Category Archives: general

How to be yourself

Today I had the pleasure of presenting a session on public speaking to the University of Exeter’s 2018 iGEM team. This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to work with these amazing interdisciplinary students and, as was the case last time, I was impressed with how passionate, insightful, and dedicated they are.

At the end of the session, after I’d run through my top ten tricks for public speaking, one of the students asked me a question about my second recommendation, ‘Be yourself’. Some background before I divulge her question: What I’d meant by that advice was, essentially, that there is no one way to be a good speaker, to be professional, or to be compelling. Therefore, no presenter should feel that they have to quash their mannerisms, significantly alter their vocabulary, avoid personal anecdotes, and so on. To constantly be monitoring and adjusting yourself in order to be something you’re not is to waste time, energy, and concentration that would, in my opinion, be much better used on the presentation you’re giving at that moment. I also think that being personable and ‘real’ can make you more accessible and allow you to foster engagement with the audience. I did, however, note that sometimes ‘being yourself’ means fidgeting at the podium or swearing a lot or going off on tangents, and perhaps it might be good to ‘tweak those little things’ so they don’t cause any distractions.

This was the point on which the student sought clarification. Where do you draw the line, she wanted to know, between the ‘little things’ and everything else? At first I tried to answer this with an example: I try to never say ‘uh’ or ‘um’, but I don’t rein in my occasional impulse to say ‘y’all’ or make a joke. That didn’t seem like the most satisfying response, but the more I tried to come up with subsequent examples, or a better explanation of the process I use to follow my own advice, the more I realised that this was actually a very profound question: Basically, Who am I? What makes me me? Which of my traits are inherent to my fundamental identity, and which are just bells and whistles?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this question was asked by the only minority in the room, and as I stood there flailing for an answer, I realised just how very easy it is for me, a well-educated, white, middle class woman, to give that advice. However introspective I may be in my perpetual quest to know who I fundamentally am, and however challenging it may sometimes be to allow all the oddities of that person to manifest in public without worrying that I’m being judged, it’s still pretty darn easy for me to be myself without worrying about ramifications. That isn’t true for everyone. This week alone, I read a moving Twitter thread in which the author describes how she became ashamed of her Chinese heritage, and got goosebumps from the acceptance speech of N.K. Jemisin — a black woman whose work is inspired in part by the ‘structural oppression’ observed throughout human history — who received her record-setting third Best Novel Hugo. As these and other examples flashed through my mind, I began to grasp what a very complex piece of advice ‘be yourself’ really is–and the implications, both good and bad, of putting that wisdom into practice.

I knew I would not feel satisfied until I had an opportunity to properly acknowledge how justified that student was in pushing for better guidance, and to try to offer a more explicit explanation of, and expansion on, what I had been trying to communicate. It took me an hour to come up with the response which I have posted at the bottom of the page. I think is better than my first attempt but probably still falls short. I’m posting it here because I am grateful to have been asked the question in the first place, and to have been challenged to try to find an answer. I’m genuinely curious whether the question, and perhaps even the response, resonates with others–or perhaps you disagree and have better advice for the student; if so, I’d be keen to hear it.

I’m also posting my reply because the issues seems very timely. Just after the workshop ended, I got back to my desk to find this post on Twitter:

This was in response to a blog post about why a prominent birding event lacked parity of women and men speakers. Remember what I said above about how, as a well-educated white woman, I don’t face the same difficulties as some people in expressing my identity in public places? Well, that’s true, but even a privileged person like me can still face battles against discrimination, and, as a result, still be required to think long and hard about who we are and how we are and how we can ensure equal opportunities to unapologetically be those things. That is a freedom that should given regardless of skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or any other of the endless traits that we use to label and judge other people.

On the one hand, these characteristics matter because they are associated with a diversity of viewpoints that enriches all our lives; on the other hand, they are totally irrelevant because, at the end of the day, human beings are human beings–and deserve to be treated as such–regardless of how you describe or classify them. It is, as I said in the workshop, ultimately just a waste of time and energy to focus on tangential things that don’t fundamentally impact the main message: We are all legitimate, we all have valuable insights to share, we all matter.

My (overly lengthy) reply to the iGEM students:

Right now we seem to be having a social ‘moment’ in which we are finally paying more attention to who is able to have a platform and a voice, and what message is broadcast when we all have this opportunity—and that’s partly why I think it is so very important to be your genuine self; this is a real chance to introduce some fresh perspectives and ways of being into areas that have been devoid of diversity for too long (STEMM is definitely still struggling to be fully inclusive of women, POC, etc., so iGEM is a space in which these are not just hypotheticals).

At the same time, I realize that some people have more privilege in terms of how much they can get away with when being themselves. I am also aware that ‘being yourself’ intersects with ‘reading the room’ and ‘playing the crowd’. Everyone has expectations, assumptions, biases (including ones they aren’t aware of, ones that are subtle, ones that don’t seem ‘bad’), and this impacts how they respond to whatever version of ‘you’ you put forward. Most of us are a bit chameleon-y when it comes to social interactions, anyway, and adapt what we present depending on whom we’re addressing and under what conditions (e.g., how you are with your best friend vs your teacher, or with your teacher in the classroom vs your teacher after you’ve graduated, and so on). There is a spectrum of ‘you’ that you pick and choose from, and this includes what you say, how you talk, what you’re wearing, how sure you feel, and how confidently you present yourself. Depending on the parameters of a public speech, you will have chosen in advance where along the ‘you spectrum’ you think you should position yourself, and then as you engage with the audience during the event, you can modify that positioning depending on the responses you’re seeing and the feedback you’re getting.

My particular area of scientific expertise is animal communication, and perhaps as a result of this I am keenly aware of the dynamics of different communication interactions. When you ‘read the room’, you learn to get a sense of how different people will respond to different things, and you can use that to your advantage. You might call this ‘manipulation’ if you aren’t feeling very generous, but I prefer to think of it as simply being pragmatic and using all the tools at hand! If you learn to predict people’s expectations and biases, you can deliberately subvert them for an impactful / dramatic surprise, or you can use these to your advantage in order to ingratiate yourself and make people more open to your message. Whether or not you want to do either of these things (or both, or anything in between) will likely change dramatically depending on audience, setting, topic, etc. I suppose I am a little Machiavellian, but my personal feeling is that if people are not introspective enough to search out and address these biases in themselves, then I shouldn’t feel guilty for exploiting them—which, I should add, I do not do in a supervillain sort of way, or very often (well, not consciously, at least). Some examples:

  • I conducted a lot of my PhD field work in places where grumpy rich guys didn’t want some hippie tree-hugger intruding. When I went to negotiate access, I was not deliberately, overtly ditsy or flirtatious (yuck), but because I recognised certain assumptions about women and academics (and the fact that surely someone couldn’t be both at once), I also did not go out of my way to flex my intellectual muscles or present as anything other than a charming weirdo who happened to want to watch birds on their territory. You might say I was a sellout for not being unabashedly scientifically rigorous during those conversations, but you would also have to admit that I greased the wheels for collecting an awful lot of data and saved myself a lot of time in the process, so…
  • I don’t really have much of a regional accent, but every now and then it shows up—for example, I might pronounce ‘tire’ as ‘tar’ or say ‘I’ve been workin’ hard’ rather than ‘I’ve been working hard.’ Where I come from, these sorts of pronunciations are signs of being rural and/or working-class, and are often interpreted as indicating ignorance. Might I relax my attention and allow myself to speak that way in the middle of a science outreach presentation or a lecture? Sure. In a job interview? Probably not, because I don’t want people to be sitting there distracted, wondering where I’m from and whether I’m just a country bumpkin. I am in no way embarrassed of being from the country, mind, but in the middle of a job interview I want people focusing on my amazing responses rather than how I sound delivering them. However, if someone in that job interview were to say something derogatory about rural or working-class people, would I continue to ‘hide’ my origins? No way. I don’t want any job so badly that I’m not going to stand up for myself or pretend I’m a bigot.
  • You might have noticed today that I have a tattoo behind my ear. The studio where I got it done tried to talk me out of having it there, and in fact they have a policy against doing prominent tattoos like that on someone who doesn’t already have a certain number or positioning of tattoos; that’s because often employers and others will make assumptions about people with ink like that and will discriminate against them. There is a very specific reason why I wanted that tattoo in that location, so I wouldn’t take no for an answer; I still strongly feel that if someone is ignorant enough to discriminate against me because of my body art, then they don’t deserve to have me anyway. I aware that I’m privileged to be able to make that stand, and I’m glad that I can.

These are just a few of many examples I could give. The point  is that you have to figure out the boundaries of your own individual ‘you spectrum’ and then get a sense of how those boundaries may temporarily shift–or where within those boundaries you feel comfortable positioning yourself–under different circumstances. Once you’ve done that, you then have to be brave enough to really commit and own it, whatever ‘it’ is for you. (Oddly, this is advice my high school choir teacher used to give with respect to doing choreography during songs, and it’s true – even if the choreography itself is kind of lame, you personally will look less lame if you go for it 100% than if you just do a few lacklustre jazz hands. YouTube backs me up on this!)

The reason I have typed out this very longwinded response is that it can be difficult to commit, but real confidence and real freedom come from being able to do so–and, just to bring it back to the context of public speaking, this is also how you can differentiate and distinguish yourself from others rather than conforming and mimicking those who have gone before. I am 37 years old (!) and am still continually reminding myself to practice what I am preaching here, but I can assure you that life (and the delivery of presentations) gets easier when you get better at this. You would not be a part of the iGEM team if you weren’t brilliant, so even if you do need to tone down your gesticulating or learn to make natural eye contact while speaking, I hope you can see how those sorts of aesthetic things are just icing on the 100% brilliant you cake that is underneath (weird metaphor, but you get the idea).


I started 2015 by waxing lyrically on how each day, each hour, each moment offers an opportunity to start again. I was so glad to leave 2014 behind and begin to craft a new year that was happier and easier than the previous one.

Ha ha ha ha ha. *sigh*

Let’s revisit my resolutions and see how I got on, shall we?

1.  Complete two crochet projects by the end of 2015. NOPE! I did start a project, but I certainly didn’t finish it. I’m not too far off, and I have been thinking about it a lot lately, so maybe I’ll get around to that soon… *

The unfinished project
The unfinished project

2. Update my science blog at least once a week. FAIL! I wrote a couple of posts, which I managed purely by finding topics that I could write about as part of my full-time job and then co-opt for the blog. Despite my inability to make much progress with Anthrophysis, I have managed to write several articles for publication in popular science magazines, contribute to an academic book chapter, and review a book for an academic journal. I think I should get points for those.

3. Practice whistling at least twice a week (and learn some new songs!). NOT EVEN CLOSE. Since moving into my new flat, I’ve only whistled once, though not for lack of wanting or having time. The walls here are thin and I hate the idea of my neighbors listening in, so I am reluctant to pick up my instruments. Considering that my hall mates routinely wake me up at 4am by throwing drunken tantrums in the hall, I really shouldn’t be so timid.

4. Continue making one-second-a-day videos to document my life. NO. This project lasted all of one week before I decided that, actually, I was satisfied with my 2014 effort, and didn’t really need to repeat that for 2015.  Making the videos is interesting and fun on days that are full of unusual activity, but it’s a real chore on quieter days or when you’re unwell. I know the whole point is to gather together clips that show how every day is valuable and stimulating in its own way, but I just couldn’t face another 365 days of worrying about this.

5. Take a selfie every day (as done by Justin Peters–for philosophical reasons and not because I’m excessively vain!). NOPE! I started off pretty well and was fairly consistent for the first half of the year, but then my zest for this project slowly faded away because I had more important things to think about. In retrospect, I can see where it would have been interesting to document the whole cancer thing via the selfie project–especially the hair loss–but I opted instead to take photos of key moments rather than every single moment.

Key moment: Caitlin's first turban
Key moment: Caitlin’s first turban

6. Add variety to my workout schedule by doing more Pilates and tai chi. KIND OF. My new flat is tiny and doesn’t leave much room for these sorts of exercises. However, I have managed to squeeze some in, and I’ve been particularly enjoying the 30-day challenges posted on Blogilates.

7. Write e-mails to my family more often. MAYBE. I don’t know that I write the sort of chatty, newsy e-mails I was envisioning when I set this resolution, but I think I probably do send more total messages as a result of firing off a larger number of quick, short updates. I still need to work on writing my grandparents more, though.

8. Go birding more often. NOT REALLY. However, I have had some very enjoyable bird sightings over the course of the year, so perhaps I can go for a quality over quantity argument here. I had some great woodpecker and jay encounters while walking between the train station and hospital in Truro; I have spotted grebes and tufted ducks at Swanpool, instead of the standard fare of mallards, coots, and gulls; and I had a delightful time watching acrobatic long-tailed tits during a lunch break on campus. There were also some kinglets and bullfinches sprinkled across the year, and those species are always a treat.

9. Try a new baked goods recipe at least once a month, and take the fruits of my labor (assuming they are edible!) to work to share with my colleagues. NOPE! I think I managed to do this only once–when I made an apple cake that I didn’t want to eat all by myself. That said, it’s not like I baked and didn’t share; it’s more that I didn’t bake at all. I have, however, continued to cook, so I think I still get some culinary points there.

10. Read at least 30 books. YES! Hallelujah, I actually achieved one of my goals! In fact, according to Goodreads, I read 42 books. Go, me!

My 2015 reads
My 2015 reads

Out of ten resolutions, then, I only managed to fully and definitely accomplish one; if you give me credit for partial accomplishment of a couple others, then perhaps–if you are feeling generous–you’ll allow me to score myself 2/10. That’s still a pretty abysmal record, and a failing grade.

But you know what? I don’t feel like I failed, and that’s because, for everything here that I didn’t do, there was something else that I did do. I went to Key West and Portugal for the first time. I saw my book Flamingo published. I was nominated for three professional services recognition awards at work. I put together a puzzle for the first time in a decade. I shaved my head. I rented a car and drove myself all over Cornwall. I chatted with friends I haven’t been in touch with in years.

I was active–I just wasn’t active in quite the way I envisioned I would be. This may sound a bit like post hoc justification of what I did and didn’t do in 2015, but when I look back now on my resolutions, I can’t help but think that I might have had a less interesting, and perhaps even less fulfilling, year if I had doggedly pursued all those goals I set in January. They involve a lot of regimentation, a lot of box-ticking, a lot of work. Yes, they also involve things I love, but would I continue to love them after forcing them on myself in such a strict way? Perhaps not. I don’t know that I want to perform the experiment and find out.

I also don’t like the idea of limiting myself. For every task that you chisel into the stone of your yearly calendar, there are other activities that you may be rendering impossible by pre-emptively robbing yourself of the time and energy needed to pursue alternatives that serendipitously fall into your lap. You limit spontaneity and whimsy. Could resolutions, therefore, actually prevent you from enjoying life more fully and growing as a person? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?

Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest
Spontaneity: visiting with an unexpected guest

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know this: In 2015, for the first time since I was a little girl, I allowed myself to have whole days that weren’t planned in advance, on which I sometimes achieved nothing tangible at all–and I liked it. I enjoyed letting go and being less rigid and just…going with the flow. I enjoyed living.

I am, of course, only one person, and what works for me may not work for the rest of humanity. However, I can tell you from experience that you can get an awful lot out of your time even without a massive to-do list perpetually hanging over your head and reminding you of what you should do and how you should do it. Whatever you decide is right for your personality and circumstances, just go for it. Now. Don’t waste time. Every second is precious, and each one is an opportunity. Seize it.

*Update: As of 6:45pm, the crochet project is finished! Also, I remembered that I crocheted a small gift at Christmastime. So, actually…I think I did pretty well here. Woo-hoo!

I really am fine.

People keep asking me how I am, and when I say “fine,”  or “okay”, or “not bad”, they pause, look at me intensely for a moment, and then repeat the question: “But how are YOU, you know, IN YOURSELF?”, as though that wasn’t the question I was answering the first time around. I think what they really mean is, “What’s going on in your head? What are you thinking about now that you’ve got cancer?” They assume the answer can only be depressing, which is why I keep getting that appraising look everywhere I go. Am I really holding it all together? How close am I to cracking?

The boring truth is that my thoughts are much the same as always. I’m a contemplative person by nature. Introspective. I think about all sorts of stuff, and I always have. At the moment, cancer does, of course, feature on the list of topics bouncing around my brain, but not as extensively or intrusively as you might guess. During my 34 years of being a thoughtful and solitary introvert, I’ve had a lot of dark, morbid, weird, and/or pessimistic thoughts (along with a preponderance of positive, fun, amusing, and quirky ones, of course), so this is just par for the course–nothing I can’t handle.

To be honest, a larger difference of late is that I’m thinking a lot about poetry, and as a result, I’m thinking in poetry. It’s a strange thing, but not unwelcome. I used to be a poet, back in a former life before I became a scientist. Each of my scientific milestones pushed me further and further into the realm of prose, burying my inner poet ever deeper inside me. I was keenly aware of this process but felt powerless to stop it; it was just too difficult for my mind to swing from spreadsheets and stats and scatter plots to alliteration and symbolism and heart-rending turns of phrase.

But recently I went looking for a poem to send a friend, and in the middle of paging through Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, reveling in each of their straightforward but elegant styles, I suddenly realized how very must I missed that type of writing in my life–both as something to read and as something to write. I went on a book-buying spree and wound up with fives volumes of poetry that I read one after the other.

In hindsight, I may have read a bit too much a bit too fast. The night after I stayed up late to finish Billy Collins’ Aimless Love, I lay wide awake for hours, mentally composing fragments of poems and compiling lists of topics that I should address in future creations. It was as though I had been gestating hundreds of poems for a decade, and they were now all ready to be born simultaneously.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my genre of choice is nature poetry, and many of the images that flashed through my mind that night involved recent memorable encounters with wildlife or habitats or processes of the natural world. The sound of a fox yipping in the woods in the middle of the night. The sight of dozens of shorebirds orienting themselves in exactly the same direction while huddling in the wetlands during a cold and windy morning. The feeling of the sun’s warmth on my back as its rays finally began peeking through the clouds at the end of an overcast day. The smell of seaside at low tide.

In the grand scheme of things, these may all seem like relatively simple observations and experiences, yet they all act as metaphors–the lifeblood of poetry. That fox in the night? A way of describing the thoughts that haunt you as you lie sleepless in the dark. The sunshine? That is hope, persisting regardless of the trials the world throws you. Or, you could dispense with literary devices altogether and just enjoy the loveliness of the images for their own sake. It is that loveliness that made those visions stick in my mind to begin with; they all brought a smile to my face and engendered a feeling of happiness, wonderment, peace.

I realize that poetry is not a genre that appeals to everyone. But I do think that everyone needs a boost at some point in their lives. If you aren’t the type to look for beauty and universal truths in the form of lyrical writing–or even to seek them actively at all–then perhaps you could merely give yourself the space and time to pause and passively appreciate the inherent loveliness in the world around you–the same world that inspired all those poets to begin with. It doesn’t even have to be the natural world, though it’s hard to deny the appeal of waterfalls, rustling fields of waving grasses, a singing thrush, or any of the nearly infinite number of natural experiences that have brought a lump to some human’s throat at some point in our species’ history. There is poetry also in the complex flow of cars in a roundabout, the glow of thousands of streetlights seen from an airplane flying over a city, the jumble of smells rising from a farmers’ market, the coordination of the many different players on a football pitch.

It doesn’t matter where you find loveliness, or when, or how; the point is that you do. Make a mental stockpile of those moments of zen so you can recall them when the world doesn’t seem like such a great place. Or, better yet, in those moments when you can’t see much beauty around you, force yourself to really look for it; that’s when it makes the biggest difference to your frame of mind. It’s no coincidence that I rediscovered poetry just after I was diagnosed with cancer, and it’s no coincidence that the poems I’ve read have moved me as much as they have. It’s also no coincidence that I’ve found myself watching birds more often, taking the scenic route when commuting, listening to certain songs on repeat, seeking out particularly favorite delicacies when I eat. I’ve been filling my life with poetic moments, to enjoy now and also to relive later.

Of all the poems I’ve read recently, there is one that sticks in my mind most for exploring why poetry is so appealing in moments like this, and why/how it resonates the way it does.  That poem is Baby Listening, by Billy Collins:

According to the guest information directory,
baby listening is a service offered by this seaside hotel.

Baby-listening–not a baby who happens to be listening,
as I thought when I first checked in.

Leave the receiver off the hook,
The directory advises,
and your infant can be monitored by the staff,

though the staff, the entry continues,
cannot be held responsible for the well-being
of the baby in question.

Fair enough: someone to listen to the baby.
But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,
lying there in the room next to mine
listening to my pen scratching against the page,

or a more advanced baby who has crawled
down the hallway of the hotel
and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.

Lucky for some of us,
poetry is a place where both are true at once,
where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

Poetry wants to have the baby who is listening at my door
as well as the baby who is being listened to,
quietly breathing into the nearby telephone.

And it also wants the baby
who is making sounds of distress
into the curved receiver lying in the crib

while the girl at reception has just stepped out
to have a smoke with her boyfriend
in the dark by the great wash and sway of the North Sea.

Poetry wants that baby, too,
even a little more than it wants the others.

I could write an entire blog entry dissecting this particular piece, but it’s that final thought that is most relevant here–the idea that poems are a place to consider tragic events and really mull them over in detail. Through the magic of metaphor and artfully chosen vocabulary and perfectly crafted rhythms, poets can sweep you off your feet with beauty while also helping you confront the reality that life is not always easy or pleasant or enjoyable. But the aesthetics of poetry make that message a little more bearable–as does the fact that the mere existence of these verses proves that you are not alone, that someone else has experienced these very same thoughts and feelings that currently consume you.

Beyond extolling the virtues of both Billy Collins and Mary Oliver–both truly gifted poets that I can’t recommend highly enough–all of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I really am fine. I pause to watch gulls hover on the wind; I stop to smell flowers growing by the sidewalk; I smile at the antics of dogs making friends with each other out on the street; I close my eyes to better enjoy the delicious flavor of fresh papaya. I am finding moments of zen everywhere I look, and sometimes they even find me and catch me unawares.

I may have cancer, but life is still filled with beauty. It is a poem, and I am living it.