Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning

A Guide for Plotting the Rest of Your Life, Terrifying Your Neighbors


I’ve spent the past few months in this exceptionally weird, expansive state of nondecision. There’s a scene in the last episode of the West Wing – someone’s trying to decide what to do after the administration ends – and the resident curmudgeon replies: “You’re a woman with a lot of options and you’re acting like the world is backing you into a corner. Maybe you should stop bouncing, pick something.” Ugh. Exactly. I’ve watched it a billion times and yet still couldn’t manage to pick a thing. (For what it’s worth, the way I feel about jobs has helped me understand how the rest of you feel about Tinder.)

Talking and kvetching about, I’ve gotten the sense that this is everything-is-possible paralysis runs particularly rampant in early-career global health and development circles for a few reasons:

  1. People tend to be drawn to this realm out of a compulsion to address particular problems, but when it comes to translating that into a functional career, there are fifty different ways to work on the same thing. (You come out of an internship in undergrad struck by the problem of antimicrobial resistance, say – but do you work on drug pricing? Pharmaceutical incentives? Behavioral research? Medical research? An intervention-based startup to improve compliance? Russian prison reform?)
  2. This space is also overwhelmingly interdisciplinary (epidemiology bleeds into biosecurity which bleeds into soft power and regional dynamics, which bleed into U.S. foreign policy…and that’s just my weird corner). In my experience and perhaps in contrast to other arenas, this actually gets worse with research-oriented graduate education.
  3. There’s also the problem of a hiring bubble: students emerge from MPHs & similar programs with concrete experience and hard research skills, feeling capable of doing a lot but mismatched to market dynamics or otherwise priced out (expected to intern after a master’s, etc).

I’ve also been getting a lot of emails asking for general career advice lately (which I am still totally happy to answer, eventually). But when wait-I-need-a-job season started in full force around February I had no idea what I was doing & so felt like the falsest prophet. Once I figured that out, the process I came up with was so clarifying that I thought a generic guide would be a useful standing resource.

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Buckle up.

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Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning

Review: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

Let’s begin boldly: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Bob Shacochis, 2013) is a Great 21st Century American Novel in the way something like East of Eden is a Great 20th Century American Novel. I’ve been meaning to attempt to convince other people to read it for some time – hesitating because I found it so clarifying and obligating that I’m admittedly a little self-conscious to share. But TWWLHS never got its due in terms of readership, and while daunting in thickness and scope, the novel is so painfully relevant to the world’s present set of conundrums as to merit a public love letter.

The book is divided into five portions, each with their own shaded tenor and narrator (for the record, I found the first part a struggle; this is somewhat intentional and worth perseverance). Settings include post-occupation Haiti; occupied Croatia; the ferries and basilicas of Istanbul during the Cold War; Fayetteville, inside the wire; Fairfax, on the green; the Garnet Mountains of Montana; Bosnia; the Outer Banks; Nairobi.

Plot-wise, it’s is a massively elegiac and confounding rumination on star-spangled good intentions: both barbing and hopeful, damning and redemptive, catholically critical and secularly prophetic. A stellar WaPo review (which spills more plot than I will here) properly pegs it as “a spy thriller in the sense that Moby Dick is a fishing tale”, albeit with black flags in lieu of white whales.

These trails of allegory throughout are self-aware, and sometimes self-deprecating, but remain poignant even when applied with a heavy hand. Here’s one example replicated in full, a description of the central Cold War Warrior as viewed by his eponymous daughter:

“Knowing this: shackled to his obsessions, her father could not stop no matter what, always betting on the consequences breaking his way – short term, certainly; long term, if God so deemed. Repercussions? Not to worry. He could separate people and events and missions and affairs and yet, she would eventually understand, he could not separate the bigger things in his life that sorely needed separation: patriotism and hatred, love and violence, ideology and facts, judgment and passion, intellect and emotion, duty and zealotry, hope and certainty, confidence and hubris, power and fury, God and retribution, dreams of peace and fantasies of war, one’s devils and one’s angels. The past and the future, upon which he asserted ownership. Righteousness and a moral compass that had never been galvanized to the true north.”

At other times, Shacochis tiptoes more implicitly to the modern era. He guides the narrative by projecting it onto reality: a flash of the Khobar Towers, a scant jab at presidential indiscretion, a passing reference to some guy named Bremer. These glimpses constitute a demanding but edifying game of connect-the-dots, coalescing at intervals into recognizable shapes and inducing pangs of dread.

His characterization, by the way, is consistently gorgeous. Stumbling back from Haiti, for instance: “The perfection of his imagined life culminated with a dog, yet under the circumstances he could not have the dog unless he had a woman who loved dogs, or just a woman who loved him, a yearning as distant from his reality as the moon.” And he hits notes that divulge particular familiarities (re: running off to the mountains or beach as a “cure for being too real” – “yeah? Is that like a white people disease?”).

The narrative never quite reaches the implicit climax (headily augured by the last epigraph: “oh, but the end of safety comes to us all – right where we live”) but the lessons and warnings are all about the aftershocks. In that light, rebukes transform into calls to try harder as we navigate the reverberations – to splice power from fury – and hint at paths toward redemption. This is the sort of book I would recommend to every elected official grappling with the slippery algebra of enemies and alliances, every aid worker navigating amongst least bad options, and every citizen concerned by the Gordian knot of responsibilities demanded by or requested of a hegemon.


[Bonus: I made a book playlist like a crazy person…]

Review: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

In the midst of midterms…

…I’d like to take a quick break, because I just want world to know what incredibly cool bioMEMS research is being done on point-of-care diagnostics. Let’s start with pretty colors, courtesy of the Folch lab at the University of Washington:

This is a brief visual example of the things you can do when working with micro-scale volumes of fluid. Some of the standard rules of working with liquids disappear for a bit, allowing intermolecular forces to do their thing and largely subverting turbulent flow. Why on earth would you want to work with such small volumes of liquid, and how are they useful in medicine? Part of it involves (as always) cost reduction.

Most blood diagnostic tests involve seeking out a protein and tagging it to check out under a microscope. This is often done using animal antibodies which, as far as I gathered from that one time someone spilled them in lab, cost roughly a billion dollars to purify. When you can gather enough relevant information using a small amount of reagent, you’ve got a more affordable diagnostic test – and in all likelihood, one that doesn’t take up much room.

Here’s the dream: lab-on-a-chip. Low-cost tests the size of a credit card, with an inlet for blood or saliva, blister packs for the required reagents, and some sort of visual indicator for results: PERFECT for rural or low-resource settings and at-home tests. Practical problems include heat protection and storage (as with vaccines); current research problems include isolating and amplifying desired diagnostic indicators from the low concentrations in which they are typically present in the bodily fluid of interest.

But for each time someone solves the concentration problem, the potential payoff is huge. There’s a tremendous difference between simply dropping blood on a chip and spending days – and personnel and glassware, neither of which might be available – on sample preparation.

And that’s why I go to my 9 am class.

In the midst of midterms…