Biodiversity Blogging for Le Beagle

This project has been about 8 months in the works, and I can finally announce it now! I have been working for the Québec Centre for Biodiversity Science with a team of three other fantastic women to revive the student blog of the QCBS, Le Beagle. Over the last few weeks, we have finally re-launched the blog replete with a beautiful redesign and a bounty of new content! If you are interested in biodiversity science, biology in general, or graduate student life, please go check it out. It is a bilingual blog written in both French and English, donc j’invite également tous les francophones à lire! I am very excited to be part of this re-launch and part of an organization committed to bilingualism in Québec.

If you want to keep up with Le Beagle, we are also on Facebook and Instagram!

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Dear New Grad Student.

Dear New Grad Student,

I noticed my first gray hairs at 23 years old. Not coincidentally, the same year I started my Master’s degree.

Grad school is touted as a monumental time of self-discovery, pushing your limits, meeting new people, and enriching your mind (for the record, I’ve found all of this to be true). Something people are a little less enthusiastic about celebrating is how much it’s just…crying a lot.

I’m certainly much smarter now, but I feel old in ways I never imagined I would at 24: I realize more than ever that my parents were never lying when they said “you’ll always have to deal with difficult people,” and I finally had the acute experience of impostor syndrome for the first time last week. (Oh boy. That one’s a doozy; I hope you don’t get there.)

So, this is a bummer of a letter, isn’t it? Well, I think it’s clear from the opener here that grad school is the hardest challenge I’ve had in life, so there’s no need to keep beating that horse. It’s not supposed to be easy, and the factors that make it hard are too overwhelming in their quantity to discuss here without wanting to drive a fork into my temple. How the academic model needs to shift in order to make grad school less of a matter of survival is a discussion well worth having, but what what I want to talk to you about today is: what can we grad students do to help ourselves?

If we can put the power in our own hands to promote our own well-being, we’ll be infinitely better off for it. Should it be our responsibility entirely? No. But I think what we don’t realize is that we are not alone. One of the most common complaints I hear from other grad students (and I am guilty of this) is that it is isolating. You feel lost in your project, no one else is having the same experience as you, and there are no established benchmarks to set your progress by. On top of that, validation from authority figures is rare to come by and your supervisor has a “hands-off” (read: absent) approach.

It’s no wonder you feel like you’re an untethered balloon drifting off haphazardly into the atmosphere.

The secret here, though, is that everyone feels this way. Turn to the student next to you in your office, talk to the postdoc from the other lab, chat to professors at conferences. More often than not they know exactly what you mean, and if you’re lucky to find those key mentors, they want to help. Don’t fall into the false trap of isolation!

It feels like an inevitably self-set trap that the majority of us find ourselves in, though – who goes to grad school? Detail-oriented people who like to read and probably have some perfectionist tendencies, AKA, the types of folks who can easily drive themselves into a tizzy after spending 3 days reading articles at home alone. So a second piece of advice: you don’t need to be perfect. What you do need to do is to eat something tonight. More than anything, I have been kept sane by drawing lines between work and home and occasionally treating myself to a $10+ bottle of wine. Believe me: you have the time and you will not regret it.

Keep on fighting the good fight,
Sarah

An Unhealthy Obsession with Foxes

Whenever I draw anything lately it ends up being foxes?

fox nap

fox&butterfly

Maybe this is all part of my journey to find a very specific niche of art that needs to be filled: lupine cartoons. Oh, who am I kidding, for all your cute animal doodle needs you needn’t look any further than Louie Zong, whose adorable style has definitely inspired me to learn how to harness the power of Photoshop!

New art, projects, posts, and photos (hopefully not all about foxes) will all be coming up in the future here, just a bit infrequently as I jump back feet first into the hot pan of chaos that is grad school this September. I think I mixed about three different metaphors there but you get me. Talk soon, pals!

Small Aircraft: the Final Frontier for Civilian Transport Safety

Five years ago, my cousin Lauren Sewell died in a small airplane crash.

Some accidents like these are just that: purely accidental, purely tragedies, purely blameless. But the surviving family members who do the work to understand what went wrong will tell you that these true accidents number very few. And it is a sad truth that real people, not crash dummies, are too often treated like guinea pigs. Perhaps not consciously, but by not imposing critical safety regulations, by ignoring the common causes lurking behind multiple tragedies, through their own inaction, safety regulators are making a choice. And this is a choice that ends up sacrificing lives. Continue reading

Guest Blogging on ZMEScience!

Check it out, I am finally publishing elsewhere than my homegrown free wordpress account! I wrote a guest feature for the science blog ZMEScience about the phenomenon of bachelorhood in the animal world. Why do bachelors exist? Why doesn’t natural selection stop this madness? Can Photoshop illustrations that Sarah spent way too much time on help us understand? Find out here!

Your hobbies are your greatest assets.

There’s this weird story we tell ourselves that somewhere around the age of 20, we need to “grow up” and “buckle down” and “get serious” and “put in that hustle” and “find that thing” that’s going to define our careers and our lives. Around this time in my life, although I was barely aware of what was happening, I divorced myself from a bunch of things that had come to define me: I stopped dancing, I stopped playing video games, I stopped making art, I stopped doing creative side projects with no real purpose to them (see: a strangely large collection of video scrapbooks, video games, comics, and parodies of short stories made with my friends). All of my time became absorbed by The One Thing that was going to define my life from now on, and that was biology. Continue reading

Pioneering a genre: where environmentalist films like Okja need to go next.

Last week Netflix released the unusual hit Okja, a film laden with environmental messaging and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon-ho. The film centers on a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who has spent most of her life in the mountains of Korea raising a so-called “super-pig”: a massive genetically modified creature designed by an American corporation called Mirando to be a super-efficient, low footprint source of meat. A competition in which 26 super-pigs were distributed internationally to each be raised by a different family farm was used as a publicity stunt to launch Mirando’s marketing campaign. After 10 years, Mija’s pig named Okja is selected as winner and unceremoniously removed from its mountainside home to be transported to New York City for the grand announcement. Mija follows in hot pursuit, intent on recovering Okja and returning it home, but becomes quickly entangled with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who also intends to rescue Okja.

okja-creature-littlegirl-woods

Mija and her hippo-like super-pig, Okja.

It seems temporarily that Mija and the ALF should have allied interests, but the ALF’s leader Jay (Paul Dano) reveals that they only wish to capture Okja temporarily in order to implant a recording device that will be used to expose the abuses they suspect to be occurring in the Mirando laboratory and slaughterhouse. Indeed, everything about Mirando seems too airbrushed to be honest, their CEO being played by an angelically beaming Tilda Swinton (who is subtly psychologically unhinged in that classic Swinton style). They even hire a somewhat manic zoologist named Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhal) to act as the face of the corporation, in an apparent attempt to lend the company scientific and ethical legitimacy. While the film makes some excellent statements about the dangers of corporate influence when it comes to managing environmental issues, I find that it unfortunately falls quite short of accurately representing the scientific community in its dystopian setting. Continue reading