Dissertations, Defenses, and Doctorate Degrees… Oh my!

Hello blog!

What a summer! As of August 21st, I am officially a Doctor of Philosophy! Woohoo!

A reception full of sushi, champagne, and of course a nematode cake!

My dissertation was full of sushi, champagne, and of course a nematode cake!

Graduate school was definitely a roller coaster ride and I can’t wait to write a few blogs about the dissertation process and all of the emotions that go along with it. Until then, I wanted to share with you a little insight into my dissertation defense, and even give you a chance to watch it!

In my 5 years at the University of Washington, I have attended a LOT of dissertation defenses. Dozens. And they are always wonderful, celebratory events that leave me inspired and with tears in my eyes. However, to be completely honest, they are also often really hard to understand. PhD research is extremely specialized, and often talks are aimed at the fellow experts in the audience, including committee members and lab members.

For me, I instead wanted to share my dissertation celebration with everyone who supported me along the way. I not only invited scientific colleagues and classmates, but many family and friends who normally operate outside the ivory tower of academia. Therefore, when I started to prepare my dissertation defense, I had one large goal in mind: I wanted every single person in the room to walk away with an understanding of what I did in graduate school, how I did it, and why I did it.

An audience of scientists, soccer fans, and family

The first wave of attendees included scientists, soccer fans, and family

To tackle this goal, I first decided that pictures were better than graphs. If I could draw an animated schematic or take a quick picture, I chose to do that over trying to navigate complicated figures displaying raw data. Second, I subjected my lab to two separate practice talks. At practice talk one, I asked my lab to focus on content: was I sharing too much information for a 45 minute talk? Too little? Were there any topics that I was presenting that would be inaccessible to a general audience? Thankfully, my lab includes several experienced teachers and speakers who reminded me that terms like “epigenetics” and “chromatin” either need explained or replaced with more accessible terminology.

Practice talk two was aimed at presentation style: was I talking too fast? Too slow? Were some slides more helpful than others? How could I improve those weaker slides? I found that setting unique goals for each talk not only prevented me from being overwhelmed with suggestions, but also allowed my listeners to approach each talk with a fresh perspective.

Now, it would be a lot to say that I fully succeeded at my goal. Did every single person understand every sentence of my talk? Certainly not. Were there portions of my talk that could have been improved? Certainly. However, many audience members were able to paraphrase my findings later over beer, and I even had some non-science friends participating in the question portion of my defense! And that, my friends, meant my defense was a big old victory in my book!

My sisters definitely enjoyed themselves!

My sisters definitely enjoyed themselves!

Thank you to everyone who was able to attend my defense. What an incredible and surreal day. For those of you that couldn’t attend, you’re in luck! I have included a video of my dissertation in this blog post. If you’re interested, I’d love to hear some critiques/discussion in the comments section! Was I able to accomplish my goals in my dissertation defense? After watching, would you be able to paraphrase the important take home messages? What do you think could have improved my presentation?

Thanks for reading/watching/commenting!

You work with WHAT?! Common misconceptions about studying nematodes

We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm”- Winston Churchill

Well, if Mr. Churchill is right, and we are all worms, I am most definitely a nematode.

Now you may be thinking, “Emily, you’ve lost it. A nematode? A toad is most definitely NOT a worm”.  Don’t worry; I haven’t totally lost it (in this instance, anyways). Nematode is another name for the roundworm, which account for over 80% of the individual animals on the planet! In our lab at the University of Washington and at labs all around the world, the nematode is very close to our hearts. This is because we study one particular species of nematode called Caenorhabditis elegans. Scientific names can often be a mouthful, so most shorten it to simply C. elegans.

When I tell people that I work on worms, I usually get a look of disgust, confusion, or skepticism.  But let’s get something straight- C. elegans are not what you are picturing. They don’t look like this:

Source: fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au

Source: fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au

Or this:


And unfortunately, they don’t look like this either:


In fact, C. elegans are very hard to see without a microscope. Adults are only about 1 millimeter long. To put that into perspective, a single C. elegans worm could be picked up by a single eyelash! Having a hard time picturing it? Here are a couple of views of C. elegans:

Crawling C. elegans hermaphrodite worm

Crawling C. elegans hermaphrodite worm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caenorhabditis elegans

Caenorhabditis elegans (Photo credit: AJC1)

Ok, ok… but who in their right mind decided studying these tiny worms was a good idea?

Well, studying diseases in larger animals like mice and rats isn’t easy: they take a long time to develop and grow, are expensive to maintain, and are complicated in design. In the 1960’s, a scientist named Sydney Brenner suggested that studying C. elegans would improve on a lot of these problems: C. elegans only live for a few weeks in the lab, are cheap and easy to maintain, and it is easy to manipulate their genes! To put the simplicity of C. elegans into perspective, while the human body has trillions of cells, C. elegans only have around 1000 cells! Today, along with fruit flies, C. elegans is frequently used as a model organism for studying disease and cellular processes.

In the 40+ years that C. elegans have been used in scientific research, they have greatly contributed to the advancement of science, particularly in the study of aging. Many genes that make C. elegans live longer in the laboratory have been identified as important in the aging process in humans and other mammals. Additionally, C. elegans are a great model  for studying human disease, as more than half of the genes known to be involved in human disease are also found in C. elegans. For example, models of neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s have been developed, and are currently being utilized to better understand and development treatments for these diseases.

In the last 15 years, THREE Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists for their work in C. elegans!

Hopefully, the next time that you hear a scientist mention that they study worms, you will not necessarily picture them digging around in the dirt and looking at earthworms. While we have all been known to dig in the dirt from time to time, C. elegans researchers are tackling tough research problems from behind a microscope, using this tractable and inexpensive model organism!


And now for some great references to find out more about C. elegans!

A Short History of C. elegans Research

Worms in SPACE?!

Wormatlas: A bit dense for the nonscientist, but great images!

Introduction to C. elegans