Wednesday Open Reading Frame: “Emotional Renovations”

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Welcome back to your weekly Wednesday Open Reading Frame! I’m sneaking it in just under the wire tonight, but it’s still Wednesday everywhere west of NYC, so I say we count it. Fair? Fair. This week’s ORF concerns the work of the recipients of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Last week was a great week for neuroscience. We woke up last Monday (at least, on this side of the pond!) to the news that Dr. John O’Keefe, of University College London, and Drs. May-Britt and Edvard Moser, co-directors of the Kavli Institute at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. According to the awarding committee’s press release, these three exemplary neuroscientists “have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries – how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”

The context.
Over forty years ago, Dr. O’Keefe identified place-sensitive cells in a freely-moving rat’s hippocampus – that portion of the brain that plays a critical role in memory formation. Ten years ago, the Drs. Moser discovered that not only could the brain encode general place information, it could also apply a coordinate system to its surroundings to aid in navigation – the “grid cell” circuitry.

The article.
While the Nobel Prize was awarded specifically for discovery of the components of the rodent spatial navigation system, the principles of this system have since been extrapolated to humans, and are furthered by studies of how we, as humans, encode the emotional valence of a space. In this article from last December – which happens to have been published in a personal favorite science magazine, Nautilus former neuroscientist-turned-freelance neuroscience writer Moheb Costandi breaks down the discovery of the rodent brain’s spatial navigation system, and explores its human correlates. This article may be a little older, but it’s nonetheless an excellent read for those who want to dig a little deeper into the history and context of the Nobel awardees’ work.

Costandi also writes the Neurophilosophy blog for the UK’s The Guardian. 

Further reading.
If you’d like to check out the original articles that merited the Nobel Prize, you can check them out at the links below. Both are (unfortunately) behind paywalls. Sounds like a great opportunity to make a friend who has access to a university library!

The earliest description of place cells, from
O’Keefe J and Dostrovsky J. The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain Res 34:171-175 (1971).

The first description of grid cellsfrom
Hafting T, Fyhn M, Molden S, Moser M and Moser E. Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex. Nature 436:801-806 (2005).

Wednesday’s Open Reading Frame: “Looking out for future scientists”

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This new, weekly “Open Reading Frame” feature will highlight a recent short, non-journal article that, just like a biological ORF*, should be read all the way through. No long reflections; no stop codons. Just good reading. – EGB

The context:
Over the past few years, the biomedical funding crunch has further exacerbated the disconnect between the number of Ph.D.s produced and the number of faculty positions, and amount of grant funding, available. At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in the number of young (and even mid-career) scientists transitioning into parallel career tracks, whether by interest or by necessity. A number of prominent scientists (including Dr. Bruce Alberts) have chimed in on the apparent problem and, among other recommendations, suggest that we ought to pare down the size of Ph.D. programs in order to improve the numbers.

The article:
Brandeis’ Dr. Eve Marder has a different take on the issue, and suggests that, until we can determine prior to admission who’s going to “blossom into a great scientist” – truthfully, a hard thing to know, as the requisite creativity and determination are often discovered somewhere on the pre-doctoral proving ground  – we should value all our graduates, and be supportive of whatever they choose to do with their degrees. She points out that, no matter to which field they ultimately apply their training, they will go on to be “better citizens of the world because of whatever time they spend confronting some of the deep mysteries of the universe.”

Please read and enjoy Dr. Marder’s uplifting perspective.

(Marder’s article is Creative Commons-distributed, so you shouldn’t have any paywall issues; the Alberts article may not be as easily accessed.)

*EDIT: Thanks to a reader for pointing out that I didn’t define “open reading frame”! In genetics, the term “open reading frame,” or ORF, refers to a section of the genetic code that the genetic read-and-write machinery will read straight through. Sometimes, this machinery can be made to pause, or stop entirely, by a portion of code called a “stop codon.” An open reading frame contains no such signal, and ensures that the gene in question will ultimately be translated into a complete, functional protein. The Wikipedia article is brief but useful if you’d like to know more.

Mind and Matter: “Your Brain” at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute

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*Disclosure: I currently volunteer at The Franklin Institute as a Science Presenter.*

Introductory graphic in the Franklin Institute’s new “Your Brain” exhibit, featuring the four lobes of the brain, the cerebellum, the brain stem, and the spinal cord.

As an enthusiast of informal, interactive education, but especially as a graduate student of neuroscience, I was thrilled to learn of the development of the Franklin Institute’s new neuroscience exhibit – appropriately titled “Your Brain” – and eagerly anticipated its unveiling. I’d never seen my own discipline showcased in a museum setting; biology exhibits at comparable institutions either tend toward natural history and ecology, or toward slightly better-understood disciplines, such as physiology (e.g., the Franklin Institute’s own Giant Heart and associated exhibit) or genetics, the fundamental underpinnings of which are often taught in advanced high school biology classes. Even when the American Museum of Natural History, one of the nation’s foremost scientific and educational institutions, unveiled a brain science exhibit four years ago, that exhibit was never developed as a permanent fixture in the museum.

To the lay public, I imagine that these subfields of biology may seem more familiar and accessible than the workings of the mind. And in truth, while other biological disciplines (biochemistry, for example) tend to be defined by a set of techniques which are then applied to a variety of questions, the field of neuroscience remains a phenomenally inclusive technical umbrella, all work applied toward one overarching question: how does the nervous system actually work? Neuroscience runs the gamut from computer-based, theoretical modeling that rarely opens the door of a laboratory, to animal behavior studies and tests of drug efficacy, to the intricacies of protein folding in experimental settings largely divorced from their cellular origins. It is a vast field, and one full of moving targets. I was curious to see how the exhibit’s developers planned to manage both the incredible scope of brain research, as well as the fact that any specific portion of the exhibit quickly might become outdated.

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Entrance to “Your Brain” at the Franklin Institute.

I needn’t have worried. The team at the Franklin Institute, led by Chief Bioscientist Dr. Jayatri Das, has put together a visually stunning and intellectually thrilling exhibition. “Your Brain” has been lauded by various local and national news organizations, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others. The exhibit has been described as “an entertaining hands-on, eyes-on, full-body experience” and “one of [the] best” permanent exhibits at the Franklin Institute, despite being its most recent addition.

I expected to be delighted by the exhibit as an aspiring science communicator; the study of the brain and its workings can be mystifying, and I was enthusiastic about the mere prospect of seeing neuroscience explored in an interactive, educational setting. I did not expect that I’d be similarly delighted as a neuroscientist – after all, shouldn’t I know most of this stuff already? Shouldn’t much of it be review? But in fact, I found plenty of material to excite me. For the critical and inquiring eye – even for the experienced scientist – “Your Brain” has greater depths to be discovered, greater levels of understanding to be revealed, than might be immediately apparent to a lay audience. Numerous others have written about the quality of the exhibit itself and given plentiful recommendations as to which areas to explore; let me briefly cheer on the awesome science! Perhaps you’ll find the exhibit even more interesting on your next visit.

Neuroscience, wall-to-wall. The design team clearly put a lot of thought into the look of the exhibit, and while that work is showcased most impressively in the illusion-filled “Street Scene” area, the designers even include a quiet nod to neuroscience in the choice of carpeting. Did you happen to look down? If you did, you might have seen a carpet pattern that mimics a vast neuronal network. There are visual spectacles aplenty in “Your Brain,” but also plenty of clever Easter eggs like this one for the observant visitor.

Attention to detail. One of the most kid-friendly displays in “Your Brain” is the Model Neuron, which demonstrates how this particular type of brain cell “fires” (i.e., activates and sends a signal). In the model, one spins a dial for some length of time to activate the model. Eventually, a barrage of ping-pong balls fires out the end of the tube – but only if one has built up enough “electrical signal!” If not, all the balls stay in the tube. This “all-or-none” behavior is exactly what one sees in a neuronal “action potential” – the basic electrical currency of thought. An action potential causes the release of chemical messengers, known as “neurotransmitters,” that induce a variety of electrical or chemical responses in other cells. An action potential only occurs, however, when there is a very particular voltage across the cellular membrane of the originating cell; otherwise, the cell won’t fire. It’s analogous to the fact that spinning the dial only releases the ping-pong balls when the one has spun the dial continuously, and for sufficient time. The words “all-or-none” are never used in the display, but it’s still delightfully accurate in spirit. Similarly conscientious interactive elements may be found throughout the exhibit.

A squid giant axon. No, it’s not the axon of a giant squid; it’s the giant axon of a squid! The “axon” is that portion of a neuron that transmits action potentials along the length of the cell, like a long, well-insulated wire. The release of neurotransmitters in response to these signals helps translate the message to nearby cellular neighbors. At a diameter of about 0.5mm – visible to the naked eye and about 5 times larger than the width of the average human hair – this axon is, quite literally, giant by comparison to others of its kind, measuring 25 times larger than even the largest mammalian axon. The large diameter of the squid axon makes it relatively easy to manipulate with a tiny glass electrode, permitting Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley to record an action potential for the first time – a watershed moment in the history of neuroscience. They, along with Sir John Eccles, shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their remarkable findings. I hung around and admired the axon for a number of minutes. It felt as though I’d run into a celebrity. Sadly, preserved squid axons are incapable of distributing autographs.

I KNOW THOSE GUYS! Upon entering the exhibit’s first large room, one sees a multipanel display of colorful, rotating images; each image highlights different features of the brain at the cellular level, and is derived from real experiments – many of which took place in the laboratories of researchers local to Philadelphia. I got a particular kick out of the fact that I actually recognized a number of the images from journal articles or presentations and, in certain cases, recognized (and knew personally) some of the images’ contributors; it made for a fun sort of “I Spy” game (although I imagine I was the only one playing). Certain of these images may be more familiar, however – including a “Brainbow mouse,” which made it as far as the pages of The New York Times.

Brainnnnnnns. There are so many. Previously, the Franklin Institute’s much smaller “Brain Bar” – a little cart that used to be tucked away at the back of the Giant Heart exhibit – displayed a number of plastinated brains, preserved using a method that replaces the water and fat in a normal brain with plastics (it’s the same method used in the traveling “Body Worlds” exhibit). These specimens included a horse and cow brain, as well as two generously donated human hemispheres – one from a human in good health, and one from a human with Alzheimer’s disease. Even then, I found this cart amazing. I’d dissected healthy human brains in a graduate neuroanatomy class, but had never seen a pathological brain up-close. The new and improved Brain Bar in this exhibit goes above and beyond the previous offerings, and includes two new pathological human brain samples – one with a cerebellar tumor, one with demyelination (i.e., the axons have lost their myelin “insulation”) – and one perfectly normal human cerebellum. The writer for The New York Timesreview referred to the plastinate components of the exhibition as perhaps “a bit staid,” even a little boring, for the modern audience. I strongly disagree. These are real brains, donated by real people. They are amazing, they are exceedingly rare, and they are worth taking the time to visit.

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The Neural Climb in “Your Brain” at the Franklin Institute.

The praise “Your Brain” has received is unquestionably well-deserved. The exhibit functions well on several levels, with interactive portions (for example, the “Neural Climb”, which features in much of the promotional material for the exhibit) that promise to delight both children and slightly more grown-up children (into which category I happily place myself). There are levers to press, handles to pull, extremes of temperature between which to distinguish, and a host of fun and visually engaging activities, some of which can (and in some cases, must) be performed with a partner. The exhibit also includes surprisingly high-level but understandable explanations of complex neurological systems and technologies. In one particular instance, I was pleased to see an accurate representation of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which is, from a neuroscientist’s perspective, notoriously poorly reported upon by most media outlets (and, frankly, by a not-inconsiderable number of scientists).

I agree with some of the other writers that the section on neuroethics feels a little hurried. On the other hand, it is understandably difficult to reflect on the use of fMRI scans as courtroom evidence, or on cognitive enhancement, or even on the nature of being human, when just next door is a vast, noisy neural playground. But perhaps that isn’t that point; perhaps the close of the exhibit is meant to simply spark our imaginations, to let us know that these ethical questions exist, and to task us with considering them as we go forward. After all, such philosophy is often best addressed in quiet conversations, in personal research, and in self-reflection; in deliberation among strangers on one-way bus trips, and in science fiction that pokes at the boundaries of what we imagine is, or should be, possible.

Go forth and think – and then, be astounded that you can.

“Your Brain” is the latest addition to the Franklin Institute’s permanent offerings. It is housed on the second floor of the brand-new Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion and opened in June 2014.

The traveler

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From below you watch, from below and inside and beyond and betwixt, a leggy Atlas behind whom trails a critical cargo you hold most dear: all the building blocks and chemicals for neurotransmission, for construction, for deconstruction, for anything your cell might wish, bound up in an enormous lipid balloon that pulls tensely upon your back, a similar structure to the ones that your translated brethren carry along the neural rails. The lot of you carry on like this together, engaged in a cellular scale re-enactment of golden-age boxcar drifting, your destinations dictated by other needs than yours. Except this distinguishes you: what you carry is not merely yours, not merely a personal knapsack of trinkets and photographs, but instead is the province of all things essential to the function of a cell, of a neuron, of your home. You are the quiet helper unrecognized, unacclaimed, forgotten till you falter.

You swing your globular legs step by purposeful step, navigating with confidence along saltwater highways, all densely packed with other dynamic denizens, and as you walk one way, your kinetic cousins walk another, similarly burdened in their retrograde motion. When your task is done, you may yourself be lost, or returned home, or sent to some other fate, even remade – but such futures are beyond your ken. For you, there is only the task, the journey, the quest to move forward – all else becomes immaterial.

And in your fatty firmament, punctuated here and there by proteinaceous cloud, a few charged cellular messengers – the ions upon whose axis your world turns – rush toward you, falling through holes in the sky, and as they approach, other species soar away. And in this way, your home gives rise to the signal beyond the noise, the fundamental unit of thought, carried by a few restless particles, all of which are driven by electrochemical imperatives that govern them, you, everything, from the picometer scale to the expanses of space that span galaxies. These are the currents that run like invisible lightning overhead, the insulated and treasured potential for action, carefully regulated, all higher functions thus transformed into a exercise in unimaginably precise control of a few molecular movements – including yours.

And you, you, essential you – as the current flows above you, you labor below, a traveler in wake, for without what you carry, the thought, the thought of thought, would not be hardwired, fixed, learned.

You are small, yes, but you are mighty. You are a cog in the machine; you are a one-way car on a protein highway; you are kinesin, and without you, the world crumbles.

 

Elephants, presidents, and Friday morning lights

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You’re starting your fifth year, nags that annoying inner voice. Everyone you know is getting married and has started their real lives and is becoming a wonderfully successful paragon of twenty-something-hood and you’re still here! Doesn’t that bother you?

Well, yes, a bit, but it takes longer than that to get a Ph.D., and I knew that going in, but still – You’re STILL here!  Then the inner voice shakes its head and asks, mockingly, isn’t it simply dreadful to be you?

Well, no; no, it’s not. But fifth year is the point at which friends and relatives, some of whom may not be too clear on the timeline of your Doctor of Philosophy, begin to wonder, more than ever before, why you haven’t graduated yet. “Haven’t you been in school for four years now?” they’ll ask. “That should be more than enough time to get a degree in something – what have you been doing all this time?” Okay, sure. They just don’t understand. But still, there’s that voice, that voice again, that persistent voice that murmurs, What am I doing?

At this stage, it’s very difficult not to compare your progress – in life, much less in your own program – against other people’s successes, those of scientists and non-scientists alike. And truthfully, we all feel that frustration. We all watch others’ lives progress on Facebook and wonder, “Why isn’t that me?”. Recently, however, I have taken to heart some new ways of framing my experience, ways that center on my own context – the Ph.D. context – rather than on the post-college lives of others. I’ll share them here in the hope that they may help you reframe your experience, too.

Time is a matter of perspective.
I happily admit to reading one of the cleverest, nerdiest, and most consistently emotive stick-figure comics on the whole of the Interwebs: Randall Munroe’s XKCD. The comic regularly features absurd (though accurate) numerical framings of everyday concepts. I love these nutty numbers. And if you’re like me – i.e., analytically-minded – then you probably also love numbers. So let’s take comfort in a handful of fun statistics about graduate school:

By the time we start our fifth years, we’ll have been graduate students:

  • Long enough to perform 2,190 back-to-back renditions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle
  • Approximately 47 times longer than William Henry Harrison’s presidential term
  • Less than half the time required for an elephant to reach sexual maturity
  • Less than 5% the duration of the Brisbane pitch drop experiment
  • Less than 0.000000029% the current estimated age of the universe

By these metrics, I’d say we’re doing all right!

More seriously, everyone’s timeline is different. Everyone’s project is different. And even though we’re all working toward the same general goal – the Degree – everyone’s priorities are different; we all go about this process in slightly different ways. It’s not always easy to figure out the appropriate perspective, except to say this: build in time for the things that make you happy, and for whatever makes you laugh – even if that’s just a regular visit to a delightfully nerdy comic strip, or omelettes and mimosas with friends on a Saturday morning when you could be in the lab.

Today is Friday.
I wish I could claim this brilliant analogy were mine, but in this case all credit, honor, and offers of homemade cookies go to my classmate, Lauren. Her thoughts on this stage of graduate school really stuck with me when she explained them recently, and I keep coming back to them. To paraphrase:

“Think of your graduate school experience as days of the week; each year represents a different day. Monday can be tough, but you’re probably rested and excited for things to get going. Tuesday, you’ve got Monday under your belt, but maybe you’re realizing how much of the week still remains; by Wednesday, your third year, it may be starting to feel like the longest week you’ve ever had. But by this analogy, your fifth year is Friday; and right now, it’s Friday morning, and soon it’ll be time to go home. For some people, maybe your week will be over in just a few short hours! But you know, there are some people who go into lab on Saturdays; there are even some who go into lab on Sundays, and that’s okay. That’s graduate school. But for now, today – today is Friday.”

 

Take heart, then, friends, because it’s Friday. Your weekend – whenever it begins – has nearly come.

And here is my promise, to myself and to you: by Sunday, at the latest, we’ll all answer to “Doctor”, and then we’ll start Monday together.

Requiem for a Madman

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We’ve gone out for drinks after rehearsal, as per the ensemble’s treasured social tradition. With melody in our ears, laughter in our hearts, and the city’s finest craft beers in our cups, we reminisce and share arpeggiated memories, waxing eloquent about song and feeling and the zymological merits of summer saisons. At such events, I am dependably enthusiastic; I ask questions, and I listen, and I answer and ask again, wading deep through tales and truths, spinning out story like thread. And I am told:

You don’t seem like a scientist.

A statement made in this kind – neither the first of its sort I’ve heard, nor, I imagine, the last – invariably elicits strong but conflicting feelings, confusion and frustration and appreciation vying in equal measure for pride of place. I wonder: is the remark meant as criticism? As mere observation (though informed by what, observed through what lens)? Or perhaps, worst of all – is it meant as compliment, as a pat on the back for having, against all odds and in spite of my academic discipline, metamorphosed, a larval scientist become a well-adjusted and socially acceptable butterfly? I test each possibility in turn, running intents across my nerves, tiptoeing through connotations while a carefully noncommittal smile distorts my lips.

You don’t seem like a scientist.

On the one hand, I delight in the wake of cognitive dissonance that trails behind me as I move through my spheres of acquaintance. I delight in bucking the expectations of those around me, that the totality of what I am might play a small part in shifting how they perceive my chosen path. For I am many things in concert: scientist, dreamer, musician, athlete, incorrigible punner and Jungian empath and a hundred other traits and tendencies that coalesce into one high-energy, unflaggable person, a veritable neutrino embodied. Most Americans can’t claim to know a scientist personally; perhaps knowing me is a fine beginning – or at least, a beginning.

But there is a yet more curious, more insidious aspect to this observation – the fact that the statement can even be made. The fact that any preconception of scientist exists such that I could not possibly be one.

You don’t seem like a scientist.

Why not?

A cursory image search clarifies what a scientist should seem like. A scientist should be male, lab-coated, serious and poorly socialized and all together too intelligent for his own good, meddling with the laws of nature, playing at God, mesmerized by personal chaos yet simultaneously impersonal, even meticulously so, insensitive to greater human needs. Even now, this pseudo-scientist persists in the popular imagination. He persists in spite of such powerfully humanizing efforts as science writer Allie Wilkinson’s This Is What a Scientist Looks Like, or the Department of Education’s Drawings of Scientists project. No, this person, this caricature of a person, is but the archetype of the mad scientist, the stereotype of the mad scientist, and as scientists ourselves, as men and women with a love of method and discovery, we should be concerned by his staying power – and we should take charge of our apparent public relations problem. We should shift the image, and with great purpose; we should each day be substituting neighbors for noisemakers, and philosophers for madmen.

My friends, here is the short of it:

A scientist is not a lab coat and goggles; these are the tools, but not the person.

A scientist is not a flask of brightly colored chemical, boiling over without explanation or reason on an abandoned bench; this is a product, but not the person.

A scientist is not an amalgam of madnesses and neuroses, nor a mess of untended hair, nor a maniacal gleam beyond the eyes – these are the tropes, but not the person.

True, any one of us may be any one of these things from time to time. We are, after all, only human, and as such cannot always vouch for the state of our hair at the end of a twelve-hour day. But to be all of these things? All at once? Pure nonsense.

In this way, controverting stereotype proves a useful exercise; however, it is a method that yields little other fruit, and it cannot fully render up an answer to the question of what a scientist is. So if we reject the premise that a scientist is defined by what she is not – then how should we define her? How do we address her complexities, those aspects of her with three-dimensional life, the nuances and subtleties that defy simpler classifications? How do we define her publicly, to ourselves, to our family and friends – to strangers who have never met her before and expect little more than a laugh in a lightning storm?

In response, I say: if you must define her at all, define her by her mind. Define her by her approach. Define her by her vision, and by the unique and extraordinary way she interacts with her world.

This is who she is:

A scientist is a tinkerer, a puller of loose strings, a questioner of the commonplace.

A scientist worries the threads of what does not fit, persistent and curious and eager, unraveling sweaters in metaphor to see how stitches interlace, wondering at the summed complexity of small things.

A scientist drinks deep of logic and passion together, of practiced skepticism and childlike joy, determined and nervous and frustrated and beaten down and raised up in sequence and in series, driven by her work yet herself driving it forward, the desire simply to know wired hard into her synapses. She is a juggernaut, and she will learn all she can while she lives.

Do I seem like a scientist now? For she is I, and I am she, and we shall ever burn brightly for discovery.

The Uncertainty Principle

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 “So… how much longer do you have?”

I knew she’d ask, knew it from the moment I introduced myself as a student, knew (with a sense of resigned inevitability) that her inquiry followed logically from the pleasantries that preceded it. Were she a graduate student herself, she might recognize the gauntlet she has thrown down at my feet – but she is not, and so she asks the question, asks that question, a question that, according to the unspoken etiquette of pre-doctoral candidates, ought never to be asked. In that instant, I am examined; I am measured; and all potential conversations resolve into this one well-intended and cheerful inquiry. “I don’t know,” I hedge, “It depends on [x] and on [y] and on perverse luck above all else…”

I’ve heard it said that the fourth year of graduate school is the most difficult; thus far, I’m inclined to agree. In fourth year, most of us no longer take classes; we no longer teach; we are just in the lab. Our certainties are stripped from us; we cannot measure ourselves by our good grades, or by our students’ achievements, for these prior metrics no longer apply. This is not to say that all objective standards lose meaning: there is the promise of breathless moments, when the data may yield brave new insights. There will eventually be published papers: not always groundbreaking, but published nonetheless. And someday, there will come the long-awaited job offer, when years of work finally bear fruit, when mere heartbeats separate us from the next stage of our science.

But these milestones are not the currency of a fourth-year graduate student. At this stage, that brilliant datum likely remains elusive, that first-author paper is often still “coming together,” and that desirable position is still a ways out. In many respects, we are unfinished. We are midway through our story; we have met the cast of characters, the proteins and the assays and the capricious organelles that will define our coming years, but the ending remains unwritten. Indeed, we live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, poised between past success and the nebulous but inevitable future reality of what lies beyond: far enough away to exist mostly in the imagination, yet still close enough to cast an ill-defined shadow.

Some revel in this uncertainty, delight in flux. I do not. I relish the possibility of knowing: knowing what comes next, knowing where I’ll be in three years’ time. But should such answers be too concrete for my present, where can I, or any of us, find comfort, drifting as we do between what is and what may be?

The truth is that we are all bright, we are all capable, and above all, we can adapt: where no anchors hold us steady, we forge our own; where no tangibles exist, we create them. We learn to mark time in moments, to carve out small victories in the quiet space between breaths. Our definitions of success become more flexible – our day-to-day achievements, praiseworthy. At times, achievement is an elegant, even significant, finding, taped proudly into our notebooks. Other days, we scrawl with leaky ballpoint pens across professional development columns, reminding ourselves that we have the tools to pursue many possible careers – that our futures need not be fixed. Even in the most trying times, in the hours when favorable outcomes seem little more than a pipe dream, we can take comfort in more mundane triumphs: eggplant parmesan in the fridge, massing out reagent to four decimal places, a cool breeze on an overdue bike ride home.

And when all else fails, we rely on this, our absolute certainty: that we have unshakable passion for science, for learning and doing and teaching and writing about this discipline that is wonderful and wonderfully frustrating by turns, and that this passion will ultimately see us through.

How much longer do I have? I don’t know, I don’t know, a thousand times I don’t know – but I’m learning to enjoy that answer.