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I am Signe Asberg, and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Dr. Signe Asberg for the “How I Work” series. Signe is a MSc in Cell- and Molecular Biology and soon-to-be PhD in Molecular Medicine. She work at the Center of Molecular and Inflammation Research, a Center of Excellence at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She did parts of my PhD research at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She’s interested in everything biology, but antibiotic resistance and global health are her true passions. Her research focus on the interplay between the immune system, pathogenic bacteria and antibiotics. She’s also a guest blogger for LifeOMICs where she writes about the immune system and how it is affected by life style choices. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Note: I interviewed Signe in August 2018.

General:
Current Job: I submitted my PhD thesis and will defend in November*.
Current Location: I’m based in Trondheim, Norway
Current mobile device: iPhone 6S
Current computer: MacBook Air from 2012 (that I’ve cared for like a baby, so it looks and feels almost new)

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I’m in that weird place between having submitted my PhD in June and preparing the dissertation in November. So I do everything from finishing papers to applying for grants and post doc positions. My PhD research was focused on the interplay between macrophages (innate immune cells), mycobacteria and antibiotics. Mycobacteria cause severe chronic infections, like tuberculosis, by setting up camp inside macrophages or other immune cells. Mycobacterial infections kill millions of people each year and most of them require months to years of antibiotic treatment. I’ve been investigating the interactions between single macrophages and single bacteria, also during treatment. There is so much we still don’t understand about these infections, especially why they survive antibiotic treatment so well.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
My phone, my Macbook and the PC at work. In addition I do a lot of reading and searching on my iPad.

I do all my writing in Google Docs and use Paperpile to handle the references. I’ve previously used Scrivener and Papers and like them a lot, but when combining Mac and Windows it’s easier to use Google Docs. Paperpile is great with references and for reading papers.

I do literature searches on all my devices because weird hidden gems tend to pop up on the phone or the iPad.

Previously I lived my life in Evernote, but now I use an «everything» notebook, that was suggested on Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog.

I also rely heavily on Twitter to interact with other scientists and it’s incredibly helpful. I’ve recently started to use Instagram for science outreach and inspiration too and there are so many awesome science ladies out there.

What does your workspace setup look like?
All my experimental work is done in a lab with only shared space. In addition I have an office at work that I share with 7 other PhD students. My office is «organized chaos» but it works out. I have a big collection of books and mascots that cheer me on. I also work a lot from home, but ever since my desk became the dumping ground for papers and random stuff I mostly work at the dinner table. We have a huge table with one half designated as work/gaming space and the other half is for eating.

University office
University office
Home office

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Plan! Planning is everything! You need to know all your goals and the tasks required to reach them. Then you need to know the deadline for each and their priority. Then get to work! The most important first and so on. The list and the plan needs to be revised often. Plans are not holy and should be changed regularly. At some point you learn to make realistic plans, and then life gets a lot easier.

I repeatedly ask myself: is what I’m doing now the right task to do now?
Very often the answer is no. It’s what I want to do now, but not the most important or urgent task. Then switch to the right task.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

By the advice of Raul Pacheco-Vega I keep an «everything notebook» where I write everything down, including overviews of projects and lists of tasks.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I use a confocal microscope and iPad for work. I use an electric bike to get to work in the summer.

At home we have Google home and Homey. My partner is really into home automation and I try to keep up, or I’ll soon don’t know how to open the front door. It’s so weird that my toddler thinks it’s normal for her parents to talk to a device and a window opens, music turns on or a movie starts. Occasionally she will stand below it and yell at it!

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I guess my planning, organizing and writing skills. Also the fact that I enjoy them, which is probably not so common (judging by the comments I get).

What do you listen to when you work?
My partner created a playlist in Google music with all kinds of songs he thinks I should listen to. That playlist definitely got me through the last month of writing my thesis. Other than that I prefer silence when I work or else I mess up my pipetting. When I do image analysis I listen to podcasts, mostly science or parenting content.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I didn’t do any reading outside work for years. But I discovered during the most stressful months of my PhD that reading helps me sleep, so lack of sleep is my main reason for reading. My brain needs to be shut down in the evenings and reading an actual, physical book (just about 10 minutes) is the best way to do it. That’s also why I go for positive books, or books where «nothing» happens. I just read Hans Rosling latest book «Factfullness» and it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read, at least the most positive. I strongly encourage everyone to read it to get a thorough walkthrough of the state of the world. It’s a LOT better than you’d think. Now I alternate between parenting books, «No is not enough» by Naomi Klein and «Radiation: what it is and what you need to know» by Robert Peter Gale.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?
I’m very much an introvert and need quiet time to focus. I need at least 10 minutes a day for no talk, quiet alone time or else I’m completely overloaded. That is surprisingly hard to get if you dont make an effort. But I also need friends and colleagues. I have regular coffee with a friend, or escape the lab with a colleague to go for a walk. I also enjoy to collaborate on projects, especially when we combine different expertise and methods. It’s a great way to learn.

What’s your sleep routine like?
 I haven’t slept much for the past two years, but the toddler just started sleeping around 11 hours a night, mostly quiet. I should go to bed around 9 pm, but usually it’s around 11 pm and I get up at 6 am. I sleep very lightly, dream and wake up a lot. This is especially difficult in the summer when it never gets dark in Norway.

What’s your work routine like?
Since daycare opens at 7.15 and close at 4.30 (most) work has to fit within those hours. The first goal is getting the toddler to daycare around 7.30, and my partner picks up at 4-ish. I plan out my week on Sunday evening or Monday morning. I try to get lab work done as early as possible because it always takes longer than expected. I also designate time for writing and reading, but I don’t do whole days for each anymore. When you have kids and/or can’t work all the time (like everyone else seems to do) you need to fit reading and writing into the lab intensive days too. I no longer believe it when people claim they can’t shift their focus from an experiment to writing on the same day. You can when you have to.

We have meetings almost every day and they really break up the workflow, so I don’t always attend all of them. Wednesday is my «long day» where I work until I feel done, while my partner has his long day on Mondays. I occasionally work in the evenings, but that is not the norm.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
«It’s your PhD, own it. You make the decisions».
I struggled a lot during my PhD, and I mean a lot, with work and life related problems. Whatever I did at work would fail. Eventually I burned out and got depressed, followed by a pregnancy with non-stop nausea that ended abruptly in week 32 due to preeclampsia. We’re all fine today, but my point is that is was incredibly though. After coming back from maternity leave I had only one year to finish. My mentor had been pushing for a while that I could in fact make the decisions about my PhD. Finally I «got it» and took charge of things. In stead of asking I made the decisions: I set the deadlines, I informed my supervisors when they would receive my drafts and together we scheduled when they would read them and give me feedback. Looking back, the final year of my PhD was definitely the best and I wish I had learnt this sooner.

* Note that this interview was done in August 2018.

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