Tuesday, February 27, 2007


This afternoon in lab, a colleague asked me whether I was ambitious. Now there's an easy question. Of course I am. "Yes", I said. Her reply was immediate: "Ambitious of what?" I looked at her shell-shocked. What a way to start a conversation on a rainy afternoon, and that without getting a coffee first.

What am I ambitious of? It seems to me this is akin to asking for my plan of life. Honestly, I'd be a different person if I had found it. So I started yammering about trying to be the best I can in everything I attempt and living up to my own high standards, being true to myself (whatever this myself really means). She wasn't easily satisfied. "Are you ambitious of recognition?"

Dude, it's really hard. I try my best no to care about what others think about me – unless these are people I care about, and money or material things don't mean much to me. Let me just live my own life.

But of course that is not a satisfying answer either. Maybe my ambition could be finding out what I really want to get out of life. Wouldn't that be a fine thing to do in 2007?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

two lives

My career as a scientist started in Jena where I was a registered student majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology from 1995 to 1999. Throughout these years, the scent of faraway was tempting my nose. In 1998 I gave in, renewed my registration "in abstentia" and left Germany, never to look back. Never, that is, until last summer when the incredible atmosphere during the World Cup couldn't help but rekindle the love for my fatherland.

Today I went to Jena on a job interview at the institute where I got my first exposure as an x-ray crystallographer - luckily not literally. An up-and-coming scientist is in the process of building his own lab there and is looking for colleagues to help him turbo-boost his work. Things have come together in the six months this guy is in Jena, but the last finishing touches remain before research could start in earnest. So far, only a technician is working for him. I would literally be buying computers and installing software. Evidently, there is the opportunity to leave my mark in the lab, but the guy I interviewed with has also the ambition and ideas to be a top tier researcher.

I'm standing at a crossroads of sorts, and despite all I said, the question is not about science. It is also not really about where to go and how I see my life in the future. It's much easier than that. I kind of knew before and saw clearly today that the question is what life I want to live NOW.

Jena is small, quiet, calm, has beautiful surroundings and a social life that's a perfect supplement if you are already well taken care of. Perfect for those who want to stop running, who are settled in life, maybe married, maybe even with kids. And it offers the possibility to do great science.

On the other hand there is London. It's huge, noisy, hectic, chaotic, young and extremely expensive. London cannot be described. In a multiple choice question it is always "all of the above". You would have to lock yourself in your apartment in order to avoid a social life, and even then it might just crash through your door and take you away. Perfect for those who have not grown up yet, who are still hungry and not satisfied with life yet. And it offers the possibility to do great science.

Which life is mine? Is it really a hard decision?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

who picks your fruits?

This morning I woke up with a brutal headache and a sore throat. I blamed it on the Guinness the night before. While the effect of a couple of beers should wear off, the brain pain didn't. When I finally sat in the plane back to Grenoble, after nearly missing it not just once but twice, my nose started to run and my eyes to burn. I didn't even find delight in the New Yorker I had bought just before.

Back home I determined I was suffering from some sort of drizzle-and-cold-induced malaise and I went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for a fruit salad to give my immune system much needed ammunition. I chucked carrots and oranges, grapefruits and apples into my cart but stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the bananas, country of origin Côte d'Ivoire. They were blotchy and brown, quite obviously civil war bananas, probably grown between the front lines. I imagine harvest is a dare-and-die exercise with doomed souls collecting rotten fruit from a recently shelled grove. You have to be quick harvesting because the next round of enemy fire (and there's nothing but enemy fire) might reduce the remaining bananas to a dirty yucky pulp, of which you'd be a part.

I'm doing really well with my cold in comparison, and I hope the grapefruit and unreasonably long hours of sleep tonight will put my body back into drive.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

london calling

Tonight is the third time that I'm seriously contemplating going to the Land of Eng. The last two times, I had good reasons to bail, and I did. I ended up in Salt Lake City and Grenoble, for better or worse, respectively ;-)

Today, I gave a talk at an undisclosed location here, and it was good. I talked to the prospective boss, and it was good. He is enthusiastic about science and has the record to match. He showed keen interest in my coming. It was an interview without a dark moment.

With all undue self-important smugness, I think I'm a very good fit for the lab. There is a certain overlap with my Ph.D. work, and the multipronged approach to science they like to take here is also very dear to me.

People in the lab were friendly, sociably and highly interactive. In one afternoon, I had more conversations than I had in Grenoble in one year. They were satisfying and not all about science. Why the hell am I flying back? Boss asked me if I could start tomorrow, but there are certain financial reasons for running the current job its due course. And there is of course the sage piece of advice that you should always sleep a night over a big decision.

Who wants to live in London anyway?

Monday, February 05, 2007

good reasons and bad

People ask me why I got a cell phone, if I couldn't live without one, how much better life is now. That's a lot of questions. The answer to three is not at all. The answer to two is long and comprises two stories.

Over the last five years, ever since cell phones become ubiquitous, I absolutely wanted to have one because I like gadgets. What I don't like is spending money on something I don't need. I always wanted to have a Palm Pilot too and never got one because there was never any rational justification. Over the last two years there were a number of situations where I would have used a cell phone but only two where I really regretted not having one.

One was when a friend and I climbed Alpe d'Huez on our bikes and lost track of each other on the way up. It's a delirious climb. Up at the top I spent fifteen minutes looking for my buddy and descended when I couldn't find him. He later told me that he also kept looking for me up at the top, but with more persistence. A cell phone would have saved me an hour at the base of the climb and him an hour riding up and down the top third of the mountain before he finally gave up and descended as well.

The other was when I was going from Switzerland to Italy to meet up with friends. I had the great idea of taking a boat, to get the most of the sun and Lago Maggiore. A few hours before departure I learned that Italian boat mates were apparently on strike and that I would have to find another way across or around the big water. It turned out to be around and involved walking, a train, much waiting, and a bus. I bought a phone card, and the information of my mishap was relayed properly to my friends, but a cell phone sure would have been nice and I wouldn't now have a half-full Swiss phone card lying around collecting dust.

Now that I have a phone, people assume I'm actually going to use it. A friend asked me to call her when I get to London. I don't know if my phone is set up to make and take calls abroad. It says that's an option I can activated, but my provider's web page is completely useless to do that. It refuses steadfastly to associate my mobile number with the rest of my DSL account. Don't even ask about customer assistants at this time.

That brings me to the answer of question one. Devious marketing. Neuf, the company I hand 30 euros every months for TV, internet and telephone, decided they'd like to become a fully integrated quadruple player. They offered me a number just so. I only have to pay for minutes spent talking. And if I don't use it, it's free - which might just happen in England because of Neuf's shitty customer service.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

leaving France

For the last year, at least, I've agonized about whether I should leave Grenoble or stay, whether I just find a new job in another country or scrounge up another few months here when my contract is over. I guess scientists are often in this sort of a dilemma. Research is ongoing and never truly stops. One can always justify hanging on and doing a few more experiments in the hope of landing the big scoop - or just finishing the project cleanly. Of course, this never happens. We're always equally far for the next big idea. That's what science is about. At the same time you come closer to your idea, your develop your idea further and move it farther out there.

The bottom line is, you move on when the opportunity opens up. Unless you have a permanent position and have handed in all your ambitions, you are a mercenary of science. I have an opportunity in London, and will take it very seriously. Others will sure come as soon as I look for them.

What this means it that while I'm trying to see the temptation in other countries, I'm looking at France with a much more critical eye than usually. Two things occurred today that brutally shoved into my face the truths that France is not my country and the IBS not my kind of institute.

First the country. In Le Monde I read that "the Commission specialized in automobile terminology - composed of high civil servants, automobile professionals and journalists" will be busy translating the names of the newest innovations in the car maker industry into French. While the Japanese, the Koreans and the Germans innovate, the French translate. This explains much about France if you think about it.

Next the institute. Venki Ramakrishnan gave a talk at the EMBL today, a facility five minutes away that part of the same Partnership for Structural Biology as the IBS. In the audience, there was one other IBS dude. Now I don't say that you have to love the ribosome, but then again, you don't have to love it in order to eagerly attend the seminar. It's like Eric Clapton is coming to town and you just continue playing your guitar because you can't be bothered right now. I'm missing the devotion, passion, dynamics, ideas that I formerly associated with science. What a lame place.


I've been asking myself what happiness is. I don't know. But I know that I normally don't acknowledge unhappiness, come hell or high water. It'd be like conceding defeat. That I don't do either. Let's just say the next stop will be better.