Tag Archives: PhD

Defining Moments

There are moments in your life that are game changers. Sometimes they sneak up on you, quiet and stealthy and alter the course of your life subtly but significantly. Others walk right up and hit you over the head, leaving you dizzy and seeing stars.

If you are lucky, you can see the latter coming. (Other times, perhaps not). In these cases I believe you actually have the ability to  wield some control over the situation. Last week I found myself staring straight into just such an opportunity.

A few months back I wrote about the thrill of discovery. What’s just as satisfying as making a discovery is sharing it with your colleagues. I was at a fungal biology conference last week and had the opportunity to stand on stage and present the work I’ve been busy with over the past six months. It was a strategic move – my mentor and I  are currently writing up the manuscript and we wanted to break the news and gather feedback before we submitted.

I have very strong thoughts about how science should be presented. Which meant I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to meet my exceedingly high standards. Not to mention the mind-blowing nature* of my current work, and the pressure builds. And let’s not forget, I am a post-doc entering the job market and need to be unforgettable. This was perhaps the most important 15 minutes of my career to date. Maybe I’m being melodramatic, as I tend towards the theatrical, but this was a big deal and the reason I’ve had so many late nights.

For a while, I thought I was going to crack under all that pressure. I’m not sure if it was psycho-somatic or an actual illness, but I was sick to my stomach the entire 24-hours before my talk (and even several hours afterwards). I am embarrassed to even admit it, as I usually relish any opportunity to be in the spotlight. But I knew this was one of the defining moments. In fact, the last time I felt this type of pressure was when I was interviewing for graduate school. I was a naive 23-year old who had gone to hippie college and didn’t have a clue as to the academic architecture. I only had gotten an interview at Duke, as the other graduate schools I applied to flat-out rejected me, and I knew that it was my only chance to get into a Ph.D. program. I was sick to my stomach then as well. I even had to leave in the middle of my interview with the director of the program in order to run to the restroom to empty the contents of my stomach. But I must have done something right, as I made it into the program, and the rest is, well, history.

And I made it through this talk also. Adrenaline is a powerful anti-nausea drug. In fact, I am proud to say that I nailed it. It’s a moment in my life that I will never ever forget. I could feel the buzz of energy in the air as I was on stage – people really got it (one person told me later they could feel the hairs on the back of their neck rising as I was speaking). As I opened the floor to questions, the first response that I received was a marriage proposal (from an already married woman, but a proposal nevertheless). I couldn’t have asked for much more, except for perhaps a job offer.

It’s been a boost to my scientific self-confidence, which as been on a roller coaster ride for the past couple of years. And it feels damn good. Success is a mix of hard work and luck and I got extremely lucky to fall into a such a compelling project.

*For my nerdy science friends interested in what I am working on:

I’ve been working on a yeast species that is a human commensal and occasionally, if the opportunity arises can become pathogenic. For decades, its been thought to be an obligate diploid with no known sexual cycle (which makes genetics and molecular biology in this organism challenging). Recently a parasexual cycle has been described in which diploid cells mate to form tetraploid cells and subsequently undergo a non-meiotic process to return to a near diploid state. We’ve found that there is also a haploid state in the lifecycle of this organism. Not only will this greatly facilitate future genetic and molecular biology studies, it suggests that a haploid phase may be important for revealing recessive alleles, and thus exposing genetic variation for selection to act upon. Furthermore, mating between haploids cells can restore heterozygosity, a trait we observe readily in clinical isolates, that as been paradoxical given the propensity of this organism to undergo loss of heterozygosity events in response to stress.

Teaching Lessons

Oh blog.

I’ve been neglecting you.

But I had a good reason. It involves that whole career-development-thing.

My dining room table was covered in books for the last couple of weeks instead of tasty delights.

(Somehow David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop sneaked into my pile of microbiology, biochemistry and genetics textbooks…)

Part of academic life involves teaching. Most would think that it primarily involves teaching – and while that’s true for some institutions (think liberal arts colleges), the research institutions mostly hire you for your research potential and teaching is almost an afterthought. Now as a grad student, I was indoctrinated with thinking that going the Research I Track is the only way to go. But as a post-doc, I’ve been re-thinking that stance. For a whole host of reasons (some of which I’ve discussed before).

So, in weighing my potential career options, I’ve contemplated moving in a more teaching-oriented direction. The problem is, I have very little actual teaching experience. Sure, I’ve TA’ed a number of times, both while I was in college and while I was in grad school. I’ve got no problem standing in front of a crowd of earnest undergrads and talking science. In fact, I feed off of the attention, much in the same way I love speaking publicly about my research. But to put together a series of 75 minute lectures? Organizing and picking through the lecture content, deciding what the youth of this country should know and be responsible for? That I hadn’t the faintest idea about.

Now, I am a sort of baptism-by-fire kind of girl. Sure, I could have taken a class (both the University of Minnesota and Duke have Preparing Future Faculty courses, which teach you about teaching), but at this point in my life, I think I actually learn better by doing than by sitting in a class. I mean, that’s how I learned how to cook, sew and knit.

So I spent the past couple of weeks teaching. I am lucky in the fact that my post-doc mentor is completely supportive of non-research I track careers and pointed me to this particular teaching opportunity. A lecturer position for part of the summer section of Microbiology for juniors and seniors. Prepare and deliver four lectures on microbial molecular biology and genetics and one god-awful lecture on energetics and catabolism, write and grade one homework assignment and one exam. Oh, and I would get some dollars for it (which helps make a dent in my upcoming travel plans).

I’ve written before about my nature to self-reflect. And so I feel the need to assess how my first real teaching experience went and the lessons I learned.

The short version? I liked it. I was pretty good at it, but could improve. Definitely a career option.

Here’s the longer version.

1) Teaching is hard work.

I spent a lot of time (hence the lack of blogging) preparing lectures, delivering lectures, writing homework, grading homework, writing the exam, grading the exams. There were a couple of things that were not in my favor; a) I had to prepare my lectures from scratch and b) this was a microbiology course, meaning it was mostly focused on bacteria and not so much on eukaryotes (my preferred cellular model). So I had to re-learn some things along the way.

Which leads me to lesson number 2.

2) It turns out that I have learned something in my 20+ years of schooling.

(Yikes! Over 20 years of being a student! What is wrong with me?)

I was initially concerned about not being a formally trained microbiologist and teaching a course in microbiology. And then I realized that I just need to know more than the students. It turns out that learning something for the 27th time is waaaay easier than learning it for the first time. Somewhere along the way, I kind of just absorbed this stuff. My dear friend (our friendship dates back to high school) Kristina was in Minneapolis last weekend and we were talking about this sort of thing. (Kristina a fancy medical doctor, btw). How it seems like these kids are so much smarter than we are. But it is really that these kids are trying to prove that they know all of this stuff, whereas we, older, wiser and over-educated beings have incorporated this information into ourselves and synthesize it without even realizing it.

It used to be that reading textbooks would undoubtedly put me to sleep. I remember many a night during college, in the library with Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell – most of which with my eyes closed. It seemed so dense and teeming with details beyond belief. And now I read it and it seems overly simplistic. That’s perspective for you. Not that I wasn’t glad to have all my old textbooks with me while I was putting together my lectures.

3) I felt a huge weight of responsibility for educating the youth of this country.

This was the first time that I actually felt like I was completely in charge. No longer was I a student, just helping out the professor, but a bonafide lecturer. Kids referred to me as “Dr. Hickman” and looked to me to tell them what they should know. It is a huge responsibility. At least I felt so. What sort of details should they be know about the mechanism of transcription that are fundamental and what are just interesting? How do you pace the lecture so that you get through the needed material but allow the student to absorb it? 75 minutes is a hard period to plan for.

4) I have very mixed feelings about the use of Powerpoint.

The course director who hired me for this course asked that I provide lecture outlines to the students the afternoon before my lecture. I can understand why this can be a good idea – we had a lot of material to get through and powerpoint is an easy way to get through it all. However, I felt it curbed my creativity and limited me having a dynamic interactions with the students. I think that I would rather go old school and chalkboard it in the future. For two reasons. 1) It forces the kids to take notes and not passively read slides and 2) it slows down how quickly you go through the material. You can also more easily identify what are the really important take home points and which details are strictly for amusements sake.

5) Each class of students is different.

I don’t like making sweeping generalizations, but I am going to anyways (with an n=3, no less). But these students at UMN seemed so very Midwestern. Just like everybody else in this city. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I am in the Midwest afterall. But these kids where just so quiet. I eventually got them to answer the questions I posed during class, but they hardly pestered me outside of class. No emails asking to meet with me, no nagging about when they would get their homework back and amazingly, no emails arguing about their exam scores. What’s with that? The Duke kids were pushy beyond belief and the Evergreen kids were just into talking about and thinking about science. But these kids were just so quiet. Put your head down, do your work, accept your scores and don’t ask questions. Like I said, midwestern. It made it amazingly difficult to gauge how I was doing.

6) Writing exams is more difficult than taking exams.

How many questions do you ask? What type of questions should they be? Multiple choice, true/false, short-answer, critical thinking? Have you covered the material fairly? Is it too easy? Are the questions clear? Is it too long? Talk about nerve-wracking. I was advised (the day before I started lecturing) that I should write the exam prior to giving my lectures – so that I know what to emphasize during class. I didn’t have time to do this, this time around, but I think it is something to try in the future.

And I learned the hard way that a well written question (even if it covers an advanced topic) is much easier to grade than a poorly written one. And grading the exams was nearly as painful as writing it and took approximately seven times longer than I though it would. Which reiterates point #1.

7) There is no way that I want to be a full-time teacher and a full-time researcher.

It’s not hard to do a lot of things. It is, however, hard to do a lot of things well. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that I don’t want to stretch myself to thin. I would rather do fewer things really well than struggle to get a lot of things done. I think I could be a really good teacher if I could devote all of my time for it. I think that I could be a really top-notch researcher if I devoted all of my time to it. I do NOT think that I could be a really good teacher AND a top-notch researcher. Or maybe I could, but then I would have nothing else going on in my life. No cooking, no hobbies, no family. And what kind of life is that?

Okay. I am sure that I have learned more lessons than that, but that’s all I’ve got for now. It was an educational experience about education, for sure.

Now it’s time for some big career decisions.

And some more cooking.


I am a girl who goes through schools like other girls go through boys. (And to be honest, I think I have been with more schools than I have boys…)

I had a rocky start in my relationship with post-secondary education. My first year of college was spent at Washington State University. Let’s just say that WSU and I weren’t a good match. At the time I thought that is what I wanted (back in the day when I dreamed of being an architect) and when I was in high school it was the only college I applied to. Surprisingly, it turns out you don’t really know what you want when you are 18 years old. It liked to party and I was a wallflower. It was big into the Greek system and I was (and continue to be) fiercely independent. It was into school spirit, sports and activities and I am more of the theater rat sort. I wanted to stretch my brain further and in new directions and wasn’t interested in having a typical “college experience.” WSU just couldn’t give me what I needed. So we split after a year.

But that year of my life left a permanent scar on my psyche.

(It also brought amazing ice cream sandwiches, but I’ll get to that later)

South Puget Sound Community College was my rebound school. I was there for a year, going to school full time, working part time at the dental office and dancing with the local ballet company, Ballet Northwest. And while it was not true love, it was a solid sort and got me back on my feet again. It was there that I learned how to write, speak in public and articulately form arguments against religion. I fulfilled all the requirements for an Associate’s of Arts and was on my way.

I fell in love hard with Evergreen and while I was there, with science and the prospect of a life in research. A quirky, independent, non-traditional learning experience. My first true love. It was there I felt a sense of academic and social community and a staunch motivation to learn. I stayed with Evergreen even after I fulfilled all of the “requirements” for a Bachelor’s of Science and got a second Bachelor’s degree just because I wasn’t ready to part ways just yet.

But I eventually outgrew Evergreen and moved all the way across the country to Duke and its Ph.D. program. The longest and most serious relationship in my academic life. I mean, I was invested and completely absorbed into Duke and what it had to offer. In some ways my time at Duke has completely defined me. Exactly like how some girls are defined by the guy that they are with. And now that I am no longer with Duke, I’ve been trying to parse out my own feelings from the feelings at Duke about what it means to be in science and have a life in academics (and possibly a life outside of academics).

Now I am at the University of Minnesota. I don’t have that much to say about it. By the very nature of a post-doc, it’s not going to be a long-term relationship. I am kind of biding my time until something better comes along. Heaven forbid that I not be at some sort of academic institution. I am that girl who constantly has had a “boyfriend” (and by boyfriend, I mean school). It is what it is. But it is not going to last long, especially when I have an actual significant other at the University of Florida.

Will I find my life-long companion in an academic institution (a tenure-track position)? Or will I continue to flit through universities in a non-committal sort of way? Possibly this story will end in divorce and I’ll leave academics. At this point, it could go either way.

It’s been a long time since I was that lonely freshman at WSU, hating my life. But I was brave enough then to change my course and make my life what I wanted. There was however, one other bright, shiny light during my time at WSU – grabbers. Grabbers are ice cream sandwiches with oatmeal cookies, loaded with homemade ice cream and are sold at Ferdinand’s, the school creamery. Strawberry ice cream with oatmeal cookies? Talk about a fantastic combination.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grabbers and feeling like a freshman again as I try to decide what to do with my life. I’ve recently acquired an ice cream maker and for my maiden voyage I whipped up a batch of rhubarb ice cream (because that infatuation is going strong). Then I sandwiched it between two oatmeal cookies.

Dare I say it’s even better than Ferdinand’s?

I think I do.

Rhubarb Ice Cream Oatmeal Cookie Grabbers

Oatmeal Cookies
adapted from The Essential New York Times cookbook
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups oats (not quick cooking)
Rhubarb Ice Cream
4 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup sugar, divided
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 egg yolks

For the cookies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together flour, baking soda cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.

Beat the shortening and sugars in a large bowl just enough to blend well. Add the egg and vanilla. Continue to beat until thoroughly mixed.

Add the oats and mix again. Drop the dough by tablespoon fulls onto the cookie sheets, 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake until golden brown, 12 – 15 minutes. Transfer to racks to cool.

For the rhubarb ice cream:

Cook chopped rhubarb with 2/3 cup sugar over medium heat, until soft, about 10 minutes. Transfer to blender and puree until smooth.

Heat milk and cream in small saucepan over low heat, until steam starts to rise off the liquid. Take off heat.

Meanwhile, beat egg yolks and remaining 1/3 cup sugar together until light yellow.

Take a little bit (~1/2 cup) of the hot cream and whisk into the eggs. Whisk in the remaining cream. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and cook the custard until thick, about 5 minutes. It should coat the back of a spoon. Mix in the rhubarb puree and transfer to a spouted batter bowl. Chill completely.

Set up and turn on the ice cream maker. Slowly pour chilled custard into ice cream maker and churn for about 25 minutes.

Take about 1/3 cup of the soft-serve ice cream and scoop it onto an oatmeal cookie. Top with a second oatmeal cookie. Wrap well in plastic wrap and freeze for a couple of hours to let the ice cream ripen.


It’s been a busy week. I can’t believe we are already at the start of another one. So time goes.

I spent last weekend with Scott in Florida.

I had a milestone birthday (which initially I was not so stoked about, but thanks to all heartfelt birthday wishes and cake, I accept now).

I picked up Scott at the airport Saturday and do not have to return him until next Thursday (back-to-back weekends with my honey – woo-hoo).

And … drumroll please …

I did some science – and enjoyed it.

Even better – I have nice clean data and interesting results.

I had forgotten this feeling. The absolute high of a successful experiment. I mean, really, I can’t stop smiling. I am so utterly tickled. This is why I went into science.

I’ve struggled this past year to settle into a new project, which I’ve discussed before. If anything it has completely validated the advice I would always give to first year grad students, but could not fully appreciate until now.

You have to love what you do.

For a while now, I haven’t loved what I was doing. I didn’t know if it was because I was in a new lab, away from my significant other, friends and family. I didn’t know if it was because I was burnt out from finishing my PhD. I didn’t know if it was because I was trying to learn how to approach science in a fundamentally different way than I was trained to. I didn’t know if it was because I just didn’t like biology any more.

I didn’t know this is just what being a post-doc was about – the lack of cohesive community in which you must elbow your way into the life of the lab, the floor, the department. It’s hard, and I even considered myself lucky to be in a place with a seasoned post-doc and another who had started the week before I did. And now, almost a year later, and a new post-doc who just started, I am realizing that I have, slowly, over time, made myself a place in this new institution and lab.

It also turns out, that what I love is being able to articulate a relevant biological question and be able to answer it. I love experiments that are designed to give you an answer: If you get W result it suggests X, if you get Y result it suggests Z … I like to be able to think through an entire experiment and anticipate what I might end up with. Even if I am surprised by what I see, I want to be able to conclude something, because the experiment should be designed well.

I am finally returning to that approach to science and it feels fantastic. This is what I am good at. I am using my “bench” hands again and generating data. Data that I find really interesting and exciting. I had forgotten how capable my “bench” hands were. I thought I was pushing myself by turning my back on wet lab experiments and exploring computational approaches to biology. I realized that moving to such an extreme without any transition was a very bad idea. I wasn’t good at it nor did I enjoy it.

I am 30 now, and much smarter. I am back in the lab and generating beautiful data and yet it is still unknown territory for me. Genome-wide datasets and hundreds of different isolates. I still need the computer to tackle all the analysis. But I think it is a perfect compromise and I am happier at work than I have been in a very, very long time.

Plus there is the added bonus that I get to label my DNA pink and blue (and when mixed together become purple)!

I am glad that science and I have patched things up. I have a conference next week that I am speaking at. My science charm will be laid down pretty thick and I am really excited (whereas six months ago I wasn’t) about being surrounded by biologists who are interested in the same kinds of things I am. My newly found enthusiasm for science and biology couldn’t come at a better time.

Note to future self

You can take the girl out of hippie school, but you can’t take the hippie school out of the girl.  At Evergreen, at the end of every term instead of traditional grades, I got an evaluation of my performance and progress for that particular program (we didn’t have classes, instead we took interdisciplinary programs).  It was also encouraged (not required, as Evergreen never really “forced” you to do anything – man I loved that school!) that you write a self-evaluation.  What were your expectations for the program?  What skills have you developed?  How have you grown during the course of the term?  I always found it an useful exercise to honestly evaluate yourself (a sentiment humorously epitomized by this Threadless shirt).  Now, some people call me overly self-critical and think I hold myself to impossible standards, but I really do think that I can always do better than what I did.  I hold my potential in high esteem and don’t think I’ve ever completely maxed it out.  Is it any wonder that I am am still in an academic setting?

I’ve recently resubmitted a fellowship application.  After such a labor-intensive and eye-opening ordeal (one that I, as a scientist, will no doubt have to go through again) I am feeling the need to self-reflect over the things I’ve learned throughout the process.

1) I am not a multi-tasker. I may even have something akin to opposite of ADHD.  I knew that I should have been working on the fellowship a month prior to the actual deadline, instead I didn’t really start working on it until a week prior.  Partly because I didn’t exactly know how to approach it, partly because I am still not totally stoked about that project, partly because I’ve added significant responsibilities to mentor an undergraduate and a junior scientist and partly because I was working on a different, yet challenging computational project.  I’ve realized that my brain has to be fully committed to think about something before I can actually work on something.  And once I’ve committed – I’ll work like a maniac to get it down.  This sort of behavior does not lead to a stress-free life, but instead of forcing myself to change I am going to try and embrace it in the future.  I think that means being selfish with my time, really blocking off the time to work on grant-writing.  Which leads me to lesson #2.

2) I think before I act. Before I can write a single word down, or even sit at my computer, I need a couple of solid day just to think about what I am going to write about.  It always feels like wasted time because at the end of the day I don’t have a single thing to show for what I’ve down.  Yet, if I don’t let my ideas percolate, than I am utterly hopeless.  I’ve known this about myself since early in grad school, but it continues to frustrate me.  I am not one of those writes that just vomits all over the page and  cleans it up later.  I need cohesive thoughts and ideas before I can write my first draft.  I am a huge proponent of outlines.

3) I am in a love-hate relationship with editing.  I love fixing a sentence, making it clearer and more powerful.  I love seeing the changes that I make to the organization make ideas flow better.  These are tangible things that I can accomplish.  I even love the act of doing it.  I admit I am not perfect at it (I never diagrammed a sentence or learned the proper use of prepositional phrases), but I think I do a decent job of it.  But it is a painful job, agonizing over wordchoice and sentence organization.  It’s the good kind of pain though, kind of like when you’ve had your hair tied up all day and you finally let it down and our scalp just screams.  I just love that.  But, what I’ve learned is that it takes time to do it well.  You need space between edits or else you lose your objectivity.  And editing is something that must be done. Nobody, myself included, writes the perfect first draft.

4) Grant-writing is all about salesmanship and language.  This was perhaps the most novel and profound lesson learned.  (And I thank my adviser for opening eyes to it).  For a long time I was struggling with how to significantly change my proposal to make it more compelling.  There was no help from the reviewers comments, aside from requests for more statistical tests and experiments with clinical strains.  They seemed happy with the scope and scale of the question, my qualifications and my choice of sponsor.  So what to change?  Naively, I focused on the science (shocking I know, as I am a scientist), trying to think of new experiments to add.  I now know this was the wrong approach.  I needed to go from “There’s nothing really wrong…” to “Wow! This is the coolest thing ever!”  And to do that I needed to change the language and the context, and not necessarily the experiments, in my proposal.  I needed to articulate and lose the passive voice.  It’s an art that I have under-appreciated and clearly did not allot enough time for (as I was working up until the very, very last minute).  I must accept that it is not just about the science – it’s how you sell it.

5)  I am my own worst critic.  And I mean that in the most un-constructive way possible.  With only a few hours remaining before the lurking deadline, I turn all of all of my exhaustion, stress and worries in on myself.  Why was I so stupid to wait until the last minute? Why wasn’t I better at time management and multi-tasking? Why don’t the perfect sentences just flow from my brain through my fingertips to the keyboard?  Will I ever (or can I ever) learn to be a salesman for my science? Why wasn’t I clever enough to get this right the first time? I am not sure that I figured out the resolution for this last one.  Though I suppose acknowledgment is a tiny step in the right direction.

Lessons learned … and duly noted for future endeavors.