Blogger Night @ Pittsburgh Glass Center!

Last weekend I had an awesome opportunity to visit the Pittsburgh Glass Center! As part of a promotional event for Pittsburgh bloggers, a group of about 10 of us got to watch a glass-blowing demo, followed by the chance to make our very own glass flowers!

Glass Blowing demo

I will admit that playing with 2100 degree molten glass was mildly terrifying (especially after burning my hand cooking last week…). I really admire the artists who do this daily! But it was a neat opportunity to try my hand at something artsy and new.

Picking colors for my flower!

Picking colors for my flower!

Creating the shape

Creating the flower shape with giant metal tongs

Final product! The outside is purple; the inside (which you can't see) is orange.

Final product! The outside is purple; the inside (which you can’t see) is orange.

If you are interested in trying your hand at creating art with glass yourself, check out the Pittsburgh Glass Center website. There are classes in all price ranges, but if you are a poor graduate student like me, take a look at the Make-It-Now workshops, which range in price from $25-$35. The next workshops are coming up on October 23 (Pumpkins) and December 5 (Ornaments). There are also Girl’s Night Out workshops for $45 being held on July 18 and August 1, October 10, and December 11 this year. You can register for any of these workshops, and more, on line!

Though I’ve been eyeing the Pittsburgh Glass Center for a while, I’m glad I had the chance to try it out last week because it was such a unique way to spend an evening. Thanks to the Glass Center staff for hosting a wonderful event- I’m sure I will find myself there again in the future!

FTC Disclaimer: I attended a free promotional event at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. The decision to write a blog post and all opinions expressed herein are my own.

Mentoring: my first experience and thoughts

I volunteered to mentor a high school student this summer, through a summer research program for high schoolers through the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). I want to get mentoring/teaching experience while I am in grad school because, even though I no longer envision myself in front of a classroom, I think that understanding how different people learn will help me better my science writing.

The past two weeks have been a test of my ability to accept change as well as my time management skills: I definitely underestimated how much time it would take to teach my student laboratory techniques and immunology concepts, and guide her through experiments, while still having time in the day to take care of my own research and studying. Since she started in the lab just over two weeks ago, I’ve had days where I don’t even get my own experiments started until after she leaves- at 4:30 pm!

The thing that makes this particularly difficult is the high school student’s difficulty understanding that doing research does not mean spending every minute of every day behind the bench, nor does it mean that every day you will get data. In the paraphrased words of my PI, for every minute you spend at the bench, you should spend 2-3 times that reading, planning, or analyzing. That means that a researcher is probably behind the bench for about a quarter of the time they spend in the lab. The rest of the time is spent either preparing for the experiment or analyzing data. However, in a high school science lab, projects are designed to take up an entire class period, and I’ve realized that the students in the UPCI program only have this as the basis for what “lab” is. But a real life research lab is nothing like a lab in a high school classroom.

I’m a bit divided over how to feel these days, because half of me appreciates that everyone entering a lab has a learning curve to understand how things run, but the other half wishes that my particular student was more receptive to what I am trying to teach her outside of the particulars of the experiment- that is, learning about how labs run, how long it actually takes to get data, the necessity of having to repeat experiments, etc. In the long run, though, I still believe this will be a beneficial opportunity for me moving forward.

My Science Writing Story

“The real question is, when did I get interested in science,” I say. “I loved writing before I ever thought about liking science.”

I suppose it’s common for scientists to gripe about writing. It’s not unexpected, though- I don’t know of anyone who chose to enter this field because of the amount of writing it actually entails to be a successful scientist. But whether it’s qualifying exams, grant proposals, article reviews, or even communication to the public, much of life as a scientist requires writing. It’s not possible to advance in this career path by solely focusing on bench work- especially in this era when funding is more competitive than ever, it is important that scientists can communicate their work to whomever asks, whether that be a funding agency or a journalist. Yet of all the different aspects of life as a scientist, writing persists as the most complained about task.

So when it comes up, as it often does, that I am a scientist and I voluntarily write for fun, the reactions are remarkable. The most common is, first, a look of shock, followed by some laughter, and finally, the question: “So, why do you like writing?” I’ve gotten used to this by now.

To most people’s surprise, I answer by flipping the question: “The real question is, when did I get interested in science,” I say. “I loved writing before I ever thought about liking science.” This typically propagates the initial reaction I described above.

But that’s the truth. I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. The first project my parents remember me bringing home from elementary school (in either Kindergarten or 1st grade) was a “book” I wrote about penguins, made out of blue construction paper. I continued my love of writing throughout grade school, in 3rd grade winning a poetry contest by writing about outer space. When I worked as a day camp counselor throughout middle school and high school, I had a friend who also liked to write, and would bring me chapters of her novel to edit while we sat by the pool. Even in high school, I took creative writing and poetry as my electives during my senior year.

Yet by that time- in fact, by my sophomore year of high school- I had, finally, become interested in science and was confident by my junior year that that was the route I was going to pursue in college. And so in college, while I kept up my interest in writing through a double major in French literature, a few creative writing classes, and a weekly “tea” with the Honors Program Writer in Residence, writing always remained on the periphery.

It wasn’t until towards the end of my first year of grad school (after taking a gap year between following undergrad) that I thought about getting back into writing. I realized that despite loving Pittsburgh and getting engrossed in science that I was lacking a lot of the other activities that I enjoyed, and when I really thought about it, the main thing I wanted to bring back into my life was writing. But how?

Google has all the answers these days! After a bit of looking around, I decided to search for science writing contests. Who knew those existed? Yet it turns out that there are actually a number of annual science writing contests open to trainees at the graduate student level. The stars aligned with the timing of my search and I discovered that NatureJobs was holding a science writing competition with the prize being an opportunity to write more articles for their blog– the deadline was just a few weeks away. Somehow, with no prior science writing experience and in fact never having know much about NatureJobs before, I made it into the top 5 in that contest!

The experience of reporting for NatureJobs and connecting with editors there as well as my fellow competition winners became a jumping off point for me to explore other avenues of science writing. In the past year, I’ve written additional articles for NatureJobs, won a science writing competition held by the American Society for Cell Biology, and have connected with a variety of people with different expertise and experiences to help me move forward with this avenue of my career.

I recently said to somebody that saying you like writing is the same as saying you like science: there are so many aspects to each field that it’s necessary to hone in on a specific avenue to pursue. Though it took many years, I’m happy that I figured out how to make my interests work for me and I am excited to see what the future holds!

I am an introvert, and I am okay.

A few months ago I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet. I enjoyed the book. It was a worthwhile read, and it was interesting to discover how many more parts of my personality can be attributed to introversion that I’d previously known. I was equally as excited to discover that Cain has a website and a Facebook presence and was working on starting an online community for introverts- Quiet Rev– which launched this week.

However, I’m quite disappointed by the culture of posts that are included on the site. All that I’ve seen so far are either about introverts who have long struggled with their personality, or introverts who have overcome that. And while that’s helpful to, likely, a large number of introverts, I can say that it is certainly not to all. Not all introverts have had difficulties accepting their introversion. I haven’t.

And so despite the amalgamation of introvert-centric content on Quiet Rev, I feel out of place there, lost. I never suspected that I was in the minority of introverts. In fact, until quite recently it didn’t occur to me that what a lot of introverts are looking for is the affirmation and support I’ve had from my family all my life. With that, I accept that Quiet Rev can be the place for that for a large number of introverts. In its present state, though, the site alienates those of us introverts who are content but still looking for a safe place to connect.

Writer’s block

Grad school is a cycle of ups and downs. These past few months have been largely down, because I feel like I haven’t had a chance to get back into the swing of things since coming back from winter break. Our lab is moving, but the move date has been pushed around so many times that I’ve been afraid of starting any long-term experiments for fear of not having lab space to finish them. I went to a few conferences throughout the Spring semester, and finally, I’m in the midst of writing my comprehensive exams (which will hopefully be all finished by the end of June). It’s been a lot these past few months, and for someone who depends on having a schedule, at times overwhelming.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that I’ve been simultaneously been struggling with writer’s block and haven’t been able to think of much to post on the blog. It seems too easy for something that’s relaxing and fun to become a chore in the midst of a whirlwind of other responsibilities. But at the same time it’s been a relief to spend some time not worrying about publishing posts on a certain schedule, and instead just writing for myself when I want to.

I have ideas of things to write about (finally!), though, so hopefully I will also have the motivation to get some more blog posts up this summer. It’s been a while, but I’m ready to be back.

Feelings, #1: Guilt.

A phrase from one of my graduate school professors that really resonated with me was this:  that everyone struggles in grad school, but everyone’s struggle is different and begins at a different time.

My current struggle is with guilt- with feeling like I need to be doing more work, no matter how much I’ve already done in a given day or week.  If I find myself trying to relax, some thought immediately comes to mind of what I could be doing related to studying, reading papers, or being in lab.  This feeling is worse if I am actively doing something fun, whether it be reading, shopping, cooking, watching TV; the thought then is that if I can spend time and energy on something fun, I should be able to spend the same time and energy on something productive.

The balance here is tricky.  There are sometimes when I really should be working, and in those cases trying to convince myself that it’s okay to not be working is also dangerous.

In observing my peers, it seems as though establishing this balance is easier for students who are in relationships or living with roommates, as they have another person whom they are- for lack of better terminology- required to spend time around.  That person can serve as a gauge of when they’ve worked too long, when they don’t look well, and when they need to take a break.  The requirements of being in such a situation, though I’m sure can themselves be stressful at times, seem from an outsiders point of view to counterbalance the stresses of grad school well.  Alone, I quickly feel guilty for taking any time to deal with personal issues or simply take care of myself, when without anything besides my own desires to worry about, I could just as easily be spending that same time in the lab.  I feel like I don’t have a good excuse not to be.

At the same time, I’m acutely aware of when I need a break.  The problem for me is not that I’m not aware of when I should step back, but the actual act of not doing work for a period of time in order to get the break I need.  It’s guilt that at least partly stems from the way it can be perceived in grad school to want to not be in the lab all the time- especially when there is a culture of working long hours and/or on weekends.  I’m trying to embrace the mentality that hours spent working and productivity are not completely correlated (and I do, truly, believe that), but it is difficult to break through the sense of implicit pressure to always work and the judgement I feel when I’m not working as many hours as other people.  It goes the opposite way, as well- when I lose sight of that truth and work extra (often fruitless) hours, I get frustrated that others around me are working less and getting just as much accomplished.

So I suppose the lesson in this is what I’ve been trying to hold on to throughout my entire graduate school career thus far:  that I’m happiest when I listen to myself and what I need, but that at the same time I need to still work on a way to better process how I react to the feelings of others to avoid feeling guilty for taking care of myself.

Doctoral Directions: Learning to Lead in Biomedicine (day 2)

I am very long overdue on a synopsis of the second day of Doctoral Directions, which took place on March 6th.  (Click here for my recap of day 1.)  In lieu of a long recap, I will give bullet points of some of the topics that were discussed by our keynote speakers and direct you to the Twitter feed for the conference to read some more about the talks and attendee’s thoughts on the topics.

  • Joanne Kamens gave another keynote address, this time on establishing and maintaining work-life balance.  “Science is not just what we do, it’s who we are. If we’re not doing science, we won’t be happy.”
  • Chip Souba gave a talk on flipping the leadership paradigm.  “You [graduate students] don’t have titles, but you’re all leaders.”

I left the conference before the afternoon’s breakout sessions on account of having to TA that afternoon.  Regardless, this year’s Doctoral Directions was a success and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference already!

Doctoral Directions: Learning to Lead in Biomedicine (day 1)

I’m really excited to be live tweeting this year’s Doctoral Directions conference.  Follow the conference at #DocDirections!

Doctoral Directions is a local conference hosted annually in Pittsburgh that focuses on career development for graduate students, medical students, and postdocs.  It’s a two day conference, this year including a Thursday evening dinner session (which this recap is about) and a full day of speakers and breakout sessions on Friday.  This year, the focus of Doctoral Directions is on leadership.  Thursday’s speakers were Joanne Kamens, Chip Souba, and a panel of professors from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, who all spoke on different areas related to facilitating a successful career in biomedicine.

I was particularly excited to hear from Joanne Kamens. She’s the executive director at Addgene, but I’m more familiar with her from following her on Twitter! She gave an excellent, interactive session on networking. In particular, she gave some actionable tips regarding how individuals with different personalities can network successfully. As an introvert, I especially liked her acknowledgement that it’s okay for introverts to practice conversations and introductions before entering into a situation where they’ll actually need to talk to others.  I often hear people talk about networking from such an extroverted perspective, with tips that essentially boil down to talking to and trying to remember conversations with as many people as possible in a limited period of time.  As an introvert, that doesn’t work for me!  It was refreshing to hear the perspective that though introverts and extroverts clearly get their energy from different activities, both can be effective networkers in different ways:  either by being great listeners, or by facilitating connections between others.

Dr. Souba talked about how to embrace being an leader in a world where those of us who are able to pursue our intellectual goals are a large minority.  He commented on our responsibilities to the population to disseminate knowledge while also remaining true to our own desires.  His keynote started off with two questions that framed the talk:  “What do I want to do with my life?” and “Who am I?”.  Not only every scientist, but every person, should ask themselves those two questions in order to determine how they can be an ‘effective human’ and make a mark on the world.  However, my favorite quote from this talk was this: “You can’t make something meaningful for yourself by just deciding it’s going to be meaningful.”  Instead, it takes looking inside yourself to decide what matters to you and then carving out a path that allows you to do that work.  And when you’ve finally figured out what that is, it requires little forced effort to get done- the work just flows out of you because it’s what you are meant to be doing.  Of course, being able to do that type of work is the goal of most individuals; those of us lucky enough to be able to make a career of it are rare, but lucky.  It’s definitely something that hit home for me, and I know that I will be keeping that idea in mind as my idea of what I want my career to look like continues to evolve.

Finally, a panel of biomedical thought leaders from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon spoke about work life balance and how to negotiate that throughout your career.  The general consensus of the panel was that a few specific things are key to having a successful work-life balance throughout your career.  The key ideas that they threw out were to prioritize; maintain a support network (including family); empower others; and manage your time well.  In particular, time management was a key theme throughout this discussion- and as it’s something that I struggle with (case in point:  it’s 12:30 am and I’m writing this recap instead of sleeping!) I was happy to hear it discussed so candidly.  The overarching advice that arose for managing time better was twofold.  One, set boundaries.  Give yourself time off to care for those around you as well as for yourself.  Whether it’s leaving work at a certain time every evening, or giving yourself one scheduled day off every week, find what works for you and make sure to preserve that time.  Two, work efficiently, not more.  Being more productive does not automatically mean that you need to spend more time working.  Instead, you may need to find better uses of the time that you already work in order to increase productivity then.  That way (tying back into point number 1), you can also spend time away from work to cultivate other areas of your life.  The best way to achieve the work-life balance that is appropriate for you and your situation is to put effort into things that are important to you, both at work and in the rest of your life.

So there you have it:  a quick-and-dirty recap of day 1 of Doctoral Directions.  I’ll be live tweeting throughout the morning and afternoon tomorrow, so follow me on Twitter and follow #DocDirections to keep up with the event!  I’ll also be posting a recap of tomorrow’s sessions soon after the conference ends.

Dear Interview Candidates,

Dear Interview Candidates

I’m glad you are applying to graduate school.  From the point of view of a current student, it’s fun to bring in new batches of candidates each year to talk science with and share our love of this program and this city.  It’s neat to see the potential in each year’s prospective class over the 5 weekends we host interviews each year.

But, dear Candidates, please understand this:  while I and all of the other students you interacted with while interviewing were excited to meet you, we were there for you, not for us.  We are already in graduate school, in labs, and pursuing the scientific opportunities we want.  You, on the other hand, are trying to get to that place.  You are interviewing because you have an interest in doing research here, in living here, in becoming a part of the graduate program here.  We are helping with your interview weekend because we love the decision that we made; you are (presumably) interested in learning why you should make the same decision.

It’s called an interview weekend for a reason- the entire visit, not just the formal sit-down meetings with professors, is an interview.  The current students, in fact, do have a say as to whether or not you get accepted into our program.

So please do not waste our time.

Any of the graduate students you saw during the weekend had any number of other things we could have been doing with our time besides spending it with you- sleeping in, doing laundry, going to lab, reading papers, or writing journal articles are just a handful of the things that come to mind- instead of taking you to your interviews all day Friday or giving you a tour of the city at 9:00 am on a Saturday.  At the very least, listen to what we are saying.  Interact with us.  Respond to our comments about the program and the city with questions of your own- we know, after all, that most of you have never been here before, and that none of you are currently in the program.  When we sit with 20 of you on a bus for six hours, or at various lunches and dinners throughout your visit and see nothing but blank stares and the backs of your cell phones, we are not impressed.

Graduate school takes motivation, and it begins now with your interviews.  Make an effort.


A frustrated graduate student

Book Review ~ A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

Grad school makes it difficult, sometimes, to find the time to do things you enjoy doing outside of science.  I particularly find it easier to fit in fun stuff that has a scheduled time (like a community ed class, or an event) than an activity that’s up to me to choose when to do.  So one thing that I have neglected doing much of since starting grad school is reading for fun.  All throughout my life, I’ve been the one with my nose buried in a book, whether in class, at a sporting event, or while traveling.  But it’s been hard to convince myself recently that after reading scientific papers all day, I want to spend my free time reading, too.

One thing that does get me to spend my free time reading, though, is when I’m asked to review an advance copy of an upcoming novel.  After not finishing an entire book since early summer of 2014, I recently got my hands on an ARC of A Small Indiscretion by debut author Jan Ellison, and it drew me in from chapter 1.  I’m excited to share my thoughts on this book with you today!  You will be able to read it for yourself when it hits shelves next Tuesday, January 20th.

Jan Ellison book coverIt’s amazing how one seemingly inconsequential choice from your past can alter the course of your entire life.  It’s even more spectacular when each member of a family holds a secret like this.  A Small Indiscretion follows the aftermath of a wife’s hidden past, a husband’s secret knowledge of it, and an acquaintance who turns out to be more than just a visitor for the summer.

The web of lies is tangled, but a keen reader will be able to pick up on who knows what before it is explicitly revealed in the text.  While this book is not a mystery novel, it makes it fun for the reader to try and figure out the truths before the characters know them themselves.  On the science side of things, one of the big reveals comes via tissue typing for an organ transplant- a nice surprise, and I picked up on the answer to that mystery rather quickly!

If you are interested in winning a copy of A Small Indiscretion, fill out the form below.  I’ll pick a winner on Sunday!

FTC Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book for review from Random House, via 20 Something Bloggers.  All opinions expressed are my own and were not influenced in any way by receipt of the book for free.  Prizes for the contest winner will be handled by Random  House.