27 and a PhD

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Updates and links

I keep having a hard time coming up with original content to write every week. Partly, it’s due to the fact that the semester has started, we’re teaching a course and there’s a lot of organization and planning to do. In addition, because we’re still a user-driven facility, we get requests to do set up experiments and equipment all the time. I’ve become the go-to person in the lab in terms of knowing where everything is, asking for quotes, helping to process data that only my immediate supervisor and I know how to process. While it is all good, it’s a lot of work. I’m barely thinking about academia these days. But I’ve kept writing here and there and now I’m sharing those links, in case you’re interested. As you may have noticed I’m also not tweeting as often, this is part of the whole “not having a clue” about what to write. I feel like I’m out of ideas, and/or fresh content. I find it sad. I wish I could talk in more detail about what is it that I do and what my job entails … but I’m just not ready to say who I am to the whole world. Anyway, here are some links of some of the other places I contribute to. Enjoy!

My reasons to move elsewhere in academia – over at Bio Careers

Little things I wish I’d known in grad school parts 1, 2 and 3 – over at 1DegreeBio

Our anniversary

This month, honey and I celebrate our 7th year together. And in case you’re wondering, honey is a boy (man … he’s my manfriend ūüėÄ ).

7 years ago I had no idea where we’d be. We started dating after knowing each other for 6 years. We attended the same college, had many friends in common, parallel lives in several senses. Then we went to grad school, and one night, out of the blue, I called to say high. This was in June of 2005. We’ve spoken almost every night since then. Though we’ve had big fights, arguments and disagreements, we’ve never broken up.

Honey is my best friend. We understand each other, and even when we’re apart, like now, sometimes we’re still very much synchronized. I think we have a very good connection, one not forged by magical thinking, but by lots of work, communication and understanding.

For our anniversary we’re going out of state for a weekend of exploring and enjoying, much like we’ve done in the past, much like we did when we lived together.

My heart breaks every time something happens and I can’t be with him because of my job and being in NYC. I’ve started looking for work back in my hometown. I want to be close to my honey, to our families.

I’ve started to dream of the future, and of honey becoming Mr. 27 and a PhD. I dream of a little house, a dog and our cat, two steady jobs, our old decorations from our first place together in Canada, now all settled in our own little space at home. I hope this dream comes true soon.

We’ve been together for the duration of both of our PhDs. He attended my defense and was my only company for graduation. I couldn’t attend his graduation, but did attend his defense. I felt like I was defending myself.

I treasure every year, every trip, every visit, call, card and email. I still get giddy when we kiss and I look forward to his every text or DM. Technology has been good to us, even when life keeps us physically apart.

I can’t wait to have honey with me in the coming days. I love you my precious, my precious, handsome man. I hope we celebrate 7 x 7, and many more.

Gift-giving for the newly minted PhD

A couple of days ago I got a very interesting question in one of my posts as to what would be an appropriate gift for a newly minted PhD. That got me thinking that, since not many people close to us (family, non grad school friends) may be in the academic realm, they are probably scratching their heads as to how to show appreciation during this momentous occasion. Thus, here’s a little post intended for our family and friends … in case they’re inclined to share their happiness and pride with a little something.

Now, a PhD is a big, big thing. We’ve spent years slaving away in the library and/or the lab, or field, or underwater, or wherever. We’ve grown a lot and have faced some of the most challenging times ever. Thus, it’s a wonderful time to celebrate the good times, and drink a bit to drown the sorrows. But, as a family member or friend, what would be an appropriate gift to give, if you’re feeling like giving something?

Here are some ideas, accompanied by the rationale behind them (in no particular order):

  1. Money – I know, it sounds like an easy way out, but trust me, ask any grad student (besides your grad student) or postdoc and they will gladly admit that they’re broke. So money is a safe bet, and totally appropriate, I’d say. Think about it, your grad may be moving across the country, or the pond, as it is they have to get rid of a lot of things, and they’re broke (have I stressed this enough). A little bit of money will be greatly appreciated, it doesn’t take much space, it’s not insulting (IMO), and will be put to good use. The amount … it really doesn’t matter, as long as you’re comfortable with what you’re giving. It doesn’t have to be a lot, it’s the thought that counts.
  2. Good food – again, this goes back to the fact that a lot of people are broke by the time their defense rolls in. And chances are they’ve been doing the ramen noodle and coffee diet for a long, long time, thus, a good, real, wholesome meal will be greatly appreciated. It doesn’t have to be a really big fancy restaurant, as long as it’s good and comes from the heart. If you’re so inclined, feel free to invite them over to your place, or if you’re far away, take your graduate during their next visit to town. It’s thoughtful and gives you the time to share and celebrate with your graduate.
  3. Jewelry – a new watch, a nice pair of earrings, maybe something engraved. It will for sure make your graduate feel special. One of my grad school’s BFFs got a cute pair of diamond earrings from her husband to wear during the defense. They were a nice touch to her outfit and it gave her a bit of a boost too.
  4. Help – chances are the grad will be relocating, they will need help moving, boxing stuff, throwing away most of their Ikea furniture. Volunteering your time to help the grad will be greatly appreciated.
  5. Some sort of spa treatment – again, this goes back to grad student’s being broke. So, if you can or are so inclined, maybe a 30-minute massage for a stressed body, or a hair cut are a good salon, or a mani/pedi, or something similar. The grad will feel very pampered after it, and will thank you for years to come.
  6. A gift card – if giving moolah straight out sounds a little eefy, then maybe a gift card to their favourite store, or electronics place makes you more comfortable. Again, the amount is up to you. But to give you an idea, in my family, gifts ranged from 100-200$.
  7. Something electronic – a tablet, a smartphone, a fancy set of earphones, a portable gaming system, an e-reader. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be too expensive, maybe their iPod is falling apart, or maybe they’d like to eventually read something not so sciency … again, maybe a gift card for any of the above electronics is a good idea.
  8. A fancy piece of clothing – chances are, your graduate has been wearing the same jeans for 3 years non-stop. They may have a new job lined up, or they’ll be going on interviews. Maybe a nice shirt, or a new pair of (non-athletic, non flip-flop) shoes is in order.
  9. A vacation – my in-laws helped a bit to get me and hon to Spain two years ago, after my graduation. If you’re so inclined, and can do it, maybe the whole family or set of friends can pool money to send the grad on a short trip away from all-things grad school related.
  10. Booze – or the grad’s favourite drink. The grad will need some booze to celebrate (or drown their sorrows), so feel free to sponsor a night out, or get a bottle of something (or a nice bag of coffee, a fancy tea, ice-cream for our Mormon crowd).

Hope this helps. Feel free to add or ask anything I may have forgotten. And congrats!!!!

And we’re back

After a crazy, lovely and #winning weekend, I’m back. And hon is back at home. As you know, we’re back in this long-distance thing. It’s not easy, especially after sharing living quarters for the 2 years I was a postdoc. I’m already looking for the next time we see each other. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll be seeing a bit more of each other. Seeing him was amazing, and sharing this special thesis-defense occasion was awesome.

I remember my own defense, and how he was my biggest cheerleader, and how we embraced and kissed after I passed. The same thing happened in his defense. So much emotion, and happy feelings. He has a few corrections, but nothing too terrible or time consuming. We ate, and drank and we’re merry while we celebrated his triumph. Now he can focus on the job search.

It was also a small break away from the usual crazy/busy stuff in the lab. I didn’t have my phone on, and I only tweeted a bit here and there from the hotel room. I didn’t even check my work email until we were back in the States. We went to one of our favourite places to have dinner the day before his defense, and I got some great tea, and the usual soap I get every time I go back. I also stopped by my postdoc lab to say hello. Some things have changed, but a lot of the people who were in the lab while I was there are still present. I’ll probably write an entry on that experience soon enough.

For now, I have to catch up on my emails, do some of the usual things I do at work, and deal with some rather craptastic unfinished stuff in my neighbourhood. It was good to be back in Canada and in familiar territory, and it was weird to be in a car, and drive around, and not have to worry about alternate side crap, and people honking their horn, and the usual city buzz. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I’m in the city, but there are definitely elements of suburbia I miss. In fact, I think I’m equally happy in either environment, I guess it’s more of the type of work I do and how happy that makes me.

Post thesis defense gift-giving

So, yesterday night hon and I talking as we usually do at the end of the day, when he mentions that before he goes to the airport for his defense (this week!!! THIS WEEK PEOPLE!!!) he’s going to pick up some gifts for his examination committee. We’re in different disciplines and the make up of his examination committee is totally different from mine. In grad school, my committee was comprised of local members only. I had to have a certain amount of PIs from within the department and I could have however many from departments other than mine. I gave a 1hr lecture, and immediately after that, I had a 1.5hr-long examination. My committee signed the first page of my thesis (with the condition that my PI checked that I follow their comments and include their corrections) and besides the after party, that was the last time I saw most of them (except one of two at graduation the following year).

Hon’s thesis committee is almost completely different from that of his qualifying exam, and the one he’s had for the last couple of years in preparation for his defense. Two of his usual members are part of the examination committee, a third member from the faculty and a fourth from within the university are there, along with a totally external one, a complete stranger from another uni.

We got into a tiny argument about how “rude” it was of me not to get my committee, which had been with me for 3 years, a gift, as a token of appreciation for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend my defense. I was a bit shocked, and thought that I hadn’t heard anyone, especially from my lab, do that. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, I just wasn’t aware of it, nor did I receive any indication of it. Besides, as rude as it is of me to say this, that’s part of their jobs, no? He asked what my mom had said about not giving any gifts, and I answered nothing, since my mom is always all proper and very Ms. Manners. My mom said nothing about not getting gifts, though I think she may have brought my PI some sweets my mom knew my PI loved.

The whole conversation got me thinking about gift-giving after the defense. My boss paid for her own copy of the thesis, and I placed the order, and printed all the pages to be bound. She also covered the after party and invited us over to her place for a little celebration the following weekend. No one else from my committee requested copies, so I didn’t offer any. My thesis has been freely available for the last 2.5 years. I presented in my department every time I was required (2x a year) and even volunteered to present in the lab of one of my committee members. I did send my PhD mentor a very thoughtful thank you note, which she didn’t acknowledge (maybe she didn’t get it), which is very rare, as she’s always very proper and thoughtful. She did get me another small treat for graduation, but to me, the most important point was that she was there for the hooding ceremony.

So, I have a little poll. Feel free to answer below, or tweet. I’d love to hear your thoughts:

Dear Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online …. WTF????

This am I woke up to a screaming match courtesy of the minotaur* that live above my apartment. Thank you very much you inconsiderate assholes. A scientist has to get her beauty sleep in order to come up with fantabulous ideas! Also, if I hear y’all again I’m calling the cops, you beastly jerks.

Anyway, besides that, I decided to do a google search on my favourite pathogen thinking that I may get inked at some point. I’m kinda sleepy, but not enough to avoid noticing the glaring errorS (yes, errors, nor error) in one of Encyclop√¶dia Britannica’s diagrams regarding said pathogen. There are so many things wrong with it I should accuse with … well, I don’t know what authorities, but that’s besides the point. The point is that you are spreading, old, crappy information to people who want to learn about said pathogen. I don’t know who’s in charge of this, but as a former researcher loosely associated with said pathogen’s field, I am appalled by the glaring errorS. Even a first year grad student, heck!, a junior or senior undergrad can notice those mistakes after spending an afternoon with me talking about the beauty of said pathogen (and yes, in my eyes it is a thing of beauty …. to study, not to use, ewww).

So, I’m scratching my head here EB online, I really am. I want to forward said “diagram” to my PhD mentor with the following subject line: DSF … WTFF is this piece of misinformation!?? Instead, I’ll try shooting you an email and pointing to a GREAT version of the revised, and accurate version of the diagram. In fact, it has better colours and it’s way less confusing.

That’s all. Please get your info straight. Said picture is full of fail. Same to all the websites out there that don’t bother to correct info, especially about the structural biology of the entities they’re talking about. Shame on you.

*What’s the plural of minotaur? I’m sure I’ll find the right stuff anywhere but at EB online. Minotaur? Minotauri? Minotaurs?

Question via Twitter

Lovely @GilleighD asked on Twitter how did I choose the topic of study for my PhD. I don’t think I’ve covered this before, and it is a very interesting question, so here it goes.

Choosing what to study during my PhD was a multi-factorial decision. I’ll start by saying that I went into a school with a broad program, which didn’t “force” students to choose a lab or department right away. After doing rotations in a couple of departments I chose a department and lab I felt comfortable in. I’d met my PhD mentor during a departmental open house in my first few weeks in school, and while chatting with the PI and a lab member (and later friend) I noticed that their area of research and the tools they employed were very interesting. I’d learned a bit about the critter I ended up studying while I was a sophomore in college and couldn’t believe that it was there, staring at me in the face begging to be studied. I also liked the approach they were using, having just learned about it the previous summer.

So, the critter I knew from two years before, the technique a year after that. I found about these two things while doing research for a class and later for a summer project. I felt incredibly lucky that, even without really any intension, I sort of stumbled upon my future lab and science love. I think it was a combination of finding two things I liked, which drove me to choose a lab where I could learn about the topic and approach in more detail.

Later, when I joined the lab my boss talked about the different projects that were going on and what each person was doing. There were 3 major areas of research and I wasn’t really interested in the first one, at least enough to commit several years of effort to study it (plus, another student who had started the year before was actively working on it, so I didn’t want to step on his toes). The second project, now that I think about it, though interesting, was bound to die in a couple of years. Eventually someone solved the structure of it and the project was put on hold indefinitely. The third project, and a big focus of the lab, had been my PI’s thesis topic and now someone else (the student I talked to at the open house), was actively pursuing it. The boss made it clear that there was enough material for several thesis projects and that I wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes. I chose that one, and I ended up in 4 or 5 publications in one way or the other.

Originally I was set to study a “subset” of the main project, and not the whole system. But, the project was really hard and I was just learning the technique, so the boss asked me to help the senior grad student in the lab and learn how this person worked on the whole system. I picked up really quickly and eventually what was set to be this person’s second thesis project was passed on to me (all friendly, as this student was set to defend). That project opened up the door for a couple more projects, all related to the biology of the system (if you would, though this is not technically 100% correct, as I wasn’t doing any molecular bio or biochemistry on the system) and towards the end of my time in grad school I’d woven a story about how a particular critter behaves. It’s a very interesting project and along the way I taught another student how to set things up and do a project of his own, along with providing enough starting material so that a new generation could take over.

To summarize, a critter and approach I’d learned while I was an undergrad were staring at me while talking to a PI and student, then I chose the topic I thought was “hot” in the lab (which it was/is), started a somewhat related project which wasn’t working, then switched to the “main” area and ended up setting a beautiful story as time went on. The perfect combination of topic and technique were what drove me to decide. I’d say, find a topic or technique you like, study the prospects of this job (feasibility, how much you can get accomplished in however long you have in school, etc), and commit to it. BUT, if during the course of your studies you hit a wall, or see promise in something related (or totally unrelated), don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your project and its future.

Hope this provides some insight into how I chose my project. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email or tweet. I’ll be happy to talk more about this. Best of luck!