grad school

I'm going to HUMP tonight!

…I mean the noun, not the verb! HUMP is Dan Savage’s brainchild – an amateur porn film festival right here in Seattle. I’m super excited. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been before says it’s amazing – you know it’s going to be good when there’s a prize for “Best Humor.” And I hear the gays usually outdo the breeders, which is even better. It’s going to have some raw sexual energy I hope, especially when you see amateur porn from websites such as and think people alike are going to be attending – I’m looking forward in seeing all that turn up.

I still think a graduate school themed porno is just begging to be made. In fact, I might have to get in contact with somewhere like to make this a reality. Think of the possibilities:

Student A: Sigh, another night all alone in the lab.
Student B: *knock knock* I have a reagent delivery for you… in my pants.
Student A: Oh yeah baby, make me matriculate! *six years later* Almost… there…

It would give a whole new meaning to “interdisciplinary collaborations.” Maybe someone would make it for a site like eventually. If we try enough, who knows?

In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the shows on display at the festival, and I encourage you to do the same where you are. This may not be a link to their website, but it will help you be a little more included regardless. In the meantime, Feel free to amuse yourself with amusing graduate school themed innuendos and title suggestions in the comments.

You know you're a grad student when…

Your foursquare page looks like this:

Scientific illiteracy

Reading scientific papers helps me understand why so many people hate or distrust scientists.

Let me clarify briefly. This is not meant to be me bitching about my graduate school workload. This is not me thinking my PhD was going to be a cake walk. I was prepared to finish undergrad feeling like a genius and walk into grad school feeling average. I was prepared to learn, and learning requires feeling stupid first.

This is me trying to think what science looks like to an outsider.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been doing pretty much nothing but reading scientific papers – that is, peer reviewed research papers published in academic journals. Some of these have been historical, the oldest being from the 1940s, and some have been from the last couple of years. Some have been good, some have been excellent, but the majority have made me want to stab my eyes out with the nearest pipetman. I’ve been reading primary literature for the last three years, but dealing with so much recently has made me realize one thing:

Most scientists are terrible writers.

And when I say terrible writers, I’m not just talking about English skills – though that certainly is a problem. When I had to read some of my classmates’ papers in undergrad, I was often thankful to find a sentence that wasn’t a fragment or a run-on. I don’t have perfect grammar, especially when informally blogging, but I can usually get general concepts across. And don’t even get me started on the organization of some papers. Your methods are where?

But most science writing is simply impenetrable. Everything seems to be lingo and jargon, to the point where they might as well be speaking another language. This problem gets worse with time, since fields are becoming more specialized, not less.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, so many scientific papers are drier than Indiana on a Sunday. You would never guess most papers were authored by the same person who will perk up with excitement when you ask them about their research. Obviously papers are meant to be impartial, but that doesn’t mean they have to be devoid of all liveliness. When a paper does include a rare joke, or even a clever ribbing of another study, readers get excited. We like being reminded that humans wrote these papers, not some computer program (unless simulating papers is what your research is about, then…). I nearly pooped myself when I saw a paper use an exclamation mark once. Needless to say, exclamation marks should not provoke this amount of surprise.

So why is this an issue outside of my own graduate school woes? I hate tooting my own horn, but allow me to prove a point. I have a BS in Genetics and Evolution from a respected university. I have three years of research experience in a laboratory. I have one published paper and at least one more on the way. I won the award for Outstanding Biology Student every year I was at Purdue. It’s safe to say that I am more trained in biology than your average person, yet I still have to spend hours reading a biology paper to grasp even the most basic concepts.

I look back on all the times I asked people if they read the original research before passing judgment on a study. Or all the times I sighed at another bad piece of science reporting. Now I just sympathize. If I’m having such a hard time, how do we expect laypeople to understand science?

I’m but a lowly first year graduate student, so I obviously don’t have all the answers… But I’m also a blogger, so here’s my opinion on two things we can do to improve science communication:

Relax pointless publishing rules. Journals are so focused on word count, formatting, figure size, supplemental material… Are you really communicating in the best way possible when you’re worrying about having to spend hundreds of extra dollars for every page you go over? Or when you sacrifice clarity in a graph because it’s cheaper to get it printed in black in white?

One of my papers recently was rejected, and I cringed at some of the questions reviewers had. We clarified all of those points in the initial draft, but they were eventually cut due to word limit restrictions. This is made all the more ridiculous when you consider that most people access journals electronically now. Is the internet not big enough for that extra pdf page? We obviously want some limits so people don’t get excessively verbose, but this is just silly.

Encourage more scientists to be journalists. And I don’t just mean recruiting science majors after they’ve been taught how to write (though for the love of FSM, someone please do that too). I mean encouraging scientists to blog about what they know, and then utilizing those bloggers who have proved their communication skills. It’s hard enough to understand the primary literature, let alone translate it into something people can understand. We need to exploit that talent we have.

The thing that worries me the most? That this is probably just the first of many disillusionments I’ll have about science over the next couple years.

Dance Your PhD finalists are up!

If you’ve ever had a hard time explaining what your research is about, maybe you should consider interpretive dance. That’s what the Dance Your PhD contest at Science asks grad students to do. It’s fun, but the winner also gets a $500 dollar prize.

You can vote for whichever one you like the best here. To show I’m not inherently biased toward biology, my favorite was actually the chemistry one. I thought it did the best job at actually explaining the concept, while having the least abstract dancing. Oh, and I loved the part with Taq polymerase in the middle. Seriously, just watch it.

…Okay, it still had to do with DNA, shush.

Maybe in a couple of years I’ll be able to do this, though I kind of suck at dancing. Right now my lab rotation project wouldn’t be too interesting of a video though – not sure how to interpretively dance to coding in Python…

I already like this site way more than Facebook

I received an email earlier today from Nature Publishing Group advertising their new social networking project, GenoMate:

We at Nature are pleased to announce our premier academic social networking/graduate relationship development website. New multidisciplinary fields, particularly Systems Biology, require a greater degree of collaboration and shared expertise. Nature GenoMate combines cloud-based productivity tools with a social networking engine that includes your colleagues and citations.

At first I thought this was going to be super lame – I mean, do biologists really need a separate social networking site? But when I looked at the features, I realized how awesome it is. It’s really pertinent to the needs of grad students. For example, they give great advice that first years like me may not know:Or their Erlenmeyer-Briggs personality questions that match you with others:Go check out the rest of their features here!

I feel so lucky that my department received one of the first invitations. Helps that the main developer apparently works here, though I’m not sure who it is… hmmm

Well, I feel less isolated in my stupidity now

Thanks for all of the nice comments you guys left on my post last night. Thanks to your comments, I’ve learned two things:

  1. I have a lot of well educated blog readers. Seriously, I was amazed at how many of you guys have pursued PhDs, are professors, etc… We’re definitely not the average American demographic. I guess that could make me feel even more intimidated, but I’m going to try to think positively about it – you guys stuck around even though I’m just a 22 year old starting grad school, so I must have something intelligent to say. Or at the very least, something entertaining to say. I’ll take that.
  2. My woes seem to be pretty common. I think the better question now is if anyone hasn’t experienced impostor syndrome.

But I also feel better after attending class and reading more papers. My Monday class is a three hour discussion of multiple related papers, and it actually went really well. Our professor guided us through the discussion without giving away the answers, but still explained parts that we were confused about instead of letting us totally flounder – aka, he did an excellent job. I realized I understood a lot more than I gave myself credit for, and even more light bulbs went on during the discussion.

Then I read even more papers for my class tomorrow (seeing a theme here?). At first I felt doomed, again. But then tonight I was in a little study group with some of the other students, and:

  1. Everyone seemed just as confused and lost as me. And
  2. I actually got to explain a concept to a couple people! A concept that seemed simple to me (gel electrophoresis of DNA segments) only because that’s basically what I spent the last three years doing, not to mention teaching. That really helped make it clear that we all come from such different backgrounds, that sometimes you’re going to feel completely in the dark, but other times you’ll actually know what the heck you’re talking about.

I’m still tired, but I feel slightly less doomed. I think I’m partially writing this post so I can come back and read it when I’m feeling completely idiotic again.

…Like tomorrow when I try to fix my Python code. *gulp*

For the people who told me to read PhD comics…

I’ve already been reading them for two years. This is probably part of my problem.

And while I could generally relate to them thanks to undergrad research, I’m now convinced the artist has a spy camera set up in my apartment. Take today’s comic for example:I read this comic cuddled up in bed exactly like the main character, skimming Google Reader while I decided if I wanted to hit snooze again or get out of bed.

I got out of bed.

And here comes the Impostor Syndrome

I was going to make this massive upbeat post about starting graduate school, how excited I am, and how proud I am to be the first person in my family to pursue a PhD, or really, to study science at all.

Then I actually went. And now I’m having massive Impostor Syndrome.

In summary, feeling incredibly stupid, overwhelmed, and unprepared is not what I needed heaped on top of the general melancholy I already felt for being utterly alone in a new city. Did I mention I suck at making new friends? Well, I do.

It doesn’t help that all of my grad student friends are telling me to get used to it, because it never goes away. Or that when I’ve tried to confide in some of my fellow first years, they look at me like I’ve sprouted a second head because they totally understand the papers we’re reading. Or that I feel like I can’t even discuss it here on my blog, since apparently everyone in the department knows about it. I say apparently because within five minutes of me showing up to a department event, someone new approaches me and goes, “So, I hear you have a blog!”

I mean, that’s a great thing for people in your new department to read, right? “I have no idea what any of these papers mean, not to mention I’m completely uninterested in them, and I’m not quite sure how I got accepted here anyway.” The whole point of Impostor Syndrome is that you feel like you need to hide your ineptitude. Maybe if I voice my concerns on a popular blog, I’ll be cured!

…Or not.

I just can’t shake the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy science and doing research. And I have about a million different research ideas running through my brain. My problem right now is I think all of my research ideas are surely retarded, which is why no one has thought to do them before (not because, you know, they’re potentially innovative or something). So instead of piping up when someone asks me, I sit quietly and seem totally uncreative and stupid.

It doesn’t help that on top of that, I look back at how much I enjoyed my summer. Right now I would love to do nothing but write books, blog, speak for student groups and conferences… I’m not sure if that’s just me having escapist fantasies, or if that’s what I should actually be doing. I always told myself you need training to be a research scientist, and that you can paint and write books on the side, not the other way around. But then I come home exhausted from a day in the lab, realize I haven’t done any artwork in the last four years and that all of my novels sit half completed, and I wonder if I’m just deluding myself.

Of course, if I tried to make a career out of writing, I’d probably be sitting in my apartment starving, wishing how I could be off in a lab discovering some new aspect of evolution and actually getting a paycheck.


I apologize that this post is so crappily written and without a real point*, but I just needed to think out loud for a bit.

*Ugh, apparently I have Blogger Impostor Syndrome too. Sorry.

During my first day of grad school

I was walking around the building with the professor I’m doing rotations with this quarter, and we ran into (who I now know is) one of the secretaries in our business office.

Secretary: Hi! *pauses awkwardly* …Is this…?
Me: ?
Prof: *long confused pause, then realization* …my WIFE?!
Secretary: *nods*
Prof: *laughing* No, this is my first roton!
Secretary: Oh, I’m sorry! I just remember someone saying your wife was younger than you, so…

Real thoughts about grad school to come later, you know, when I’m not actually busy with grad school.

People warned me about the Seattle rain…

…but not the spike pits and Wall of Death.I’m going to be walking past this every day on my way too and from school. I hope this isn’t an omen.

On the bright side, I’m happy that my new iPhone 4G (yes, I broke down) takes such nice photos! My old camera was 4 years old and being held together by duct tape, so this is a nice replacement. And while I’m rambling about iPhones, App suggestions are welcome.

The illustrated guide to a PhD

Well, my PhD studied have certainly been put into perspective. At least this final frame was good motivation:
(Hat tip to Alex)

Thoughts on grad school

“What are you most looking forward to about grad school? What are you hoping to achieve? And, what will you actually be studying? I mean, is there really more to know about copulatory plugs?”

I’m most looking forward to finally be studying what I’ve always wanted to research: human genetics and evolution. I don’t know the exact topic yet since UW has you do a year of lab rotations, but there are a lot of exciting projects going on there. I haven’t been able to investigate that area yet since no one at Purdue really researches human genetics or evolution too much – I think mainly because we don’t have a medical school.

So no, I’m not going to be researching copulatory plugs anymore. Even that wasn’t my main project at Purdue. My bigger project was looking at population genetics and historical demography in kangaroo rats. I’ll be able to talk more about them here once they’re officially published, but until then, I have to keep quiet.

And looking at the bigger picture, I’m excited to be furthering my education and becoming an “expert” in my field. I really enjoy research and teaching, so I think academia is the right place for me. And I just love to learn – I’m geeking out about all the advanced classes that I’ll be taking, which I think is a good sign.

…Okay, and it’s nice knowing I have an assured paycheck for five years in this crappy economy and that I’ll be Dr. McCreight at the end. But really, those are just perks! Really nice perks, hehe.