Roots

I am a biology professor at Emory University and live in Atlanta.

These are words that only reluctantly roll off my tongue – I still expect to wake up and find out this isn’t my life. In my defense, it’s been less than a month – I mean, I haven’t even changed my Facebook info or Twitter tagline (not to suggest that these activities make these facts ‘real’). Now, this isn’t my first turn on the relocation merry-go-round. A decade ago, I moved from the Pacific Northwest to North Carolina. Five and half years later, I moved to the Midwest. Now, I’m in the South. Welcome to the life of an academic. To be honest, when I moved away from the Pacific Northwest I had no idea what I was getting into.

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This move feels different; it has the weight of being a critical junction in my life. The intentions of it are far different than any of my previous moves. As an adult, the majority of my decisions have been career-driven. Why else would I have moved to the frozen tundra of the Upper Midwest? Mostly because I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. But this move? This move has the potential to be my last. That’s a complicated thought.

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In many ways, this department, this institution, this city and corner of the country, all feel like a natural ‘fit’ for me. I don’t think I can clearly articulate all the factors that go into that statement. It feels good and it feels right. When you know, you know. With the exceptions being of course, the many things that I don’t know. Regardless, I am incredibly lucky to be in this situation when so many other academics are not.

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Still, it’s more than a little scary to start again in a new place. When I moved to North Carolina I was 23, on the brink of adulthood, single and beginning a journey with people who would end up being major fixtures in my life. When I moved to Minneapolis, I was 29, no longer single, and infiltrating an established lab and community that when I left it still didn’t feel like I completely belonged. Now I’m 33, single again (and wise enough to know that my life is rich with my other relationships) in a new city with barely a pre-existing connection and entering a whole new realm of my life. I’m excited to get started and anxious to find my way.

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These thoughts have been swirling in my mind for the last six months, every since I got the phone call offering me THE job of my dreams. And the only wrinkle is that it seems as though I won’t be returning home. Home, of course, being the Pacific Northwest. Every year it seems I wax nostalgic over this special place – there are so many things about it that resonate with me. So, it’s hard to think that even after a decade away, I won’t be settling there.

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I strategically planned my move to be able to have a few weeks on the West Coast, buffering my transition from postdoc to professor. Partly to give myself a break so that when I started, I really started ‘fresh.’ But more so to give me much-needed time with the place and the people that have shaped who I’ve become. To remind myself where I came from and dig around my roots before transplanting myself yet again.

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I didn’t think I had a childhood home. We moved out of the house I was an infant in, lived briefly with my aunt and uncle before moving to a house when I started kindergarten, and then built another one when I was in high school, temporarily living with my grandfather during the construction. Now my parents live in yet a different house. All in in Olympia, I grant you and always surrounded by family, but I have never held sentimental value in the structures I grew up in.

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So it hit me like a ton of bricks when I spent a few days in our cabin in the southern Cascades. I hadn’t been back there since I moved away in 2004 – my trips home have always seemed too short to warrant a 2-hour drive into the mountains. It was like stepping into a time capsule of my youth. I had no idea of the enormity to which I missed this place and how much my family (including most of my extended family) is enveloped in it. My dad had spent many nights and weekends designing the cabin and the entire family pitched in to build the thing from the ground up. The avocado green stove! The country blue couches! The comforter covered in primary-colored hearts from when I was five! I’m pretty sure the décor hasn’t been touched since we first built it 25 years ago. And while, incredibly out of date, it was immensely reassuring to be back. The floodgates opened and the memories stormed in. My aunt burning her eyebrows cooking bacon on the barbecue. Weekend ski trips with the cousins. Jumping off of the 35-foot Jody’s Bridge during on sweltering 95-degree Labor Day weekend. Driving down the forest service roads with Dad towards our next hike. Games of gin rummy on the porch. It was all waiting for me, in this tiny cabin that I had returned to.

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One day I climbed up to Sunrise Peak for a 360-degree view including: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helen’s. There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by majestic mountains to gain some perspective. On another day I hiked through old growth forest into Packwood Lake to reconnect with my motivation to study biology (who knew that a girl who like play in the woods would end up studying the sex lives of yeast!). It was exactly what I was hoping to find and helped me garner the strength to move forward in this next adventure.

Blackberry-Hazelnut Torte

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Can you imagine a dessert any more ‘Pacific Northwest’ than this? I am more than a little late posting this recipe, blackberry season is long past us (I’ve been slightly busy in recent weeks – hello, I’m new faculty!). If you are anything like my family than you have squirreled away some of the deep purple jewels in your freezer. Plus – it uses 8 (8!!!) egg whites, making it an excellent justification to make two quarts of ice cream so not to waste the yolks.
 
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5 ounces hazelnut flour (alternatively, you can toast and finely grind whole nuts)
10.5 ounces (1 1/2 cups) granulated sugar, divided
4.5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
8 large egg whites
2 cups wild blackberries
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Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan.
 
Whisk hazelnut and AP flours, ¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar and salt together in a bowl.
 
In a small saucepan, cook the butter over moderate heat until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Let cool slightly, then stir in the bourbon and vanilla.
 
Using a standing electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form very soft peaks.
Gradually add the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar and continue beating until the whites hold soft peaks. Alternately fold the flour mixture and browned butter into the egg whites in 3 batches. Gently fold in the blackberries.
 
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the cake is golden and just beginning to pull away from the side. Let cool slightly on a rack, then remove the side of the pan and let cool completely. Transfer the cake to a large plate to serve.

Goodbye Minneapolis

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A chapter of my life ended last Friday. It’s been an odd feeling, saying goodbye when I am so ready to move on. It’s no secret that Minneapolis and I have had an extremely complicated relationship. There are things that I truly adore about the city (i.e. the best bike commute in the world) and the people I’ve grown to be friends with and yet, this is a place that will never be close to my heart. No doubt a valuable period in my life, but one where the bright spots shine poke through the cover of bleakness.

Over the weekend while most of my earthly belongings headed towards Georgia, I sprinted into to the open arms of the Pacific Northwest and my family for a short intermission before I begin life in Atlanta. I packed the car with my most valuable treasures (the two cats, my new and fabulous bicycle and the contents of my spice cupboard) and drove 1700 hundred miles in my 10-year old car with my 23-year old cousin to Olympia.

Somewhere in the middle of North Dakota an epiphany struck. This road trip, and more importantly, my postdoc in Minneapolis was a constant tug-of-war between ‘making good time’ and ‘having a good time’.

I chose my postdoc for the science and for the mentor, despite the fact that it meant that I would have to live in the Midwest (in contrast to most of the other postdocs in the lab who wanted those things AND had strong familial ties in the region). So from the outset, my postdoc was simply a strategic hoop to jump through to land a coveted faculty position, wherever that may be. I didn’t set out to ‘have a good time’ but rather to ‘make good time.’ So I shied away from making friends and making Minneapolis home, as that would take time away from my scientific and academic goals.

I’m not one who believes that scientists live in isolation and are wasting time when not working. I took time off, travelled and spent many a weekend with my dearest friends that I’ve accumulated over the course of my life to either celebrate major life events or to simply hang out on the couch with a glass of wine. These were the people that I had already invested in, value beyond all else and whom I wanted to spend my time with whenever possible. So I flitted off to Chicago, Austin, California, Durham, Olympia, Paris, Portland, Boston, etc. to keep those people in my life. All at the expense of making ties in Minneapolis.

The same is true for my academic community. The University of Minnesota was simply a stop along the way. As a postdoc, it’s difficult not to feel like a ghost. You sneak in during the middle of the night (your start date is almost never tied to the academic calendar) and you pass people in the halls without acknowledgement. I just did not have the capacity to invest in the department. Resolving that conflict was hard – I was deeply committed to my intellectual community as a graduate student and I am looking forward to making my mark in the future. But in this time and place, during my postdoc, I couldn’t do it and felt guilty for not trying harder.

So I ‘made good time.’ My one and only postdoc was four and a half years long – a blink of an eye in the current academic market. In a time when a lot of people are leaving academia, doing 6-7 year postdocs or multiple postdocs, I have been extremely successful and even so, I felt like this took too long and there have been costs inextricably tied with my success. My life could have taken a different turn a couple of years ago and I would have left Minneapolis at that time. I have fretted incessantly (and unnecessarily) that things will fall through at the last minute while preparing for this move. This person who I am, who I’ve become is due entirely because of my past experiences, which I consider to be a result of the context and my decisions at any given time. And that particular turn let me take the opportunity to invest, just a smidgen, in Minneapolis. As such, this goodbye is more complicated than I anticipated. Yet I revel in it: my life has been rich, varied and complex and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Goodbye Minneapolis. You haven’t been my favorite, but you have been important.

Head Games

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There’s no metaphor tied to this salad. No anxious, overwrought voice in my head that asks ‘How can I completely overthink this dish to best represent my emotions?’ Don’t worry – I’ve barely scratched the surface of my food-as-therapy inclinations. But here and now, this is just a salad. In summers past, I’ve played the ‘how do I use all my vegetables before the next box arrives’ game. Not so this summer – I’m leaving Minneapolis in just FIVE DAYS (!!!) and now is right when the season is hitting its stride. So, to replace the CSA game, I’ve developed a new one over the past several weeks: Clean out the pantry before I move!

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I never meant to have farro in my kitchen. I accidentally bought it during one shopping trip when I meant to get freekah (for the most amazing pilaf), but as always happens when I shop on my way home from work, I forgot my grocery list and relied on my memory. Turns out, my memory isn’t always the most reliable source of information. My pantry has been harboring farro as a fugitive ever since.

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I love a good salad (even if most of you must think I only eat ice cream) only they frequently leave me craving a cookie by mid-afternoon. Particularly at this time of year when I am cycling 6.5 miles to get to campus. But this salad – oh this salad! Who knew something made up on a whim some random summer evening while Skyping with the family would leave me so smitten. It delightfully manages to keep my hunger at bay. Not only that, but it maintains its integrity over several days as the farro just keeps soaking up the juices from the cucumber, tomato and corn.

A win by all accounts.

Summer Farro Salad 

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1 cup farro
2 cups vegetable stock
 
¼ cup lemon juice
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
 
3 ears worth of corn kernels (removed from cob)
2-3 shallots, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon coriander
 
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber, chopped
6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 bunch arugula, chopped
3 tablespoons mint, chopped
 
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In a medium pot bring farro and vegetable stock to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 minutes, until tender. Drain remaining cooking liquid. While farro is cooking, whisk together extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, sugar and pepper. Toss with warm farro.
 
In a saucepan, heat olive oil and cook shallots until softened, ~5 minutes. Add corn kernels and coriander and cook 5 minutes more. Toss with the farro and add tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese. Serve atop a bed of arugula and garnish with mint.

Unapologetic

I have a confession.

I care deeply how others think of me.

I enjoy being distinctive (my purple hair certainly plays a large part in achieving this – and I love that). I am to be taken seriously – but not always seriously. I like that people like to be around me and that my thoughts and opinions are valued. That I am trustworthy and my research is well-regarded. And that my awesome style impresses upon others. Am I shallow? Narcissistic? Too female for science?

I have cried at work, on more than one occasion and even (gasp!) in front of other people. I’m incredibly open about my mood and my feelings (that seeming span a wide-spectrum). There is a hefty dose of reverse snobbery in academics – that our minds are the only thing to be valued. That we are completely objective towards all things. To say nothing of the passive-aggressive attitudes towards those with pastimes outside of science. I, like so many others, am a complex being with a wide-array of interests and emotions. I refuse to apologize or feel shamed about that.  In fact, I think it allows me to step back to see the larger biological questions and think more creatively.

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I have a hard time discussing gender and science and am extremely sensitive to broad sweeping statements on the subject. Both my Ph.D. and postdoc advisors are female, from different generations and are unalike in many ways. They are two distinct people after all, and who is to say that the commonalities they do share is because of their gender? The same is true of my female peers. I’m not in any position to speak for them.

But I think about it. What does it means to be a female in science? More importantly, to be me? I am decidedly female in my wardrobe – I own about 15 dresses to every pair of pants. You won’t find me in any neutral colors either. I wear heels. I occasionally put make-up on. I spend a considerable amount of money to control my curly hair. I have never been interested in wearing contacts because I think my glasses make me look smarter. I contemplate at length the appearance I present to the world. I agonized over choosing a photo for my faculty profile – they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I wanted something that illustrated my intellect, my openess, and my style all the while staying inside the lines of professionalism. Is that even achievable?

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It’s more than just the way I dress: I try to smile often to seem friendly and approachable – but not too often because I don’t want appear a pushover. I frequently nod during seminars or in conversations to indicate that I am paying attention but don’t hesitate to hide quizzical expressions. At conferences I make a point of asking intelligent questions during the public forums and staying out late to drink beer at the bar with my fellow nerds. I am actively trying to stop apologizing or making excuses for delayed responses. I do these things deliberately because I am female, but mostly because I want to be a vibrant, noteworthy member of my community.

I am making my way through the leaky pipeline and now find myself in a tenure-track position. The department I am joining has exactly two other female professors. Whether I like it or not, I will be an example. Hopefully in time, even a role model for scientists-in-training. My voice has weight. I worry about what sort of mentor and colleague I will be. Not only do I want to be well liked and respected, but to also inspire those I work with and lead. I try my hardest to have my interactions with others to be open, honest and thoughtful, which at times, can be mutually exclusive with being nice, but never with considerate. My intentions are always to be critical of the science, but not of the scientist. I just hope that I can achieve that without those exclusively female labels.

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Raspberry Jam

When given a choice of berry – I always pick raspberry. Their bright sassiness endears them to me. I chanced upon enough of these beauties in my backyard to make a jam (coupled with some strawberries a day or two past their prime) last weekend. This jam is unapologetically tart. It doesn’t sugarcoat the ‘I AM RASPBERRY’ spirit. Enjoyed best with a batch of buttermilk biscuits and a steaming cup of coffee on early on a Saturday morning.
 
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1 cup freshly picked raspberries
1 cup strawberries, diced
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
pinch of salt
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Collect the ingredients in a small saucepan and Cook over medium-high heat for 10-15 minutes. Mash slightly. The jam will thicken slightly as it cools. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers – it will keep for a few days.
 

Potential

Every year, I eagerly anticipate the arrival of rhubarb. I simply cannot wait for it to appear at the market so that I can swoop in and take a few pounds of crimson stalks home with me. I obsess over it, as my friends and family can attest. Then an odd thing happens: I freak out over what to make with my bounty. The potential paralyzes me. It has to be something that lives up to the utter brilliance of the tart and tangy and gloriously pink rhubarb. The anticipation nearly kills me every year only to have the reality stop me cold in my tracks.


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I don’t always succeed in making a showstopper. Sometimes things are just okay, like the rhubarb shortbread bars I tried to make recently. They looked horrendous, all grey and sludge-like, but mostly just tasted like butter and sugar without a single note of rhubarb. Edible, but unimpressive. Other times I downright fail. Caramelized rhubarb-upside down cake with cornmeal and buttermilk? Not from this kitchen. I can’t even begin to tell you all the ways that didn’t work out. Somehow, these attempts are even more devastating in light of all the great things that I have done with this vegetable-disguised as a fruit. I can do better than this.

They also, without doubt, feed into the vicious cycle in my head of placing rhubarb on a pedestal and expecting it never to tumble. I’m an over-thinker and this particular trait constantly gets in my own way. It’s no different with starting my own laboratory and becoming a professor. This goal has been hanging over my head for the entirety of my adult life and now that it’s in my grasp, I worry that I won’t live up to the promise and to my own abilities.

Sidenote: The line ‘I know he can get the job – but can he DO the job?’ from Joe Vs. the Volcano has been playing on a loop in my head. After watching this movie when I was a kid, my dad and I used to quote this constantly.

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I’m supposed to be buying equipment and hiring people. The university gave me a staggering amount of money in a generous show of support of my research potential. I can imagine that for some, this must feel like being a kid in a candy shop, but, for some reason, I am hesitant to jump right in. The fear of failure is overwhelming. How does one get past a crisis of confidence? It’s not as if I haven’t been working in a yeast lab for the past decade, accumulating and storing experience and knowledge for just this thing.

Is it because I am female? Or simply an over-achiever and perfectionist? Perhaps it has to do with my current context in Minneapolis (I’m one of the last in a lab that has relocated halfway across the world, a situation that makes me simultaneously feel completely independent and utterly abandoned.) It’s likely a little of all these things. And to complicate matters further, the feelings of fear are are intimately paired with an unbridled excitement for the future. In the end, I think my strategy will be go with what I know, but push it to the edge. It’s a perspective that suits me well in my research, in my style and in my food.

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Rhubarb rosewater ice cream sandwiched between two thin and crispy oatmeal-coconut cookies. Edgy, yet entirely approachable. It’s a riff on my take for Grabbers and worth a re-visit. In the years since I published the first, I know a fair amount more about ice cream and even something about the cookie characteristics best suited to sandwiching. Not to mention a look back on my musing regarding the many (many!) colleges and universities is timely as I prepare for my move to Emory.  The originals are good, but I think these are better.

Rhubarb rosewater ice cream sandwiches
makes about a dozen
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Rhubarb rosewater ice cream
1 lb rhubarb, diced
cup honey
juice from one lime
2 tablespoons rosewater
 
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 ½ oz cream cheese
teaspoon sea salt
cup sugar
2 tablespoons honey
 
In a small saucepan, cook rhubarb, honey and lime juice over medium-low heat until rhubarb completely breaks down, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in rosewater. Set aside.
Mix 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch, until dissolved. Set aside. Whisk cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Set aside.
 
In a medium pot, combine remaining milk, cream, sugar and honey. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and pour through mesh sieve. Return to pot and whisk in cornstarch slurry, cooking until slightly thickened, about a minute. Remove from heat. Gradually pour the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the cream cheese, whisking constantly until smooth. Pour through mesh sieve to remove any clumps. Stir in rhubarb. Chill mixture thoroughly.
 
Churn ice cream base in ice cream maker. Freeze at least 4 hours.
 
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Thin and Crispy Oatmeal-Coconut Cookies
5 oz (1 cup) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons butter, softened but slightly colder than room temperature
7 oz (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 ¾ oz (¼ cup) brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ¾ old fashioned oats
2 cups shredded, unsweetened coconut
 
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. 
 
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside. Mix together butter and both sugars at medium-low speed until just combined. Increase speed to medium and continue to beat until light and fluffy, scraping down bowl as needed. Add egg and vanilla and beat on medium low until fully incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture until just incorporated and smooth. Gradually add oats and coconut and mix until well incorporated. Give dough a final stir to remove any flour pockets and evenly distribute all ingredients.
 
Working with 2 tablespoons of dough at a time, roll into balls and place on baking sheet. Using fingertips, gently press each dough ball to ¾ – ½ inch thickness. Bake one sheet at a time until cookies are deep golden brown, edges are crisp and centers yield to slight pressure when pressed, around 13 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and let cookies cool completely.
 
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To assemble sandwiches: Take ice cream out of the freezer about half an hour before assembly and let it soften slightly. Place a generously sized scoop onto the backside of a cookie and top with a second. Wrap in wax paper and store in the freezer. Enjoy at will.