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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A Small Break

Me as Steampunk Ship Captain for the Franklin Institute's Science After Hours, with my video game assassin!
Me as Steampunk Ship Captain for the Franklin Institute’s Science After Hours, with my video game assassin! #halloweekend

Friends who follow my blog:

I’ll be taking a small break. Most of the content you’ve seen, up til now, was generated prior to the beginning of my first graduate quarter. I thought, naively, that having content out til the second week of November would give me plenty of time to generate material through the end of the quarter. Wow, did the past nine weeks fly by!

I can’t wait to tell you all about it in a post soon, but for now all you need to know is that it’s been incredible… incredibly busy that is. As such, posts for the short-term are going to be a bit spotty, until I get all my final projects in the week of 12/11 and can go back to doing straight research which will seriously be such a relief. Some posts you can look forward to, as soon as my quarter calms down:

  1. How we move forward – the 2016 Presidential Election
  2. Social Spiders: A Background
  3. The STEM pipeline is dripping
  4. Biopoetics for many of my recently-published works
  5. The Important Part of REsearch (Fall 2016 Quarter)

In the meantime, there will still be a few posts coming here and there – the occasional bee reviewed from readings I did a long time ago, guest posts from friends, and some other musings. But it won’t be quite the regularity that I’ve been delivering on for the past few months. I look forward to getting back into the swing of things soon – and appreciate your patience until that point.

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Check it out: all the sins

I was lucky enough to have the amazing folks over at all the sins decide to publish two of my poems – “Brilliant Moonbeam”, a found poem from the beginning of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, and “Crassostrea virginica”, one of my ecofeminist poems that looks at the world through a marine life lens. The poems will be published in their inaugural edition, which went up today!

The lovely editors over at all the sins wrote a pre-release post entitled “Submissions: Round 1“, where they talk about their transparent editorial process (which, as a poetry reader myself for a lit mag and a struggling wannabe poet, I think is pretty neat). There was also a little nod to one of my works in there: “Some pieces embraced the theme more literally, playing with Dahl-like language and, as you’ll see in our first edition, creating found poetry from his original text” which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Beyond the warm and fuzzies, another line particularly resonated with me, now that I’m beginning to see the ‘other side’ of the submission situation as a probationary poetry reader over at Storm Cellar Quarterly (more about that sometime later). That line is “we looked for art that had something to say”.

It is so hard to let our art speak for itself. Something in the process of expression gets the art muddled on its way out of us – our fingers mangle it, our synapses do damage as the chemicals that birth the art flow past. We are imperfect vessels for our art, though sometimes it is exactly the way we ‘taint’ the art as we express it that makes it so valuable or revolutionary. Still, at most we should be co-vocal with our art; we should never be its sole orator. And yet, it is hard to let our art speak – instead of us speaking about our art and what it could or should be. It’s a new kind of listening. It is humbling to hear that my art was chosen because it had something to say. Maybe, with each poem I read and write, I am learning more how to listen.

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Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

50276249_00102_0021_XLarge
Me, the impostor: Somehow they let me graduate? I need to get off stage quick before they figure it out and take my diploma back! Me, looking back: I worked hard for this moment, and I deserved every cord I was wearing!

Last week I wrote a post about impostor syndrome (you can find it here) and promised to follow up by discussing ways of handling impostor syndrome. It’s funny because even when starting this blog I felt like an impostor – who am I to start writing as though I have advice to give or am worthy of someone’s precious time, reading my words? But day by day, I’ll keep writing and pushing through until I can live with this impostor syndrome and even welcome it as a reminder of my personal growth.

The key is to learn how to live with your impostor syndrome – not to resist it and try to force it to go away forever. I’ve compiled some advice on the matter, and came up with some of my own, and I thought I’d share it with you – I hope it helps whether you’re earning a degree, getting a new job, or finding a new group of peers:

  1. Recognize that feeling incompetent and being incompetent are two different things: And try changing how you feel by watching this compelling TED talk
  2. Keep a praise journal/celebrate your accomplishments: make sure to regularly celebrate your accomplistments in a way that is memorable for you (going out for dinner, rewarding yourself with a special treat, etc). A praise journal is another way to do this – a small notebook you carry around where you write praises on one page and your negative feelings on a separate page. When you fill up a ‘negative thoughts’ page you can rip it out and burn it, then re-read all the praises you’ve received as it burns.
  3. Have a Praise Ambassador in your life: this is someone, a friend or family member, who knows your struggle and is specifically looking out for you to give you praise for your accomplishments; this person can be responsible for taking you out for a drink or simply giving you that much-needed and oft-overlooked praise for being the awesome person that is YOU
  4. Talk to your peers and advisers: If you trust your peers and advisers, even if it’s scary, it’s a great idea to open up to them about your feelings of insecurity. It’s always good to hear from those you know, trust, and find to be competent that you are competent too.
  5. Don’t idolize anyone: everyone is human; even if you don’t always catch someone’s mistakes, trust me, they’ve made plenty. Idolizing others makes it easier for you to belittle yourself via comparison. Trust me, just stop.
  6. Come up with a “key reassurance”: this is a phrase, a mantra if you will, to repeat to yourself whenever you feel the rising tide of anxiety. For me, something like “You are worthy of this success.” is in the works.
  7. Avoid the ‘humble brag’ at all costs: The humble brag is often used by impostor-syndrome sufferers to not actually take ownership of how awesome your accomplishments are – don’t “it was no big deal” a goal you’ve made and don’t allow your self-deprecation to overwhelm you either. If you’ve done something great – go you, 100%! Be honest and straightforward about your achievement, or else the anxiety will catch on the ‘humbling’ joke you made and never go away.
  8. Plan time to manage the anxiety: I do this for the blog by making posts weeks in advance. I think every post is terrible right after writing it, but after giving the post some breathing room I’m able to see it for the quality material it actually is and can then go on to post it. Give yourself whatever time you need (long or short!) to manage your anxiety.

Lastly, I’d like to leave both scientists and writers with something I found in the 2008 Journal of Cell Science – it’s called “the importance of stupidity in scientific research” by a professor at Yale named Martin Schwartz. He contends that being stupid is crucial to the process of research because being stupid is the fundamental step to making discovery – you must admit to not knowing in order to research and answer your question! Writers and scientists both do this in our own ways through our variant and beautiful creative processes – so don’t let a little bit of feeling stupid get you down. Pick yourself up and get back to writing/research – where you belong.

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Impostor Syndrome

12990940_1281985721816145_1685345968374993656_nThis is a photo of me, talking confidently – practically non-stop – about my research on “Native Bee Diversity and Abundance” at my undergraduate college. A student, bottom left, dutifully takes notes for a write-up she’ll be doing later for extra credit. Inside, not visible to the viewer, I am practically paralyzed in fear. It’s not just because it was one of six presentations I had that day. It’s not (only) that I hate public speaking. It’s because at most of those presentations, regardless of my credentials, I feel like an impostor – someone who shouldn’t be there, someone waiting for others to figure out that I don’t belong either.

This affliction is labeled “impostor syndrome” and it’s something I’ve seen a lot of writers, particularly those about to start MFA programs, mention. While many suggest it gets better/easier the longer you’re at something, it affects some people throughout their entire careers; like this literary agent and editor or even Maya Angelou who, having published eleven books to great acclaim, said “I have written 11 books…but each time I think, Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it mentioned as much in the science circles, although I freely admit that I see less science blogs than writer blogs in general. When I am in the company of other writers, I take some solace in the fact that – likely – some of them also feel this way:

But now I have a book deal, and I still feel like a fraud. My agent and my editor are wrong; my book is terrible; no one will buy it; the reviews will be heinous; and soon everyone will see me for what I really am: a desperate woman sitting in a workshop while two real writers dismantle all her feeble pretensions. Sometimes I feel so anxious about this impending disaster that I’m even a little bit impressed with myself, because it’s astounding that someone with such crippling insecurities can even get out of bed, much less continue to write. – Heather Young

Dog Scientist - I have no idea how to science
Credit goes to memegenerator.net for helping me make this dog version of me

Knowing that so many other writers are going through this puts me much more at ease. But with other scientists, this lack of confidence, this completely overwhelming insecurity, is rarely talked about. When I walk into the lab to see my fellow scientists hard at work rushing around testing hypotheses, I quickly become overwhelmed. I’ve only done two surveys and one molecular study – and I didn’t really understand the whole process. I’m going to fail out. How did I convince everyone to let me make it this far? I forget everything as soon as I learn it – how am I supposed to make it six years and do my own research? I can’t fool these, guys!

I can’t give much attention or time to these anxieties or they quickly get out of hand; but every moment I am in the lab, they’re there. Nagging. Causing my voice to shake when I talk to my adviser; making me stammer. When will they find out?

So I decided to write this post – first to reassure any other lonely PhD candidate out there that yes, impostor syndrome is a thing and you (and I) should be fine. I did find some other resources about impostor syndrome in Science/PhD programs – here’s an article from Science and one from HigherEd and here’s a more personal account from the blog of Megan Fork, an Environmental Research PhD candidate at Duke. It’s natural and okay – as a writer, a scientist, a student – to feel this way. And you are worthy of your success. You, my friends and fellow self-labeled impostors, worked hard for it.

Part two of this post will be coming in a week or so – where I give some advice about how to deal with impostor syndrome. Do you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share? Feel free to drop me an email or a comment!

 

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Grad School Orientation

ta-training
Yes, my shirt does have a Queen Bee on it.

This past week was Drexel’s graduate student orientation and boy was it a whirlwind; I’m still tired – though with a crazy weekend, and Week 1 jumpstarting, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Grad school kicked off with your typical orientation fare – talks by big wigs at the college, distribution of lots of pamphlets about resources, and an overwhelming amount of nervous students scarfing down free food and trying to be social. We’re gems, every one of us.

The Grad College waxed poetic about interdisciplinary studies (my ears perked up – really?), we were told how difficult our studies here would be – and then we went to lab safety training to learn how not to set the lab on fire. Then it was our specific colleges turn to scare us with our workload – seminars, teaching, grading, taking classes, research and rotations all leading up to the “Quals” which, if you fail, get you an MS with no thesis and a swift kick out the door. Wednesday was the scariest day, without a doubt.

After Wednesday is TA training – ten hours of people telling you to do things but not showing you how (i.e. ‘Be Prepared’, ‘Don’t let the students run you over’ – what?). The resources, however, were critically helpful – knowing where to turn if you need to deal with a student’s disability fairly, or a case of academic misconduct, was top notch information to receive. I left practice TA sessions with the nickname ‘Professor Barrett’ though unfortunately without the tenure or salary to match.

And now it’s Week 1. I’ve completed twelve bioraft safety videos/quizzes, filled out countless administrivia, attended a lecture on the development of fly brains, gone to workshops to learn to use Drexel software, done several hours of research, reminded my TA-training professor to upload the assignment for the course so I could (idk) do it, taught three classes, finished three readings, and begun a presentation due next week for my Readings class (where I present every other class period). Tomorrow is the BEES seminar and Friday I have lab, office hours, and the BGSA mixer – somewhere, in all of this, we do our homework and do research in lab??

I suppose I’m writing this update to let you know I feel overwhelmed, though I know that’s okay and I think most graduate students feel overwhelmed too. I feel overwhelmed by the work and expectations – the desire to be the best student, researcher, and TA I can be, all at once, and knowing that getting a 4.0 might no longer be achievable and that pushing each student individually will be so much harder when there are 75+ of them. Grad school is a different ball game – a different animal altogether. The nice thing about a personal blog with no real professional ties is that you can afford to be honest with yourself.

In other news, I’ve had several more poems accepted for publication – “Ashenhalted II” in Firefly magazine, “Strawberry Compositions” in UnLost, “Honeybee dance evolution from Apis florea to Apis mellifera” and “Body Volume” in Slag Review, and, just today, “Brilliant Moonbeam” and “Crassostrea virginica” in all the sins. So at least that’s a little confidence booster.

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What I’m Working On

Welcome to another update of ‘what I’m working on’ where I tell you all a bit about the progression of my life as I wander towards old age. Because grad school is about to start, I actually have two types of updates for you – a small research update, and another on writing!

Research:

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

It turns out my dreams of looking at bee brains will have to wait – while I look at ant brains instead. I don’t know how much of my research I’m allowed to talk about online (or if I’m allowed to post any pictures) but the work involves preserving, dicing, and then quantifying the volume of different parts of the brains of many ants. I’m going to be ‘taking over’ this project at my graduate school, so I’m really excited to be getting a head start (haha, see what I did there?).

Please note, the ant pictured has nothing to do with my research. I just wanted to illustrate – aren’t their brains tiny???

Writing:

Another poem has been selected for publication! Ashenhalted II – a poem from my Sugar Maple cycle – was selected by Firefly Magazine for publication in their September issue. They’re a journal of luminous writing and I’m very excited they felt my piece qualified! Expect to see Ashenhalted II featured on Biopoetics sometime this fall where you’ll learn a bit about the process for making Jack Daniels as part of the poem’s scientific background.

I’ve taken a break from poetry this month to work on the nonfiction piece for my brother (about his distillery) and to work on a fiction novel I’ve let go for far too long. I’ve added about 8000 words and deleted about 4000 others, so I’m glad to be making headway… anyway, I’m at 30K right now and I’ve decided to set the very moderate goal of finishing it (approximately 85K) by December 31. I finally feel like I’ve gotten back in the swing of writing regularly; just like everything else, it seems, it’s all about the practice.

I’m trying to get the newsletter feature up and running; hopefully, it’s working as a once-weekly feature of all my blog posts and updates! If you’re looking for updates from me in your inbox instead of having to check back here every day, feel free to subscribe (no spam, promise)!

Lastly, since it’s September, I know some of you writerly folks might be gearing up for NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, which comes every November. Once grad school begins, I’ll see how the work load feels and consider joining in the fun; if I do, there will likely be a few less blog posts while I crank out the words. If you’ve never done NaNo before, I highly recommend it; while I’ve only won once (thanks to some awesome, dedicated NaNo friends in 2012!), you can really move forward with your work in only 30 days!

If you have any tips and tricks for managing your writing schedule or participating in NaNoWriMo while leading a busy life I’d love to hear them – leave me a comment below or send some tips using the methods on my ‘contact me’ page.

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DIY MFA Part 1: Orientation

For those of you paying close attention, you may have noted I’m intending to go to graduate school in Biology in the fall and not to earn my MFA. And yet, here I sit, managing a blog and website more dedicated to my love of the craft of writing than to my personal scientific pursuits. Since I would hate to miss out on any opportunity for schooling, I decided to pick up the DIY MFA, a new book by Gabriela Pereira that teaches its readers to write with focus, read with purpose, and build a community (what Pereira asserts are the three main principles of an MFA program).

Pereira’s book calls for her readers to do some surprising work that, at its surface, isn’t writing; many books, such as Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, teach us that there is more to being a good writer than writing itself. I’d like to follow my journal engaging with her material and doing my own DIY MFA as a bi-weekly segment on this blog for… well, however long a DIY MFA lasts. Hopefully, for other writers working on developing their writing, reading, and community outside the MFA this experiment of mine will be useful.

And I do call it an experiment since Pereira’s first piece of advice (when distilled) is for writers to use the scientific method to develop good writing habits. She develops the acronym VITAL: choose input and output Variables, collect Information, set a Trip wire, evaluate and Analyze, and Learn and decide what’s next.

For my first two weeks, Aug 1 to Aug 14, I will be travelling between my former home and new home, so I’ve decided to test the input of light exercise over factors I think are actually more important to my writing (like place, writing time, and music/noise) which I cannot control given my extended travel. Each day before writing, I will stretch and take a ten minute run (hey, it’s hot out okay?) to see if that unsettles or invigorates me.

I’ll be using Pereira’s writing tracker to note my quantitative writing progress and qualitative experience over the two weeks, as well as which type of project I’m working on (as my needs for CNF, poetry, and genre fiction seem to be very different). My ‘tripwire’ (something that reminds me to evaluate my progress) will be this blog post; I will evaluate my previous twelve days of writing through the newest post and then learn and decide what my next variable will be as I write.

So far as I know, my best writing happens at midnight in Dennys at Geneseo with coffee, sad music, pancakes, and a looming deadline.

Throughout the two weeks, I will also be updating you with my thoughts on various parts of DIY MFA and how I think they fit into the reality of being a ‘young hopeful’ writer.

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Bee-ing Difficult: the Nyx Edition

Here’s a sneak peak at the book chosen for Sunday’s ‘Bee’ Reviewed – getting the photos with Nyx is a real saga. I thought I’d show you what I mean (these were taken over the course of an hour as I tried to get my cat to sit, stand, lay down – anything if she could just be STILL and LOOK at me):

Science on Stage 1
Nyx: I know it really annoys you when I come really close, stand still, and look away from you. It’s really frustrating and I know you love that.
Science on Stage 3
Nyx: First, I’ll go over to the bookshelf and pretend to be interested so mom tries staging the book there. Then, I’ll turn my butt on her. PERFECT.
Science on Stage 2
Nyx: If I keep walking by, between the book and the camera, that’ll really annoy her for sure. Look, Mom, I’m not interested in the bookshelf anymore!
Science on Stage 4
Nyx: What’s this? If I pose right in front of the clean laundry mom has yet to fold, then the internet will know all about her inability to do common household chores efficiently! Hah! Perfect!
Science on Stage 5
Nyx: I know? Aren’t I cute? And perfectly posed in front of the laundry, too. You’re welcome, mom.

Get excited for a post on ‘Science on Stage’ coming soon (and more cute pictures of my cat, the star of this blog)!

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