In my shoes: Managing the summer student influx in the laboratory #academia

As a post-doc, I don’t really have any of the administrative responsibilities that my mentors and colleagues that are PIs have. In general, my responsibilities include: 1) showing up for work; 2) completing project(s) sponsored by my PI’s grants (who, at least originally, was paying my stipend); and 3) publish, publish, publish. Occasionally, a post-doc is privileged with having their own funding and, potentially, more flexibility on what projects to pursue, but the end game is still: Get work done + Get it peer reviewed and published = successful.

This equation doesn’t always include the denominator of advising or mentoring other trainees. But, I’d be lying if I said that we can do it all by ourselves- or that we should even try. We need to ask ourselves: Why are we here? What is it we want from this profession? At it’s most basic level, our job as academics is to educate, whether that means educating students in the classroom, educating our peers on our research findings, or educating the public in outreach, policy, and open discourse. We are responsible for making improvements, especially intellectually. One of the ways post-docs can educate others is in the lab, with undergraduates or graduate students, with adequate training, time, research, and reinforcement of the scientific method. Think of it as a sort of “good for the realm” type approach (if you catch my Game of Thronesian reference there). What you put in, you hope to get out, and you want the next generation to be as good or better than you.

Plus, delegating responsibilities, and asking for help, can help kick-start new projects or just help knock down the mountains of work you have to do (so, it’s not a totally selfless thing after all). Assuming the help is reliable, you can certainly make great headway in your own independent approach to research- apart from your advisor- which makes getting a job after postdoctopia slightly more likely. Hello, senior author-dom!

So, the purpose of this post -which will be the first of many this summer- is to help guide young mentors (like myself) when the influx of eager and, likely, somewhat under-experienced help that has entered blazingly into the laboratory for the next few months.

Here’s a few tips that can help establish a training infrastructure for the albeit short and intense summer research session currently underway:

1. Set up regular training workshops.

When there’s one or two mentees fluttering about the laboratory, it’s usually feasible to provide one-on-one training/shadowing. That being said, there are a lot of things that newbie mentees don’t inherently know about work in the lab. And, if you have three or four trainees, you might want to gouge your eyes out after repeating that it is not ok to wear sandals in the wet lab for the seventh or eighth time. So, this summer, I started a bi-weekly training course for undergraduates and new graduate students to guide them, as a group, into what more senior academes might consider basic research know-hows. The training sessions include:

a) How to be a good lab-mate — in other words, how to keep a good notebook so that someone else can read what you spent your summer doing and repeat it, if necessary (and, it will probably be necessary). This session also includes basic lab safety stuff, like the aforementioned sandals rule and food/drink in lab, plus where you can get stuff if you need it (i.e., Where can I buy DMEM? Where can I park my bike?)

b) The literature review and managing citations — because writing for research is an entirely different animal than writing for rhetoric. This session includes a basic how-to-read-a-peer-reviewed-article, how to find said paper (i.e., picking the right key words for your research), and gives advice on how to manage references. Specifically, what are reference managers (like Mendeley and Endnote) and how can they make your life easier? This is also a brief intro to reading peer reviewed papers without stabbing your eyes out. Start with the title, abstract, and figures. If it warrants your attention, delve deeper. Know what criteria to set for triage of papers.

c) Academic writing and publishing — There comes a time when all the work you are doing is coming to an end, and you need to share what you’ve done with the general public. Or, at least, your mentor. Academic writing is a lot different than writing for, say, English composition. Write brief, concise, and clear. Make outlines first, and expand. Each word you use must have value; there’s not any room for “fluff” or filler.

d) Presenting your research to your peers — One of the most challenging things I still deal with as an academic is presenting in front of my peers. There’s just something so nerve-wrecking about it. You’d think that I train for running so that I don’t have a heart attack while presenting, because my heart-rate gets up to 170bpm before I stand behind the podium. I am not joking. Now, I’m not saying this to make all my mentees nervous; far from it. I think I would have been better served had I had more opportunities to present in front of people, had I been put on the stage, so to speak, repeatedly and often. This training workshop is probably the most beneficial of all the sessions, because whether or not your mentee(s) go on into academia, being able to present and discuss with others your aims and accomplishments is an incredibly important, and often under-trained, skill. In this session, students learn a few tips, but are also responsible for sharing, in five minutes or less, their summer research to an audience of their peers.

2. Make task lists and stay up-to-date with your mentee’s accomplishments.

It’s hard to make time, especially as a trainee yourself, for someone else’s training. But it’s crucial and it’s what we are here to do. By assigning my mentees’ to completing weekly “to-do” lists, as well as “accomplishments” lists, I am able to get feedback from them as well as give feedback to where they should be spending more or less of their time.

3. Be a reliable mentor.

Your mentee isn’t there to provide you with free labor. In return for good data, you need to provide good mentorship. That means being a reliable mentor.  Whether it’s simply showing up on time or being thorough in training your mentee a new technique, it is imperative that they are getting the most they can from your relationship. You are an educator, after all. Be accessible by email, by phone, by Google-Hangout. Don’t let them get lost in a pile of papers. Check in regularly with your mentees to make sure they’re questions are answered, and encourage them to ask questions. As a great mentor and friend of mine said at happy hour on Friday: “When you’re younger, the smart kids don’t ask questions. As you get older, the smart kids are the ones always asking questions.” 

Any other tips or tricks for dealing with facilitating productivity of summer students in the lab?

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Virtual long run- Two- #longrun #academia #runchat #oiselleteam

If we were on a long run today, I’d fill you in on the last few weeks of life. This probably won’t be too long of a long run (maybe 1.5hrs? 10miles? What do we feel like doing?) because I ran at a rate that was inversely proportional to the rate at which I consumed cheese and meat over the holidays. Like most everyone out there, December seemed like a whirlwind of events, too, and I didn’t get in all the awesome workouts and training and things I had planned. But really, it wasn’t too crazy. I ran a trail race in 8 inches of snow, I finished my first semester of teaching college sophomores, I applied for a few jobs, I traveled to Michigan for Christmas. I could probably write the “12 days of fall semester ending” song: There was 1 white elephant gift exchange, two Secret Santas, three holiday parties, four students that liked me as an instructor (if I am being optimistic), five reference letters requested, six CV updates, seven lunches and luncheons, eight dinners, nine cookies, make that ten cookies… ok fine, 12 cookies. All long runs should have some singing, right? Anyway, I digress.

If we were on a long run today, I’d tell you how relieved I am to have finished my first semester as a lecturer in engineering. Teaching was tough; it required a lot more time than I thought it would (and I went in expecting to put in more time than most college profs given that I’d never taught an entire class before), it required a lot more effort, and a lot more emotional restraint. It was both humbling and rewarding, and I am excited to teach again knowing what I know now. I didn’t expect or anticipate all the questions I was asked throughout the semester, but as we chugged along, I found my stride. It was a steep learning curve, but I definitely know what approaches to take, and what not to take, in the future when I teach again. That is, if anyone hires me… (more on that later). Have you ever taught a class? A lecture? Have you had any teachers or professors that stood out as ones you liked or didn’t like? What about them made them a good or a bad instructor?

If we were on a long run today, I’d tell you that I have officially started the tenure track (TT) faculty search. In fact, this would probably take up the whole run, so maybe I will save the majority of it for a different post. I will say, however, that this is yet another thing about academia that is not as easy as one might expect (and requires a lot more time than I thought it would). Get a fellowship, they said. It will make you a “hotter” candidate, they said. What I have gathered, in my immature and rather short experience of TT-applying thus far, is that I’m not entirely convinced that the search committees always care that much about that kind of stuff. Cool, you have funding. So does everyone else applying for TT jobs right now (or so it seems).  Nonetheless, I’m on pins and needles waiting… waiting… waiting. Because even if you submit an application on Tuesday, you want (you really, really want) some sort of “cool, thanks for applying” point of contact from a real person, not an automated email, with some sort of “you’re just what we’re looking for!” or, at least, “nah, you’re not that cool” feedback. Because, even though you really want to be that cool, you also don’t like waiting. As I’ve been told, the first round of applications for TT positions tends to be a crapshoot, (or rather in academia) “a learning experience,” and yet another way to develop thicker skin. Also, it’s a way of finding out that the search committees just aren’t that into you, as one might say. And lastly, I will tell you that the TT application process in and of itself is a lot like trying to date someone you’ve had a crush on for a while; the nervous butterflies after you put yourself out there, the checking your phone/email all the time to see if you missed a message or call, the constant sinking “oh shit” feeling that you messed something up (grammatically, of course). Oy. I haven’t dated in a while. Remember when we used to chat about dating on our long runs?

If we were on a long run today, I’d laugh at the analogies we make now that we are “older,” and obviously more mature. Seriously, there was a time when we ran for hours and talked about our crazy sorority roommate and all the f^&#ing glitter in our upstairs bathroom, or our crazy office mate who didn’t use headphones and drove us nuts, or what freshman we could find to give us a free dorm meal. What crazy stories from college (or earlier years) do you remember that got you through long runs?

If we were on a long run today, I’d tell you about the awesome race I did a few weekends ago called the Pere Marquette Endurance Trail Run. It’s a cult race, usually selling out in the first few days that registration is open (this year it sold out in 6 hrs). Fortunately, the race director threw me on the wait list and I got in after bribing him with threats of volunteering and trail cleanup. Also, Pere Marquette is (apparently) a fairly famous area of Illinois; according to my Coffee Guy (@stringbeanPete), it’s the #2 place in the late 1960s for people to go on their honeymoon. There’s loads of bald eagles flying around, and its about an hour away from St Louis City proper. I almost ditched the race because the area got about 8 inches of snow between midnight and 6am, and the roads were in horrible condition. Fortunately, Emily agreed to drive, so we picked up Irwin and we skidded our way to the PMQT visitors center to run a 7.5mile race, in snow. It was fantastic. Lots of fun, actually kind of fast because the trail was basically paved (albeit with snow). There were some slow sections (e.g., getting behind the train of runners from waves that started ahead of me) and super fast sections (e.g., running in the powder and just flying down the hills), and I wound up in second place for women behind Emily herself. We had the speedy car, apparently. Has there ever been a race that you almost didn’t show up to the start line for that was an absolute freakin’ blast to race?

The drive up.

I like running down hills, too. Photo by James Hooton

I like running down hills, too. Photo by James Hooton

So much pretty snow. Photo by Joann Fricke

So much pretty snow. Photo by Joann Fricke

SuperKate. Photo by Jim Hooton

SuperKate. Photo by Jim Hooton

The line of people.

The line of people. Photo by Joann Fricke

If we were on a long run today, I’d make a plan to have a long run again on Saturday or Sunday, because it’s 2014 now and it’s time to get back at it. Let’s think about what races we want to do this year, and chat about it in a few days, yeah?

Virtual long run – One – #longrun

A very good friend of mine has maintained a rolling blog series that she calls “Sunday afternoon virtual coffee date,” where she recaps her exciting news as if she were chatting with me (one of her many beloved readers) in real life. Jenn and I used to hang out at Rockford Coffee, or The Daily, when we were both in graduate school at Montana State. We’d talk for hours, plan our next adventure, or just study together and randomly interject with crazy twenty-something gossip. Then, very abruptly (or at least, it felt that way), we graduated and moved away from Montana. Since then, over six years has passed, and we continue to keep in touch through random visits, email, and of course- our blogs. Her coffee date posts have been a fun way for me to touch base and stay in tune with her life happenings over this past year, even if we don’t email or chat on the phone for months. And it’s been a godsend, given her crazy travel schedule over the last nine months (interviewing, moving back to Montana, traveling, adventuring, etc.).

For some reason, it has taken me nearly as long to realize that this type of blog post is something I should jump in with, too. But instead of coffee dates, as I rarely find myself hanging out at coffee shops these days, I think it will take the form as a virtual long run. This rendition was also inspired by a recent Tumblr post from haute volee Oiselle runner Fast Kate on “Notes from a long run”- so here it goes.  Lace up your shoes, let’s give it a try.

If we were on a long run, I’d tell you about the wonderful food I’ve been eating as of late. It’s necessary to get back into the long runs because of all the oil, fat, and butter that goes into the meals I eat. Given Adam’s new purchase of Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home,” our dinners have transformed into some elegant comfort foods that are simple yet something I’ve never had before. He is really enjoying the pursuit of new adventures in the kitchen, and obviously I am supportive. His cooking style is evolving, and he’s really into learning new techniques and styles of cooking, and even in presentation too (we have special plates and bowls that make the meals look just about as good as they taste). Did I mention it’s really nice living with my husband? After being apart for over two years, I know that my life is just that much better when he’s around.

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If we were on a long run today, I’d groan a little about my decision to teach and do research this semester. Oh, and apply for faculty jobs. Teaching has been a lot of work, and one of the main reasons I haven’t been out on many long runs this fall. Teaching a new class, or a class for the first time, has a steep learning curve, but I feel like I am finally at the plateau where things in everyday teaching-life are more routine. I can predict questions and answer them effectively in class and out of class, compared to when the semester first started, when I didn’t know what the students didn’t know. And we can always improve, get better, do more. Teaching is rewarding, and demanding, and humbling, but I like it. I still prefer research primarily, but I think teaching provides a medium to connect with a younger generation and see if what you’re working towards in your career strikes a chord with them. Plus, it helps with articulating what you are trying to say, which is never a bad thing to practice in a scientist’s life.

If we were on a long run today, I’d ask you what you think of the GoldieBlox campaign for girls’ toys targeting design and engineering. The campaign on Kickstarter is incredible. There is a Rube Goldberg machine, little girls in safety glasses singing the Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” and it’s just straight-up girl power coming from 6 year olds. On the other hand, here’s a toy that is still clinging to the pink-is-for-girls stereotype. When will there be gender neutrality? And when can we stop thinking of kids as little girls and little boys and start thinking of them as aspiring engineers? A friend of mine posted a thought-provoking commentary on this. But there’s also a big gap with where we are and where we want to be as far as gender neutrality goes. And maybe it’s ok that some girls like pink things, and only play with pink toys, and aren’t interested in LEGOs, just like it’s ok that some boys want to play with dolls and kitchen things. And maybe not every kid is going to grow up and be an engineer. Whatever. If it gets the toy, made to encourage spatial visualization and design and mechanics, into the hands of a little girl because her parents only buy her pink toys or she only likes pink toys, well- that’s one step in the right direction.

If we were on a long run today, I’d ask you what good books you’ve read lately. I’ve been engrossed in the Wheel of Time novels, and because I am a slow reader, I am only on Book 6, of 14. It’s gonna be a while. So I want to know what books to get on Audible, or your cliff notes of the next best autobiography. I have a terrible habit of starting books and not finishing them, especially when I feel like I have got everything out of them that I can.

If we were on a long run today, I’d want to start planning a run-cation for next year. Where to go? What to see? I hope to be traveling a bit in the spring for interviews, but I also want to go to a few conferences, and if a race lines up with a “work” trip, that would be cool. Part of me wants to race a marathon again, just to see where I am at endurance-wise and how I can do, but the majority of myself wants to just get fast. So, I think I’ll put off the marathon for a few more years, maybe until I put together a quick, solid half marathon. Plus, I want to jump on the track for some collegiate 5K races per my coach’s recommendation (why not?). I think it would be rad to break 19, so I might as well race a few 5Ks to increase my chances. Working with a coach has been a lot of fun and very educational, and it’s a topic that could take up a huge part of our long run discussion.

Since I haven’t been on a long run in a while, I’m going to stop here, stretch, and get ready for a feast. Happy Thanksgiving!

The parallels of passions between science and sport

Coming back from the annual Orthopaedic Research Society meeting in San Antonio, which is what many- including myself- consider the “flagship” meeting for basic orthopaedic research scientists in the world, I am feeling a bit upbeat. It feels good, which is rare for post-docs (feeling good about oneself, that is). Er, maybe that is just me. Anyway, it’s been a bit of a challenge getting my feet under me these last two years as I peruse the post-doc requirements for success and substance moving towards a career as an aspiring academe. In fact, it took me a while to connect the dots between the parallels of my former life (i.e., endurance athlete) to my current one (i.e., academic scientist). Of course, I’ve had quite a bit of overlap; I didn’t start training for marathons until the latter end of my master’s degree, and triathlons didn’t enter the picture until the midpoint of my doctorate. I’ve been a runner my entire life- well before I officially declared myself a “scientist.” Truthfully, sport and science have always been in parallel for me, but it’s never really clicked that they overlap in so many ways.

Lab

OK, I get it, saying this out loud makes me quite the jock. But what do you expect? This blog is supposed to be focused on my athletic adventures. That’s why I started blogging in the first place, and it is definitely more exciting than talking about science all the time (right?).  My own blogacity (is that a word?) sort of “fell off the wagon” when I started my post-doc, mostly because I had a big internal struggle of whether or not I should even attempt continuing to compete at an amateur elite level. And when I realized I could no longer hang at the level I was at, I got frustrated and my competitiveness pushed me to throw in the towel all-together.  Let’s be honest; to continue competing on the level I wanted to would have required a lot of sacrifices that were a bit easier to handle in grad school, such as 25hr training weeks, travel to and from races, early mornings at the pool, etc.  In grad school, I had an incredible support crew, and perhaps a bit less pressure in the lab to “do more.” As I transitioned into being a post-doc, I experienced a ton of life changes, including moving to a new city and living by myself for the first time ever (and having a long-distance relationship). I debated between traveling to races and traveling to spend time with the ones I love. And I just, frankly, had a terrible time putting all my eggs in two completely different baskets; did I want to be a great athlete, or did I want to be a great scientist?

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Anyway, in the end I decided to step back from training as a competitive athlete and focused more on training to be a competitive scientist. Seriously, what does it mean to be a competitive scientist? For non-scientists out there, I’ll have you know that there are lots of things to consider, including the ability to obtain grants and the marketability of the research one does. It was almost unknown territory, except for one thing: there are lots of parallels between both paths. To be good at either sports or science, you have to be dedicated, you have to have passion, and you have to follow your dreams, as cliche as that sounds. There are many similarities between my former life as an aspiring athlete and my current life as an aspiring scientist, and here’s a few:

  • Do it because you love it: Elite athletes are competitive in nature, otherwise what are they doing at the elite level, right? I think scientists are, too- especially those with academia as their goal. It’s easy to get caught up in the competition; racing and training can take on a whole new feel if you’re only concerned about winning and not about the stuff in between. Research is the same way. Sometimes, we reflect more on whether or not we got the last grant or all that stuff our peers are doing better than we are. This may especially be true for women in both arenas, whether athletics or academics; we often look to others to find the pitfalls we have in ourselves instead of looking within to see what good stuff we can bring to the table. There are ups and downs, good days and bad, with both athletics and research. Not every day is the best day ever… actually, most days are far from that. Sometimes, the track work ends early because you aren’t hitting your goal 400meter times. Sometimes, you put the pipettor down and throw the samples back in the freezer because your experiment is a bust. But we need to take the bad with the good even on the worst of days if we want to deliver high quality results. It’s important to understand that even on the worst days, putting in our best effort is what it takes to be successful.
  • Find the right coach for you: I’ve had many great inspirational coaches in my athletic career. The most inspiring was, in high school, when I had a running coach that was like a third parent to me. He was dedicated and enthusiastic, caring and nurturing, while being tough with a “no whiners” attitude. He’d write reports for all his athletes after every cross-country race; we’d receive a card with our mile splits and notes on how to improve, what we did right, and where to focus our efforts in the coming week of training. He was honest and straightforward, but never mean or belittling. After all, we were teenage girls, and this 60yr-old man had us under his thumb. I had, and still have, a tremendous amount of respect for this man, and he helped shape me into the focused athlete I became. Everything he taught me, I carry with me to this day. It wasn’t just in sport, it was in life things, too. His mantra, “It will feel better when the pain goes away,” is relevant in so many aspects, not just when doing 20×400 repeats. In high school, my life revolved around decision-making based on running, and it was in part because of the respect he instilled in me. The same can be said about academia. Reflecting back to high school again, I had the most amazing math and physics teacher who would go above and beyond what was necessary to see that her students really understood. She also had a tough-love mentality, and she engrained in me so many things I still carry in my brain box today.  Who we choose to guide us can play a pivotal role in the outlook we have on our future, and this is particularly relevant to who we choose as mentors during our academic training. I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors who are excited about the work they do, who are supportive and encouraging but do not placate me with false ideas of what an academic career entails. I would say that not everyone in endurance sports needs a coach… but honestly, at some time in their life or another, every successful endurance athlete has had a coach- whether it was in high school or college or along the way. Having a mentor in academia, especially at the budding stages as a graduate student/post-doc, is critical (you can’t really get a degree or complete a post-doc without having some sort of mentor/mentee relationship), and while this relationship doesn’t have to be perfect to develop a successful career trajectory, it certainly helps to have someone on your side; Just like having a great coach encourages athletic success. As I grow, I hope to always have great mentors to look up to and pass along what they’ve taught me.
  • Stand behind your results: When it comes to the “A” race, the build and the taper are both crucial for successful execution on race day. The same can be said about presenting your research. You’ve invested all this time, collecting data, analyzing, writing, performing statistics; it’s all a lot of work on the back end, but when it comes time to presenting your work at a conference or submitting it for review to a journal, well- the work has been done. The hay is in the barn. It will either be a huge success, or it won’t, but there’s nothing you can change about it now. So stand behind the work you’ve done, be confident, but also be willing to accept that there is likely someone out there in the field that can push you to do better. Don’t throw yourself a pity party at the finish line; instead, rejoice in what you’ve accomplished but also take criticisms in stride, knowing that they will make you and the work you do better in the end.
  • It’s better to be a funnel than a sieve: When planning a race season, it’s important to focus on one major race, with a few smaller races along the way for “tune ups” to help hone your skills. Aside from my body’s lack of ability to stand up to more than 2 marathons a year, I’ve found that it’s just easier to be successful in the long-course races if I don’t spread myself too thin with too much racing. In research, I think it’s important to maintain this mindset and focus what we do in the lab with what we want to do every day. Staying focused in research is an important, and sometimes overlooked, way of being successful. While writing grants is a 1-in-10-if-you’re-lucky deal (meaning, just keep churning out grant applications until one hits), and as a researcher I have to keep pushing through fellowship applications, I try to keep sight of what I want to research in the long term, staying focused in one central theme (e.g. soft tissue biomechanics) so that I can establish myself as an expert in that area. Just like in running, where training for a 5K personal best doesn’t mean you’ll try to race a marathon the weekend before, being a well-established researcher means I need to hone my skills in one area instead of dabbling in a lot of off-topic areas.
  • You have to invest time into your training if you want to improve: Some people are naturals; they pick up sport right off the bat and hit the ground running. But for those of us who are mortals, we get better with the right type and amount of training. Some of us are better suited for 5Ks and others for marathons, and we need to understand where our strengths lie, address them from the start, and focus our training around our goals. Academia is no different. While there are geniuses in our midst, we can’t all be perfect from the start.  It takes training, and practice, and patience to perfect our skills and get better. I am no where near as good as I hope to one day be, but I know that if I give up and settle, I won’t improve. So I gotta keep plugging away.
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint: I guess, in racing, this only applies if you really are training for a marathon, or an ironman, or whatever. But even still, the point is that you don’t want to blow up in the first 100 meters of a race by going like a bat out of hell off the start line. In research, especially for graduate students and post-docs, there is a susceptibility for burn-out from being over-ambitious in the first few years. I suppose this could be true for early-career faculty as well, but I can’t say for certain first hand. Working long hours is only worth it if you reap the benefits of it; if you’re hours are fruitless, or you find yourself working without purpose, then it’s a waste of time. By no means am I saying that you shouldn’t work hard; I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t work 60+hr weeks (even still) on occasion when the effort is required. When a grant is due or a paper needs to be submitted, you put in that extra effort to see that it gets done and it gets done well; there’s no room for half-assing in academia. That being said, knowing your limits not just for productivity but also just plain “will to work” is important, because it’s not at all difficult to lose sight of what’s important. And, just like in racing where it’s easy to go balls-out in the first quarter mile of the race, it’s even easier to start out at a steady pace and pick it up mid-way through. Find a groove and trudge along through the race, because it’s a long one.DSC_0007

Motivation

I am less than 9 weeks away from my first big race of the 2011 season. NINE weeks. That is not very long. To be technical about it, it’s only 60 days off. Eek. All sorts of thoughts are flooding my brain, and I’d rather not go too deep into them without wanting to crawl under my covers and stay there for the next two months.

Life has been busy, and I knew it would be. It’s not like grad school wasn’t busy, but being a post-doc in a new lab, getting up to speed with different projects and figuring things out, well- it takes its toll. And while I feel like every post I make as of late is a woe-is-me about how being an adult completely sucks (it doesn’t completely suck, by the way), that isn’t the topic of this post. Rather, my focus today is how I am trying to get through the slumps, no matter what they are, and finding that it is easier than it seems.

Slump #1: Sporadicity of weather and life (yes, I know I made that word up)

The craziness of life and the weather go hand in hand. How, you ask? Well, One day, its a gorgeous 65F and sunny, with a small breeze, and I am just itching to get outside. What will I do? Ride my bike? Go for a run? Why not both? No problem finding motivation to get outside on days like that. So I make sure I get what I need to get done before 5pm, I make sure I go to bed early so I can wake up and run or swim before work, and its all good. But when its 30F and sleeting, however… that’s a different story. Why should I get up early when I can just lay in bed a little longer? So I get to work a little later, and then I find that I don’t really want to wait at the bus stop in the pouring rain. Work late? I suggest to myself. Why not get all this work done *now* (at 8pm on a Monday evening) so that if the weather is nice later in the week, you won’t feel bad about leaving before sundown. Except, it doesn’t work like that. Just because I work late one day doesn’t mean I can just take off early later. No, you see, I have a really good habit of getting into a routine, no matter what it is. Which means, it could be good for my work productivity, or it could be good for my triathlon training. No matter what it is though (and its usually only one), once I get on a roll -say, doing histology for my projects –  well, its hard to get out of the groove. And that is not a terrible thing. Being determined is a strength, a great personality trait. But it can sometimes lead to bad lifestyle changes. Like, for example, skipping lunch because I want to get something done, but that something is going to take me 5-6 hrs to do, so I don’t actually eat lunch until 6pm (most others would call that dinner).  Anyway, these choices spiral a little out of control, and I sometimes lose sight of what I am actually trying to do. So, I have to take a step back to regain my focus.

One way I can encourage myself to make sure I find balance in work/life is by having things to look forward to. I joined a masters swim group, and I have made friends that I look forward to seeing each time I go. I bought a CycleOps JetFluid Pro trainer, and its so sleek and quiet and smooth that I want to ride my bike all the time, no matter what its like outside. With the new trainer, I have been doing some really fun indoor sessions, including some Sufferfest videos and some from my coach. I’ve also been tinkering with my bike fit, and I’m rocking a new Adamo saddle which makes me not want to get off my bike fifteen minutes after getting on. All in all, I am just really finding a connection with my bike, and I have my one-bedroom hardwood-floors and brand-new-bike trainer to thank for that.

Slump #2: MIA embarassment

I missed a week of Masters swim at the beginning of February because of my trip to Puerto Rico. That was two Saturdays (one of my favorite Masters days), one distance freestyle, and the other random don’t-think-just-swim-what-coach-says workouts that have been making me stronger and stronger in my weakest sport. Because of the vacation, I didn’t buy a month pass for Masters, which meant I didn’t feel obligated to go and get my money’s worth. As the month wore on, and I had eighteen years’ worth of work to catch up on (that is at least what it felt like once I returned from vacation), I found myself staying at work until late into the evening, going to bed later, and not finding the ignition to get up and get my butt off to swim at 430am. Then, I felt like it was too late. I haven’t swam in two whole weeks! I thought to myself. If I go now, everyone will wonder why I am so slow and why I have been skipping out. So instead of swallowing my pride, sucking it up, and just going back and proclaiming “I am a lazy piece, but I am back because I want to get better”- I just didn’t go. That was lame. So today, I bit it and threw down for a month pass, and since I am going to be on a tighter budget now, I really do have to get my money’s worth.

Slump #3: Wearing the big-girl pants

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of pressure at my new job. To be honest, my boss is amazingly cool, laid back, and seriously smart. But, I think part of the pressure comes from within. I don’t want him to be ashamed for hiring me, to think he made a bad decision. I don’t want to let him down, nor do I want to be a bad reflection of my former boss. I want to be the best at what I do, but – of course – I have the humility to know that I won’t always do a perfect job. The job I have reminds me a lot of endurance sports;  I have such a passion to fully submerse myself into the knowledge, the literature, the research. I want to absorb it all and push the limits and do something amazing. It’s been challenging to both find the time and find the mental partitioning to do that with training, too. But I think that training has always been an integral part of my success as a researcher. It helps me find my center, it keeps me from spiraling out of control down a path. It keeps my brain focused and requires me to allocate time to specific tasks instead of going off on tangents for hours on end down a dead end. And I think I’m finding that groove, the style of structuring my day so that I can do my research and still relieve stress and find strength in endurance training.

So, here’s to getting out of the winter slump, no matter what it is (raises glass of milk).

What slumps have you been dealing with lately?

Wildfire

It’s amazing how much disorder can spread. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t have any life-threatening issues or sick family members. I’m in a stable relationship, I’m happy, I love my job. But even for normal, happy, shining people, we still have our ups and downs. Sometimes, it just takes a little match to set the whole thing ablaze.

Two months ago, I started a new job. A new, incredibly awesome job. And with the new job came new responsibilities, new things to learn, new things to read, new ways to behave. I was no longer the senior lab tech, I was now a humbled post-doc in training with lots and lots to learn. It has taken me some time to find the reigns, and I am still reaching. Whenever I would start to think I had a good grip, something would happen and I slip backward a little. But I was inching more and more closely to being able to handle it…

Mind you, two weekends ago, one of my best friends got married. When she got my RSVP, she called me up and asked if I’d like to read a scripture during the ceremony. Hello?! Of course I will do that.

So, to get to the wedding on the cheap, because I am still broke beyond all means and couldn’t afford the plane tickets at the time that they were <$600, I decided I’d drive from St Louis to Minneapolis. It was a hike, so I split it up- and I pretty much had to since I had surgeries on the Friday I was planning to leave. After work, I drove to my teammie Rachelle’s house in Iowa, where she put me up and entertained me for the evening, and then in the morning, I headed the rest of the way to Bloomington for my friend’s big day.

The wedding was a blast. It was an incredible honor, and to be a part of her and her new husband’s special day was an amazing treat. She looked like a princess, and I’ve never seen a couple more happy than they were. It was an absolutely beautiful day.

That night, I stayed with another friend in the Cities on Saturday night and headed back to St Louis on Sunday morning- it was a long-ass drive back- where my calorie consumption consisted of Monster Nitrous, popcorn, and candy bars. In fact, all weekend, I ate really crappy. And in the 50hrs I was away from St Louis, 22 hours were spent in the car. Yuck.

It took me a few days to find my groove once I returned, but to put it lightly- that week back was hell. My experiments were going haywire, and I couldn’t focus. Never mind that I couldn’t find the time to get in my workouts. It was hell. I was eating like crap (peanut butter and chocolate chips do not equal a well-balanced diet). I was making excuses. I was putting things off and losing my grip on my priorities.

The weekend following that hellacious week consisted of two days of rest and recoup- where I did laundry for the first time in weeks and I was actually able to get on my bike for more than 2hrs. Once I found my groove, I was (sort of) back in the game.

This week? I had a blast. I had a lot of meetings, have been able to actually get things done in the lab, and even made it to masters swim most mornings. Granted, getting home from work at 7pm makes me want to eat dinner instead of hop on the trainer, but I am going to try harder this week to make sure I’m either a) out the door by 5 so I can run/bike or b) get it done during the day (either post-swim or as a mid-afternoon break). And, of course, I am also getting rolling on two major projects, sifting through data on two older projects, and writing a grant that is due in a few months. So, anyone else want to strike a match for me?

I don’t really reflect on “Chi” or Feng Shui much (at all), and if you walked into my apartment and you were a natural energy believer, you’d probably croak. My bike trainer is always set up, smack dab in the center of my living room, and clothes are piled all over my bedroom. My mom would have a conniption. “This is not how I raised you!” I can hear it now… but I do feel better when there is order. I do feel a sense of relief when things are put away, there is cleared counter space and clear floors. I feel better when I look at the calendar and can cross everything off, when I am organized with my projects, and when my desk has less piles of journal papers because I have already put them into their respective binders in order to find them easier later. Anyway, there is definitely a balance in life when I can get on top of the pile of stuff that I need to do and beat my chest and yell “I have conquered you!”… if only for a brief moment. I’m still climbing to the top of the pile, but I’m getting closer… I can already see the crest.

And on that note, I thought I’d share with you this video of life in academia as a grad student. It cracks me up every time I watch it!

Drive versus Desire

Desire: To wish or long for; want.

There are many, many people out there with desires and dreams. In fact, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a dream of some kind or another. Some people share their dreams with others openly, as stories by the fireplace or on long runs in the woods, while others hold their dreams tightly to their chest, not saying a peep and just carrying on in their everyday lives. Some people give up everything they know to make their dreams come true, and others just plug along, their dreams up high, working slowly day by day to get a little bit closer to realization. Some are superstitious, thinking that if they share their dreams then they won’t come true, and also so that- if they fail -they won’t be ridiculed. Others think there is some communal support in sharing one’s dreams; by putting it out there, it’s a sign of commitment. Some dreams are big, while others are just within reach. We can be close to seeing our dreams becoming reality, or we could have a long way to go.

I wouldn’t go so far to say that everyone with a dream is capable of doing what they are setting out to. No, then the idea of the dream would be – well…- reality. Some don’t even set out to tackle their dream, they just continue to dream- maybe as an escape or something to distract them from their mundane lives. Or they think: “Hey, I really want to do this” without making attempts to move that dream within reach. There’s absolutely, positively, nothing wrong with dreaming itself, whether actualized or otherwise. Dreaming can get us through a lot of really tough stuff. I dream about a lot of things that I won’t ever have my hands on, like ending world hunger and having a million dollars to give to my favorite charity (and, of course, running for Miss America). But just dreaming isn’t going to make things happen. Just having the desire for something isn’t going to make it real. Things will sometimes fall into our laps and we can be grateful and make use of those wonderful gifts, but that’s just dumb luck (hey, I’m just being honest).

No, if we really want something, if we really want to see our dreams become reality, we need something a little more. We need determination. We need drive.

Drive: To push, propel, or press onward forcibly; urge forward.

A lot of people can say that they want to do things. A lot of people can do a lot of talking. I try to not be one of those people. Granted, I don’t usually say anything aloud that I don’t strongly feel I can accomplish. And there’s a fine line between knowing what you can do and just hoping, of course. (Yet, if we only ever did what we are capable of doing at that time, then what is the point of doing anything at all?) There’s a lot of merit in hope. Hope is what drives people to see a change, to base their dreams upon. Hope is a non-tangible necessity for anyone who wants to see a change occur. But just like desire, hope itself is useless.

It’s the drive that gets your places. Just like in a car, or on the bus. It’s simple physics, really, Newton’s First Law of Motion: in order for an object to change directions- to move – a force must act upon it. Drive is that force, it’s taking that step forward, toward our goals, to see them to fruition; or to at least the attempt. The attempt itself is worth more than a million dollars for some. And there’s a difference between dreaming and driving. Dreaming is stagnant, driving is moving. And sometimes, driving takes us to places we may never have even dreamt we’d go.

When I was an undergrad, I decided to go to grad school not because I thought I wanted to be an academic or some hot-shot medical consultant. Nah, I wanted to design shoes. I thought that by going to grad school in biomechanics, I’d be in a great position to apply for a running shoe company and design the next generation of shoes. But during my first year of graduate school, something changed. I wanted to do more. Don’t get me wrong, good running shoes are an incredibly important part of my life and I am incredibly meticulous about finding the right pair. But it wasn’t enough for me. To be honest, I felt like stopping where I was at, getting a desk job somewhere (to be a CAD monkey for a running shoe company); well, I felt like that would be settling. I had more work to do.

“What kind of work?,” you ask. While I didn’t think that I could find a cure cancer nor did I think I’d invent a special pill that would end world hunger (and mind you, I still don’t), I had other types of questions more pertinent to my field of study. And I had time. I was 23, and I was curious.

Luckily for me, I applied to grad school and was offered an opportunity to do what I wanted to do: ask more questions. Granted, I had a sub-par undergrad GPA, and I had big shoes to fill. Whose shoes? I had no idea. Someone else’s, that should be there filling them- but, instead, I was. I didn’t feel like I was the type of person who should be getting their PhD. I mean, really? Me? The thought of someday, someone calling me “Doctor”- it didn’t really make sense. But I went with it. And I had the drive to succeed. I had to prove that I was worthy, right? Someone else had believed in me, that’s why they offered me the job. Now I had to step up to the plate. I’m doing the same thing now with my post-doc. I’m intimidated… definitely intimidated. There are so many smart people with so many incredible ideas and questions. So much wealth of knowledge and resources. But I am here. Somehow, they either overlooked my CV and are kicking themselves for their decision, or they believe that I, too, am capable of doing great work alongside them. I’m no longer sitting on the bench (and I’m not sure if I ever really was, especially not the lab bench- that’s a big no-no); and it’s time once again. Batter up.

I approach triathlon, and running for that matter, with the same mentality. I don’t think I ever dreamed, as a kid, of doing triathlon. And, I am not some genetically-gifted girl with a phenomenally high VO2max and loads of fast twitch muscles that can swim-bike-run her way to a podium spot at every race. But I can train hard, I can recover smart, and I can roll with the punches. I can learn a lot about my body, my physiology. I know what to eat, when to sleep, when to rest. I not only have the drive to succeed, but more strongly, I have the drive to do what I am capable of doing as best I can. And I also have the passion to see what exactly I am capable of. Sounds tricky, but it makes sense to me. I have this weird, quirky tendency to take something, like triathlon, and play with it like Play Doh. I can change it from being “just a sport”, like how many normal people see it, to being something more. It turns into a test, a challenge. To me, it’s a treasure-trove, full of dreams ripe for picking. What am I capable of today? I often ask myself. And I have no doubts, of course, that I can strike out. I can miss out big and fall flat on my face, I’ve done it before (literally). But sometimes, I can hit a home run.

Our drive is what gets us there. Where is there? I’m sure my colleague, Dr Seuss, has a book about it. It’s different for everyone. Ultimately, it’s to our goals (or closer to them anyway). It’s getting us to our potential. Our true potential, not just the potential that someone else may have outlined for us.   Drive is what we do to demonstrate we are capable, and we are passionate. Our drive is our best tool to succeed.

Speaking of drive and determination, my friend Sam has started his own initiative: To hike all four major through-hikes in the US consecutively. And right about now, he’s trucking along the North Country Trail in New York, pursuing his dreams by putting one step in front of the other. Good luck, Sam!

What is in a title?

I did it.

Friday, at noon, I stood up in front of a room full of people. Students, professors, collaborators, mentors, big-wigs, and labmates. I told my story, I disseminated what I did and why I did it. And I did so in forty minutes. I pointed at plots and Ven diagrams, showed pretty pictures, and identified to my audience the importance of my work.

Afterward, I stood in front of my committee and discussed my data, the plots, and why I chose the approaches I did. I explained how I interpreted my statistics and why I thought what I did was correct. I argued defended the work I’ve done over the last three years, five months, three weeks, and four days- and was successful. Sure, there were struggles. My ego took a few blows, but my eyes didn’t well up with tears. I held strong and stood behind the data that I took, analyzed, and interpreted. I understood its shortcomings but also emphasized on how the design of the studies and my statistics were sound.

And in the end, I came out triumphant. I successfully defended my dissertation works. After years of struggles and triumphs, I am finally done**!

**Almost. I still have to submit my final version of my dissertation to the graduate school, and get two more signatures. But I am, for all intent and purpose, done with my PhD.

Final Countdown.

It’s the final countdown.

I have one whole work day before my defense.

Eeeek!

There have been good things about this week, including a happy advisor, a helpful boyfriend, and FTD’d flowers:

And there have been frustrating things, like doing TUNEL from 10am-8pm (why did I decide to do that this week?), having a terrible rehearsal with said happy advisor, and this:

I’ve had some nightmares (including the one where I leave to head to the bar after my defense, but I’m not actually supposed to ‘leave,’ I’m just supposed to sit in the hallway and wait for my committee to make a decision). I’ve had some stress-relieving runs. I’ve even had some ice cream (that isn’t entirely unbelievable, if you have ever met me):

So, the hay is in the barn, so to speak. At least, that’s how I’d approach this if it were an Ultraman.

Now, let’s just hope that Friday doesn’t end with me doing any of these activities:

This however, is totally acceptable:

Toeing the line again…

I’m doing it. I’m pulling the trigger.

It’s time for another race. I feel recovered from the FullRev at Cedar Point, and I want back in the game. Dare I say, that I had such great success on that day, I don’t want to fall off my (almost) winning streak.

So I’m getting back into the race mentality. I’ve got to plan out my nutrition, get a good night’s sleep, dial it in.

It’s not the typical race, though.  No, there will be no ribbon at the finish line. Putting in the time in training now will hopefully mean an easier, less effort day come race time. There are no bike pumps or wetsuits or aero helmets or disc wheels allowed here. If I flat, I’m on my own. My transitions need to be quick and well executed, that’s just free time. I’m not worried about what shoes to wear on the long run; I’m more concerned with how I’ll get to the home stretch. It’s no longer about the gear, it’s about what’s in my head.  I won’t be greeted by enthusiastic aid station volunteers at the 11th hour, when the pain cave  is closing in around me. But I know there’s going to be that light at the end of the tunnel…

One foot in front of the other, or in this case- one word after the next. The race is on, and my dissertation won’t write itself. I’m looking forward to this taper in particular…

Special shout-out to these fab folks for helping me get through this challenge: Baberaham (for cooking me real food among other incredibly helpful things), Mom’n’Dad (obviously), Peace Coffee (how else can I function?), Saucony and Lucy Activewear (because wearing athletic clothes to work is AOK in my book when it looks this good), Sharpie and my Trakkers gang (for not calling me crazy[to my face]), and the oh-so-convenient Halloween candy from ShopKo (nuff said).