That’s it. That’s the post for today.
As I wrote yesterday – we had a bit of a scare. A bunch of self tests turned out faintly positive. Well, I’m happy to report that our PCR results came back very negative today, so the scare was only short-lived. I don’t understand how it is possible to get three false positives out of four self tests. It scared the hell out of me, and I spent 24h in an adrenaline rush. As a consequence, I’m now in a bit of an adrenaline drain. I’m completely exhausted. Needless to say, it was a very satisfying day (I even finished a paper revision and shared it with co-authors), and a big – no a huge – relief.
I think I’ll leave it at that for today. Time to start binge-watching new episodes of ‘The Blacklist’ this evening.
Well. Okay, no, maybe a few more final words. This may be preaching to the choir. But still, I think they are important…. Get your bloody vaccinations! Go get them, not just for yourself, but also to reduce risks for those of us that can’t be vaccinated (yet), such as (young) kids and (in countries like Germany) pregnant women. Thank you! Bye.
For the past couple of weeks, we have been ‘nesting’ like mad, buying and preparing all kinds of necessary and not-so-necessary things. This nesting behaviour is important for parents-to-be, I remember from the first time how it was an incredibly powerful aspect of the whole process. Especially for me as a dad this pregnancy was a bit weird, as I was not allowed to join in for any check-ups due to the pandemic. It is hard to describe, but it makes you feel somewhat estranged from your own child. It is already hard to ‘get to know’ the little person growing inside their mother, but this time it was even harder. That fucking pandemic…
Yesterday, we finished some final aspects of our baby preparation craze – like hanging up a small rack to store some baby stuff and finalizing my wife’s creatively made baby swing. After completing these final tasks, we had completed all things ‘baby’ in our house, and with those last tiny things I officially told my wife Heike and our unborn child that all was ready to go.
While I am writing this, there are three more days of work left, before I go on parental leave. Three days! I finished pretty much everything on my to-do list. I will be ready, and in fact, I am already. The baby is due in five days. It is almost a perfect plan.
Until this morning, when a faint band appeared in the small recangular box, under the T, a small distance away from the more evident band that appeared under the C.
Since three weeks, we bring our two-year old son to day care again. We obtained a spot close to home, and on-campus. They offered us to do a month of ‘acclimatizing’ for the little one. We figured it would be good to have this done a bit before the baby would be there, so that we wouldn’t be handing him over just after the baby is born. I don’t know, this just didn’t feel right to me. For seven months, during the highest waves of the pandemic, we have kept our boy at home. It was tough, but we made it through. Nevertheless, the luxury of having child care in the final month of pregnancy was quite alluring. We figured that with the low incidence rates (around 5 per 100.000 in our area at the start of July), and the rise in the number of vaccinated people, the risk of covid-19 was minimal.
It is quite normal for toddlers to drool on everything, including each other. Day cares are notorious for spreading common colds and other rather innocent rubbish. The first two weeks we somehow got lucky. Last night, however, Rafa developed a cough. We didn’t want to bring him to day care without testing – something we have done twice a week with him since the start. Under some protest I swabbed the q-tip through the insides of his cheeks and on the back of his tongue. I placed the q-tip in the solution buffer, shook it gently for a brief period of time, and placed three droplets on the designated spot on the antigen test. We continued our breakfast, and didn’t really mind the test during the ten minutes that followed, until I asked my wife “this test is positive, right?” The band was faint, very faint, but it was certainly a band. I have by now completed 20-or-so self tests and not once have I seen even the faintest of bands. Admittedly, this was a different brand than mine, specifically adapted to young children, and suitable for mouth cavity swabs, but the concept is the same. Previous tests – including one last Wednesday or Thursday – looked clean as a whistle.
We decided to make Rafa more uncomfortable and go for another round of testing with a second self-test. Simultaneously, my wife and I both ran a test of our own. The second test I would pass off as clean, although a very keen eye would see some minor irregularity in the space under the T (for test). My own test was spotless white, with a thick red band under the C (for control). No band, whichever way you looked at it. My wife’s? Not so much so. It wasn’t a thick band, but it was certainly not spotless as was mine. But then again, I am vaccinated – because Germany prioritized future fathers – whereas my wife is not, because Germany does not advise this and we could not find a doctor willing to give Heike the jab regardless.
For the record, for one and a half year, we have hardly met anyone in our private lives. At work, I have met with some people, with regular testing, always FFP2-ed up, and with distance where possible. When we do meet people privately, in these days of lower numbers in Germany, it is still outside, and only with people that are vaccinated. For the longer meetings, such as with family, which have also been vaccinated, we required that all parties tested regularly. The fact that we have worked for seven months with a toddler at home, even though we could have continued to bring him to his day care mother, is testament to the extreme care we have taken throughout this entire pandemic.
And now, at the worst possible timing, five days before our second child is due, we have two, maybe three, faintly positive self tests, and a clean one from the only person that is fully vaccinated.
This sort of shit can ruin your day, that much I can tell you.
Our general practitioner has been wonderfully professional and supportive throughout all this, and within two hours after calling, personally gave us a home-delivery PCR test, and he swabbed us literally on our door step. Calming a toddler from having received a nasal swab that must have tickled his brain stem is probably the saddest thing I have had to do in a long time. But it is for the best.
Now, the way the next couple of days will look like, all depends on the outcome of those three PCR tests, hopefully tomorrow.
If these tests will be positive, seriously, the only viable explanation would be that it came from child care. We have not let our guards down anywhere else.
Fuck!! This was not how this was supposed to go!
I hope for better news tomorrow.
I never talked about them here. I guess I don’t talk about it much in general. My tattoos. The story behind them, and/or, well, tattoos in general. But it’s kind of a fun/crazy story, so I thought it would be interesting to write about.
I have always loved the arts, and particularly drawing. When I was eight or so, all other kids in class would be drawing stick figures, while I was drawing up peregrine falcons or some shit, aiming for the best realism I could achieve. I never kept the drawings. Maybe they looked horrible – like bird versions of stick figures. Stick birds? We will never know. In my mind and memory they looked pretty cool, so you’d have to believe me. A few years later, high school came. In high school, many of my passions died a horrible death. For art class, I always drew things I liked, and how I liked them. Usually that was black and white realism – taken from photographs. That never was artsy enough for the teacher. Always telling me how I should oil paint things, instead of using my pencil. My work showed no diversity, and hence, no creativity, is what she used to say. I was uninspired, my grades went down, and I stopped drawing altogether. (The same happened with my love for reading, and for languages – high school was not the best environment for me.) After seven years of restricting my creativity and boring the life out of my existence, I got out of that prison hell hole with a diploma. For years, there was nothing that even remotely resembled creativity in my life, but now I read, write, and draw quite a lot.
Tattoos were somehow a ‘thing’ in my family. Tribals, tramp stamps. Poorly drawn roses. You don’t have to look too far to find them. I guess all of those had their prime somewhere in the nineties and early 2000’s. That wasn’t for me. However, I was always interested in tattoo realism, probably some relic from the past. This was before all the instagram hype, and before good work and realism was widely spread. I was always stuck to the screen when Miami Ink was playing. A horrible show, but with some artists that had some amazing talents, including realism. These terrible shows reignited in me a love for arts, and for tattoos in particular. I was hooked. But nothing happened, as I suffered from a life-long fear of needles. Trypanophobia is a real deal-breaker for getting tattoos. At least it was for me. However, it was not the only thing. Wherever I looked, I saw an abundance of shitty tattoos. To be frank, I would not want to carry most tattoos on me, even if I would be sponsored abundantly. What probably outweighed my choice against tattoos was my fear of getting something done by others, that would be against my personal preferences. If someone would put something on me, and I wouldn’t like it, I would probably need a cheese slicer or whatever. That was a big problem too.
So this was more or less why nothing happened between the early 2000’s and the mid 2010’s. However, some development was going on with the digital age blooming. Not only did social media popularize body art, and did it reduce the stigma that had long been attached to it, there was also an increase in the online availability. Of everything really. That included tattoo gear. Some of it with ridiculously low prices (and equally low quality material).
I never intended to tattoo anyone, when I bought a tattoo machine in 2017. I just wanted to learn the art of tattooing. I wanted to know whether it would feel in any way like drawing. At that time, some tattoo artists were beginning to share their work and more importantly, their work flows and techniques on YouTube. From watching hundreds of hours of YouTube material, I just started. I started first by tattooing oranges, lemons, then later fake rubber skin. Most of the ‘tattoos’ I worked on were insects. After a while of tattooing on this fake skin, I felt that I could do some reasonable work. I mean. It wasn’t perfect, but who cares. I wasn’t going to place it on anyone anyway. I don’t know what exactly pushed me to first tattoo myself. Having the gear in hand, even as a trypanophobe, made me curious. How would I ever be able to tell what tattooing was like, if I never tattood, or even had tattoos of my own. Without much of a drawing plan, but with a lot of ethanol, and some vaseline, on one evening I tattooed a triangle on the inside of my left ankle. This triangle symbolizes absolutely nothing, but it is still present, so it still is my first tattoo. It hardly hurt. So now at least I knew that.
For about a year or so, I continued drawing designs for potential tattoos that wouldn’t be all too difficult. Things that I wouldn’t mess up. I decided to buy high quality needles and high quality ink. Not to tattoo anything. Of course not. But when you tattoo a lemon, you also want to give the customer something that lasts through the years and ages well, you know.
All this time, I still wanted to get tattoos myself, but I was held back by the thought of anyone else drawing on me. The risk of being unsatisfied with the work was too high. I figured that if I would draw something myself, and I would tattoo it only half-good, I would probably be happier than if a professional would do a 90% perfect piece. I told myself that if I would start crying after two lines, it would be a good story to tell over a pint of beer (and who cares about two lines?). If not, it would still be a story, and if it would be a half-bad tattoo that was at least done by myself, I could at least live with it. So it was with that sentiment that at some moment I just thought ‘fuck it’, and just started stenciling a parasitoid on my leg. I based the drawing on a pretty ichneumonid photograph I found somewhere online. I positioned it on my right thigh, just above the knee – for no other reason than that it is an easy place to draw on and stretch the skin to pack in the ink. Full of good hope I started sterilizing the work space, my leg and preparing the sterile machine elements. Having worked in a microbial lab for several years, at least I know quite well how to keep a sterile work flow, so this was the least of my concern. Then followed the moment of truth. Here goes nothing… I immediately noticed there is a difference between drawing a 10-second triangle and a parasitoid roughly the size of a hand. I was also nervous as fuck, so all in all, the drawing turned into a series of very jittery lines. About ten minutes into the tattoo, I calmed myself down, and the lines became more solid, slightly less jittery. After the outlines were done, it looked as if a toddler had drawn a mosquito on my leg…
Yeah, that looked pretty horrible. I guess that needed a little touching up, and so I did. One week later, I mustered the courage to start filling it in. I somehow felt more confident that second time, and the ink packed in better. At the end of the session, it looked quite alright. Sure, this tattoo is still far from perfect, but I have seen plenty of stuff on others that looked worse to me. One thing I can be sure of, and that is that it is quite unlikely that anyone else on the planet has this design. A unique Robin Heinen ‘masterpiece’. I never touched it again, and I am still quite proud of it. I even was approached by several people at the European Conference of Entomology that told me they thought it was a cool tattoo. (Yes, I wear shorts and flipflops to conferences and I don’t give a damn.)
I guess it was half a year later or so, when I started thinking of another tattoo. I had always wanted to get a piece of a monitor lizard. I love monitor lizards. However, no matter how hard I looked, I never found any cool monitor lizard tattoos. Do people not like monitor lizards, or what? What I did find was a lot of good photo material online. So I again started drawing.
I stencilled this one on my left forearm, and then had the original picture to somehow guide me through the process. From the get-go, this one went much smoother. A tricky aspect of tattooing your own left arm, even as a right-handed person, is that it is difficult to stretch the skin and pack some ink. I am quite satisfied with how it came out after all, but it has faded quite a bit over the past couple of years. I am still gathering the courage to one day pick up the machine again and touch it up. I think it should be possible to make it look more like the above, but maybe I need something or someone to help me stretch my skin.
So there you have it. I was too scared of having others put needles and ink into my skin, so I did it to myself. As a little disclaimer – I do not recommend anyone to try this out easily. I have watched hundreds and hundreds of videos studying techniques, and practicing on fake skin and fruits for a long time. It should be clear that none of this prepared me for tattooing myself. It is a very strange experience for the body to deliberately hurt yourself, while trying to keep a steady hand. Also, it is probably quite stupid. I have a background in working in microbial labs, and at least I understand how to work sterile and minimize risks of infection. Skin is a delicate organ, and requires delicate treatment. Inflammation of the skin due to a contaminated tattoo is no joke and can be very dangerous to your health and permanently scar you.
Having said that, I am happy with my own two (well, three) imperfect masterpieces, and I never regretted them. There will certainly be more ink in the future. And yes. The next tattoo on me will also be by me. (It is addictive)
I have felt pretty much constantly nervous over the past couple of days. Our second child is due August 2nd, and that’s not too far away. Our first son Rafa came quite unexpected – ten days early – and birth started early in the morning, after a late evening of dinner with friends. We were naïve and believed that baby’s were born on their due date – or maybe a day earlier or later, but at least close. We know better now. Because Rafa was ten days early, I guess we now also had early expectations. I don’t know. We don’t really have another reference point. N=1.
Ten days before the due date would have been last Friday. But I’m getting quite sick of waiting. I want to get to know my child. I want to know whether it’s gonna be a girl or a boy. Whether it will have enormous hair like Rafa. Or the weird (but apparently harmless) spazzing that Rafa has had since his birth, whenever he gets excited. Every day I am talking to that huge belly and telling the contents (well those that have ears) that they can come out now. So far, the eared contents did not listen. I guess this baby is feeling pretty relaxed floating around upside down in mom’s womb. I can imagine it must be great living inside your own sensory deprivation tank (aside of some relaxation white noise, which is not too bad either). What more could you wish for. A kick or a stretch every now and then completes it all. Life is pretty good down there. We know this little one. But you can come out now. We promise we’ll do our best to be nice parents :).
At least try not to be ten days late….
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited on the editorial board of Annals of Applied Biology. Not counting the dozen invitations by MDPI ‘journals’, this was the first time I was asked to do something like this. For an early-career researcher like me, this is of course an exciting event and moreover it felt like a bit of an honour to be recognized as an ‘expert’ in my field. In my first couple of weeks as an associate editor, all was quiet. Maybe there were no submissions that fit my expertise? Maybe I was forgotten? I wasn’t sure. Even though I was officially an ‘associate editor’, it didn’t really feel that way. This is probably also why I never mentioned it on my blog before.
Yesterday, however, I got my first assignment to handle a manuscript. I had already assigned Friday afternoons to reviewer and editorial tasks, so it was almost well-timed. Unfortunately, the assignment came in the evening, long after my work day ended. I know, I should have waited until my next Friday afternoon block, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to figure out how the system worked. So, I just read the paper, and right away went through the reviewer database to find appropriate reviewers. This was an interesting experience in and of itself. Reviewer suggestions range from spot-on to the most irrelevant (mis)matches. Interesting algorithms… I guess I found – and selected – a set of decent potential reviewers. I immediately made my first mistake. In all my excitement, I invited the reviewers right away – going against my own advice not to work on weekends. I know the jury is still out in this subject, which regularly pops up on academic Twitter. Some people get very annoyed by review requests on weekends, whereas others are totally fine with it. I personally don’t mind. Just don’t expect me to answer before Monday. (I also don’t expect anyone to reply just yet.) To be honest, I also don’t mind having to do some things on the weekend sometimes, as long as that means I can take some time off during the week. (For instance, I did a couple of hours’ worth of field work last weekend, and compensated this by joining my family to a toddler summerfest at the kindergarten yesterday.) My main goal is to have a healthy work-life balance, not necessarily a Mon-Fri 9-5 schedule. Although work-life balance for me and my family often means no work on weekends, I try to be flexible where I can. I work with live organisms after all, and they sometimes need a bit of care on weekends. Here’s a thought. Perhaps after my parental leave, I should shift up my weekly schedule a bit and do the reviewer and editorial work on Monday instead of Friday afternoons, just to prevent this from happening. Of course I would aim to not offend any potential reviewers with my editorial behaviour. For now, please forgive me for my excitement…
“I would kindly appreciate it if you would think about it,” my boss told me a little over a year ago.
“Well… It doesn’t seem like I have much of a choice, do I,” I asked in return.
“Well. No, not really. Someone has to do it,” he answered.
I hate it when people bullshit me into thinking I have a choice. At least be honest with me when you push some shitty job onto me. And this job is pretty shit, I can tell you this.
He had just explained to me before that the department would need a new responsible person for teaching administration and course registration procedures. The person that used to be responsible was recovering from a stroke, and had decided to retire early. An understandable decision. The months that followed I dove into the teaching administration system with another colleague. We had to learn a new craft, and there was no one to teach us. In addition, the system had had a complete overhaul, which meant that we had to learn a lot of new stuff. Long (and boring) story short, we managed to figure out how to get things to work. In addition, we also figured out that the system in use by the TUM is one of the most ridiculous accounting systems I have ever seen. (I spent a year or so in a shit job in an accountancy office, and thought I had seen the worst, but no.)
The system here, is basically a combination of several existing systems, that are somehow tied together by a vague system that is supposed to link everything. Behind the visible system, there is some huge and hard-to-access network, which I find impossible to comprehend. The teaching curriculum we offer can somehow be copied from previous semesters, but so are all the mistakes, and dead ends. Via some complicated multi-step process, it is possible to – every semester – tie the whole mess back together. This would work just fine if people would just decide on a curriculum and stick with it. That seems unacceptable for everyone here. Every semester, there need to be new courses, or old ones deleted, or deleted ones revived, and of course with the staff turnover in academia, you can already guess that I have to always change teachers as well. To be honest, my boss spends so much time answering my questions, and preparing the teaching schedule to give to me, that I am pretty convinced that he would be better off doing it all himself. The whole system (well, at least the department’s) is mostly based on his thoughts, and every semester, it appears that he is the only one that fully understands it. Three semesters of arranging this shit, and I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing. It is almost via magic that I get it to work every time. I hate administrative stuff so bad (that accountancy job gave me psychological trauma and repetitive strain injury) that I really don’t want to (and can’t) remember the complexities of this hellhole of a teaching administration system. You can rest assured that after a six month semester, my mind has quietly labeled this information as useless and has not stored it in an easily accessible space.
This week, I spent quite a few hours on this horrible system. It frustrates me. (Just so that that is clear…)
A toddler could invent something better.
I don’t mind waking up early. I really don’t. However, when I have to do so, I usually go to bed earlier, just to cover my sleep. Unfortunately, my son has no indicator that tells me how long he will sleep the next night. Sometimes he sleeps until seven in the morning. That’s wonderful. I need eight hours of sleep, so I go to bed around eleven. This works great if he sleeps. He does, sometimes. He might wake up half an hour early and that’s perfectly fine. What I cannot stand, however, are the mornings, like today’s, where he wakes up before five, and keeps calling ‘wake up, wake up’ (we sleep in the same room). It was over, and there was nothing we could do about it. So, here we are sitting with our sleepyheads. On a blanket on the floor, surrounded by Duplo. I want to go to bed.
Being a parent is the best thing, but god, it can be exhausting sometimes.
Lately, I’ve been pondering over the question ‘what happens if this science thing doesn’t work out’ quite a lot. I never intended to do a PhD, but more or less did so because my MSc internship supervisor told me I should, and I liked working on plants and interactions. I never thought I was smart enough to ‘be a scientist’. I mean – I know I’m efficient and I know I can write, but sometimes I still wonder whether I’m smart enough. Maybe science is not really about being all that smart? My PhD I just started with the intention of giving it my fullest for the four years that it would take. And so I did. But especially in the beginning, I just saw it as a job that I liked. If after four years, that would be the end of it, so be it. I remember during my job interview, my PhD advisor asked me the question ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’, which I pretty much answered with the ‘I don’t know, hard to say’, followed by a ‘I would like to continue science for as long as it was enjoyable’, but most importantly ‘that I did not necessarily aspire to become a professor, but that I would see where the journey would take me’. Anything else would have been a lie. I don’t like lying, even in job interviews.
Somehow, I managed to finish my PhD unscathed. They never figured out that I wasn’t all that smart. They may have just given me my degree because I showed up in a silly suit. Before the end of my PhD, I applied for a couple of postdoc positions, one in Uppsala, two in Göttingen, and one in Freising. I was invited for all of them, and have been offered three of them (and for the fourth I cancelled the interview because I accepted my current position). I’m still not sure what happened there, but all these job interview panels did not manage to figure out that I’m not all that smart. I also found out that apparently application letters are my specialty in writing, although admittedly I do not enjoy it very much.
In my current position, I still have about four and a bit years of job security left, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think ahead. Half-inspired by the #IchbinHanna stories, I started thinking about what it means to be a postdoc on a university position in a German university. What does it mean really? It seems that it really means a couple of years job security, and nothing more. What bothers me most, is that what I am doing, is pretty much like a tenure track position, except it isn’t. The only thing that is missing is the prospect of permanence at the end. I do the teaching, I do the writing (including grant proposals), I do the science, I supervise PhD’s, I supervise student projects, and I even do administration. This is all fine, but it is pretty annoying that at some point the job security dries up, and when it does they kick me out like a rabid dog. I guess I don’t want to wait until that happens. So I am sometimes looking around a bit, only half-serious.
I guess the next logical step, then, would be to try and get a tenure track position. But I still have my doubts sometimes. First of all, I am not sure if it would work again to convince people that I’m that smart, but also, what about my earlier self confidently stating that he didn’t necessarily aspire to become a professor. In all honesty, I still don’t. If I look at my boss, and even my previous boss. Two professors. All they ever do is try to rake in money for more projects and sit in a gazillion meetings. They both rarely do the experimental work that I love so much. They live from meeting to meeting to meeting. Is that a future that I want for myself? I am not so sure. I sometimes wonder if there are ways to be a professor without all the crap? And if not that, what then? The longer people stay in academia, the more unsuitable they tend to get for anything non-academic. Right? Or is that just one of these persistent myths that I somehow took for truth?
And that brings me to the question I opened with. What if this all doesn’t work out? What if it isn’t for me? I always said plan B was a coffee bar, but realistically that would probably bore the life out of me after two days. What would I be good at other than putting plants in the ground and measure stuff? I always point out to people that they have all these soft skills and how important they are for doing X job. But at least these people have jobs in mind to consider. I have none in mind whatsoever. It is hard to come up with the matching soft skills. So when I think about soft skills I have, all that jumps to mind is that I am great at talking about rubbish over a coffee, and I talk even more rubbish and at a faster pace if you put another coffee in me. (Don’t put in more than that, two is enough.)
So one of my next challenges for the next months to years – I think – is to come up with a better plan B, something that involves a real and existing job description. Or come up with a better entrepeneurial plan than a coffee bar. I mean. Seriously… What the fuck do I do when this all doesn’t work out…?
Slowly, but steadily, the end now really is in sight! It took a bit of work, and quite some stress, and even some sleepless nights, but we did it. Last week, we harvested our barley greenhouse experiment. Check! This past weekend I planted my first local Freising tansy field experiment – which consists of leftover plants from our larger Jena tansy field experiment. Check! Today, me and two of my team, Lina and Sarah, planted the second Freising tansy field experiment, which is basically the stock of mother plants that we have chemically characterized, measured a whole list of traits on, and basically want to hang on to for a little while longer. I hate throwing things away.
The most daunting challenges on my to-do-before-parental-leave list are now out of the way. It’s done! This means that there only a small couple of things on my list that still need finishing, and all of them I can – in theory – do from home office. I generally don’t mind working from office or in the field, but with the pregnancy time bomb about to burst, I feel more calm being stuck at home with some desk work. I basically have to dot some i’s and cross some t’s. Today, I received the final small bits of information for a manuscript revision which is otherwise ready to submit. Give me two hours, and I can send it to co-authors for their okay. Then, I need to finalize a work package description for a grant proposal (which is otherwise ready to go). Half a day should do… Furthermore, I need to finalize some admin work for our course administration for next winter semester (for which I sadly am responsible in our department…). This may also take me a couple of hours still. Last, but not least, I will have to go through the final student reports for my landscape planning course, but given that the final presentations were excellent, I don’t expect big hurdles there. Nevertheless, marking takes me ages, so I expect to take two days for this – if I’m lucky.