Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tricks of the Trade: LaTeX

Ok, guys. I’ve been studying as a baby statistician (scienctician? statscientist? ecologitician?)  for a little while now and I’m here to share some of their secrets. Before I started here at Penn State I had a couple ideas about what other grad students in my department would be like. First, everyone would be computer masters of any and all statistical programs: R, SAS, others that I hadn’t even heard of yet. Second, they’d all be completely on top of everything in all of our classes because they all would’ve completed undergraduate and master’s programs also in statistics. And thirdly, it’d be really hard to relate to other students because of my background in biology and my love for the outdoors (because clearly they’d all prefer sitting inside in front of their computers, right?). Thankfully, I was way off base and not only am I not left in the educational dust, but my cohort is full of awesome students with a wide variety of strengths and abilities. And I must collect them all. Yea, my new goal is to be like some sort of awesome Anna-Paquin-as-Rogue statistician and glean all of the amazing abilities and knowledge while I can. Except I think I’ll stick to taking the time to learn and practice things...instead of the whole touchy hurty thing she does. One of my absolute favorite new acquires is the ability to write and code in LaTeX.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Getting a Motivation Makeover

Last week, doing anything was a struggle.  Literally all I wanted to do was watch cartoons, eat burritos, and perform the bare minimum tasks I could get away with doing (Editor’s note: This is me. Always).  Admitting these sorts of things is what makes the idea of an anonymous blog very appealing on occasion.  It’s not because I have a super exciting secret life or anything (spoiler alert: I find my own life very exciting on the whole), but because I think a lot of the things I struggle with as a scientist in training are widely felt but often actively overlooked.  Graduate school is where you learn how to learn (because as a scientist, the learning never stops), hone key skills, and net a set of accomplishments that will make you stand out in the job market.  It’s a place where people who are fired up about things go to dive deep into problems, and it’s no surprise that so many great innovations are the result of doctoral dissertations.  And I’d say, about 50 weeks out of the year, I feel fired up about science.  About conservation.  About freaking adorable invertebrates and gnarly invasive plants.  

I’ve been in graduate school for over 5 years, 3 years for my Master’s and 2 full years of PhD work.  It would be disingenuous and unhelpful for me to say that, over the past 5 years, I haven’t had motivational slumps.  Do I believe there are people who are 100% juiced up all the time, who never have to search for a reason to get reignited over their work?  I really do.  And I wish I was one of them, but I’m not.  Further, I think there are plenty of graduate students who struggle from time to time with motivation.  There are a lot of reasons:  personal issues, burnout, loss of interest in a project, imposter syndrome.  The thing is, I think we are taught to pretend this isn’t happening.  I have stock advice I give to all new graduate students when we are chatting, “Anyone who pretends they have their act together is faking it.  Everyone is freaking out.”  I think I need to do a bit of taking my own advice.  I’m probably not the only one who occasionally sits at their desk and goes “blah.”  I don’t think feeling a periodic lack of motivation makes me (or you) a bad scientist.  I don’t think it indicates a lack of passion.  I think pretending it isn’t happening is less than authentic.  I think refusing to yield to these periods and rekindling your fire speaks volumes of capability, passion, and drive.      

So here is my truth, as I’ve experienced it on several occasions.  I’m sailing along fine, killing it in the lab, balancing several projects, keeping my little fingers tippy-tapping on my writing projects.  A large milestone approaches.  I start to feel like I’m not doing enough (ironically, these sorts of thought progressions usually happen after 8pm in the lab…) and a little touch of imposter syndrome starts to kick up.  How rude!  I make plans for how to attack said milestone, I budget out my time, I feel like I can totally do this!  Then I’m motionless for a stressful span of days, absolutely sure that as soon as I begin I’ll realize the task is impossible.  Things spiral, I consume an unnatural amount of peanut butter, then some action or event clicks things back into place and I’m sprinting again.  In the spirit of honestly, it’s absolutely frustrating to look at yourself in the mirror and say aloud, “What’s wrong with me this week?”  But, in the end, it’s almost like fighting with your best friend.  It’s going to happen at some point, and if you take the time to learn something about them and yourself in the process, you can come out the other side closer than ever.

After that overly honest preamble, I’ll present my non-exhaustive, in no particular order list of things that have gotten my butt back in gear in the past.  This is how I kiss and make-up with science when I’ve been neglecting it.   

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

STS and the Super Science Side of Tumblr TA Tips for Teaching

We here at STS have TAed a lot.  We both taught lab sections when we were juniors and seniors in undergrad and then we taught more sections during our master's work.  I also taught during my first year in PhD land.  As a graduate student, TAing is often non-optional (gotta' pay those bills), exciting (young minds!  oh golly!), frustrating (it's ON THE SYLLABUS!), and intimidating (wait, so I have to be in charge of 20+ other legal adults for an hour or more?).  So, what are some of the most efficient ways to increase the fun and excitement of teaching, while minimizing the stresses?  Back at the beginning of the term, Meridith was going through orientation for her new grad school adventure and part of that orientation involved TA training.  She posted on our STS Tumblr, and asked the Science Side for their TAing tips and tricks.  The response was great!  So great, we decided we needed to bring all the responses together and archive them here on our blog.  
If you're a new graduate student, we hope this helps you put some tools in your forming TA tool belt.  Remember, people have personal teaching approaches, so everything doesn't work for everyone!  If you're an undergraduate or high school student, maybe this will give you some insight into what your instructors are thinking.  I promise, we are all actually working really hard to try and make this a good experience for all of us.  If you're a senior graduate student, maybe you have some tips and tricks of your own that aren't included in this post.  Share them with us in the comments!     
Head over to http://phdcomics.com/comics.php for more amazing funnies like this one!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is there a Doctor in the House?

I’m over a month into my PhD program and I’m still oscillating between wild, ecstatic optimism and stone cold, stop you in your tracks fear of the route ahead.  Completing a Master’s degree was two and a half years of hard work and setbacks culminating in one of the proudest, happiest moments of my life - successful defending of my thesis. I’m back on track for five more years of the grad student life, but these will be harder, faster, stronger times ahead than before. Good thing I’ve got my Daft Punk pandora station ready to go. My Masters program didn’t entail any qualifying or comprehensive exams so they seem like lofty, impassable goals now. A sentiment shared by my cohort members, but we’ve found that the more information we have the more confidence we gain. We here at STS would like to share what we know about our own roads to knowledge with you the readers so that you guys can find the confidence to face this journey too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bison, and Mosquitoes, and Shriners, Oh My!

Lost Lake
Day 14
Yellowstone National Park
Miles Hiked: 10 (80.7 overall)

Nearing the completion of their Master’s theses, two young, wild women struck out on the adventure of a lifetime. Meridith and Rachel’s 2012 Besties National Park Roadtrip was a transformative journey around the Western US National Parks. 10 states. 9 National Parks and 1 National Monument. One summer of fun!

Ecologist in action
After a day of full on touristing, it was time to get serious.  Our alarms went off at 4am, and we slithered out of our sleeping bags.  We dressed and washed up in a bleary haze before piling in the car with blankets and binoculars.  As per the recommendations of Jim and Dot (the adorable park ranger couple), we drove the 35 miles from Bay Bridge to Tower Falls and hung a left.  Along the stretch of road between Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth, we found a pull off parking spot and were in position just as dawn broke over the sagebrush and meadows.  Wolf watching.  The wolves of Yellowstone get my scientists imagination running.  During the mid-90s the National Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves (mostly from the Canadian population) to Yellowstone, and the ecological impacts we are seeing appear to be profound.  For an excellent look at why top predators are important, check out this piece by Estes and colleagues.  Beyond the science, I think the mythos of these carnivores really plays on some of our most basic, primal thoughts.  What I really want to say, is I’m a stereotypical, hippie wolf-lover.  Seriously, wolves, wolves, wolves.  
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