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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What I’m Working On

Short term projects:

I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve finally finished beta-testing my game, Narborion Adventures: The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. I’ll say to beta-testers everywhere that I do not envy you and your job. Playing games in the most boring way possible is an experience I do not wish to repeat. I am sorry. You can read an interview with me about the project here, watch the game trailer here on their homepage (all the way to the left in the videos section), or – soon – buy the game in the app store (available for Android and iOS)!

After being inspired by a call for submissions of unfinished manuscripts by Carina Press, I’ve taken a small break from science-writing to work more completely on a historical romance novel that aims to turn some of the traditional regency troupes on their head. Hey, sometimes we have to give love a little time to shine, right?

Also, three of my poems, “Acerum on Fomalhaut b,” “Comma after Late Budbreak: Defoliation by an Invasive Pear,” and “Dirty” have been accepted for publication in The Trumpeter online literary journal. As soon as they’re published, I’ll be able to start posting Biopoetics for those poems!

Long term projects:

I’ve decided to join the Philadelphia Neuwrite chapter after meeting their founder; I wanted to follow up on my involvement in the science-writing collaboration group from my undergrad at Geneseo (where I was a founding member). My first meeting will be in September, but it won’t be my last!

I’ve decided to continue diversifying by joining the Collaborative Writing Challenge for Project 6, which will be a Fantasy/YA Fantasy novel. This jives well with my gamebook experience and love of the genre. The project works with four authors each signing on to write the same chapter of the book. Each author receives the chapter selected before their assigned chapter and a concept outline, after which they have a week to write their chapter and submit their material to the story coordinator. The story coordinator picks one chapter of the four submitted versions as the ‘winner’ and then sends it on to the next four writers… building the story. Submissions are accepted for the started chapter and voted on by all contributors to the project. I’ll be working on chapters 23 and 27, not due until Feb/March of 2017.

Lastly, I’ve been collaborating with my brother to create a biography of sorts about his craft distillery, Black Button Distilling located in Rochester, NY (if you have the opportunity to buy the Bourbon Cream and/or the gin, do it!).

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The Perpetual Writer’s Block

Last December to February, I was behind on a writing contract (for the game/app I’m almost done beta-testing…finally). Every day, before and after class, in between homework and sorority, I did nothing but write. With the story rounding out at 185,000 words and completion in 2.5 months, I wrote an average of 2,312.5 words a day. I think one day I wrote about 9,000 words. It was nuts.

For the past month, however, I’ve been trying my hand at regularly producing content for this blog and I’ve discovered what makes my writer’s block shine.

  1. Not having a deadline – as a former college student (and soon-to-be grad student), I’ve realized that I’m very motivated by deadlines and… not by much else
  2. Perfectionism –  each post gives me the anxiety attack of wondering if this post will help or hurt my career overall (the logical side of my brain understands the answer is neither). How can I post something now when I’m not my best writing self yet? Paradoxically, of course, becoming your best writing self takes practice – say, developing content for a blog or something.
  3. Wanting to write something else – honestly, anything else. As soon as I settle down to write something for this blog, I quickly decide I want to write something else. Anything. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, recipes for pizza rolls.

You’d think the fact that this blog is in its infancy would help me not worry about being perfect; logically, if no one is reading what I write what does it matter? Unfortunately it seems I still have a ways to go before I separate my writing self from my emotional self enough to write unburdened by anxiety.

Do any of you suffer from writer’s block in the form of how-to-write and not what-to-write? How do you handle it?

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Works in Progress

This month, I’ve been working on several new poems for my Sugar Maple cycle. I was inspired to write again after my father and I took a trip around New York and happened to visit the memorial park where my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather all have their ashes buried. It was my first time visiting after my grandparents died a few years ago. The trip included tears.

As we approached the plaques set into the ground, my father remarked how it was hard to find the right nameplates because they’re all flat and slowly are covered by grass and leaves. “Mom – your grandma,” he told me, “Always liked this spot because it was easy to find. You find the garden, and they’re just under this large tree here. She always liked the tree.”

It turned out, upon closer inspection by this young ecologist, that the tree was a sugar maple. My recent fascination with this particular, though ubiquitous in the Northeastern US, tree species, felt like it had been given new breath and poetic meaning as we wound our way home through the back roads of rural New York.

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Making charcoal at Jack Daniel’s, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

I’ve also become fascinated by something my brother told me; Jack Daniels whiskey is actually mellowed over charcoal made from sugar maple timbers as part of production. It’s crazy how, once you’re attuned to something, you see it everywhere.

In addition to those poems, I’m in the midst of beta testing my Narborion Adventures game, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau. As my first game development experience, I can easily say I’ve learned so much about the hard work game developers put into the process – especially when it comes to beta testing a choose-your-own-adventure game! Whew! I can also say that I can’t wait for another opportunity because working with Liber Primus on this fantasy-adventure, while not easy, has been very fun.

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John Oliver on Science

Just in time for my blog to start up, one of my favorite comedians, John Oliver, has decided to do a segment about science as presented to us in the media. I think the segment really speaks for itself, but I highlighted some key points below in case you’re interested – and then I offer my take.

1:32 “There are now so many studies being thrown around that they can seem to contradict one another.”

And in science, sometimes studies do contradict one another! Depending on the environmental conditions, experimenter bias, technology that exists at the time, events like speciation that were previously unknown, and other scientific advances,  two studies can get vastly different results. That’s why replicating experiments over and over is so important; it decreases the likelihood that the results achieved are erroneous or biased. This relates to what Oliver says about science being a work in progress – our understanding, our experiments, our techniques are always getting better, collectively, as we continue to make progress!

4:19 “Even the best designed studies can get flukish results and the best safeguard science has against that is the replication study…replication studies are so under-appreciated…so you just have all of these exploratory studies out there that are taken as fact.” and 5:10 “Scientists themselves know not to attach too much significance to particular studies until they’re placed in the much larger context of all the work taking place in that field but too often a small study with nuanced, tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it’s presented to us, the lay public.”

If you ever look at the back of a published, credible scientific study, you’ll see a huge list of resources. Scientists know we can’t just accept one study’s word on the matter; there needs to be a considerable amount of work done in an area for us to accept it as ‘a working fact’. I use the term ‘a working fact’ because there are hardly any things in science we accept as 100% definitely true – most things we accept as highly statistically likely.

Even so, science is not glamorous like the news media (and often our books, TV shows, and movies) represent. Science is slow and frustrating; we take baby step after baby step, and all of these steps can take years of small, almost ‘insignificant’ advances before it finally all builds into something bigger. Some of the most glamorous recent advances in biology – for example the CRISPR system –  were discovered the first time completely by accident. It was a baby step that led to a whole new field of really exciting work, still in its infancy almost thirty years later. Can we start presenting this process – the slow, steady, frustrating process of research – to a lay audience so that the time, effort, materials, dedication, philosophy, and background research that goes into each study can be more fully understood?

7:45 “And there’s no doubt some of this is on us, the viewing audience. We like fun, pop-y science that we can share like gossip.”

We need to be demanding accurate science from our media! Who is funding the science? Where is the bias? Sourcing and context or nada! More than that, we need to change how we chose to see and portray science. We need to give funding to replication studies to make sure the exploratory studies are accurate. We need to portray the whole process of science – from the background research to the Eureka! to the replication studies that back up our first ‘Eureka’ claims. We need to try to dig a little deeper into understanding those long, complex titles scientists submit to journals even though it’s not fun or pop-y and often the results seem minuscule.

Not only does science deserve more respect, but we need to respect ourselves, out intelligence, and our society more by putting in this work. We hurt ourselves when we choose not to vaccinate our children (or go around smelling farts all day) because of faulty science; we hurt ourselves when we don’t hold big oil, pharma, fishery, tobacco, etc. companies accountable for their actions because we feel we can’t trust the contradictory nature of science. We hurt ourselves when we are brainwashed into believing we, a lay audience, are not capable of understanding what science brings to the table.

A lot of this boils down to an essential point: look for consensus among several studies and scientists in order to determine the most likely truth in science. We’ll all be better off for it.

 

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This blog and me

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Photo credit: Keith Trammel Photography

About the Blog:

It seems that our society is growing more dependent on science even as we grow increasingly distrustful of the news media that are generally reporting the latest scientific advances. I can’t blame us – often the headlines we are fed make it seem like cancer is cured, all bees are going extinct, and the zombie virus is knocking on our doors. How do we communicate the small steps that make up real scientific progress accurately, but still engage our readers?

That’s my goal here; to communicate the beauty of science through poetry, plays, articles, and more. I want to make the boundary between the fields of STEM and creative writing more porous. I want to discuss the important ethical questions of science and writing, too. What is literary citizenship? Does the end justify the means? What is the line between fiction and nonfiction, and when is it appropriate to use one or the other? Are our scientific discoveries neutral? What is the moral responsibility of the scientist, and the writer, to society?

There’s a lot to unpack here. On this blog I’ll be writing about scientific advancements, literary citizenship, the writing process, other written works, and perhaps a few odds and ends like gaming and gin and cats. Who doesn’t love cats?

About the Writer:12573946_1212730845408300_2641606434461195680_n

I am currently earning my PhD in Biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia – I’ll be at that for a long while. I earned my B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where I was a member of the Honors College. At Geneseo, I was a founding member of NeuWrite/Edu, the first undergraduate chapter of the international science-writing collaboration group. I was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, my junior year, and served as a writing intern for their online news site, The Key Reporter in the spring of 2016. I wrote for my school newspaper, The Lamron, serving as an assistant editor from 2012-2013.

I’ve completed three ecology studies so far while in undergrad. The first is my honors capstone in Biology: Effects of the Emerald Ash Borer on Nations Road Research Reserve; the other two are directed study research projects: Native Bee Diversity and 12990940_1281985721816145_1685345968374993656_nAbundance at SUNY Geneseo and Determination of Colony Structure in Formica pergandei using Microsatellite Markers to Estimate Worker Relatedness. I have presented my research at regional and local conferences. I look forward to getting to do more research as I earn my PhD! I’ve also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate biology majors lab for three semesters, serve as the assistant instructor for a semester, and as a supplemental instructor for the freshman biology majors lecture for a semester. I can’t wait to keep teaching in my PhD program!

Lastly, I am an alumni member of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority. I served as President, Vice President, Treasurer, New Member Educator, and Service Chair while an active member from Spring 2013 – Spring 2016. I owe so much to this group of my peers, who pushed me to be my best (and weirdest) self and consistently supported me in my writing and my research.

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