The Best is Yet to Come, Part II: Reflections on Graduate School

StudentSpeak is pleased to share this guest post from Kelly Chacón, who graduates June 5 with her doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

For Part I of Kelly’s post, click here.

Finally my fifth year arrived. I was ready to finish, even if I wasn’t actually ready to finish. My third paper was published, which is the deal we make for graduation in my lab. And I was accepted to give a little “data blitz” at my sub-field’s main scientific conference. A key professor saw me give that 5-minute, ridiculous presentation (I’m sure 3MT’ers can relate), and invited me to give a real talk at another conference. That was terrifying, and awesome, and I accidentally switched the U and the L in the word “results” on my slide.

I’ll let you spell that out.

I only mention those talks because they led to something unexpected. At that conference, I invited a professor to give a joint seminar for OHSU and Portland State (my alma mater). While having a beer with the speaker after their seminar, a friend alerted me to an open assistant professor position in chemistry at Reed College, here in Portland. Reed?! That’s my dream job! But I’m sure it’s too soon. Nevertheless, I decided to send in an agonized-over cover letter, if only to develop some resilience to being rejected. It turned out that Reed and I were actually soul mates. After three months and a long interview process, I was offered the job! And all because of a 5-minute data blitz.

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The Best is Yet to Come: Reflections on Graduate School

StudentSpeak is pleased to share this guest post from Kelly Chacón, who graduates June 5 with her doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Sometimes I like to tell people that graduate school is a lot like marriage, but to a place and people that you love, but aren’t, like, in love with.

This feeling about grad school has only sharpened now that I am a newly-minted Ph.D. (well, so long as I get my butt in gear and incorporate the pile of edits my thesis committee has requested). Anyway, I find myself waxing nostalgic about my experiences of the past five years…to a point. So here, in these two posts, I will try to summarize the insanity of my time as doctoral candidate as well as some of the highlights along the way. Brace yourselves, because it will be a lot like an episode of M*A*S*H* – one part maudlin, and one part irreverent…and completely fueled by gin.*

Let’s see…years one and two: Instantaneously gaining 10 pounds (still with me three years later), overwhelming imposter syndrome, fleeting – false – moments of feeling smart, and overall indignation at the way I had only gone from being an “undergraduate baby” in the eyes of the world to “graduate baby.” Arrrrgh I’m 29 years old for crying out loud, I’m not a baby anymore! JUST FORGET IT I’LL BE IN MY ROOM WITH MY SMITHS ALBUMS, OK?!

Good times! No, but seriously – at least I was in grad school, actually getting paid to do science in a nice university and with a pretty cool mentor, too.

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The patching of a bleeding heart

The following has been selectively fictionalized to protect the identities of those involved and events that occurred. Names, races, ages, times, conditions, details and more have been modified or excluded. Originally published on The Biopsy.

“I just need a refill.” Kevin muttered under his breath, rocking ever so slightly in his chair, his grip fidgeting on the handle of his cane. The crease in his brow, bent from months of constant worry, shifted as the interview went on. One could tell he worked with his hands; the creases in his palms and fingers burrowed deep next to his weathered callouses.

Kevin’s file was littered with a litany of problems that painted a clinical picture — similar to what I see on exams every few weeks — and my mind began imagining him in archetypes. Medical students are trained to become expert pattern recognizers. In the pre-clinical years of medical school, those patterns are layered into the phrases and buzzwords of multiple choice tests. Child with flank pain? Wilm’s tumor. Blood in urine? Nephritic spectrum disease. Sudden dizziness upon standing? Look for Prazosin. The real world, however, is different.

Anxiety was listed among his many diagnoses. That’s probably why he was here; he needed a refill on his medication. If I were his provider, this visit would have been short, but I’m a medical student. There’s a structure I need to follow, details I need to elicit, a report I need to present so that the attending physician may make the best decisions for the patient’s care.

I scribbled on my notepad, Kevin, 35 M. Rx refill…

Nepal

MSF, Indonesia 2004

Santhosh, Nepal 2015

I’m behind on several papers, some stats homework and the apartment could use a little picking up. All that’s been the normal state of affairs for the past year. What has caught me a little off guard over the past couple of days is my distraction with the earthquakes in Nepal. In addition to the photos from the news media, I am also getting some photos from Santhosh, a kind orthopedic surgeon who I worked with post earthquake in 2004 in central Java with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). It’s difficult not to be concerned about the safety of the aid workers who have responded to this disaster; especially when you haven’t heard from them in a couple of days. From past experience you realize that nearly every waking hour is focused on patient care and safety and there is little time and few internet opportunities to leave messages to friends.

So here’s hoping for the safety of all who have responded to the earthquake in Nepal!

Only Three Minutes

Let’s pretend you’ve signed up for the Three Minute Thesis.

What that means is you’ve got three minutes to explain your thesis—both the results and significance of your project—to a non-scientific audience.

Why did you do it? First, it’s good public speaking practice. Second, it’s a great opportunity to express your creativity. While you know that science is wonderfully, elegantly creative, it’s hard to convey that creativity to people outside of science. The crux of your research project is buried under six feet of complex jargon.

Even the simple things take lots of description. Although you’ve explained it a dozen times at the dinner table, whenever your parents hear the phrase “Western blot,” they can’t help but imagine a Rorschach test in a cowboy hat.

For the Three Minute Thesis (3MT), you’ve got to think outside the box.

Now that you’ve chained yourself to this radiator of an event, you’ve got to think of an idea. How are you going to present your research?

You should wrap your presentation in a metaphor, you think. Have an overall theme and a metaphor compelling enough to capture attention, but simple enough to be immediately understood.

You sit at your desk, dramatically crack your fingers and hunker down in front of your computer to compose the Next Great American Presentation. What’s the main underlying theme behind your project? What’s the important take-home message?

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…I Should Just Leave

This occurred to me while waiting my turn to deliver my 3 minute thesis (3MT) talk during Research Week. It seemed so easy; I could just stand up and walk away. When they called my name there would only be a moment of confusion, just a brief series of furrowed brows and craned necks, before Jackie would just hit the space bar and move on to the next speaker’s slide. Who would even notice? I shifted in my seat and glanced at the exit. I considered my options.

Normally public speaking doesn’t frighten me. I had given my Research Week oral presentation just two days before and thought nothing of it. Speaking about my own data feels like sitting in a hammock, I can just relax into it. But then I had ten minutes. Ten whole, sprawling, seemingly infinite minutes to walk the audience through my research. I had slides on background! The 3MT was one slide, no animations, with a strict three minute time limit that, when exceeded, resulted in disqualification.

The fifth M.D./Ph.D. student took the stage to discuss how her research on placenta will save billions of babies. I’m screwed, I thought. I study drug addiction and this girl is saving everyone’s baby. I put my cardigan on. I zipped up my backpack. I’m leaving.

What was it about having only 3 minutes to discuss my work that was so frightening? Although scientists may have a reputation for being long-winded, the truth is brevity is king. Someone who can succinctly and intelligently describe their research without using jargon and without boring you has a very special skill. And it’s one that every graduate student is encouraged to acquire, but it is incredibly difficult to master. We spend most of our time in these very erudite head spaces, speaking in abbreviations, adjusting our glasses, literally writing code. And then someone comes along and says “What are you doing and does it matter?” and it almost takes a moment to remember that it does, and why.

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Friday

It was Friday. Finally. The day had been circled, stared, and highlighted on the calendar, serving as a constant reminder to prepare my mind and hedge my future. Weeks out, my friends had noted the build up, and the countdown began at seven days. Thursday night, I slunk into bed, exhausted, and quickly drowned into a deep and efficient sleep. But my mind remained aware. I awoke wide-eyed, switching off my 4:45 alarm before it had the chance to chime and wake my wife, who at that hour is always peaceful, regardless of the upcoming events.

I threw on shorts, laced up my running shoes and walked out the door at 5, greeted by the moon and a couple of buddies waiting on the pavement.

“Big day!” they shouted. Indeed. I needed a light run to shake the nerves, so we set off down to the waterfront for an easy 10. They took bets on my future.

“No doubt she’ll get her first choice.”

“She’d better,” I replied. Match Day was upon us. “I already accepted the position in Seattle,” I said with more nervousness in my voice than I intended to let on.

Two weeks before, I enthusiastically accepted a postdoc fellowship at the University of Washington to study autism. I had researched and interviewed for various positions across the country, sending me into a constant back-and-forth, weighing the pros against the cons, considering what-if I chose this position, or the other. But one morning, I awoke with a clear research vision that sent me racing to the computer for a quick literature search.

You know, I thought to myself, this is worth exploring. The gears clicked, the wheels turned in unison, and I knew that it was the right postdoc position for me. But I needed to lock it down. There were other candidates, and I could see the opportunity seep through my fingers by not committing. I feared missing the opportunity, so I dove in, accepted this offer, turned down the others, and held my breath.

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Up a Wall Without a Paddle… Or Something Like That

I’m not crazy, but people have given me looks that suggest otherwise. These situations usually occur after I’ve mentioned I’m a graduate student. The probability of receiving the “look” increases when I say I’m in the Behavioral Neuroscience program, and it increases further when I explain that it will take 5-7 years to graduate. When I explain a post-doctoral fellowship is routine, the look is a near certainty.

“Well, you’ll be able to help diagnose my migraines then” was one well-intentioned response.

Cue head banging against the wall.

Sometimes though, I think they might be on to something. Or prolonged periods spent in a dark room talking to rodents is doing funny things to me. Because why else am I still excited to be on this career path? It’s not the promise of riches, I can tell you that much. Mention the current funding situation in a room filled with graduate students, and you’ll wonder how a collective sigh could contain so much angst.

During my last break, I completed a 10 mile long obstacle course (Note: This has been another occasion for which my sanity has been questioned.) One of the hardest obstacles for me during the course was a curved wall participants run up. Think Ninja Warrior if you’re familiar with it. The first time I tried running up it, I wasn’t even close. It eventually took me 4 tries, 1 pep talk from a kind stranger, and 2 fellow participants pulling me up to get me on the top of that thing, after which I enjoyed a brief moment of pride. Then, I realized I needed to get down quickly because heights aren’t my thing.

Thus, I present to you my metaphor for this post:  Graduate school is a 10 mile obstacle course.

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Nursing School Here I Come!

I realize I’ve come into my blog writing experience half-way through my 5-term nursing program, so I’ll try to backdate a bit to take you through the whole journey.

After being accepted into OHSU’s School of Nursing, the excitement of making it in gradually turned into the overwhelming feeling of “what did I get myself into!” After all, I had been out of college for 12 years so how was I going to adjust to becoming a full-time student? My wife and I had always joked that there was no way we could have ever been married while I was in school (I had a seat in the library with my name on it back then); this joke became even more funny with the addition of 5 kids to our family – school – yeah right!! I guess we should never laugh about things we say we’d never do!

Nevertheless, after many accommodations, plans and sacrifices in our family’s crazy schedule of work days, appointments and outings we made it work, and there I was on the first day of school.  I was quite excited to find a class with people of varied backgrounds and ages from many different walks of life (several also with kids), and I immediately felt at home.  In addition to my classmates (who quickly become great friends), the faculty was warm and welcoming and most importantly ready to help us make our way through the program.  It seemed last fall that photos were all over social media of happy (or sad) little children holding signs up saying “first day of kindergarten,” well I guess I got my own sign – First Day of Nursing School!

 

Null Data, or What It Isn’t

Fourth year. It means different things to different people. Sometimes it means the end is in sight, you have a paper out and next year you will graduate. Sometimes it means that the end was in sight, but it has relocated somewhere on the map, you can’t find it, and you’ve stumbled into a very dark cavern where the walls are getting closer and closer as you move forward. And sometimes it just means you are chugging forward, sometimes running, sometimes sprinting, sometimes taking a water break. There is no universal experience for fourth year of graduate school. Heck, there’s no universal experience for graduate school, period.

My fourth year has been full. Our lab changed buildings. I am more involved with the Graduate Student Organization this year. Vikings killed off my favorite character (RIP Aethelstan). Carey Elwes (aka Dread Pirate Roberts  for you Princess Bride aficionados) told me my name is beautiful (EEK!!!!!!!!). And the real kicker – I have spent most of the year with a gluttony of null data. What is null data, you ask? Null data is data that isn’t. It is data that tells you what your answer is not. It is the exact opposite of telling you what your answer is. Is it valuable? Is it garbage? The debate is fierce, and off-hand remarks about it can leave a graduate student scorched, like a thatched roof house after a viking raid.

Here’s a fun fact. If you look null up on Urban Dictionary, you get the following definition: NULL – n., adj. – signifying the absence of data. Things such as character strings and various types of numeric values can be described as “NULL” when they contain no data. (shadow:light::NULL:data).

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StudentSpeak

StudentSpeak

Ever wondered what life is like as a student at OHSU? What does it take to become a researcher? Just how gross is gross anatomy? Welcome to the blog that answers these – and many other – questions. It’s students writing first-hand about their commitment to careers in science and health care. It’s honest about the challenges as well as the joys. It’s not always pretty. But it is our story. Thank you for sharing it with us. And please, let us know what you think.

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