7 Sep

Designing an Undergraduate Research Project

With the start of the semester comes new undergraduate students who are required to do research as part of their Biochemistry degree at Big State University. I am taking on my first undergrad and have been tasked with designing her project for the next two semesters.

When I’m thinking about what the goals should be when designing her project, a few jump to mind.

Obviously, to learn HOW research is done. How do you perform a literature search and how do you read to understand the articles you select? Leaning to try different things when something isn’t working. Making mistakes, and learning from them. And learning how to ask good questions.

Secondly, to learn science!! After all, we are a STEM field. I would think that by the end of a project the undergrad would understand the concepts and theory behind the techniques that they are performing in the lab.

Ideally, the undergrad will have an opportunity to interact with a range of scientist. My lab only has grad students and the professor (PI) but other labs generally have post-docs and/or technicians.

Finally, I hope that an undergrad that performs research will experience the joys and the frustrations that come with doing science.

An undergad should NOT be slave labor!!

With these goals in mind, I started to think about what a good project would be. Here is what I came up with:

  • as simple as possible: they should be able to complete the project on their own and in a semester (or two if you are lucky)
  • illustrate important concepts: the whole point of them doing research is to gain hands-on experience of concepts they learn in class
  • it should allow the student to actually understand what is going on: the concepts shouldn’t be out of the grasp of the student
  • connect the theory they learn in class to the experiments they are doing in the lab
  • challenge the individual student: the project should be adaptable to accommodate the level of the student; a weaker student can still achieve the goal while there is potential for more layers for an advanced student.

With these in mind, I go to contempt what I will have my first student do for her project.

Do you have any tips for designing undergraduate projects? I look forward to reading your comments below.

27 Jul

Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs)

In today’s technology-driven world, replacing the old trusty paper lab notebook with an electronic version is quite appealing. I’ve often thought it odd that I would take my digital data and print it out to tape into the composition book that served as my lab notebook. I then bought a Galaxy Note 8.0 to take notes during my classes. That is when I decided to switch to an electronic lab notebook or ELN.

An article by Jim Giles in Nature highlighted some of the benefits of going paperless in the lab – more detailed records, more accessible data sharing, improved efficiency, and even the potential to extract results from data due to improved methods of searching and analyzing. It’s also great if, like me, you often find yourself struggling to read what you wrote last week, you’re constantly flipping through pages looking for that one experiment you did that one time, or if you find that your lab notebook is starting to shed papers like your dog sheds hair.

There are several options for ELNs. Lab Archives and eCAT are two options that are designed specifically for laboratories. They both offer free versions, but you need to upgrade to access all of their functions. Many people are also adapting note taking software such as Microsoft OneNote and Evernote to their needs. Again, there are free versions of both of these available.

After checking them all out, I chose Evernote.

Evernote is an extremely versatile note-taking software that seamlessly syncs between devices. It allows for the transition from the old paper and tape to the new digital rather seamlessly. Rather than using scissors and tape to cut and paste images or tables to a notebook, you use control/command-c and -v. You paste the attachments right into the note or attach a file that can be quickly viewed or opened for further analysis.

The program also allows for efficient searching – the search function will even find text within images – and multiple levels of organization. I’m currently in the process of trying to optimize my layout within the program. I am thinking of organizing by experiment with all procedures, results, and analysis on a single page. Each experiment will be labeled with all samples involved in that experiment so I can quickly view the history of a particular sample.

Some other handy features are the “insert date/time” shortcuts (alt-shift-D in Windows or command-shift-D on a Mac) and the “copy note links” function that allows for a quickly made table of contents and page linking. There is also the added advantage of directly importing snapshots taken with Evernote. You can use Evernote’s WebClipper to capture entire web pages, a particular article on the web you found or save it as a PDF to attach to a note. You can also forward emails directly to Evernote if you upgrade to the Plus/Premium package.

I have noticed that the editing features within a note are limited. As such, I am linking to files rather than pasting images directly in the note. In addition, picture resizing isn’t possible, nor is it possible to use symbols or superscripts/subscripts within the text.

Another advantage is that you can group notebooks together into stacks. I have several “stacks”: my main research project which contains notebooks dedicated to each of the aims of my dissertation project, a school stack where I keep class notes and related files, and a personal stack.

One thing I have discovered is that you want your notebooks to be as discrete as possible. You never want to wonder which notebook a particular note belongs to. If you end up with two notebooks with similar function, you can merge them together.

Here are some additional Evernote resources:

Evernote is free up to a monthly usage of 60 MB/month. If you have large files that you’d regularly like to upload, as well as access to a few premium features such as searching within uploaded files, there is the possibility of upgrading to a premium account for $49.99/year.

Have you tried experimenting with an electronic lab notebook? If so, what tools do you use? How do you integrate them into your workflow and method of organization?

20 Jul

Fake it till you make it!!

Mental health issues are not something to take lightly. According to the ADAA, anxiety disorders affect over 40 million American adults. In addition, it is common for someone with an anxiety disorder to suffer from depression or vice versa.

Anxiety is a normal biological response that helps us get out of danger and prepare for important events. It is Mother Nature’s way of telling us we need to take action. However, problems arise when we experience anxiety that is persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming. If it’s an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. When anxiety interferes with daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Most people feel depressed at times. Losing a loved one, getting fired from a job, and other difficult situations can lead to a person feeling sad and lonely. These feelings are a normal reaction to life’s stressors. Some people experience these feeling daily, or nearly daily, for no apparent reason, making it difficult to carry on with normal, everyday functioning. Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general. When these feelings start interfering with daily activities such as taking care of family, spending time with friends, or going to work or school, it is likely a major depressive episode.

Both of these conditions are treatable illnesses that only roughly one-third of those suffering seek help. If you have mild cases of anxiety or depression, the following tips may help. The Anxiety and Depression Association of American has some great resources for finding help if you need it.

If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek professional help immediately. 

Here are some tips to stay positive and move forward.

Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by your feelings. Depression and anxiety are NOT weaknesses. Very often they are treatable medical conditions. Talk about what you are going through with supportive people.

Foster supportive relationships. At the very least, spend time with one or two other people. Have lunch with a friend, email your sister, Skype with your parents. Make time to have dinner with your significant other each night.

Challenge negative thinking and your own limiting beliefs. Performing experiments can be very self-depreciating. How many times has your experiment failed before it finally worked? In STEM fields, our work is constantly be scrutinized by other scientists, our manuscripts are rejected from journals, and there always seems that answers to our questions just bring more questions. Remember to not be too hard on yourself. Do not measure your value based on the results you do (or don’t) achieve in the lab or the number of papers you publish.

Take care of yourself. As a grad student, work often requires long hours in the lab, sleep deprivation and little to no time for eating and exercise. Remember to do one thing for yourself each day. Whether its that yoga class in the afternoon at the student recreational center, going for a run in the morning, cooking dinner, or joining a sports team, taking a little time for yourself each day will go a long ways.

Celebrate successes, no matter how small. Keep a gratitude journal and write down at least one thing you are thankful for each day. Corny, but it works. Keeping the journal makes you more creative and helps you sleep better. Here are some iOS and Android apps to start and keep a gratitude journal on your tablet or phone. Also, keep finding small wins to show off to yourself and other people. Hang that western blot you finally succeeded in performing by your desk. Go out for dinner and drinks with your lab mates when you had a breakthrough.

Try new things, take the unbeaten path. Just because everyone else is going to do a postdoc doesn’t mean you have to as well. Create your own path. Don’t worry about what other people may think about your decisions.

Seek Professional Help. Most universities have student counseling services available for their students. The counselor you will see can help you decided if you need long-term guidance or just short-term help to get through a rough patch. They can provide you with coping mechanisms as well as a place for you to talk about your concerns without being judged.

Two final things to remember:

Follow Dory’s advice:

And Muhammad Ali’s:



Have you dealt with anxiety and/or depression while in grad school (or other stressful situation)? What advice would you give someone going through the same thing? Please leave your comments below!

18 Jun

C.A.: Coffee-addict Anonymous


Addiction to caffeine is a pretty easy one to have. There are dealers on every corner and it can be really cheap (unless you drink those fancy Starbucks drinks). In general, it’s also not a bad one to have. Research shows that there aren’t too many health risks and even some evidence of health benefits (supposedly black coffee is great pre-workout). While caffeine can be found in many forms, my personal favorite source is coffee.

Within the top drinking professions are scientists (number one!), writers, and professors—pretty much exactly what many of us grad students are working on becoming. Since all signs point to our coffee drinking being a life-long habit, it makes sense to consider how we’re drinking it.

Where Are You Getting It?

I love my Keurig! It makes a great cup of coffee with tons of flavor choices, it’s also saved me a ton of money. That $2 (minimum!) spent every morning at the building café may not seem like much, but it adds up—two cups a day during the week (only because my café isn’t open on the weekend) will set you back just over $1000 a year! Compare that with making your own coffee, which easily costs under $0.50 per cup, and you’re looking at over $700 in savings every year. Not too bad, right? If you are buying those fancy-schmancy Starbucks coffees, the savings is even more!

The other nice thing about making your own coffee is the choice. You can choose how it tastes—light and fruity, deep and chocolaty… The choices can be overwhelming, but if you’re drinking it every day, you have time to figure out what you like. Also, you can choose where it comes from: locally roasted? fair-trade? sustainable?

So making your own coffee might work for the morning, but what about that coffee after lunch? My choice is to make my own coffee on campus. My labmate and I bought a cheap 4-cup coffee make and take turns buying coffee, filter, creamers, etc. It’s amazing how big a motivator the smell of brewing coffee can be.

As a self-proclaimed coffee addict, I will quickly admit that bad coffee is better than no coffee, but given the choice, I’d rather drink the good stuff, especially if it also means spending less!

When Are You Drinking It?

Check out this infographic on the best time to drink coffee, based on this post. The idea is that our bodies produce different amounts of cortisol—a hormone that, among other things, makes you feel awake and alert—in a natural rhythm throughout the day. According to the posts, the ideal times to drink coffee for maximum buzz are when your cortisol levels are lower and you’re not being “naturally caffeinated,” which tends to occur from 9:30-11:30am and from 1:30-5:00pm. Are you drinking coffee at the time of day when you really need it?

How Does It Make You Feel?

Do you ever feel like this?

by The Awkward Yeti
by The Awkward Yeti

If so, it might be time to cut back. On the other hand, some people claim to just not be affected by coffee. There aren’t too many guidelines regarding how much you, as an individual, should be drinking. Pay attention to how you feel and adjust accordingly. That first cup might seem to double your efficiency, but if the second cup makes your mind race, note it and avoid it next time.

Do you drink coffee? What is your favorite kind? I look forward to your comments below!

15 Jun

Women respond beautifully to Tim Hunt’s comments about “Girls” in the lab

In case you missed it last week, Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt made some comments about the problems with girls in the lab.

The problem with girls in the lab is that they fall in love with you, you fall in love with them, and when you criticize them, they cry.

Being a woman in science, this comment made me angry but didn’t surprise me. While it is sad that in 2015, there are still prominent men who think that women are just a ball of emotions and we don’t know how to “behave” in a lab, I’ve met discouragement from the moment I started high school.

I grew up in the south. My parents always taught me I could be whatever I wanted to be and encouraged me to do what I loved and what I excelled at: Science! The discouragement occurred at school. I was constantly asked why I was interested in science and math instead of cosmetology. Why did I want to go to college and grad school instead of having a family? For some reason, as a woman in the south, I should be a teacher, nurse, or stay-at-home mom. I was thankful that I had a handful of strong women role models. My 5th-grade science and math teacher was amazing, while most of the boys and girls thought she was tough. My high school biology teacher encouraged me to pursue biology when I told her how much it intrigued me, stating that I should never stop learning.

Now that I’m in grad school, I am aware of the fact that even though we seem to out-number the men, the number of tenure-track professors who are women are few and far between. I am also aware of the salary differences once I graduate.

Instead of giving in, I’ve buckled down and I work harder. I seek out women mentors. I take part in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group on campus. My goal is to keep pushing “the norm” until the idea of a little girl wanting to do chemistry or becoming an engineering doesn’t cause anyone to second guess them. Instead of asking why they want to do science or math, we need to encourage them. We need to make them feel as if they aren’t weird for wanting to be smart.

I’m not the only woman who feels this way and many took to social media to hit back. Now I give you some of my favorite #distractinglysexy tweets!


Have you ever met discouragement? How did you respond? How can you help encourage our little girls to become our future science and engineers? I look forward to reading all your comments below!!!

8 Jun

Becoming an intrinsic motivator

Recently, my personal trainer mentioned that I need to work on becoming a fitness intrinsic motivator. I had no idea what she was talking about so I, of course, had to do some research.

In psychology, there are two type of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a certain behavior or activity to receive an outside award or avoid punishment. Intrinsic Motivation involves engaging in behaviors or activities because it is personally rewarding, aka you do it because you want to do it not for some external reward.

Some examples of extrinsic motivation include competing in a contest in order to win an award or cleaning your room to avoid being punished by your parents. Some examples of intrinsic motivation are participating in a sport/activity because you find the activity enjoyable or solving a word puzzle because you enjoy the challenge.

This got me thinking, I need to find my intrinsic motivation in all aspects of my life, not just my physical fitness (I plan to write a separate post on that journey soon:)) So how exactly can I do this? I found an interesting article (here) that discusses intrinsic motivation and some factors that can lead to an increase in this form of motivation. Here is a brief recap as well as how I plan to adapt these to my research.

  • Challenge: The whole idea of something being a challenge, whether it is mastering something I don’t understand or setting a new personal record with my running or lifting, is a big motivator for me. The article states that people are more likely to be motivated when there is personal meaning to their goals. For my research, I am diving into molecular genetics, developmental biology, and bioinformatics for my project. These are all concepts that are foreign to me and that I am slowly building my understanding. The fact that this is something I don’t understand challenges me but also leads to the next point.
  • Curiosity: It peaks my curiosity! If something grabs an individual’s attention and stimulates their want to understand more, their intrinsic motivation increases. I’ve always been a curious person and love learning new things (hence while I’m still in school ;)). Sometimes the fact that I will be learning something new is enough to get me to do something.
  • Control: Who doesn’t want to control their situation? Being able to control one’s self and their environment will lead to an increase in intrinsic motivation. Since I’ve started meeting with The Boss and planning my weeks, I feel I have more control over my time and have become more motivated to get things done.
  • Cooperation and Competition: Intrinsic motivation can also be increased in cases where a person gets joy out of helping others as well as in cases where they are able to compare their own performance to that of others. For me, the competition aspect is a big part of my motivation. I compete against myself in my fitness regime a lot! As I’m getting back into running, the first thing that comes to mind is can I beat my PR for a mile? In the gym, it is “dang, look at that girl working out with 300 lbs in the squat rack! I want to do that!!!”. I’ve decided I want to try and go to a conference a year to keep my competition in research going also. By having a deadline where I will go present my work to other researchers, I feel this will keep me on track.
  • Recognition: Who doesn’t like being told that they are doing a good job? When I received my Graduate Teaching Reward, this just made me work harder to become a better TA. For me, recognition is being told my work is very interesting by fellow students after my student seminar talk or being selected to give a talk at a university-wide research competition. All of these tell me that I am doing good and interesting work and help motivate me to keep going.

How do you keep motivated? Are you intrinsically motivated? Please comment below to start a discussion!

1 Jun

Goal-Setting Vs. Goal Achieving

In an open-ended project that is a PhD., important to make consistent progress towards major milestones. This is overwhelming for most students, including myself as I’m a first-generation student (there is a really good article over at GradHacker about first-gen grad student here). It is very easy to get lost in day-to-day and find yourself a 6th year with no publications and no conference presentations. So how do you stay on track? Or find the right track in the first place?

I am not a strong multi-tasker and as I mentioned in my recent post, I’ve become lost in my program this year. As a result, I have not made much progress. Being a first-generation graduate student, I decided that I need more guidance and had a sit down with The Boss. We agreed to have a weekly planning meeting. I would come to the meeting with my goals for the week and a rough day-to-day plan to achieve these goals. He would offer advice on how to juggle multiple tasks and help set realistic goals.

Going into these meeting I have three basic questions: How do you identify important goals? How do you then set realistic goals? How do you track your progress in order to achieve your major goals?

Identifying Goals: The first step here is to look at the program requirements. Is there a certain number of publications required? When do you need to take major exams? Do you need to apply for a grant? These are specific to a STEM field, but the idea for any field is the same. You need to find out what requirements your program has and these will become your important goals.

Setting Goals: I’ve begun to realize here that the trick is working backward. What components are required? When do they need to be achieved? Do you need to perform sub-projects in a specific sequence? By taking a project management approach to setting goals, you can break big projects into minor components, estimate the time to completion, set realistic milestones, and adjust your timelines as you move forward. This is important as things rarely go as planned in science.

Achieving Goals: After meeting with The Boss, I’ve decided to use a weekly goal audit to track my progress. Every Sunday, I’m going to sit down with my major to-do list with my long-, mid-, and short-term goals and their associated tasks for the week ahead. I will determine which short-term goals need to be completed in the coming week (usually experiments, data analysis, protocol optimizations, etc), and what steps need to be completed for each of those projects. I also need to plan for my mid- and long-range projects such as manuscript and dissertation writing (say by setting aside blocks of time each week to work on these). When we have our meeting on Mondays, we will review what I accomplished and what I did not get done over the last week. I’m hoping these meetings will help me identify where I succeed and where I struggle.

One thing I’m realizing is that details are key when it comes to setting up goals. I’m hoping this summer I learn to structure my day so that I am as productive as possible.

How do you set and obtain goals? Do you think your process is discipline-specific? Why or why not? Is there something you have learned that boosts productivity? Share your knowledge in the comments!

25 May

Mid-PhD Crisis

Sorry for the lack of posts. I had two spartan races back to back where I got injured (see my recap post here). This was followed up with a family trip to Las Vegas to attend my Aunt L’s wedding (which was amazing!).

I am finishing up my third year of my program. And I feel like I’ve done nothing and am going nowhere. When I started grad school, I had my heart set on becoming a professor at a top-tier university such as the one I’m at. However, since I’ve entered my program, I’ve become disenchanted with academia and the tenure track. This has led to a great uncertainty surrounding my future career and what I would do with my Ph.D.

I have found this uncertainty paralyzing. As a young child, I always wanted to be a teacher. So, with teaching no longer exciting me, I have no concrete career goals and I’ve begun to question everything: why am I in grad school, why am I studying biochemistry, what am I going to do with my life? This shift in my interests (not to mention the bleak outlook on Ph.D. job prospects) has made me interested in industry jobs as well as alternative academic and post-academic careers. However, it is additionally paralyzing to have so many options outside the ivory tower of academia. This has made it difficult to focus on persisting through my Ph.D.

So I’ve decided that its time to take action to help me get through my crisis. Here are some things I have recently done and plan to continue to do in hopes of helping me get past this hump.

  • Talk about it. I’ve shared my feelings with my husband and, as always, he’s very supportive. I’ve also started to share my feelings with some of my friends in grad school with me. Hopefully, these conversations will show that I’m not alone in the way I feel.
  • Write about it. Hence this post! I felt that maybe getting my feelings on paper and sharing them will offer a great outlet. Plus, you might have some awesome feedback as well!
  • Don’t think about it. I recently had two spartan races and a trip to Las Vegas (hence the lag in posts). This break has helped me see that uncertainty isn’t the end. By spending some time with family I haven’t seen in a very long time, I was able to see how proud my family is of me and how supportive they are no matter which direction I choose to take.
  • Most importantly, Just Keep Swimming! I’ve made it this far in my program so I can make it to the end. Every journey has its ups and downs, a grad program isn’t any different

Have you experienced a mid-Ph.D. crisis? How did you overcome it?

7 May

The Impostor Syndrome

“What am I doing here?” This thought crosses my mind quite often, especially now that I have passed my prelim exams. It’s not a feeling of being lost or not sure of what to do next. It’s the impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head. The impostor syndrome is where someone cannot internalize their achievements and is scared of “being found out”. I often wonder if the graduate program made a mistake admitting me. Am I smart enough to be here?

My misgivings started when I was at a different university in a master’s program. I was speaking with a professor about graduate school when he informed me that I was “too old and too weird” to be taken seriously. I came back to graduate school after working in the “real world” for a time being. So yes, I’m “old” but by no means did I think that my age could cause problems with me getting my Ph.D. and entering into academia. Until this meeting. I immediately began questioning my decision.

The “weird” comment also had me second guessing myself. He was looking at my transcript when he made this comment. My undergraduate GPA wasn’t spectacular (hence why I was doing a master’s program first before entering a Ph.D. program) but my GRE scores were on par with some of the best in the country (I was informed of this by another professor later the same day). For reasons I won’t get into, my grades suffered while in school but I wasn’t stupid. He felt I was too much of an anomaly to take a risk on me. So of course, I began wondering the same thing.

Imposter syndrome affects the high achievers, those of us that set our standards high and want to give our very best. What is key is to realize that your very best isn’t the same as the best. The best means you are competing against everyone else doing whatever task you are attempting. Your best means that you are making every effort to better yourself. It’s always important to strive for self-improvement, but you don’t need to be better than everyone else to make yourself better.

You also don’t need to be perfect. This is where I have problems overcoming my impostor syndrome. I have slight OCD and often feel the need to be perfect in everything I do. When I can’t get an experiment to work the first time or I don’t grasp a concept right away, I often feel like I’m failing. I often feel like it’s a mistake for me to be in the program; that I took the place of someone more deserving. I struggle to own my successes and to focus on what I have done instead of what I haven’t done.

I’ve realized that I need to stop playing it safe. “While playing safe removes the immediate risk of exposure, it opens up the greater risk of never knowing just how capable, deserving and “more than” worthy you truly are.” (Margie Warrell, Stop Playing Safe). I need to lay my vulnerability aside and take the risks I need to take to complete my research and advance myself in my chosen field.

What is important is not that we have these feelings of fear and being “not enough” but whether we let those fears rule us and make our choices for us. It’s time for me to refuse to let my doubts overcome me and dictate my choices. It’s time to see what I can really do.

When have you experienced the imposter syndrome? How did you handle the situation?

4 May

80/20 rule

The Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of our rewards come from 20% of our efforts. The principle is named after the economist Vilfredo Pareto, who stated that 80% of a countries wealth is held by 20% of the population. It should be noted that this could easily be written as 99/1 or 55/3. The principle is to point out the imbalance of input and output, not the actual numbers themselves.

As grad students, really as a person in general, we try to maximize the rewards from our labors, however, we still spend a lot of time on tasks that have very little fruitful results (emailing and reading ring any bells?). The 80/20 rule teaches us that we should be aware of how we are spending our time, to be aware of how much time these lesser valued tasks consume.

Here are some suggestions on how to maximize your time.

1. Create time periods of the day to handle mundane but necessary tasks. For example, set up a few minutes in the morning and evening to respond to emails and only check your email during these periods of time.

2. Create time limits. Some activities we must partake tend to run longer than they need to. While meetings and lunch date interactions are important, it is easy to allow them to run over time. By setting a time limit in advance, you can make sure that you get down to business and not waste time.

3. Identify the tasks and activities that yield your greatest results (your 20%) and find ways to grow the time spent on them. Prioritize these items and place them at the top of your to-do list every day. Complete these tasks before moving on to the lower rewarding tasks for the day. Devote more time to these tasks also, whether it’s five minutes or half an hour.


What tips do you have on maximize results?