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!

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!