Making the most of it!

April 23, 2020

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I think this to myself as stare down at my soggy glop of a sour-dough starter. The pleasant aroma of my boyfriend’s starter is very different than the acrid odor of mine. Apparently, you’re supposed to taste the dough to assess it’s fermentation progress, but I’m hesitant to do so. Two sensory experiences are sufficient thank you very much! I think something is wrong with mine…The wild yeast have possibly been out-competed by the ambient bacteria, so I have some lactic acid fermentation going on rather than ethanol.

How did this fate befall my poor starter? Well, in short, I didn’t follow the recipe. Oops.

The America’s Test Kitchen recipe we (are supposed to) follow recommends a 1:1 mixture of whole wheat:bakers flour. I grabbed pizza dough flour instead, and declined to make any sort of mixture. It’s only been 48 hours, and Pizza-Starter is not doing so hot. Friends of ours have said I should name it Swamp-Ass. I think I’ll go with S.A.

Luckily, I have ten more days of “feeding,” S.A, which will allow me to titrate in some of the correct flour each new day. I didn’t want to start over, so I aligned myself with SA and will press on!

Sour dough starter in progress…

My decision to press on with this bread-making endeavor is reminiscent of what I’ve been doing as a graduate student during these strange quarantined times.

Because of COVID19, researchers like me are unable to head back to lab. Consequentially, I cannot repeat an experiment to include more animals (flies!), or set up a small pilot study satisfy a missing element of a current project. I am strapped to any past and current experimental results: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It’s really important for researchers be transparent with the fact that not all experiments pan out exactly as we wish. During normal times, we have the resources (time, access to lab, etc.) to start again, but now a lot of us must advance what we currently have.

The style of my lab is to do many pilot experiments and “see what sticks.” This is possible because we’re a pretty simple fly lab. My experiments can range in length from 1 week to 1 month after I begin an exposure. This creates an environment where I can test multiple hypotheses to satisfy my curiosity of many avenues. However, the freedom to do so comes at the expense of focus sometimes. Since joining, I have matured a lot by learning to focus.

I’ve also learned to make the most of the tools we have in lab. Our “bread and butter” is something called the Gal4/UAS system, which allows us to restrict experimental manipulations to cell or tissue types of interest. I’ll spare you the details, but basically this is a very useful genetic tool. Although there are many ways one could study muscle development, I basically restrict colors to muscles I’m interested in, observe their growth, and see how a chemical exposure (methylmercury) influences the growth.

The alien-looking creatures below are images of my flies during development. Their heads are facing up. From left to right, they were exposed to increasing amounts of methylmercury, which caused defects during development of their flight muscles, which are glowing bright red.

If you line up 2 million of these guys side by side, it would cover one lap of a 400 meter track.

This is a relatively simplistic approach, compared to the strategies other labs employ for similar studies. I don’t let the comparison bother me; instead, I consider how it highlights the creativity of my lab. I’ve grown to really appreciate how far a little creativity can go in research. It’s helped me make progress on my thesis project.

For my most recent committee meeting (which was yesterday!), I presented the progress I’ve made toward my thesis project.

I was super worried about this meeting, but it ended up going well. The committee was pleased with my progress, so I don’t have to meet again until next year- Huzzah! I wonder if this will be an in-person meeting rather than via Zoom?

For the meeting, I reviewed my aims from my written proposal, presented data, and gave a self assessment of my progress. Aim 3 will take longer than anticipated, but that’s MORE THAN OK given the circumstances 🤷🏻‍♀️

Oh yeah- that reminds me. I want to briefly talk about my Zoom-based committee meeting, which was a unique experience. Well, technically every committee meeting I have had is unique, because my first one ever was last year, my second included the qualifying exam… but I digress…)

Thoughts on Zoom-based Committee Meetings:


-No need to prepare snacks and coffee

See the source image
Image courtesy of this “Careers” article in Science

-No need to schedule a room

-More efficient – we were done in about 75 minutes. I scheduled 3 hours.

-Screen-share feature on Zoom ensures everyone can make out the data and slides.


-Hard to gage body language. For some committee members, this is very telling.

See the source image
At least no committee member is as challenging as Miranda Priestly!

-More potential for technical difficulties (because now it’s not just you wielding a computer screen, it’s everyone!)

It’d be a lost opportunity to not mention how the theme of this post also applies to running. If my meandering, admittedly digressive flow has caused you to forget what it is, I’m sorry! It’s “making the most of it.” 🙂

In running, there seems to be more opportunity for us to compare ourselves to others than to reflect on how well we’re currently doing. I realized that I facilitate this too, by posting pictures of my runs on my PhDistance Insta account. My intent by posting in general is to provide a window into my life as a runner and graduate student. I want to convey that whatever I’m doing, I’m trying my best.

I like to to reflect on how my runs have progressively felt better, been quicker, or lasted longer over time. In one of the posts, I point out that the pace and distance of my runs differ by day and are very dependent on how my body feels.

My favorite elite runners include Alexi Pappas, Des Linden, and Abby D’Agostino because I like to see them perform on the track or course. But I especially love to follow them because I think they try their best to be good people. I really value Alexi’s insouciant worldview, Des’ grit, and Abby’s compassion. They inspire me to try my best to emulate their character.

From bread-making to running and beyond, it’s important to do your best. I will continue to press on with my sour dough (which today smells like banana rum!?), thesis work, and athletic endeavors. I enjoy posting about these (mis)adventures because it gives me a chance to create something humorous and fun from it. My hope is that making the best of what I’ve got can translate into an enjoyable read for you all 🙂

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Toxicology graduate student, marathon runner,and fly-person (#Drosophilove).