The First Field Season

Me and a male Centris cockerelli friend; Tucson, AZ.

I arrived back from my first field season in Arizona on May 5th, and have been running around like mad ever since – trying to process specimen, taking my qualifying exam, and prepare for my next two field seasons this year (to New York, starting tonight, and Cuba, in June). But I felt I should take some time to reflect on the five biggest lessons I learned from this first foray into fieldwork.

  1. Me, in the Papaj lab, using Steve Buchmann’s net to collect bees from trees.

    Never underestimate the generosity of your peers – the number of people it took to make this season ‘go’ is astounding. From my ‘funders’ (fiance, Alex, and grant giver, B Cavello), to those that gave me lab space or let me borrow/taught me how to use equipment (literally a dozen people and counting), to those that let me stay with them (the amazing Kathryn Busby) which really made the trip affordable and fun, there are so many people who believed in me and supported me throughout this field season. The first big lesson I learned was to not be afraid to ask for help or support; the scientific community has a ton of wonderful people in it who want to help make science happen, and this field season I have countless people to thank for their generosity.

  2. Nothing will go according to plan – part of the reason it took so many people to make the season happen is because nothing went according to plan! The bees showed up 3 hours away from where I was staying, so suddenly new lab space and housing had to be found closer to where they were. Equipment suddenly became inaccessible, requiring me to find new people to borrow it from. At every turn, it felt like my carefully constructed plan (that I had made in January, because I am a planner at heart!) was breaking apart. And yet, somehow, thanks to all the people who came together to help me out, everything came back together again at the end of the season and I got to test out my equipment and collect a lot of specimen. I think being flexible is the key to field work – have plans for if you don’t get your equipment running the way you would like, or if your organism appears elsewhere than expected (or later than expected…).  Having a flexible mindset in how and where you gather data, and what data you gather, will help your season be more productive.

    On my cactus tour, avoiding the spines while practicing plant ID.
  3. Attitude is half the battle – Reader, when I did not find my bees for the first three weeks of the season I was DESPONDENT. But honestly, that’s just fieldwork for you and each day you need to get up and at ’em again. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears peeled for other interesting phenomenon and do whatever you can to keep your spirits high; getting down on yourself will only make things even harder. Sometimes this may mean taking a break when things aren’t going well – a good taco, mountain view, cactus tour, fun reading day, etc, can do wonders to restore your spirit.
  4. Bring more vials – I ran out of vials about eight times in five weeks, it was incredible. I had no idea one could possibly use so many vials. How??? This isn’t just for vials, its for all supplies – bring more than you need. Things will break, get lost, evaporate if you don’t seal your EtOH container tightly enough (*sigh*) etc – having lots more than you thought you needed will help you survive these curve balls.
  5. No, these are not mini-pineapples. This is a cactus, with fruit.

    Fieldwork is fun! – There is nothing more enjoyable than being out in nature, intentionally observing things, day in and day out and getting to call it ‘work’. Particularly, being in an area that is so different from where I grew up and that has such great diversity was an amazing experience. Each day was a revelation, watching cacti grow flowers and bees emerge from the ground, seeing spiders and lizards catch prey, following flower-petal trails to seed-harvesting ant nests… it was all tremendously enjoyable, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Ant nest surrounded by palo verde flower petals.

I’d like to thank everyone on below for their help – accessing lab space or supplies, providing me with a couch or guest room to sleep on/in, teaching me how to use new equipment, checking different field sites for me, providing endless encouragement, and even financial support. I could not have done this without all of you believing in me, and with that belief supporting me in so many ways.

Thanks to my Drexel support: Dr. Sean O’Donnell, Katie Fiocca, Dr. Jacob Russell, Dr. Jennifer Stanford, and Dr. Michael O’Connor; to my lodging/funding support: Sarah Cook, Ellen and Adam Lowry, Kathryn Busby and Logan Schoolcraft, Alexander Glica, and B Cavello (Women’s Mini-Grant); to my University of Arizona support: Dr. Stephen Buchmann, Dr. Dan Papaj, Dr. Wulfila Gronenbergm Dr. Goggy Davidowitz, Dr. Judie Bronstein, Noah Giebink, and Bruce D Taubert; to my Arizona State University support: Dr. Jon Harrison, Dr. Kaitlyn Baudier, Dr. Jennifer Fewell, Dr. Rebecca Clark, and Megan Duwel.

And, always, a thank you to Anne Zimmer and Richard Barrett – for believing in me.

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The Second Quarter: Checking In

Me with my trusty wasp brain! Brain section within this photo credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Me with my trusty wasp brain! Brain section within this photo credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

Wow have the past few months flown by – year two of your PhD is no joke! First, I’d like to recognize all the big things I achieved in this last quarter (in no particular order):

  1. Went to ESA EB and presented on wasp brains
  2. Organized a field season to Arizona
  3. Presented a poster and helped my undergraduates make two posters for a conference
  4. Applied for four grants
  5. Finished the termite retina project
  6. Had my first committee meeting #CandidacyBossBattlePart1
  7. Embedded and sliced all the bee/spider brains #BrainDraincomplete
  8. Earned my graduate minor in Undergraduate STEM Education
  9. Was on a podcast! My very first #SuperwomeninScience
  10. Hosted Biotweeps – and had a ton of fun
  11. Brought two new undergraduates into the lab, trained them on the first project, and developed materials for a new mentorship training program that I am implementing

There is a lot to be proud of on this list.

What things didn’t I get to? Well, the blog took a huge backseat (my last Bee Byte is two months ago!) and I did not finish the Pest Mess (one of my big goals in my last goal-setting post) – mostly because all my ants died, before giving them the pesticide… oops.

So what are my goals for quarter two – April through June?

  1. Candidacy Boss Battle, Part 2: Sometime between April and June it’s time for my full-on committee meeting and any revisions to my proposal that may come from this. Bring on the #nerves.
  2. The Pallid Bee: A successful first field season out in Arizona would be a big boon to my thesis. Luckily, I have a great crowd supporting me at University of Arizona – and back home.
  3. Pest Mess (attempt 2?): Shall we try again? Hopefully, in May I’ll have some time to grab fresh Tetramorium and give these last few experiments one more whirl.
  4. Carpenter Contemplation: If Pest Mess doesn’t happen you can bet it will be because of the Carpenter bee project I have sitting in my back pocket, which will require some trips up to NY in May.

Hopefully, I’ll have some time to update this space with exciting news about grants, my field season, and other upcoming trips – as well as more Bee Bytes – ASAP. I’ll be celebrating my plane ride to Arizona with a Bee Byte on my thesis species, Centris pallida, so stay tuned for that – coming April 4!

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The First Quarter: New Years Goals

'Happy New Year! Bonne Annee Mes Amis!' by DaPuglet (CC BY-SA 2.0; link through photo).
‘Happy New Year! Bonne Annee Mes Amis!’ by DaPuglet (CC BY-SA 2.0; link through photo).

Happy New Year! May all of our 2018s be better than our 2017s.

I recently talked about goal-setting on Twitter, and how hard its been to follow through on many of my goals in my PhD program due to the ever-changing nature of the degree. The challenges and stresses are highly variable throughout the year, and I’ve come to the realization that annual goals – at least this coming year – probably won’t make much sense for me. Instead, I’ve decided to try out quarterly goals, with one big and two medium size professional goals to work on and evaluate every three months. For my first quarter (Jan 1 – March 31):

 

  1. Candidacy Boss Battle, Part 1: Plan my first field season and have my first committee meeting
  2. Brain Drain: Get through a round of bee and spider brain embedding
  3. Pest Mess: Run the last few ant trials to get started on that paper (this may extend into May/June)

Now, ‘Candidacy Boss Battle’ probably doesn’t seem like that big of a goal, but I want to give the process, and the emotional toll it’s likely to take on me, the respect it deserves. Here’s what I think that will likely entail:

  1. Reading about 1 paper a day
  2. Scheduling, organizing, attending the committee meeting
  3. Reminding myself to breathe for the 2 weeks prior to the committee meeting
  4. Making significant revisions to the proposal itself
  5. Organizing a field season in an area where I don’t know the facilities or tools
  6. Coming up with a back up idea for if I don’t find the aggregations
  7. Creating a presentation

So, given all the above, I feel like it’s a pretty big goal. Brain Drain is a pretty small goal in comparison, but would give me a cool graphic for my presentations and would keep pushing the spider brain project along as my undergraduates keep chipping away at the backlog. Pest Mess is more ambitious – mostly because it takes a long time to do the work (multiple weeks, uninterrupted), less that it is a lot of work to do. In any case, each of these would keep the lab humming along at a nice pace and my career progressing similarly.

I’ve also been thinking about personal goals for 2018 – 2017 was somewhat unhappy for me and I want to make 2018 better. I think some of this will be hard for me, and realistically won’t happen this year, because changing how you think and what you value is hard. But here are some of the things I’m going to at least try to be more aware of in 2018:

  1. Saying ‘no’ more often.  – I’ve spent a lot of time prioritizing making others happy, helping others, over helping myself. This is, in moderation, a character trait of which I am proud. It has led me to meet amazing people and have incredible, unique experiences. But I also become so busy and stressed that it strains my relationships with those I love, and my relationship with myself. It has given me incapacitating anxiety and led to depression. I need to learn to say ‘yes’ to me, and ‘no’ to others, more often.
  2. Valuing my mental and physical health. – We live in a world where pushing your body and mind beyond what is healthy is romanticized as an incredible devotion to your work. However this devotion hurts, when you take away the Instagram filters. This year, it is time to put my mental and physical health on the priority list – to stop joking about or in any way devaluing the importance of taking care of me.
  3. Bitter or Better. – “When something happens that you cannot control, you can choose to become bitter – or become better. Choose better.” – to paraphrase Sister Karlien from high school. This is something I used to be good at that I’m afraid the past two years have caused me to fall back from. I’ve got a lot of bitterness to let go of, to remember the positive feelings that make me happy. There’s a lot to be grateful for in my life, and even as times are complicated and tough, I need to remember ‘better’ is the way to go.
  4. Accepting my humanity. – Struggling with perfectionism, impostor syndrome, intense fears of failure, and self-imposed unrealistic expectations has only made the graduate school environment even more difficult. This year, I hope to accept my humanity – the process of failure as human, the importance of mistakes, letting go my harsh self-criticisms, seeing others that I admire in a more realistic light.

I hope that your 2018 is off to a good start – and that you use the beginning of the year to reflect on who you wish to become. I am hoping to find some time in future posts to discuss how, after you make a goal, to follow through using different types of step-organizing strategies that work for PhDs and life!

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Grant Writing: Are You Listening?

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Photo by Fredrik Rubensson entitled ‘diary writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Grant writing is a new thing for me, so you should take all my advice with a grain of salt – but this is one piece I think might be worth considering. Grant writing isn’t really a big, scary exercise in writing and self-promotion (well, I mean, it is that too) but more importantly it’s an exercise in listening.

But who are we listening to? To answer this, we must think about who are we in conversation with as we write our grants. There can be several answers to this question – and several audiences for you to consider.

  1. The Grant Reviewers – Imagine you have to sit down and look over hundreds of applications from, mostly, similarly qualified candidates. What would make some stand out? It isn’t likely to be that one extra paper you published – it’s more likely to be that your application was enjoyable and easy to read. When the pages fly by and your story is interesting, you’ll leave the reviewers with a far more positive impression of you, and your science. So spend lots of time perfecting the readability of your writing – the reviewers will thank you.
  2. The Grant-granting Agency – I work as an assistant poetry editor for a literary magazine – in some ways we are a ‘granting agency’ in that we grant author’s work publication in our journal. Nothing is more irritating than reading work that doesn’t fit the stated goals of our magazine! Granting agencies likely feel the same way – if your work doesn’t fit the criteria, or address the points in the application instructions clearly, it doesn’t matter how amazing you are, you simply haven’t demonstrated you deserve this grant. Pay close attention to the wording used in the application for who they are looking to give this money to – and then use that same language to describe yourself and your work, so it’s easy to spot how you fit the bill.
  3. Your Critics – Another creative writing tidbit is the idea of workshops; you bring in a piece of writing and distribute it to your peers, who read it and comment on it – telling you what worked and what didn’t. You usually end up with 15 copies of your work that all say slightly different things… but have some common underlying thread. Apply the same principles to your grant – send it to lots of people, those with and without experience in your field or with you/your projects, etc. The suggestions they send back will vary and you absolutely should not take every suggestion, but look for the underlying themes. Are certain sections unclear? Do you need to reorganize so your question is broader and has more impact on your field? Is the tone bogging the piece down? Listen to what your critics are saying underneath their suggestions to get to some of the real issues with the piece.
  4. Your Cheerleader – Grant writing, maybe because it’s new or maybe because I have some serious impostor syndrome, is some hard stuff. I have to catch myself from making all kinds of qualifying, humbling statements like ‘this was a pretty big paper’ (since grant writing is all about acknowledging your accomplishments). So make sure you have a cheerleader – preferably somebody in your field but not your adviser who can tell you that you are GRRRRRREAT. It could be your mom, but would you really believe her? Find that one professional who can make you feel like others in your field recognize how awesome you are – and then read their email while listening to that ‘New Avengers’ song from ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. I promise, you’ll feel ten feet tall after and swagger like you’re Iron Man.
  5. Yourself – If you can’t represent yourself in the grant application, you don’t deserve to get it – whoever you represented does. No matter everyone else’s suggestions, edits, comments, and concerns, make sure before you submit that the grant still sounds like you. No one knows your smarts, skills, achievements, creativity, humor, etc like you do – so always read that last draft with yourself in mind.

Listening is hard and takes practice – pulling out the ‘underlying concerns’ in a critic’s piece or identifying what to do to make your narrative read more easily can be difficult. Not receiving a grant isn’t actually always about you and your qualifications – there are so many nuanced reasons, especially when there’s so little money to give out and such competitive pools of applicants (that you’re a part of!). Put your best application forward, then back away from the result – and be prepared to try again.

Each day, a new day.

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Year One Celebration

Photo credit: Steve Buchmann (http://stephenbuchmann.com/)
Photo credit: Steve Buchmann (http://stephenbuchmann.com/)

Year one of my PhD program is officially over and, with the advent of the fall semester, I would like to celebrate the things that I’ve achieved in just one year. In some ways, this blog has functioned as my ‘praise journal’ – the technique I wrote about in this blog post about overcoming impostor syndrome. This past year has been very hard – a PhD is about growing as a scientist, which (it turns out) means more than just learning science; it means learning to think and work differently. This growing process is hard – my perfectionism, anxiety, and workaholism have been dangerous company to keep as my PhD has progressed. But each graduate student has their own areas of personal growth where they will be challenged during their graduate career.

This past year I’ve accomplished the following scientific things:

  1. Taken six classes, and many online workshops
  2. Taught two classes
  3. Gathered brain data on over 160 specimen and counting, including spiders, ants, termites, and wasps – and helped finish three full projects for my lab, one of which is already published
  4. Gathered microbial community data for another lab that will result in an eventual publication for them
  5. Started working on an additional four projects for my lab, with exciting results incoming!
  6. Made a poster on ant pesticides with my STAR mentee!
  7. Began developing a pretty fantastic thesis proposal, if I do say so myself #justbeethings
  8. Co-author on my first published paper (this one was big enough that it deserved to be mentioned twice)
  9. Presented at two scientific conferences
  10. Received two travel awards
  11. Attended the Bee Course, 2017!
  12. Mentored over 400 student hours between six different undergraduate students
  13. Was the only Biology student to win the College of the Arts and Sciences TA Excellence Award
  14. Elected to several biology leadership roles and accepted for science outreach positions
  15. Had my #scicomm accepted for publication at Buzz Hoot Roar, The Female Scientist, and more

All in all, it was a scientifically successful first year, all while I dealt with a lot of personal adjustments and challenges. What started out slow and scary, has built to something incredible – it’s easy to see, when it’s all in one list, how much there is to be proud of from this first twelve months of my journey. Here’s to many, but not too many, more!

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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.

Anthidium
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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