Hurry Up And Wait

I first heard the phrase “hurry up and wait” to describe the nature of life for actors on a film set. I was an extra on the set of “Olympus Has Fallen” for one day back in 2012, filming in rural Louisiana. As extras, all of our attention and energy was needed while filming sequences, then we’d stand around waiting while cameras moved around, lighting got adjusted, makeup/fake blood was reapplied, etc.

The phrase refers to activities that require all of your focus for some length of time, immediately followed by another period of time where you have nothing to do, waiting to return to your original task.

Researchers experience “hurry up and wait” during many experiments when all of our attention is needed for a few minutes or hours as we follow a protocol. We then have to wait for a couple hours, days, or weeks, while experimental steps take their course. No matter how much we might want to speed things along, we cannot rush these waiting steps and trying to avoid them can ruin the entire experiment.

Particular protocols are notorious for the frustration evoked during waiting steps, especially for those of us who lack patience and/or are excited about the data to be gathered at the end of an experiment.

Cell culture is my nemesis because it can make planning experiments very difficult. You have to keep a close watch on cells so you can quickly adjust if they aren’t growing as fast or are growing faster than you want. Cell work forces me to keep my schedule flexible so I can be available when they’re ready for an experiment. As a result, it is common for students to make evening or weekend plans, only to have to cancel at the last minute because they’re needed in the lab.

In graduate school, “hurry up and wait” comes in the form of many student’s least favorite requirements of higher learning: writing papers and grants. We spend enormous amounts of time and energy attempting to submit a manuscript for publication or meet a grant deadline, only to then have to wait weeks and months while it gets reviewed. For manuscripts, it’s common to wait months only to get back reviewers’ comments that need to be addressed within a couple weeks in order to continue with submission.

In preparing for my candidacy exam, I’m experiencing “hurry up and wait” with drafts of my written proposal. I work non-stop to finish a proposal draft, then have to wait while the draft get reviewed by colleagues and my adviser. The good news is that once I submit my written proposal, three weeks ahead of my oral exam, I will be done with it until I need to prepare my F31 application (NIH grant) in a couple months.

My biggest problem with the waiting stage is boredom. Immediately after having so much to do, having nothing to do immediately forces you to find other distractions or become very bored. The best of us have multiple projects going on at once and are able to use the waiting periods of one project to accomplish high-focus tasks in another. However, while very efficient, that work ethic can lead to burnout and future problems that would need to be addressed.

For now, I should be using my time in between proposal drafts to work on my presentation, which will need to be in working order for my practice exam next week. Unfortunately, without a strictly impending deadline, distractions are all too easy to find.

**Thank you to Runze Shen for encouraging me to write about “hurry up and wait”**

Am I Ready?

My anxiety levels are extremely high. Last month, I wrote about everything I have to do this summer and now, I’m in the thick of it.

I finished up my experiments last Thursday and we finished packing the lab the following day. That’s not to say that my experiments gave me all of the data I was hoping for and some protocols still need polishing, but I set a specific end point so I could transition 100% of my attention to my candidacy exam. My experiments and my cells will still be there, but I really only get one shot at passing candidacy and I don’t want to screw it up.

My advisor is doing her best to make sure I am able to focus my attention on finishing my written proposal, due in 2 weeks, but I’ve needed to go into lab to help set up the new lab space. We’ve got two new postdocs coming in as well, one of which has already started. I’m excited for them to join our lab, but I need to prioritize my candidacy responsibilities.

I submit my written proposal in two weeks and hope to practice my presentation (given as part of the oral exam) later the same week. Practicing your presentation and the questioning thereafter is incredibly valuable because other students in the program have gone through this same experience. These students offer advice and ask questions to quiz your background knowledge on your project’s components. The earlier you start practicing, the more time you have brush up on concepts you didn’t know you’d forgotten (or needed to know).

I’m trying to set intermediate, attainable goals for myself, so that I don’t feel extremely rushed at the end. This is not something I can procrastinate or avoid. But when I try to go to sleep at night, my mind won’t shut up about everything that needs to be completed or hypotheticals about what could happen if I don’t get things done.

I have scheduled activities for myself to do immediately after completing my candidacy exam but they haven’t turned into the “light at the end of the tunnel” I was hoping they would be. Scheduling activities for immediately after means that I can’t bail on my set exam date or postpone anything.

I feel like I felt when I was buying my house. In between having my offer accepted and closing on the house, I signed paperwork, agreed to spend the majority of my life savings, and took on extensive financial risk and responsibility. I wanted to bail so many times because it all felt like too much.

I keep thinking about how much easier life would be if I ditched my PhD program and took a “normal” job among the masses outside academia, but I’m too stubborn for that.

I love my research. I’m here for the research and the people. I just have to get through these next 5 weeks, but that seems so far off.

Once my written proposal is done, I will finish my presentation, then I will compete in our program’s showcase of graduate student research, then I will devote [as close to] 100% of my time to preparing for the actual exam, then I will finally take my exam.

I’m definitely not ready now and I doubt I will feel ready before the exam.

However, I’m ready to stop feeling this way. I’m ready to not have my anxiety interrupt my sleep. I’m ready to go back to being patient with friends and coworkers. I’m ready to go back to feeling like I won’t burst out in tears at any moment. I’m ready to stop feeling like a moron who doesn’t belong because I don’t know everything I should know.

I’m ready to go back to the way things were.

The Cost of Calm

“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems,
Must not have had enough money to solve ’em”
-Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”

With mental health struggles so prevalent for graduate students, graduate programs and support networks are putting extra emphasis on mental health awareness.

My graduate program offers workshops and counseling to its students, providing training and information about the resources available within our institution. I have attended workshops on meditation, the importance of being aware of your own mental health, and mentally preparing for big presentations. The university’s recreation center also offers yoga classes, for a small monthly fee.

We’re taught that daily factors affecting your mental health include diet, sleep schedule, human contact/communication, and work load. To a certain extent, we have control over most of those elements. However, when we lose control over the last one, work load, we must find an outlet.

Every student is different in the way(s) we manage our stress. It is up to us to determine our preferred coping mechanism.

Some seek professional services through counseling or therapy. Some find solace in support networks on social media. Some keep journals to put words to everything swirling inside their heads.

While I do some writing, I, and many others, prefer more active pursuits. Some of us make regular trips to the gym, others go to yoga or meditation classes to clear their heads. A couple of my classmates take pole dancing classes and highly recommend them. A few other students sing in a local choir or play in an orchestra.

I know others who have taken up boxing or gymnastics, empowering activities which require a completely different skill set from what is utilized for their research.

All of this is to say that students exploit highly varied outlets to separate themselves from their work and take care of their mental health. Unfortunately, many of these endeavors cost a decent amount of money, making them not accessible for every student who wants to participate.

I grew up in an incredibly thrifty family. Both of my parents paid their own ways through university because their families did not have the means to do so. For them, growing up without money meant that when you had it, you saved it. I was raised with that mentality and, as a result, spending any amount of money over $50 is a mental hurdle, especially for things that I don’t “need”.

I recently started taking yoga classes at a studio near my house. These classes are more expensive than the ones offered through my university’s rec center, but they’re more varied and conveniently timed. With a student discount, classes cost $85/month. This may not sound like a lot of money to some, but to someone making $32,000/year and already paying a mortgage in addition to normal monthly expenses, $85/month can be a fair chunk of change.

This fee for classes is, admittedly, pretty low compared to more selective options (i.e. offered in fewer locations), like boxing or gymnastics. In addition, stipends in our program are very generous for PhD students, but expenses beyond necessities are a struggle.

The mental hurdle I had to jump to get here was that I don’t “need” to take these classes. I could stretch at home, I could go to my rec center’s classes, or I could find a different outlet that didn’t come with a monthly fee.

My instinct to not spend money is so ingrained that it risks my overall well-being. I have to convince myself that the cost of the activity is worth the benefit I will get out of the activity. Even then, I ask for a free trial period to take as much time as possible before I put any money on the table.

It is likely that my mental obstacle courses are particular to me, but I know that concerns over personal finances are common with grad students. I worked for a few years before grad school so I have a safety net. Many other students aren’t so fortunate. They started grad school immediately after undergrad, with no savings or are financially responsible for family members/children.

These are struggles we handle individually, prioritizing where best to spend the money we have. Increasing graduate student stipends would be a welcome financial relief, but that is not a path likely to be taken with increased tightening of research budgets. I would like to see better education for students interested in budgeting their finances, and greater acknowledgement of the funds needed by each student to find and pursue their own outlets for mental health security.

Planning to be Overwhelmed

For most students, across all levels of education, the summer represents a time for relaxation and recovery away from school and class responsibilities. Particularly responsible students may hold a summer job to earn some money and occupy their time. Graduate students don’t get that luxury. We work year-round, whether in class, in the lab/doing research, or gaining valuable job experience through external (outside the university) internships.

As grad students, we can’t stop being productive and I have no desire to put off necessary tasks until our academic year starts anew in August. My next big milestone towards my PhD is called a candidacy examination. The candidacy exam is a comprehensive evaluation of a PhD student’s ability to undertake a doctoral research project.

For my program, candidacy includes a six page written proposal detailing your planned experiments and the knowledge you expect to gain, in addition to a 20-25 minute presentation on your project. The written proposal must be submitted three weeks before your exam. On the day of your exam, your presentation is followed by 2-3 hours of questioning meant to assess your knowledge on the biological and experimental principles involved in you project.

At the end of your exam, a committee of six faculty members determines whether you receive an unconditional pass (no additional work needed), a conditional pass (some additional work needed), a re-take (a lot of additional work needed & take exam again), or a fail (most likely will remove you from the program). Re-takes and failures are extremely rare (one every ~10 years), but these are incredibly stressful for students both during the exam and in the weeks leading up to it.

I am currently preparing for my exam, which will occur sometime in the 2nd week of July. We are told to allot six weeks to complete all necessary components for candidacy though, in truth, preparations begin long before that.

As of now, I know who will be on my exam committee, the outline of my project, the information necessary to write my proposal and make my presentation, and the timeline of when things need to be submitted.

Some hard deadlines exist to keep us on track through this process, but I need soft deadlines as well to pace myself. I don’t want to burn out before I even walk into the exam room.

Right now, the only thing I need to do is submit paperwork asking permission to take my exam, though that is being delayed by the required 10+ signatures from faculty, who don’t necessarily respond to requests as promptly as you’d like them to.

In the weeks before my exam, I will be submitting my written proposal, practicing my presentation and receiving feedback from other students/faculty, and (hopefully) meeting with the faculty on my exam committee to gauge their reactions to my proposal.

Unfortunately, my candidacy exam is not the only thing I’m working on this summer. I will also be competing in the elevator pitch (if I get past the prelims) and poster presentation competitions in my graduate school’s annual Student Research Day at the end of June. I’m not stressing yet about the elevator pitch competition because I have to be chosen by my program first before I’ll be allowed to compete during Research Day.

For the poster presentation, I’ve laid out the data I want to include and the story it would tell but, unfortunately, I don’t have any of the data yet and will be working my tail off over the next couple months to get that work done.

My experiments have a natural pace to them, including down time while cells are growing, followed by chaos when setting up multiple analysis techniques at the same time. This predictable pacing allows me to know when I can study for my exam or continue writing my proposal, and when I need to prioritize my time for experiments. I will need to have all of my experiments completed a week before Research Day so have time to design the poster and send it out for printing.

Colleagues, especially faculty, keep telling me that I’ll get through this process fine. I believe them, but I’d rather over-prepare than under-prepare. However this turns out, I’ve already told my PI that I’ll be going on vacation for a couple weeks after my candidacy exam. On that trip, I’ll either be celebrating, sleeping, or looking for a new job.

Self-Awareness in Depression

I have chronic anxiety and periodic depression. My anxiety is rooted in my schoolwork, research, and other aspects of my professional life. My depression is brought on by pain in my person life.

Over the past few weeks, I have been struggling through a breakup from someone I really cared about. The reasons for the breakup will stay between him and I, but I want to be open about how it’s affect me and what I’ve been going through.

When I am depressed, I can’t tell my own feelings, especially the pleasant ones. It’s like there is a fog hiding my happiness and positive emotions from me, so that I can’t access them. I can laugh and smile, but those emotions are only genuine for an instant.

I don’t have the energy or desire to do optional activities. Even though I love cooking and it normally grounds me, depression makes me only go for easy-access food. My poor diet and incessant mental wanderings make it very difficult to fall asleep. Problems compound when I need to be in the lab early in the morning after having only slept for 3 hours. As I’ve written before, I get frustrated when personal life struggles bleed into my professional life.

I think that the people who I’m closest to can tell that something is wrong but I’ve never been fully open with them about what is happening. I think this is partly because I know they have their own problems and partly because I can’t explain things fully to myself, let along someone else. It’s far easier to isolate myself from others and attempt to occupy myself with why I’m upset.

I’m now self-aware enough to know what is happening to me. I can’t do anything to make it go away – only time can do that – but I have some activities that offer a temporary respite.

Trips to the gym for cardio-intensive workouts facilitate endorphin releases that alleviate some of the mental burden. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a godsend. They are easy-access foods, but are far more nutritional than anything in the pantry. Plus, bingeing on these foods are far less likely to lead to undesired weight gain.

My final tool used to make myself feel better is to be honest with myself about what I’m going through. Putting my thoughts and emotions into words is an underrated way to move forward. Words mean that I can explain things to myself and others. As much as I may want to run away from what I’m going through, I can’t.

I plan to start seeing a counselor this week, which will likely become a regular occurrence leading up to my candidacy exam in a couple months. I need to be honest with myself that I will have a much healthier and easier time if I don’t try to go through this alone.

The good news is that I can feel the fog lifting. I cooked for the first time in a few weeks and am looking forward to activities that I’ve been avoiding. I am taking the right steps to get past this, but a need a little more time.

A Story A Day: Part 3

**This is a continuation from my previous post**

Thursday

I finished my Bioinformatics final on Wednesday afternoon, reaching the intended conclusion that genome mutations in cancer do not necessarily lead to dysregulation of the corresponding genes, nor do they all contribute to the development of metastasis. It turned out to be a very interesting assignment, even if I don’t study cancer.

I spent my Wednesday morning helping a couple classmates (one in particular) work out the kinks to their programming code. The TAs wrote this final assignment and brilliantly gave each student a different set of original data, so no two students would have even remotely the same answers on their submitted projects. I think it’s brilliant because it is a nearly-guaranteed way that every student will write their own programs. Though it does complicate their work in grading.

I left campus in the early afternoon to, of all things, help my father catch my cat. When we’re out of town, my cat typically stays with at my parent’s house with their cats so he’ll have some company for the duration of my absence. As anyone whose owned a cat knows, they don’t necessarily (or at all) like car rides, and especially don’t like being in their little cat cages for any period.

I came home for a grand total of maybe 30 minutes, 15 of which was spent waiting for my father to get to my house. As soon as he arrived, a called my cat in from the backyard – he actually responds when I call for him – and put him in his carrier. He immediately started whining and looking at me like I had betrayed him. I hope he forgets my betrayal by the time we get back. Unfortunately, I had to return to campus for an afternoon seminar. I would have much preferred to stay home.

Friday

Every Friday, the Biochemistry & Cell Biology faculty and students get together at lunch, eat pizza, and listen to one of the PhD candidates present recent data or general overviews of their doctoral research. I count on this gathering as a source for lunch every Friday. Don’t get me wrong, the research is awesome and it’s a nice way to take a break from the lab every Friday, but I come for the pizza. However, Friday morning, the lecture for that day was cancelled because the woman scheduled to present defended her dissertation last month and didn’t want to come back in to give another one. In her position, I probably would have done the same thing.

Unfortunately, it meant that 10 minutes after getting to campus, I realized there was no reason for me to be there. I did some busy work for a couple hours, wrote some notes to myself about how I should proceed with experiments in January (assuming I’d forget them while on vacation), and left.

Saturday

We flew out on Saturday night. I don’t usually board early enough to get one of the seats up front but was able to get an aisle seat in the first row (yay for extra leg room), at which point I snapped the picture above before we took off.

I don’t also don’t usually talk to the people around me but overheard the couple next to me talking about their vacation plans. We struck up a normal small-talk plane conversation; the kind you have with someone you know you’re very likely to never see again. I told the woman sitting next to me that I was a PhD student and explained my research in clinical context. I’ve found that the average person connects far more to the idea of what your research is going to do for them than what the day-to-day operations are really like.

We talked for a bit about medical issues relevant to her and the research I was familiar with that was working towards to treatments for them. I most used to having that conversation, where people pick my brain about cutting edge therapies for whatever ails them and their family/friends. I love having those conversations because it tests how much I’ve been paying attention to biomedical research, though I freely admit whenever there’s a disease/disorder I know nothing about.

After talking for 20 minutes or so, the flight attendant stopped us, having overheard most of our conversation, to suggest I check out an organization she was a part of called P.E.O. (People Educating Others). I had never heard of the group, but she said that over the past 20 years, they had awarded grants totaling almost $25 million to PhD students in the last 2 years of their program. The awards are very competitive (~10% of applicants receive the grant) but can involve projects from novel treatments for viral infection to women’s education in developing countries. She recommended I apply for the grant when in that stage of my training and gave me her contact information if I needed any help getting in touch with the chapter closest to me.

The entire flight was an odd but unexpectedly pleasant experience. I happily take advantage of any time I can bend someone’s ear about my work and even happier when someone points me towards an organization with similar interests/values to mine. It goes to show that you never know when someone can help you and many people will do so if given the opportunity.

I sometimes need to remind myself to be kind, excited, open-minded, and patient. This is why.

A Story A Day: Part 2

**This is a continuation from my previous post**

Tuesday

I spent my Tuesday morning putting together my presentation. The seminar series I participated in sources its speakers by assigning students, trainees, and postdocs one day a year where they are required to present their work in front of other researchers working in stem cells or regenerative medicine. Normally, only about a dozen people show up but, it seems the entire group of ~40 people came down to hear my talk.

I’m convinced that people don’t attend more often because it’s a 12-1PM seminar that doesn’t provide food. As a poor graduate student, anything required in the noon hour but doesn’t provide any sustenance should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. To rectify this, I brought homemade shortbread cookies decorated with random patterns (holiday-themed, science/math-themed, polka dots, etc.) for attendees to consume.

I sped through my presentation because people, who I needed to wait for, were running late and I needed time to get across campus for my class at 1PM. Thankfully, both the presentation and the cookies went over well, I got some good feedback, and the higher-ups in our department seemed to be impressed by the work (judging based on the number of faculty who stayed after to speak with my PI about the project).

Wednesday

My passport was ready Tuesday afternoon, but I didn’t have time to make it downtown between my presentation, class, and dinner plans with a friend. Instead, I went into the city Wednesday morning, waiting until rush hour had subsided, to pick up my new proof of legality. While waiting in the lobby, I received an email congratulating me on receiving the 2018-2019 Steve Lasher and Janiece Longoria Graduate Student Research Award in Cancer Biology from my graduate school. This award is typically given in recognition of a student whose research aims to improve the knowledge or treatment of leukemia and other blood cancers. As someone whose work could lead to a new cell therapy source for many different blood cancers, my work qualified.

I had applied for several scholarships/fellowships through my graduate school at the end of October but, as a second-year student, I truly did not expect to receive anything. To say the least, the award was a surprise and an honor. I sent a letter of gratitude to the sponsors of the award and hope to meet them sometime in the spring to tell them about my research.

While mentally processing my award notification, I was given my new passport and forced to drive home while still in moderate shock. I had planned to stay home Wednesday to finish my Bioinformatics final, ultimately a very good idea because I could process everything from the morning at home on my couch. I find it much easier to process unexpected information while laying on my couch.

**Continued on A Story A Day: Part 3**