I’m searchable on PubMed!

While this has, apparently, been possible since May, I just learned this morning that I am searchable on PubMed! Two of the 3 articles I’m an author on this year are up.

PubMed search Aliyah Weinstein

One is a third author paper on research from one of my rotations. Any recognition for having spent such a short amount of time in the lab is welcome.

The other is my book chapter on tertiary lymphoid structures in the tumor microenvironment! This I’m particularly proud of. It took a lot of work to do the background reading to pull this together, and I did it before my comps, meaning that preparing to write the chapter was the first time I had to dig so deep into the literature. It’s a really good feeling to see all those months of work come to fruition. It was also interesting to see who else contributed chapters to the book- the author list includes some big names in the field of cancer immunology, and some of our competitors doing similar research in tertiary lymphoid structures. It’s cool to be included in a list with those scientists!

Cocktails & Construction @ Station

My favorite type of event to attend in Pittsburgh is any where food is involved! With Pittsburgh rapidly gaining broad recognition for its restaurants, it’s a lot of fun to be a part of experiencing all these (delicious) changes first-hand. I try to eat at as many different restaurants as possible around the city, and this weekend I had the unique opportunity to visit a restaurant that’s not yet even open to the public (though it will be next week!): Station, on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield.

Cocktails & Construction was held at Station last Saturday. The bar and kitchen were finished but the dining areas still needed tables, chairs, and upholstery on the booths. It was a fun and relaxed atmosphere, though, with a DJ playing in the back room. Because the owner was out on the floor mingling with the guests, it lent a personal touch to the event and made us even more excited to be there tasting the food!

Cocktails & ConstructionThe menu was supposed to be 5 small plates, 4 from Station and 1 from The Vandal (opening soon in Lawrenceville!). It turned out, instead, to be 6 offerings from station + 1 from The Vandal. More food is usually better, and the dishes from both restaurants did not disappoint!

Station small platesThe dishes included (clockwise from top left): savory bread pudding with chicken liver mousse; chickpea fritter with roasted carrots and sea salt; a “Louisville lemonade” bourbon shandy; garlic crouton topped with roasted tomatoes and an Old Bay aioli; and a sour dough crostini with beef tongue pastrami + broccoli cheese sauce + pickled chilis. Below is the chicken wing with salsa verde (top) and the salted caramel panna cotta (bottom). (Not pictured is the dish from The Vandal- a crostini with herb butter and fresh carrots.)

Station small plates 2


So much food…so delicious! Even the odd-sounding flavors (or beef tongue alone!) were approachable and worked well with familiar flavors like broccoli or tomatoes. My favorite dish of the evening was the bread pudding + chicken liver mousse because, oddly I suppose, chicken liver mousse is one of my favorite foods and bread pudding is not far behind!

Station is scheduled to open to the public a week from today (August 3) for dinner service, Weds-Mon. You can find them on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

P.S.: I tend to live-tweet and/or live-insta events like this. You can find me @desabsurdites on both platforms!

I passed!

I passed my comprehensive exam this afternoon! It’s the multi-part exam that every grad student must pass in order to be eligible to continue working towards a PhD. Today was the 2nd and final step- an oral defense/exam based on my proposed research project.

It was tough. There was a lot I had prepared for that I wasn’t asked about, and a handful of questions that I really was not prepared to answer. But I made it through, and passed, despite any criticism that may come via a written critique my committee will sumbit later.

And it was anticlimactic. The two hour exam period flew by such that I was surprised when my committee chair said that it was time to wrap up questioning.

So I passed. And then what?

The sense of relief didn’t set in until much later. First I did some aimless driving around Pittsburgh, trying to think of something with which to reward myself. I really wanted to go home and read, but wasn’t quite ready to hole back up in my apartment seeing as that’s where I’ve spent the majority of the last two months, studying.

I’m glad I had previously made contingency plans for the evening whether I passed or failed. Why? Because it wasn’t until I was partway through my “reward” dinner that I finally thought, I deserve this. Not that I deserved to pass, or deserved to pass both the written and oral components on my first try- that takes commitment and effort- but, I deserved to treat myself nicely after a grueling 2+ months of prepararion and studying and still balancing lab work and other commitments. It’s a powerful thought, and one I don’t grant myself very often. But on occasion it’s the right thing to ease up on myself for a bit and take a break, even if only for a couple of hours. Tonight, I deserve that.

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 challenge of explaining 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 student was better apt to understand 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!