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?

Bike to work in the winter (!/?)

October 21, 2020

Bicycles flew off the shelves in the early phases of the pandemic to provide exercise and anxiety relief to many. The weeks went on, and employees slowly returned to work – many by bike! Now that winter is fast approaching, the feasibility of the bike-to-work commute is called into question.

One serendipitous outcome of the COVID19 pandemic is that many people have discovered they can easily commute to work by bike, and reap the benefits. Riding a bicycle for just 20 minutes a day — a very reasonable length of time for a commute — has tremendous benefits for long-term personal health. The reduced carbon-footprint from not driving a car is also a plus.

For those who commute to the University of Rochester Medical Center (e.g. me, and hundreds of others), which is the largest employer of Rochester, biking to work also means not having to deal with parking and vehicle traffic. The Erie Canal, Greenway Trail, and Genesee River Trail provide a way for people living in various areas to get directly to the Medical Center. Bike commuters can smugly zip past the horrendous parking situation in Lot 1 on a regular workday, and head straight for the bike rack located right outside the University doors.

The aforementioned benefits of commuting by bike don’t necessarily go away with the warm weather. When the snow comes, certain trails are plowed and salted, just as the roadways. Although, many year-round bike commuters think that there is better traction on the non-plowed surfaces.

Timothy Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Rochester succinctly explained that, ”it’s not a big deal, as long as you’re not a little bitch.”*

*note- he is joking, obviously. But really, it’s not as terrible as one might think!

In preparation for his first Rochester winter, Anderson opted to purchase a fat-tire bike, which has more contact with the ground, thus can provide more traction. Additionally, many local bike stores in Rochester can help “winterize” your current bike. This entails switching out standard slick tires for studded tires. The stores can also provide you with flashers and lights, as rush hours in the winter are especially dark.

In my opinion, fenders are the most important equipment for your winterized bike. In addition to snow, winter douses the roads with a wet mixture of slush, salt, and dirt. Fenders prevent the rear wheel spinoff from lining your back and butt with dirt lines.

Fenders are also a must for the rainy season that precedes winter (i.e. right now). I have been riding in the rain this week and it has not been super great. Installing my fenders this weekend will be a welcome update!

Alternatively, you can forgo fenders and bring a change of clothes each day to work. This is what I have been doing. My PI, who also bikes to work, employs this strategy as well.

Indeed, biking to work throughout the harsh Rochester winter isn’t impossible. Should commuting in the winter seem feasible for you, perhaps your current motor vehicle is due for a more unconventional trade-in.

Misuse Of Acronyms is Not Stellar (MOANS)

August 23, 2020

I feel like I’m generally able to roll with the obscurities and absurdities that plague academia. Average of 21 years from PhD to full-professor status in Toxicology? Fine, I won’t think about it. Lack of eye-care in my student health-insurance package? No problem; my outdated prescription doesn’t mean I’m blind (yet)! Non-employee student status that prevents me from saving for retirement (or unionizing)? Probably unfair, but it’s not productive to dwell.

However, one thing I cannot brush off is the confusion that surrounds acronyms in academia. We use acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms to communicate faster; unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean that their use helps us communicate better. My main qualm is that I think that having so many acronyms in science makes it confusing to convey meaning across disciplines because acronyms can be mis-used to impede communication.

My favorite example of this is “MHC.” If you’re talking among biologists or schmoozing the histology core staff, MHC is understood as, “myosin heavy chain.” However, if you’re an immunologist or medical professional – your first thought might be “major histocompatibility complex.” And if you’re checking your student health insurance coverage, you may want to make sure your “mental health counselor” is still free due to COVID.

I’m pretty stuck on student health insurance issues lately… can you tell?

A recent eLife meta-analysis of the growth of acronyms in science found that acronym use is going up and acronym re-use is going down. It also suggested that journals which have policies that prohibit acronym use in the title do not enforce that rule.

The authors of the meta-analysis analyzed 24,873,372 titles and 18,249,091 abstracts published between 1950 and 2019, from which they observed over 1.1 million unique acronyms.

Introducing new acronyms so often while not using existing ones creates an alphabet-soup of terms in literature repositories (e.g. PubMed) that scientists and interested readers have to sift through. Furthermore, it is unlikely that one can completely evade this by limiting a search to titles. I want to clarify that I’m not against the use of acronyms; I oppose their misuse/abuse. The aforementioned level of acronym mis-use bugs the crap out of me.

Devil’s advocate: Given a fluent reader of the same language and discipline, acronyms certainly help scientists and writers rapidly convert print to meaning by reducing wordiness. The abstract in my most recent publication had a total of 25 acronyms or abbreviations; I would be WAY over the allotted word-count without their assistance.

Acronyms also help us wrangle long, unruly, and sometimes overly-quirky gene names. As someone who studies Drosophila, I’m familiar with (and partial to) an ensemble of whimsical gene names. They are more often referred to by their more digestible abbreviations: Multiple edematous wings (mew), kon-tiki (kon), son of sevenless (sos), held out wings (how), to name a few. Interestingly, some researchers have recently changed the names of genes in order to avoid issues when reading data sets in Microsoft Excel. The most obvious conclusion is that they should have been using Drosophila for their research…

I’m also partial to charismatic acronyms that I come across outside of the Drosophila community, which I want to share:

  • McSELFIE: McGill Self-Efficacy of Learners for Inquiry Engagement
  • GANDALF: Genetic variation and Altered Leucocyte Function
  • BEAVER: Biodeasel Exhaust, Acute Vascular and Endothelial Responses
  • PENIS: Proton Enhanced Nuclear Induction Spectroscopy

*courtesy of Academia Obscura.*

Although acronym misuse bugs me, I acknowledge it’s a moot point; researchers usually need to convey their point in print in as few characters as possible.

Nevertheless, scientists around the world need to be able to effectively communicate across disciplines to solve some of the greatest problems we face such as climate change, pollution, food insecurity, and infectious disease (#covid19). If we’re really in favor of increased efficiency, we should focus on improving interdisciplinary collaborations by communicating better, not faster.

Here are some propositions for how to communicate better:

1) Maintain consistent acronym use in a given field. Example: if an acronym exists in your field, resist the urge to create a new one. I suspect this is often done for the sake of personal branding.

2) Define the acronym once in each part of a manuscript: abstract, intro, result, discussion AND figure legends. It will require dedicated space in that precious word count, sure.

3) During oral presentations, speak the full phrase at least twice before using the acronym.

4) During oral presentations, refrain from using acronyms that have the same number of syllables as the phrase (e.g. “SC” for “stem cell” both have two, and it bothers me when I hear this acronym. However, “HUCAPS” for “Harvard Ultra-fine Concentrated Ambient Particle System” makes much sense).

5) Hire someone to communicate science. In academia, we wear SO many hats (teacher, researcher, mentor, writer, speaker, graphic designer, etc). Be comfortable seeking professional help with the one that makes your science accessible to the rest of humanity.

“You can’t take over the world without a good acronym.”

-C.S. Woolley, UK author

First-time blood donation

July 24, 2020

Two weeks ago, I donated blood to the Red Cross for the first time. The decision was pretty abrupt TBH; I downloaded the app and made an appointment using my iPhone on a random Friday evening. Tim glanced up from his card game with our friend Matt to ask what I was doing, to which I replied, “signing up to give blood.”

I’d been feeling intrinsic pressure to donate because I was under the impression that I had precious O-negative “universal-donor” blood. I’m not sure where this personal health note originated, but it had been implanted in my mind and regarded as truth until I checked the Red Cross donor app after my donation:

Turns out it’s LITERALLY in my blood to be obnoxiously optimistic. Dang.

Giving blood, even amidst a pandemic, was straightforward. The whole process took an hour, and that’s primarily because I was chit-chatting a lot with the phlebotomist Elisa, and the nurse. They were great. One underrated reason to love these health care professionals (HCP) is that they compliment you in ways many don’t.

HCP: You have BEAUTIFUL veins!

Me: Awe, shucks!

Or, my personal favorite:

HCP: Your heart rate is very low- you must exercise pretty regularly!

Thanks, running.

Which reminds me – running has unfortunately taken a hit following the donation.

Losing one pint of blood for the donation, plus additional vials for the complementary COVID19 antibody test, has meant I have significantly less RBC’s circulating. I may have registered to give blood with serum hemoglobin levels of 14.5 g/dL (as a vegetarian😉!), but I have felt a bit “off” in the days following the donation. I’ve slept-in almost every day since, and my runs have been noticeably more challenging. It’s really fascinating though – I’m astonished by the impact that losing only 10% of my blood volume has had on my constitution and peppiness.

Perhaps I should have taken the admonitions to refrain from exercise a bit more seriously?  nah.

As a child of the 21st century – I obviously Googled my experience immediately. I learned that the sluggishness I feel on runs will pass; I expect to feel up to workouts again this week or next! I also expect to give blood in September, since RBC’s need 120 days to regenerate!

I’m looking forward to running some workouts again. I’m not training for anything per-se, but I think workouts are fun (…type II fun), and I like how strong and confident I can feel during them. I want to build up some strength and confidence as I enter my 4th year of graduate school in August & start the new academic year.

One last thing: The Red Cross website has a really awesome site with interactive graphics and fun facts about different blood types and info about donations. I pulled some of tid-bits for those of you who don’t want to venture off platform:

  • Blood types are determined by different sugar and protein molecules on your red blood cells (RBCs)
  • The “+” and “-” refer to the presence or absence of protein called the Rh factor.
  • The rarest blood type is type AB-
  • The most common blood type is O+
  • About 9% of the population has B+ blood (like me!), but the site can break it down further to compare how it relates to the whole U.S. population:
Photo credit: Red Cross
  • The universal RBC donor has type O – blood
  • The universal plasma donor has type AB blood
  • Red cells can be stored for up to 42 days.
  • For a short time, the Red Cross is testing all blood donations for the presence of COVID19 antibodies — this is “the antibody test.” Learn more.
    1. I am negative.
  • You can track what happens to your donated blood after the donation using the app or this website!
  • The implication that blood type A+ is prognostic for COVID19 has recently been dispelled by researchers at HMS in Boston. If you are curious about this you can venture off platform by clicking the hyperlinks:
    1. You can read the original article on pubmed.
    2. You can read the press-release on the study, too.

“Starve the mosquitoes; give blood.” – Anonymous

(Un)healthy competition I.

June 21, 2020

The notion of “healthy competition” relates to my experience as both a graduate student and a runner. In fact, there may actually be too many parallels, because I’ve been struggling to write this post for a while! Basically, my issue has been choice-paralysis between two different ideas that I couldn’t seem to mesh together but couldn’t abandon. So, I ultimately stopped trying to force it, and instead created two posts, which are much more digestible.

Post #1:

I wanted to know how other people perceive their own competitiveness in the workplace and in athletics. I used Instagram’s poll feature to gage feelings of graduate students, toxicologists, and runners that follow the PhDistance Instagram account. The questions and results of the two-option questions are below:

Instagram’s poll-feature isn’t the most robust tool, sure, but it works!

Eighty-eight percent of respondents considered themselves competitive. I thought it would be higher, given the pool of people who answered. Moreover, the 12% who said “no” surprised me because they were NCAA competitors, Ph.D. candidates, academics, and current runners.

While the majority (58%) of respondents said they view competition with colleagues as “net positive”, it was more common see this response to competition among teammates (65% said “net positive”).

Perhaps people consider competition a mutually motivating force for group success, and maybe this is easier to digest if the team atmosphere is outside of work? Who knows! As a toxicologist, I’m not exactly outfitted properly to address these questions, empirically. If any psych/soc PhD’s are in the audience today, please stand up!!

However, also as a toxicologist, I am inclined (and find it amusing) to think of competition as a toxin; the mere existence of competition is not bad, but the dosage and context should probably be considered.

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”
Paracelsus.

Painting by Quentin Matsys

I was especially curious to see how people responded to feeling “inappropriately competitive with a colleague or teammate.” I plan to explain further in Post II, but here I will admit that observing 70% of respondents said “yes” was validating and made me feel less weird or wrong. I do wish that I had further separated that question by work versus on a team, but I’ll leave that for someone willing to use a more robust polling measure!! 😉 

I predict that poll would indicate more people feel inappropriately competitive at work than on a team. I think maybe it’s more comfortable for people to feel competitive during an athletic endeavor than at work. In either case, I think competition is a good thing, but obviously has to remain “healthy.”

The title of these (fraternal?) twin posts is “(un)healthy competition.” The second post- which contains the idea I was trying to force into this post — expands on what I think keeps competition healthy, and shares some personal stories of when that is lost.

Thanks for reading – stay tuned for the follow up!

Image taken from here.

On virtual poster presentations

May 22, 2020 (& June 6, 2020)

As any true academic, I procrastinated something important until the last minute. Someday, This will refer to grants I write or bigger deadlines I must meet, but for this post, it regards a poster competition.

I entered a virtual poster competition that offers CASH prizes for first ($500) and second($250). This is uncharacteristic for a University- sponsored award; the unrestricted money grants me the freedom to spend money on anything I want… probably something very important like rent, food, utility bills, or 1-2 dozen slap-chops.

I implore you to Wach this TV advertisement for commercial excellence…

The stipulations for the award are as follows: 1) The student had a conference cancelled due to COVID19, 2) The poster can be submitted via PDF and 3) the student presents the poster in a .mp4 recording. It seemed easy enough. I figured that it would take a half-hour of my time – tops. Which was good – because I (thought that I) had two hours until it was due.

However – it took me about twice that length. It’s surprisingly nerve-wracking to record yourself giving an academic presentation. It took a few tries to get it right! Below is a blooper from the first of 7 total trials:

Peak derp-level achieved.

While it’s unfortunate that I didn’t get to travel to California to present my research this year at the Society of Toxicology annual meeting, it’s even more unfortunate that I haven’t yet mastered Zoom recordings…🤷🏻‍♀️

I hope you took note of the aforementioned qualifier phrase, “thought that I had.” I was wrong about the May 22 deadline (when I began this post); the presentation and associated files are actually due today! However, I’m glad I finished it then, because today, I was too busy for a last-minute submission scurry. This afternoon, I headed downtown for a few hours of protest, in support the BLM movement with my Rochester community. 🖤✊

Which ostensibly points out…maybe procrastination isn’t a good M.O. to have…

Anyway, I hope y’all enjoy this post & thank you for reading! Wish me luck with the ACTUAL submission! 🙂😂🤷🏻‍♀️

PhDistance kneads PhDough

May 16, 2020

As y’all may have noticed, I’ve been using the new PhDistance Insta account to post wayyy more about bread than running or getting my PhD… #sorrynotsorry. I can’t help myself!

To keep up with that theme, this post is also about BREAD! In part, I want to throw some punches at that persistent stigma that carbohydrates are “bad.” The Atkins diet is one of many obtuse trends we should have left back in the 90’s. Unfortunately, the restrictive line of thought continues to permeate our culture today, including among runner folk. Admittedly, I too was hesitant to eat bread, convinced that I would balloon up:

How horrifying! (and also unrealistic!)

Fortunately, my outlook has shifted since graduating college. Bread and I are now great friends and do a lot of fun stuff together- mostly baking:

Sourdough, white bread, and biscuit trials!

Bread has also helped keep me entertained during the mandatory stay-at-home orders in NY state due to the COVID19 pandemic. Especially sourdough and documenting my adventures with it:

Checking the dough after 12 hour fermentation
Flouring the table
Kneading the dough- this one is off center- sorry!
Making the ball to place in the Dutch oven
Rise for 3 hours, bake for 1 hour- voila !

This loaf went to my friend, Jacquie, as a “thank you” for being a nurse during the pandemic. NURSES ARE TOUGH AF! 🏥❤️

With all the baking- I’ve gotten the chance to perfect my sourdough recipe, although I have certainly had a lot of failures along the way! And that’s OK- because the process is always fun! 💫🕺🏻

Importantly, I also accept bread as the dietary cornerstone that my body needs for its daily energetic demands. Training for marathons taxes my legs, and being a Ph.D. student taxes my brain. To replenish my mind and body, I maintain a diet that warmly welcomes Bread.

I feel great on my runs, satiated throughout the day, and have seen and felt an innumerable amount of other positive outcomes.

I began this post because I was really excited to share my most recent bread-making adventure with the world (or at least my small band of lovely followers!). Now, I find myself ending it with a somewhat preachy discussion. But then again, why is that so bad? Aren’t there a bunch of old dudes in pastel-colored robes going on and on about “the daily bread?” I’ve had their bread, and was unimpressed.

As it turns out, lots of people are pretty crazy about bread. American distance runner, Shelby Houlihan is known for her killer kick as well as affection for French bread.

The appropriate reward after (out-kicking Jenny Simpson and) winning the 1500m at the USATF Championships🥖

Also- Buzz Aldrin dined on bread and wine on the moon landing. My Ukrainian lab manager confirmed that in Russian, you can literally greet someone by shouting “bread and salt!” Amazing.

Because I haven’t yet made this post obnoxiously long, here are some more random bread facts I found:

  1. Sliced bread was only invented in 1928 and was referred to as the best thing since bagged bread.
  2. Feeding bread to ducks actually causes many health problems for them. – PLEASE DON’T FEED THE DUCKS BREAD 🦆❤️🙅🏻‍♀️🍞
  3. Ben Hawkey, the actor in Game of Thrones who plays Hotpie, opened his own bakery and sells Direwolf shaped bread.
  4. 1% of American’s have celiac disease, and approximately 6% that have gluten sensitivities. My heart goes out to them❤️
  5. When the buttered bread is right side up and dropped from a table, there’s an ~80% it will fall butter side down. This is because an average slice of buttered bread falling will complete a full turn in approx. 8 feet.

All right, not that we’re sufficiently annoyed, I can end this post!

But for real- thanks for reading this post to the end – I appreciate everyone who follows this blog & I hope it brightens your day! 💜I also hope that all who love bread never stop! 🍞💕

“There is not a thing that is more positive than bread.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky

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.
#funfact

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:

Pros:

-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.

Cons:

-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 🙂

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!!

Quarantine Reads:

Hi everyone! This page is intended to help us stay entertained, informed, and/or optimistic amidst the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. Please check out the few articles and books I’ve listed here, and comment with recommendations of you own!

I’ve broken this down into the following sections:

1) Three Books

2) Scientific literature on SARS CoV-2

3) Running articles

4) Bonus section!

Three Books:

1) Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice – because it makes me feel better about sitting around all day, and I find it fun to relate the characters to their modern-day counterparts. There are several excellent candidates for Mrs. Bennett.

2) Voltaire’s Candide – because the COVID19 situation is happening, even in the best of all possible worlds.

3) David Sedaris’, Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim – It’s a compilation of essays on his unique life experiences woven together into a single (dark) humor piece. It reminds me that although life seems nuts now, it’s regularly teeming with absurdity.

Scientific literature about SARS CoV2:

Below is a link to Nature’s pick of coronavirus papers:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00502-w

I’ve selected a few of them here to point out two of the many questions I’ve had:

1) How Practical are masks?

Wearing face masks can reduce transmission of coronaviruses in general, which includes SARS CoV2. (N. H. L. Leung et al. Nat. Med. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0843-2; 2020).

2) How soon until we have a vaccine?

-A group of researchers took blood plasma from people who had recovered from COVID19, and injected it into severely ill patients with the disease. The amount of virus in the blood 70% of patients dropped after about a week. K. Duan et al. Preprint at medRxiv http://doi.org/dqrs; 2020).

Additionally, Alexandra Walls et al., have solved the protein crystal structure of SARS-CoV2. This is important because it provides accurate knowledge of the protein shape and locations important for infection. Both of these pieces of info are an essential starting point from which to develop vaccines for SARS-CoV2. Check it out: “Structure, Function, and Antigenicity of the SARS-CoV-
2 Spike Glycoprotein” Walls et al. Cell Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.02.058

(somewhat random) questions for followers:

Do you already wear masks in public? How about outside by yourself?

Thoughts on vaccine options?

Has anyone read about how our immune response to SARS-CoV2 is modulated by toxins in the environment?

Has anyone come across papers about the intermediate host species between bats and humans?

I’ve read one paper that proposes pangolins. (We should probably stop exploiting exotic creatures… *cough* Tiger King *cough* cough*) I digress. Here is the reference: Zhang et al., Cell. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32197085.

OK! Now we can move on to the more fun reads!

On running:

1) Oiselle Blog. Oiselle is a company by and for female runners. I love them because they work to destigmatize running and conceptions of our physiology (e.g. body weight, mensuration. pregnancy).

2) This piece by Talya Minsberg for the New York Times. This article seems to toe a line between encouraging and elitist, but I think it is overall optimistic.

3) How to start running: I wish everyone could discover the joy of running, but I know it’s hard to just start. For those of you who prefer a plan to adhere to, I recommend checking out the RunnersWorld article on the topic.

Reminder: adhere to social distancing guidelines for running 🙂 6 feet apart, or solo!

Bonus section!

This is important too: The article I read this morning includes some very important Q and A with advice we should all heed, “because the more everyone commits to social distancing, the faster we can all get back — and down — to business.”