Friday, October 31, 2014

7 thoughts/reflections since I moved to Texas

In reflecting over my life in the year since I moved to hot arse Texas, I'm thankful for and appreciative of, the many ways I've grown as a person, Scientist, and future Scientist/Physician. Here's a list of the most notable of a list too deep to count:

1) I have a "backbone" made of PURE titanium, the strongest substance known to man, strength to weight ratio wise!!! ;)

2) I have "doubled down" on my research goals combining cancer health disparities and bioinformatics. And that's a good thing, because no one really seems to give a damn that the mortality rate from cancer for minorities is at epidemic levels.

3) #2 means that I may have to do my dissertation work at a federal agency. That's cool, because that's the environment I'm targeting for a long term career anyway, if I don't "locums" until retirement.

4) I will be leaving my current department at the end of the year and the reasons are in my past 3-4 posts. Turns out that a 4.0 in Bioinformatics looks fabulous to MANY other schools/departments.

5) With the idea that I may be further delaying my matriculation in med school, I'm still seriously starting a PhD program in Bioinformatics next Fall, where my dissertation AND med school goals will be supported. To hell with "picking one", if I were 20 years younger and any other race than Black, I seriously doubt I'd meet with such bull crap, academically unsubstantiated resistance.

6) Thanks in large part to age discrimination in the med school admissions process, DO programs are now front and center on my med school radar. My Paediatrician growing up was a DO and I've ALWAYS received MUCH premed love from DO schools. At almost 50, I'm tired of "paving roads with my a$$", I'm choosing to go down a path someone else's a$$ paved. Plus, I'm paving enough roads by being a Black woman in Bioinformatics/Computational Biology.

7) I realize more than EVER the importance of family, friends, and mentors having my back!

Lastly, doubt, discouragement, and negativity can have SEVERAL seats and STAND BACK!!!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dem dere's da' facts!!!

As I regularly contemplate where my academic and professional goals and dreams can be best supported, I'm reminded of a few of the facts from the image from this post. Most notably the fact that as a Black woman, I have a significantly better shot at achieving both my MD/PhD goals at an HBCU than ANYWHERE else. Hmmm.

One of my current mentors is a brilliant young Black woman with a PhD in Genetics whom I met a few years back while I was working for free at G'town (while waiting on funding "roll eyes"). She was a Howard University graduate and was in her last year of her first post doc (damn shame I gotta specify which Post Doc). She's also been helping me with my research proposals and when we spoke a few days ago, she suggested I at the very least consider applying to PhD programs at HBCUs as well. My first thought was of the encounter I had with a med school rep from an HBCU (which shall remain nameless, LOL) back in 1999 who suggested that at 35, I was too old to pursue med school and certainly too old for an MD/PhD program. So after that one disconcerting experience, I rather ignorantly wrote off HBCUs for my education......................until a few days ago when I talked to my mentor with the Howard PhD.

When I think about the few Black PhDs I know are still in academia, almost ALL of them are at HBCUs. Of course, there's the stigma that HBCUs can't pull RO1 type funding because the "quality research" just isn't there. Well, after having spent 30 years back and forth in academia at majority institutions, I can say that HBCUs have hardly cornered the market on BS in academia. My own experience with having my ideas shot down yet become someone else’s dissertation project, numerous project contributions that barely resulted in a mention in a paper instead of co authorship like the other folks in my group, not to mention the people too many to count that get their names on papers "just 'cause", I can say without equivocation that what's going on at non HBCU's ain't all that pretty either, hence the almost nonexistence of Black Americans on faculty at these schools.

I always say that if I had gone to an HBCU for undergrad I would very likely be a Physician/Scientist by now, but I hate to dwell on that idea too much because I think it's an affront to the many experiences God blessed me with that became my life's story. But the fact is that the stats on where Black folks get PhDs and MD's don't lie, so it's certainly something I need to seriously consider at this point in my life and career.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but useful information just the same!

                              *All I want to hear are pro MD/PhD convos!!

So I met with Dr. E yesterday, and a few key points came out of our meeting:

1) He thinks a PhD in Computer Science is the way I should go if I'm really serious about natural language processing a sub-field of clinical decision support/Health Informatics. Note to self, I ain't that damn interested!!!

2) I should "play to my strengths" in other words, develop a project using my extensive background in Cancer Biology and............... wait for it................Pathology.:)

3) Starting the PhD program officially isn't the best idea because I could get "stuck" there, meaning I may not get accepted MD/PhD and will have to finish the PhD or risk upsetting a whole lotta people.

4) When an PI hears "medical school" they're immediately turned off.

I'm gonna' be honest, if I "got stuck" in a PhD program more than 5 years after I started, I wouldn't just be upset, I'd be MAD AS HELL!!! And I've seen too many people to count, "get stuck" in a 7-10 year PhD program so I decided a LONG time ago that that just ain't gonna be me! EVER!!!! My other problem with the basic science PhD is that the job market SUCKS thanks to the large immigration of Scientists/Physicians from other countries. Add the numerous post docs basic science PhD's do, and I could see ending up a VERY bitter ol' PhD. More than that, my heart just ain't in the basic science PhD only otherwise, I would have finished one a LONG time ago. That said, I also realize that not having one is one reason I'm having a difficult time with the job market. The additional expectation I've observed that people with PhDs work for free initially (which foreign PhDs/MDs do too willingly for me) and now you have a recipe for a HUGE career regret IMHO. As for my med schools goals, I'm simply not going to lie about it to anyone, so if a PI can't "handle" knowing what my goals are and that it won't cost them squat other than their time, then that's clearly NOT the PI for me.

So where does that leave me now? I'm in the process of thinking through options including applying for NIH diversity grants which won't "bind me" to an investigator for more than 1 year at a time or to a PhD program, and will also allow me to continue to develop my bioinformatics skills. But I'm also now more than ever, considering leaving my current department due to the knowledge that according to Dr. E, it's becoming more computational (and indirectly more Asian), so I think finding long term support where I am now is going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. In my department, you're "golden" if you're either already a clinician (Doc, Nurse, ect) or a Computer Scientist, but a Scientist not so much. Of course, I've had doubts about staying where I am for months now which should have been a sign, especially given that that's what the MD/PhD program coordinator indirectly hinted at during our meeting months ago.

I think the bottom line for me is that I need to "get over" whatever it is keeping some place where I'm not supported ie put aside the fear of change, and haul a$$ to a place where I'm not only supported as a person, but I'm encouraged in my goals too!

Friday, October 24, 2014

If no one will give you an opportunity............................

..................create your own! For the past week I've been busting my butt trying to get fellowships and grant apps completed for the early November deadlines that I didn't find out about until last Wednesday. So while eating at a local med school and feeling more and more exasperated about my inability to find a research group, I saw a positing for fellowships in Translational Medicine so I called even though I'm not officially in a PhD program yet.

The woman I spoke with happens to do recruiting for one of the graduate programs at my school and she suggested I apply for a couple fellowships and grants that I had NO IDEA about before. So I got in touch with Dr. E and my "grandpa" advisor about my personal statement and research proposal. Now, I meet with Dr. E later today, but I met with my grandpa advisor on Tuesday and man, when I left his office, I felt like I had gained another anal orifice, ROTFL!!! He started with the "get your arse to med school ASAP" speech again and ended with why I haven't found a research gig yet. But there were NO tears after I left this meeting this time, just a titanium coated resilience to take his advice to heart and do what I KNOW I need to do.

Other things going on in my life is that in between reading a TON of papers and developing a research project, I've been trying to make progress in one of my Bioinformatics courses. And I'm stuck trying to use a software program (PLINK for Genome-wide Association Studies or GWAS) in an operating system (Ubuntu/Linux) not commonly used for GWAS. Put another way, there's not nearly as many troubleshooting tips on the net for Ubuntu as there are for Windows or Mac users. But before I toss my laptop out of the window, I'm learning to take a few deep breaths and say "woo-sah":

And it ain't hardly working, LOL!! But I'm doing my best to make it work because my blood pressure is starting to creep up every now and then on a regular basis. NO CAN DO!!!

At any rate, I continue to be in what I like to call a "caterpillar" season because I feel myself growing and changing in a LOT of great ways. I previously blogged about my concern about having to participate on a project that is someone else's passion, but not finding a suitable gig not only forced me to find another way to get my goals achieved (if they won't give you a gig, get your own damn funding for a gig) but also to conduct research that will benefit people who look like me, which doesn't happen nearly as much as it's needed! What this means for me personally is that my proposed project will encompass cancer health disparities and informatics, exactly as I originally hoped!!! :)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blowing the dust off my biological agents knowledge.......

So last Spring when I jokingly asked the ADA and HR reps  "Where's the Ebola" after they suggested I work in an containment suit instead of moving the venting chemical tank from the lab I used to work in, it never, EVER occurred to me that I was inadvertently making a prediction about what was to come.

As a former NIAID (National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases) Scientist and with formal training in Biological and Chemical Agents, there are many things I could say about the Ebola issue here in hot arse Texas. I had a thread on the oldpremeds website about it, expressing concerns about treating people infected with Ebola here in the US and it looks like my concerns are coming to fruition for ONE reason: People are sloppy with their infection control practices. Actually, people are often negligent since a huge dose of common sense and proper training could ameliorate many issues with containing a virus like Ebola. For example, watching a popular TV physician demonstrate taking off a containment suit was painful, as I observed him do it wrong on ALL fronts from the way I was trained. For example, I was trained to take off the first layer/contaminated gloves first, then remove other clothing/equipment with the second layer of gloves. Of course, if a country with the financial resources to research Ebola had given a damn about it while the disease was only spreading in some parts of Africa many years ago, this issues may not exist here today. I mean, did the US really think this wouldn't become a problem here one day?

Movin' on, I've got tons going on now in the middle of the semester and with MCAT prep too. I'm also still interviewing with PI s looking for that combo between career and financial support and I'm still finding it a difficult concept that my gender, race, AND my citizenship make me a "minority" in Bio and Translational Informatics. I'm also settling my mind on the fact that I've got some tough computer classes in my near future especially since I'll be taking them at one of the  highest ranked schools in the country. But hey, if you want the best training you have to be willing to take the opportunity to train among the best. Or so my MD/computer trained advisor keeps telling me. ;)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Making a way out of no way.

                                   Texas humidity = bad poofy hair days, LOL!!!

So last week I volunteered at an Informatics meeting and overall it was a great experience. The second day was a little rough because the team lead that day was a micromanager, but overall I had a pretty good time. And like I predicted in my last post, everyone from my last group over the summer was there and seemed surprised (as hell) to see me there, LOL!! Of course, it was nearly impossible not to see me since I worked the registration table and was the ONLY Black person at the entire meeting. And given the strong computer science nature of this sub field of informatics, I was not surprised to observe that the majority of the attendees were Asian. It is what it is.

The highlight of the meeting for me was meeting (urgh redundancy) someone from an East coast government employer that is not only considering me for a research fellowship with her agency (since I'm having such a difficult time finding one where I am now) but FAR more importantly, offering to be a mentor too. In fact, she was one of the first PhD students (and even fewer women) to complete a dissertation in what was then the emerging field of Translational Informatics, which is my intended area of focus. Honestly before I met this Scientist (an Asian woman), I had MANY days where I felt like I'd have a better chance of being hijacked by a blind terrorist with a peg leg than developing skills in translational informatics in a research setting. And as has been common among the many URM students/scientists I've known throughout my career, we are often relegated to projects which have very little substance (ie lead to publications) for reasons which can't be explained by qualifications, work ethic, and academic acumen alone. But you know, I don't have an ounce of time to focus on that bullshizzle anymore, I'll continue to do what I need to do until the goal is achieved, obstacles be damned!!!

Movin' on, my orientation to volunteer at the cancer hospital is delayed due to a scheduling error and I'm a little disappointed by that because I've got some "free time" I need to use ASAP. But it's only delayed by a few weeks, so it's cool.

I ended my VERY busy week visiting my friend who has been discharged to a rehab hospital learning to do basic things like swallow and walk again. And instead of focusing on the long road ahead for him mentally and physically, I'm choosing instead to focus on how this experience keeps me motivated to pursue my long term, MD/PhD goals.

Now I'm not one to celebrate the foul language contained in many rap/hip hop songs. But the the song featured on this post is my "ode" to any and all the "b*tches" things/people that would serve to keep me off track, discouraged, and feeling isolated. MOVE!!!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Still Standing!

So last week was a bit of a whirlwind as I was back and forth to the hospital checking in on my friend and his family, and also interviewing for research gigs too. My friend came out of his coma and is doing well despite some scary moments last week. He has little feeling on his right side, an outcome that may unfortunately be permanent. But we won't know for sure until he completes his stint at a local rehab facility, where he's being transferred to next week.

Gigwise things are okay and I honestly hesitate to say "great" (even though that's how I'm feeling) since I've been disappointed gigwise for a few months now. The PI I met with claimed to have 3 open slots and was only interviewing 4 people so I know that statistically speaking, my chances of landing one of those gigs is great. The issue is that there's 1 gig of the 3, I want FAR more than the others because I'd like to use most if not all of these hard earned skills in bioinformatics I've developed over the past few years. OTOH, whatever I don't get research wise with this next gig, I WILL get with my academic program, it just makes a LOT more sense when your research and coursework line up for LOTS of reasons. The other really great thing about this gig is that this area of cancer is seeing a resurgence in funding and I was told that there would be dissertation opportunities in the future because of that. Of course I heard this about dissertation opportunities before with my last gig over the summer, so I'm sure my readers will excuse me if I seem less than enthusiastic about what this PI has told me. I guess I just underestimated how challenging it would be to find a supportive group to join at one of the top academic centers in the US where opportunities are supposed to be plentiful.

Movin' on, my MCAT verbal review is going well and I'm obviously very happy about that. Between the MCAT tutoring I've done over the past 2 years and my own "attitude" adjustment about the exam, I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to taking in again in April.

I'm also scheduled to begin volunteer training at a local hospital in a few weeks and that's especially exciting! I'm just soooooo excited about this place in my life, I can hardly contain myself!

Lastly, I'll be out of town next week, volunteering at an Informatics focused meeting and that's just, WOW, the most exciting thing happening next week!!! As I understand it, my old group from the summer will be there and one of the PIs will be presenting. So I can't WAIT for them to seem ME again, LOL!!! The thought of that reminds me of some things my mentor said to me recently and I'll quote her email below:

"............Don't give up because of a few bad apples. There are some wonderful research groups out there..... Anyone in research has gone through the exact same thing. It happens time and time again........ You can't let that discourage you from achieving your dreams.........Chop it up to that and keep it moving!" 

No matter what field a person pursues for a career, you WILL need supportive and encouraging folks around you at ALL times, so do whatever you have to to create that "village" of folks around you.

Speaking of that, I had a rather odd conversation with my Mother yesterday after she viewed my linkedin profile (unbeknownst to me at the time). And if you've been reading my blog for a while you know my Mom is NOT supportive of the path I'm on and frequently says things to discourage go to nursing school. Anyhoo she sounded impressed with what she saw, saying things like I had no idea about what you've been doing for the last few years, and about how difficult what I do sounded to her. And I'm thinking (after I unstuck my eyes from the back of my head because I rolled them so hard, LOL) it would have been nice to have had some support for this, because being a Black woman in a filed dominated by foreign Asian men has REALLY been "something". I can't say that she's now supportive of what I'm ultimately trying to do, just that it doesn't matter to me one way or another. My "village" of support and encouragement is a tight as drum!!! :)