The end of the semester (ish)

End of semester confusion

When classes are no longer the deciding factor as to when winter break begins, things become a lot more ambiguous.  As such, having to decide for myself when to take a break from lab to visit family and/or go on vacation has been exceedingly stressful for me this year.  It’s even more so because I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I don’t have any particular dates that I need to be with family this winter.

Last year, my rotation ended on a Friday, my last assignment was due the following Tuesday, and then I was free from obligations until the first Monday after the new year.  This year, classes have ended, my last assignment is due tomorrow, and then…I can (and should, to an extent) stay in lab except for however much time I decide to spend out of town.  In my case, the determination of how much time that is is up to me as my PI is flexible- within reason- about how much time and when everyone in the lab takes time off for the holidays.

I wish it were more straightforward.  I want to go on vacation (and not just to my parents’ house), but besides the fact that vacations during the holidays are so, so costly, I don’t want to seem like I am taking advantage of my PI’s flexibility and generosity, and I know that the longer I’m away, the more stressful my first week back is going to be with all the things I will want to do in the lab.  And yet I know that I need a break, a refresher, so that I can be productive come 2015.  Many of my friends from far away (both in the States and international) planned their trips home long ago, and that makes sense as they don’t see their families throughout the year.  Even some of my friends from closer are excited to go home to see their families for Christmas.

I, on the other hand, took an extended vacation with my family back in August, was just home for Thanksgiving, saw my family about monthly throughout the year, and really don’t have a desire to spend the entirety of the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s back in New Jersey.  I could have planned to go away earlier in the month (when flight and hotel prices are cheaper), but there are a few meetings at which I feel obligated to be in attendance; and along the same vein, I have such trouble planning for things too far in advance for fear that something will come up that I feel pressure to attend.  So for this year, at least, that’s now out of the question.

All I have decided for now is that I’ll be in New Jersey from December 20-22, for a holiday party on the 20th, family Hanukkah on the 21st, and my birthday on the 22nd.  After that, who knows…any suggestions?

I’m getting paid to learn.

As I sat in front of my computer this week working on a journal club presentation, the revelation crossed my mind:  this is what I’m getting paid for.  I’m getting paid to learn.  And it was a liberating moment.  Learning is what grad school is all about.  Whether it takes the form of research or reading papers, the glue that ties together all the disparate aspects of  graduate school is learning.

So many grad students have the mantra of, “I’m here to do research.”  And that’s certainly true.  But that mantra often comes with an addendum:  “I can’t wait until classes are over so that I can spend all my time doing research.”

I can’t say that I have completely avoided thinking this myself, though I can say that I’ve remained predominantly resistant to the idea.  To me, research should be the framework upon which a graduate education is built, but not the exclusive activity.  It’s important to learn about other aspects of your field besides the narrow space around your project, and also to understand- if not as much in depth- enough of some other fields, if only with the goal of becoming a more well-rounded scientist.  It’s dangerous to get caught up in the idea that research is the only thing that matters.  Yes, publications are the currency of science- they get you a PhD, a postdoc, tenure.  But at the same time it’s narrow minded for that to be one’s only goal when there is so much other science out there to learn.

The origin of the word science is the Latin word scire, meaning “to know,” and ever since learning this etymology in a high school biology class, I realize that it’s really at the core of why I am doing what I am.  I want to know things.  I want to learn things, and understand them.  Yet it’s easy to get turned away from this idea when the overwhelming peer pressure is saying “Research!  Publish!  Graduate!”  I argue that the emphasis, especially at the graduate level, needs to redirect towards a knowledge acquisition-based system in which success is not measured not only by deep knowledge of one project, but also by a broad understanding of science as a whole.

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.