Defense Date?

It’s weird to be at this point when I’m considering being done with my PhD.  I feel like the last five years I’ve never had a hard deadline to meet.  I didn’t have x number of classes to finish or exams to complete.  I just needed to get my research to a point where I know how to think about the problem and come up with a solution (and then publish that solution, finding, etc.).

But suddenly, I have a deadline; I have a date (ish).  And it’s all very overwhelming, but exciting.  I’m both relieved and a bit sad.  Because what am I going to do now?

I don’t have an answer, but the ideas thrown around seem to all contain one thing in common.  Writing.  I guess I have a creative side that desires something more than just hard science.

So I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with different science writers and communicators trying to figure out what I’m passionate about.  I go to networking coffee events.  I’ve even got a science writing workshop lined up this month.

And what I’ve realized is that there is a real need for scientists to communicate with other scientists.  Science is becoming very interdisciplinary.  Often, a biologist and a physicist need to communicate, but they speak different scientific languages.  So how do they communicate?  How do they understand papers from the other field?

But even bigger than that is how do scientists communicate with the general public?  How do we turn the black box of scientific research into an accessible, tangible reality for non-scientists?  That is an important question that I’m not qualified to answer, but I’d like to look into it more.

So here I am (almost) at the end of one road attempting to figure out the next one to turn on.  I’ll be spending lots of time in prayer and reflection, listening and hoping for God’s voice to point me somewhere.  Until then, I could use some prayers for good data, the end of writer’s block, and confidence 🙂

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Evernote (i.e. the best thing for a busy working mama)

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If you haven’t been introduced to Evernote, then consider yourself lacking.  I LOVE Evernote!

It has saved my sanity as a working mom, a scientist, and even a faithful Catholic.

I follow TSW (The Secret Weapon) as my approach to making Evernote work for me (i.e. better productivity).  But I mainly love Evernote because everything (everything!) ends up in the same place – all of my thoughts, notes, sticky notes, tasks, blog posts, to do’s, etc. You name it, it can be there.

Now, it is digital… But for those that love the pen and paper (I mean, BIS Lenten Journal, FTW), there’s still a way to get it into Evernote.  And then it’s there… FOREVER.  I hate dealing with clutter.  To the extent that I just make piles of clutter because I don’t want to deal with it.  Ask RJ, he’ll tell you the truth about my inability to throw paper away (For real, going through the mail truly tests our marriage).  But with Evernote, I can shred the paper copy after I’ve snapped a quick photo and saved it.  Takes less than 30 seconds.  Maybe 15 if you’re fast with technology.  Or if you have the Evernote quick note add-on on your phone:

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You can make it easy to add a note on your phone…

But I digress from the main point about Evernote.  It has truly changed my life, and how I approach a To Do list nowadays.  When you have a million things to think about, and those million things can be separated into some categorization (work, home, errands, etc.), then you can further prioritize them using Evernote.  This serves two purposes: (1) To help you prioritize, and (2) To declutter your brain.  Because let’s be real.  As women, having a spaghetti brain is hard.  You think about one thing, then you remember another thing, then that reminds you of something else, until you realize that you forgot to bring diapers to daycare.  Hopefully your child hasn’t sat in a dirty diaper all day…

But with Evernote, I can make a separate note of everything that comes to my mind and prioritize it in that moment.  Bringing diapers to daycare is a Now task, but looking into flights for my cousin’s wedding next fall is a Later task.  I can get it out of my brain, onto “paper,” and then forget about it until it pops up in Evernote.  And as a mom, operating on little sleep sometimes, it has saved my sanity, memory, and productivity.

As a scientist, I use it in a more sophisticated way.  (But it’s the same system, so I don’t have to switch at work and home – if I think about something work-related at home, I can just make a quick note, and vice versa)!  I can use it to archive journal articles I’ve read, which includes my annotations, summary, and notes all in one file.  I can use it as a virtual lab notebook for data analysis.  I can use it to save files that people send me via email during the day.  I can declutter my inbox with it.  I can take notes in it (or take pictures of my digital notes).  I can keep track of my orders with it.  I can plan my experiments in it.

I could keep going, but I won’t bore you with all the awesome things you can do with Evernote.  You’ll need to explore it yourself, and make it work for you.

That’s one of the best things about it.  It’s customizable.  You can tag things the way you want.  You can make different notebooks for different projects.  You can keep everything organized like a virtual filing cabinet.  But you make the rules.  You make it work for you.

And for my faith-based life, well, I’ve been playing with bullet journaling on Evernote.  I keep track on a calendar of which devotionals I do each day.  I keep my notes on devotionals or email videos in a single notebook.  I save the BIS devotionals that truly speak to me (Did I mention how easy it is to “clip” an email?  Just press a button.).  I back-up my NFP chart here.  I save the things that inspire me.

And since I can type faster than I can write, I can capture a lot more of my thoughts.  I can get a lot more out of listening to a Dynamic Catholic video.  I can look at things that spoke to me in the past when I’m struggling with my anxiety.

And if I write it down, as I do in the morning, then I can just snap a quick picture and save it for later.  No big deal.  Maybe I read something in the Magnificat that speaks to me – snap a picture and read it throughout the day on my phone.

It truly helps organize my life into one app that I can access anywhere.

And it’s free.  You can upgrade to fancier versions, but even the basic version has so much potential.  I’m not getting anything from singing Evernote’s praises in this blog.  I just love it so much that I want you to know how much it works for me.  Because we could always get more done, but we can only remember so much and do so many things in a day.  So reserve some of your brain power for prayer, and let it all go in Evernote.

They say that women aren’t able to think about nothing.  We don’t have a “nothing” box that we can retreat into.  Well, Evernote is helping me get closer to that.  I have less to think about, less to remember, and more time to focus on the tasks at hand.  Even if it is bringing diapers to daycare…

Biophysics in the Big Easy

Ah, some science.  Finally.

I really needed something to rekindle my passion for science (I know, the story of my life and blog…).  This trip truly did it, though I was a tad lonely through it all.

I’ve never been to New Orleans, so why not go during a large science conference a few weeks before Mardi Gras?  (Note: Mardi Gras begins in January here. Did not know that.)

This was the longest I’ve been away from Lily, and it was much harder for me than I had anticipated.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed sleeping through the night and time by myself (introvert, remember?), but I missed her.  I missed her smiles and hugs, and I missed her beautiful voice.  I felt like I was missing a milestone or two.

But the whole trip was important for my science and career.  I’ll never say never with regards to becoming a SAHM, but I know how much I love science, and how much I crave being able to use the gift of science that God gave me.  So for the time being, I’m pursuing science.

The best part about the Biophysical Society is how focused they are on career development.  I LOVE that.  You can often get lost in these conferences in the scientific talks, and somehow be persuaded that only academic jobs are available.  Not at this conference.  I learned about how to brand myself, change my resume for non-academic jobs, and how marketable my skills actually are (NMR for the win!!!).  I truly focused on career development during this conference, and I’m so glad I did because I’m feeling more motivated to pursue a non-academic career.

But the science … it wasn’t spectacular.  But the conversations were.  And that’s truly what science is all about.  Let me be honest for a moment.  I hate networking and talking to random strangers.  It’s awkward and uncomfortable.  I imagine introducing myself to someone, feeling awkward, and getting rejected – much like how I imagine speed dating.  (There was a speed-networking event at the conference, which I proceeded to skip…).  But I was determined to get out of my comfort zone.  So I introduced myself to some speakers, had a conversation, engaged in the poster session…

And I met people…

I met the the guy who LOVES my paper from the NIH (!!!!).

I met our collaborator who wants to be involved.

I met the scientist that challenged everything I had done, and I defended it, gracefully.

I met my PI’s colleague from graduate school without needing an introduction.

I actually networked without it being “networking.” That was the best part.  The science was meh.  But the people were great.

I also got some “me” time in.  A massage and facial.  A walk along the riverfront.  Dinners with fresh seafood and good cocktails.  Yes, please, and thank you, New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

Why we sometimes need a retreat…

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I’ve been pretty MIA on the blog front these days, so I’m sorry for those of you who keep checking up on me.

I just returned from the Biochemistry Departmental retreat with a big desire to write again, so here it goes.

Everyone needs a retreat.  What type of retreat might vary for each of us, but we all need one.  And then we need a retreat from our retreat. (Very much analogous to a vacation from your vacation, if you’re familiar.)

I just spent a single, exhausting night up in the mountains with a bunch of scientists.  My science brain was on the whole time.  So I feel tired, but oddly invigorated.  Perhaps it was listening to my advisor present my research in such a way that I was actually proud of the work I had done.  Perhaps it’s because I like solving problems.  But I think it really reminded me about how much I love science.  And I got the chance to feel those emotions again, without the pressure of research and career goals.

And as I was driving back with my thoughts, I cannot remember the last time I went on a personal retreat for my own faith.  Because sometimes it’s hard in this world to remember how much God loves us.  To actually feel His love.

And then I returned from the retreat to my usual day-to-day life – a one-year-old that won’t nap, work obligations, house cleaning, etc.  I realized that I wanted time to reflect on the retreat.  I wanted time to think about what I took away from it, what I learned, and how that will change my career directions.  But I didn’t have the time or the lifestyle for that.  So you’ll have to wait on that blog post.

How often does that happen?  We return from a retreat (or adoration, an awesome homily, workshop, talk, or whatever) with renewed desires, only to have our normal life take over.  The grand goals and emotions we had during the retreat take a back seat to our primary worldly obligations.  And it gets pushed aside.  The handouts that you were going to reread and reflect on end up in the pile of junk mail before getting recycled.  It becomes an afterthought.  Then it’s forgotten.

So how do we remember (or not forget)?

We go on another retreat.  We experience it again.  And again.  And again.

Until perhaps, we can recall the emotions of the retreat for moments during our lives.  At 3am, when a teething baby just won’t sleep, we can recall the utter peace we feel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  When another experiment fails yet again, we can remember why we love science to begin with.

And if we don’t have that, it’s easy to get discouraged.  It’s easy to forget.

So we all need a bit of a retreat sometimes.  Maybe it’s just a few minutes for some people, maybe it’s a whole weekend for others.  But we should all find the time to feel renewed and reinvigorated.  Until the next retreat.

Summertime Research

It’s the end of the summer… in academia, at least.  The new fall semester begins today, and with it, return the undergraduate students and the flurry of faculty back from their summer schedules.

Summer is supposed to be the time that we focus on our research and make great strides toward publishing our data.  [I’m rolling my eyes just writing this…]

Let’s just say that this summer hasn’t been up to par.

The research has been in a slump, and with our technician leaving at the end of June, I’ve been swamped with trying to stay on top of the preps that need to happen.

Plus, it’s summer!  And I’m much more interested in taking Lily swimming than being stuck in a lab.  (I know, I definitely don’t have what it takes to be in academia.)

But I’d appreciate some prayers that this Fall proves much more productive.  Because I’m going to be a 5th year!  Yep, you heard that right. I’m officially old when it comes to graduate students.  So I really need to churn out some data because mama needs another paper before she can even consider graduating.

UPDATE: Perhaps the summer has been more productive than I thought.  My paper has FINALLY been accepted.  We’ve only been working on it since before Lily was born…

Stress Resistant PhD

This may just be a rant from a young female graduate student because an older male professor made a statement about who should be “qualified” to get a PhD.  You’ve been warned appropriately.

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During a panel on the issues in graduate education, I believe the statement was along the lines of “The goal of a PhD is to teach students to be stress resistant. Students who excel in their programs can work 17-20 hours, and still keep going.”

What?

If that’s the “goal” of a PhD program, then forget it.  I agreed with the other goals – problem-solving, critical thinking, learning how to communicate effectively.  But becoming “stress resistant?”

First of all, what does that even mean?  Should I stop being human while I’m at it?  Have no emotions whatsoever?  Handle everything that comes at me flawlessly?

Getting a PhD has predominantly been about failure for me (which I’m told is normal).  So yeah, I get stressed often.  I get emotional often, which may or may not have to do with the postpartum hormones (not to mention the depression and anxiety).  I’ve even sobbed in my advisor’s office for a good hour (before I was even pregnant, so I can’t even blame the hormones on that one).  So if I’m supposed to be learning how to be “stress resistant,” I missed that class.  Forget that many graduate students have some degree of mental health issues.  Perhaps we should support the students better rather than presume that only the ones capable of handling stress will survive.

Second, apparently, to excel in my PhD, I need have the energy to work 17-20 hours and keep going.  I should apparently be breathing and sleeping science.  And of course, I should be dreaming about my project ALL THE TIME.  Because no one has ever heard of having a life outside of graduate school, much less a family.

End of rant.

Now for some more positive points…

I don’t believe that this professor meant that students with mental health issues shouldn’t pursue a PhD.  But his comments echo the sentiment surrounding academia – the idea that if you are struggling emotionally you don’t have what it takes to be in this field.  Because to be in academia, you have to be hardcore and assertive.  You can’t be emotional and show your struggles.

And this is exactly why women are driven away from academia and science.  Not that men don’t have these issues as well, but I can only speak as a woman in the academic setting.  We, as women, are in tune with our emotions, and they spill into everything we do.    It’s hard for me to split what’s happening with me emotionally with the rigors and stress of the day-to-day.

The lack of mental health support is not surprising, but with the increase of graduate students that struggle with this, you would think that we would try to solve the problem (after all, we are scientists), rather than tell students they need to learn to be stress resistant.  Let’s give them some resources at least.

You definitely need some amount of thick skin to get through a PhD.  You are faced with criticism and failure constantly.  But claiming that the answer is to throw yourself into your research to the tune of 17-20 hours per day is counterproductive.  Taking care of myself first, my family second, then focusing on my research has made for a much more productive researcher.  The reason being that I have the mental space to focus on research when I know that I’ve given to myself and to my family.  I don’t spend my time at work worrying about my daughter or worrying about my constant hunger.  I spend my time focused on the task at hand.

So I don’t think I’ll come out of my PhD stress resistant.  But I’ll at least be confident that I’ve given the most important things in my life the time they deserve.

 

God, Graduate School, and Ultimatums

I struggle (as I expect most people do) with waiting for God’s plan. It’s very hard for me to be at peace with the way things are. I’m consistently trying to focus on the next thing, and plan for the next next thing.

So when God left me waiting, I fought back hard. I would cry, begging for something to change. I would sit in anger because I believed I knew better. I would often wonder if He was listening. I even gave ultimatums.

One such ultimatum dealt with my plans for continuing graduate school. My frustrating situation (of being an overwhelmed 4th year graduate student) coupled with my anxiety and depression has left me bewildered about God’s plan for me. Is completing this PhD really what He wants for me? So I laid down an ultimatum.

If I end up needing to teach, I’m done.

It sounds strange because I actually really enjoy teaching, but the workload would be significant. Piling teaching responsibilities on top of research on top of juggling an infant – no fun, high anxiety. The clock was ticking as my funding was limited after this upcoming fall semester. More than likely, I would need to teach in the spring. And with our lab technician leaving, I was taking on even more responsibilities.

I didn’t really think that God would answer my ultimatum. It’s petty and childish of me. I imagine He watches me in the same way I watch Lily when she’s overtired and can’t decide if she’s happy or fussy. He knows better than I do, but I still fight it.

Oddly enough, He responded in a BIG way. Because my advisor called me into his office today to tell me that the biggest grant that we had applied for had been funded. It wasn’t just a small grant to get us through a year; it was five years of funding with the ability to renew. It was a grant where the odds were not in our favor (because we’re a new lab with minimal publication record). So I know that God has a hand in this because I am still in shock.

I also know that God had a hand in it because the first words out of my advisor’s mouth were “So you don’t have to teach ever.” I was floored with those words. I could hear God’s voice, saying, “I have a plan – trust me.”

So I’m giving up the ultimatums to God because He’s been really making things happen for me this month. In really big and unexpected ways.