Whose lab are you in?

Toad shouting

I have been asked this question many times this year: by a first-year graduate student, but various postdocs, by nearly everyone at a conference I recently attended.  Each time I felt somewhat abashed, and answered in a small but optimistic voice “my own!”

Sometimes it feels complementary.  Like being carded after I’ve spent the day chasing my kids around.  Sometimes it feels insulting.  No, I am not a graduate student.  Yes, I did this work myself.

It’s a good question though.  Maybe I kept getting asked because I don’t know what sort of leader I want to be.

When I started the lab, I had the idea in my head that I would just keep being a postdoc in my own lab.  I think it is fair to say this was not a success.  I was successful as a postdoc because I could ignore everything else and focus exclusively on my project.  As the head of a lab it was impossible to do this— like trying to focus on a painting while my children are vying for attention.  I would forget to set things up and lose track of what I was doing.  I threw away the flies I’d spent a month making in a frenzy of trying to keep things organized.

Once people arrived in the lab I started to see my job as a kind of a scout.  My job was to run ahead of the group— intellectually, technically, technologically— and sniff out things that might be useful to us in the future.  I tried hard to make sure we had all the necessary equipment for each rotation student when they arrived.  I spent many hours trying to come up with good projects for each person in my lab.  I combed through literature and went to meetings looking for the reagents we would need down the road.  Still it felt like things were taking forever.  As of this spring the only data we had was what I had collected myself, and that was only a handful.

As with many things, I found the wisest approach in Frog and Toad.  In the story “The Garden,” Toad admires Frog’s garden and asks how he can grow one himself.  Frog gives him some seeds and tells him to take good care of them.  But he warns him: growing a garden is very hard work.  Toad plants his seeds, stands over them and shouts “Now seeds, start growing!”  He sings to them, reads stories to them, plays music to them but still they do not sprout.  Maybe running a lab is most like being a gardener.  At the end of the story, Frog rushes in to tell toad his seeds have begun to grow.  Toad thanks him but says, “You were right…It was very hard work.”

Several weeks ago, people in the lab began bringing me their own data.  Frog was right, it was very hard work.


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The pipeline


I’ve written before about how becoming a scientist made me a better artist.

These days I feel like art and sewing are helping me figure out how to run a lab.

What do I mean?  In art and in sewing I’ve been coming up with my own projects for years.  Because one of these projects usually takes a few weeks or months to complete (as opposed to a few years for a science project) I’ve been through the process more often.  My process looks something like this:

1) Come up with a bunch of nebulous ideas

2) Make those ideas concrete

3) Gather materials

4) Turn ideas into things

I don’t always do things in this order.  But I do tend to concentrate on one thing at a time.  I go through periods of brainstorming, list-making, and otherwise fantasizing about stuff I want to make.  I sketch and plan and swatch and sample and try to find the perfect match between fabric and pattern.  I shop.  And I chew through the slow process of cutting, fitting, basting, draping, stitching, fixing, ripping, redoing…, or painting, scrubbing, wiping, blocking, detailing, thinking, fixing…until I end up with something that either does or doesn’t live up to my vision of it.

Being happy and productive (for me) as an artist basically consists of moving things along this pipeline.

When it’s working, I think this pipeline looks something like a laboratory funnel with a long piece of tygon tubing attached.  There are always more ideas that there is time to complete them.  That’s probably because many of the ideas aren’t all that good.  Having a lot of ideas also helps motivate me to finish things so I can get on to the next one.  Likewise I always need a bit more stuff around than exactly what I end up using.  Turning ideas into things is the longest and hardest part, and the place I’m most likely to get stuck.

Like any pipeline, this one is subject to various pathologies.  The most common, especially when starting out, is having too many ideas and no ability to turn them into finished products.  I feel like this is one area where experience helps.  The more I can envision the final product not just as an object but as a series of steps that will create that object, the easier it is to turn an idea into a thing.  I remember very distinctly how this happened with printmaking.  One day I was looking at a tree and instead of seeing the tree I saw an aquatint wash followed by a hardground line drawing.  In sewing I can (sometimes) see a garment in terms of a particular weight of fabric, a set of seam and hem finishes, an order of stitching.

I don’t think I need to say anything about the pathology of gathering too many materials.

There’s a third pathology too that’s rarer but equally important.  Sometimes that process of making and doing becomes an end in itself and I lose sight of or run down my supply of ideas.   This is the hardest to diagnose because it looks like I’m being productive.  I’m busy, but not inspired.  I feel like I’m just repeating myself and my motivation slips away.  When this happens its time to look for new ideas.

Where do new ideas come from?  Other artists, the natural world.


What does this have to do with running a lab?

I think a lot of my job right now consists of coming up with nebulous ideas and trying to turn them into something concrete.  As far as I can tell this is basically what a grant proposal is.  I need to take a vague notion of how we might understand the brain and turn it into a series of steps that one or two graduate students can follow.  I have an idea of just how long and arduous step 4 is going to be so I need to come up with something that I think will work (given sufficient effort) and will yield something interesting.  The process is not unlike what I do when I sketch out a series of paintings or garments.  I have to weigh the coolness of this ruffle or that overlay against how difficult I know it will be to sew flawlessly.

I want to have enough ideas developed that we feel motivated and excited as a lab.  I want to be eager to finish one thing so we can move on to the next.  I want everyone to have their own project.  But I don’t want so many ideas that we become paralyzed.

At the moment I think I have enough well-thought out ideas for maybe 4-5 people.  There are a couple more that are still at the hand-wavy stage but I think I can turn into something useable with a few months of reading and writing and talking to people.  After that I will need to look for new ideas, but at the moment I am trying to keep my head down.  There’s a lot of tubing ahead of us.


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Decisions, decisions

When I was in high school I had a t-shirt that said “I think I’m indecisive, but I’m not sure.”

I don’t remember who got it for me— my mom or my dad.  Either way it was obviously the right t-shirt for me.  I would take me ages to decide what to eat, to decide what to buy.  One of my favorite activities in college was to go to a bookstore and spend a few hours looking at things, picking things off the shelf.  Maybe buying something, maybe stashing it in my mind for next week or next month.  I still love doing this, only with fabric, and online.

My new job involves making a lot of decisions.

This is something I probably should have anticipated.  I get to decide who to hire, what equipment to buy, what software to use, what to study, how to spend my time.  It’s totally awesome.  Except that it totally plays to all my weaknesses.

There are a lot of neuroscientists who study decision making.  This week I heard two different talks on the subject.  One about deciding which way some dots were moving.  One about deciding when to eat. The first talk was highly controlled, highly quantitative.  The second qualitative and striking.  I don’t know that either speaks to the problem I have.  What is different about my brain that makes it so hard to put in a purchase order?

Maybe this is something I can get better at.  Once upon a time I was a painfully slow writer.  Then something shifted and I can now bang out a rough draft pretty quickly.

If this is something that will improve I hope it happens soon.  I still have a lot of stuff to order.


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Last week I flew to California to speak at a memorial for my PhD advisor, Allison Doupe.

I had lost her in pieces.  There was the email from her husband, forwarded by my former labmate, describing how she had passed away peacefully at home.  And the phone call over a year ago (she never called me) where she mentioned that her cancer “wasn’t in one place anymore.”  There was a trip out to see her last year, where I gave lab meeting, and tried to tell her thank you for everything she had given me.  There were nights when I would wake up crying.  Feeling scientifically motherless.  Feeling selfishly that I had lost her just at the time when I needed her the most.

I made David come with me.  And Joey.  And Ruby.  I wasn’t sure what I would feel but I thought I might need to hold a baby afterwards.  When I walked in and saw all the familiar faces I thought I might start crying there.

I wasn’t the only one.

I gave a talk; there were many talks.  They were a mix of memories and science.  The memories were painful, funny, heartbreaking.  I stuck to science, thinking this would help me maintain composure.  I think she would have approved of this strategy, as she had used it herself as the disease progressed.

What were the things she taught me?  Not to color my data in ways that were misleading.  To write carefully.  To state my findings with clarity and assurance.  Most important, she taught me confidence.  Graduate school is a place of harsh questions; I didn’t come in with the thickest skin.  In editing my writing, her most frequent piece of feedback was “needs more testosterone.”  Over and over, and in the kindest and gentlest way possible, she taught me to grow a pair.

What came out in the talks was that she had been these things to everyone: friend, mother, shrink.  What came out were the many strands of her science: natural behavior, quantitative analysis, social information in the brain.  What came out was a life fully lived.  Best of all for me was to listen to her many graduate students and postdocs.  To see what each one had done with the seeds she gave them.  To remember that I had a tribe to call on.  To understand that she had lived exactly the life she wanted.

At my thesis defense she called herself my “doktor-mutter”— doctor-mother— and that is how I thought of her.  I called her when I went on the job market, when I needed advice, when I was feeling blue.  I thought that when she died she was done giving me things.  But she wasn’t.


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What to say about 2014?  My utterly charming daughter was born in April.


I moved to New York to start my lab.

I published a paper, and did some sewing too.


On the saddest note, my beloved doctoral advisor passed away this fall.

Today while my parents were taking Joey and Ruby to the museum, David and I discussed our goals for next year.  We talked about writing grants, figuring out how to mentor the people in our labs, submitting our own papers, maybe trying to squeeze in an art class someday, but I couldn’t really put anything definite into words.

The word that keeps floating around my head is generosity.  My life is so full of gifts I feel almost paralyzed.  I am not quite sure what this goal means, but I will try to figure it out.

I would like to try to write again.  Maybe on this blog, maybe elsewhere.  I think I have kept quiet for a while, not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I haven’t known how to say what is in my head.

I am not sure I yet feel comfortable in our new life, but I will try to figure that out too.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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A very quick project

Well I was wrong, the next project turned out to be super-quick.

My favorite pencil case (which travels everywhere with me) finally broke earlier this year.  It’s been sitting very sadly on my desk waiting for a replacement.  If I’d known how easy it would be to do I would have gotten around to it much sooner.

I started by measuring the case: 5.5″ around and 8.5″ long.  I cut a piece of leather slightly wider (it broke because I was trying to stuff too much in it) and longer: 6″ by 9″.  I folded the leather as it would sit in the final pouch and used a glue stick to attach the leather to the zipper at the correct place.  Note that zipper is quite a bit longer than the pouch.

Next I opened up the zipper and topstitched through the leather and zipper.  I got a little bit of practice sewing with this leather in the last project, and found that it works best if I stitch on the slowest setting and use a slightly longer stitch length.  I did a bit of practice on a scrap to see where to align the foot.

Now I opened up the zipper all the way.

And turned the pouch inside out.

I used a bit more glue to keep the  open ends of the zip aligned properly and stitched across the top and bottom.  I also added a little leather loop to the top like in the original pouch— also placed and stabilized with glue.

Et voilà:

I think what made this so easy was the gluestick.  Seriously, why hadn’t I tried this before?  The number one thing I find myself fighting with on the sewing machine is fabric slipping out of place as it goes through the machine.  Can I use the gluestick on ordinary fabrics and zips?

I am so pleased with this pouch I might try making a leather bag next.  Also requires no fitting.  And I love being able to make a bag that exactly fits the things I carry.

Thanks to everyone for your very nice comments on my free-form tunic!  I was really happy to have something finished to share.


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For a while I’ve had this image of a garment pieced together in layers like geological strata.  But I put off making it because figuring out the pattern (all those seam allowances!) seemed daunting. Then one day in the shower it occured to me that I didn’t need to make a pattern at all— I could make it in stages (“organically” as Myrna calls it) and fit the pieces together as I went.

“Geological” is still a good metaphor though because this might be the slowest garment I’ve sewn yet.  I started by going through my fabric closet and picking out a bunch of fabrics with similar weights.  I cut these into long strips about 4-5″ wide so I could piece together the inset.  I did the piecing very freely, letting the inset gradually curve, and occasionally holding up to myself to see where it would fall.  At the end I redid a couple of seams to adjust the curvature:

Next I cut the basic pattern pieces from a ponte knit.  (I traced the pattern from a favorite Old Navy tunic/minidress thing.  I made the back and front almost the same with just a little more room in the shoulders on the back.  The sleeves are symmetric.)  In a sketch I’d made I had a contrasting stripe at the bottom, so I auditioned various fabrics before selecting a lighter-weight knit in a similar (but lighter) muddy taupe.  Here’s the inset laid on the front of the tunic:

Next I drew (with tailors chalk) on the inset where I wanted it to show and trimmed the edges to the correct width (plus 1/4″ seam allowance).  I drew the same shape on the tunic front and cut that out, marking where a couple of the pieces should fall to help me line up the curved seams.  Keeping the seam allowances narrow was key to all of this working out.  Also, careful pressing.  Here’s the front with the inset inserted, before final pressing and topstitching:

Because I was going so slowly, I thought to add a lining to the back of the inset (made from the same lightweight knit as the hem-band).  This should keep the wool bits of the inset from scratching and it allowed me to finish the bottom edge neatly.

After that it was pretty easy to sew front and back together and add the sleeves.  At the moment the sides are only basted— it does fit, but I don’t really want it to get stretched out by my 7-months-pregnant belly.  Sometime next winter, after my shape has stabilized, I’ll serge the sides.

Overall this was a fun slow project.  I got to use a bunch of fabrics that I love but aren’t all that practical for me for a full garment (i.e. wool suitings).  I enjoyed piecing together the inset and solving various construction problems without worrying about how it might fit.  And it nicely brought together some of the things I’ve been playing with in art (abstraction, variation in spatial frequency, earth tones) with garment sewing.

The pace of this project was also well suited to writing up a manuscript (which we finally submitted last night, hooray!), being generally pregnant and sleepy, and paying attention to a 3-year old.  Which is to say I expect there to be more “geological” projects in my future.


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Into the unknown

Setting goals for the new year is one of my favorite activities.  This time last year I was too stressed to set any.  This year I’ve been putting off writing because I have so much good news to share.  The trajectory has been upward.

In June, we will be moving to NYC to start our own labs at NYU school of medicine.  In May, we are expecting baby #2 (a little girl).  How these two events will work together is questionable, but really a great problem to have.

In keeping with these anticipated events I am going to try to keep my goals for 2014 modest.  Sometime after Joey was born I realized that I wasn’t going to make it through a week without disappointing anyone, and that I would have to settle for not disappointing the same person two weeks in a row.  Perhaps for this year I’ll make it my goal not to disappoint the same person for three weeks running, or at least not for more than a month.  (Note to self: not responding to email doesn’t count as disappointing someone; everyone expects that of me by now.)

Since my creative output this year was on the low end I thought I’d look back instead at the last 5 or 6.  In 2008, we moved from California to Boston, not really knowing anyone here and not knowing how long we’d be here.  I started painting in oil shortly after we arrived and started sewing a year later.  I’ve spent most of that time feeling that I wasn’t making any progress.  But if I look at my first efforts and compare them to more recent things it’s clear that here too the trajectory has been upward.


Science and art have always been strands of the same thread for me.  What makes both compelling is the unknown.  At the end of the day I’m not sure I do either of them because they are pleasurable, or just because I really want to figure out how something works.  Sometimes the thing is color and sometimes it’s fitting and sometimes it’s synaptic dynamics.  At the moment science is eating up a good bit of my mental bandwidth but I’m sure one day I’ll get obsessed with an art project again.

I don’t have any grand ambitions for art or sewing this year.  I have a couple ideas for ‘luxe’ loungewear that have been kicking around my head for a while, and maternity winter 2014 seems as good a time as any to try them out.  I’d like to get another painting done, and to play more with mixing fabrics.  But I’m not making any promises.  I’d be super happy to have a healthy baby, daycare for 2 kids, and a place to live in NYC.

As for the blog I’m not sure where to go with it.  I keep thinking I should write a “final” post.  But then I think what if I make something and want to share it?  Let’s call this the final post and acknowledge that I may not deliver on that promise either.


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Someday my ship will come

Trying some new paintings, new themes, new colors.  I like how the palette and composition came out on this one— not so crazy about the edges.  In retrospect I think I should have started with more of a line drawing and underpainting to try to unify the different parts of the painting, so that’s how I started the next one:


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More painting refashions





 This second one has been moving around with me since probably 2001 (I remember working on it in the yard of the first apartment I moved into at the beginning of grad school, and I think I stopped painting after the first year.)  At the time I was rather obsessed with backlit trees and this one was from a sketch of a big tree in Golden Gate Park.  One thing that’s cute about the painting is that it looks different when it itself is backlit:


Exactly how it looks depends on the light:


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