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!

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Killing the bear (and other 2014 goals)

Hello friends! So… it’s been a while. It’d be a lie if I didn’t admit that I’m a bit embarrassed and quite disappointed in how long it has taken me to come back to this blog. Last year, when SciFund outreach ended, I made a promise to myself that I would blog at LEAST once a month. And, to put it bluntly, I failed miserably. And for those of you who know me, I’m not really one to accept failure. SO, it’s time to (wo)man up and get back on the right track with this blog! But in order for that to happen, I think it’s time to make some changes. BIG changes. So bring on the personal anecdotes and corny jokes because…

this blog is about to get personal.

In order to understand why I think I need to make changes, let’s take a look back to a lovely evening of sushi and cocktails that I had with my friend, colleague, and importantly, fellow blogger, last month. In between rounds of Jenga and lychee martinis, Albert asked me what sounded like a simple question:

So what happened to your blog?

I remember that I immediately responded with an excuse, something along the lines of, “it’s hard for me to think of good scientific content so frequently, I got busy, I traveled a lot… blah blah blah”. But it was then that I realized I didn’t have a good excuse. There’s no need for my blog to be scientific gold every entry. There’s no need to continuously come up with a fresh take on my research. I just need to WRITE. And write often. This week, Albert posted a new entry into his blog, and so shall I. Thanks for the motivation, Steak Sauce. I owe you one. Oh, and he’s a great blogger, check it out here.

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So I think I’ll start my blogs for 2014 with a quick review of my accomplishments in 2013, and a look ahead to my goals for 2014. I’ve decided to loosely structure my blog around these goals, both personal and professional, to hopefully encourage me to write informally and often.

2013 Accomplishment: Get involved with a nonprofit!

At the beginning of 2013, April, a post-doc in our lab (and a wonderful human being all around), asked me what I wanted to do after I got my Ph.D.. I told her the truth: I’m not exactly sure, but I am really passionate about the mission and motivation behind nonprofit organizations. So she challenged me to find a nonprofit organization in Seattle, and to get involved. REALLY involved. And so I did! For the last year, I have volunteered weekly (and sometimes a bit more), at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where the mission is to offer world-class cancer treatment to the community while supporting the conduct of cutting-edge cancer research. I’ve spent most of my Saturday afternoons at Shine, a retail store housed in the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance house, which provides oncology-related goods, services and support to cancer patients, their families, and the community. While I think I will dedicate a future blog to my love for nonprofits and my experiences with the SCCA, I am proud to say that I have accomplished my 2013 goal of getting involved, and couldn’t be happier about it!

2014 Goal: Kill the bear

Two weeks ago, during dinner with the fantastic Dr. Alex Schier, my training grant cohort asked if he had any advice for young scientists. His advice was simply to “kill the bear”. And, while it didn’t make too much sense at first, I think this advice makes for a GREAT 2014 goal. Let me elaborate…

As scientists, our research isn’t doing anyone any good sitting in notebooks. There are always more experiments we could do, always another question that could be answered. However, we need to stop trying to teach our proverbial “bear” new tricks. Don’t feed our bear any more treats. Don’t pet the bear.

JUST KILL THE BEAR.

And so, my professional goal for 2014 is to publish more! I have two pretty advanced drafts that have been collecting electronic dust on my computer, but I find myself starting new experiments instead of polishing these manuscripts. It’s time to make publishing my number one goal… it’s time to kill the bear!

He may be cute, but it's time to kill the bear!

He may be cute, but it’s time to kill the bear!

I’ll also be working towards killing the bear in my personal life. I’ve come to really enjoy running in the past year or so, but last October, while training for the Dawg Dash 10K, I got a stress fracture in the arch of my foot.  I ended up in a cast for about 2 months, and had to stay away from running until the New Year. Let me promise you, that was NOT FUN. However, I did learn that it is still possible to dress up a cast for a formal function, jump around in the ECS section at a Sounders game, and that the cast can even improve your Halloween costume (at least when you go as Buzz Lightyear, as I did).

Walking casts, despite the name, make walking a bit of a challenge.

Walking casts, despite the name, make walking a bit of a challenge.

Even though I’ve always talked about setting running goals, to this day, I’ve never run a race longer than a 5K. So, it’s time to kill the bear! I’m signed up to run the 12th Man 12K (GO HAWKS!) in early April, and am slowly but surely getting back into running shape after my injury. I have some other BIG plans that I’m not quite ready to share with the world yet, but watch out 2014… I’m going to be running circles around you!!!

I hope you guys are excited as I am for Emily’s blog version 2.0. Will there be science? You bet. But will there be a bit more of me? Yeah, I think so. So get ready for many adventures (and some misadventures) as I try to figure out what the HELL I am doing. Toodles!

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.