Happy Friendsgiving!

It’s the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and in the midst of this crazy semester I’m sure looking forward to this holiday weekend more than I ordinarily would be looking forward to going home.  But before Thanksgiving on Thursday, there’s something just as important that gets celebrated this time of year:  Friendsgiving!Friendsgiving 2014

This year marks the first time that I’ve celebrated Friensgiving, admittedly, but for the past few years I’ve heard from friends of mine who have celebrated it with other groups of their friends, and this year I wanted to do it myself.

Thanksgiving turkey

My first (and last…) ever Thanksgiving turkey!

It was a small affair at my apartment, just 7 of us total- and still with people sitting on the floor!  But I had a fun day in the kitchen preparing breads, soup, and even a turkey (!)*, and it was potluck-style for the sides.  A few of the friends that came to Friendsgiving are ones I haven’t hung out with as much lately, so it was a nice evening to get everyone together.  And quite honestly, there’s little that can go wrong with a celebration that’s based around eating! ;-)  I was pleased to get a positive reception from my friends about the food and about the event as a whole.

Happy Friends/Thanksgiving, all!  Enjoy the food, and the family!

*That’s the first and last turkey I will ever cook- too stressful to figure out how to tell when it’s done…I kept my 11 pound turkey in the oven for 5 hours just to be safe!  If you’re wondering, it still was moist and tasted great.  But not great enough to be worth the stress.

Book Review – Hard Drive by Mary Todd and Christina Villegas

Hard Drive:  A Family’s Fight against Three Countries by Mary Todd and Christina Villegas is the story of a family’s fight for justice after Mary’s son, Dr. Shane Todd, was found dead in Singapore in 2012.  (The co-author, Christina Villegas, is Shane’s cousin.)  This book recounts the family’s fight for justice after uncovering evidence that Shane did not commit suicide as was originally thought, but instead was murdered.

From the book’s summary:

On June 24, 2012, Dr. Shane Truman Todd, a young American engineer, was found hanging in his Singapore apartment, just a week before his scheduled return to the United States.  Although Shane had repeatedly expressed apprehension that his work with a Chinese company might compromise U.S. security and fear his life was being threatened, authorities immediately ruled his death a suicide.  His family initially didn’t know what to believe.  However, upon arriving in Singapore, they realized the evidence suggested not suicide, but murder.

I received a copy of this book for review, and I was quite looking forward to reading it as I love murder mysteries and stories with a lot of intrigue.  What I found in addition to that was a very personal story of a family that lost a son.  The book is written from the point of view of Shane’s mother Mary, and she clearly (and understandably) has an emotional reaction to everything that has happened to her family.  So the “murder mystery” aspects of the story are interspersed with more personal moments.  I was surprised that it was these bits that made me care more about continuing to read the book than the descriptions of all the injustices the Todd family explains they’ve felt during their ordeal.

I’d never heard of the Todd family’s story before receiving this book; however I have since learned that since 2012 the family has shared their story in many major news outlets including CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Now I am intrigued to look up their previous interviews to learn more about the story.

My only problem with books like this in general- about contentious stories told by people with a personal connection to the events being written about- is that the stories are blatantly one-sided.  I absolutely understand that this book was written for the Todd family to tell their side of the story and to express their discontent with the way Shane’s death was handled.  But I also feel like this story would be an interesting read if it had been written by an investigative journalist, and that that would have been a tighter way to convey certain facts of the case.  There’s a fine line to skirt when writing emotionally.

All that being said, I would recommend this book.  It is baffling some of the injustices that the Todd family encountered both at home and abroad after Shane’s death, making for a captivating and surprising read.

You can purchase the book from Amazon by clicking on the image of the book cover above.

FTC Disclaimer:  I was provided with a copy of Hard Drive for free to review.  All opinions expressed are my own.

Lab meeting number one

A week ago (whoops about the delay!) I gave my first lab meeting presentation- not only in my current lab, but ever.  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to present my research.

I don’t have a problem public speaking.  In fact, I find public speaking easier than having one-on-one conversations with people!  But that comes with one caveat:  the more people I know in the audience, the more difficult of a time I have with a presentation.  Lab meeting consists of only people with whom I work every day, making giving lab meeting what I think is the worst kind of oral presentation I’ll encounter as a scientist.

Thankfully, my presentation went well!  It was a useful time in the timeline of my project to get feedback from everyone in my lab, and it fostered a productive discussion with my PI over what experiments I’ll be working on come 2015- a conversation that wouldn’t have happened if not for my presentation.  And my labmates were good about giving me reassuring feedback afterwards, making me think that maybe as my time in the lab goes on, I will get more confident about giving lab meeting after all.

Luckily, though, we only meet once a month on a rotating schedule, so I don’t have to present again until May!

The submit button.

Four letter words have nothing on “submit”.  The fear and anxiety those six letters instill in me is unparalleled- the finality, and the even more uncontrollable period of waiting for an answer make clicking submit on a funding application my least favorite part of being a scientist.  (Too bad my entire career has the potential to depend on this!)

This year’s round of fellowship applications is nearing completion.  I’ve submitted one and am close to finishing the second.  Both fellowships I am applying for are only open to early-career graduate students (pre-entering through second year), meaning that this cycle is the last time I can apply.

Last year, I was really nervous to submit the applications.  This year, somehow, it was even worse.  I’m sure that I could have gone through my essays even more times than I did in the last 24 hours before submitting (I uploaded upwards of 10 new drafts in that time period, with changes ranging from minor punctuation issues to actually changing my entire hypothesis!), but at some point the incremental edits start to be outweighed by the tantalizing possibility of relief from not being able to be neurotic about them any more.  I knew it was time to just be done with the application when I decided to take a break, and I went on Pinterest- and scrolled through a board of ~300 pins without registering any of it.

Still, knowing that hitting submit this time constituted my last time of being able to apply for this particular fellowship was so nerve-wracking.

I want to win.  Badly.  And there’s nothing I can do in the interim except wait until April for results.

I’m not coming home.

Homecoming weekend at my alma mater, Rutgers University, is this weekend.  Yet for the first time since 2008 (my freshman year at the University), not only will I not be in attendance at the homecoming game, but I won’t be at a single football game all season.

During my tenure as an undergraduate, I was a member of the marching band for all four years.  I went to every home football game and some away games as well, including bowl appearances 3 of the years.  It was in my blood as a Rutgers student to be passionate about the team and show school spirit every weekend.

Now, I live 6 hours away.  But the distance, the drive, and the cost of staying near the school are not even the factors that have prevented me from returning to Rutgers for the homecoming game this year.

This season, Rutgers joined the Big Ten conference.  As a direct result, ticket prices to the games rose greatly.  Not unexpected, as the teams Rutgers is playing are suddenly of a much higher caliber and draw many more loyal fans to their away games.  Alumni members of the marching band (referred to as the “Alumni Band” when we get together for performances) have been a staple at Rutgers’ homecoming games for as long as anyone can remember.  As performers, members of the Alumni band who march on the field at halftime (as opposed to just playing in the stands) have historically been rewarded with free admission to the game, with seats in the student section behind the undergrad band.  This year, ticket prices are $85 for members of the Alumni Band, and no longer include lunch or parking, which have also been provided free of charge in the past.

All of a sudden, it’s massively cost-prohibitive to go to homecoming and perform with the Alumni Band- I’d be looking at spending at least $100 if not more for the day.

So after 6 years of going to Rutgers Homecoming, this year I’ll spend it in Pittsburgh, watching the game TV…but it’s just not the same.

Happy Halloween!

I’m a big fan of the day after holidays- November 1, December 26, February 15.  The holidays themselves, not so much.  I don’t celebrate Christmas, and I’m not in a relationship to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Halloween, on the other hand, is a holiday for most everyone.  Kids go trick-or-treating, college students go drinking, and even adults get in on the fun by handing out candy or walking around with their kids.  It’s a holiday for most everyone, I said- because it’s not for those of us who hate dressing up.  I fall neatly into that category.  Unfortunately for me, costumes are the crux of Halloween, and it’s weird to go out on October 31 in normal attire, especially if everyone you are with is excited to be dressed up.  But it’s equally as awkward to put on a costume and pretend to enjoy any second of wearing it.  So here I am, on the morning of Halloween, still trying to decide what, if anything, to dress up as, or if I’d rather just stay home for the evening.  I hate dressing up.  I like 50% off candy- I can’t wait for November 1.

Let’s run

It’s an exhilarating feeling for me to be allowed to run with one of my crazy ideas/side projects, and even more so when other people appreciate that they’re being done.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I became interested in policy and management, though it’s been a fairly recent development.  This year, I’ve been trying to find ways throughout the University to get more experience in the area, and luckily (in a way), the constitution of our Biomedical Graduate Student Association is in desperate need of review.  I’ve thought this since I first joined the BGSA soon after I started grad school, and this year I finally feel like I have enough klout in the organization to pursue making the changes.

I’ve been working on writing a set of amendments for about a month, and yesterday I sat down with the president of the BGSA to go over my proposed changes and talk about how we want this process to move forward.  What started out as a simple review of what I’d written turned into a 2 and a half hour meeting that culminated with us brainstorming ways to restructure the government of the entire organization, with renaming positions and redistributing responsibilities.  As someone with a mind for how pipelines and organizations would function more efficiently, I’m extremely thankful that our president is on board with me running with these changes.  Whether they get approved or not, at least I have the freedom to pursue the idea.  It’s liberating.

The thing you need to hear

Sometimes, motivation comes from the most unexpected places.  On Monday, it came from the undergrad sitting next to me on the bus- at 10:30 pm, after I’d been in lab for 13 hours.  I’m typically not one to engage in conversation with strangers on the bus, and especially not at that hour of night.  But after a few nonchalant responses to this particular stranger’s questions, I decided that he seemed nice enough and that there was no harm in chatting with him during the remaining 5 minutes of my bus ride home.  Little did I know that this short conversation would actually put a whole different perspective onto my day.

The beginning of the conversation was menial small talk.  And then, the question that would spin the whole conversation: “Where do you work?”

I mentioned that I work in a research lab, specifically studying cancer immunology (which I subsequently explained).  Immediately he was engaged.  “How’d you get into that kind of research?” was his next question.  He seemed truly interested, so I explained to him that when I used to work as a day camp counselor, one of the little girls in my group was recovering from brain cancer.  [I’ll have to post the entire story on the blog here at some point.]

“Wow,” he said.  “That’s huge.  That’s like, bigger than you, bigger than me, than any of us- that’s really important work you’re doing.  That’s really great.”

And that’s just what I needed to hear, after 13 hours in the lab on a Monday.  Quite honestly, during my day to day work I rarely think about the implications of my research outside of whether the results might help me get funding or a decent publication.  It just took the stranger on the bus pointing them out to give my day a much brighter perspective.

Change #3: Clothing

With this new season comes, of course, new weather.  The mornings have been outright frigid lately, and even once the sun rises, it barely takes the edge off the chill.  This particular change means that getting dressed is no longer as easy as throwing on jeans and a T-shirt and calling it a day- but by no means does the colder weather need to mean pulling out a whole new wardrobe!  Sure, scarves and coats and gloves are unnecessary in the summer, but there are certainly some key summer pieces that can make the transition to the colder weather.  My favorite?  White pants!

Whoever said you can’t wear white after Labor Day must not have been very creative, because over the last couple of weeks I have come up with two outfits that I absolutely love that are based around my pair of white pants.  They both take into account the colder weather and the inclination to wear boots and a sweater, just with a brighter twist by substituting jeans for white pants.

Outfit #1:  Mustard yellow sweater (Target); white pants (TJ Maxx); brown boots (Famous Footwear)

White pants with yellow sweater

Outfit #2:  Red sweater (Target – similar); white pants (TJ Maxx – same as above); black boots (Payless – similar)
Apologies that I don’t have a picture in this outfit! :(

Either of these outfits easily would work with jeans instead of white bottoms, but they’ll really pop with just that one small change.  While I love the colder months, I do like thinking of tricks like this- it makes it less of an ordeal to make changes for every new season.  Even though I certainly have jeans out year-round, these outfits help me avoid having to pack so many clothes away at the end of the summer!

How do you transition your favorite summer pieces to the fall and winter?  Let me know in the comments!

Change #2: Decorations

I’m easily bored with the decor in my apartment, but since my lease explicitly states that I am not allowed to paint the walls, there’s little I can do to quickly change the look of the entire space.  Instead of giving in and remaining frustrated with the current state of my apartment, I decided to get creative and find a new way to redecorate, in season and with minimal effort.

Last year, which was the first year I was living in my own place, I really wanted to decorate but was not willing to spend the money required to buy in-season decorations.  Instead, I waited until the end of each season (after Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the winter/Hanukkah), and picked up decorations on clearance.  This year, I’m all set to decorate my apartment, on a budget!

wpid-20141012_161049.jpgThis is a picture of what I’ve done to decorate for fall!  In the context of my apartment, this shelf serves as a room divider between my living room and my work/office space.  Because of the very open floor plan of my apartment, I see this space from the moment I walk in the door, while I’m doing work, and while I’m watching TV from my couch.

The football made of crepe paper I picked up on clearance last year.  The wreath I made (!) from things I picked up on discount from the craft store last year.  The pumpkin is real- but from the grocery store; and over on the right, I picked up a candle holder for 50% off at a preseason sale at RiteAid, and put a candle that I got for free a few years ago inside.  Finally, the football-shaped confetti on the shelf is from the same sale as the football.

So, my two take-away tips for changing up your space are:

  1. Pick up decorations a year in advance on clearance!
  2. Be creative with the space you have, even if you can’t decorate exactly as you’d like.

Happy autumn!