I have a thesis defense date!

March 30, 2021

It’s official: I have a defense date scheduled for August 10 at 11 am. MARK YOUR CALENDARS, FRIENDS! Also hit me up for that Zoom link. The buildup to this has been pretty stressful, so I am ecstatic that is worked out and I get to leave.

Before August 10, I have to write a thesis — specifically, I turn it in July 6! The average PhD thesis is around 75,000 words. The task is pretty daunting, but I have a strategy to tackle it. Basically, I will write about 15,000 words of introduction, about the same for a discussion, and my two papers will go in between. Older graduate students in my program have called the strategy, “the sandwich method.”

After I write and defend, my next step is a move to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. My partner has accepted a job at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is AWESOME and I am so freakin’ proud. On my end, I aspire (dream) to become a science journalist that covers environmental health news and toxicology. I have accepted that I might not be able to get there right out of the gate, so I have been casting a wide net with my job applications and career search. I have applied for science communication multimedia fellowships and toxicology consulting and risk assessment positions. Additionally, this week I am meeting with some mentors to *gulp* inquire about post-docs. Ideally the post docs would be at the National Toxicology Program or NIEHS, and have an obvious public-health focus and maybe even value science communication and outreach. Does such a specific post-doc exist?! I have no idea. Hopefully time (and the right contacts) will tell.

At work, my main responsibilities have shifted from laboratory work, writing, and extracurricular activities to mainly writing all day, every day. Honestly, thank GOODNESS because 1) I love to write/edit and 2) I have gotten to the point in my PhD where I want to bang my head against the black Masonite benchtop every other day. Apparently, that level of frustration is a good indication that a student is ready to leave.

Another indication is a publication record.

I published my first first-author manuscript in Toxicology last fall, which is the unwritten base-requirement (in addition to completing coursework and maintaining good academic standing) to graduate from my program. However, my advisor wanted a second first-author publication from me before he would let me go.

At first, I was basically like “heck no this is dumb and I am tired” but in slightly more articulate and professional language, of course. Eventually (and begrudgingly), I acquiesced. While I’m proud of myself for doing it, I must credit a supportive committee member who gave me the tough love I needed to “just write the damn paper and get out.” In a three week span, I pivoted from an obstinate stance against writing the paper at all, to having the first draft completed and sent to my advisor.

That draft has been sitting in his inbox for over a week now, but it’s not productive to dwell…

Anyway, I’m really proud of myself for setting my mind to something and just doing it, even though I very much did not want to. I’m leaving out a lot of details, such as panic attacks and angsty walks to work. In any case, please trust me when I say that my experience with the second paper is pretty emblematic of the grind of a PhD: it can be mentally grueling.

Now would be an opportune time to say something along the lines of, “if it was any other way, everyone would do it.” Approximately 2% of the U.S. population has a PhD, according to Inside Higher Ed. Sure, a small fraction of people in general complete the PhD. Here’s a thought: what if we made it less mentally grueling?! Surely more people would have a PhD. Why is that such a bad thing? I digress. This is definitely a topic for a future post.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to joining a tiny nerd-guild of Toxicologists in the very near future.

Methylmercury pollution is a problem – can Hollywood help?

January 29, 2021

The story of the world’s worst methylmercury poisoning disaster comes to the screen in February. The film, Minamata stars Johnny Depp as American photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith, whose work publicized the disaster in Minamata, Japan. Hopefully the film will renew public interest in mercury pollution, which remains a major threat to global public health.

(Warning – spoiler alert) The movie is set in Minamata in 1971, where Smith and his wife, Aileen, visited the small coastal fishing village for a journalistic expedition. The pair learn how Minamata and surrounding towns were ravaged by methylmercury water pollution from the chemical factory owned by Chisso Corporation. Smith captures the tragedy on his camera, which leads to an infamous eight-page spread in Life Magazine in 1972. Based on the trailer, centerpiece of the film is likely to be Smith creating this photospread.

The photos captured emotional scenes of the distorted, frail bodies of poisoning victims. To implicate Chisso, Smith sequentially arranged the photos: shots of factory wastewater followed by people fishing to explain the exposure, and lastly images of physically crippled victims in their daily life.

Left: Industrial waste from the Chisso Chemical company. Middle: Fishermen in Minamata Bay. Right: Tomoko Uemura is bathed by her mother. Photo credit: W. Eugene Smith.

Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxicant, a poisonous substance that causes brain damage. In the case of methylmercury, the damage is permanent. With high levels of exposure, such as those at Minamata, the brain damage results symptoms akin to cerebral palsy: erratic, uncoordinated movements and cognitive impairment.

A peculiar attribute of methylmercury is that it accumulates in fish tissue. Even small amounts in the environment can lead to extraordinarily high levels in fish. Thus, people who ate fish from the bay in Minamata were poisoned. Chisso stopped dumping wastewater in 1968, but hundreds of Japanese had already been crippled or killed by the poison. To date, approximately 3,000 victims been officially recognized, according to a recent report in the Japan Times.

Dr. John O’Donoghue, toxicologic neuropathologist based in Rochester, New York, first learned of Minamata after seeing Smith’s photo spread in Life Magazine many years ago. “One particular black and white photo has stayed in my mind ever since,” he said. “It was a picture of a woman who was bathing her crippled daughter with such care and tenderness – the child was precious to her.” In Smith’s photobook, Let Truth Be the Prejudice, the photo is called “Tomoko Uemura is bathed by her mother,” and is also pictured above.

Dr. Celia Chen, director of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, was similarly struck by the same photo. “Seeing the degree of physical impact of a toxin through the environment was really sobering,” she said. “It was painful and inspiring as well – there are so many emotions with the photograph.”

The story of Minamata is powerful, but Dr. Chen stressed that the poisoning event was distinct from most mercury exposures. “Minamata was like a punch to the gut,” she said. Chen explained that the more subtle low-level exposures experienced most often today can still be dangerous. The most sensitive populations to methylmercury are unborn babies, who are exposed through contaminated seafood eaten by the mother. While all fish contain some level of mercury, the most concerning are large predatory species like swordfish, tuna, and shark; these are the ones clinicians advise pregnant mothers to avoid. Another way to protect the next generation is by reducing the amount of mercury in fish to begin with. For this reason, international limits on mercury emissions are crucial.

Indeed, the international Minamata Convention of Mercury was formed limit mercury emissions into the environment. According to Chen the Minamata Convention “is like the Treaty of Paris for carbon emissions.” Italy joined the Convention on January 5, 2021, bringing the total number of participating nations to 127.

Chen said that coal fire-power plants have the highest mercury emissions in the U.S. In order to regulate power plant mercury emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in 2012. Chen explained that the MATS rule helps the U.S. meet commitments under the Minamata Convention.

The MATS rule has helped substantially reduce mercury emissions. According to EPA data, mercury emissions from the U.S. coal-fire power plants have declined by 85% from 92,000 pounds in 2006 to 14,000 pounds in 2016. Additionally, the estimated number of children born in the U.S. each year with pre-natal exposure to methylmercury levels exceeding the EPA reference dose has decreased by half.

Despite such progress, the EPA recently stepped back from its commitment to reduce mercury emissions.  On April 16, 2020, the Agency deemed that it is not, “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and other hazardous pollutants from coal-fired power plants under section 112 of the Clean Air Act. According to legal scholars, this decision undermines the foundation of the MATS rule and invites challenges to mercury emissions standards.

While the Biden administration is likely to consider more stringent environmental regulations, it’s noteworthy that our new President neglected to include coal-fired power plants in his January 27th executive order limiting emissions (coal leasing) on federal lands.

Nevertheless, movies like Minamata can help people take notice of important environmental issues surrounding mercury. Public awareness and understanding of such issues can help protect the next generation from the health threats of methylmercury.

Researchers who study mercury today such as Chen, O’Donoghue, and myself are hopeful that the public reception of the film will be similar to that of prior historical dramas with an environmental interest. In the 1984 film, Silkwood, Meryl Streep brought a story of corporate negligence and plutonium radiation toxicity into the public eye. Mark Ruffalo did so more recently for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Dark Waters.

As Chen succinctly put it, These kinds of movies, whether on mercury or PFAS, are so important because the public will go see a movie and gain interest. Movies can be an on-ramp for people to care about important environmental issues.”

Quitting the PhD: when you could and why you shouldn’t

November 12, 2020

The challenges that face PhD students in science programs are frequent and often seem insurmountable. When faced with obstacles, is it better to just quit? Spoiler alert — NO! Its not!

Approximately a quarter of graduate students in science or engineering PhD programs in the U.S. will quit within 3 years of matriculation, according to data gathered by the Council of Graduate Schools. Moreover, of the estimated 24,165 graduate students in U.S. natural science doctoral programs, 6,041 will not defend their thesis to earn a PhD.

There are numerous reasons why quitting may be appropriate or inappropriate. Ultimately, the decision to throw in the towel (or not) is extremely personal.

Anecdotally, I have heard that the main reasons for quitting a PhD in the natural sciences include losing interest in the research, wishing to pursue a different passion, and feeling disheartened by academia. These are all totally understandable reasons, and I have felt them too.

There are other struggles, too. Personally, I sometimes think my experimental design is such a mess that my research is not going to help the world in a meaningful way. Every now and then, I consider the possibility that I am only in a PhD program by some fortuitous combination of personal fraud and admissions committee error. Additionally, I often worry that my future career will not require my high level of education. These feelings have certainly been exacerbated by the mental toll of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, but they had existed before March 2020.

Nevertheless, I won’t quit, and I argue against quitting a PhD in general.

The pandemic will be over, eventually. In the meantime, there is no shame in struggling during these uniquely stressful times, or ever, actually. Change is really hard, and it’s OK to struggle. Pandemic aside, the process of a PhD involves constant changes: moving to a new city, rotating in different laboratories, joining a lab and moving to a new office, forming relationships with your committee members, working through summers, and a revolving door of lab members, to name a few.

While we (usually) can’t control the changes, we can control how we respond to the changes. My thoughts of quitting partially stem from my responses to change: being supportive versus resistant of the changes experienced in academia influence my mood/outlook, which in turn influence how often the thought of quitting occurs.

PPT - Positive Response to Change PowerPoint Presentation, free download -  ID:476522
Personal responses (supportive to resistant) to change (in general) in academia over time

I’m usually in a pretty good mood and want to keep on keeping on, but I have periods of doubt that basically correspond to whenever there is a change. Indeed, I’ve felt the urge to call my advisor and hang up my lab-coat many times over the past few months, but I will not. The doubt will pass. I will defend my thesis sometime in the next two years.

Overcoming this whole mess, and emerging with a PhD is essential for me, and other candidates. Although the degree represents the contribution of new knowledge to the world about a (very specific) problem, the educational process is the most meaningful part. A PhD is an endurance event — basically a marathon. The finish is great, but the race itself is where you learn and grow against a backdrop of constant change.

Sticking it out and holding steady through the “race” is tough. However, like endorphins for a runner, the benefits of a PhD journey increase as you go on. During my PhD so far, I have become educated in much more than Toxicology. I’ve learned how to be kind yet constructive, that PI’s are just people, and that my to-do list is never too long for a run (and other means of self-care!). I want to continue to learn more while I can, so I will stick around. But not too long!

The decision to leave or stay is personal, and I realize I have certain privileges (I don’t have children, I have more free time, etc…) that enable me to make this decision more easily. Nevertheless, should “the benefits of the process” not be a sufficient reason for you to stay, I offer some others:

  1. You worked too hard to get here to quit now.
  2. The effort you have previously put in will amount to a degree that opens doors to subsequent opportunities
  3. You may inspire others to pursue a PhD
  4. By struggling, you have gained experience that you may share with mentees you can guide and help
  5. You CAN do it — anything worth doing is difficult — If it were easy, everyone would have a PhD!
    • Indeed, 2% of the United States population has a PhD., according to US Census Bureau data from 2019.

Although I urge you to stay rather than quit, spending time in a PhD program means you learned something about yourself, and made an informed decision.

“At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.” – Lao-Tzu (604 – 531 BC)

Have you thought about quitting? What are your thoughts on the process of getting a PhD? What made it worthwhile for you?

SHOES

April 17 2020

Running remains a staple hobby during these strange, quarantined times. Many of us are increasing mileage to fill the newfound free time, or returning to it after a brief hiatus. Wherever you’re at, I’m sure you think about the main equipment used for this joyous pastime- our shoes!

There are a lot of options when it comes to what we runners put on our feet. If you’re like me, making decisions on this sort of thing can be ridiculously stressful. With that in mind, I made this post in hopes to provide somewhat of a helpful guide, or at least alleviate some stress of sneaker-shopping! 😊 This is basically a short list of what I think about, including my opinions on shoes.

To figure out what kind of shoe I’m in the market for, I think about these questions:

What type of running are these shoes intended for?

Every day road running? Trail running? Road racing? XC racing? These could all use different shoes!

  1. Road running: for every day runs on the sidewalk, road, cinder path, or whatever. These could be neutral, have a good about of cushion, and some other specs, depending on your responses to the other questions in this post.
  1. Examples: Brooks Ghost, Asics GT2000, New Balance 680v6, Topo Fly-Lyte, Topo Phantom, Nike Pegasus, Mizuno Wave Rider,

Tip #1 – many websites (like Brooks) offer a “shoefinder” feature. Try to find this.

Tip #2 – When I want to try a new shoe, I buy one pair of my current ones, and one pair of my old ones. That way, I’m not stuck if I am disappointed with the newbie.

  1. Trail running: for runs along trails, through dirt, mud, up/down mountains or hills, likely water-proof, probably a subdued, natural looking hue like slate grey or brown. Websites should have a tab that specifies “trail running shoes.”
    1. Examples: Brooks Cascadia, Asics GelVenture, New Balance Women’s 590v4 FuelCore, Topo trail running shoes, Solomon trail running shoes.

  1. Road racing: These shoes include “racing flats,” which tend to be flashy, attractive, sleek, and lightweight. The characteristics of these shoes aim to make us feel fast and confident during a road race. I wouldn’t really want to run in Road Racing flats day to day though; they don’t offer a ton of support.

I used to run road-races in these..

Blue cheetah-print Nike Lunaracers = confidence boost to make me super speedy

XC racing: For running cross-country (XC), I want slim shoes with metal spikes to dig into the earth and help propel myself forward. I would avoid buying these for any other purpose… Although I know people collect them!

What is the furthest distance you plan to run? How far do you run per week?

It’s good to know the furthest distance I intend to run in these shoes, as well as how often my feet will be slamming into the ground. This helps me determine how much cushion I want on them. Most people prefer to be in the middle of two extremes:

Extreme minimalist: Vibram FiveFingers

They look so silly, but I don’t know much about them. I like the idea of running “naturally,” but I wonder if this is just a marketing ploy. Regardless, they’re the most extreme example I could think of!

Extreme “Maximalist”: Hoka Graviota 2

I also think these are silly looking, but a lot of runners really love them, including my PI!

Where on your foot do you land when running?

There are a few ways to determine this one:

Option 1| Look at the wear patterns on old shoes. Follow this guide from Runner’s World Mag https://www.runnersworld.com/gear/a20835825/whats-your-wear-pattern/

Note that the article is from 2007, so a lot of the shoes they recommend may be unavailable and/or more suitable shoes for a given wear pattern may even be available.

Option 2| Use information from gait analysis programs to determine landing patterns line foot strike, turnover (cadence). The most highly rated programs for this are available for individuals (https://www.coachseye.com/package/individual), but are pretty expensive. To circumvent the cost, you can get a gait analysis done at a gym, a local running store (Well, not currently #COVID19), a physical therapist office if you see one.

What is your budget?

Shoes are an investment. Be prepared to drop some $ on a good pair, but know that it’s worth the cost to avoid discomfort or injury. Once a “staple” shoe has been identified, scour these sites (below) for that shoe. I recommend looking for the second or third newest model of the desired shoe, because these will usually be a lot less expensive without being that different from the “latest and greatest.”

https://www.runningwarehouse.com/

https://www.firsttothefinish.com/

https://www.eastbay.com/

https://www.topoathletic.com/

I run in Topo’s. They’re a low/no drop shoe with a wide toe-box. I like the low drop because it reduces the strain on my calves over many miles, and the wide-toe box helps reduce the frequency of black toenails!

I determine a (rough) budget for the shoes I want based on my weekly mileage (see above) and cost of the shoe I want. For example, I spend about $150-200 on shoes per year because I run 50 miles/week, and each ~$75 pair stays with me through about 800 miles. Each pair is very well-loved… perhaps too well loved.

Generally, people seem to swap out shows after ~400 miles. I’ve been advised to buy shoes more frequently, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it depends on the shoe, and the wear on the shoes. My Topo’s can really take a beating:

Three generations of my Topo FliLytes. A) “dorsal” depiction of my shoes, newest on left, oldest on right. Current shoe is indicated. Circles indicate holes, arrows indicate holes with foam (because I don’t untie my shoes after each use! Oops… I’m so bad.) B) “ventral” depiction of my shoes showing wear patterns after the indicated mileage.

All-right, hopefully this was helpful. I realize that there are many people who are more well informed of this topic than me, and I totally welcome their comments below.

P.S. If anyone is interested, I have size 7.5 Blue Topo Magnify’s that I will give away to the first person who is interested 😊 Think of it as a reward for reading all the way to the end of my blog post!!

#February11

2/11/19

My friend, Jacquie, texted me this today:

Super awesome, right?!

So apparently, it was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science! Today is a day that we brilliant women can enthusiastically celebrate the successes of one another. Well, we can actually do that every day, but an international holiday is always welcome 😎. Additionally, today we can remember the struggles of our predecessors against workplace/academic sexism and unconscious bias. We can also realize how much work remains to be done.

This post is about this latter part: our current struggles, which include barriers in the way of true equality in academia. Such barriers include stigmas such as female cattiness. Ironically, women can perpetuate these barriers for themselves. One example occurred while I sought advice on potential members  for my thesis advisory committee.

Side note:” the committee” is a group of people who I will report to with progress towards my PhD. I will ultimately defend my thesis against them. I think of them as a hand-picked coaching staff who offer very specific and thorough training, then ultimately turn on me and become the absolute WORST/toughest competitors for a big race.

In this instance, I was counseled by a senior student to not choose two women for my 4-member committee because, “in general, women are more harsh towards other women.” She was expressing concern that I would fall victim to cattiness, which could make committee meetings difficult for me. Her words echoed, and thus perpetuate, the stigma that women make the lives of other women hard because they are catty. Such thinking is toxic because it holds women back from freely seeking advice from other women who could offer sage advice or turn out to be great mentors. The stigma of cattiness could also influence men to second-guess a potential female mentor or colleague. In either case,  by avoiding situations to receive advice of women, we may limit our growth in terms of networking and collaborative potential. By limiting our collaborative potential, we slow progress towards our goals.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you see this year’s EMBO Women in Science Award laureate, Sara Linse. Linse is admired by many for her work studying amyloid beta peptides in the development of  Alzheimer’s disease. As a recipient of the award, she is acknowledged as a  generous colleague and collaborator who enthusiastically and openly shares ideas, materials, and results. I think she exemplifies how a successful woman is revered, and remembered, for her science and her attitude.

Barriers to equality also emerge from excessive self-interest and competition. A little competition is healthy and necessary, I don’t deny that. (I write a blog that is essentially about similarities between racing  and pursuing a PhD for Pete’s sake!) However, when we begin to play-dirty,  when we rise up the ranks by stepping on others, we hurt all of our chances to reach our full potential because progress is slowed.

I appreciate the model that Sara Linse exemplifies – enthusiastic and open collaboration, sharing ideas, lending resources, and mentoring younger versions of ourselves. Adopting Linse’s model requires an attitude of positivity towards ourselves and others.

As a start, I’ve been working on being more positive with myself so that I am more confident in my own work and presence as a scientist.

My running contributes a hefty amount of positivity (good ole’ endorphins!). 🏃🏻‍♀️💫💕Directing that positivity towards confidence as a researcher has helped me do small things like asking more questions at seminars and talking more openly about my own research.  The confidence I feel has helped me shed previous fears that these exchanges would result in judgement. I’m learning that if I go into one of the aforementioned situations assuming a positive outcome, I usually get just that.

Similarly, if we view other  women, and men, in a more positive light, to always assume the best until proven wrong, we can build confidence that perpetuates positivity, and vice-versa. This seems pretty ideal to me!

Positivity>>> toxic stigmas

Here are some pictures of my support system: family, friends, mentors who have been positive influences over the years:

Finally, I would like to give a shout out to my friend, Katie Harvey for making the super cool graphic for my blog page! She’s going to art school, but wears a lot of hats besides an artist beret. She is also a runner, (running hat?), a lab tech ( safety goggles that no one wears??), bhangra dancer (tikka, according to a Google???). OH GOD Why did I keep going with this horrible hat metaphor? Anyhow, thanks Katie!☺️❤️

PhDistance | WELCOME

Hi! My name is Ash, and I’m a PhD candidate in Toxicology and a marathon runner. I also love to write, and recently discovered that there’s a solid market for science writers with a PhD! I now regularly daydream of being a science journalist that covers Toxicology and Environmental Issues.

But that’s the future. Here is the past:

I was a distance running athlete in college for SUNY Geneseo, a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York. My favorite races were the 3k and 5k- I never attempted a 10k. I made a big leap to try my first half-marathon after graduating from college. I loved it, and found myself considering a marathon a few days later.

At that time, I was also considering laboratories to rotate in and housing options near the University of Rochester, where I would begin my PhD in toxicology.

Toxicology is an interdisciplinary field that incorporates concepts from biochemistry, environmental science, and psychology. I get to throw in developmental biology and entomology too because of my thesis work: I use a fruit fly model to learn about methylmercury toxicity during muscle development.

When I’m not in lab, I’m literally running around Rochester. The weather can be pretty wild here, given the city’s proximity to the Great Lakes, but it’s usually fun to be out there!

…and other times, it’s not:

If it looks like I’m crying, it’s because I am.

Since coming to Rochester, I have run 4 marathons, and 3 half marathons (see the Races tab).  There have been injuries, personal records, highs and lows along the way, and I’m grateful for it all.

Running keeps me sane, provides a “reset” when I feel spun from work, and has led to wonderful friendships. It also gives me those infamous post-run endorphin spikes.

There are plenty of adventures as I navigate the streets and trails of Rochester, as well as academia. This blog is a space to record my adventures as I chase after my athletic and academic goals.

 Subscribe (email) and follow this blog to keep up as I run towards my goals and away from my problems!