Writing and music.

I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like, which is ironic, as I’ve recently decided to pursue writing as a career post-graduation. I have some reasonable excuses: lab work has really ramped up…I’m learning how to analyze my first data…it’s summer and I want to be adventuring on the weekends, so I can’t post to my online ventures…school takes a lot of my brain power and I seek potato mode once I get home…but really, what’s going on is that I suddenly feel like my writing needs to be top-quality if I’m going to sit down and publish something.

This is not a new mental block for me. I’ve been a classically-trained violinist for 22 years. Violinists of my variety strive for beauty, intention, and perfection every time they pick up their instrument. Not that we shouldn’t seek these attributes in our playing; it is thrilling to really nail a difficult piece or section and playing something really well can be very moving for anyone listening. It’s all quite satisfying. But it can be intimidating. I often think to play my violin, and then I don’t, because it seems like work rather than play, or that what I should do is practice octaves but I don’t want to, so to spare myself from not playing really well, I don’t do anything.

I’ll get to writing about writing in a minute, but I want to share what happened last night. I took out my violin, tuned it up, and started to play a little fiddle tune before running through a simple G scale. Then I stopped, took a deep breath, and wondered what to do next.

I had sat down with the intention of approaching my violin as a friend, putting aside any expectation, and just enjoying the sounds and the feel and the ability to play. I thought, “playing anything, even for five minutes, is a world apart from playing nothing.” So, I played another fiddle tune, one of my favorites, and challenged myself to put in some new notes to make it uniquely mine. I really like what I came up with. I played another old favorite for a bit and then put the violin down. It had only been twenty minutes, but I felt refreshed and happy. Twenty minutes spent relaxed and joyful with my instrument: a good start to a new relationship.

IMG_2688Perfect posture, even at age 8.

My hesitation to make music or to write comes down to self-proclaimed identities. As soon as I identify with a pursuit, I feel the need to be really good at that thing so I come across as a talented person who exudes effortless mastery. I’ve identified as a violinist for almost all of my life, so moving on to a healthier relationship with my instrument is slow-going and difficult. On the other hand, although I’ve enjoyed writing for many years, it’s only recently that I’ve declared myself a Writer. I think nipping this perfection bullshit at the beginning of my writing career will be easier than my violin-friendship efforts and will be a boon to my future endeavors.

Here’s to all the exceptional, mediocre, and bad writing (and music) to come!

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Simple pleasures.

I was driving around yesterday while listening to Fred Child on Performance Today. PT has been one of my favorite shows since high school, and Angela and I still sigh with pleasure when we hear Fred’s soothingly, reassuringly confident voice pipe out of the stereo.

A piece came on that featured the cello. Glorious, rich, voice-like tones filled the Forester. However, it quickly dawned on me that I was not listening to a cellist perform but to a classical guitarist. The first notes were so low and slow that I had been duped!

This is a small pleasure of mine: hearing an instrument and being mentally tricked into thinking it’s another. When a trombone sounds like a French horn, when a viola sounds like a tenor, when a flute sounds like a violin.

Small pleasures are little, quite personal delights that can bring a little magic into an everyday experience. Here are some other small pleasures:

When a writer uses a semicolon perfectly.

Tasting chocolate chip cookie dough.

Gently petting my dog’s soft ears.

When a chickadee visits the bird feeder.

Precise, unhurried pipet work.

Sweeping.

Pulling on brand new wool socks.

Receiving surprise mail from a friend (is this a universal small pleasure?).

While on a walk, stopping to feel the sun on my face, eyes closed and chin slightly up.

When I come home and realize that someone else has cleaned the house.

A shared beer on a sunny chairlift.

At risk of sounding cliché, I think it’s important to recognize the small pleasures. Little bright spots in an ordinary day; unique, treasured moments.

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Worldview

While sweating in the backyard sauna, a person who is very dear to me admitted that he didn’t know what my “personal worldview” was.

Personal worldview? What is a worldview, anyway? Does everyone (except me) have one already, a little script in their minds that they carry around with them, ready to recite at a moment’s notice? A unique filter that the mind’s eye uses to navigate the external world?

I turned to Sigmund Freud for assistance in answering these queries.

According to Freud, Weltanschauung, or perception of the world, is “an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place.”

Incredible! All of the problems of our existence! No question unanswered! Everything in its fixed place!

It is remarkable to me that Weltanschauung can actually be articulated. Is it possible to fit your entire mental construct of existence into one nice, neat hypothesis box?

I must be feeling like a challenge this afternoon, because I’m going to give it a shot, for my sweet sauna mate and for myself.

I know already that I see the world as good and beautiful. I believe that acts of madness, or brutality, or violence, or even simple rudeness, come from personal pain or ignorance. I deeply hold that one who feels internal peace and compassionate empathy for others cannot hurt others.

I believe that we are completely responsible for our own life.

I see nature and the environment as a process, not an endpoint or as having a perfect or pristine state. When we or any other organism does something, the environment shifts in response. When the environment shifts, we do something. Our place is to understand our impact, accept our humanness, and decide what level of balance is achievable.

I believe that if you really believe your life is good and will continue to be good, your life will be good.

I believe the point of life is to connect, with people, with the environment, with yourself.

Can I turn that into a Freudian, Weltanschauung-worthy hypothesis?

Quality of life is deeply correlated with love for and connection to oneself and the other.

That wasn’t so bad. I suppose all the pieces were in there, in the ol’ brain, but I had never really formally spelled it out. Still, I think it requires more work…there are questions that remain unanswered, problems that still exist, things that are left floundering in wrong places.

The self-discovery that a hot little box in the Alaskan forest can provide!

My Day in the Life

What is your research topic?
I study telomeres, a particularly fascinating and dynamic section of our DNA. Telomeres are highly conserved, repetitive sequences that cap the ends of our chromosomes. These sequences are arranged in lariat formations thanks to six specialized proteins, collectively known as shelterin. Telomeres and shelterin protect coding DNA by hiding the blunt end of the chromosome, which otherwise would be recognized as a double-strand break. Significantly, telomeres can shorten due to cell replication and/or oxidative stress, which has implications for tissue health and aging.
I am curious to see if arctic ground squirrels, an extreme hibernator, have telomere length dynamics that are correlated with the amount of tissue-specific oxidative stress experienced throughout hibernation.
Describe your daily routine.
I wake up at 7 am every weekday. I generally snuggle until 7:30. Then I pet my dog, eat breakfast with Cole and Jason, pack a lunch, and bike ski walk or drive to school. I always aim for a 9:00 arrival but 9:30 is more realistic. I strive to plan my next work day the day before, so that when I arrive my day is already laid out for me. I’ve been spending at least a couple of hours in the lab every day, running assays, preparing/quantifying samples, or extracting DNA. Most days, I also have to peek in on the hibernating squirrels in their cold chambers. “Downtime” involves reading papers, reading science stories, or working on assignments for my science writing class. I almost never work past 6:00. When I don’t have symphony or ballet, I go home to drink a brew, eat dinner, and watch BBC whale mating videos.
What practices do you employ outside of work time to support productivity and enthusiasm once you’re in the office?
Trying to sleep as well and as much as possible, making delicious food to eat at home and bring to school, and shutting off the work brain once I leave campus (can be very difficult to achieve). I also engage in lots of non-school activities (skiing, music, crafting, baking) to help me feel balanced and remind myself that there is more to my life than graduate school.
What is the most productive part of your day?
I would say this changes on a daily basis. I’d like to say morning, but sometimes I hit my stride an hour or so before leaving for the day (especially if 5:00 is a deadline for an assignment).
Do you have any rituals or habits that keep you going through the workday?
Being a rather obsessive calendar and scheduling person holds me accountable for the work I know needs to get done. Going for walks in the afternoon is very helpful, as well as leaving my work for a time when it feels overwhelming. Eating a good lunch is essential, as well as afternoon snacking. I’m always making tea in my office.
What do you admire most in your supervisors? Do your supervisors ever act in ways that compromise your respect for them?
I admire when supervisors show kindness while still challenging me to succeed. I think the ability of a supervisor to put themselves in a graduate student shoes is a wonderful quality. Unfortunately, I don’t always see that sensitivity.
Do you ever feel that your efforts in graduate school go unnoticed? Describe.
Not necessarily. I would say that I thrive when I receive direct, verbal affirmation of the work I’m doing, but that doesn’t always happen as not everyone communicates in that way, nor do I feel it’s necessary for my supervisors to continually give me clear, positive feedback. They are very busy people with lots of other students and responsibilities to juggle. I do feel supported by my committee, but the infrequent, direct praise of my work and ability is a wonderful gem that gives me strength to proceed.
What is your favorite way to distract yourself from working?
Writing blog posts. This is an interesting one because many times I’m working on a graduate student experience- or science-related post, so I don’t necessarily feel like this is a total distraction or act of procrastination. I also like to check in with friends. I am almost always reflecting on how I can be more focused at work, and in general I think I do a pretty good job.
What are some of your greatest doubts or anxieties surrounding your research?
That I will produce inconclusive results, that I will not show up to do the necessary work, and that my supervisors don’t respect or believe in me.
In general, do you think that your fellow graduate students are healthy mentally and/or physically? Do you think that your graduate student environment is supportive and understanding?
I think that graduate students are fairly unhealthy and unbalanced. There are exceptions to this, but I see a lot of poor work-life balance, background (or very present) anxiety and stress, not a lot of well-rested faces, and a resigned feeling of “well, this is just the way grad school is.” I think many of us aren’t exposed to resources or an environment that demonstrates you can make it through your master’s or PhD without constant stress and anxiety.
I surround myself with positive people, not only at school but in my life. I have enough personal challenges with my masters that I need a highly supportive and understanding cloud of friends and colleagues around me. Happily, I see a lot of uncompetitive and understanding peer interactions in my little West Ridge bubble.

Being thirty.

I almost never have problems falling asleep initially. The tricky part is if I wake up in the middle of the night. My brain’s usual defenses fall away and I can get easily overwhelmed with anxieties, worries, and illogical patterns of thought, trying to solve the challenges of yesterday.

I now have a routine when this happens. I leave our room. I go downstairs, take a relaxing herbal tincture, and snuggle into my own bed, breathing deeply and preparing myself to ride it out for an hour or so. Although the intense anxiety can last for some time, it inevitably ebbs away and I can drift into a more-or-less restful sleep.

I awoke this morning to Jason coming into my room with Happy Birthday wishes. We had already planned a slow morning, with lots of coffee, carrot cake from the night before, and quiche; a complete luxury on a Tuesday before work. The midnight mind state was gone. Yes, the challenges still awaited me at school, but they seemed completely manageable and unalarming. A literal night-and-day experience of how I move through my work anxieties.

I started graduate school almost two years ago with almost two years left in my twenties. I don’t really remember turning twenty. While the birthday itself was unmemorable, I don’t think I’ll ever forget many of the experiences of the past decade.

Growing pains. There is a not a better phrase that could describe my twenties. Lots of growth, and lots of pain. Lots of joy as well, but unfortunately, when looking back, painful memories surface before the happy.

The end of my college chapter was the beginning of my wandering chapter. I floated to Juneau, then to California, then to Oregon. I experienced two very affecting and challenging relationships. I joined a bakery and a band. I was deeply struck by body shame. Fortunately, there were many bright stars that came into my life during this period: Geri, Elizabeth, Dani, Ian, Eowyn, Eric, Dan, Jacqui, and so many other people from Mount Shasta, Ashland, and our band family around the country…too innumerable to name here. They were my little stepping stones through the unknown, and I cherish the memories we made together. I am grateful for all of the times I was vulnerable with all of these people and was caught and listened to. Who I am today is a direct representation of the intimate connections I created in and maintained throughout my twenties.

And yet, alongside the incredible gift of sharing music across the country and creating my nest in southern Oregon, I felt almost continuous emotional pain. I now see that this pain was derived from leaving Alaska and from going through a very normal period of twenty-something self-discovery.

I have now been in graduate school for a year and a half. Through this period, I have settled back into Alaska, adopted a dog, lived by myself, and met my partner. This time has also certainly been full of challenges, most of which can be traced back to anxieties concerning failure in my thesis work. However, it is different than the pain I experienced in California and Oregon. That amorphous, ambiguous pain naturally alleviated once I arrived home. My body relaxed. I just fit here, in my weird and wonderful Fairbanks community.

Additionally, there exists a simple recognition that I’m just older now. I’ve had more experiences that I’ve survived. I’ve been through many, many episodes that have left me feeling wounded, but they’re all simple scars now. The essential ingredients to a meaningful life, including trusting, intimate relationships; spending time outside in beautiful places; cooking and eating lots of good food; drinking delicious beer; and playing music with my community have become all the more precious to me. There are many more nights now where I fall asleep completely convinced that I have everything I could ever want and more.

So, what does turning thirty mean for my poor nights of sleep? Is there anything that can be said about the mental switch that accompanies the rather arbitrary ceremony of turning one year older and launching into the next decade?

To put it in the most poetic way I can, I believe one can choose thirty as a means to just not give a shit. Rest assured I will give lots of shits for the aforementioned essential ingredients to a meaningful life. But for the experiences that threaten to make me feel small, for the experiences that fill my heart with doubt, and for the experiences that disrupt a night of sleep here and there but in the end come down to a piece of paper and a line on a resumé, I choose not to give a shit. The fear will come, the fear will pass. But the snow is beautiful on the spruce, and a big downy woodpecker came to our house today, and there are pooch trails to be walked this afternoon.

I am overjoyed to be thirty and truly delighted to be growing older. I don’t know how life could get any better than it is now, but I’m also certain that it will.

Side note: neat French website here about turning 30 around the world. Also where I found the featured photograph.

P in Streams: A Day in the Life of Sophie Weaver

Where would I be without Sophie? She is my number one companion in this tumultuous graduate school experience. We have spent many hours sharing our experiences with experiments, coursework, fieldwork, labwork, advisors, peers, proposals, grant writing, the pressure to perform, and the doubts that inevitably surface about whether we are “smart enough” or if we “work hard enough” to successfully finish.

Unfortunately, I don’t see Sophie as much as I did last semester as I’m still paying off my dental bill for my first “real” cavity. I fell into the habit of stocking her office with sweets so they would be two floors away rather than just sitting at my own desk. I should take a leaf out of Sophie’s book and start stocking her office with (organic) Cheetos instead (no sugar, right Soaps?).

Sophie took the time to answer my Day in the Life questions at 1 am when she was experiencing graduate student “sleep”.

What is your research topic?
I’m studying nutrient and resource limitation of stream biofilms. I’m interested in how light availability, carbon quality, and inorganic nutrient concentrations can impact competition between autotrophic and heterotrophic microorganisms at the base of stream food webs.
Describe your daily routine.
I usually wake up fairly early, jump out of bed, eat breakfast, and head straight to campus. I’m most productive in the morning, so I try to either work in my office or at my favorite coffee shop for a few hours before classes/meetings. I give myself a break at lunchtime, then spend the afternoon in class or working in the lab. I’m trying to get better about leaving by 5, but sometimes I find myself in the lab till 7 or 8 pm. I also try to go for a run around 3 (peak distraction time) to break up the afternoon.
What practices do you employ outside of work time to support productivity and enthusiasm once you’re in the office?
Days off! I have a strict policy where I force myself to take at least one complete day off each week, regardless of how much work I have. This helps me hit refresh and allows me to be more productive on work days. I also try to get outside as much as I can to play in the snow with good friends and cute dogs. Yoga. Skiland!
What is the most productive part of your day?
Definitely the morning. I rarely get to campus later than 8, and I find that I get a lot accomplished in the morning because I have the lab to myself for a few hours. I lose momentum around noon just in time for lunch (candy)!
Do you have any rituals or habits that keep you going through the workday?
I like to take walks. I go to Murie to fill up my water bottle, to Irving to pick up or send packages, to the museum to get a mocha, and often (but not enough!) I walk on the trails with friends and their cute dogs. Even 5 or 10 minutes of fresh air helps keep me going. I also listen to a lot of podcasts. Sometimes I listen when I’m doing something monotonous in the lab like acid washing, but also sometimes when I should be reading papers. They help remind me that grad school is just a tiny slice of reality, [especially] when it feels all-consuming. A little perspective!
What do you admire most in your supervisors? Do your supervisors ever act in ways that compromise your respect for them?
I admire my advisor’s ability to balance work and life while [still] being a successful scientist. I also appreciate his ability to see the humor in many situations. Sometimes he makes comments that make me question his opinion of my intelligence and work ethic, but overall I have a lot of respect for him as a human and a scientist.
Do you ever feel that your efforts in graduate school go unnoticed? Describe.
Does any grad student not feel this way? We work so hard but our advisors focus on our mistakes and slow slow progress. Luckily I have good friends to remind me that I’m working hard enough and making progress!
What is your favorite way to distract yourself from working?
I text my mom, check the weather at Skiland, chat with my lab mates, or paint my nails. Lately, I’ve been very distracted by online coverage of the Olympics.
What are some of your greatest doubts or anxieties surrounding your research?
I often question whether I’m smart enough to complete my research, or whether I’m a good grad student. I get anxious that people around me focus on all of the things I don’t know, instead of all of the things I do know and have learned so far in my research. I’m also completely terrified that I am going to break an expensive piece of lab equipment or ruin an analyzer.
In general, do you think that your fellow graduate students are healthy mentally and/or physically? Do you think that your graduate student environment is supportive and understanding? 
Yes and no. I’m really lucky that my lab has so many intelligent female students (3 MS, 3 PhD – all remote). We all get along well and I think we mostly live healthy (physically and mentally) lives. One student, in particular, thrives in a competitive environment and can occasionally be fairly condescending, which can be difficult (and probably negatively impacts the mental health of some of us. Ha). Overall, I think we are very supportive and understanding of each other, while also being constructively critical and holding each other accountable. I also try to surround myself with grad students outside of my lab that are supportive and positive. Students that understand what I’m going through but also have very different projects, advisors, and experiences in grad school. A former postdoc that recently left the lab (Dr. Ruffing) was extremely supportive and always gave thoughtful advice regardless of the situation. She was a great example of a mentally healthy and successful scientist, and I want to be her when I grow up. I miss her so!

What I learned from Dr. R.

One night this past summer, I met with Dr. R to drink beers and talk about boys at The Marlin. We rounded out our beer dinner with Reese’s and M&M’s, and ended up discussing the intricacies, mysteries, frustrations, and joys of intimate partnerships for hours. It was a wonderful evening, one I won’t soon forget (although I’d like to forget that I had candy and beer for dinner).

Dr. R is a bright person. She is also wise, a great listener, and an inspiring academic. My grad school friends and I miss her ready advice, ready laugh, and readiness to shotgun a beer or two or three.

I recently asked Dr. R to answer some questions describing a Day in Her Life as a post-doc. Read below for inspiration!

What is your research topic?

I am currently working on a project to understand the effects of logging and riparian management strategies on stream ecosystems. There are three separate components to the project: 1) meta-analysis on scaled effects of logging, 2) modeling cumulative impacts of logging on downstream ecosystems, and 3) field-based monitoring and experiments on mechanisms controlling ecological responses.

Describe your daily routine.

I wake up, make coffee and mosey around my apartment until it’s time to leave for work. On most days I try to get to the office between 9 and 10 am. After I arrive, I eat breakfast and drink coffee while I check email and write down what needs to get done that day/week. Then, my activities vary. If I am working on my primary research, I write, read and take notes, prep datasets, etc. I also am involved in several collaborative projects and tasks for those vary. My weekly schedule is also punctuated by seminars, reading group, and meetings with my lab, my supervisor, and collaborators. So I guess, I don’t really have a routine. Maybe it would help if I did!

What practices do you employ outside of work time to support productivity and enthusiasm once you’re in the office?

Lately I have been doing absolutely nothing on weeknights. I have a longer commute so I get home between 7 and 8 pm and then catch up with one or more of the following: [my husband], housework, my mom, news, social media, or occasionally a show on Netflix. I usually save socializing for the weekend. I would say these activities are restorative but I don’t necessarily think they help my productivity or enthusiasm. I feel that I am most enthusiastic about my work after meetings with close collaborators or following conferences/workshops. This is probably because I am an extrovert so close collaboration is very invigorating. I feel the most productive when I am working through a detailed work plan and have a structured day time work schedule followed by going to the gym.

What is the most productive part of your day?

I usually feel like I hit a writing groove between 4 and 6, sometimes even later. Lately, I have embraced this inconvenient scheduling since I am living alone. This is also why I tend to come in to work a little later in the day.

Do you have any rituals or habits that keep you going through the workday?

Three things come to mind – eating breakfast at my desk, pomodoro timers, and website blockers. Somewhere along the line I tricked myself into thinking that eating breakfast at my desk saves me time in the morning (which is almost certainly not true) but I have come to really enjoy this part of my day because now it’s associated with thoughtfully planning my day/week. If I skip this step, I find that I don’t get as much accomplished because I feel like I don’t have my bearings. I use pomodoro timers and website blockers as a way to fight work paralysis and hardwire will-power into my work habits. All of my favorite news sites and social media are blocked between the hours of 9:30-5 and this really helps with mindless web surfing/facebook checking. I use the timer if I am feeling “stuck” or unsure what I should be working on.

What do you admire most in your supervisors? Do your supervisors ever act in ways that compromise your respect for them?

The thing I admire most about my current supervisor is his unrelenting enthusiasm and energy for science. He is always excited about science and can often be found in the lab, processing his own samples. From what I can tell, he never has a day where he feels unenthused about his job. The flip side to this is that he can be out of touch with the lives/feelings/expectations of people who are not scientists (e.g. office staff). I don’t think it is intentional but he can come across as very elitist and privileged.

Do you ever feel that your efforts in graduate school go unnoticed? Describe.

Yes, but I am used to it by now so it generally doesn’t bother me. Actually, I would say that I have shifted my expectations around what activities/efforts of mine should be noticed so that I don’t feel unappreciated. I am also working on caring less about what others think and finding enjoyment and satisfaction in efforts that I think are worthwhile.

What is your favorite way to distract yourself from working?

I have noticed that I subconsciously trick myself into too much web surfing or getting sweets (e.g. poptarts) if I am feeling overwhelmed or stressed with work. This usually results in a guilt/shame spiral so even though it is the most common way I distract myself, it is definitely not my favorite way to procrastinate. Probably my most favorite way would be to grab a drink with a friend but this doesn’t seem to happen as much as it should.

What are some of your greatest doubts or anxieties surrounding your research?

My anxieties generally fall into two categories – am I smart enough to do what I was hired to do and/or are my ideas good enough to pursue.

In general, do you think that your fellow graduate students are healthy mentally and/or physically? Do you think that your graduate student environment is supportive and understanding?

My current lab group (comprised of ~4 masters students, ~4 PhD students, and 2 researchers in residence who I interact with on a regular basis) are extremely well-adjusted. They all have outside hobbies/commitments and work fairly regular hours. With the exception of 1 person, they all seem to be focused at work and engaged with their research as well as the broader scientific community. They are always impressing me with how motivated and bright they are. I think my department has a supportive environment [and] there does not seem to be same type of workaholic culture that I experienced at my previous institutions.