2017 Goals – Mid-Year Evaluation

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Can you spot me collecting insects at Lacawac Sanctuary?

Since we’re halfway through the year (or thereabouts) I’d like to take some time to reflect on those goals I set for 2017, all the way back in January (how has it been six months already??). It’s important to check in on your big goals every once in a while, before it’s too late to make changes in order to achieve them.

In my goal-setting post I set the following list up for 2017… we’ll go point by point:

    1. Finish gathering data for the Eciton army ant project – this goal is, as I talked about last month, on it’s way to completion. With 6 undergraduates and myself all plugging away at this over the next three months, I have no doubt we’ll ring in September will all of the data.
    2. Maintain an active blog presence here, with at least one post a week – I think, most weeks, I’ve managed to get at least one post out and I’ve maintained my monthly biopoetics, of which I’m most proud. It’s been a little hard recently – with finals and some big personal stuff coming up – but I have managed to keep up this blog (for my betterment, if not yours).
    3. Develop my board game idea into a reality – Honestly, I forgot this was even something I was looking to do (#mybad). I’ve got a really interesting board game idea in my head about my brother’s business, but I’ve still yet to take the time to work on this – prioritizing other creative projects, like novel writing, over this. Maybe this means this project should be moved to the back burner?
    4. Publish three more poems – I’ve accomplished this one several times over! So far I’ve had 14 poems published this year – though I have been really lax in writing or submitting my work to new places. Most of these publications are roll-over from my work in the summer/fall of 2016.
    5. Have my committee and thesis ideas outlined for my PhD – This is actually pretty in-progress. I’ve got some cool ideas about bee dimorphisms (both morphologically and behaviorally!) and I think my attendance at the Bee Course 2017 this year (at the Southwestern Research Station in AZ) will really help flesh them out.

In addition to these goals, I want to remind myself of some additional things I’m working towards accomplishing this year that I should be proud of, including:

  1. Adding 20,000 words to one of my novels
  2. Generating data for the next NSF proposal on spider brains
  3. Working on getting a house (crazy right?)
  4. Taking additional classwork in the form of PROFESS courses
  5. Gathering data on Synoeca wasp dimorphisms
  6. Gathering data on erythritol and various mysterious insects #patent
  7. Heading a lab of six undergraduates – and hopefully not sucking too hard

Given that so many of the above only really happened in the last two months, it seems like it might be a good idea to re-evaluate my yearly goals every quarter instead of every six months – so much can change so fast!

How is your 2017 going? Are you on top of your goals? What do you do to re-focus during that mid-year burn out?

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What I’m Working On

The last ‘What I’m Working On’ was all the way back in September 2016, and a lot has happened since then – so you probably deserve an update!

Research/Science Projects:

I’m still working on gathering data for the Eciton ant brain project (the only thing which did stay consistent between my last post and this one). It turns out that this project is going to be a really, really long one… we’ve got about 12 heads left to embed and slice and somewhere around 45 left to photograph and quantify. If you imagine that it takes a week to embed, 1.5 hours to slice each head, 6 hours to stain them all, 3 hours to coverslip them all, 1.5 hours each for photographs, and 2 hours each to quantify… basically, see you never! In addition to the Eciton spp project, we’re doing something similar with termites – I’m helping Susie finish up the tail ends of that project by taking photographs and embedding for her so she can be the master quantifier. Termite brains are funny (though not as funny as the spiders!).

While we’re waiting to hear back from the NSF on social spider brains, I’ve been doing some work for Sean on our super-secret pesticide project. Unfortunately, this is one I really can’t talk much about given that there’s patents and all kinds of legalese involved. Basically, I’m learning lots of things about lots of different arthropods and pesticides and animal husbandry it’s been really absorbing lots of my time in a (mostly) good way.

Photo by Arizona Board of Regents/ASU Ask A Biologist entitled ‘digging male’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported), link through photo

I have a few other project ideas brewing as I begin thinking more about my thesis – some involving Centris pallida, a beautiful species of desert bee with really dimorphic male mating behaviors. I also have some developing interest in the brains of myrmecophilous beetles – parasitic beetles that live in ant colonies and utilize their resources. Hopefully, these more collaborative projects will start to develop soon, since I’m not currently in the position to collect these insects myself!

Writing Projects:

As my last post stated, I recently embarked on my Camp NaNoWriMo journey for April of 2017 and managed to write about 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress that I didn’t actually even conceptualize until April 2nd! April was a whirlwind month, but I feel pretty good about this story, and am excited to continue it when my life gets a bit more under control. The story features a journalist in England in the early 1800s, and her investigation into the Foreign Office and a prolific English assassin. I’ve had a lot of fun researching who the assassin kills, and making sure the timeline and locations fit – overall, this story is a set up for another that I’ve been working on for a long time and filling in all the background is really rewarding and intriguing.

I also managed to participate in the Creative Writing Collaboration since my last September post – but pretty much everything else has been at a standstill with graduate school at the forefront of my mind.

And that’s what you missed on… Glee?

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Becoming a Wizard

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Chrysididae crossing! Just one gorgeous wasp I collected in NY…

Being a budding entomologist is like being a child in a muggle world, and getting your letter from Hogwarts. Suddenly, all around you, a whole new world opens up – things that were there before, unnoticed, are now glaringly obvious to you even as the rest of the world carries on, oblivious. Like running up to platform 9 and 3/4 or the wall opening to Diagon Alley, entomologists see extraordinary and unique things in their everyday environment.

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My unsuccessful Camponotus run… not a good sample population of the dimorphism I was seeing.

This is apparent to me whenever I am outside – at home, or in the city proper of Philadelphia. What’s that? Apidae nomada chasing one another around near the ground outside? Look at those three Xylacopa, buzzing by the roof of my house (uh oh…)! What a gorgeous, glossy Formica – my goodness, wing buds! She’s a queen! And check out the size dimorphism on all those Camponotus workers – they’re no Eciton, to be sure, but it’s still pretty drastic. As a budding entomologist, a whole new world opens up, right before your eyes. The everyday events of walking down the street, or exiting your car, can be filled with new, exciting observations and discoveries.

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Okay, some of them are yellow and black… Megachilidae anthidium

One of my favorite things about this metaphor, however, is where it ends. Unlike in the Harry Potter universe, I (a wizard in training!) am allowed to share my knowledge and my world with the ‘muggles’. Showing my grandmother a spider brain under the scope, or showing my fiance the large Camponotus ants I’ve been hunting all week, or showing my queen Formica ant to the inquisitive man on the subway platform, brings me joy. By far my favorite thing to share, is my knowledge of beautiful bees. Ask a ‘bee muggle’ what comes to mind when they think of a bee and the answers are:

  1. Yellow and black
  2. Fuzzy bumblebees
  3. Honey
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Augocholorini alert!

Very rarely, someone will say ‘sweat bee’ or ‘carpenter/mason bee’ to go along with the three things above. But the truth of bees, is that there is so much more – right in our neck of the woods. The amazement when I show someone the beautiful green Agapostemon, Augochlorini, or the red Nomada, or even dark blue Osmia that they can catch practically in their own backyard (not to mention the gorgeous Chrysididae wasps!) right here in PA or NY is incredibly fulfilling. Suddenly, they too are getting a brief glimpse into the magical world of insects that surrounds us – and they nearly always want to know more.

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Me being added to the collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University – pretty close to a Hogwarts letter, right?

This post comes to mind mostly because I am more tuned in to nature right now than I’ve ever been before. With spring starting up, the world is beginning to hum and buzz with life again, and I am yet another year more knowledgeable about the world around me. I also spent most of my weekend chasing Camponotus with my aspirator (they’re fast!) – which afforded me a lot of time looking at the ground, observing bees, wasps, ants, beetles, spiders, worms, etc. Despite the fact that this would seem initially unexciting, little is more rewarding than getting peeks into this ‘secret’ world, constantly in motion all around us – it is times like these that I feel extremely lucky to have received my entomologist’s letter to Hogwarts.

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Character Flaws

17990375_1652112918136755_7909619328052172307_oThis past weekend, my fiance and I took a trip to Florida for Easter to visit his family. Despite the fact that this was our third trip down (aka, I’m not new to planes), I still managed to forget to pack some Dramamine for the plane ride. I spent the entirety of our descent into Punta Gorda wincing, holding onto my stomach, trying not to hyperventilate and thankfully, not vomiting on my beloved. As we exited the plane and returned to blessed, solid ground, my legs were shaking so badly I thought I might fall over.

A more perfect version of myself would have one of two qualities:

  1. A sturdier stomach, in which I do not get plane sick
  2. A more focused brain, in which I remember I get plane sickness and bring the medicine I own for said problem

But if I were reading about this moment in My Life: A Novel, a reader enjoying a well-crafted protagonist named Meghan Barrett, it’s exactly this kind of moment that would bring me, the character, to life for me, the reader. As I read the description of my wobbly legs nearly buckling descending the steps to the tarmac, complete with a description of my fear of fainting at my father-in-law’s feet and regret at forgetting my medicine, I’d likely howl with laughter and then call my fiance over to read those same lines with me. It is a character’s imperfections that make them real and interesting.

I don’t particularly like writing my characters’ imperfections – it feels almost like betraying a friend or revealing someone’s dirty secret since no one else in the world knows these characters (and their flaws) but me. If you like a person, you don’t generally go around telling other people about all the things they could be doing better, a la “Rachel? Oh yeah, she’s great. Real smart and lovable but she does have a temper. And man could she use a toothbrush.” By writing honestly about those flaws, my characters then generally have to go through exactly what I hate to go through myself: failure or embarrassment. But it’s overcoming those moments of failure (and the humor of living through some of them) that make the story interesting, inspiring, engaging – great.

Do you struggle to write about your character’s flaws and failures? How do you make sure you stay true to your characters? What kinds of flaws are your favorites to write (or least favorite)? Why? Tell me in the comments below!

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The Marathon

Me, first day of grad school, not knowing what's about to hit me...
Me, first day of grad school, not knowing what’s about to hit me…

Grad school is a stressful place; don’t let anyone (including your pre-grad-school self, *cough* Meghan *cough*) tell you otherwise. Some of it, if you’re coming straight from undergraduate, will be stressful because you’re managing several facets of ‘real’ adulthood for the first time; some of it will be stressful because it is your seventeenth year of continuous coursework and that wears on a person no matter how much you love, or are good at, school work. And even if you’re not coming straight from college, grad school will still be stressful because you are being pulled in several directions at once – teaching, classes, and multiple research-related objectives require your attention.

I have just finished my second quarter at Drexel which means I have another 1.5 years of classes to go, then my qualifying exam, and then 3-5 years of continuous thesis work to complete. Thinking about the process is exhausting, and stressful, in its own right. And a lot of my stress comes from the fact that grad school, as the fifth year graduate student in my lab often says, is a marathon and not a sprint.

A lot of my work prior to graduate school was a sprint; you sprint through stage-managing or lighting a college play, for example. It’s a stressful two to three months, but it is only two to three months. A hard sprint, but you can power through. The same thing goes for coursework: a semester (now I’m on quarters) is sixteen weeks; the end is always within sight. Even the big writing projects I’ve completed – my play, Experimental Ambiguity, my gamebook app, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau, and my only completed novel for NaNoWriMo 2011, Jheym’s Silence – all of those were projects that I completed in sprints of less than four months.

Which means that I am now facing something unlike any of my other big projects – a marathon. Unlike my prior work, I can’t just push through this with a reasonably close end in sight. This has been difficult for me to realize – at first, I wanted to treat graduate school like my previous work and ‘sprint’ through it. I stayed late each night at the lab, gave up breaks and weekends in the first four to five months, in order to push through our research projects. But the research was bigger than that – even that one project still isn’t close to done despite all that time input. Science is very slow, and if I try to treat it like a sprint I’ll end up, well, where I am now: stressed and overwhelmed.

Graduate school is forcing me to re-evaluate how I manage my projects. For a sprint, making a to-do list of easily definable goals that I can cross off and watch the list grow ever-shorter is helpful and motivating. For a marathon, a to-do list that seemingly never ends or gets shorter is more of a burden; instead, making a got-done list is more helpful for keeping motivated and reminding oneself that, yes, you are accomplishing things even if it seems like your work is at a standstill. Making sure to praise myself for taking time for me – reading books, going on dates with my fiance, etc – is also critical to staying sane; for a marathon, you must pace yourself, and remember to take care of yourself throughout the race.

A lot of what I’ve been learning about myself in my graduate program reflects on my writing issues; it’s funny to me that, always, my science seems to be so tightly intertwined with lessons about writing. All of my successful writing projects were completed for a deadline; I was sprinting, with a defined finish line in sight. I’ve yet to write a novel, make a game, or even jot down a creative nonfiction piece without a date in mind where the work will be ‘finished’. It seems in both science and writing, internal motivation and balance are critical skills I’m sorely needing to learn.

Have two seemingly disparate parts of your life ever interacted to teach you valuable, cross-disciplinary lessons? How do you manage the ‘marathons’ in your life? Tell me in the comments – I could certainly use your helpful hints!

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STEM Pipeline is Gushing Women

Many of you have probably heard of the STEM pipeline dripping – that is, the idea that we’re losing lots and lots of students at each step of the educational process. Perhaps the step that is most relevant to me as someone who wants to go on to be a professor: only about half of those students who enter college in a STEM major will graduate with a STEM degree. This is already a sad pronouncement – we are losing so many of our students to things like poor class and assessment design, a lack of awareness of mental health issues, and a dearth of research opportunity to keep people engaged. These are all problems that, as a student of the PROFESS program at Drexel, I aim to learn about fixing.

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Me, a young woman scientist, STEMMING it my senior year in undergrad.

But to actually have an impact, I will need to become a professor – and the STEM pipeline prognosis for women, and for minorities, is sadly far worse than that for overall scientists. According to a UC Berkeley study on chemists, women make up roughly 50% of college graduates in the field – but only 37% of PhDs, 22% of associate professors, and a measly 12% of tenured professors. There are many things that explain this ‘drip’ of women from the field (feels more like a gush than a drip, honestly) – they include everyday sexism from the ‘good old boys club’ of science that goes all the way to the top, wanting to earn higher salaries outside of academia, or needing time to start a family – which might not be compatible with the format of tenure-track jobs.

What I think this study, and others like it, show is that we’ve done a good job with outreach to girls to get them interested in science – despite the fact that female scientists are historically forgotten about in favor of their male counterparts (*cough* Rosalind Franklin *cough*) in our culture and the classroom, and despite the fact that science is more actively marketed to boys, we still see about 50% of our undergrads are women in several (though not all) STEM fields. Certainly, more outreach to young girls would not hurt, particularly in fields like IT, Engineering, and Physics where women are still under-represented even in bachelors programs. But this quote really resonated with me, about what the actual problem is here:

“You can tell a girl she’s smart her whole life, encourage her in school, buy her a chemistry set, send her to math camp, help her apply for college scholarships in STEM fields, and she’s still eventually going to walk into a classroom, a lab, or a job interview and have some man dismiss her existence, deny her funding, pass her over for a promotion, or take credit for her work. How about you work on getting those [people] out of power and quit telling me not to call girls pretty” – kelsium

And this idea, that men in science are actively not supporting women in science, has some pretty significant data behind it. An article in PNAS showed that elite labs run by men (and regular labs run by men) were significantly less likely to hire/train women PhD and postdocs than those run by women. In contrast, elite labs run by women were more likely to hire women than men – but by a less significant margin; and non-elite labs run by women showed no bias, unlike non-elite labs run by men. This problem is multiplied by the fact that there are more Academy/elite male scientists than females (in Chemistry, females make up only 6% of the National Academy of the Sciences chemists) – which means that in 94% of elite labs there’s an anti-woman bias.

The study in PNAS does indicate that they don’t know how many women applied to work in these labs – though they cite high rates of sexual harassment and negative attitudes towards maternity as reasons why many women may steer clear of male-dominated labs. The bottom line is that women in STEM are not being treated fairly or given access to equal opportunities – not really surprising, given how recently women were even allowed to start having careers at all.

Undeniably, women have made incredible strides in the last sixty to eighty years – at least at the undergraduate level. But the anti-woman bias held by the ‘good old boys club’ that has been the norm for the past 600 years of science needs to change and effort needs to go into enacting policies that work from the top down. Policies that support women in cases of sexual harassment, hiring bias, and family planning. Until these policies are enacted, no matter how many chemistry sets we give our young girls, we will not see a change in the gushing STEM pipeline for women.

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New Years Goals: 2017

With the New Year comes new year’s resolutions – which are typically a bit of a mess, in my opinion. Oft hyped but rarely completed, resolutions are something you find on a scrap piece of paper three years later and realize you (maybe) achieved one of the eight things on your list.

Nevertheless, as an eternal optimist, I make resolutions every year without fail and, usually, one or two of them happen. As I get older, my resolutions have gotten more tailored to my actual desires (no ‘run a marathon’) and less numerous – I think, more reasonable overall.

So here are my, hopefully modest, new year goals, not resolutions. Next year, I’ll hopefully be able to reflect back on these and feel like I achieved something significant – just like in my 2016 Wrap Up post.

  1. Finish gathering data for the Eciton army ant project
  2. Maintain an active blog presence here, with at least one post a week
  3. Develop my board game idea into a reality
  4. Publish three more poems
  5. Have my committee and thesis ideas outlined for my PhD

What’s on your list for 2017? How do you feel about New Years Resolutions/goals? Let me know in the comments and thanks, as always, for reading.

 

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A Year in Review: 2016

I’d like to round off the year with a review of all I was able to do – sometimes, when the days are long and hard, the goals and accomplishments of the overall year get lost in the shuffle. But the goals of this year deserve to be celebrated – so here we go!

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Although it feels like a lifetime ago already, two of my biggest scientific accomplishments this year were my senior year projects at Geneseo. My honors thesis in Biology, a forest community ecology project that looked at the impact of the emerald ash borer at Nations Road Reserve, was both crazy and rewarding (and taught me how much I hate software programs that don’t do all they advertise…). I got to do a huge presentation of my results to all the faculty at GREAT day, and write what was a pretty good paper about all that I’d found (which was not encouraging for the ash trees, but pretty okay for the forest overall).

Additionally, I completed a project that took three or four times longer than expected – my survey of native pollinators in the Geneseo Area. This project solidified my love of Hymenoptera and taught me a lot about social and solitary bees, factors that affect their abundance, ways to collect them efficiently, what biases factor into various collection mechanisms, and more. I left behind at Geneseo a truly impressive insect collection, well-labelled with IDs and collection metadata and (mostly) expertly pinned. The love of bees this project fostered in me still won’t shake, and I’m working on developing bee-related theses projects for my PhD.

As for grad school, this quarter had me pretty intensely involved in one ongoing project, two brand new projects, and a killer lab class that might actually turn into a pretty neat paper opportunity. This quarter I’ve learned a ton of histological techniques (slicing, staining, and quantifying brain sections) on army ants, where I’m helping finish up a project that looks at brain resource allocation across castes and species. I’ve also been working pretty intensely on ‘the mitonuclear project’ and ‘the social spider brains project’. Both of these are pre-proposal level projects, so I don’t want to give too much away about them yet, but they’ve solidified my molecular (PCR, gel electrophoresis, DNA extraction, etc) and histological skills, and also given me the opportunity to start learning about staining and using a confocal microscope. I feel like grad school has already given me a huge boost to my overall skill set. Lastly, my molecular ecology lab churned out some data that helped me gain experience with sequence analysis using the bacterial communities found in the guts of army ants.

Science is slow. 2016 didn’t give me any publications or big ‘newsworthy’ events (other than passing this quarter, damn that was rough) but I did gain a bunch of new skills and knowledge, and I’ve furthered my scientific career by pushing forward with several really cool projects on everything from ants, to microbes, to spiders.

My two top notebooks right now - spiders and poetry.
My two top notebooks right now – spiders and poetry.

Writing:

While time for writing has been seriously lacking since September, I think 2016 was overall a really good year for me as a writer. Fun fact: more of my written and creative work has entered the world in 2016 than any other year of my life. By a substantial margin, too; prior to 2016, I’d only had two poems and one 15-minute play published.

Let’s take a look at what happened in 2016:

  • My play, Experimental Ambiguity, was performed for a full house
  • My gamebook app, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau, went ‘live’ in August on iOS and Android
  • I had six articles published for The Key Reporter, plus all the posts on this website (which is new!)
  • I had twenty one poems accepted for publication in eleven different magazines

So maybe 2016 didn’t end on the most writing-productive note, but I’d say it’s still a big win overall for my writing career.

For all of you, my first followers, mostly family and good friends – thanks for following, commenting, subscribing to my email list, and overall supporting me in my scientific and writing careers. Particular thanks goes out to my fiance, Alex, my uncle John, my parents, and my brother – without you, I would have fewer poems, science projects, blog posts, and, most importantly, hours of joy and purpose in my life. You are a big part of what helps me be successful and I can’t express to you how grateful I am to always have your support.

2016 was pretty great… and here’s to an even better 2017!

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Merry Christmas!

1934077_1201316849883033_6746702421272410645_nMerry Christmas, today, to all you amazing fellow humans! Though this post is not science or writing related, I thought I would share with you a recipe for soup that my family enjoys with my grandmother every Christmas Eve – something to warm us during those cold, NY holiday evenings. If you try it, let me know what you think; I’m happy to be able to share this holiday meal with all of you, as well as my amazing family back home.

Grandma Zimmer’s Soup

  1. Brown three pounds of stew beef in olive oil, at the bottom of a large soup pot (my grandmother also throws in a soup bone for added flavor).
  2. Add two cups of tomato juice, six cups of water, 2 bay leaves, 2 Tbsp Worcester sauce, and 1 Tbsp salt.
  3. Bring to a boil then reduce to a barely-there simmer; let cook, covered, for 2 hours.
  4. Add 2 cups each of finely chopped carrots, potatoes, celery, and coleslaw (shredded cabbage).
  5. Let cook, covered, for another 1.5 hours. Serve!

If you’re not really a soup person, you can always halve the tomato juice, water, Worcester sauce, and salt and you’ll get a pretty thick stew instead.

It’s amazing to me how simple holiday traditions, like a bowl of soup on Christmas Eve, can come to mean so much to us over time. Does your family have a holiday tradition, cookie recipe, special meal etc? Feel free to share with me below. Happy holidays to all – and Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating today.

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The Important Part of REsearch

My messy slide station.
My messy slide staining station.

If I were to sum up the entirety of my fall 2016 quarter, my first three months as a PhD student, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that research is not about the ‘search’ part as much as it is about the ‘re’. Or rather: the ‘search’ is the end goal, but the ‘re’ is how we get there.

Research is about redoing things, over and over, tweaking things slightly until you get it right (at least, for that one time). It’s about understanding that every experiment that doesn’t turn out as you hoped does not mean it’s time to give up – instead it’s time to try again, and figure out what went wrong. Never have I had so many PCRs or DNA extractions come back negative. It can be incredibly disheartening to do hours worth of work, over and over, to get back blank gels with nothing but perfectly fluorescent ladders.

Similarly, what does one do with a brain that doesn’t stain when you add DAPI (a stain that binds to DNA – something all brain cells should have)? Or with FITC (another stain that should 100% light up under the microscope if there are cells present)? What do you do with brains that are so soft they’re almost impossible to dissect out of the cephalothorax? Or with an embedding procedure that has worked perfectly for hundreds of soldier ant heads that suddenly starting turning brains into glue?

Sometimes the problems aren’t obvious at first glance; say, a broken piece of machinery that throws your results for two weeks until you figure it out. Other times, you get odd results – some primers that show your DNA extracted, others that show no extraction occurred at all. These odd results can be compounded by the fact that your experimental primers are successful in amplifying samples that your more universal primers appear to miss entirely. What does it all mean? (hint: I still have no f***ing clue)

And to me, this is the big lesson of the first quarter; what i-have-no-idea-what-im-doingdifferentiates a PhD researcher from a hired
hand. The PhD researcher must figure out these complex questions – must figure out where to go next to make things work and what to throw at the experimental wall to see if it sticks. The hired hand, or the undergraduate, simply performs route tasks – but at the end of the day, can leave when things don’t work out.

This has been an especially hard lesson for me as a lifelong perfectionist; I’ve come home numerous times this quarter to tell my fiance that “I’m a failure” and questioning “Why am I so bad at such simple research tasks?” and “Is this really for me?”. But I am getting the idea that, to survive in science, I must let go of the notion that everything will go perfectly and be in my control; I must get used to the idea of moving past mistakes quickly, and figuring out new directions to push through unanticipated problems. There is not time to wallow in what went wrong – to take an angry “it’s all my fault” attitude. The immediate response, whether I did truly make a mistake or not, must be to move forward and stop punishing myself for the imperfections that are going to occur – with high frequency – in my scientific career. Because I won’t make it if I hang on to these unrealistically high ‘perfection’ expectations – amazingly, I’ve come to realize that perfection is what will stifle my career before it begins.

This has some application to my writing life too; how many books have I re-written the first six chapters of, striving for perfection before moving on, only to never finish the book? Striving for the perfect first chapter means the first draft, imperfect as it may be, will never be realized. We’ve talked about the importance of failure before on this blog, but this is about more than failure; it’s about recognizing that the goal of perfection is, in itself, a failure to honor reality.

Who knew that PhD school might be more about reflection on your own character than learning scientific concepts? Huh.

So, moving forward, I’ve got steps I need to take whenever I recognize the creeping sense of worthlessness that happens when something goes wrong:

  1. Breathe and Take 5 – restore calm and a sense of self worth
  2. Acknowledge the Imperfection – admit that something went wrong and identify the problem
  3. Build a Plan – figure out how to move forward, even if there are several options and I’m not sure which might be best to try
  4. Ask for Help – when doubting where to go, ask someone with more experience and get a second opinion

I’ve been really lucky to have an amazing mentor, Susie, in the lab who has shown me this kind of let it go and move forward attitude multiple times this quarter. When something goes wrong, she doesn’t play the blame game – she says “huh, that’s odd” and then immediately looks for a way forward. I’m a long way off from that kind of attitude – but I hope I can start modeling that behavior soon enough.

Do you have a perfectionist problem? How have you tried to move past it – and how has it affected your life? Let me know in the comments and thanks, as always, for reading!

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