Monday, May 13, 2013

Thank You Letters

I just got a big packet of thank-you letters from the 8th grade class that I went to talk to last month. Their teacher was my 7th grade science teacher, and they all had really excellent questions. Anyway, I just wanted to share some of the highlights of the notes.

This kid must be psychic, because I am OBSESSED with rainbows.

This kid was REALLY paying attention! Super impressed.

Not sure what species this whale is, but it appears to be very happy.

Pretty good pencil-drawing of a photo I've taken, actually.

Very cute.
Jumping, not beached.

Take that, @WhySharksMatter.

I think I should talk to 8th graders more often. I don't think I've gotten this much positive feedback in YEARS (or at least since I started grad school). Too bad I can't go back and tell my totally nerdy, socially awkward, completely lacking in self esteem 13 year-old self that one day the 8th graders would think I'm AMAZING... but that it would take about 16 years for that to happen.

Anyway, the notes were really fun and a nice gesture. And that one about being AMAZING is going up on my wall for a little while, to look at during moments of frustration while I work on my dissertation.

Oh, in other news, I just finished a post for my new "job" as a blogger at Scitable. I'm allowed to post it here, too, after I post it at Scitable, so I will. To be honest, I've been hesitant to blog here since I was invited to write at Scitable because I didn't want to use up all my good science writing ideas. But now that Scitable is finally zooming toward its relaunch you'll start to see more stuff here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bookends and New Chapters

Bookending Grad School
After four years of working as a Graduate Assistant on a variety of research grants, I'm headed back into the classroom next semester as a TA for Zoology 101. Zoology 101 is an introductory class for non-majors, which I TAed in my first semester at the University of Hawaii, and will (hopefully) also be TAing during the last semester here. That is, if I can manage to get myself graduated within the next 8 months (ohgodohgodohgod). Teaching assistants for this class are in charge of the labs, which means that we do a few experiments, dissections, and get to visit the zoo and aquarium.

TAing Zoo101 will make a nice bookend for my time at UH. I've always wanted to do it again, because there was a lot of things that I learned during that first semester that I wanted to apply to another one, and never had a chance to. I'm also kind of curious how the last six years has changed me as a teacher and a person. When I last taught Zoology 101, I was 23, barely older or the same age as some of the kids in my class. Now I will be much older than most of them, and with 6 years of grad school (and adulthood) under my belt. I can't help but think that those years will make a difference in how my students and I relate to each other.

I've also made a lot of progress since 2007 in my communication and outreach activities. I'd like to get my students involved online through twitter (inspired by @Drew_Lab and others). Since these students are non-majors, I'd like to do my absolute best to get them as excited about science as humanly possible.

I'm also excited to be teaching this class because I'm going to be starting as a blogger on Nature Education's blog network soon (details to follow) and the students in my class are pretty much in the target demographic - right in the middle between high school and college age. I'm hoping they can give me some good ideas for writing, and I'm hoping to give them good ideas in return.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Keep running

Running is a sport that belongs to everyone. As Joshua Drew posted a few minutes ago, the Boston marathon hits way too close to home.

It is especially close to my heart because my boyfriend is a runner/triathalete, but I am willing to bet that most people know someone who runs, even if it isn't very far or very fast (which is how I run). Running is a very egalitarian sport, which means that this hits close to home for many people across america. Why do we know so many runners, and why does this act of violence against them hurt so much? To me, running is athletics simplified to its core values...

You don't need fancy equipment to run. All you need is determination. You don't need shoes. 

Barefoot Runner
(Image from wikimedia commons)

Hell, you don't even need legs.

Sgt. Jarrod Fields, running on a prosthetic leg.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Wheelchair athletes in the 2009 Boston
Marathon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

To participate in a marathon, you don't always even have to run. Sometimes all that propels you across the the miles is love.

Dick Hoyt pushing his son Rick, who has cerebryl palsy,
in the 2009 Boston Marathon (Image via Wikimedia Commons).
The Hoyts have rum thousands of miles, and were about a mile
short of the finish at the 2013 Boston marathon when the
bombs went off .
Runners come in all shapes and colors:

Image from best race signs.

And their friends and family love and support them (even when it's not that fun).

Images from best race signs.

Runners don't just run for glory, or health, or fun. They run to help other people:

Running symbolizes the best things we want to be: tenacious, dedicated, loving, and giving.  The everyday people who were hurt and killed yesterday in Boston were giving the best of themselves.  Hopefully we can push past the fear and anger, to defy that attack, and continue to push for greatness.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Whale Research Ain't No Picnic: Required Reading

The Whale's Picnic by TekKiah
Last week I was lucky enough to go to Maui and help out a fellow researcher*, Dr. James Darling. Jim researches humpback whale song - in fact, he was one of the first people to actually see a humpback whale singing, and to realize that only males sing. He's also the author of several books and articles on whales. In addition to the great science writing, these books have excellent descriptions of the life of a whale biologist. As Jim describes, whale research is not for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged:
"Finding whales in a good study location is not the end to the challenges of studying whale behavior at sea - it's just the beginning. Think for a minute of the factors involved. 
First, there is the ocean, which can change from calm to life threatening - at times in a matter of minutes. Then there are the whales themselves, with movements restricted by nothing but the shoreline and physiology, ranging over huge distances. Moreover, they spend 90 percent of their time hidden underwater. 
Then there is the assortment of electrotechnical equipment such as digital cameras and recorders, hydrophones (underwater microphones), and GPS units that have become the mainstays of research and must work as they bounce around in damp, salty conditions on small boats. There are the boats themselves, prone to breakdowns and periodic downtime for maintenance. 
The flow of a research season often goes like this: Whales are present, but ocean is impossible; or ocean is calm but the whales are gone; or both whales and ocean are good but the boat breaks down; or everything is working but the rain last night ruined the visibility underwater. (You get the idea).
From: Hawaii's Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries (if you purchase it from the whale trust, the money goes to fund research) 
This last paragraph is just about the best description of whale research I have ever read, and I think it should be required reading for the friends of whale researchers (or people thinking they want to go into whale research). Basically, if you get into whale research, be prepared for everything to go wrong.

Even when things are going right, whale research is often hard, uncomfortable work:
"The romance of whale research dies fast. One's motive has to be strong and clear when sitting on a hard rock cliff in the Patagonia desert with a near-freezing wind driving sand through your clothes - for eight or more hours a day, every day, for two months. Or spending a day in a small open boat, the pounding waves slowly driving your spinal column into your brain; or camping on arctic ice in wind so strong the only reason the tent stays in place is because you are lying in it - while polar bears lurk around on the surrounding ice pack; or finding yourself sick in the equatorial heat, or out at sea in a tiny boat crammed with gear. 
To do all this, one has to be dedicated." 
From: With the Whales (out of print, but you can find it used on Amazon).
These descriptions make me extremely happy, because they do such a great job of describing what an incredible pain in the butt (or spinal column) whale research can be. And they describe the kind of person you should strive to be to do that research: dedicated, tolerant to pain, discomfort, boredom, and frustration, and passionate about what you are doing.**

*And by "fellow researcher" I mean "super cool whale scientist with tons of experience who it was a privilege to help out for a couple of days.
**I also think these things apply to other types of biologists (see this video for an example).

Thursday, March 7, 2013

PhD Productivity: Happiness Project Continued

For, my happiness project Month 3*, I have decided to focus on productivity.  As I take on more and more projects, I have been finding that my stress and guilt level has been rising. In an effort to get more control over my work, I've been looking for a good time management system, and finally settled on the one described by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. This book is also highly recommended by the folks who write the Unclutterer blog.

Although Getting Things Done is mainly addressed at business professionals (for example, Allen suggests having your secretary block all interruptions from your office during scheduled "productivity" time - HA, HA! ), I found its main thesis to be really helpful. This main thesis, in a nutshell, is that you need to

  1. Write down all the projects you need to get done 
  2. Figure out the next physical action that you can do in order to finish these projects and
  3. Review and add to your lists regularly.

For example, here is some of the list of projects that I have come up with:

As you can see, each of these projects involves more than one step. Just looking at all these projects makes my brain hurt, but what if I just think of the next step for these projects? Let's take "Find Nominees for GWIS" as an example. I am currently the Chair of the nominating committee for the Graduate Women in Science, which basically means that I'm in charge of making sure that we have nominations for all the national offices that are up for election next year - quite a daunting task! However, when I take a couple of minutes to think about the next action for this goal, it's not so bad. The next thing I need to do on this project is:

Hey, that's easy! I can do that right now!

The beauty of this system is that it keeps track of all the things that I used to keep in my head, so they don't pop up and stress me out when I am trying to get something else done. It also breaks things down into easier segments, which make getting stated on the work much less daunting. "Convert an excel spreadsheet to a google doc" is a helluva lot less daunting than "Find Candidates for all the national positions," but it gets makes progress toward that goal just the same.  Allen suggests keeping a seperate "next actions" list for the very next physical things you need to do to meet all of your goals. Here are some of the things on my next action list:

None of these actions are scary, but all of them move me toward my end goals.

Keeping all of your lists in your head is kind of like storing all of your data in the RAM on your computer - your RAM space is pretty small, and if you try and store too many things in it, your computer gets bogged down and stops working properly. Storing all of your to-do lists on actual lists, instead of in your head, frees up your brain to actually think about the thing you are working on right now.

Now, where are you going to keep all these lists? If you're like me, you want something convenient, that you can have with you all the time and doesn't require you to remember to carry an additional THING around with you all the time. In other words, I wanted an app that would sync between my computer and my phone. After doing a lot of research, the best app for me was Remember the Milk**, which lets you make as many lists as you want, and also lets your categorize the items on those lists by type and location. 

Here are my lists (so far):

Adding categories and locations to those lists is also really helpful. For example, in my "Action Items" list, I have several items that need to be done at a computer, or in a certain location (like at my desk at home, or at my office on Coconut Island). There's no point me worrying about doing these things unless I have a computer or am in those locations. Similarly, on my "Errands" list, I can put in the locations of errands that need to be done. For example, if I look at the map and see that the location for picking up the dry cleaning is right next to grocery shopping, it helps me remember to do both, and saves a lot of later frustration when I realize I will have to make a second trip.

TIme sensitive items go on your calendar, such as meetings and things with a due date. For example, today I my google calendar tells me I am scheduled to talk with Michelle W at 1:00 over Skype, but until then I plan on checking action items off of my list (just as soon as I'm done with this blog). Choosing which action item to do depends on how much time it will take, your level of energy, and where you are (ex: at your office, near a computer). I chose to write this blog piece first thing in the morning because I was feeling very low in energy, and it really has helped.

Thus far, these organization strategies have been pretty useful. Although I've only been trying them out for a week, I already feel a lot more in control about my projects. I also feel much less overwhelmed about them, as a result of breaking them down to the next action. It makes me wonder why there are so few required classes for academics on time management and organization. If I was a graduate advisor, I would definitely ask my students to read some literature on time management and make a time management plan; not just for my own good, but for their sanity.

What sort of time management do you use? Would you have benefited from some guidance early on?

*Month 2 (February) somehow got away from me as a consequence of fellowship applications, family issues, and travel. But it's OK! What's the point of a happiness project if you make yourself unahppy worrying about it?

*The one drawback to RTM is that you have to pay a yearly subscription fee, but I was willing to trade money for this experiment in productivity. Hopefully it will be more than worth the 55¢/week.

Monday, February 11, 2013

For Those About to Comp (We Salute You)

In December, I took (and passed - phew!) my oral comprehensive exams. 

I thought it might be useful to other students to write down some tips for things that were helpful while studying for my comps and picking my committee. As an acoustical aide for the rest of this post, please play the following video while reading:

Alexis' Advice for Comps*

0) Write your proposal

1) Pick a good committee
Not the ideal
committee member

  • If someone says that a possible committee member (PCM) was horrible on their committee, don't ask them to be on yours. 
  • If your advisor doesn't like a PCM, they probably aren't going to be a good fit. 
  • If you don't get along with someone, they probably won't make a good committee member.

Your goals when picking a committee are to 

  1. Fulfill your department's requirements (my department requires three of the members to be full graduate faculty - see page 15)
  2. Pick a group of people who will help make your science and your dissertation the best that it can be and keep you on track to graduating in a reasonable amount of time. 

In addition to your four regular committee members, you should have one "outside" member, whose primary function is "to ensure that standards and procedures are fairly applied." This person is basically supposed to be your advocate, making sure that the rest of your committee members don't try and make you jump through unrealistic hoops. Not all of your committee members have to be in your field of research (especially the outside member). It can be helpful if their specialty is something that complements your research in some way, because then you can go to them for advice. For example, I have people who specialize in line-transect surveys, underwater sound recording, and underwater localization on my committee, all of which are a part of my dissertation. It has been very helpful to be able to ask these people for help and feedback. The specialties don't always have to be this specific - an ecologist or statistician is always helpful!

2) Talk to all your committee members about what they want you to know

Do your committee members expect you to know everything about science since the dawn of time, or do they expect you to know things relevant your field? I asked my committee members to give me a list of papers/book chapters that they would like me to read. Narrowing down your subject area doesn't mean that you won't have much to study- far from it! It just means that you have some idea of what you should be covering, allows you to make a study schedule, and keeps you a little more sane.

My pile of comps reading material, with tequila and lemon for scale.
Also, it is OK to talk to your committee members about your level of knowledge and what is reasonable for them to expect you to know. For example, two of my committee members have degrees in Engineering, but the last class I took in math was Calculus (in 2001). Thus, it wasn't really realistic of them to expect me to know advanced engineering, but I did study linear algebra, matrices, and reviewed my calculus before the exam.

3) Set a date for your comprehensives (several months ahead of time).

Setting the date for your comps is great, because it gives you a date and time by which you HAVE to get stuff done. Setting it several months ahead of time (I suggest at least 3) is also great because it gives you a chance to break up your studying into small, manageable chunks. Which leads me to my next point:

4) Break up your work into daily chunks

Ration your reading.
I have a quote taped to my computer monitor at home, which reads:
"We often underestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can do in the long term, if we do a little each day."
For example, let's take one of my comps reading books, Principles of Marine Bioacoustics. This book has 657 pages, none of which are light reading. But, my committee chair (and advisor) had told me to read the whole book. Instead of trying to read the entire thing at once, and frying my brains in the process, I broke the book up into 10-page chunks and started reading about 3 months before my comprehensives. At a little more than 10 pages per day, the book took ~60 days to read, and didn't totally burn me out. Even though it felt like I wasn't getting anywhere at first, I read the entire thing with a couple weeks to spare for reviewing. At the same time, I also broke up my other review materials into manageable chunks. Overall, I probably studied 3-6 hours a day, which was much less exhausting than trying to cram it all into my head in the two weeks leading up to comps.

5) Study the hard stuff first

One of my labmates gave me this good advice. If you need more time on the hard stuff (in my case, all the technical acoustics and math), it is better to know EARLY than to realize you need more time when there isn't more time to be had. Also, if you study the hard stuff first, you have the opportunity to go in and ask your committee members about it, which leads me to...

6) Talk to your committee members AGAIN! (And again!)
Exactly wrong.

When you are able to talk to your committee members about questions, they can help you out, and make your life easier! You may even realize you need to possibly modify your reading list. This happened to me when a committee member and I realized that I wasn't as advanced in math as she assumed (not surprising, considering I was a biology major). As a result, we switched up some of my reading and I got to learn some linear algebra into the bargain. Yay! Throughout the 3 months leading up to my comprehensives, I periodically checked in with my committee members to make sure that I was on the right track. In fact, the hardest, scariest questions I got at my comps were from the committee members I talked to the least.

7) Don't forget to glance over the "easy stuff."

When you've been sweating the scary hard stuff, don't forget to glance over the things you take for granted. The question I did the worst on on my comps was on a basic equation that I totally know.  I know it so well that I hadn't even looked at it before the exam, and so when it came up I FROZE. Try and glance over the stuff you are sure you know, as a refresher. 

*All this advice is highly idiosyncratic and specific to me, my committee, department and university. However, I really felt like it helped me to have a relatively pain-free comprehensive experience. In comparison with some of my friend's comps experiences (one of whom described coming home and sitting in the running shower and crying after passing comps!), it was pretty good. I was nervous and uncomfortable and felt like a total idiot, but I think that's fairly benign. These strategies helped me feel at least a little bit in control of the situation. And now I have this totally awesome (but not especially useful) certificate.

This means I almost have a PhD
... but not really.

How did you manage to survive comps?

Friday, February 1, 2013


Last night, as I was lamenting about how difficult it is for me to write personal statements, my boyfriend brought up an interesting point about blogging. Before I get to that point, though, does anyone else experience a complete loss of self-confidence every time they have to write a personal statement? I find the experience completely draining, for the following reasons:

  1. I can't stand people who talk about how amazing they are, and it makes me feel like one of these people, which brings on a strong sense of self-loathing.
  2. I constantly compare myself to how amazing other people are, and feel like an insignificant toad. This is especially true for the fellowship I am currently applying for, because someone I know who got it in the past is EPIC.

We had some friends over to dinner last night, who told me to get over myself and gave me some much-needed ideas for things to put on my statement.

They also told me I have first world science problems.
OK, so back to blogging. The thing that my boyfriend said to me was,

"I think you should write about blogging in your statement. You have written some good blogs, and I think it has made a really big difference in your life. You were going through a tough time last year when you started blogging, and I think it has really pulled you through."
This is true, although not 100% due to blogging. I think that more of it has to do with the amazing group of people in the online science community.  Here is how participation in this community has helped me this year.

1) I am in love with science again.

When I was a senior in undergrad, I was absolutely smitten with marine biology. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Carl Safina to Stephen Leatherwood. I lived and breathed marine biology. I was dating a boy from my marine biology class. Our first date was watching finding Nemo, followed by a trip to the sound to release a sea star that we had collected in marine biology lab. The next few years weren't much different, except that I cycled though being obsessed with sea stars to loving seabirds to being crazy about marine mammals.  One of the things that maintained my enthusiasm was being around other people, like my undergrad professors at Puget Sound and Bamfield Marine Science Center, who were also super stoked to be doing science.

Between 2007 and 2011, but somewhere in there I stopped reading science books, and started being very hipster about science. I just wasn't having a blast anymore.

Blogging and participating in the online science community has been a very important form of self-therapy for me. First of all, I get a chance to write (which I love to do) about the things I think are fascinating about science. Secondly, I get to be part of an amazing group of people who are also super excited about science. Thanks, internet nerds. I love your tweets!

Blogging and being back in love with science has also been a great help as far as my PhD research. The challenge of trying to translate complex acoustic terminology into regular speak made things like studying the Fourier equation fun. The exciting challenge of making difficult and potentially boring things clear and fun is something that I think will be helpful throughout my life.  I'm working harder, too - there's a reason they give those google employees so many perks.


2) I have become a better writer.

Writing a blog is good practice for writing in general. In fact, I find that if I have to write something serious, I can pump myself up a little bit by doing a little blogging first. It's always harder to start than anything else!

3) I have met some amazing and helpful friends and mentors.

These people have done everything: helped me find papers, listened to my worries about toxic exposure to carcinogens, made me laugh, edited my writing, and helped me make an idea come to life. You are amazing, thank you.

4) I have a better idea of what I want in life

Writing about what I love gives me a better idea about what I get excited about, and about what I want to do when I finish my PhD program.

Thanks for a great year! And especially thanks to Miriam Goldstein, who convinced me to write a blog post for the Deep Sea News a little over a year ago, as well as Joshua Drew, and Rob Williams for being inspirational, Jessica Carilli for being hilarious, Bora Zircovic for letting me write guest blogs for Scientific American (and for being the Blogfather), Michelle Banks for the lovely art, lolcats and for taking me to the Zoo, and Lydia for the wine and good company.