The Edge of the World

The brilliant, illustrated guide to a Ph.D. by Matt Might has been making the internet rounds again lately, and I love it. It’s such an accurate description of the tiny little bubble that we Ph.D. students find ourselves in. It’s also a subtle reminder that there is more to the world than our little bubble, a fact that all PhD students struggle with from time to time (The words, “What do you mean you don’t care about the attenuation of alpha power during visual activation? This is everything, guys!!” may have been uttered recently by me…)

I do have one amendment to propose to this guide: Don’t think of it as a circle with a solid boundary. Think of it more like a landmass surrounded by water. Or lava, depending on how your day is going.

url.jpg

http://www.privateislandsonline.com/regions/asia

For the most part, the center of the landmass is rock solid. This is where all of that knowledge that you learned in elementary school, high school, and college lives. This is what has been known for decades, what is taught to everyone, and what is not likely to change.

As you wander out farther toward the knowledge required for a masters or a PhD, the land becomes softer and marshier. There’s definitely still solid ground under your feet, but it has the tendency to shift as you walk around.

Then you reach the edge of the landmass. It’s time to begin your thesis project. Here is the part that people don’t tell you: that border is CONSTANTLY changing, and you never know what’s about to happen with it.

A few parts of this landmass are cliffs. Due to technical limitations or simply dogma, there is not a good way to contribute more land to this area. At least not without jumping off the cliff first, which can be incredibly dangerous.

url.jpg

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Tourism-g551520-Aran_Islands_County_Galway_Western_Ireland-Vacations.html

Tsunamis and hurricanes have been known to wipe out entire fields of knowledge and replace them with something that looks nothing like what came before. Devastating, but necessary for the survival of science.

For the most part, however, PhD work takes place on beaches. Each day you have to swim out into the ocean, dredge up some sand from the bottom, and try to expand your little section of beach. There will be days when the tide is low, and you feel like you’ve accumulated a whole hell of a lot of knowledge. But, inevitably, the tide will come back in, every experiment will fail, and you will be right back where you started.  There are few things in a scientist’s life more heartbreaking than watching all that work be swept right back out to sea.

beach-pail-shovel.jpg

http://cdn.sheknows.com/articles/2012/07/sarah_parenting/beach-pail-shovel.jpg

It will take time and work, sweat and blood, tears and exhaustion, but one day you will realize that when high tide comes in the water level is not as high as it used to be. It will be barely perceptible at first, but eventually you will have really added some mileage to that little beach of yours. You have truly contributed to the totality of human knowledge.

When that day comes, you have earned your PhD.

And a margarita.

sea-beach-table-wallpaper-juice-background-drink-food-store-182289.jpg

http://www.desktopwallpaperhd.net/sea-beach-table-wallpaper-juice-background-drink-food-store-182289.html

 

Parents: Here’s what year 2 looks like

Each year, Vanderbilt welcomes the new crop of graduate students by holding a White Coat Ceremony. This tradition is a way of instilling new recruits with a sense of professionalism and reminding them that they are now scientific colleagues. In other words: they’re officially part of the club. Parents of graduate students are invited to get a glimpse of the scientific life that their sons and daughters will lead.

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 10.39.36 AM

https://medschool.vanderbilt.edu/bret/content/so-simple-beginning

This year, I was invited to briefly describe my graduate school experience so that parents could get a taste of what their sons and daughters have in store. This is what I said:

“I’ve been asked to share with you all what I wish my parents had known this year. I checked around with some of my other grad student friends to see what they want their parents to be aware of. Some wanted me to remind you that even though we do get a stipend, any and all financial support is always appreciated. Some wanted me to remind you to never, ever ask when we’re going to graduate. By far the biggest thing that they wanted me to remind you is that we are not medical doctors. Stop asking us to diagnose you… put your moles away.

As I was reflecting on this past year I thought of all of the conversations that I’ve had with my mom since starting graduate school, and I realized that despite my world revolving around science and her having no science background whatsoever, the only thing that I have to explain to her over and over again is how completely stupid I am. Parents- get used to hearing this from your children.

There will be a lot of moments in your son or daughters’ coming years where they will feel exactly like the brilliant special snowflakes that we know that they are. But there will be moments- so many, many moments- when they will feel like the absolute dumbest person on the planet.

Let me start by telling you a little about my research. When you arrive at Vanderbilt, you are told that you can choose any lab that you want, and not to worry if you have background in that research- you will catch up. I think brains are amazing, and memory is  cool- I wanted to study that.

I was also at that time fascinated with MRI images. Since my boss isn’t in this room I can be honest with you- at the time I was choosing lab rotations there was an iPad commercial in circulation that showed an app that allows you scroll through MRI images and I really, really wanted to do that.

I had just come from a lab where I worked with mice, and while mouse research is fun, mice smell terrible, they bite, and they just don’t understand the meaning of a weekend. No, I decided that human research was for me. So I joined a neuroscience lab where we study memory in humans using MRI.

Here’s what I didn’t know: First, I knew that brain cells had electrical properties. I did not know that by choosing neuroscience I would basically be getting an education in electrical engineering, but with squishier circuit boards. One of my first neuroscience classes they started throwing terms at me like “voltage clamp” and “membrane capacitance”- I had no idea what was going on.

Then I started to learn about MRI. First, MRI is amazing, and I’m incredibly happy that I chose the lab that I did. I’m also glad that everything I knew about MRI came from a commercial for an Apple product, because if I had known that I would be learning quantum physics and advanced calculus,  I may have run screaming in the opposite direction.

Finally, human research is great for a lot of reasons! You can ask human subjects how they’re feeling, in general they follow directions, and while I don’t want to rule out biting, there’s a much lower risk. But… there are some drawbacks. I worked with 18-25 year old males, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn’t anticipate my protocol requiring me to set a timer and small talk with them for exactly 13 minutes in a situation that very closely resembled the most awkward first date of all time, except worse because they are literally strapped to a chair and can’t escape. Mostly, I didn’t anticipate that they would have incredibly intelligent questions about my research that I hadn’t thought to ask before. Questions like “What does that button do?” and “Why are you doing it that way?” and my personal favorite, “So what are you going to do if this doesn’t work out?”

The great thing about grad school is that when your job is learning, you can learn a lot in a short amount of time. I actually understand electrical signaling now. The MRI physics classes that I complained about are some of the best classes I’ve ever taken. And the questions that my subjects asked help me come up with some great experiment ideas. They were also startlingly similar to the questions that my qualifying exam committee asked me last week.

Your first year of graduate school is all about fake it til you make it. Your second year is when you stop faking and really start learning. I guarantee that at some point in the future your children will call you and try to explain to you what absolute idiots they are. It is your job to not believe them.”

Quals

If you know me, you may have noticed my absence from the world for the past few months. My Facebook status was largely un-updated, my twitter feed ground to a halt, and my 90 day Klout score report now closely resembles the Dow Jones in 2008. I didn’t pack my car and head for a remote island leaving all modern day technology behind (although I was tempted). I was simply in quals mode.

The qualifying exam, or “quals,” ” is the last step to become a Ph.D. candidate. In other words, after two years in school you STILL are not considered fully admitted to the program. There is one last giant obstacle to get around, and that obstacle will take every ounce of academic willpower that you possess. You may be wondering what sort of test could pull me away from the online world for months at a time. Well… It’s one hell of a test.

To begin to understand the qualifying exam, picture the hardest exam you’ve ever taken in your life. Likely it’s a cumulative closed-book final of some kind. Before grad school, my worst exam memory was my physical chemistry final (that’s right Dr. Kugel- I still remember). The quals are kind of like that, except they are a cumulative final of every class you’ve taken in the past two years.

Your most difficult exam was probably graded by one professor (or more likely their TA). Take that professor and quadruple her. You are now being tested by four professors who not only terrify you, but are experts in their fields. They know what they’re talking about. They are also encouraged to be on the lookout for your weaknesses and exploit them. Like sharks, they are continually sniffing for blood in the water and ready to attack when they find it. And if it’s there, they will find it. 

Likely, your hardest test was written, but that nonsense has no place in a qualifying exam. No, instead you will give your answers orally to this panel of experts. And you will need to illustrate your answers as you go using only a marker and a whiteboard, so I hope your drawing skills are up to par. 

It’s possible that you may have had a study guide for the exam you have in mind. At the very least, you had your notes from the semester. And you can rest assured that if it wasn’t covered in class or in the assigned reading, you will not be tested on it. Guess what? for the qual THERE ARE NO BOUNDARIES. If it is remotely related to your field, or their field, or something that they saw in the news yesterday, it’s fair game.

Finally, the test (for my program at least) lasts 90 minutes. On the one hand, 90 minutes is a long time to have to function normally while in the midst of a panic attack. On the other hand, this means that for all of the months and months of studying that you have done, you will likely only be asked a tiny percentage of what you know.

The good news is that I passed, and even if I hadn’t life would have gone on. It took me a long time to understand the value of the qualifying exam and not just look at it as immensely cruel graduate-level hazing. I have to begrudgingly admit that having the quals as a hard deadline to learn everything related to my field made me understand my project much more than I would have if I could study at my own pace. Spouting out everything I know to this panel of experts convinced me that I have learned a lot about neuroscience in the two years that I’ve been here, and I might be starting to become an expert myself. Defending my project convinced me that  my project is amazing, and I am so excited to get started with it.

The qualifying exam is a terrible but necessary staple of graduate school life. While the qual that I’ve described is specific to my program, every Ph.D. program that I’m aware of has a similar process. On the bright side, passing your qualifying exam puts you in the same shoes as every graduate student that has come before you, and every one that will come after you. Trust me from experience: you can survive, you can pass, and you will never experience a feeling of relief quite like hearing the words, “Congratulations, you are an official Ph.D. candidate.”

What I’ve learned- Year Two

Phew, what a crazy semester. In case you’re wondering why I’ve written only a few times in 2013, it’s because the last few months can only be summed up using my favorite Minnesotan catch phrase: uff da.

In happy news, I just finished my last final exam… EVER. Like… ever ever. It’s kind of anticlimactic to actually be done with 18 years of formal education. Not that I’ll stay out of the classroom for the rest of my life- I still have a teaching requirement to fulfill and since I am one of the biggest nerds on the planet, I’ll probably wind up auditing some classes just for fun. Still, no more homework. No more tests. No more quizzes.

Continuing with my year-end tradition, let me share with you some of the insights I’ve gained in year two:

1.) You are going to feel stupid. All the time. Possibly every single day.

This was really the hardest lesson to learn. If you’re considering grad school, you’re probably used to feeling like a smart person. You’re not. In the grand scheme of things, you know nothing about anything. Here’s the good news though: neither does anyone else. We’re all just muddling through as best as we can. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” but get even more comfortable saying, “I don’t know… yet.” For the most part, grad school is not about teaching you facts. It’s about teaching you how to phrase the question, and then teaching you where and how to find the answer. The American education system could learn from this model.

2.) Those sneaky bastards are actually teaching you something

I have to admit something- one year ago, I could not have told you where the hippocampus was. I could not have told you what the hippocampus looked like. I know, I know, I study Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that targets the hippocampus and surrounding areas. Remember how you are going to feel stupid every single day? Part of it is feeling that you know absolutely nothing about something you should know a whole awful lot about.

Fast forward to last night, when a friend of mine was studying for a med school exam and had a question about the hippocampus. Suddenly there I was spouting off facts about cell layers, and the dentate gyrus, and “Well it’s controversial whether or not this is actually considered a part of the hippocampus,” and talking about computational models of memory. I turned into a Ph.Douche (my term for when you become a complete intellectual snob midway through your career training to compensate for the fact that you are feeling stupid every day). Not only did I know this information off-hand, but it felt intuitive. Like, “Well duh, of course the fimbria connects the hippocampus to the limbic system, where have you been?”

The same thing happened when she asked me about the difference between the basal forebrain and the basal ganglia. When a different friend was asking me questions about MRI, I knew the answers. It suddenly dawned on me- is it possible that between all of my stress and complaining about classes, I have actually been able to absorb some information? Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky.

For future reference, this is where the hippocampus is. The more you know.

For future reference, this is where the hippocampus is. The more you know.

3.) It’s time to let all that type-A nonsense go.

You’ve heard this before- “Make time for you,” “Have a well-balanced life,” “Take some time to relax,” “Slow down, you’re going to burn out!” and if you’re a type-A perfectionist like me, you’ve decided that’s all a bunch of hippie crap and they just don’t understand how much you love science. Fast forward a few months, and suddenly you’re strung out on your sixth day of no sleep and you’re hysterically crying in lab meeting for no apparent reason.

Here’s the truth: You actually do need to make time for you. You actually do need to have a well-balanced life. Put down the damn pipette and go outside. Shut down your computer. Turn off your smartphone. Shhhhhh it’s ok, nobody is going to die if you don’t answer that email right now.

One piece of advice I wish someone had given me? Stop signing up for things. This is not high school, and you no longer have to pad your resume to get into your dream school. You are already there, that game is over. Sign up for committees or workshops or seminars that you truly believe will be beneficial to your future career, and by all means sample different things if you have no idea what you want to do, but don’t expect to be rewarded or recognized. Nobody is going to give you a gold star if you go to a meeting about joining the pharmaceutical industry when you know that there is absolutely no way you want to join the pharmaceutical industry. Your lab work is what matters right now, so focus on that. Gold stars are now awarded for beautiful western blots and Matlab scripts that work.

4.) Do the social media thing, even though you’ll feel stupid at first

I truly believe that being moderately savvy in social media is what’s going to make my career. I have so many connections now that I never would have otherwise. I love my institution, but I feel like I have resources online that are simply not available in the real world.

The problem is that explaining Twitter to outsiders is a bit like explaining Doctor Who. Until you put it into words, you don’t realize how dumb it sounds (“Ok, so there’s this time traveling space alien who goes around in a blue box called the T.A.R.D.I.S. and fights other  aliens and saves the world and it’s so awesome and hey wait! Where are you going?!”) so don’t listen to anyone’s description of it. Just dive in. You will figure it out, and you will thank me. You can start by following me (@ejmaso05)!

5.) The time is now. Do it now.

If there’s one thing I’ve regretted about this year it’s all of the times that I’ve said “…but I’m only a second year.” It has held me back from networking with the bigwigs, voicing my opinion, and joining in discussions that I should be a part of.

I call this complex the “let the grown ups handle it” complex, and it needs to stop- the grown ups can’t handle it alone. Whether you are a second year, or a college grad, or hell, even an eighth grader, your voice counts. Do you have an opinion on a topic? Say it. It matters. Did you notice a mistake somewhere? Point it out. It matters. Are congresspeople about to pass the sequester into law and make a giant mistake? For the love of god, try to stop them. It matters.

One of the best decisions that I made this year was ignoring my insecurities and attending the Science Online conference. Guess what? No one ever said to me “Interesting opinion… but you’re only a second year.” So I’m going to stop saying it to myself.

So that’s it. Two years down, three… four? five? Years to go! Next mission: Rocking the qualifying exam. It’s only 120 days away…

 

 

Dating Tips from the Animal Kingdom

Valentine’s Day is upon us. That time of year when the pink and red confetti is flying, Cupid’s arrows are ready to spring from his bow, and the true Casanovas try to outdo each other with fabulous date ideas. While chocolate and roses are one way to win the affections of your beloved, I think when it comes to courtship the animal kingdom has us humans beat. Just in case you haven’t come up with a plan yet (or want to stock up on ideas for next year!) here are a few rituals that should provide you with plenty of ammunition.

10.) The Manakin bird

Look at this guy. Fast forward to 2:00 for the good stuff.

The Manakin bird. He has better moves than Jagger- He’s got the moves like MJ. Think that’s awesome? Here’s the great part. Manakins are a type of bird that participates in Lek mating. Lekking, from the Swedish word for “play,” refers to ritualistic competitive mating displays. In other words, not only do Manakins moonwalk, but they DANCE BATTLE MOONWALK!  Also, can we all take a moment to appreciate Dr. Kim Bostwick’s moves? I think she won the lek.

Lesson for human dating: Epic dance moves will almost always win you the object of your affections

Bonus true fact: there are two types of Lekking: classical leks and exploded leks. I’m not going to go into detail, I just think you should know that there is a thing called exploded leks. Thank you, Wikipedia.

9.) The Midge

Sometimes, we look to the animal kingdom for advice on what not to do. I’ll spare you the details of hippo flirting (ok fine… he flings his own feces at her face), and tell you the tale of the midge, a non-biting gnat.

Great_sunset_on_lake_foxen_(july_2005,_25)

Picture this: it’s a muggy summer dusk on the lake. As the sun sinks behind the evergreens, lights at the ends of the docks begin to blink on. Mr. and Mrs. Midge are engaging in a dance as old as time itself. She looks at him. He looks at her. They slowly lean in and…. she sucks his bodily fluids right out of his mouth, instantly killing him. Whoops.

Lesson for human dating: Kiss nicely. Ease up on the suction, hombre.

8.)  Argentine lake duck

Most bird species do not have external genitalia, but thanks to what some scientists describe as a “sexual arms race” the Argentine lake duck not only has a penis, it has… well..

413128aa.2

A giant corkscrew penis the length of its body. Not only is this the biggest penis relative to body size ever found in a bird, this is the biggest penis relative to body size ever found in a vertebrate. You may be wondering how something like that evolves, and it turns out male ducks engage in what’s called “forced copulation” with the females, which is exactly as terrifying as it sounds. To protect themselves, researchers found that female ducks have developed a giant corkscrew vagina that twists in the opposite direction to the males. One theory is that this arrangement prevents males from forcefully depositing sperm, and allows females a choice in mate.

Lesson for human dating: I’ll let you decide.

Bonus true fact: Some of my sources said that the Argentine lake duck uses its penis to “lasso” his mate, but I couldn’t find anything that supported that rumor. If in your studies you find a primary reference that confirms or denies that suspicion, let me know!

7.)  The Bowerbird

As someone who has come to terms with being an anal-retentive type-A control freak, nothing turns me on quite like color coding. Bowerbirds, however, have taken obsessive to a whole new level. Here is David Attenborough with MTV Cribs: The Bowerbird.


The bowerbirds spend 80% of their time decorating their bowers, then sit back and wait for the girls to flock. Ladies, one at a time please.

Lesson for human dating: Keep your love nest organized. Ladies love organization. (No? Just me?)

Bonus true fact: bowerbirds have been shown to use pebble size gradients to create a “forced perspective” optical illusion. In other words, they trick the girls into believing that they are- ahem- bigger than they really are.

6.)  The Argonaut

Look at this little guy:

JFINNFig2

http://www.malacsoc.org.uk/the_Malacologist/BULL46/argonauts.htm

Dontcha just want to snuggle up right next to him? This is the male argonaut, a type of octopus. He doesn’t want to cause any trouble for the female argonaut- after all, she’s 15 times larger than him- so what’s a fella to do? Well, he detaches his own non-regenerating, one-time-use-only penis WHICH HAS THE ABILITY TO SWIM INDEPENDENTLY and sends it her way, presumably wishing it the best of luck on its journey.

Lesson for human dating: Don’t be afraid to share an important piece of yourself with your partner.

Bonus true fact: When researchers first discovered the dismembered member in a female argonaut, they thought it was a parasitic worm.

5.)  Emperor penguins

Emperor penguins win at two things: Being adorable, and being fancy. Even Lord Grantham would be impressed by penguins’ manners. Before they get down to amorous congress, penguins even bow to each other:

I know it’s in French. Shhhhhhh just watch. Pretend it’s in black and white, And that you just paid $25 for this fine cinematic experience.

Lesson for human dating: Manners matter.

4.) The Red Velvet Mite

There is no tasty snack as romantic as a red velvet cupcake, just as there is no arachnid as romantic as the red velvet mite.

red_velvet_mite
http://www.realmonstrosities.com/2012/04/giant-red-velvet-mite.html

Not only do they look like undersized papsan cushions  with legs, they’re actually quite the date-planners. See, when a male mite wants to woo a female mite, he lays down a trail of silk for her to follow. And just like in the movies, when she reaches the end of the trail she finds him patiently waiting for her. If she likes him, she accepts his offering of… well… a packet of sperm.

Lesson for human dating: Romantic treasure hunts = solid gold. Just maybe pick a different gift for your beloved to find at the end.

Bonus true fact: The oil secreted from red velvet mites can apparently increase sexual desire

3.) Horseshoe crabs

Like any self-respecting blue-blooded fancy-pants (<– that’s funny because horseshoe crabs really have blue blood!), the horseshoe crab knows how to create romance. For years, it was nearly impossible to get horseshoe crabs to breed in captivity, and here’s why: to spawn they need to be on the beach in the sand that they themselves were born in, in the spring, during a full moon. That’s standards, baby.

590_crash_anatomy

Lesson for human dating: You can’t go wrong with a warm beach and a full moon.

2.)  Elephants

As my favorite animal, elephants have a responsibility to impress me in all that they do. They don’t disappoint when it come to courtship. In order to catch the attention of a pretty girl, male elephants will sometimes fight each other, or show off the size of their trunks. To really win the fair maiden’s hand, however, they simply compete to see who can be the nicest to her. The bull will defend her from other suitors, bring her food, and caress her with his trunk. They’ve also been known to flirt by squirting her with water.  All together now, “Awwwwwwww.”

060214_animal_love

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/02/0214_060214_animal_love.html

Even more adorable is that elephants don’t part ways after mating. Instead, they go through a honeymoon period where they continue to hang out and snuggle.

Lesson for human dating: Always try to out-nice the next guy

1.) Seahorses

I hated to bump elephants from the number one spot, but when it comes to courtship seahorses know what they’re doing. Most of us are aware that it is the male seahorses who become “pregnant” following fertilization. While that’s fantastic, their courtship ritual could have inspired a Nora Ephron screenplay. Not only do they truly mate for life, a rarity in nature, they also seem to like being around each other.  During courtship they perform an intricate dance that can last up to 9 hours which involved tail wrapping, face nuzzling, and color changes- quite a feat. After the female lays her eggs in the male’s pouch, she continues hanging around him, and she greets him every morning. I swear I’m not making this up, they’ve even been observed holding tails and going on strolls. She only has eyes for her partner, and doesn’t get distracted by other males, no matter how bright their colors shine.

Lesson for human dating: Just follow the seahorse’s lead.

 

That wraps up this year’s countdown. Here’s to love nests, tail holding, and the sincere hope that no one EVER sees my browser history from researching this post.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Our first blogaversary

It was one year ago today that A Day in the Life Sciences launched. How do I know that? Because we started on Charles Darwin’s birthday. And we made him this awesome card:

Darwin

 

A lot has happened in the past year, and we’ve got big plans coming up. I can’t wait to see where we go from here!

My Science Thanks

Living in Nashville, I have had the opportunity to talk to my share of celebrities. Sure, most of them have been washed-up stars of 90′s sitcoms that for some reason appear in town, but they’ve taught me a few things. For example, I now know that the key to a celebrity interaction is to play it cool. Relax, breathe, and don’t gush. Tell the person you’re a fan, why you’re a fan, and let them get on with their evening (Of course for the celebrities I’ve met that usually means taking body shots off clearly underage girls, but I assume the principle applies to many situations).

Keeping these rules in mind, I decided to postpone writing up my SciO13 experience, because there was no possible way I could play it cool and do it without gushing. The entire 8 1/2 hour drive from Raleigh home to Nashville consisted mostly of Kendra and I squealing about how much fun we had, interspersed with truly terrible Carly Rae Jepson sing-a-longs (sue us, that’s what you do on road trips). After I got home, I continued squealing about how amazing it was to family, friends, colleagues, patients, waiters, strangers on the street, etc. I’ve waited a week for the squealing to calm down, because I want to give Karyn, Bora, and Anton a solid, rational analysis of the event true to my type-A personality. Unfortunately the squealing hasn’t completely diminished, but it’s been a week so I’m going to give it my best shot. Here are a few reasons why SciO13 was so amazing:

It was FUN

Costumes. Games at every table. Candy. Silliness was everywhere, and rather than anyone lowering their spectacles and proclaiming, “My, how immature these scientists are,” everyone joined in. Sure, our exuberance may have been due in part to the 15 gallons of coffee an hour that we were chugging, but everyone was happy and alert and excited every day.

Karyn is a genius

There were so many different ways to get people talking to each other without it feeling forced or awkward. There was the perfect number of tables, and seating areas of different kinds, and it facilitated both one-on-one conversations and large group discussions. There were areas if you wanted to be alone and silent, but didn’t want to look like a recluse. Everywhere you turned there was something to talk about, whether it was the blow-up dinosaurs or the octopi (octopusses? Octopus?) scattered all over, or the books that we all had copies of, or the sessions themselves. I don’t have kids, but I have also never seen a conference that catered so well to parents. Every person of every personality type or situation was considered.

No pressure

I’ve been the new kid before, and there is nothing more awkward than being called out for being the new kid. That’s why I loved the discussion style of all of the sessions. I was free to sit and observe everyone else’s conversations. It may be in part because half of the attendees were new kids, but there was no one saying, “You look new. We haven’t heard from you, why don’t you talk now?” and shoving a microphone in my face. Believe it or not, that has actually happened, and nothing makes me want to run to the corner and hide under a chair more. The very fact that there was no pressure to participate made me want to participate, and as I went to more sessions I felt more comfortable sharing my thoughts. Which leads me to my next point…

People actually listened… to me!

I suffer from impostor syndrome in nearly everything I do. It’s especially the case when I’m sitting in a room with people who rock at writing, or art, or science in general, because I feel like I’m still a trainee who snuck in the back door. But then I found myself in sessions like, “Alternative Careers ARE the Mainstream!” for people who want/have a Ph.D. but may be considering life outside the tenure track.  Wouldn’t you know it, I have some opinions on that! A few days later, I wound up at a session specifically about blogging in grad school. That’s what I do! I had more thoughts to share! While sitting at random tables for lunch, I found people who were actually interested in my research or this blog. Thanks to the brilliant no-credentials-on-the-name-tags plan, I usually didn’t realize until halfway through the conversation that I had been talking to someone I highly respected and would have otherwise been too scared to talk to. I bonded with journalists-in-training over the similarities to being a scientist-in-training, and I think we both came away understanding the other side a little bit better. I am blown away by what a supportive community this is.

I learned A LOT

Whenever I tried to explain SciO13 to an outsider, I sometimes got the impression that they thought I was planning some elaborate group vacation rather than a meeting of intellectuals. The fact is, traveling to a beautiful city to spend a week hanging out with people you’re online friends with while eating great food, drinking free beer, and playing Hungry Hungry Hippos doesn’t feel like it should count as work. And yet, I learned so much more than I would have trapped in my office reading yet another journal article. I want to go into science journalism, but I have zero formal journalism training, so just hearing about deadlines and how people come up with stories, and narrative ideas and having permission to feel like your writing is absolute crap sometimes was hugely informative. I collected so many writing tips, I feel like I want to rewrite everything I’ve ever published. I got drawing and animating lessons that will make my presentations sparkle, and I came home with at least five ideas for things I want to do for my own research, for this blog, and even for Vanderbilt. (Stay tuned to see if we can make it work…)

And that’s nothing compared to the number of connections I made and advice I received. I have a wallet filled with business cards from fascinating people, and pages of ideas for workshops to go to, classes to take, and experts to talk to. My only regret is that with quals coming up this summer I can’t do a lot of these things for at least a year. Damn quals.

#swag #yolo

See all those books? Enough said.

 

To be honest, I’m nervous about telling the world how much I love the entire Science Online experience, because it is so difficult to get one of the coveted spots (Thank you, thank you, thank you, roommate’s high speed internet connection!!) But after the amazingness of this year, I cannot wait to fight for a place at SciO14. Maybe next year I’ll manage to play it cool- but probably not.

claimtoken-51195e4263f37

#scio13: Day 0.5

The good news: So far it’s everything I’ve wanted it to be and more

The bad news: I have pretty much gone crazy. I can’t control myself. I’m mildly concerned that Kendra is going to start putting sedatives in my water to calm me down. It’s bad, guys.

For any of you interested, #scio13 is a very dangerous drug. Each time you meet a new person you suddenly decide that their job is the best job and you begin to regret every life choice you’ve made that has prevented you from having their job. I mean, just today I met the creators of Wild Sex and Minute Physics- youtube channels that I’ve admired forever but kind of forgot that real people create. If you haven’t seen either of these, stop what you’re doing and watch them right now! I’ve met lots of writers and teachers and web developers and bloggers and a stray paleontologist or two… all the careers that Alternate Universe Emily is enjoying right now.

I need to go to bed soon, but I wanted to leave you with the thing that has kept coming up again and again today. Not to sound like a Nike commercial, but what I’m learning is that if you want to do something just f@&*ing do it. You will find a way. I keep talking to people trying to figure out how they got so good at what they do, and that’s what they say: I DID it. For a lifelong student and perfectionist like me, this is impossible advice to hear. I want to tell them, “No, you don’t understand, I can’t just do it, I’m TERRIBLE. I have NO IDEA what I’m doing. You have magical powers that I’m not aware of, but I’m an idiot and therefore you need to tell me the classes that I need to take and the books I need to read and everything I need to do before I can even attempt to try it.” Apparently, that is not the case… Something to think about….

Tomorrow the “real” sessions begin, and I can’t wait to let you know what I learn! That is, if Kendra doesn’t drug me before then…

#scio13!!!!!

It started with a little feeling in the back of my brain. I love science- I have always loved science- and I am one of those freaks that actually enjoys being in the lab twelve hours a day. You know what else I love? Reading about science. Listening to science. Watching science. If there was a way to hug Radiolab, or bathe in Scientific American and Discover pages (technically feasible I suppose, but impractical. Plus… papercuts) I wouldn’t hesitate. Then, one day, it dawned on me: people do that. As in, hang out with amazing people and share what they’ve learned. Like… for a living. Like… they get paid and shit.

Although science was still my first love, I began to develop a giant career crush on every science journalist I could find. The problem was I felt like I was cheating on hard-core science. I was having impure thoughts about a life outside the tenure track. I kept my dark secret to myself for the first few months of grad school sure that no one, least of the people I most respected, would be supportive of my idea to consider going non-traditional with my Ph.D. I could not have been more wrong.

From the moment I let my dark secret slip, I have gotten nothing but absolutely overwhelming support. I was encouraged to start this blog, and I am lucky enough to have talented peers that have contributed to it. This month will be A Day in the Life Science’s one-year anniversary, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to talk to incredible science journalists such as Joe Palca and Carmen Drahl. I’ve started to figure out Twitter, although I spend much more time stalking than tweeting (sorry about that, I’ll try to be better, follow me @ejmaso05 !!). But the most amazing thing that has happened this year is that Kendra and I are actually attending Science Online 2013. Why, you may ask, is a conference the best blogaversary gift I could ask for? It’s simple, really:

I HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE EXCITED FOR A CONFERENCE!!!!!

Or should I say… un-conference. I can’t… I can’t even… Words are my thing and I can’t even find the right ones to describe how ecstatically impatient I am for tomorrow to begin. Those science journalists I had huge career crushes on? They will be there… IN THE FLESH!!! I will get a chance to at least look at, if not talk to, some of my idols. I don’t want to give away who my absolute favorite are (Hint: Schmed Flong and Parl Klimmer) because I might fangirl all up in their faces tomorrow and I don’t want them to see me coming and run away.

Beyond my heroes, I’m so excited to meet people who I only know from their hilarious twitter conversations (forgive my eavesdropping) as well as those I haven’t discovered yet.-especially the people that are from completely different fields. I might be able to kick it with my fellow neuroscientists, but what about the people from JPL (holy crap JPL… they personally know Curiosity) and marine biologists, and chemists, and teachers? AMAZING!

I have heard nothing but the best from previous attendees of #scio13, and I can’t wait to report back how amazing it was. Luckily for everyone I’m attending a workshop on “Special Effects and Visualization,” so hopefully if I don’t find the words I can at least show you how blown away I am by the entire experience. And if any of you reading this will be there tomorrow- Let’s hang out!