An Introduction to the Social Spider Project

I’m about to begin a series of posts on social spiders – yes, those creepy crawly arthropods we all despise – to give some background information on a research project that my PI and I have been developing for a while (now in pre-proposal stage). My hope is that this series of bite-sized bits of my project, the theory behind it, and the journey of the research itself will be interesting enough to turn some of the fear we have into curiosity. As a child I was terrified of spiders, and made my father ‘take care of’ any of the unfortunate few that wandered into my room; but through all this research, I’ve actually developed a (very small) fondness for the little guys, and I hope I can share that fondness with you.

We’ll start this introduction by discussing the study organism itself – the spider. In this study, we’ll be looking at closely related spider species that differ dramatically in one major type of behavior – sociality. There are three ‘types’ of this behavior – solitary, subsocial, and social.

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Found on the @ApprenticeRPG twitter

Solitary spiders are the ones most of us are probably familiar with – you know, the spider that chills out on its own web or wanders around on the ground by itself. It meets with other spiders for mating, but that’s the extent of its desire to socially interact.

Subsocial spiders are those that engage in some social behaviors – perhaps they live together or engage in cooperative prey capture maneuvers, but they also have some kind of obligate solitary phase. This could be a particular season of the year or a particular age that they spend alone, or they could even have communal webs but with marked, individual territories. The behaviors here are really diverse.

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Photo Credit: Donna Garde, Texas Parks & Wildlife, link through photo.

Lastly, you have the social spiders. For people with arachnophobia this is probably the WORST thing ever because if you find one spider, you know there are bound to be many more nearby. Social spiders engage in cooperative maternal care, nest maintenance, and prey capture behaviors and live together pretty much 24/7 – except during dispersal, when young spiders leave the nest to venture out into the world alone.

Social spiders come in various shapes and sizes just like the more familiar solitary spiders; you have larger huntsman in Australia that can have up to 300 spiders in a colony and the smaller Anelosimus (the spiders I’ll be working with, known as cobweb spiders) found throughout the Americas – Anelosimus eximus, a species I’ll be working with frequently, can have tens of thousands of spiders in a web (found as far north as Panama, though there are other Anelosimus in the US). There are other social spiders found throughout the world, in varying colors, numbers, sizes, and with varying behaviors.

That’s it for today’s introduction to the project – be sure to check back for future installments on spider brains, brain resource allocation theory, social spider behavior, and more!

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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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SINNERS 16: Social Insect Conference

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Photo courtesy of the SINNERS FB page.

December 10th and 11th, I had the absolute pleasure of attending my first scientific conference while in grad school – the SINNERS (Social Insects iN the North-East RegionS) meet up, for social insect entomologists in the NE US. The conference was hosted by the Powell lab at George Washington University, and was a rollicking good time – the sort of party only social insect people can put on, you get me?

This was my first time at a conference like this, so I gave a little lightning talk about my burgeoning social spider project (yeah, social spider. You heard me). It was really well received, and people had great questions even though I strayed from the ‘insects’ part on the conference name a tad (SANNERS – social arthropods – doesn’t have as nice a ring, I guess). I thought I’d give you a really small taste of just a few of the amazing presentations given at the conference that really excited me.

Ant-mimicking rove beetles – Dr. Joseph Parker from Columbia University

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Photo courtesy of a PDF poster download from Dr. Parker’s website

 Dr. Joseph Parker gave a talk entitled “Evolution and development of rove beetle myrmecophiles” (you can read more about this here, in a paper he published). Myrmecophile literally just means ‘myrmeco’ – ant – and ‘phile’ – loving; basically, species other than ants that capitalize on the structure of the ant society. In the case of these beetles, many live within ant colonies, receiving food and protection from the ants they mimic. However, ants are obviously not a huge fan of these thieves, and thus the beetles have to do their best to chemically and morphologically mimic the ants of the colony they are infiltrating – which some beetle species have done really well.

You can see a picture on the left of the incredible mimicry in form that these beetles undergo in order to be able to pass as ants (to ants!) and thus live in ant colonies. Dr. Parker’s talk mentioned how the benefits of successful ant-mimicry led to multiple independent evolutions of the behavior, and how novel glands had even been developed in particular beetle species to ‘control’ the host species. In particular, he mentioned an ‘adoption’ secretion which causes the ants to pick up the beetle, carry it into the colony, and deposit it in the brood (egg) chamber for it to feast on the baby ants. Other beetles are also able to use the ant alarm pheromone and pass other chemical ‘tests’ required when living in a hostile ant colony.

Snap and Trap Jaw Ants – Dr. Fredrick Larabee

 

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Trap-jaw ants Photos from Antweb.org, and from Larabee’s website

The above video is of Plectroctena mandibularis, an African snapping ant; it was posted by @DrStrangeAnt to Twitter on December 10th, and gives you an idea of how fast and powerful these ants’ jaws are.

Dr. Fredrick Larabee, from the National Museum of Natural History, gave a great talk entitled “Kinematics and Functional Morphology of the Snapping Ant, Mystrium camillae”.  We got to see amazing, up-close videos of the snapping jaws of different ant species – the Mystrium and the Mymoteras. The Mymoteras video was particularly incredible – it was taken at 1 million frames per second, in order to be fast enough to capture the snapping jaw. It’s one of (if not the) fastest animal movement on the planet. Mystrium is less impressive, with the video taken at “only” 1 thousand frames per second. The muscle that it takes to power movement that fast is incredible; sections of the ants’ heads show about 90% of the head is made of muscle in Mystrium. Different trap/snap jaw ants use different mechanisms to make their jaws shut, but all of them are lightning fast!

There were other incredible presentations given on thermal tolerance in army ants and how they regulate the temperature of their brood for optimal rearing conditions on the road (army ants are nomadic), math that showed the way ants find the optimal position for making living bridges of their own bodies, and even preliminary thermal imaging results that show how honey bees manage cases of honey bee fever in their colonies.

All in all, the conference was AMAZING and I can’t wait to go again. A huge thanks to the Powell lab for organizing everything this year. What do you think makes for a good conference? Let me know, in the comments!

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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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How to Read an Academic Article

Dense, jargon-filled paper about ants.

I recently stumbled across a pair of articles over at Science that resonated with me as a first year grad student taking a ‘Readings in Cellular and Molecular Biology’ class. The first article by Adam Ruben (a bit sarcastic) opens with “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article”; I recall my social insect seminar, junior year of undergrad, where we read at least one primary research article a week and were asked to develop questions about it. My most frequent question, my persistent frustration, “what is this even about?” It amazed me that I could read a scientific paper (sometimes several times) without even coming close to understanding it.

Step ten of Ruben’s satirical ‘ten step process for reading a scientific paper is: “10. Genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities. Academic papers written on nonscientific subjects are easy to understand, right? Right?”. Interestingly, as an English major, I can tell you that they really aren’t; it’s just a different kind of incomprehensible thinking.

Academic articles, scientific or otherwise, are known to be dry, confusing, and wordy; this may be one reason why we have so much trouble getting a lay audience to read, believe, or report on the facts (but that’s a discussion for another time). While Ruben laments the nature of scientific articles, Elisabeth Pain takes on tips for reading them in her follow up article in Science where she compiles advice from other scientists. I’ve summed it up here, succinctly:

  • Read the abstract and conclusion, and study the most important figures first (this will tell you if it’s even a paper you’re interested in for your research). Then go back and try to understand the dense verbiage of the paper.
  • As you read, take notes of important sentences/ideas in whatever note-taking format works well for you. Then make comments on this document (or the paper itself) with your questions and other information that you think is relevant.
  • Take shortcuts – for example, skip the methods unless you feel there’s something vital in there for you. Skip the intro if you’re really familiar with the field already. Etc.
  • Pause immediately to look up words you don’t understand; write in the definition so you don’t forget if you need to come back to the paper…
  • OR only look up words if they’re critical to your understanding of the work; otherwise, don’t waste your time on all the jargon.
  • Go to a colleague for help if you’re overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to use lay-audience sources (Wikipedia, blog posts) to get a feel for your area of study.

I recommend, if you have time, reading through the advice in Pain’s article – there’s a lot more in there about identifying the scientific rigor of the paper which I chose not to deal with here.
Coming at this topic from a dual background, and particularly as a poet, I thought I’d share with you my method for reading scientific papers:

  • Making the paper a found poemfound poetry is poetry that was ‘discovered’ or ‘uncovered’ from another source. To familiarize myself with the language and very general ideas of the paper, the first time I read through, I pull out beautiful words and write them into a notebook for the potential to make a found poem later. This allows me to peruse the poem with no scientific understanding in mind, to get used to the writing style and to look up any words I don’t understand without being too frustrated to apply that definition.

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    My word bank for the article ‘Mushroom Body Volumes and Visual Interneurons in Ants: Comparison between Sexes and Castes’
  • Highlight, make notes, find the stories – The next time I read, I take notes on the paper itself through highlighting and comments/definitions in the margins. I also use symbols to tie together a particular ‘story’ of the experiment – often, a study worked towards several different goals and the symbol notation lets me follow just one goal at a time.
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    My notebook for found science poetry… every writer has to have their tools!

    So if the paper is answering three questions, I mark each paragraph with the relevant one to three symbols, allowing me to read just to understand one of those three questions. This also makes sure I understand what the questions actually are that the paper is addressing.

In the end, the real trick seems to be time – you must spend time with the paper in whatever way works for you, be it found poetry or note taking or reading it fifteen times until it makes sense.

Do you have to read academic work – scientific or otherwise? Do you have tips or tricks for getting through your reading with your sanity intact? Share them in the comments below!

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Five Tools for Writers and Scientists

The commonalities between what I do as a scientist and writer are so omnipresent it’s astounding. For two fields that are ‘so different’, there is so much overlap. Recently, I was talking to my Uncle about a note-taking app called ‘Evernote’, something new I’ve added to my arsenal of tools to help me stay organized with all my various research, and I realized I was using it for both science and writing purposes. So behold, a list of five free applications you should know about whether you’re a scientist or a writer, to help you achieve all your goals!

Habitica: Motivation and Organization, but actually Fun

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*Not this kind of pet

I recommend this app for everyone, everywhere. You can do pretty much everything on the app for free and the PC and phone versions are both easy to use.

Habitica is an organize-your-life, motivate-yourself tool that helps you make goals, form good habits, and get things done. The tool is actually set up as a game – you become a fully customizable character that can go on quests with other players to defeat mythical beasts, earn coins to buy cool armor, and feed/hatch/collect pets*. You lose health when you don’t do your dailies and gain experience (to level up!) and gold when you complete tasks.

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Why yes, I am a blue teddy bear wield dual hooks riding a bee wearing garden armor with a phoenix pet. Is there something wrong with that?

The Dailies tab lets you set up things you want to do every day (though you can customize these to appear only certain days of the week). The To-Do section allows you to set up a list of tasks to be accomplished. The Habits section allows you to change small habits you do each day (Take the stairs? give yourself some points! The elevator? Lose some health).

As a writer, I use this to set a daily ‘write something’ reward and use the to-do section to set smaller research/community building goals. As a scientist, I use the to-do section to reward myself for completing work in the lab or remind myself to finish various assignments, order supplies, etc. It allows you to break down your life into small, simple goals and then gain no-cost-to-you rewards for getting things done, turning your stressful life into a fun game. One of my friends once suggested using Habitica to get over impostor syndrome and feelings of failure; she put ‘fail at something’ as one of her habits!

Freedom: Free Yourself From Distractions

As a human being, I am a chronically distracted person – email and social media are by far the worst of my distractions. With Freedom, not so! Freedom allows you to block certain websites for an amount of time you set (minutes to hours). When you try to access that website, you get one of those funny ‘not able to access the server’ messages and are reminded, sheepishly, that you should be working on something else instead.

Freedom also blocks apps, so don’t forget to put it on your phone to block Candy Crush from ruining your productivity.

Pacemaker: Set Personalized Writing Goals

Lichelle Slater, an author-friend of mine for almost ten years, recommended this one to me and boy am I grateful!

Pacemaker is the perfect website for a scientist working on a dissertation or potential publication or a writer trying desperately to scratch out a novel/writing routine. The website allows you to create a personalized writing plan based on the amount of work you want to finish (words, lines, worksheets, pages, etc are all options for measuring your completed work!) and the date you want to complete it by. Using these variables, it pops out a number of words/lines/pages/etc that you’ll need to finish each day to make your goal on time; you can then add your progress each day and it will adjust future days accordingly.

strategyBut what really makes this website great is that you can customize it so heavily; for instance, I have it set to ‘light’ writing on Friday (because I have class) and no writing on Tuesday (same reason). You can also have it give you a heavier workload on weekends/weekdays and reserve free days for you at the end… just in case. It also allows you to pick a writing strategy (see photo) so you can best plan out your writing needs. I have mine on Valley so that I can write less when grad school is most intense.

All in all, it’s a great tool for planning out any longer work of writing by turning it into small, achievable goals that you master day by day, according to the constraints of your own schedule.

Mendeley: Organize Your PDF Research

Oh Mendeley, how I love you. Before Mendeley I would download 600 PDFs and hope that my personal labeling system would work and that I would be able to find the paper if I needed it again. While folders upon folders are great, and headache-inducing computer searches are also lovely, Mendeley is a far better way to go. I know scientists generally download more PDFs than writers, but don’t worry writer-friends, I have a tool for you too, below!

Mendeley

Mendeley inputs all the details of your papers automatically upon downloading them and very rarely glitches. You can set keywords for each article so that when you search Mendeley by those words, the articles you tagged will pop up (instead of needing to search 300 different folders on your computer). You can also use a traditional folder structure for them, within Mendeley, but because it’s all in Mendeley it’s still easy to search the whole collection by author, title, etc. Also, because Mendeley is all synced up with your online account, moving all your research from one computer to another is a breeze! You simply log in on the new computer and Mendeley downloads all your files! No more lost research for you.

As I mentioned before, Mendeley inputs author, title, publication, and year as the PDF downloads, which leads to the best part of the whole application (besides the sweet relief of always finding every article you need). But the best part (for research articles) is that Mendeley will automatically do the citations for you (yes, you heard me write. That 200 page works cited can be done with a click of a mouse) making storing them in Mendeley and not on your desktop worth your while.

Evernote: Better Organize Your OTHER Research

Evernote does everything – you can make to do lists, organize receipts and bills, take notes, organize documents, set reminders, and (my favorite function) ‘clip’ and attach different things from the web so it’s all in one place. Gone are the days of 3000 bookmarks where you search tiny, 9 pt font in 500 different folders for the one link you need. I’m pretty new to Evernote, but so far I’ve found it easy to use and easy to find what I’ve clipped. Because it has a little ‘clip’ button that goes on your bookmark bar, it can clip things for you with just one click! Plus, just like Mendeley, this syncs to all your different devices so you’re never without an important link, document, or list while on the go or switching to a new computer.

I hope these tools help you organize, motivate, plan, and achieve goals! If you really like one in particular (me with Habitica) consider throwing a subscription in the bag; while it might not give you too many additional features, it’s important to support our developers – they’re hardworking, creative people too!

 

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Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

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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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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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Shame and Publications

One of the alumna of my undergraduate institution, Katherine Fusco, recently wrote a post I’d like to highlight: So, I’ve Been Publicly Shamed: On Writing and Resilience. As with all posts that I write about the works of others, I recommend you read the original piece first to better understand and engage with my post.

Fusco graduated from Geneseo in 2003, long before I began attending, and went on to earn her M.A. and PhD from Vanderbilt. She has numerous publications, teaches courses at the University of Nevada, and holds the Crowley Distinguished Professorship in Core Humanities. She is an excellent role model for a younger alumna like myself, just beginning her journey towards a PhD and a writing career. Recently, Fusco was publicly mocked online for her academic work in the field of film studies.

Fusco’s article is well worth a read, crossing the STEM-Humanities divide to speak to every person who publishes work as part of their career. Fusco was mocked on Twitter, where an account I won’t name (so as not to give them attention) posted a photograph of the abstract of an academic article she wrote with the caption, “When you’re not all too bright but the salary’s better in academia than Starbucks.” Fusco speaks of old feelings of fear resurfacing as the Twitterverse began to retweet and engage – fear that she was not good enough (as an academic, a writer, a thinker), fear that her coworkers were all laughing at her, fear that her public college undergraduate education was a stain on her reputation in the often-classist structure of academia.

Fusco’s work is just one of many to be mocked; much of the ridiculed work relates to women’s issues, feminism, or is simply written by women (leaving those mocking them to distribute their picture and comment on their appearance, as Fusco notes happened to her). We could derail into a feminist dialogue here (albeit an important conversation to have), but I’d rather stay focused on something else: As writers/researchers, whether we publish academic work or creative work, we must become prepared to deal with the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that will come up when we, and our work, are mocked online. Gone are the days when a scientist’s work and the critique of their work were largely separated from them as a person.

As a young writer, I worry that I don’t have the resilience Fusco displays – that I don’t have the maturity, sense of self, and career behind me to overcome being mocked. I hardly have the presence of self to send out work for potential publication or share my poetry with my writing group. In undergrad English courses we talked a lot about how to be resilient in the face of rejection by academic or literary journals, but not at all about how to overcome the feelings associated with being actively harassed for our work. When writers are not able to overcome these feelings of fear, anger, and shame when other ridicule or mock them for their publications, we lose valuable, communal knowledge, stories, truths, etc. as those writers/scientists stop pursuing certain lines of work or publishing.

It’s ridiculous to assume that we can stop online trolls but shouldn’t we better prepare our young writers/researchers to deal with often personal harassment and ridicule? If yes, how do we prepare them? Fusco offers some advice, as a scholar and teacher, to others who find themselves mocked, saying:

  1. Writing something better would not have mattered.
  2. Your work is not you.
  3. Some people wish you would just shut up and go away.

It’s important we teach young scholars and writers these principles (among others like: don’t feed the trolls) to prepare them for ‘peer review’ not by literary or academic publications but by the masses that often engage in ‘intellectual crusades’ against those that offer alternate views, lifestyles, etc. As our work and our selves become more intertwined with the ever-increasing net the internet casts, we must prepare the next generation of writers/researchers to deal with all kinds of critics, and to know which ones to ignore. We must teach this generation how to heal when ridiculed, how to respond, how to be resilient like Fusco works hard to be. Otherwise, we run the risk of having many writers shut up and go away, letting the trolls win to the detriment of society as a whole.

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