2014: The Year I Killed the Bear

If you have been following my blog for a while, you are familiar with my 2014 resolution: JUST KILL THE BEAR. If this doesn’t ring a bell, the rest of this entry will make very little sense, so I recommend that you take a moment and read THIS blog entry first.

Ok. Now that we are hopefully all on the same page and 2014 has officially come to an end, I’m sure you are just dying to know how I did. Well… drum roll please…

The bear has been killed!

It has been a crazy, wild, exhausting year, but 2014 contained some really big milestones that I am excited (and a little nervous) to reflect upon. In some ways, I blew past my expectations. In other aspects, I have a lot more work to do. And in all honesty, I’m glad that my New Year’s Resolutions didn’t have a perfect ending: I have room to improve and a great place to start for 2015. Right? Right.

In 2014, I started my fifth year of graduate school. This means I have officially been in graduate school longer than I was an undergraduate. That fact still blows my mind. Seattle has very much become a home to this East Coast native, and I will forever be grateful for the friends, colleagues, and landscape I have come to know so well. As I approach a new milestone in 2015 (more about that later), I know that there is a strong chance that I may not end 2015 as a Seattle resident. I am so happy that I will be able to reflect back on my time in Seattle with nothing but pure adoration for the Pacific Northwest and it’s crazy inhabitants.

In 2014, I published my research. My paper, which became available on the Aging Cell website in December and can be seen here, was a labor of love (emphasis on the labor part). For some projects, the time between the initial idea and publication is relatively quick. That, however, was not the case with this paper. Not only did this project involve several years of research, but the publication process also turned out to be labor intensive. My paper spent much of 2014 traveling around trying to find the right home and went through many MANY facelifts in the process. One of the biggest struggles I ran into, coincidentally, was a variation of killing the bear that I did not expect. Throughout the peer review process, reviewers often give you a laundry list of experiments that would theoretically strengthen your manuscript. I, of course, found all of these recommendations to be fabulous ideas and set out to tackle as many as possible. However, as many of you are probably already aware, this is not a plausible strategy. I could have easily spent the next two years troubleshooting those experiments and that is the opposite of my 2014 goal: to kill the bear! Thanks to some encouragement from my boss and the help of an incredibly talented undergraduate, I was able to step back and prioritize the experiments that directly contributed to the story I was telling. While I wish I could be sitting here and telling you about the multiple manuscripts I had published in 2014, seeing the final version of that bear of a manuscript (no pun intended, but fitting) with my name listed as first author easily ranks as one of my top moments of the year.

My paper acceptance party!

My paper acceptance party, November 2014

In 2014, I ran my first half marathon. At this time last year, the longest race I had ever completed was a 5K. That’s 3.1 miles for you non-metric folk. I decided that 2014 was going to be the year that I doubled, tripled, and quadrupled that number. Starting in January, I laced up my new (and, as to avoid another stress fracture, correctly fitted) running shoes and started training. In March, I successfully ran the Seahawks 12th Man 12K and soon set my sights on the Rock ‘N’ Roll Seattle Half Marathon (a terrifying 13.1 miles). Reflecting back on race day, the Rock ‘N’ Roll went better than I could have ever envisioned. The weather was PERFECT, my body felt strong, and the course was a beautiful (and thankfully flat) trek around Seattle. I finished the race in a respectable 2 hours and 23 minutes. Even though it was a bit slower than my goal of a 10 min/mile pace, I killed that bear!

RockNRollSeattle

Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon, June 2014

In 2014, I ran my second half marathon. While it might sound like I was simply being an overachiever, it was really a way to get myself out of a mid-year funk. After the June half marathon, I decided to give myself a short break from running. However, that short break turned into a massive roadblock. I stopped exercising as regularly and it started to show, not just in my body but in my energy level and my outlook on life in general. And so, one night in October, as I was perusing the internet as I commonly do, I signed up for the Seattle Half Marathon on a whim. “This is how I am going to turn myself around”, I thought. “I’ll invest money in a race and give myself no other option!” I still believe this was a great rationale but I hadn’t completely thought it through. The Seattle Half Marathon took place on November 30th, which meant months of training in the cold, rainy and dark place that is Fall in Seattle. It turns out that it is much harder to convince yourself to head out the door for a run on a cold, dark and rainy day. Regretfully, I was not as prepared for the Seattle Half as I was for the Rock ‘N’ Roll. It didn’t help that the race happened to take place on one of the coldest days of the year (27 degrees at start time) on a hilly course that happened to be covered in ice. BUT. I finished that race. Slower than I hoped? Yes. Slower than the Rock ‘N’ Roll? Yep. But I finished. And to think back on a 2013 when I couldn’t have even dreamed of running a 10K, I’m pretty damn happy about running 13.1 miles. Twice.

Please appreciate the snow!

Seattle Half Marathon, November 2014 (Please appreciate the snow!)

Of course, I did a lot of other things in 2014. Some things were good, and some things were not so good. But when I woke up this morning and reread my goals for 2014, I couldn’t help but smile. I have done what I set out to do. I killed those mean, menacing, intimidating bears. So, thanks for a great year, 2014. Let’s make 2015 even better. And with the prospects of a Ph.D. on the horizon, I can guarantee it will be!

Check back for my new 2015 resolution later this month.

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!