idol avant la lettre was referring to (his own) geniality rather than success. But it is success most of us are aiming for in science. And everyone – students to professors alike – has experienced first-hand that the better part of being successful is just plain hard work. So far nothing new.

Guess who is who? The distribution of researchers’ h-indices within the Kavli-institute.

But how to assess success? A recent report [1] shows the future is not that unpredictable after all. Using the h-index as a measure of success, a large database of predominantly neuroscientists and employing machine-learning techniques, the authors came up with an equation that predicts the future to a reasonable extent. The Hirsch or h-index is – as most readers of this purple periodical undoubtedly know – a scientist’s h number of papers with at least h citations each. As Hirsch reasoned in 2005, the main advantage over other single-number measures is that h combines both the productivity (# of papers) as well as the impact of this productivity (# of citations) into a single number. In 2007 this California-based-physicist-gone-sociologist empirically demonstrated the potential predictive power his index could have. The new-and-improved formula also takes into account other factors such as the total number of papers, the number of distinct journals, the number of active years in research and the number of publications in top-journals.

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