Putting the “rad” in “graduate student”: Becoming a runner!

At the beginning of this year, I gave myself a pretty straightforward yet daunting 2014 goal: become a “runner”. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think that I am kicking ass and taking names in this category thus far. Let’s reflect a bit on my progress, shall we?!

I’m going to just come out and say it: I have never been an athlete. Or anything close to an athlete for that matter. Well, I DID take a gymnastics class or two as a 4 year old, if that counts? As an adolescent, the closest I got to “sports” was a brief foray into horseback riding lessons. This lasted about 9 months until I decided that playing the flute was much more my style. (Plus, I’ve never been a big fan of getting dirty, and there are very few things that are dirtier than a horse barn). I’ve just never liked playing sports, nor have I ever been very good at them. My throwing arm leaves a lot to be desired and my eyesight is so terrible that it’s a miracle I have even once caught a ball. I’m also so competitive that I might have seriously injured someone on an opposing team if I lost, and assault charges as a 10 year old are usually frowned upon. Have I convinced you yet? Sports have just never been my thing.

But in the last three months, I’ve run nearly 150 miles.

150 MILES. That, my friend, is crazy town banana pants. Last month, I ran the Seahawks 12K (or a little under 8 miles for the nonmetric folk). This was the longest run I had ever attempted, even in practice. It turned out to be a blast, and while I didn’t set any land speed records, I finished! Last Sunday, I was in a crappy mood and didn’t feel like leaving my couch, but eventually ended up running for 10 miles! I don’t know who this person is that has become a quote unquote runner, but I’m not going to ask too many questions.

Ready to run the Seahawks 12K!

Ready to run the Seahawks 12K!

Over the last few months, I’ve learned that I am not a huge fan of a very strict running schedule. In fact, I very much detest it. This initially surprised me, as I’ve always considered myself a planner. However, upon further reflection, I think this is in some ways due to my experiences as a graduate student over the last 4 years. It is really hard for me to wake up in the morning and say “I MUST run 10 miles today”. Similarly, I also find it hard to say “I MUST sit at my desk today for ten hours and write 10 pages of this manuscript”. I am much more successful on a day-to-day basis by giving myself a bit of flexibility. Maybe, like this morning, I wake up on Monday and decide to write and edit a blog post. Did I plan on writing this today? Nope! But I knew what projects were on my to-do list, so I picked the task I felt most motivated to accomplish this morning. Similarly, I woke up that Sunday knowing I needed to accomplish SOME sort of run and ultimately felt motivated to run 10 miles. See, FLEXIBILITY!

Of course, flexibility isn’t always possible. When I’m in the middle of a time-sensitive experiment, there are days where I MUST get A,B and C completed. If a grant is due on Friday and I spend all of Monday on a blog post, then I most definitely deserve a kick in the pants. However, now that my life has entered into the writing, writing, writing phase of graduate school, I’m finding it fun, and most importantly productive, to be flexible.

I recently spent some time chatting in the hallway with a fellow MCB Incoming Class of 2010er. We both mentioned that one of the BIGGEST things that we have learned over the years is that graduate school isn’t a 9 to 5 job, nor is it the same for everyone. In fact, the path that we take through graduate school is RADICALLY different from one individual to the other, and making comparisons between your path and another’s is just plain silly, and frankly, potentially very harmful. Our path is molded by a combination of hundreds of variables: your boss, your personality, your home life, your career goals, the success of particular experiments, your work ethic, and so on. And that path is redesigned and full of detours and speed bumps over time. But one thing that is required for each and every individual’s success in graduate school (and running, for that matter) is self-motivation. No, I’m not in lab at 8 am every single day like some. In fact, some days it is nearly lunchtime and I am sitting at my dining room table working on blogs and conference abstracts (hint: that’s today). To be honest, I used to feel really guilty about not being at the bench every minute, and I have felt bad about not running as far as I would like on a particular day. However, my new found flexibility mixed with plenty of self-motivation means that I am not only just as productive as ever, but probably a bit happier too.

So, after quite a long tangent, my point is this: no, I am not a conventional runner. But I don’t really do many things by convention anymore. And that, my friends, is quite alright with me.

Learning to not feel guilty when this doesn't happen

Learning to not feel guilty when this doesn’t happen has been HARD

—————————————————

Before I leave, it’s time to set my next short-term goal in my 2014 Killing the Bear goal. I guess I set this a while ago, but I haven’t announced it on my blog yet. Next month, I will be running my FIRST HALF MARATHON! I am officially registered for the 2014 Rock ‘N Roll Seattle Half Marathon on June 21st, 2014. 5 weeks to go! I’m feeling confident that I can finish the race, and that is HUGE progress from where I was 4 months ago. Will I be fast? Probably not… but that just means I’ll have another goal to set after June 21st!

Lessons learned: Giving a talk at NWDB 2014

Disclaimer: I’ve written the beginning of a new blog post about 5 separate times over the last few weeks. It always happens the same way: I jot down my thoughts, reread them, dislike them, save them in a “Blog drafts???” folder, and forget about them. This morning, I went back through those old “crap” blogs, and realized the content was not nearly as terrible as I thought. So here is the first of several posts this week (I PROMISE), which were actually written some time ago. This particular blog was drafted April 1st. I guess it is a very belated April Fools joke to post it a month and a half later. 🙂

Thoughts from Northwest Developmental Biology Meeting!

I did quite a bit of traveling around the Pacific Northwest in March. The first was my yearly pilgrimage to the Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island for the Northwest Developmental Biology Meeting! This was my FOURTH straight year attending, which makes me feel both old and excited at the same time. NWDB is the regional meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology, and it is by far one of my favorite meetings that I have ever attended. The setting is BEAUTIFUL, the audience is engaged and relaxed, and there is a mind-blowing amount of cool science. Think summer camp for scientists: AWESOME.

Apparently I only attend conferences in beautiful locales.

Apparently I only attend conferences in beautiful locales.

For the second year in a row, I submitted an abstract to present a short oral presentation, and was selected. I was scheduled to give the very first student talk of the meeting. This was pretty exciting for me, especially since I went last in 2013. That year, I spent the entire meeting worrying about my talk and didn’t get to totally appreciate the other speakers. I woke up at 6 am (yikes) to practice my talk a few times, and headed over to the conference hall around 8 to eat some breakfast and grab a seat before the hour-long plenary talk. However, I barely had time to finish my bagel when the moderator walked up to the microphone and said, “Due to a scheduling conflict, our plenary speaker will be moved to the end of this session. Please welcome your first speaker, Emily Fawcett”. Thankfully I am fully functional in the morning and one of the few scientists who doesn’t need a cup of coffee to be coherent before 9 am, but my initial response?

PANIC.

I even believe the first sentence I said when I got the microphone went something like “I am so not ready for this” followed by a nervous giggle. The best thing I’ve ever said into a microphone? Probably not. But did give me at least a second to compose myself? You betcha.

Now, when I give a talk, I have the benefit of studying a really cool but completely off-the-wall topic. Not many people think about stress memories and even fewer people think about hydrogen sulfide, so I’ve had a LOT of practice convincing people that it’s something worth studying. Just call me the used car salesman of H2S memory.

I’ve also recently started to overcome my “nervous talking equals talking at 1,000 mph” problem. There is nothing that confuses your audience more than rattling off unfamiliar science at the speed of an auctioneer.

My goal? Be more understandable than an auctioneer.

My goal? Be more understandable than an auctioneer.

10 or so minutes later, I had successfully (and at an adequate speed) navigated through my talk. And, importantly, I could even remember giving the talk after I had finished! This may sound trivial, but for the first year or two of public speaking, those 10 minutes would have been a huge black box that I would never fully remember.

Ok great, the talk is over and I think it went pretty well. But now? Now it’s time for…. dun dun dun… QUESTIONS.

I have always been irrationally afraid of the question section of scientific talks. I have never been particularly confident speaking on my toes, and so my nerves have often gotten the best of me. I’d say that I am just one of a huge number of grad students that experienced the dreaded Impostor Syndrome in graduate school. It is really hard to look around a room of scientists and think of yourself as a colleague, as opposed to an insignificant dummy that got into graduate school by mistake. It’s taken me 4 years, countless tears, several boxes of tissues to catch those tears, and a whole lot of grunt work to acquire the confidence necessary to not completely fall to pieces in front of a crowd.

One of my favorite pieces of advice about question sections that I’ve ever received was that questions are actually a good sign! It means that your audience not only understood what you’ve presented to them, but they have processed it and want to know more! I had to stop thinking of questions as confrontational but as simply inquisitive. Therefore, when I saw more than half a dozen hands shoot into the air at the end of my talk, I experienced a strange mix of fear and excitement. Apparently I was a bit under time, so my moderator let me continue to answer question after question after question. For some of the questions, I had concrete answers and for others I had not-so-concrete speculations. But I was at least answering them coherently. Woo!  It was then time for my last question. A man sitting front and center raised his hand and very quietly asked:

“How confident are you that your hypothesis is not completely wrong?”

Hmmm. Ok. This is a curve ball. Wasn’t most of my talk presenting evidence that my hypothesis was at least feasible? Did he not believe any of it? Oh no.

PANIC. PART TWO.

2 moments of panic in less than 15 minutes?! This was becoming quite unfortunate. However, since he had asked the question so quietly, I had the benefit of a few seconds to gather my composure before answering. I leaned up to the microphone, and slowly repeated the question verbatim. I will forever be grateful for the murmur of giggles that quickly swept around the room. A well-known P.I. in the front even yelled out with a huge smile on his face: “Oh, you know, I’d probably say about 50%?!”. Ok, everyone understands this is a tricky question to address.

Phew. Crisis averted.

I then took a deep breath, broke into a smile, and asked the man to clarify which part of the hypothesis he’d like me to address. It turned out that he had a totally valid concern which I quickly addressed and concluded my talk. Once again, I had survived a talk. SUCCESS!

I guess I went into so much detail about this short oral presentation because I think it highlights not only the terrifying inferiority complex we face as graduate students but also the progress I’ve made to tackle it in the last 4 years. Talks will never go exactly how I want them to go and there will always be things I want to fix about them, but they are lessons learned and baby steps in the right direction. That final question I received, which gave me the biggest amount of concern, has even become sort of a joke within my training grant. No one will ever listen to me speak again without being tempted to ask that question, and we’ve even all come up with our favorite “answers” in the event that we get that question again.

Overall, NWDB 2014 was another fabulous success. The science was incredible, the feedback I received was invaluable, and the friendship I strengthened with my training grant cohort and fellow graduate students is irreplaceable. Onto the next one! Next stop? Madison, WI!