How is a sabbatical different to a post-doctoral fellowship?

As I was obsessively peering at my computer screens immersed in analyzing data the other week with a tremendous sense of contentment, this question popped into my head. I have been contemplating it for a while now and thought I would share a few thoughts on the topic – despite the two being quite a long time apart for me in years… My post-doc was relatively long (turned into 6 years where I also worked as a scientist), whereas the sabbatical is relatively short (6 months). So what is similar and different about the two?

1. You arrive in another country with a couple of suitcases, a head full of dreams and ideas and not much else. Then (post-doc): You have a lot of worries and fears about the unknown. But, you are not concerned because the country in which you have chosen to post-doc has English as a main language. But it doesn’t take long for you to realize that it is very difficult to communicate because the sentence structure, vocabulary, idioms and jokes are completely culturally dependent. They are completely different to what you know. So you spend the next 3 years trying to make sense of it all. That is also about how long it takes for people to begin to laugh at your jokes.

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THEN: 1990, with Greg McCarthy taking some time off from the ICON meeting in Israel.

Now (sabbatical): There is the unknown, but it is not really worth losing sleep over. You realize that you will sort things out to the best of your abilities. You have no delusions about the fact that your French skills are just minimal. That said, you can understand others, and they can understand you. People also laugh at your jokes, or perhaps they are laughing at you? When you are older, you are not particularly perturbed by that.

2. You know that you have a limited time to make the most of doing science relatively impeded. Then: You are beginning your career and need to make a mark in the field. You are hungry for project opportunities and will probably take on too many things. You battle with technology – such that is was back then… clunky & expensive laptops, no smartphones, chained to the lab computer doing analyses until all hours of the night. You realize that you are in a privileged position: you can do science while your lab heads have to do administration. Now: You are aware that there are only 24 hours in the day. That said, you have taken on projects that you can probably get closure on so that you can continue to remain competitive as a scientist. Why ‘probably’? Because your experience tells you that things always take longer to do than you expect, so it should be no surprise if some things may not get done in 6 months. The trick is to make sure you can set things up so that they can be completed even if you have left the lab, if need be. You continue to battle with technology, but the battle is different. For me now it is a French keyboard and a French Linux system on a PC [I used to use a PC but have had a MAC-based lab for many years because of the scientific equipment I have]. That said, my smartphone is an indispensible tool. You also relish that you have the luxury of not having to attend any faculty meetings and teaching any classes for the semester.

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3. You will make professional and personal connections that will be worthwhile and also lifelong. Then: Your peer-group consists of other post-docs and grad students. You hang out with them and go out to bars at night where you complain about the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of the various principal investigators that you have to interact with. It is really nice to keep seeing these people at scientific meetings – they have many different nationalities and also now live in many different countries (not always their home country). At the same time senior scientists are mentors and great contacts for career moves – and you value these connections very much indeed. Now: Your ex-trainees live in many other countries. Your peer-group consists of other principal investigators. These are people who you might have known for many years already, or may be people who you have recently met at international scientific meetings. You look forward to spending time over dinner or in bars where you might complaining about the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of the various trainees that you interact with. You might even write a book with one of these PIs!

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NOW: 2016, with Riitta Hari in Finland, finishing work on our book for OUP, ‘MEG-EEG PRIMER’. Image: Matti Hämäläinen

You are now a mentor for many younger colleagues, who you help to make career advances. Some of these people might be part of a formal mentoring scheme e.g. Organization for Human Brain Mapping. People who you turn to for career advice are beginning to pass away…

5. You are juggling finances. Then: Half your monthly salary goes to paying rent. You have trouble getting a credit card and even then the credit limit is low – because you have moved to another country where you have no credit history. This is absurd because you have held credit cards for quite a few years. Your savings are minimal – made even less so by a brutal exchange rate between your country’s currency and the mighty greenback. [My bank balance shrunk to about 2/3 overnight because of this.] Money for travel and culinary pleasures is not abundant, but still you make the most of it without getting into debt. As a photographer, getting film developed also adds to expenses – digital photography does not exist yet. [You also have a lead film bag when you travel, so that airport X-ray machines do not expose your rolls of film during luggage screening.] Culinary pleasures are fleeting – your finances need to stretch far, but your waistline can handle it. You develop a good sense for opportunities involving free food. Now: You have a mortgage and during your sabbatical you are also having to pay rent on a nice apartment in a great residential area. Thankfully, now less than half of your salary goes to paying rent and the mortgage. Thanks to modern day banking you are able to use your existing credit cards etc. and there is money for travel and culinary pleasures and other things. Despite taking a financial hit in transitioning from the greenback to the Euro, things are still manageable. Digital photography ensures that you can shoot thousands of pictures with zero costs. You can actually indulge in culinary pleasures – although your waistline doesn’t stretch and then go back to where it was anymore…

Speaking of culinary pleasures, the other night I had an excellent dinner at an eccentric local restaurant called ‘Les Temps des Cerises‘ (https://www.letempsdescerisescoop.com/) with a friend/ex-post-doc who had lobbed into Paris for a couple of days. We both had the speciality of the house – a cassoulet that we washed down with a great Faugères red from the Languedoc region (https://www.languedoc-wines.com/fr/languedoc-decouverte/les-aoc-du-languedoc/aoc-faugeres).

So there are differences between the then and now – the post-doc and the sabbatical. But what is the bottom line? Make every day count – enjoy the time you have and put it to good use! Also, appreciate that science is a profession where people from different cultures and belief systems interact in debates over science, but do not give each other a hard time about their respective religion, race, or politics. Now why can’t the rest of the world function like that?

 

 

 

Effects of context on memory

As a neuroscientist it has been indoctrinated into me that context can affect how well information is retrieved. It seems like an abstract concept sometimes when we discuss it professionally – remote from what affects us personally day-to-day. Interestingly for me, moving to Paris has really made this very concrete right now.

As a scientist I have been very fortunate to travel as part of my job. This has also fed my interest in photography for many, many years. I have been fortunate to come to Paris a number of times now & never ever tire of the city. So needless to say I have also taken literally thousands of photos here. If I shoot a couple of hundred photos in a day, then I will typically discard about 90% of them – after reviewing them at the end of the day. Of those 10% that are left, only very rarely is there a photo I would consider submitting to a juried show or putting in an exhibition. Interestingly, some of my favorite black & white shots are of Paris and France. I have included some of these in this post.

As I have been walking around Paris, I was struck by the number of times I remembered specific instances when I had taken particular photos. I remembered clearly the weather at the time, what mood I was in, and where the best place to stand was for taking the shot, and of course what the light was like. These very vivid visual memories were triggered by the scene unfolding around me while I was walking.  This happened to me the first day I went to the ICM on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital  – I was thinking about neuroscience and not photography as I was ambling along. Indeed, the 2 pics directly below were taken very close to the main entrance of the Salpêtrière on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital, many years ago now.

That night when I got back to my apartment I thought about this further. Memories from travel to other locations in France also came back, with very concrete details, as I looked back at some of my favorite photos on my laptop. These are things I have not thought about for at least decade or two – indeed, I was surprised to even remember them.

So being in France again, seeing the sights has re-activated memories that I had forgotten that I had. And these triggers are not only visual…

About 10 years ago, I was on a PhD committee for my Parisian colleague’s student. I came to Paris for the thesis defense & unfortunately my luggage took a wayward turn at Heathrow & did not make it to Paris with me. I arrived in the evening & the thesis defense was in the early afternoon. So the next morning there was no alternative but to ‘shop until I dropped’ in the Printemps department store at Place d’Italie, with my colleague in tow as my style consultant. We took no prisoners & were done in 2 hours – literally had to buy everything including shoes. As I was walking with her to the thesis defense [fully dressed & looking spiffing] it was raining cats and dogs. Ever wanting to improve my French I asked her what the equivalent expression was in French. With an evil look in her eye she said there are 2 ways of saying it. You could say: ‘Il pleut des cordes‘, which means that it literally is raining ropes. Or you could say: ‘Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse.’ She was about to translate, but stopped because at that point I was falling about laughing so hard I actually cried. I am not going to translate it for you either! :)))

Funnily enough, this same subject actually came up the other day. We were meeting together with a younger colleague & after the meeting we started discussing French language skills. She was clearly chuffed that I could still recall these expressions after 10 years. Our younger colleague was rather surprised, to put it mildly!

So the existing context [in our multisensory world] clearly affects our ability to retrieve memories. But the presence of strong emotions also helps lay them down effectively in the first place. So what is the moral of the story? If you really want to remember something well after 10 years or so, you need to first laugh until you cry :)))

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Some more musings on settling in…

In my last post I enthused about my domestic arrangements & surroundings. This time I thought I would share some ruminations on my professional environment. I think that it is always interesting to change how one does things, and what better way to do that than by moving to a different country where people speak a different language. So what is similar about people across cultures?

I thought about this question one day this week when I had an amusing experience interacting with an IT person at the ICM. He was helping me get my laptop onto the network & making sure that it would not be a security risk for the institution. He speaks English worse than I speak French, so you can imagine the fun we had in communicating with one another about procedures, software installation etc. Add to it the fact that I had gone to work without my glasses. Yes, indeed. I have 2 pairs of them & both were in my apartment. I have never ever done that before. So there I was sitting about 4 feet away from my laptop as he was showing me things on it. He thought it was really funny. Undaunted, we pressed on & were able to solve everything just fine. Neither of us seemed particularly perturbed about looking for words – Plan B was always the other language & Plan C: resorting to franglais. I also ended up learning new technical terms in French & turns out many of them are English words. It is interesting that so many interactions here on the science front involve Plan C – people will switch languages to make something easier to say, even in meetings. It also happens with email and I am doing this also. [Actually, this seems completely normal to me – as a kid I grew up in a household that spoke Latvian & English.]

The second thing that amused me about this experience is that I went upstairs afterwards & was telling my collaborator about forgetting my glasses. She smiled knowingly at me. Turns out that she keeps several pairs in her office – just in case she would do something like me. So people are the same the world over – I have friends in the USA and Australia who also keep multiple pairs of glasses around in case they should misplace one pair! And guess what? Her optical prescription is identical to mine! How cool is that? So my vision problem was instantly solved in the lab. So now I have a Plan B should I ever forget to bring my glasses again – we put a spare pair of her glasses on my desk (see red circle) where we can both reach them! Actually reading was not the real problem – it was typing because my arms are not anywhere long enough to reach the keyboard!

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But I digress. Back to the question I asked earlier. In my opinion, IT people are really the same the world over – it matters not what language they speak. My face-to-face interactions with them have always been great. They are incredibly helpful & try to make your life easier & they have a certain geekiness that I can personally relate to…

It seems to me that clinicians are also the same the world over. Always looking rushed. Answering their ringing cell phone during a meeting. Trying to give patients the best care they can with a finite set of resources – such as being involved with researchers trying to gain new knowledge about brain function & underlying connectivity.

And as people age, they are also the same the world over – forgetting where they leave their glasses seems like a universal past time for those of us who are old enough to know better. [One of my pairs of glasses actually has a neck chain… And I confess: I do keep a spare pair in my car back home…]

What is the same or different in Paris now, relative to when I have been here before? The last time I was here was 10 years ago, with other trips spanning back into a second decade. So here are a few quick observations:

Different

1. The croissants & pain au chocolat seem so much bigger than I remember them. I used to buy 2 of them for breakfast with coffee. When I bought croissants on the weekend, I only bought one for breakfast – it was much larger than I remembered & kept me going until lunchtime. See pic below for a 21st century croissant – at least as obtainable in the bakeries around me. Seems like the supersizing craze has also occurred here…

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2. One sees the odd vending machine storefront here & there – a place where food, beverages & condoms are provided 24/7. I wonder how often the items are restocked [if not sold], as much of the produce is perishable. [This reminded me a bit of Japan where an amazing array of food items can be bought – all artistically & wonderfully packaged in the Japanese style.] Last year I heard a news story about a couple of fishmongers who had started a vending machine for oysters at their store in a town in Brittany – so that their customers could have fresh oysters after hours! Would you buy oysters that way?

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Same

1. The pigeons are definitely the same. Always wandering in front of you, heads bobbing. Or perching on a statue of someone important. I saw one particularly rotund one feasting on the remains of a baguette the other morning as I walked to work. The next morning he was breakfasting with friends.

2. The other thing that has not changed is that people walking their dogs do not pick up after them… always need to watch where you are stepping – luckily I do not need my glasses for that!

3. Lots of people still smoke on the street as they walk to & from work – that is something that you will not see much in the USA or in Australia. Actually someone was vaping in a meeting the other day – first time I had seen that anywhere.

4. Parisians remain very well dressed & stylish, irrespective of whether they are younger people going to work, or if they are older and retired. The latter look fabulous when taking their promenade to go lunch, or when shopping at the farmer’s market.

In future posts, I will return to these same/different questions when there is something more to wax lyrical about.

Perspectives from the other side of the Atlantic

As the title of this post indicates, I have moved to Paris for the semester and am successfully installed in my apartment – am typing this from there – great to be connected to the world again… So good to get away from the Arctic cold of the mid-west of the USA also… So what is the topic de jour? Gratitude. Why gratitude? Because right now we are pretty focused on what is wrong with the world, so much so that sometimes we do not stop to think about what we should be thankful for. So I am going to share my list(s) with you, in the hope that you will also take some time to reflect on what is important to you.

So, what do I have to be thankful for? Lots of things! Here are the big ones:

a. Good health. This is a big thing that we all often take for granted.

b. A significant other who understands me. While he is not with me while I am away, nevertheless the mental & emotional connection is there. He is also looking after the cats. :)))

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c. A great work environment with smart & likeable colleagues – both here in Paris, as well as at home at IU. It is always good to try and hang out with people who are smarter than me – excellent intellectual stimulation pushes us to all be better scientists…

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d. A terrific place to live – both here and in the USA. My apartment here is really beautifully decorated & it is in a terrific (non-touristy) residential area. I have 2 excellent landladies – let’s call them Madames X & Y – who do not speak much English, but make up for it in kindness & mindfulness. Turns out they have a Buddhist philosophy to life.

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e. Communicating in the local tongue. Understanding people is relatively easy and speaking, of course, is more difficult. I am grateful that I spent the last year pretty much trying to do something in French every day – such as reading or listening to French news programs and also documentaries. What do I recommend for those struggling with French? Here are a couple of suggestions: First, check out the phone app called ‘News in Slow French‘ (see https://www.newsinslowfrench.com/). These are weekly news programs – you can choose which level of expertise – beginner, intermediate or advanced. Second, there is a monthly bilingual magazine (at least in the USA) called ‘France-Amerique‘ (see https://france-amerique.com) that features good reading on culture, food, politics & many other interesting topics. Third, our cable TV service in the USA gives us access to television channel ‘TV5 Monde‘ – a French TV channel that broadcasts around the world. It has terrific documentaries as well as movies and TV series. Four, the French TV channel TF1 has online streaming of their programs – there is a good nightly evening news/commentary program called ‘Le20H‘ (or ‘Le Vingt Heure‘). Of course, now I can see it on TV here locally.

So then there are the little things in life – things that nevertheless make a huge difference:

  1. I have worked out the appliances in my apartment – most importantly, the espresso machine works well.
  2. Turns out my apartment building is next to a fromagerie (cheese shop) that also sells wine. Now how cool is that? Bakery and patisserie are also a stone’s throw away, as is a seafood/fishmonger & supermarket. This is great since I will be a pedestrian/public transport user while I am here.

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  1. I have a 20 minute walk to work (or 2-stops on the metro). Walking is definitely nicer & also better for keeping up the step count.
  2. I can actually see the Eiffel Tower from my living room, bedroom & kitchen windows! – it is quite in the distance (see red circle below), but it looks really terrific lit up at night.

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So, these are my lists of things to be thankful for. What’s on your list?