Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Just what I needed

“Three weeks in Japan!” my dentist exclaimed, “Wow I’m really jealous, have an amazing time!”

It hadn’t occurred to me that people might think I was going on some kind of holiday. I had to tell her that actually I’d be working pretty hard most of the time and that I didn’t even know if I’d get time off on the weekends. Way to kill the mood, huh?

That night I packed my suitcase but I was definitely missing the zeal of someone going on a long-awaited journey. The next morning I had to give a lecture before I eventually found myself, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport.

There I was, staring at an overly-sweet pumpkin latte mentally repeating the mantra ‘In. Out. In. Out’. Slowly letting the adrenaline I’d been running off subside with some breathing exercises I stole from my neglected yoga class.

Stretching my arms over my head, I realised I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was quite honestly looking forward to stepping onto the long haul flight to Japan for one simple reason: No one could email, tweet or phone me for at least the 16 hours I’d be in transit. After a fortnight rushed off my feet without even time to eat properly, the trip seemed like a relief.

I was going to Japan for three weeks of experimental work, two weeks at one lab and another week at a second. This trip would be the first experimental visit from my research group to either lab.  

My research group are awesome world-renowned experts in their respective sub-fields, so I felt some trepidation about them trusting me, the youngest member of the group, to go all the way to Japan. I felt I had to make a good impression, do some (hopefully) good experimental work and of course report it all back to them regularly. (No pressure, then!)

I had every imposter syndrome thought in the book; I felt underprepared, I hadn’t done any proper experimental work for a few years and I seriously wondered if this trip was even a good idea. After all, learning how to run an entire particle accelerator on the fly while simultaneously thinking about how to study the underlying physics was never going to be a walk in the park. Here I was attempting to do that somewhere I don’t even speak the language… was it madness? Maybe I was just being sent as a kind of delay tactic until the other guys in my group could visit later?

But the worst thing was that I was also struggling with an even bigger issue; I felt like I’d lost my science mojo.

I can’t pinpoint when I lost it, or even when I realised I had. But some time in the last two years I’d started really struggling to motivate myself to do bits of science that I previously enjoyed. I found myself doing seemingly never-ending simulation work and getting further and further from the kind of science I’d always liked the most; experimental work.

Fast forward to today. I’ve been here for just under than a week. We’ve worked fairly long days but that’s to be expected. I’ve left behind my house, my friends, my partner and all my creature comforts to stay in quite basic lab accommodation. (I can’t even catch up on Downton Abbey!).

To my surprise, rather than make me homesick or lonely, it turns out to be exactly what I needed. I also discovered to my relief that they don’t work weekends. Finally, some much-needed time off!

On Saturday I got up early and went for a run up the nearby mountains for an hour to bust jetlag, then met one of the students and spent the afternoon exploring a local mountain temple complex. Relaxation was creeping its way in.

Visiting a local mountain shrine complex. Aahhhh... time off!
On Sunday, something wonderful happened. It was raining and I didn’t have internet access in my room. Usually that would be pretty miserable, but I found that in my new surroundings and without the pressure of so much to do, I had a really productive day writing a talk for an upcoming conference, writing a report and editing a paper.

On Monday, feeling refreshed after the weekend, we took our first set of shiny new experimental data. At some point it occurred to me that to really understand exactly how to get from raw data to interesting science, I’d better write my own analysis code. I could have used the existing code from my collaborators but I felt like I wanted to do it myself. That way I’d be able to explain every step in the process to my group back home.

Somewhere in my brain a change was afoot… I found that I wanted to go the extra mile. Like I used to do. Like I’ve always tried to do because, at the end of the day, I like understanding things properly and doing good science.

For radiation safety reasons I can’t do any construction work on the accelerator between experiments, but I took the time to make myself useful anyway as my collaborators got their hands dirty. I eagerly flipped open my laptop and set about figuring out how to analyse the raw data from scratch.

I really got my geek on... and I don’t normally even identify with the word ‘geek’! I looked up and then implemented Gaussian smoothing functions, fourier transforms and differential peak finding algorithms. On a day trip to a workshop we were invited to yesterday I even worked on some analysis on the train home after a generous Japanese banquet.

For the first time in a long time I feel like getting into the nuts and bolts of data analysis isn’t a drag, it isn’t a chore, it’s been… strangely thrilling. I’ve got that ‘real data’ excitement that I haven’t had for years. It feels like something I want to do because I’m interested in it, rather than something I do because it’s my job.

At the end of today after we finished an experiment, I quickly ran my code on our new data then pulled my collaborators over to take a look. Being able to show them my fully analysed data only a short while after we’d taken it was, if I might say so myself, pretty awesome. 

Seeing a new result emerge for the very first time is like no other feeling you’ll ever experience. Even if it’s a relatively unimportant one like my result today! It's a rush. It keeps us coming back for more and working our way through tough equations, battling with computing problems and scratching our heads over experiments.

I felt great. I felt like I wanted to punch the air and shout “yeah baby!” like one of my office-mates used to do when I was a student. Finally, I felt like a physicist again.

There’s a fire in my belly and a switch has flipped in my brain. I’m interested again. I got my science mojo back.

Now excuse me, I’m going to go have a cup of tea and a biscuit to celebrate while I analyse some more of this data.