Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The research journey

I love doing research. A lot of people cannot understand why I choose to do my PhD when I quit my job 3 years ago. Why not being a full time lady of leisure?? Maybe I am crazy. The truth is I have always wanted to do research. And when the opportunity comes knocking, I grabbed it. Of course, the generous scholarship from the university makes it much easier for me to decide. I love the process. From not knowing to knowing. The discovery process can humbled you. A lot.
 The lab gives me some sense of peace....geeky nerdy kinda peace.

I did one year of research for my honours degree in Hobart, Australia, and truthfully, that was the best year in my whole academic year. The beginning of my love to scientific research. I know this can sounds really geeky, but seriously it was. Not that  everything was smooth sailing and my supervisors were super duper fantastic. But they were always there. You don't have to go chasing them. Or they don't go missing. Or forever busy with meeting that they had no clue what is your research is all about. I had my challenges. But it was the environment that makes a difference. The environment was very conducive for learning.

The uni have the resources, and the infrastructure. Say u want to use a machine, there will be technician who will teach u how to use it. So u don't screw up the machine and make a very costly mistake.

And there's no prejudice. No hierarchy. You can mingle with the professors in the staff's coffee room during morning tea break. Freely. Even if u r only an honours student, who just graduated, who knows very little about research, and most likely had no clue what u r doing....they will treat u like u r one of them. You can talk about your research freely. And there will be a lot of knowledge sharing and healthy discussions on how can you proceed, or what can you do to fix the problem, or who should you turn to for advise etc etc etc....and of course the fact that u can call them by their first names make the whole conversation a lot easier.

So naively, I was assuming that research environment in Malaysia would be the same too. And I thought that once I left the corporate world, I have left all the bitches there. And all the politics and the backstabbing and whatever rubbish. After all this is the academic world right? Where all the brains I thought. Soooo I thought. And how wrong I am. Pffftttt!!

I have learned that you cannot talk about your research freely. To almost anybody. Because somebody might just copy your research and do the exact same thing and publish the result way ahead of you. I can never comprehend how anybody can do this. But it has happened many times. Not to me yet. But to some others that I know. Of all the million possibilities of choosing the research topic, you choose to copy the same exact bloody research somebody else is doing. Hence her/his years of hardwork might be invalid, coz now the work is not novel anymore...and you need to produce something novel for your doctorate. Can you see any logic in this????? It only becomes logical for somebody who is not sincere doing research. Somebody that is doing it to gain something superficial. Definitely not for the love of knowledge. So it's a fast way to add credentials to your name, to add number of research u r doing, to get papers published etc etc etc.

As a result of not telling people what you do, the knowledge sharing is very minimal. Close to naught. So your research journey can be a very long painstaking pain in the ass process. Lots of tears. Lots of pain. Lots of trial and errorssssss. Lots of retail therapy to balance it all out.

I have also learned people don't share knowledge. At least not readily.There's a lot of insecurity, rivalry between departments..between professors...between students.....or just plain cockiness.

Of course there's exception. I spent 3 months in IBS, University Malaya to learn about cell culture. The girls there were exceptional. They taught me everything they know about cell culture. All I have to do was be there. Whenever they were doing something new, they will pull me along. I am forever grateful to them. Suja, Li Kuan and the heartfelt zillion thanks. May God bless all of you.

But as I said, those girls are the minorities. Most of the time, u have to be really thick face to get somebody to agree to teach u stuffs. Not only it makes u feel awkward, unwanted and idiotic, it makes you feel so small that u wish u can disappear. Poooffff!! Vanish into the air. And most likely they will just teach u the minimum basics. The rest, go figure yourself. And sometime it will take agessss for you to figure it out. And many many wasted experiments down the drain. And many many long lonely days and nights in the lab. The mentality is so sickening. From student up to supervisors. I just cannot understand what is the harm of sharing the knowledge???

In my few years of research I have benefited quite a bit from generous knowledge sharing. Maybe I am lucky. Maybe they are real professionals. People that believe sharing knowledge in the name of science. People that are confident enough not to feel insecure over sharing their knowledge. These are people that I don't even know. The Japanese professor who send me his compound when I failed to synthesize the compound for my honours project. And nicely explained to me in detail why it was so difficult to synthesize the compound. Another Japanese professor who gave me all the details on how to grow the difficult cell line that I was having problem with. With detailed pictures and methods. Day by day progress. That Massachuset guy who patiently answered all my stupid questions on Excel VBA and eventually helped me processed my data to calculate the IC50. That Czech lady who is on 2 years maternity leave but still promptly answered my email and helped me figured out what was wrong with my MTT assay.What amazed me is how readily and promptly they answered my questions, and how little reservation they have on sharing the knowledge, and how they don't make u feel like an idiot even though u did ask lots of idiotic questions.

Anyway, I am not generalizing. But the experience I had so far don't impress me. And the stories from my fellow friends don't impress me either. I just had a bad day. I wasted some experiments that I have spent a few days working on, bcoz I don't know how to operate the bloody machine, and bcoz that guy who showed me how to operate the machine made me feel like an idiot. Petty issues. But after a long day in the lab, it can drives u nuts. Maybe I shd seriously consider being a full time lady of leisure. Maybe I should go somewhere else to pursue my research interest. Maybe....whateverrr...this shall pass.

For now, I just want to bury my head ;(


  1. Nicely written journal sista. I think that's the real process of phd study (hope I'm right)...where I myself suddenly got an extreme boost of motivation..then the next moment I found myself having the thought of giving up. I should bury my head jugak lah. heheheee. We must finist what we've started my case, I sudah terlajak 3 years...trying to finish it all up before I go back to work in Dec. Wish u all d best...u've got great support around u wt and getting excellent support who are strangers to you is a blessing from Allah...

  2. kak...agak2 lah grammar ku itu ye...mereng meroyan ku dah sampai...ada 2 article due this friday...arrrkkkk!!!! Dewi

  3. i guess many in the research field have become a bit kiasu and desperate. i miss those rare moment chit chatting with my lab demonstrators and lecturers after class. oh well..

  4. THIS, +1 to this. I was in US for my undergrad and joined few research teams and they were SUPER AWESOME, similar to what you've experienced - they love sharing knowledge and questions are highly encouraged. But I'm doing my master here (in Msia) for some reasons and is yet to face all these. Well, maybe I will not have to, but based on what my friends had told me, I better prepare for the worst. Just in case. Good luck in your study!

  5. Salam, Linda

    Have you watched Naturally Obsessed?

  6. Mak Di, just watched. Thanks for the link. I think I shd watch it again n again...would be good in moments of despair ;)He said you have to train young scientist in order to produce the very i wish many more will have that kind of mentality ;)

  7. Fauzana, all the best to u too. Make u sure u get a good supervisor. It will make a whole world of difference.

  8. A well-written post indeed.
    Thank you very much!!!
    Reading this post fortifies my decision to continue my grad study oversea.

    All the best in your study!!
    May ALLAH lightens your PhD journey (amin)~

  9. Do not underestimate the importance of having a good supervisor. Have a chat with the current and past students of your targeted supervisor. They're the ones that know best how the SV is, regardless of how established and famous he is in his field. He may have published hundreds of articles and have a grand reputation but is he really the kind of SV u'd want. Can you work with him. Is he inspiring or de-spiring ? is there even such a word as de-spiring ? well, there is now ! Is he a hands on SV ?

    God ! i wish these things were known to me before i naively registered for phd back then. Ignorance was bliss and i'm paying for it now ! aaarghh ..
    I know now, what i did not know then. Padan mukakuuuu ... well Lindot, dont give up - it's contagious. all the best to us ! - socialista -