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

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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!

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.

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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

What the weta? This Power Ranger cricket can take on three different forms.

When most animals grow up, they pretty much look the same. Like, can you tell the difference between these two squirrels?

I mean, besides the fact that the one on the right might have a mild obesity problem, I couldn’t tell you who was who, even though I know they’re two different individuals that I observed on two different hiking trips.

Some animals, however, like to break this mould: enter, the Wellington tree weta.

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Why it’s not cool to be a scientist.

I have alluded in a few of my other posts to my frustration with science as a discipline. Usually when I explain my job to people, the reaction is: “wow, that must be so cool!” And 90% of the time, I would agree, but…like I suspect is the case with a lot of jobs, being a scientist is one of those things that looks hella cool from the outside but has a hidden darkness under the surface. It’s like how there’s the spunky public-facing Sonic the Hedgehog most of us know and love…

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…and then there’s the internet’s version of Sonic the Hedgehog.

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There is such a thing as knowing too much.

While it certainly won’t take us to as disturbing of a place as that image just did, let’s dive into the belly of the beast: what makes science so frustrating sometimes?

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Science Resists Communication

There’s a stark difference between how universities and other scientific institutions handle the dissemination of their knowledge. To me, universities are often like dragons sitting on top of heaps of gold in remote mountainside caves. Who would make the fucked up voyage to Smaug when down here in the meadows of the Public Domain, there are benign leprechauns throwing gold about willy-nilly? We have zoos begging us to take an interest in their research, science centres advertising Indiana Jones exhibits on billboards, museums with full-size reconstructions of dinosaurs, and all of them give us the courtesy of viewing us as customers that they need to appeal to. Meanwhile, the university dragon belches a flame from the miniscule opening to its lair like you can try, but I might crisp your fingertips.  

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What I mean is this: if you want to learn what’s going on inside a university, YOU are going to be the one who has to do the work to find out, whereas other scientific institutions try to make this process as easy as possible for the public. Universities and professors can be shockingly resistant to communicating their research with the public. As a Master’s student who loves science communication, it can be downright maddening. Continue reading

Sarah’s Must-Reads #2: The Science Stuff

This list of must-reads might seem to fall a bit on a “specialized audience” (other scientists), but I encourage you to take a peek anyways if you have an interest in science! Which is hopefully why you find yourself on this page to begin with. These are not scientific papers, but rather blog posts and articles that reflect on science as a discipline or bring scientific ideas to the public. I think this list suffers a bit of an identity crisis because it really embodies the love-hate relationship I (and most of my colleagues) have with science: some of these articles provide insights into the faintly enraging political issues of being a scientist, while others celebrate science in ways that I think we need to do more of. Enjoy!

1. Our Papers, Our Hearts – Wayne Maddison

Just a really nice short piece about how science is not all cold-hearted analytical mumbo jumbo locked in an ivory tower behind a journal access paywall. Academics fall too often into hiding behind these constructs, but here Wayne Maddison explains how behind every technically-worded scientific article, there is a human story. I love science! Continue reading

The Secret Worlds of The Best Animals You’ve Never Heard Of

For this post I went back in time to the years of my Bachelors in Animal Biology, took a lil’ stroll in the old mind palace if you will, to when I learned about so many cool animals I never even knew existed. Here I compiled a random sampling of my favourites with some recent research that’s been done on each species. I actually learned a lot researching for this article, there’s much more going on in the microcosms of these species’ lives than I expected. Enjoy a peek into the secret worlds of these fascinating creatures!

1. The Common Seadragon: Phyllopteryx taeniolatus

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The magical seadragon is like a Hayao Miyazaki illustration brought to life. These relatives of the seahorse inhabit the waters around the south coast of Australia and Tasmania.

Seadragons are basically the majestic, tricked-out, LSD version of seahorses. This species is also called the weedy seadragon because its lobe-like fins and squiggly shape help it fit in quite well with seaweed for camouflage. Being closely related to seahorses, they also have that fun feminist slant where the male incubates and cares for the eggs. Male seadragons actually lack a pouch to store the eggs, opting instead to carry eggs on their tail. But mostly, they are just entrancingly gorgeous to flick through on Google images for a good half-hour. Individual seadragons can actually be identified uniquely from one another using the pattern of spots and blotches on their abdomens! It’s like a fingerprint, except huge and all over your stomach. Like maybe if I wanted to dress up as a seadragon for Halloween, I could just paint “MY NAME IS SARAH” on my stomach. A totally accessible joke that everyone will understand. Continue reading

The Art of Science

There’s a little-known niche in the already niche-y world of scientific publishing: scientific illustrations. These are drawings that researchers request from artists to demonstrate something that they want to explain in a publication: for example, if you study the anatomy of a poorly-described insect species, it’s way easier to have an artist draw a diagram for you than to try to describe “the ventral protrusion of the 6th abdominal tergite.” No one likes that sentence.

What everyone does like are gorgeous renderings of rare and bizarre animals, the insides of cells, and ancient creatures brought back to life! These are the beautiful things that science illustrations bring us.

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The Debate on Zoos

Zoos garner a unique mix of opinions, not only among adults but across an individual’s lifetime. Generally, we are introduced to zoos at a very young age, and unless we have a pretty advanced sense of empathy (aside: we all know kids do NOT) we see the zoo as being exclusively an exciting, fun place. Then, as we become more aware of concepts like captivity, ethics, and freedom, we have to re-confront the concept of the zoo and re-evaluate our opinions. Continue reading