An Ig Nobel before a Nobel.

"The Stinker" - The Official Mascot of the Ig Noble prizes (Courtesy of the Ig Noble Prize website)

Being a scientist is tough. There’s no two ways about it. It has huge rewards, but also involves a lot of dedication, hard work and Lady Luck. Late-night endeavours are frequent and don’t always lead to results. The system is slow, and publications don’t come easily. As graduate students, we are constantly under stress and, sometimes, we forget the bigger picture. If you want to keep your sanity, not being attached to the outcome of an experiment is a necessary quality in research. All the more reason not to take yourself too seriously. That is also why it is important to celebrate science and see the humour in it all.

Luckily, I am not the first person to think this way. Satire has been around for a long time to ease our displeasures with the world. Cue the Ig Nobel Prizes. This is not a typo, but rather a sort of parody of the Nobel Prizes. These awards are handed out every year for research considered improbable by the scientific humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). Yes, such a magazine does exist.

The Ig Nobel Prizes have actually been around for over 20 years, and recognize genuine achievements. In 2012, one of the awards was given to a paper published in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results (again, this is not a typo), for which a researcher (Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara) used fMRi to examine the brain of a dead salmon as it was being shown pictures of humans to see whether it could detect emotions.

The whole salmon-in-an-MRI-scanner started as a joke. Before scanning a person, the equipment is checked and the background level is accounted for by using a phantom object as a control. Because any object can be used for this purpose, Bennett and colleagues, for the fun of it, decided to use random objects, which is how they ended up with a dead salmon in the MRI machine. The Ig Nobel Prizes’ motto is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Funny as the subject matter may be, the paper’s authors argue that fMRI science can be prone to false signals and that scientists should use rigorous statistical corrections to interpret the data. If fMRI data is not carefully interpreted, brain researchers can potentially find brain activity anywhere, even in a dead fish.

One of our own McGill professors, Peter Brass, also won an Ig Nobel Prize in the past, for his work titled : injuries due to falling coconuts. Although it sounds like a laughing matter, such injuries are quite real in places like Papua New Guinea, where Prof. Brass was stationed as an MD and where people nap under palm trees. When asked about receiving an Ig Nobel Prize, he said: “Life is hard. It’s good to have a laugh now and then.”

Another award winner is probably also laughing now. Andre Geim from the University of Nijmegen became the first person to win both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel Prize. Incidentally, the Ig Nobel came first, in 2000, for research on frog levitation using electromagnetism. Then, in 2010, he shared the Nobel prize in physics for his work on graphene. 

Perhaps we all need to risk a little ignobility in order to become noble. Work hard, be dedicated, but remember to take yourself lightly.For those who are interested, the next Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is scheduled for September 12, 2013. 

What’s in a name?

When this year’s bloggers were announced on the Grad Life website, my name was listed as VasNath Ramamurthy, as opposed to VasAnth Ramamurthy.  A minor typo that I actually didn’t even notice until a friend pointed it out to me three months later. So, what’s in name? Vasnath or Vasanth, does it really matter?

When I moved here from India almost 10 years ago, I had my first encounter with this whole concept of a name. As is typical of any foreigner, I had an accent, which I realized very quickly during frosh week. When meeting lots of people at once, the last thing you want is to have to keep repeating your name. I would say “Vasanth,” and people answered “Va-what?”

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Friendly support or expert advice?

My mother always says that if you have a problem, you should voice your opinion and let yourself be heard, because you are rarely the only one facing that situation. However, I have found this to be a little tricky in grad school.

Your peers are usually your best support group, and this couldn’t be truer than in grad school. Everyone works late hours, goes through frustrating periods, has career crises. They can all relate to what you’re going through, because they’re living it themselves, so you can instantly connect with them.

I recently hit that point in my project where I’m not really sure which direction to move forward in. I have tried lots of different angles that haven’t really panned out. A PhD, by definition, is a novel piece of work, which means you are often the expert you seek to find. No one else can necessarily answer your questions. No shortcuts exist. It’s a process of trial and error, which can sometimes be frustrating and lonely, even though you are not alone. Talking to peers and friends inevitably gets you some of the same suggestions – have you tried A, how about B. Of late, after having tried all options, the answers have become “oh well, that’s too bad,” “good luck,” or “you’ll figure it out.” That’s the kind of stuff my mom and dad tell me. It’s more encouragement than sound advice.

So what do you do when your friends’ and family’s advice seems fruitless?
Back in December 2010, I hit a similar rough patch and decided to head to a conference. I was so frustrated, and I figured that if I went to a conference and bounced ideas off people, it would get me somewhere. My supervisor didn’t think it was a good idea, but he didn’t stop me from going. I decided to pay for it out of my own pocket. It wasn’t far (Philadelphia), and since I knew people who were going, I could crash on their hotel room floor.

Disaster ensued. Well, not quite, but it was definitely overwhelming. I went to ASCB, which is one of the largest conferences in my field. Five days, with over 1,000 posters a day. I met lots of people, but not necessarily the experts I was hoping to find. I came back knowing that I’m not alone and that many others are in the same boat, but without any concrete new experiments to try. My supervisor, politely, didn’t say I told you so, and actually did pay for my registration fees when he found out I had gone to the conference on my vacation.

So this time, being faced with a similar situation, I decided to attend a much smaller conference. My supervisor was on board and even registered to come as well. Two days, 36 posters, and basically every expert in my field. With everyone I met, I could skip the introduction and background, and dive directly into the nitty-gritty details, which made for excellent exchanges and feedback.

I have now returned, feeling rejuvenated and with concrete theories to test out and new experiments to try. They may not work, but at least I know I’ll be testing the right theories. I learned that it’s good to discuss your problems, but it’s even better when you do it with the right people.

Signal to Noise ratio

Four months ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a grad life blogger at McGill University.
First week. I was ecstatic. I was telling everyone I knew, “I am a blogger now”. Turns out I actually have to post something before I can claim that title.
Second week. I complained that everything I wanted to write about – the beautiful fall weather, great things to do in Montreal, etc – had already been covered by the awesome crew at grad life blog.
Third week. I wrote, erased, re-wrote, wrote some more, deleted, claimed I had writer’s block and basically got nowhere. I guess it’s practice for my thesis writing.
End of the month, and what do I have in front of me? I finally decided on a great title for my post – signal to noise ratio. Now what?

There you have it – procrastination.
The act of putting things off for so long, you have no other choice than to blog about it. In all honesty, I have beenv busy. Some new developments in my research project have moved it to the fast lane and I’ve been spending lots of late nights in the lab, but one post could easily have been done. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve also been going through some sort of a PhD existential crisis, if you will.

I had been thinking about what to write for my first blog post for quite some time, and then, it came to me. Unless you have been living under a rock or writing your thesis, you are aware Steve Jobs passed away recently. My supervisor threw this quote up on the fridge in his honour. And right then, everything that had been brewing became quite clear.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Now, I am not an Apple fanboy, but I thought the quote was very eloquent. It reminded me of a concept known as signal to noise ratio. It is an engineering/science term that applies to how much of what you observe is noise (background) and how much is what you’re actually interested in observing (signal). I feel it’s a concept that applies to anything in life, but, as I roll into my sixth year of a PhD, it could not be truer. The end is near, and yet not here.

I am a dreamer. I always have been and always will be. Every day I have a new idea, a new travel plan, a new revelation. I tried to remember the reasons why I decided to start grad school, and I think one of them is that research lets you dream up new possibilities all the time. Research in general is a foray into the unknown. When you take on a research project, you have no idea where it is headed and this allows you to dream up innumerable
possibilities. That, of course, is the easy part. The other, more frustrating part is slowly dissecting away your theories until you find the right one.

No matter what you’re doing in life, particularly things requiring a significant time commitment, you will always have to deal with negativity within yourself and around you. So in this case, signal would be focusing on wrapping up this PhD, but there is so much noise around that it’s easy to get distracted. Noise is that nagging question of what’s
next. Noise is: why is it taking me so long to graduate. Noise is: did I pick the right project. Noise is: getting easily annoyed when someone asks why you aren’t done yet. So much noise.

I realize that, more than anyone else, the pressure comes from within. I have a good project, although it has been very challenging. I work in a great environment, surrounded by supportive people, and have an understanding supervisor. So why all this noise? Sometimes I wonder. When I started my PhD, I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I had tried my hand at research while I was in school and loved it. So I said to myself, why not give it a shot. At the beginning of grad school, my project looked promising and I had all these indications that I was at least decent at it. Awards, scholarships, positive comments at committee meeting. But after a while, all that dies down and what remains is your publishing record, which is meant to speak for itself. And I haven’t published yet. I am close, yet not there.

Since I started drafting this post, months ago, I realized the worst thing I can do is over-think it. As a friend pointed out, a PhD is a process. Everyone who does it understands that you’re not working towards milestone or a big payout. You have to think of it in terms of a process, not as a means to an end. A PhD does not have a defined set of rules like school does, and the process is unique to every individual. You can’t compare yourself to others.

How am I going to tackle this problem? I’m going to do what I learned from my father. Put my head down, my blinders on, and keep on trucking. Soon enough, hopefully, I’ll have arrived to my destination.

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