One Year On

Full Disclosure: It is now the third week of the new semester, so this reflection is not exactly one year since starting my PhD, but the sentiment stands.

Many things happened at once when our program began a year ago. Our orientation week was cut short and we missed the first week of classes due to Hurricane Harvey. After that, getting into the classroom mentality took a while because the storm had lasting effects on many of my classmates and professors. While my material possessions fared better, I had survivor’s guilt both during and after the storm because I had gotten through it relatively unscathed while so many others lost everything.

Walking into my PhD program, I knew that I wanted to specialize in Biochemistry & Cell Biology. Coming from an engineering background, I was nervous about taking on such a new curriculum. I was, and still am, intimidated by the level of knowledge and experience that my colleagues have over me. While I know I have learned so much new science in the past year, thinking about how much I have left to learn stresses me out immensely.

I have been able to complete the majority of my required coursework already, with great academic success. Unfortunately, my Impostor’s Syndrome makes it impossible for my grades to feel well-deserved. In my head, my lack of knowledge in certain subjects taught in class will become very apparent during my candidacy/qualifying exam when the committee will have the opportunity to question my knowledge and project for 2+ hours. I hope that what I have learned will be sufficient to pass the exam.

I am proud of the progress that I’ve made in my PhD project, by I certainly finished my 1st year in a place very different from where I’d anticipated. I started the year convinced that I’d spend my PhD working in tissue engineering (stem cells on scaffolds), but have ended up working in stem cell biology (intracellular signals and systems). I am surprised by how happy I am with my project and my lab considering how different they are from what I’d intended.

I am incredibly fortunate to have met, gotten to know, and been able to work with an exceptional group of faculty and students at my institution. Their kindness, generosity, intelligence, humor, and love for their science inspires me every day and reaffirms my confidence the next three generations of medical therapies.

There are certain aspects of my personal and professional development that I know have improved over the past year. While there is still room to grow, my skills and comfort with networking and meeting new people have improved greatly. In addition, I take on more opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone both socially and professionally. I feel better able to address and manage conflict, and I feel better prepared to manage my own mental health through the trying times ahead.

While I cannot see it yet, I know that there is a light at the end of this PhD tunnel, and I am going towards it as fast as I can. I now have a much better idea of the career paths that interest me and know what I need to do to get there.

There is still work to be done in finding the healthiest balance for my time inside and outside the lab. I still struggle to feel productive from week to week and lose patience in the time required for me to understand new concepts.

For this next year, I want to work on seeing my classmates more often and keeping better in touch with my friends, because we will need each other’s support. I aim to be a PhD candidate by this time next year. I aim to take a vacation and time off whenever possible, so I can keep a clear head. I want to continue to improve at receiving and addressing constructive criticism, because I know I will be hearing a lot of it.

More than anything, I want to continue to love my science and my work because if I lose that, what is the point of doing everything else?

Sam Waterston Cheers
Farewell to my 1st year and best wishes to my 2nd.

Starting at a Sprint

Completing a PhD is like running a marathon. You can approach it as a race and attempt to finish first, or you can merely focus on finishing. You can change up your pace, run for a cause, run with someone else, and/or stop for a water/bathroom breaks. Instead of pacing myself in anticipation of the long road ahead, I feel like I have started my PhD at a sprint.

I joined the lab of Dr. Pamela Wenzel at the UTHealth Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine about a month ago. Within a few weeks of starting my rotation in Dr. Wenzel’s lab, I knew that was where I wanted to stay. Our lab has multiple research projects going on right now involving cancer, traumatic brain injury, stem cell therapy, and hematopoeisis. However, our lab only consists of 4-5 people at the moment, requiring everyone to be involved in multiple projects so that we can keep up with the workload.

My dissertation project will attempt to define the role of fluid shear stress (i.e. blood flow) on the differentiation of hemogenic endothelial cells into hematopoietic stem cells, and the intracellular signaling pathways involved in this phenomenon. Hematopoietic stem cells supply the body with blood cells and immune cells, so they are pivotal in maintaining homeostasis, the body’s healthy balance, throughout life. If we can understand how these stem cells develop, we can use those pathways to create stable hematopoietic stem cells for clinical use as cell therapies.

I am incredibly excited about this project because it’s a stem cell population I’ve not worked with before, and it will utilize my engineering background studying fluid shear stress in conjunction with the cell signaling knowledge I am gaining in my current coursework.

Unfortunately, due to our lab’s multitude of projects, I have not yet had time to become familiar with the literature necessary for my project, let alone start planning experiments. All hands on deck have been utilized to perform the final experiments and data analysis necessary before a couple manuscripts can be submitted for publication.

I spent my first few weeks in the lab working on analyzing breast cancer cell migration, which mainly involved intently staring at the computer for hours at a time in order to manually track the positions and movement of hundreds of breast cancer cells. I had previous experience using the analysis software and didn’t mind doing the work in order to free up a labmate’s time to perform other experiments. In addition, my contribution to the project meant that I would be listed as an author on the paper, which will look good when I later apply for scholarships and fellowships.

This past week added further procrastination in the form mouse tissue processing and flow cytometry analysis for the lab’s traumatic brain injury project. This work took 2 days this week, each day starting at 6AM and finishing between 8:30-10PM. I was not asked, but offered to help with this work because I knew how much time it would require and I wanted to alleviate the workload of my colleagues. I also earned valuable experience that will be utilized later for my project. Each person in the lab assisted with at least some of the work over those 2 days, allowing everyone to take breaks as needed and step out for other time commitments. I was very impressed with how willing everyone was to step up with their time and help out wherever they could. These were long days, but there was always someone there talk to or go to if you needed help. We have one more long day next week, and I hope the work that day goes even smoother than the two this past week.

I need to perform one more set of analyses in order to complete the manuscript for the breast cancer cell migration studies. I’m hoping to be able to complete that work this week, but it will depend on how much of my time is needed for everything else I’m involved in right now.

I feel tired, but I don’t feel exhausted, meaning I’ll use this weekend to take a break, but I don’t want to stop helping with other’s research projects. I don’t mind how I’m spending my time now, but I’m concerned about draining myself by working so long on other people’s research projects. I have made a commitment to help and I will stick to that, but I’m hoping these side projects finish soon so that I can start preparing for the project I’m going to spend the next 3-4 years working on.

It may be that completing a PhD is less like running one marathon, and more like having one marathon for each project you’re involved in. You spend time assisting with other’s projects, helping run their marathons for a short time, while continuing to participate in the paramount marathon of completing your dissertation. The goal is to still be alive at the finish line.

Fellowship Failure

This past December, I applied for a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship (information on this and other fellowships can be found here). If received, this fellowship would fully fund my graduate education, providing me the freedom to join any lab I wanted at my institution. The application requires a 3-page description of a research project you would perform for your graduate studies. I proposed a project designed in collaboration with a former boss/PI and was incredibly proud of the research plan. My proposal outlined the development of a new model to study vascularization and tissue growth in bone tissue engineering scaffolds. I felt, and still feel, that the project has the potential to change the way tissue engineers evaluate the potential in their technologies.

Unfortunately, the NDSEG review committee did not agree. I received the email shown above on Friday afternoon, letting me know that my application was no longer being considered.

While the application was due in December, I had started writing the research proposal in August, so it feels like I have been waiting a very long time to hear their decision. Waiting to hear back about fellowship applications is a lot like waiting to hear back about acceptances into college and graduate/medical school. You can wait for months to get one email or letter dictating your future.

In that time, you imagine what your life would be like if you got everything you wanted; what you would do if you got the fellowship (or got into your top-choice school/program). You tell yourself that the scenarios playing in your head are hypothetical, but you want them so badly to be real. You ignore the statistics of acceptance rates and likelihoods of getting what you want because you’re smart, you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, and you believe that you deserve to be recognized. But maybe that’s just me.

NDSEG has an acceptance rate of roughly 5%, so simple math dictates that there was a 95% chance I would not get the award. Those should be overwhelming odds, but they don’t feel that way when you think you’re a good candidate.

I re-read my submitted research proposal after receiving the rejection notice and it still feels like a really good project that I would love to work on. Unfortunately, the research advisors intended for the project do not currently have funding for a graduate student, so I have to look elsewhere for my PhD.

Thankfully, my current rotation is in a fantastic lab which has funding for a PhD student and is under the guidance of a PI who I am confident will be an amazing advisor and mentor. I am formulating a plan to make sure that the researchers I’d wanted for my fellowship project will still be involved in my graduate training, but I have some time to work out the details of that arrangement.

I don’t regret applying for the fellowship or taking the time to write my ultimately-failed research proposal. This was the first time I wrote a fellowship/grant application entirely on my own and about a project for which I would be solely responsible. I took the time to plan the project with a trusted advisor and made sure to get feedback from multiple individuals from different backgrounds. I think it’s a good thing that I don’t know what I could have done differently to make myself a better candidate. Even with the rejection, I am proud of what I accomplished.

The Trickle-Down Effects of Limited Research Funding

This is the time of year that thousands of PhD student hopefuls get invited to visit and interview at programs they have applied to for this fall. At my institution, interviewees have a chance to meet with multiple faculty members in the research area(s) they are interested in, as well as a chance to talk with current students about their experiences in the program. This is an invaluable time for potential new students to assess whether our program is right for them and for us to determine whether they fit here. It is an incredibly stressful process for the interviewees, which is compounded by conversations about research funding.

Ask any researcher or principal investigator (PI) about funding – how to get it, how long it lasts, how much it covers, etc. – and you will consistently hear about how not enough research funding is available and how difficult it is to be awarded a grant. It is more difficult than ever to find tenure-track positions, become a PI, and establish your own research lab, mainly because of limited research funding. In addition, those who are fortunate enough to start their own lab face a seemingly endless cycle of gathering data, publishing, applying for new grants, and repeating the process year after year. The struggles of procuring funding in academic research is not a secret. However, I do not think that people speak enough about how funding shortages affect new PhD students.

A common practice in PhD programs across the country is for students to spend most of their first year rotating in a few different labs in order to try out various research projects, work with potential doctoral advisers/PIs, and determine whether they can see themselves working in a particular lab for 4+ years. In my program, students have 3 chances to work with a PI for 8-10 weeks, after which, they must choose who to work with for the rest of their doctoral career. My institution boasts 300+ faculty in more areas of biomedical research than I can name, whom we are able to choose from for rotations.

When choosing a rotation lab, we are encouraged to have a conversation with that lab’s PI about whether or not they have funding for a PhD student. In my experience, PIs are very clear about whether they believe they have enough funding to take on a PhD student. Unfortunately, I have found that not every PI knows how much a PhD student really costs. In my program, each student’s yearly tuition is under $5,000, medical insurance is about $8,000, and our annual stipend is $32,000, totaling about $45,000 per student, per year, that the PI is responsible to pay. For those unfamiliar with researcher salaries, that is approximately the cost of a postdoctoral fellow. The productivity of a graduate student versus a postdoctoral fellow can be debated, but PhD students would be in a lab for 4+ years, whereas postdocs can be a financial commitment of only 1-2 years.

When faced with the full assessment of the financial burden of a PhD student, faculty can become understandably reticent about whether they are ready and able to make that kind of financial commitment. Regrettably, students may not have this detailed a discussion about finances with their rotation PIs until later in their rotation when they have expressed interest in joining that lab. This heartbreaking news is then followed by that student scrambling to find another PI to rotate with who has the ideal combination of interesting research, desired mentorship style, optimal lab environment, has funding for a PhD student, and hasn’t yet committed to another student.

I can say from first hand experience that all of this happening can feel like the world is crumbling around you, but you still have to wake up in the morning, go to the lab you want but know you can’t join, finish your rotation project, keep going to class, and fulfill every other responsibility you have, while trying to find a new lab which fits the aforementioned criteria. It is no wonder that PhD students commonly face mental health problems.

In most instances, the PI is not to blame for this problem. There are miscommunications, gaps in knowledge, last-minute changes in finance allocations, and, as ever, a general lack of research funding. To their credit, my institution’s administrators understand that financial commitments of 4+ years can be tricky and do everything they can to assure that a student will not be forced out of a lab/project after 2-3 years due to a PI’s lack of research funds. Additionally, my program offers internal fellowships to partially or fully cover the student’s costs, but those are very competitive and can only be applied for 2-3 years into a doctoral project.

Undergraduate seniors and incoming PhD students can apply for external fellowships from federal organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, as well as a few private organizations like the Hertz Fellowship. These fellowships cover part to all of a student’s tuition/fees and offer a stipend that is typically more than what the PhD institution offers, but only fund 1-10% of applicants (depending on the fellowship program) and can require students to plan a research project months in advance of them choosing a lab/project/adviser.

Other popular external fellowships, such as those offered by the National Institutes of Health, are monetarily valuable, but require the student to have chosen and started working on a doctoral project, meaning they cannot be applied for until months after the student has joined a lab. Essentially, a PhD student can only secure funding for themselves when they are either extremely forward-planning or after a PI has already agreed to cover their costs. But again, these external programs have, at best, a 10-15% acceptance rate, leaving thousands of students across the country to be funded exclusively by their PIs.

While limited funding for PhD students is a multi-faceted problem, including issues like increased tuition prices and necessary increases in stipend to provide a living wage, I do not know of any other way fix this problem without specifically allocating more federal funds for graduate students in the forms of fellowships and more accessible research project grants.

Getting My Footing

I stress bake… a lot… which my classmates and colleagues are figuring out because I brought them macarons last week and mini cupcakes today. I find that baking and cooking utilize the same prinicples as my scientific work, but I tend to be successful in the kitchen far more than I am in the lab. However, I could never pick up a chef’s hat full-time because I want it to stay as my decompression rather than have it become a responsibility. Unfortunately now, when I get the urge to bake/cook, I take a step back and try to figure out what is stressing me out.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been waking up at 5:30AM, getting to the lab by 6:30AM, and working until 5:30 or 6PM, at which point I either go to the gym or an evening event; I am usually home by 7:30. So long as I get enough sleep, this schedule hasn’t felt like it’s causing me any additional stress, and I’ve actually been productive in my time before class. My problem is that I feel like a boring person for not having anything to do outside of the lab or class. I volunteer with organizations when I have time and I keep telling myself that my social circle is expanding, but it never feels like I’m living the life that others think I should have in my situation.

I am very introverted and feel like I need extensive time alone to work up the energy to be surrounded by people at school/work. At the same time, I feel like I use my introvertedness as an excuse to not be social, not go out with friends, and generally stay home. I decorated my home so it would always feel welcoming, safe, and relaxing, so I find it very comfortable to spend much of my time there. When I’m home, Clooney (AKA the adorable fuzzball pictured above) keeps me company so it never feels like I’m entirely alone, but my house is usually very quiet.

To be honest, there’s no real purpose or conclusion to writing all of this. I was hoping I could convince myself to go out more and meet more people but, at this point, I’m too tired and I don’t make near enough money to spend on frivolities. At least I now make a pretty darn impressive macaron.

As for my actual graduate education, I am finishing up my fellowship applications, which are due at the end of this month, and am presenting my research from this past summer at a regional symposium next week. Thankfully, my work keeps me so busy I have no extra time to deal with my insecurities.

This week’s lectures in class actually made sense, for the most part, which is the first time all year that has happened. Granted, I’ve heard we were not prepared well for the homework, so that should be a draining use of my time this weekend.

Essentially, I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of the grad student lifestyle, but nobody will tell me whether I’m doing it right or not.

My New Normal

Everything post-Harvey has been a bit of a whirlwind. We missed the last day of orientation and the entire first week of classes due to the storm and its aftermath. The school has been scrambling to make up the missed information sessions while trying to aid students, faculty, and staff affected by the storm, and trying to officially start the school year.

As a 1st year student (and someone who was fortunate to have been relatively spared by Harvey),  I’ve been kept busy with class, introductions to the different specialization programs offered by the PhD program, and my efforts to finish my research project from the summer. I hoped to finish everything related to my summer research before our fall rotation starts next week, but my confidence in that deadline grows smaller by the day.

Lab rotations offer students a chance to try out 3-4 different laboratories before choosing one to do their PhD project in, allowing students to “test drive” the research, leadership, and environment of each lab. As most students will be spending 3+ years in their chosen lab, it’s imperative that it be an environment conducive to production, morale, and education, while involving a research project that can hold the student’s interest throughout that time.

My rotation this fall will be in a lab that I became very familiar with during my work this summer when they bailed my unprepared butt out on many an occasion. I am looking forward to my work with them and getting experience with a new project, the details of which have yet to be worked out.

I was hoping for a slower start to the year but each day seems to pile on more responsibilities, homework, deadlines, and events, leaving me waiting for a chance to get my feet back on the ground. I know it’s only going to get worse, so my complaints probably won’t let up for a while. Sorry.

I need to take a breather every now and again, whether it be going for a workout or just stepping outside into the sun for a while. It feels like the sun is ever-present after Harvey, bringing beautiful weather that Houston would have been much happier with than a 5-day storm.

I have tried to do what I can in terms of relief efforts but it never seems like enough. At least one of the major shelters still has a couple thousand people staying there and is expected to stay at that occupancy for the next couple weeks. With the rest of us going back to school and work, trying to get back our new version of “normal”, this shelter and many of the other relief organizations are putting out calls for volunteers. The Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the country, both by size and area served, is asking for a few hundred volunteers a day to help put together the food and necessities packages to be immediately distributed in the community. I volunteered there on Monday and with 30 people, in 2.5 hours, we put together 1600 packages of meals for hungry schoolchildren to help feed their families over the weekend.

The Houston Food Bank warehouse is 308,000 sq ft and provides food, water, and other necessities to people in 28 Texas counties.

Today, we were assigned a homework based on our recent lectures on epigenetics that I’ve been warned will take most of the weekend; it’s only Tuesday and I already have something to look forward to for Saturday.



Hurricane Harvey – Day 4

Fun fact: Hurricane’s are awful.

In my last post, I talked about the preparations Gulf Coast residents are taught to take during hurricanes. When hurricanes/tropical storms have previously rolled through town, I was a child, so all I needed to be concerned about was keeping safe and staying with my family. In those instances, the preparations we were taught were very helpful, however, I don’t think they prepared me for living through this storm as an adult.

Many additional preparations have been added to my hurricane checklist over the past few days :

  • What will you do if your area goes through a mandatory evacuation? You still have a choice to stay, as they cannot force you to leave your home, which would you choose?
  • You can’t take your pet(s) to most shelters? If you evacuate but can’t take your animal, how will you get back to them?
  • What will you bring with you knowing that, when you return, your house may have taken on water of an unknown depth for an unknown length of time?
  • If water does come into your house, what is most likely to be damaged? Can any of that be moved higher ground to reduce material casualties? Are any electrical systems close to the ground that are likely to be damaged by incoming water? Can rugs be removed, rolled up, and stored on higher ground? Is there anything in your garage (common location for cardboard box storage), that will be needed during repairs and therefore need to be moved to higher ground now?
My cat, Clooney, using my tower of rolled up carpets as his throne.

For the series of questions pertaining to water coming into your house, nobody tells you that you may not have much time to prepare these things. If you’re told you need to leave your house due to a mandatory evacuation, you are maybe given a few hours to run through this checklist before you need to leave your home; at which point, you won’t know when you’ll be returning to survey the damage.

We’re not taught that if you are making these decisions for the first time in your life, you will experience an unexpected amount of stress and anxiety about whether your picking the right things to save, how you’ll pay for things if/when they get damaged, and how you’ll need to start repairs to your house once you get back. You know you have friends you can stay with while your house is getting repaired but, if your cars been totaled due to high flood waters, how are you going to get there? How long are the repairs going to take? Do you have flood insurance to cover the damages as most homeowner’s insurance policies don’t cover damages due to flooding?

I am one of the lucky ones; I have parents to help me through this. I am alone, stranded on an almost literal island, but my house still has power, so I can keep charging my phone to contact my parents who can talk me through a lot of this. I couldn’t fall asleep last night because I kept looking out the window to check the water level in the street, then obsessively checking my phone to see how many more inches of rain were expected to fall that night. Thousands of people in the Houston Metropolitan Area right now don’t have that luxury.

Water didn’t come into my house last night, though most of yesterday was spent agonizing over if/when it would. The water on my street is almost 3ft deep now. I’ve never been so happy to live on a block where the houses are raised that much from street level.

People keep texting me. Family members and friends keep checking in to see how things are going and whether I’m safe.  I appreciate the thought but feel obligated to respond within minutes so nobody starts worrying about whether something has happened to me.

The photos and videos online showing the damage of the storm so far aren’t lying, they aren’t showing you isolated incidents. Those images show what a large part of Houston looks like right now.

As the storm winds down, we start considering what to do next. We now have to deal with the aftermath. The cleanup and repair efforts will be expensive and time consuming, but we will get through this. I will help however I can. I am one of the lucky ones so, when I can leave my house, I will go to those who need help. This is the time to step up and come together.