30 May

This Week In Science! 05-30-15

After a brief hiatus, here are this week’s science facts.

In the first long-term study of what effects long periods of time in weightless conditions have on skin, scientists observed that mice who spent three months in space have thinner skin. Not much of a surprise to scientists as astronauts often reported skin injuries after extended periods in space.

In what is probably the world’s oldest murder, researchers report on the double-blow to a 430,000-year-old school.

Researchers estimate that Everest could lose the majority of its ice by 2100. While the seasonal ice melts supply much-needed water for people in the region, the disappearing ice poses to be a natural hazard. The melt water can pile up behind debris before breaking over dams and leading to deadly flooding.

Finally, we can lay to rest the old nature vs nurture question. In the May 18 issue of Nature Genetics, researchers conclude that, while all traits are inheritable to a degree, overall they had a 49% heritability rate. This means that genetic makeup, as well as the environment, have an equal influence on human traits.

Some changes in the PRDM12 gene, a previously unscrutinized gene, can rob people of the ability to feel pain. This would leave the person prone to unintentional injuries such as scarred tongues, scratched corneas, and missing digits. Understanding how these changes block pain sensation can lead to better treatment of patients who suffer from chronic pain.

Finally, as reported over at Sciencenews.org, a brain implant gives a paralyzed man the ability to operate a robotic arm.

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?

11 May

Spartan Races and Injuries

I raced in two Spartan races this past weekend. Saturday was the Super, an 8+ mile run with 20+ obstacles, while Sunday was the Sprint, a 3+ mile run with 15+ obstacles. *Pictures included are not from my race as they have not been posted yet. I will update the blog with pictures from my race once they are up*

The super I ran was just over 9 miles with 28 obstacles. It started with about a half mile run through gorgeous trails. The first obstacle was a series of three 4 foot hurdles. These were relatively easy to get over, especially with the aid of an amazing teammate that helped us girls over to save our upper body strength for some of the more difficult tasks later.

A little more running, then it was a six-foot wall. Again, amazing teammate provided a boost and up and over I went. Next was the memorization task. You are assigned a word and a seven digit number that you need to remember throughout the race as they can ask you to repeat them back at any point in the race (we were never asked though).

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The inverted wall. Picture by simonafitnesslink.

 

We run to the next obstacles, an inverted wall (above). I did this one on my own! You just essentially crawl upside down and over you go. After this was the Stairway to Spartan (below). This is a 7-foot wall with a “ladder” on top, built in an A-frame shape. Again, boost to get a grip on the solid wall, and up I climbed. I don’t do heights well so I chanted “left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot…” as I went up and over. Only did I realize this was nothing compared to what I’d have to go over later.

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Stairway to Spartan. Picture by The Painted Warrior.

 

Next up was an A-frame cargo climb and Spearzilla. Cargo climb was a cake walk. Spearzilla is chucking a spear at a strawman and hoping it sticks. I stepped on the rope so it was 30 burpees for me. I wasn’t the only one doing them though. After this was the Clif Multi-bar. This consisted of a single bar, three ropes, and another bar that you had to transverse. My grip gave out as I was swinging from the first rope to the second so 30 more burpees (60 total).

The Super than went up into the mountain. Roughly 3 miles of up and down on slippery, rocky mountain terrain with 5 additional obstacles. These were a barbed wire crawl, the atlas lift (a roughly 50 lb sphere that you had to carry 15 yards, do 5 burpees, and carry back), another 7-foot wall, a tire flip and the Tyrolean (below). The Tyrolean was fun. I got about halfway before my amazing buddy had to take some of my weight, but he said he barely supported me so I think it was a mental thing. All the up and downs took a toll on my knee and there wasn’t much running after this point.

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The Tyrolean Transverse. Picture by The Painted Warrior.

 

We then had Z-walls, another barbed wire crawl, sandbag carry, culverts to climb through, more hills to climb, and a sled drag. All relatively easy. Still sitting at 65 burpees. Rolling mud was up (a series of hills that drop into waist deep water pits) and I ripped the seat of my pants going down the first hill (oops, sorry people behind me!). Another wall (8-foot this time) followed by a water crossing. This was a series of floating buoys that were not easy to balance on. Slow and steady got me across that one.

The bucket brigade is up next. I was worried about the gravel settling and falling below the line, which would mean more burpees, so I over-filled my bucket. The only problem was that the gravel didn’t settle so I was stuck carrying a super heavy bucket. My knee started acting up on the downhill and my teammates came to the rescue.

Coming into the home stretch was the slip wall (a roughly 45-degree wall that was covered in mud but thankfully had a rope to help you climb up) followed by THE BRIDGE. I hope they have a picture when they load them as words won’t do it justice. It is a 20-foot climb up to a cargo net that you must cross. Again, don’t do well with heights!! I was freaking out pretty bad at the top but eventually got over!

Rounding out the home stretch was the hero lift, rope swing, rope climb (which was closed when we came through due to structural issues), the water dunk (have to go underneath a submerged wall), and finally the fire jump.

Sunday’s race was the same course minus the mountains and five obstacles that were along that part of the route. Unfortunately for me, I dislocated my shoulder on the Stairway to Spartan and had to be pulled from the race. I did manage to get released from the medic tent before my teammates came through the bridge spectator area so I was able to cheer them on! As a result of the dislocation, I have a rotator cuff impingement. Doctor thinks I should be back to normal in about six weeks. The good news is I can still get my Beast in October done. The bad news is I’m still lacking a sprint to complete my trifecta. 🙁

I did get one piece of my trifecta though!!!

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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? 

1 May

This week in science! Gliding dinosaurs, potential life-supporting water below Antarctica, and an appliance that turns dog poop into energy.

 

 

A lot can happen in a week! Here is this week’s collection of science tidbits and facts.

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A close-up of a purple orchid.

The shape of an orchids flower is what attracts pollinators and is what we find beautiful. Unlike other flowers, the orchid flower’s petals are not uniform in shape or size. Instead, one petal is designed into what can be called a landing pad for pollinators such as bees. Now, researchers have uncovered a battle of two proteins governs the outcome of the flower’s shape.

 

Amazon rainforest canopy

The Amazon rainforest accounts for more carbon biomass than anywhere else on earth. Researchers have recently concluded that only 1% of the trees in the Amazon account for roughly half of the carbon storage.

 

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Emperor penguins in Antarctica.

Researchers have discovered extensive saltwater basins more than 100 meters beneath the permafrost that covers one of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. It was previously thought that this underground domain was just frozen earth. The newly discovered groundwater may have been sealed off for millions of years and could support microbial life, the researchers report online April 28 in Nature Communications.

 

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Taken during hurricane Dennis in Key West Florida.
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Taken in an unknown desert during a period of drought.

Blame global warming for all the extreme weather. It has been long thought that some surges in extreme weather — from devastating droughts to drenching superstorms and flash floods — are caused by global warming. And now scientists have numbers to support that idea. About 75 percent of extreme heat spikes and 18 percent of extreme precipitation over land worldwide can be blamed on this largely human-driven climate change, researchers report April 27 in Nature Climate Change.

 

An illustration of the Yi qi dinosaur.
An illustration of the Yi qi dinosaur.

The Yi qi, which means strange wing in Mandarin, may have glided much like today’s flying squirrels. A recent report indicates the flying dinosaur has a rod-like bone that might have supported fleshy wings similar to flying squirrels and the pterosaurs (flying dinosaurs we are already familiar with). Unlike the pterosaurs, the supporting rod-like bone appears to be located what would be akin to our pinky finger side of the dinosaur’s “hand” (pterosaurs’ supporting bone is located on what would be our thumb side).

Males of the West African monkey communicate in a “language” consisting of six words: “boom-boom”, “krak”, “krak-oo”, “hok”, “hok-oo”, and “wak-oo”. The study confirms prior suspected translations of the calls. For example, “krak” means leopard, while “krak-oo” refers to other non-leopard threats, such as falling branches.

Researchers have identified a compound that blocks beta-amyloid plaque formation in mice. These plaques are believed to cause irreversible brain damage leading to cognitive and motor impairments associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

And finally…an appliance has been developed that converts dog poop into energy!