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Richard Axel is a science celebrity. He is brilliant, funny, and, oh yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. And I got to sit next to him at lunch the other day! He was in town to give a talk in my department. To give us grad students a chance to brush with greatness, we are allowed to have lunch with the invited speakers (woohoo, they let us out of lab! free food!). I find that many famous scientists (perhaps like famous celebrities? although I have yet to meet celebrities of the non-scientific persuasion) have quirky personalities. And Dr. Axel is no exception. He is larger than life, quite a tall man, and incessantly chews nicorette gum (this was confirmed by my boyfriend: during his interview for grad school at Columbia years ago Dr. Axel was also chewing said gum).

As I’ve said, he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has formed many ideas about the field of neuroscience, on which he does his research. He studies the olfactory system in particular (and was awarded the Nobel Prize with Linda Buck for discovering odorant receptors – the protein structures in your nose that detect smells). One student in the room asked him whether he thought that humans have pheromones – chemicals that animals use to communicate with each other about food, sex, predators. The behaviors that pheromones trigger are often innate, hard-wired, instinctual responses since they are about things essential to live and reproduce (eating, mating, avoiding being eaten…), as opposed to learned behaviors. Pheromones are detected much in the same way as smells, using the vomeronasal organ which is also in the nose, although in humans the vomeronasal organ is pathetic and wimpy and its function in humans is very controversial. Read the rest of this entry »


Apologies to my small group of readers (small in number, NOT spirit!) for a very, very long hiatus. While it can’t take all the blame, I must say, the long interminable years of grad school can sometimes… er, interfere with things (I was going to say “sap the will out of us” but I think that is going a bit too far). Friends of mine have dubbed this the “quarter-life crisis”, an affliction though not unique to PhD students, perhaps more prevalent than in groups of our peers from college who went on to start “careers” right out of college. I think it is hardest for those of us who look at our PI’s (principal investigators – bosses basically) and realize we are not made of the same stuff as them – we do not love studying __(fill in arcane thesis project here)__ so much that we are willing to go through all this effort again as postdocs, and then again as tenure track junior faculty. Don’t get me wrong, I truly respect and admire my PI. She is, and tries hard to be, a wonderful mentor. And she is hard-working and brilliant, and I think focuses her work on very important, relevant biological questions.

So now I am at a crossroads where many a senior grad student before me has stood. I hope to be finishing up by the end of the year, but I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I think I am very much interested in medical writing – kind of a catch-all for technical, non-journalistic science writing – but I’m really really scared to leave this lifestyle to which I’ve devoted much of my life. I do love working for myself, deciding how to schedule my time, what I want to do next (with guidance and blessings from my PI of course). But I also do like the idea of a job with regular hours, no tedious benchwork, and no guilt for taking a WHOLE weekend off! Although perhaps the grind is the grind no matter where or what. I do still have a insane passion for science and would probably be pretty happy with whatever I do as long as I get to think science. But what if I make the wrong choice! (I must admit I also feel like a bit of a jerk for sitting here whingeing about all of this when I am in the very privileged position of having numerous, fantastic career options practically laid at my feet, and in this ecomony). Read the rest of this entry »

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