Professor & patients' paper on the solvable biological challenge of ME/CFS: reader-friendly version
Simon McGrath provides a patient-friendly version of a peer-reviewed paper which highlights some of the most promising biomedical research on ME/CFS ...
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Career Advice for Physicist.

Discussion in 'Finances, Work, and Disability' started by bananabas, Sep 12, 2015.

  1. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    I have posted my short bio here. As you can see, I am close to finishing my PhD in (theoretical) physics. My strong points are analytical/math skills and computer programming/linux.

    It is my understanding that there are quite a few members here with a similar scientific background (looking at you, @Hip). I was wondering how ME has affected you career choices.

    More specifically, I was lately thinking of taking a career turn towards medical-related research, given the amount of medical knowledge I have aquired throughout the years. It is however unclear how to make this transition in practice, and where my skills would be most useful (I am of course thinking of ME research in particular).
     
  2. Valentijn

    Valentijn Senior Member

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    Bioinformatics is a relatively new field with a lot of exciting things happening. I've taken some genetics classes along those lines, and had a lot of fun with it. Coursera has quite a few free bioinformatics classes with a heavy programming focus from a group at UCLA. I don't know if they could be used for official credit in some situation, but they should be good for getting your toes wet before deciding if if you want to jump in.

    A link to those courses is at https://www.coursera.org/specializations/bioinformatics and you can search for others there from different universities too. The programming aspect of the UCLA classes was too much for me, but my fiance enjoyed it quite a bit even with no real background in biology. They explain those aspects well enough, but expect everyone to know how to program pretty well already.
     
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  3. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    Indeed, I have already explored bioinformatics a bit, and came upon Pavel Pevzner's course at UC San Diego. Looks like exciting stuff! I'll probably digg in further after finishing my thesis, since that already takes up most of my energy.
    The problem however, would be afterwards convincing a possible employer (research group etc) to hire me, given my lack of actual experience in the field, coupled with my diminished work ability as compared to a "normal" person.
     
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  4. Hip

    Hip Senior Member

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    That's very interesting to hear, @bananabas, that you have a theoretical physics background. What particular area did / do you focus on in your PhD, may I ask?

    My first degree was in mathematics and physics, and since I love these subjects, I devoured many popular science books on both over the years. Now it's hard for me to read even the most simple popular science book on physics, due to brain fog.

    The reason I am able to read (to some extent) medical research is because I feel it is of huge significance to me personally, and this personal angle seems to create the extra drive and determination in my mind to overcome the brain fog, and try to penetrate into the subject matter.


    Anyway, to answer your question about transitioning to medical-related research: there are several medical professionals and medical researchers on this form, such Professor @Jonathan Edwards, @Butydoc, Dr @charles shepherd, who may be able to offer you some advice. So that's one starting point.

    There are also quite a few people on this forum with science, engineering, cognitive science, computer programming, etc, educational backgrounds and careers. Though most have had to abandon their career due to the brain fog of ME/CFS, which often makes complex analytical work pretty much impossible.

    In my case, I worked professionally in computer programming, but these days with brain fog, I struggle with even quite simple things on the computer. From the perspective of those working in analytical careers, brain fog is probably the most debilitating aspect of this disease.


    In terms of research areas that need to be explored in ME/CFS, I personally think that brain fog (aka: cognitive dysfunction, or cognitive impairment) really needs attention, as this is such a debilitating aspect of ME/CFS. There are almost no theories as to what causes brain fog. And yet brain fog occurs in several conditions, for example it occurs during chemotherapy (where it is often called "chemo-fog"), and it occurs in fibromyalgia ("fibro-fog"). You'd think that there might be a greater understanding of this, but there is not.

    If you compare brain fog to say a dementia like Alzheimer's, there is far more understanding of what is happening in the brain in Alzheimer's than there is in brain fog. OK, in Alzheimer's there is the great advantage of there being observable physical changes in the brain, which then become the starting point for understanding Alzheimer's.

    With brain fog, there are no apparent physical abnormalities (apart from ME/CFS autopsies showing some enteroviral infection of the brain). Thus it is more likely that brain fog is due to something like neurotransmitter level abnormalities, receptor abnormalities, or abnormalities in the activation of certain areas on the brain (with these abnormalities possibly caused by immune events in the brain, such as the cerebral immune system fighting a viral infection).

    Since brain fog is quite variable (you can experience extreme brain fog one day, but the next day be relatively clear minded), this to my mind tends to indicate it cannot be cause by permanent physical damage of the brain; the variability of brain fog suggests its mechanism must be one which can vary in severity from day to day.
     
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  5. Jonathan Edwards

    Jonathan Edwards "Gibberish"

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    @bananabas
    You might want to think about neuroimaging. Brain imaging now uses very high tech physics and maths for the chemical tracers, the MRI programming and the 3D data analysis (and a whole lot more). It is a rapidly growing field and the physics is mind-blowingly interesting (to my mind). James Baraniuk is probably the world leader in relation to ME but in terms of neurology more widely there is scope both in direct clinical work and basic biology. It is a competitive field I guess, but someone with good math and physics who is motivated on the medical aspect will be wanted.
     
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  6. anciendaze

    anciendaze Senior Member

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    In the distant past I had training in physics which was interrupted by the draft. (This already marks me as a fossil.) Most of my work has been in applied physics, simulation and computer programming. The final bout with ME/CFS essentially destroyed my ability to handle long sequences of calculations and formal manipulations, which had previously been not just the basis of my livelihood but even a matter of life and death. (You may have to look up the term artillery fire direction, and some history for how this was done before electronic computers.)

    Dr. Edwards suggestion concerning imaging could apply to many diseases which traditionally fall below diagnostic thresholds based on large-scale neurological changes, not only ME/CFS. It takes substantial mathematical training to understand tensor diffusion algorithms or spin-spin coupling in MRI. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) has also been of use in finding abnormal biochemical signatures prior to neurological structural changes in inaccessible parts of the body. This is particularly important in finding objective correlates of post-exertional malaise (PEM or PENE).

    My impairment is far more specific than the term "brain fog" suggests. In medical papers it is usually termed dyscalculia, in this case without developmental deficits or traumatic injury. There are also episodes of nominal aphasia which make it much harder for me to function by speaking than by writing. There are also problems recognizing faces (prosopagnosia). In my own case, which may not be the same as others, I can often think clearly if I am able to lie down for some minutes, a consequence of orthostatic intolerance.

    People who do not suffer this simply do not realize how many common situations there are where it is virtually impossible to lie down and get your feet up. For most people this is a minor inconvenience. Most doctors do not worry about orthostatic intolerance unless a patient experiences actual syncope. Even then they usually assume this was the result of ordinary dehydration by someone who was simply careless about fluids and electrolytes. Dynamics of fluid and electrolyte regulation are so poorly appreciated that I have had doctors tell me that neurally-mediated hypotension, where pulse-pressure (systolic - diastolic) drops over 20 minutes after standing, simply does not happen in ambulatory patients. If I offer to demonstrate they insist that is not how they take blood pressure.

    Other applications of training in physics to this disease might be connected with electrical measures of autonomic function, ocular tracking or gait disturbances. Those who have problems with their digestion may exhibit substantial changes in gut motility. (This also happens in horses, weakening psychological speculations.) This is not exactly new, breaking news.
     
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  7. Hip

    Hip Senior Member

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    Further to that thought, a recent ME/CFS study, using diffusion MRI techniques found some abnormalities in brain white matter. That might be an interesting area to consider.

    There is also this recent study using PET scans that detected neuroinflammation in the brains of ME/CFS patients.
     
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  8. SOC

    SOC

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    The systems biology work being done by Broderick (he's a research engineer) in association with INIM at NOVA Southeastern University is looking very promising. If I was still able to function as an engineer, I'd be very interested in getting involved in that work.

    I'm too tired and foggy tonight to look up links to this research, but perhaps someone with more energy atm could link @bananabas to some of Broderick's work in ME/CFS.
     
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  9. cigana

    cigana Senior Member

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    I work as a theoretical physicist. My advice to you would be to find an area of speciality which increases your chances of finding a permanent job!
    Academic environments are competitive. It might be wise to think about what options there are in Spain for working in national labs, or similar environments where your chosen speciality will be supported long-term.
    Good luck :)
     
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  10. panckage

    panckage Senior Member

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    Just in case your illness prevents you from working in your field and you want to repurpose your degree I have found that being a substitute teacher works pretty good for my ME. There are lots of days off and I can take time off whenever I like. Workdays (where I live at least) are about 8:30am to 3pm so working days are short as well. When I'm not feeling well 10mg of ritalin usually helps to make me functional enough to last the day. There's no way I can become a full time teacher with this illness though!
     
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  11. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    I focused on low energy/low temperature physics, in the context of condensed matter. The particular type of problems we tackle are in the field of Bose-Einstein condensation as it applies to non-equilibrium dissipative systems, like cavity exciton-polaritons. Not sure how familiar you are with this type of systems, but I'm happy to give more details, if you wish. Perhaps in another thread or a private conversation.

    While I do agree that brain fog is an interesting phenomenon to explore, the fact that it does not seem to be caused by physical changes makes it more molecular biology/chemistry related I think. Nothing wrong with that, but quite far removed from my field of expertise.
     
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  12. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    I totally agree about neuroimaging being an exciting field, and I already know of physicists that have moved in this direction. I wasn't quite sure how it would apply to ME research though, would you suggest contacting James Baraniuk?
     
  13. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    There are now numerous comercial and FOSS (free open source software) computer-algebra systems that do this automatically, I relied on them quite heavily during my PhD, especially on brain foggy days.

    Thanks, I'll look into those applications as well, although they sound more like engineering to me. I guess there's always some overlap with physics.

    I have a physicist friend working in positron emission tomography, it's nice to hear it also applies to ME/CFS research.

    Unfortunately both Broderick and Baraniuk are based in the US, while I was looking for something on the "old continent". I don't exclude such a relocation, but imagine I go there and don't like it, or my symptoms get worse (or both!).
     
  14. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    So you are implying that a career switch might not be a wise move due to the competition? I have also thought about that. Getting a permanent job in my field is very tough though, even in national labs. Besides, getting the position is just the start, then you have to start worrying about grant applications, attending as many conferences as possible, supervising students. All way too stressfull for my current condition.
     
  15. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    I enjoy teaching quite a lot actually! The problem however is, I can probably only do that in my native country (Romania) and here the salary for a full time teacher is 200 euros/month. You can imagine what a substitute teacher gets, not to mention I don't have (and probably never will have) any disability allowance.
     
  16. anciendaze

    anciendaze Senior Member

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    You might check on work by Bruce West on what he calls fractal measures of various physiological characteristics. This is fundamental to physiology, and poorly appreciated by doctors. (I've been waiting for some time for discoveries made in the 1980s to radically change cardiology. Most applications have been via implanted devices. Changing the way doctors think is a great deal harder.) There is a great deal of relevance of chaotic dynamics to the study of epilepsy and other neurological disorders which has scarcely been exploited.

    In terms of research interests I would suggest that explicit concentration on ME/CFS is not helpful when there is little research money allocated, and most approved lines of research are sterile. It is a good idea to choose research areas which also apply to better recognized disorders, keeping relevance to ME/CFS in the back of your mind.

    In response to your suggestion about CAS, I do use these a little. Unfortunately, the reduction in working memory caused by the disease also affects my ability to perform such tasks at the keyboard while also thinking about the problem I'm working on. I think of this in terms of "stack depth", as in compilers. I just can't handle the level of nesting that once was routine for me. This also applies to understanding multiple levels of indirection. Here's a literary example from Lewis Carrol. Curiously, I can deal with this literary example better than the abstractions I once took for granted. My verbal processing is less affected.
     
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  17. panckage

    panckage Senior Member

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    Wow i don't know what the cost of living is in Romania but in Canada I make about $300 a day as a substitute teacher ($50-55,000 a year). It's crazy the difference between countries!
     
  18. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    To get an idea about the cost of living, I pay 320 euro in rent per month for a 2-room appartment on the outskirts. Food costs an additional 150 - 200 euros/month.
     
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  19. bananabas

    bananabas Senior Member

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    This looks like an interesting book, I'll give it a more detailed look. I imagine it must be frustrating for people like Bruce West to have such an elegant theory and so little clinical impact due to inertia in the medical system.

    I see. In this context, (neuro-)imaging research can be quite useful as it applies to a whole range of disorders.

    I can relate to your example of stack depth. That is why I tend to separate tasks as much as possible, for instance attacking a problem with pen and paper first, coming up with a suitable pseudo-code, and only then implementing it in a CAS.
     
  20. cigana

    cigana Senior Member

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    Yeah exactly. If you're just coming out of your PhD you've got the chance now to get into another field.
    Maybe try looking for an area of physics (or related) that is well supported in your country.

    Or, at least think about switching to an area that is traditionally well funded, such as solid state physics. As I'm sure you're aware, pretty much every other area of physics is better funded that theoretical physics....
    EDIT: sorry I just read your post saying you work in condensed matter. Well, usually that area is relatively well funded.
     

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