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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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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