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.

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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

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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!

Change the world? Challenge accepted

Graduate students are angsty. It’s true, don’t try and deny it. We are sleep-deprived and grumpy and covered in emotional bruises from being knocked down so many times. One of my friends posted this all-too-familiar sentiment to social media last week:

 “Ya know, I became a scientist because I wanted to help people. Because I wanted to cure a disease, or find a therapy, or make a discovery that changes the world. And as I sit here reading papers for class I can’t help but think there are much better ways to truly help people, and that this is all just a big joke.”

I can nearly guarantee you that every graduate student has had this thought at one point or another. We came in with such aspirations, such dreams to do something good, but as the seemingly neverending PhD continues, we start to lose our faith in this ideal. In a city like Seattle, many people our age are employed by Microsoft or Amazon, working better hours for more than twice the salary. Knowing that, it’s hard not to question our decision to go to grad school. We make very little money, see very little progress in our grueling day-to-day science, and are constantly bombarded with the premise that we are simply not as smart as everyone else. I am about to start the twentieth grade, for goodness’ sake! What am I doing here?!

177377_631228287443_2045552082_oSometimes, planning out my future feels more like drawing cartoons.

But what I’ve started to learn is this: grad school isn’t supposed to be about changing the world. It’s about changing you first.

As first years, we are as prepared to cure cancer as we are to fly a spaceship to Mars. So, we read mountains of scientific literature that we only occasionally care about (or understand, for that matter). We sit through lecture after lecture of successful scientists, sometimes understanding what they are talking about. We do an exorbitant number of experiments that fail three-quarters of the time… on a good day. But through all of that, we learn how to think. We learn how to problem solve. We learn how to be a scientist. And that’s the point of being a graduate student. At my committee meeting yesterday, my boss told me I needed to start making the transition from thinking of myself as a student to thinking of myself as a colleague. Three years ago, I would have been terrified of that transition, but after three years of grad school, I’ve changed.

Writing this blog, it’s hard to find a middle ground between the angsty overworked graduate student and the motivated inspired scientist. I’m not here to convince you that graduate school doesn’t suck. It does! But I’m also not here to convince you that it’s a worthless waste of time, because I don’t think that’s true, either. I think I am mostly trying to reaffirm that what we are doing, while not immediately changing the world, will make us the people we want to be. The people who cure cancer, who change policies, who reimagine the way science will work in 15 years.

If you were to ask my classmates, I’m sure they’d tell you that I love grad school more than most. I do. I started working in a lab at 16. I’m pretty sure my mom thought I was crazy when I walked into her room and said I wanted to give up my summer and most of my senior year to drive to Frederick and work on cancer. And, to be honest, as cliché as it all sounds, I fell in love with science that year. And until my second year of graduate school, 6 years later, I never once questioned the path I was going to take: college, research, grad school, academic researcher, rounding off my career by curing cancer.

Recently, my goals have changed a bit. I know this may come as a surprise to many, but

I probably won’t be the one to cure cancer.

I may not even be behind a microscope in 10 years (guess I’ll have to change my blog title at that point)! I do know that I love talking to people. I love engaging students who never knew that being a scientist was a possibility. I love trying to fix the Grand Canyon-sized gap between research scientists and the public. I don’t think that I would have realized these things, or been able to formulate a plan to incorporate them into a career, if I didn’t walk the long and terrifying path of graduate school.

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The realization that your scope has taught you more than it’s taught you…

As graduate students, we are, by most definitions, adults. We pay rent, we buy our own groceries, we can vote, drive cars (if we can afford the gas), pay taxes, get married, have children, buy houses. There is a quote from an early season of Grey’s Anatomy that I think describes it best:

“Four years of high school, four years of college, four years of med school. By the time we graduate we’re in our late 20s and we’ve never done anything except go to school and think about science. Time stops… And Meredith, she’s 17 years old, we’re all 17 years old”.

So, here I am, a 24-year-old graduate student, still contemplating what I want to be when I grow up. The answer currently: Who knows! That is the answer of most graduate students these days, especially with an increasing number of Ph.D.s and a diminishing resource of jobs and funding (that’s a topic for another day). But I do know that going through graduate school will be one of the biggest and best accomplishments of my life. And mark my words, I will change the world one day. I just have to work on changing myself first.