How much can one drink do?

Imagine your favourite playground from your childhood. The sun is warm and you are playing with all your friends - laughing, chatting, having a great time. Ok, now imagine, instead, sitting on the side of this playground watching the other children. No one wants to play with you. You go into the classroom and you can't concentrate, on top of that your teacher keeps shouting at you for your bad grades. You go home and your caregiver shouts at you for not sharing and for bad manners. You are stuck, not because of anything you did, but because you are a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). At the quintessential level, your brain is different. Not because of any action you could control. Arguably, not even because of your mother's decision to drink alcohol during pregnancy, but due to a societal loop set into place before this disorder even had a name.

In the Western Cape of South Africa, one of the highest rates of FAS in the world exists. This rate is estimated to be 18-141 time higher than the Western world. Why? Previously, wine farmers could pay their workers (predominantly people of Cape Coloured ancestry) part in wine and part in cash. This was called the "dop" system, after the Afrikaans word for alcoholic beverage. Although this is no longer legal, the collateral damage has been profound, resulting in a societally created cycle of alcoholism and generations of children being born with the adverse effects of prenatal alcohol exposure. In fact, many of the children born with FAS have mothers who have FAS and so such a cycle perpetuates.

The lab I am a student in at the University of Cape Town collaborates with Wayne State University and together they have collected huge amounts of data from a longitudinal study of children born to mothers in Cape Town.  We have children who have been diagnosed with FAS or partial FAS, or have been heavily exposed to alcohol in-utero as well as controls. Why do different brains have a different tolerance for alcohol damage? What structures in the brain are most affected? What makes these children so susceptible to misinterpretation of social nuance and so likely to be socially inept? These are all questions that are being investigated. 

My research has, to date, has looked at the effect of alcohol on certain brain structures important in memory, attention, executive function and crossover of information from one side of the brain to the other. All of them were found to be different by alcohol exposure level during pregnancy. In a nutshell, the more the mother drank and the more frequently she drank, the smaller these structures became. Of course, risk factors and protective factors play a role too, but how much do you want to bet on these? The take home message: Even one drink could have the potential to change a child's life forever. 

How to attain "perfection"

I am a perfectionist in the deepest darkest part of my being. Lots of people claim to be perfectionists, I mean, the most overused answer to any job interview "What is your greatest challenge/weakness?" question is "I'm a perfectionist". Why? Because it means that you overwork and are willing to be overworked. It also, on a less ominous note, boasts of attention to detail, ambition to be the best, etc, etc, blah blah blah... 

 If this touches a part of your heart, you may just be a perfectionist.

If this touches a part of your heart, you may just be a perfectionist.

Now, you may indeed be a perfectionist. If you get anxiety from the mere idea of completing a project (not the work involved, just the actual point where you have to put down your tools and look at what you have created and then let it go) or releasing any part of yourself into the world (be it your masterpiece or your opinion on where your friends should eat out this Saturday) welcome home! I am sitting between 10 drafts of posts (that are complete RIGHT NOW) and bomb diggity , but they have sat for months waiting for me to get the courage up to post them. 

So, how do you overcome this? Now, like I said, I still have those posts, so I would be a bit of a charlatan to claim I have an elixir of wisdom and awesomeness, but I am trying (otherwise you wouldn't be reading this). I have 3 pearls of wisdom that have got me here so far:

1) Everything you do is a competency and a skill that you are building up. No-one is just born with the magical ability to take critique, gracefully accept compliments and brush off criticism like a boss. Nope. You have to build them up. The kicker, practice is the only way that you can do this. Yes, to learn how to block the blows, you have to jump into the ring and take the punches first. The good thing is that, with time, practice does make "perfect". On a side note, try to stop using the word "perfect", it sets an unattainable goal that is disguised as attainable.

2) The adage of practice makes perfect is true. There is this absolute legend of a person, Malcolm Gladwell, who explains that every skill can be "perfected" within 10,000 hours. Yes, that is a long time, but from the time that you are a beginner to the time that you are "competent" the learning curve is steep and that means that you will be able to see your progress. While, my favourite trick is to throw away anything that I don't think is my best work, to see this progress you must must must keep your growth documented. Whether it be before and after shots, or a journal or any other creative way of recording your hard work, you can't always see how far you have come day by day. So keep your first attempts and remind yourself, that at first, everyone has to be a beginner until you can be competent enough to enjoy it and motivate yourself to finish the rest of those hours. Check out this awesome TEDx talk to watch more about this idea.

3) Embrace the 80/20 rule. This one is particularly hard for a perfectionist to hear, but is possibly the point I use the most. Instead of waiting until you are 100% happy to release something into the world, release it when you are 80% happy. The last 20% is wasted time that makes no measurable difference to your output. For a perfectionist, take heart, because, as critical of your work as you are, your 80% is still pretty amazing stuff. Then, and this is crucial, do not think about it once you have let it go! Seriously, let it go. 

...great people do things before they are ready.
— Amy Poehler

Finally, this quote is from Amy Poehler's book Yes Please and changed my life a lottle (it's like a little, but a lot):

 

 

 

Good luck and go do things, even if you are anxious. You can do the thing!

The Perks of Being a Scientist

Chocolate, cuckoo clocks and mountains. Oh yes, and also the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping and a focus talk at the World Health Organization (at their headquaters at the original UN). Geneva is hosting the OHBM conference for 2016. As a responsible neuroscientist the first thing I did was squeal. Next I bought a dress to present in. Then I realised that serious work was involved.

Firstly, the abstract for submission. It must be a succinct overview of your work. Enough information to show that your work is scientifically valid, your prose is magnificent, your pictures are beautiful and your tables well presented. Well, your supervisors will all want you to put as much info as possible in, as it pertains to their interest in your study. With authors from neuroanatomy, physics, biomedical engineering, psychology and statistics you are going to spend less time writing the abstract and more time playing politician, believe me. Christmas Eve was spent very nicely informing my co-authors that this was an abstract and that, yes, the information is crucial, but it will have to go in the paper (right now my paper is more likely to be a book unless I get my politician on, but, hey, that's Future Stevie's problem). Merry Christmas though!

 

Once the abstract was submitted there is the obligatory waiting time. During this time you will panic about whether or not your work will be good enough, whether or not you will receive confirmation in time to apply for funding and whether or not you choose the correct font, etc. This will get so extreme that you will end up worrying that your research mortally offended the person reading it. Are they are liberal or conservative; a cat or dog person? Yes, you are at your most creative at this stage.

 

Yay!!! I'm going, I'm going. You dance, sing, spam relatives, friends and social media with your good news. Your abstract is accepted. You are off to exotic locations because of how smart you are (smug smug). Then you realise that you are a scientist, not an investment banker. Funding here we come. 

I am an avoidant person by nature. So, naturally, I left funding to the last minute, being terrified that they would reject my application and the dream would die. Worse, I would have to tell EVERYONE, yes everyone, I know that I had failed. I was smart, but poor. I would be staying at home and explaining at every coffee date for the next year why I was going to Geneva and then wasn't.

Then one day I put on my big girl panties, got a cup of Rooibos and wrote. I wrote about the glorious findings, the expensive tastes of Geneva and the networking possibilities. So much networking and oh the glory for South Africa that I would achieve. Ok, I think it was a bit more subtle, but academia really teaches you two things. One, like Jon Snow, you know nothing. Two, you are able to make anything sound like together, you and your research, are going to change to world. Hey, eventually you may even start believing it. It may even be true, but point one and two will vie for power until you completely understand where the mad scientist idea comes from.

So, again, you wait. You wait for the alleged date that the potential funders promise to get back to you. You wait for them to reply to emails. You wait for them on phone calls until you can play a concerto of the waiting music - even if you have never picked up a musical instrument. Then you wait outside their office. Then you wait for them to finish team-building (not even joking here). Then you get a call that makes your heart stop in that moment that the person takes a breath before telling you your funding application has been successful or not.

Well, I got funding. I'm writing this from a airport lounge. I'm ruining the adult-ness of writing my blog in an international airport lounge by eating speckled eggs (my choice item from the whole buffet). The joys of poster creation and trip planning may be the subject of a new post, but for now the wounds are too fresh and it is too soon.

Paris is calling (it was cheaper to go there first, even if I used the money I saved on airfare to stay there a few days). Then a train ride through the Alps and Geneva. How glamorous. Can scientists be glamorous? In my new dress, standing next to my poster with hot pink accents, I will do my best to make Marilyn, Audrey and Einstein proud.

See my poster here.

 

How to become a novelist...

You don't.

At least this is what my "inner critic" keeps telling me. This whole world seems a bit foreign to me, with it's own language and jargon. Your "inner critic" is actually just you bullying yourself. No one likes a bully, so you shouldn't be one. Shut it out, keep moving those fingers, keep exercising your creativity they say. Hmmm, it is slightly less easy to do in actuality. 

I am a creative person. I was a nightmare for the aptitude testers. Every test came back with the same paradox of fairly equal scores on both creativity and logic. What do you do with an artistic scientist? At least they knew one thing, my interest and ability for clerical stuff was so low that they almost had to introduce negative scoring. So no admin for me, except that about 80% of academia is clerical.

 One of the best ways to procrastinate: Arrange your workspace to Instagram it and wait for the positive feedback.

One of the best ways to procrastinate: Arrange your workspace to Instagram it and wait for the positive feedback.

Anyway, what can I say, I became a scientist with a passion for understanding people and being creative. It means that my website seems like it is written by three different people and my Instagram profile must confuse every person who looks at it, but I guess that just makes me human. Imperfectly perfect as we are. Authenticity should trump likes and followers every time.

Back to writing. Well this month I have had a very interesting mix of all of my interests. I have to write an abstract, make a presentation and am attempting to write a novel. Switching between the roles has made me wonder if the very controversial dissociative personality disorder (popularly called "multiple personality disorder" in the media) may be developing. Ok, that is a little melodramatic, but sometimes my life feels so divided. I think that sometimes our evolutionary tendancy to make "boxes" or categories is a little bit defective, because it fails to account for the fact that each brain is unique and that the boxes shouldn't be for our interests, they should be for ourselves. That way we don't divide ourselves into little pieces and throw them into the box with everyone else's little pieces, we stay whole, yet made up of tiny pieces. Like a puzzle. You'll never see the full picture if all the corners of all the puzzles in the word are put in one box and all the other pieces in another box; you have to keep all the pieces of each individual puzzle together!

So, anyway, I decided that the little piece of me that loved writing and the little piece of me that is very imaginative could have a chance to shine. I found this thing called National Novel Writing Month (look it up, it's awesome). Basically, you and everyone else in the world who wants to write a novel, but finds a way to talk themselves out of doing it via creative procrastination and self doubt, join forces to write 1,667 words each per day for the whole of November. The goal: 50 000 words each by the end of the month and the start of a brilliant novel.

Let's do this I said, it will be fun I said. Well, I have never been in such inner turmoil before. It is one thing for you and everyone who knows you to say what a wonderful novelist you would be and how great your poetry and prose is, but to actually sit down and face that self doubt is something completely different. In a Monty Python skit it would be me and my "inner critic" sitting at a chess table, not really playing the game with skill, but trying to intimidate the other player into giving up. I honestly have a headache from the conflict.

On the one hand, fate was very generous and a Future Learn course: Start Writing Fiction began just before NaNoWriMo 2015 kicked off. It is truly spectacular and offers pearls of wisdom on character creation, plot development and all the rest. It should really be called Becoming Ernest Hemingway for Dummies and it has saved my bacon (I'm all on the bacon side of that research by the way; colon cancer is a risk I'm willing to take to show my devotion to bacon). For emotional support they have great forums, write-ins in your local region and there is something so motivating about knowing that you are not suffering alone. Everyone is also struggling to make rounded characters and a thrilling plot to stretch into 50 000 words. So, in short, to become a novelist you must be prepared to face your "inner critic", find a way to reach goals that pushes you out of your comfort zone and get your support group ready.

We are all made up of atoms, stories and stardust, but I am not a novelist. I am a Stevie and I am writing words that may become a novel written by a creative scientist who hates admin. 

 

PTSD: A Few Thoughts...

My mentor/supervisor is a wonderful lecturer. At the start of each lecture he reminds the students that no question is ever stupid and that you should ask questions, because there is probably another person in the room who also wanted to know that answer, but was too scared to ask.

A few days ago, I had a wonderful experience. Someone had enjoyed my poetry on Hello Poetry (awesome site by the way) and had followed up by taking a look at my website. Guess what? They asked a question! 

They asked about my thoughts on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While I wouldn't call myself an expert in the field, I have had some experience of this disorder during my internship at Rape Crisis, Cape Town. Of course, I also love the history of mental health and adore feminist theory, so the resultant answer was quite interesting. Here goes...

 

One of the central problems with PTSD is fear and avoidance behaviours, which are common to all anxiety disorders. The main difference between PTSD and other anxiety disorders is that we have a direct cause - the traumatic event.

I find the history and development of PTSD very interesting. I am fascinated by how society affects the treatment and recognition of mental disorders, as the lack of a physical cause seems to really irk them. Of course, I believe that the brain is an organ that works in ways that we don't quite understand yet and that something caused by any organ (brain included) can be classified as a bodily disorder. 

The human brain has amazing capabilities, but, in terms of mental disorders, sometimes these work against us. One such capability is the capacity to remember events and experiences (sometimes called episodic memory) extremely well. This is great when we remember getting our first bicycle or have fond memories of grandparents, but works against the anxious mind terribly. One of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain is, “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” The awful thing about PTSD is that the terrible things did happen, but our amazing capabilities for remembering the event means that we can relive it whenever we “choose”, such as in dreams or flashbacks. Choose is not really the correct word for PTSD sufferers, as it implies that they have control over these thoughts and thus can easily be blamed for their disorder. 

Often triggers of the memory cause the replaying of the event, whether they choose it or not. In therapy it is important that the person understands that they can regain control of their thoughts. The memory will still exist, but it can be pushed aside. One exercise to achieve this is mindfulness. Mindfulness means that you situate yourself in the "now". A way to do this is to focus on your breathing and on slowing it to a calm pace. The next step is to use all of your senses to place you here and now. What do you hear? What do you feel on your skin? What do you smell?, etc. 

Moving back to the history of PTSD, it is interesting that PTSD was only included in the DSM-3 in 1980 (before that it was not considered a real disorder).

The feminist movement of 1970, was largely influenced by the treatment of war veterans of the Vietnam War. As the war was not won by the Americans, these veterans were not treated as they should have been, especially in the treatment of their PTSD and re-introduction to everyday life.What is very interesting is that feminism is not just about female rights and equality to males in society, but has now extended to fight for the equal treatment of all people.

Smokey the War Dog

 One of the most tragic PTSD stories, is how it was overlooked during WW1 and WW2. The idea of “shell-shock” was created as a poor stand in. The main reason for this oversight was the predetermined roles of men and women at the time. It was unseemly and unmanly to be traumatised by war. War, after all, was how you showed the world how brave you were. To come back scarred physically was fine, but mental wounds were seen as cowardly and weak. By the way, animals can have great therapeutic effects for many disorders. Smoky the war dog (right) gave comfort and inspiration to many soldiers in WW2.

Feminist theory comes up a lot around PTSD, mainly because of the link between the feminist movement and its recognition as a disorder, but also because many of the ideas of semantics (word choice) are central to the movement. The choice of politically correct terms is very important in the treatment and recognition of PTSD. 

Always remember, if you have been diagnosed with PTSD, it is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is proof of your strength, because you have survived!
— Michel Templet

For instance, sexual assault is a common cause of PTSD. Calling a person subjected to sexual abuse a rape victim or rape survivor may seem trivial to those of us spared from the heinous crime. However, in therapy it is crucial for that person to, not only know, but fully engage with the idea that to cope with what happened to you and to empower yourself to continue living the life you wish, despite the trauma, makes you a survivor. While I used rape here (my experience with PTSD was during my internship at Rape Crisis Cape Town), this applies to any trauma that may have induced PTSD.

While PTSD is now fully recognised as a mental disorder, I think there is still a stigma attached to trauma and how one copes with it. Think of how society often calls people brave for coping well and weak for needing help. This is especially applied to men.

My father is a war veteran and to this day he hates movies with excessive violence and never talks about his war experiences (other than humorous anecdotes, few as they may be). Although this is a far cry from PTSD, I still think that a little post-war debriefing may have done his generation a world of good. Unfortunately, that would have been seen as weak and unmanly.

To see a great comparison of the DSM-4-TR and DSM-5 criteria for PTSD read this article  http://www.jaapl.org/content/42/2/146.full.pdf

My FameLab 2015 Experience

The power of communication is amazing. From a cryptic email from the postgraduate society at the University of Cape Town I was informed of an afternoon that would start with a single 3 minute speech and which ended with an international adventure to communicate science at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the United Kingdom. The cost: a 3 minute speech on anything in science and the courage to believe in yourself.

I decided that a Saturday at the Science Centre in Cape Town was well spent if I could meet others passionate about science communication and get some feedback on my public speaking techniques. In the regional heats I spoke about the neuroscience of play and creativity. Then I was given 45 minutes to make the speech for the next round! I spoke about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the effect it may have on the brain’s anatomy (my current research project). Suddenly, I found myself on an aeroplane to Grahamstown Science Festival and a grand adventure.

A gathering of all the best young scientific communicators from around South Africa for a 2 day science communication masterclass with the fantastic Dr Emily Grossman became a sort of emotional boot camp. Each person was exalted for their unique speaking style and talents and was introduced to their challenges - a very vulnerable spotlight indeed. However, I feel that this experience gave each person opportunities that were unique to their personal growth, despite how absolutely terrified of criticism I was. Not surprisingly, most of my negative critique was that I showed how nervous I was. My opportunity was the challenge to believe in my ability and live in the moment – enjoying each second in the spotlight. I had to empower my inner ham.

While the master classes were spectacular, I feel that the group staying at Jenny’s Guesthouse matched the classes with friendship - like a good wine with cheese. The six of us formed a bond of trust and respect and, between jokes, book recommendations and eating, we practiced and refined our speeches. We drew on the knowledge of the master classes and advice of our peers to make our communication skills as good as possible. During these practice sessions it was never a competition; it was a magnificent friendship. The opportunity to have met and befriended such wonderful people was a prize all in itself. I truly believe that it was this support that helped me to win FameLab South Africa and it is no coincidence that all three prize-winners (myself, Edgar and Natasha) came from this group. We even had a cheer, “Go Team Jenny!”.

I somehow found myself on the stage for both the national semi-finals and finals. Despite my conviction that I was just going to the Science Centre for a fun morning, I found myself winning the FameLab South Africa Finals. The 2014 FameLab South Africa winner, Raven, crowned me with his token “FameLab hat” and I can now say that the urge to cry that supermodels get when winning a title happens to scientists too.

The excitement of winning and attending the Cheltenham Science Festival was both overwhelming and magical. The feeling of leaving South African soil to represent your country, the FameLab sponsors, your university and your new-found FameLab South Africa friends was pretty amazing and utterly humbling. Realising that the people you will spend the next week with are some of the best young scientific communicators in the world was intimidating. Unfortunately, I did not make it to the final round of FameLab International 2015, but I did come away with a lovely certificate proclaiming me a “FameLab International Finalist”. I can also say that I was incredibly proud of my performance and that I embraced my nerves and truly lived the moment. All that I regret is that I could not have 3 minutes more communicating my passion. I only hope that I lived up to the expectations of my wonderful sponsors, friends and country.

Although I missed the opportunity to take to the stage once more, I gained the opportunity to use time that would otherwise have been spent rehearsing to explore the Cheltenham Science Festival with other FameLab contestants who had also vacated the competition. The opportunity to watch great science communicators and to absorb their knowledge and passion was magnificent and gave me the motivation that I needed to carry on this path of science communication, especially to the public! I had the wonderful experience of seeing Dr Micheal Mosley’s (a BBC science comminucator who I greatly admire) heart rate increase each time he had to take the stage. Although he was using this heart rate monitor to illustrate the health benefits of standing in the workplace, this was a simple message of “even the experts get nervous” to me.

Thus, although I am devastated that this experience has come to an end, I must borrow a quote from Dr Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” FameLab has given me wonderful memories, introduced me to prolific people and has simply inspired me. I will be forever grateful to all the sponsors, including the British Council, the NRF SAASTA, Jive Media Africa and the Cheltenham Science Festival, and to the spectacular, kind and brilliant representatives from each of these organizations. I hope to do much more with any or all of them in the future and will continue searching for opportunities in scientific communication; all thanks to FameLab.

I bought a memento of my experience – a silver charm of a lion wearing a crown. It represents both where I went (an English crown) and where I came from (an African lion). But, most importantly, it represents what FameLab was to me – the chance to be brave and share your passion. It is a lesson that I always want to remember and embrace. FameLab gave me the opportunity to inspire and be inspired, the courage to communicate with the public and myself and the bravery to share my passion for science.