Health, headaches and (six) hundred followers

Yes, yes, I know. This is my first blog post in two months. But, hopefully I’ll be able to make it count. Those of you who follow me on Instagram, @theradicalbotanical will have seen my story asking you if you wanted to see more plant science, or more PhD life posts. Everyone voted 50:50 so I’m going to touch a little on both over two days.

I’ll start with the PhD life part, mostly because it explains my absence. Virtually all of you know I have a list of medical problems as long as my arm, and then my leg. Through blind chance, I inherited a boat-load of messed up genes, and they find new ways to mess me up at every turn.  What I’m not always so forthcoming about, is the way my brain often fails to work too.

One of my conditions is called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (try saying that with a mouthful of peanut butter, I dare you). As described in this post here, it can do ridiculous things to my body. It, combined with a variety of other less-palatable factors, means I’ve spent my life so anxious that receiving a text message gives me physical chest pain. So does people coughing, doors closing, and the start-up sounds of Mac computers. Funnily enough, there’s only so much every-day-every-thing-anxiety you can take before you completely shut down. Which I managed to do in a very big way. I couldn’t get out of bed, and when I could, I couldn’t get to the lab. If I could get into the lab without being sick on my journey (an open apology to those living at number 50) then there was no way I was going to do practical work. So, I didn’t. For a month. I sat, staring at my RNA sequencing data hoping and praying that the answer to my permanent-anxiety-depression-catatonia was somehow hidden away in transcriptional network causality modelling. (Hint: it’s not. Nothing is hidden in the RNA sequencing data apart from data, who knew?).

a lovely gift from one of my thoughtful & brilliant colleagues

My mental health advisor (who is a saint), was genuinely at her wits end, and so was I. I marched to my GP (who is also a saint) and we discussed my options. We tried fluoxetine (Prozac) for a month. I stopped eating and sleeping and stopped doing any work whatsoever. The work I did try and do, I forgot about, everything I tried to do, I couldn’t. I was locking myself in the disabled loo for half the day to cry until I went home for Christmas on the 15th of December. I did manage to give a small symposium presentation without bursting into (visible) tears, but that was only due to diazepam (thanks, b). The day before I left, my GP switched me to a serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, mirtazapine. Side effects: sleeping for 14h per day, uncontrollably intense dreams, uncontrollable appetite increase (I type, after eating my fourth meal of the day). Why am I dealing with these (expensive) side effects? Because for the first time in my life, I am not anxious.   I have been able to make media for my plants, without chest pain. I spoke in front of my lab group without swallowing my tongue and worrying about sounding stupid. I can look people in the eye. I didn’t take my supervisors critical examination of my annual review personally. I thought in a straight-forward, and goal oriented manner. I have designed my experiments for the next 4 months. I’ve achieved more in 4 days than I did in two months. Now I’m not for one moment claiming I’m somehow magically cured of my life-long multiple mental health issues; that would require a complete re-write of my formative years. But I am feeling positive toward my research, I’m not scared of it, it’s suddenly not this impossible-to-navigate byzantine labyrinth of mysteries shrouded in enigma wrapped in confusion. It’s just answering some questions that I know how to answer.

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skwot til u drop (in avo sox)

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I suffer from depersonalisation and periods of dissociation- taking ridiculous selfies is a pretty fun way to combat this.

Over ½ of PhD students will experience mental health problems during their PhD for the first time in their life.

  • Speak to your supervisor straight away. Don’t put it off (unless they’re an asshole).
  • If your supervisor is an asshole, go to your mental health or counselling service. They may offer drop ins, a fixed period of sessions, or, if your GP supports your claim, offer long term support (like I receive).
  • Even if your supervisor is a lovely angel sent from heaven, still go to your university’s mental health service. They can equip you with the toolkit you need to get through your studies
  • Identify your academic triggers: what’s making you feel bad? Your workload? Colleagues? Your office space? Broken equipment? Try and identify where the issues are arising.
  • Come up with practical solutions. Your workload? Reduce it for a month. Colleagues and office space? Ask to switch offices if possible. Or, try doing dry-work from home until you feel rested. Broken equipment or rubbish protocols? Contact your technician or lab manager, alert them to the negative impact it’s having on your work and why it needs fixed Don’t sit on your suffering.
  • Disclose and confide in a trusted friend who works in a similar environment, they may have their own (much better) advice they can tailor to your exact sitatuion.
  • Please don’t suffer in silence! If you are really struggling, go to your GP, call Samaritans, get in contact with your community mental health services.

So now you’ve endured my excuses for not posting anything in two months. I’d also like to celebrate the fact that right now, there are over 630 of you following my Instagram posts! And 30 of you just in the past 10 days. I am truly humbled by the lovely messages and support I receive through insta every day, you’re all stars.

Check out Nicola’s post on Fresh Science here for more mental health truth

and

Check out Rebecca’s fantastic tips on coping with anxiety in a PhD here too.

I should have a post on hormones (the plant kind, not the human kind) up over this weekend, keep your eyes peeled!

-E xo

Disabled&STEM: lab life adjustments

I’ve been getting a lot more attention on Instagram recently, especially with a video of me using a multichannel pipette for some gene expression analysis. The qPCR assay is incredibly sensitive to basically everything, including the DNA destroying enzymes present all over our fingers, hands, and bodies. A few people have asked me why I am not wearing gloves in the video, given it is such a sensitive assay.

The reality of being a disabled scientist is that I cannot always follow conventional lab practice in some instances. I can’t always wear a lab coat, or gloves, or perform shared lab duties, or wash my glassware on time, or use reusable tubes, or lift and change my biohazard waste bin, or be expected to be in for 10 hours a day all week. One of the hardest parts of me adapting to research life was becoming comfortable with my limitations.

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an example of the disposable plastic falcon tube I use to grow my bacterial cultures in, instead of reuseable glass ones.

What’s up with the gloves thing?

In addition to my genetic connective tissue disorder, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hypermobility type), which I’ve given a brief overview of here, I also have a form of dysautonomia, called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia syndrome (POTs). The two are very commonly experienced together.

The autonomic nervous system controls all the stuff in your body you don’t ever need to think about; breathing, heart rate, digestion, heat regulation, blood pressure, dilation & constriction of blood vessels. Mine, for whatever reason, is failing (dys = not working, autonomia = autonomic nervous system)

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Pretty in pink: can you tell what my favourite colour for lab equipment is?

POTS is characterised by an inability to regulate heart rate when you go from sitting/lying down to standing, but has plenty of other symptoms too. When I stand up, my heart rate spikes to 150bpm and my blood pressure drops. This makes me pass out/nearly pass out/appear drunk/slur my speech/forget what I was saying/any combination of the above. This also happens with increases in heat. My body can’t regulate temperature properly, so it gets confused, and makes me pass out instead of actually cooling me down. I am on a very specific (& expensive) beta blocker called nebivolol. It’s specific for my heart tissue, not my lungs, as I’m also severely asthmatic and don’t need my lungs to be anymore slowed down than they already are.

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Unfortunately for me, human bodies are really efficient at losing heat through our feet, heads, and hands. When I wear gloves in a warm environment (like our nice climate controlled lab), I invariably end up feeling incredibly dizzy, sick, and confused. This is because my body forgets how to cool myself back down once it falsely perceives itself as overheating. (This also means as soon as it’s 10°C or below outside, I have to wear the thickest gloves, too).

What about really dangerous protocols? Or RNA sensitive work where your hands might destroy your samples?

There are multitudes of reasons I am studying plants; the relatively low biohazard rate is one of them. I don’t need to work with cell culture, nasty viruses, horrible bacteria, biohazardous materials, or generally other Very Cool but ultimately Very Nasty material that requires a lot of personal protective equipment. Of course I wear gloves for dangerous work, I don’t have a death wish! This does mean I change my gloves every 5 minutes, rest, breathe, and air out my hands to encourage my body to regulate. I’d definitely be a terrible surgeon.

So? Why am I not wearing gloves?

Because I really don’t feel like fainting/damaging equipment/having to fill out safety forms/annoying the building manager/ getting occupational health involved/ making everyone else worry.

But what about your sensitive assays? How does your disability impact those?

Luckily for me, I have a very supportive lab environment. If I really have to do a qPCR or other sensitive DNA/RNA work, I decontaminate my workspace with DNA or RNA away (both commercially available from Thermo-Fischer). I then drench my hands/arms/exposed body parts in 100% ethanol, which gets rid of most nasty things which might perturb the experiment’s function. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly better than potentially causing myself/lab mates/machines serious harm.

What unconventional lab practice do you follow? Do you do things in your own particular way compared to what you were shown?

Where’s the lettuce? Food, Brexit, & Climate Change

*Re-printed with permission from TheGIST: Glasgow’s Insight into Science and Technology, originally published on 18th August 2017*

Disabled & STEM: Reality checking

I’d never considered myself to be disabled until the last few years. I grew up as an Irish dancer, cross-country runner, climber of trees & rider of bikes. Slowly but surely, my ankles started turning purple, then they stopped moving properly. Then my knees hurt, all the time. Then a weird cracking in my neck started. By the age of 13, my shoulders started dislocating. My doctors told me I was double jointed and I’d grow out of it. Except, it just kept getting worse.

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My first double knee dislocation aftermath: Crutches for the rest of my life!

I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (Hypermobility Type) when I was 21, 11 years after I first went to a doctor about chronic joint pain. It took me 5 years of self advocacy to get them to pay any attention, and it was only once I started my genetics degree they took me seriously. EDS is a cluster of dominantly inherited connective tissue disorders, affecting collagen biosynthesis, stability, and regeneration. Some people’s cardiac tissue is weak, other people’s skin is incredibly loose and stretchy. Mine manifests in partial and full dislocations of my elbows, wrists, shoulders, ribs, knees, ankles, and hips. These partial dislocations happen daily, with minimal pain. Full dislocations are agonising, but I can often relocate myself. Saturday was a different story.

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Suited and booted after my lungs shut down due to dysautonomia

I slipped on a wet pub floor and didn’t have my crutch to hand to stop me falling. I dislocated my left leg in a way I’d never managed before. I relocated it, and then collapsed from the pain, dislocating it again. This time I couldn’t move, or speak.

I waited an hour and a half for an ambulance, was taken to A&E, I think it went like this: x-rays, morphine, CT scans, morphine, gas & air, more morphine, was relocated, and sent home. I got back in at 7am.

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Bossing it at the gym with my resistance bands, elbow crutch, & holter heart rate monitor in January 2017

72h later, I still can’t walk properly. The pain is so ridiculous I can’t stand up, sit down, or use the loo safely. I’ve “destroyed” my muscles that hold my leg in place, and have no access to physio to fix it, currently.

This is the harsh reality of being disabled. I got into the lab yesterday to do some basic stuff, and I’ll try and go again today. All I can do at this stage is keep persevering. I’ve got plants to water, growth rates to measure, seeds to sow, RNA sequencing data to analyse. It’s not going to do it itself, and I’m not going to let my disability stop me from doing it, either.

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Me, very, very, very high on morphine, 1st October 2017

The only way I’ve found to manage my disability in academia is by laughing, having fun, and being stubborn. As time goes on, maybe I’ll hit the disability management jackpot, but for now, I’m gonna spend the day resting in bed, and ask someone else to help do my work with me. Science is unrelenting, and so is disability, but the biggest progress I’ve made in the past year is admitting when I need to put myself, and my health first.

Sometimes, the science can wait.

I am proudly disabled, I am proudly a woman, and I am proudly a scientist.

 

 

TheRadicalBotanical on Instagram!

I’ve started up an instagram account for my blog, documenting day-to-day life in the lab, click here to follow!

Or, you can find my profile on the right hand side of this site, under the live Twitter feed.

I’ve been so busy finalising my Masters by Research thesis, I’ve really let my blog post content slip recently (AKA I haven’t posted for a whole month…) But, once this thesis is in next week I’ll be right back at it.

I’ve been playing around with imaging actively dividing DNA in the root apical meristem. The green blobs are nuclei, containing DNA. If the nuclei are fluorescing green, it means the DNA has actively replicated in the past 24h. All of these are green as the apical meristem drives root growth through active cell division, meaning all of these cells are brand new. I’m hoping to use this technique to better characterise how root meristems grow and produce new cells under different conditions, and in different knockout mutants. This way, we can understand how and if different genes regulate cell division and DNA replication.

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The black part is the quiescent centre, a very important part of the meristem which ensures the right tissue types are produced. It divides only very occasionally, meaning no new DNA was produced here during the 24h incubation. The red part surrounding the cells is FM4-64, a plasma membrane stain which shows us the outline of the cells.

Cool right?