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This Monday in the Life of a First-year Biology Phd Student

Before I started this round of grad school, I had no real concept of what it meant, on a lived daily basis, to be a PhD student in the sciences. Of course, schedules vary dramatically from lab to lab and discipline to discipline, and I know things will also change profoundly from quarter to quarter and year to year over the course of my own graduate career. Still, I thought I’d document, for myself and anyone else who is curious, what life currently looks like happened on this particular Monday.

  • 5:57 am: I got out of bed, got my shit together, and biked to the gym.

This quarter I’m taking a spin class, which for trademark reasons the university rec center refers to as “cardio cycling.” It meets at 7am three mornings a week, and it is the worst thing in the world.

(Actually, considering that it consists of an enthusiastic young woman yelling at you to leave everything on the bike while loud music plays and a giant fan works in concert with the ceiling lights to create a strobe effect, it’s surprising I don’t hate it more. It does hurt like hell if you’re doing it right.)

  • 8:45 am: I arrived at my office.

Ian, a 4th-year in my lab who is both one of the smartest and one of the most patient people I have ever met (not always a pair of traits that occur together), sits across a divider from me in the same office; he is typically there when I arrive, and still there when I leave. Part of this is down to personal preference/style/work-life balance, but part of it is also that life really does look very different when you’re further along in this process. On Mondays, Ian and I usually swap weekend adventures. This Saturday he led a snowshoe with a bunch of potential grad students who were here for their interview weekend, and they learned a valuable lesson about how high up in the mountains you can go out here and still get rained on.

I spent the following few hours at my desk. During this time I reviewed a bunch of lecture notes for a class on chemical communication I’m taking that meets on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I also read three papers for an advanced ecology seminar that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While I read the latter, I annotated each source in Zotero, the reference manager I’m using to create a personal library of relevant scientific literature. Organizing and annotating papers is a pain, but I hear it’s something my future self will be glad I did. I hear a lot of things about how my future self will feel regarding all my current actions. I have to say—I’m not her biggest fan. She’s a little demanding.

Another thing I did this morning was send an email to a professor whose class I was interested in TA-ing for in the spring. Like most of the students in the bio program at UW, being a teaching assistant is probably how I will fund my salary most of the time. I’m guaranteed a teaching job whenever I need one for the first five years, but I won’t always get the positions I most prefer. The system of matching grad students with faculty or courses in need of TAs is so complicated and takes so long that it’s starting now for the spring, just a few weeks into winter quarter. (I heard back by the afternoon; the position was already filled with one of the professor’s own grad students. This was not surprising.)

  • 11ish am: I moved to a cafe in the Genome Sciences building, which I like because it has many large windows and feels light and open.

While I ate, I started reading this week’s discussion paper for my chemical communication class. As a result of this habit my laptop could really use a cleaning, but having lunch without doing anything else at the same time is generally a luxury saved for the weekend. (Whee!)

  • Noon: I went to the departmental seminar.

Every week, the whole biology department gets together to hear a speaker—often one of our own, but sometimes an invited guest. Today’s event was particularly neat because it was a mini-seminar in which five postdocs spoke about their work in the Pecha Kucha format. After the seminar I chatted with a few friends from my cohort; as a group, we don’t see each other as often as we used to last quarter, so Monday’s seminars are one of the few times I get to catch up with folks who aren’t in any of my classes. When we said goodbye, I went back to my office, read and responded to emails, and made some notes for my biweekly meeting with my advisor.

  • 2 pm: I met with my advisor.

Even though she’s wonderful (and wonderfully direct, which is one of the reasons I think we have had such an excellent working relationship so far), I still get a tiny bit nervous before every single one of my meetings with my advisor. Today we talked among other things about how my quarter is going and discussed a potential tweak to the project I’m planning on working on in my multivariate statistics class. The analysis will make use of a dataset from the lab’s citizen science project, and I’m excited about it, but hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about it yet because she was away when I came up with the broad strokes. She sketched on the whiteboard in her office during the discussion—something that no good meeting is complete without. (I am here to tell you from this side of the door that scientists really do love their whiteboards.)

I also confessed the relative lack of progress I’m making on figuring out a clear plan for what I’m going to do in my first field season this summer—which is not a problem yet but will be relatively soon if I don’t get over my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas and just get cracking. (I didn’t confess my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas, but if I had, I’m pretty sure she would have very kindly told me I was being an idiot.)

The last thing we did before I left her office was agree on two tasks for me to complete before our next meeting. Then she decided that wasn’t enough, so we added a third task. Good things come in threes?

  • 3:45 pm: I finished up the paper I was in the middle of reading and then headed to the bird lab at the Burke Museum.

I don’t always skin on Mondays, but one piece of advice almost everyone I’ve met in grad school has offered—even if they don’t adhere to it themselves—is to make time for doing what you love. And besides getting out to the mountains and the desert and the ocean, skinning is one of the great loves of my life. Plus, even though prepping birds has no real relation with the research I’m going to be doing, learning to skin is what started me off on the journey that brought me here in the first place. It’s a little bit sacred, and so I try to go when I feel I can spare the time. Skinning also tends to help me kick things out of my mind that have been going around and around in it, and these past few days I’ve been having a hard time letting go of a situation I screwed up recently and am ashamed of. So: space for the sacred and for sanity.

Today I skinned a female Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), one of 40 specimens from the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska that the museum acquired from the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was fat and broken-winged and bloody and so molty she lost about a third of her feathers while I worked, but she was still a wonder and brought back many happy memories of her Willow Ptarmigan cousins (Lagopus lagopus) who were my camp neighbors in Alaska in 2012.

It was especially fun to prep her because she turned out to have eight developing ova inside her, including one that had started to form a shell and was likely days from being laid. I have a photo of her eggs and collapsed follicles all laid out like a red and yellow palette, but it seems kinder to show you her wing instead, in case you are also multitasking while having lunch. (Let me know if you want to see her eggs and I’ll post the photo in the comments.)

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  • 7:30 pm: I walked back from the Burke to my office to get my bike, and rode home for dinner with Ross.

After dinner I spent a few minutes cleaning half the kitchen (Ross cleaned the other half), because some rotten and frankly wholly unnecessary part of my brain seems really invested in keeping the house in good order.

  • 9:12 pm: I decided, for reasons that are now utterly obscure to me, to write this post instead of going to bed.

And here we are.

(The door in my head looks exactly like this.)

Reasons For Not Writing

So many winter days begin in rain and end in rain; and thoughts, you know, do have to be dried out quite thoroughly before they can be used again. It is too wet to make a scrap of sense. Instead you put your bike away and drip onto the floor, and wipe damp forehead with damp glove, and think: When summer comes.

The part of you that’s always done the actual labor of it—dragging sentence upon sentence into place, each heavier and more awkward than the last—has recently begun to take appointments, every hour in different buildings. The part of you that knows how this should work—it’s elsewhere. Getting up to god knows what all kind of brand new nonsense. Making bad sketches of the invertebrate olfactory processing system, some days. Or calculating correlation coefficients. Peering at a screen and typing “Phenodata$Bud_rank <- factor(Phenodata$Bud_rank, ordered=TRUE, levels=c(4, 3, 2, 1))” like a damn fool, as if a thing like that could ever actually mean something. I know you think you’re having fun, but you’ve really lost your head.

Or.

You’re nervous, tell the truth. You’ve never stood on this side of the door before—you know the door. It’s got a sign on it. The sign says “SCIENTISTS, COME ON IN AND DO SOME SCIENCE!” You just don’t know what your new voice sounds like on this side, so it feels much safer to be silent.

Well, it’s a new year. Maybe time to clear your throat. Stay tuned.

(The door in my head looks exactly like this.)

(The door in my head looks exactly like this.)

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Finding My Feet

Yesterday afternoon I stood on the north face of Buckhorn Mountain in the Olympic Range. Ross and I had just attained Buckhorn’s highest summit by way of a straightforward boot path that climbs up from Marmot Pass, and now we wished to descend its north face by a few hundred feet. Then we would cross a saddle and scramble up a series of gullies to Buckhorn’s second, slightly lower, but somewhat more interesting-looking peak. The two high points were so close to each other that a raven could have passed back and forth between them within a minute, and though the slope I was attempting to descend was quite steep, it was not much more so than many I had been on in the past. Islands of vegetation grew on it where firs and forbs had set the ground in place. But after picking my way down perhaps twenty feet of bare, loose dirt and scree, all the while feebly imploring Ross to stay close while I hesitated over each step, I was at a standstill. I could not bring myself to put either foot one inch lower on the slope.

When I stop what I am doing in the mountains, I like to think it is because of judiciousness, not fear. But we’d researched this traverse and were reasonably sure the risk and technical skill involved lay within the bounds of our experience. Ross is often more cautious than I am, and he wasn’t afraid. I was. I wished I could grip my heart in both my hands and squeeze it into steel, the damned traitor.

We turned around. In a moment we were back up at the first summit, fooling around on beautiful sharp rock and sitting like kings in high places. I gazed down on long drops with a steady pulse. Looking back on my strange paralysis on the north face, I wondered if it was because I’d twice this past season gone out in sneakers instead of boots, mostly out of sheer summer-addled foolishness. Both times we ended up hiking on similar surfaces—steep, loose dirt and scree—and both times I fell multiple times on the descent. And I thought of a short but seemingly inexorable slide I took on Clark Mountain early in June that I eventually arrested with my ice axe, also after having slipped on dirt. I wondered if I’d managed to condition myself into a low-level fear of this particular terrain, and if my mistrust had spiked because the exposure here was high.

 

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The frontmost peak in the picture above is the one Ross and I were headed for, and if you look at the narrow rib leading up to it, you’ll see the slope we were trying to get down onto falling away to the left.

The nice thing about summits is that (barring major post-volcanic restructuring) you can always come back to them and try to climb them again when you’re stronger, smarter, braver, and more skilled. The rest of life isn’t always like that; or it doesn’t always feel that way, anyway. Sometimes fear can keep you too far away from the mountains for too long.

This might be a good time to mention that I have finally started grad school. Friends: I’m a PhD student! Fear has become the air I breathe. It’s amazing, actually, how many anxiety-provoking moments have been compressed into the last three weeks. I’ve pitched research ideas and discovered they were impractical, confused, or full of scientific holes, and I’ve met with people who were kind enough to want to help me and had my thoughts be so scattered and at sea I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I’ve struggled to find a way to introduce myself to biologists—to whom I am now, suddenly and astonishingly, a (very junior) colleague—without sounding like I’m apologizing for my past lives. I’ve been convinced that I was going to be the only one in my cohort not to make friends. And, like absolutely everybody, I think, I’ve wondered if I’m supposed to be standing here, on this insane precipice, imagining what would happen if I fell. If I failed.

Still, I’ve been trying to trust my feet and keep moving. This is going to be a long trip, and the last thing I want is to find myself flashing back to small slips and slides when the exposure gets really high. The last thing I want is to condition myself into being afraid of this particular terrain. So I’m happy to report that this last week has been good. I’m still not sure I know what my dissertation research is going to involve, but I’ve come a long way since I had my first amorphous set of bad ideas and am now working on putting the corners on some decidedly-less-bad ideas. Actually, I will go so far as to say that I think they’re pretty cool, if somewhat ambitious. I’ve gotten to know my incoming class much better, and they’re a wonderful group of people. I try not to let their youth and brilliance intimidate me.

(I still find it hard to introduce myself. But I suppose there are some things even the mountains can’t teach you.)

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There’s Gold in Them Hills

At typical ascent rates, at least as far as I can tell from decades of traveling back and forth across the earth—moving in search of knowledge, love, adventure, family, joy; fleeing from worry, work, confusion, loss, and grief—it takes less than four minutes for a fully loaded commercial aircraft to climb 7,000 vertical feet from sea level. This is enough time to turn a few pages of a book while your elbow kisses a stranger’s bicep; enough time to notice your ears fill near to bursting with awkward, bulky air; but not enough to allow for the strangeness of how close you’re getting to the clouds.

This past Thursday, it took me and five teammates seven hours and 45 minutes, including about an hour’s worth of quick breaks to eat, drink, and put on gear, to ascend approximately that same vertical distance. It was a journey of 5.5-miles (in one direction) that took us from Mile Marker 20 on the Cascade River Road to the knife-edge that is the summit ridge of Eldorado Peak at 8,868′, and during it we traversed a rushing river, pushed through rainforest, scrambled over boulder fields, crossed open, rocky meadows braided with streams and small waterfalls, and climbed steadily up and across both the Eldorado and Inspiration glaciers. When we were done we sat, full-hearted and sunburned, on the rocky spit that marks the edge of the peak, for three-quarters of an hour, naming cloud-lashed summits in every direction. Chocolate, dried mango, and satisfaction made a feast day. And then we turned around and headed home again, making it back down to the cars in about another five and a half hours.

If you add up our ascent, summit, and descent times you will arrive at 14 hours, car to car. This is enough time to sweat through your shirt once, twice, thrice, and then again; enough time for strangers to become, if not exactly friends, then partners of a wild and vital kind, who sense each other’s lightness and debility through strands of rope. But it is not enough—not really—to allow for the glory of how close you’re getting to the sky.

I was the slowest of the six of us, and I’ll admit that this was hard. The slowest climber in a group is always moving just a little faster than her own capacity, to keep from falling too much more behind. She rests the least and, if she is like me, frets the most. And yet climbing as far and fast as I did this week was more than I could ever have imagined, four short (long) years ago. I’m stronger than I was, and more forgiving when I fail to live up to my expectations for myself or to the standards that I steal from others without meaning to. I don’t give up, and though I grunt and pant and sometimes cry, I don’t give in to my frustration. Days like Thursday I still find a lump in my throat when I can’t go as fast as my companions, and it’s hard to speak to tell them not to worry—but even so, I think I’m better company.

Afterward, though. Those 14 hours shook awake the memory of how I fell in love with these great blue heights, these sharp green places, half a world away on my first summer out. I was not so strong and not so fast. But being a little weak and slow was also (I think now) a kind of gift. I was alone, and didn’t push, and gave myself allowance for the strangeness and the glory of it all.

There’s gold in them hills. I think I need to seek it out again.

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Looking up toward Camp Muir, before things got as gnarly as they would.

Today

I don’t reach easily for favorites. Perhaps it’s something tender left behind from early days, a hot primeval horror for the best that we are asked to place in front of friend and which becomes the world entire. Or maybe I just don’t like to commit. There is, however, one cool catalog whose topmost place, if it was mine to choose, I’d have no trouble with.

I have a favorite kind of bad weather.

Understand, when I say bad I don’t mean just unpleasant or annoying. I mean get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge bad; I mean it-may-not-kill-you-but-that-don’t-mean-it-won’t-try bad. And you may feel like sleet or hail or blizzards or typhoons should be front-runners here—but see, my favorite is a sneaky one. My favorite makes all other weather worse, and when it stands alone (although it never stands still for a moment) is formidable enough to take you down—or up, or over—without one peep from other players. Well, the thing is, I adore high winds.

I guess I don’t adore them right when they go at me, and especially not if I am setting up a large tent on the tundra or wheeling a suitcase full of laundry six blocks home. I guess today, standing 9,000 feet high on Rainier, less than a mile below our goal, I didn’t so much want to heap accolades on the gusts that NWAC’s Camp Muir wind gauges tell me blew at an entirely respectable 63 miles per hour at their strongest. I mean I guess I wanted them to die, and leave my face alone instead of throwing pointy bits of ice straight at it, and allow us to proceed without obscuring the way up in heavy clouds of spindrift.

But you know, favorites don’t always make sense. And if I tell you that the thing I love the most about the wind is that it makes you feel like you’re a boxer—not like rain or snow, which on their own are simply things you put your head down and endure—that wind is one to start a fight, and that it pulls at you until you have to muscle back at it, and use yourself against it—maybe you’ll agree and maybe you will not. I’m all right with that. Done with battles for the day.

The way up, seen when we were young and optimistic.

The way up, seen when we were young and optimistic.

Looking up toward Camp Muir.

Somewhere up there is Camp Muir. We made it to Moon Rocks, a spot right in the vertical middle of that long band of blowing snow.

The great Tatoosh Range, seen from a place where the wind was low(er).

The great Tatoosh Range.

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Yesterday

After a headache has been with me for several days, through four or five triptans, fading to a shadow for hours at a time before ticking back into being like an ancient heart that cannot, will not, is fated not to cease its tenure on this earth, I start to feel a little comradeship with the thing. The headache’s desire to live is inspiring. I think about mountaineering disasters in which savagely injured people, left without food or water for many dry days and frigid nights, pull themselves down couloirs and over glaciers and pick through rock fields like broken insects, every reason in the world to die and nothing on their side. I feel for the edges of the headache and count the time it has spent cheating oblivion. If my turn comes, I think, let me be as dogged. 

On Friday it had been three days, and I had reached the stage of comradeship. I was also tired of trying to teach myself R while the headache gathered its resources, and equally tired of the bed. I got dressed for a run, even though I knew it was a bad idea. I just wanted to be outside. Two miles in I had already stopped twice to grip my head in my hands for a minute before resuming, a pointless thing you do because it feels as if pushing back on the pulsing must be a way to quiet it. It isn’t, of course. But running jags pain, so I walked to smooth the headache’s sawteeth.

I run around the lake all the time, but when you run it’s hard to take in more from the periphery than the occasional rotary phone ring of a Red-winged Blackbird in the rushes, or the delicate coughing of a tea party of Coots on the water. I walk around the lake with Ross sometimes, but then we’re often talking, and talking turns you inward. This walk was slow, to placate the headache, and quiet, because I’d nothing more to say to it.

I spent a long time looking at the bark on a single Silver Birch, which had the appearance of a sheet of white ice stopped in the midst of cracking and to which all kinds of things of interest were attached. Amid the greenshield and the oakmoss was what looked like an adult crane fly that had lost its battle to escape from a web, all crumpled stilt-legs and sailor-striped abdomen and tracing-paper wings. There was another Dipterid, alive and well, its body a dusty terracotta orange and wings a mosaic of scotch-tape. A Black-capped Chickadee was making noise above, and since I learned to love them in Chicago I was, as always here, disconcerted to hear its clear, descending Ohhh well! replaced with a faint tremolo. I wondered if that ever would seem right.

A little further on, a flock of Audubon’s warblers with egg-yolk rumps and throats spilled whistles as they circled the canopy of a cedar, like Cinderella’s helpers laying tinsel. Everything seemed to be in that cedar at once, though a lot of that was surely the ventriloquism that all birds practice without effort. I heard House Finches and Song Sparrows and Brown Creepers and both colors of hyperactive Kinglets, not to mention Juncoes trilling like spring alarms that no one can snooze. Crows, of course, were ubiquitous; but I never tire of their chest-dipping caws or their roulette-ball clatter. The headache was no longer the only thing keeping time.

I kept stopping to look at things in odd places and sometimes people then stopped to look at me. It happened with a Great Blue Heron, which I watched for about 15 minutes cleaning its bill meticulously. Its stiff pink probe of a tongue kept darting out and in and out and in between the mandibles, as if it were a separate creature, and every now and then the heron would gulp abruptly from the water with what looked like anger but was nothing of the sort. I could see its soft crest blowing slightly in the breeze, and soothed myself in counting the gorgeous feathered fray of its chest. It was the antithesis of the hectic songbirds, which seem to compress life as we know it, life full of desire, into the smallest, speediest form it can take. The heron was large and slow, and even when it did familiar things, like drink and bathe and look at you, it remained strange.

Because I had stopped to look at the heron and a woman had stopped to look at me, she saw the heron, too. She inhaled from the cigarette in her hand and then flung that arm away, with what looked like disdain but was perhaps nothing of the sort. “There’s a really funny-looking bird over here!” she said to her friend, who was tucking a blanket around a child in a stroller and did not care to comment. The heron also did not care to comment.

This morning would have been Day Four with the headache, but I took the second-to-last of my month’s supply of triptans last night, and it slipped away in my sleep. I don’t miss it.

 

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A Brief Announcement, or Misadventures in Metaphor

I have something to tell you, and it’s a little bit exciting.

One way to telegraph my news would be to show you the perfect cast-off exoskeleton of a Jerusalem cricket (family: Stenopelmatidae) Ross and I found last year on a scrubby canyon slope in northern California’s Henry W. Coe State Park. You’d see, without me saying so, how I’d matured beyond my old, inflexible container and emerged a bigger, better version of myself, with room again to grow. You’d think about your own past lives, and how they weighed on you like winter overcoats before you shrugged them off and looked at them piled up beside your feet—or maybe how, unsentimental as an arthropod, you were one who abdicated your used skins at once they cracked, without a second glance.

You would think pleasantly of starting over.

Another way would be to show you my bad feet. That is, I have an x-ray of my feet (aren’t x-rays marvelous?), taken when the pain they’d caused for years became too chronic to ignore, and on which I can attempt to trace my errant and defiant bone alignments. I could show you this x-ray, and tell you that to molt is also to migrate, both words arising from the same Proto-IndoEuropean root that describes passing from one place to another. You’d understand how far I’d come already, and how much longer I still had to travel on these same crooked conveyances. Reviewing your own course, you’d think of moments when you stumbled, but kept on.

You’d cheer the journey.

These kinds of tropes are pretty enough, when they fit, and as a writer I am used to trafficking in them and shaping thoughts around them (a task which sometimes feels dangerously backward, as if images are more important than the ideas they represent). But the truth is I’ve been trying to share this with you for a while, and metaphors are only getting in my way. So I’ll just say it plainly, because it is news that doesn’t need much of a flourish.

I’m starting a PhD in Biology at the University of Washington this fall!

(It does deserve an exclamation point.)

I’m delighted and honored to say that I’ll be joining a wonderful and very productive lab run by plant community ecologist Janneke Hille Ris Lambers. The Hille Ris Lambers lab conducts research that (broadly speaking) attempts to discover the mechanisms driving biodiversity, productivity, and community assembly, and to predict the effects of climate change on a variety of ecological patterns and processes at the species and community level. People in the lab study all kinds of things within this framework, many of them working on Mount Rainier because the mountainside provides a useful—as well as beautiful—system for studying change along an elevational/environmental gradient. I’m not sure yet of the exact shape of the project I’ll propose, but I know Janneke’s lab will be a fantastic place to pose some version of the basic question that most interests me: What role do interactions between species play in determining responses to climate change? I have lots of ideas, most of which will likely turn out to be bad ones; but fortunately the program builds in a little bit of time (about a year) to read, learn, and come up with a study design that stands a good chance of working.

For now, here I am. I know that very soon I’ll be engaged in a tremendously difficult long-term endeavor, much more difficult than getting into grad school in the first place. And I can’t wait to get started. But this week I’m mainly working on trying to memorize the nomenclature of ethers, epoxides, and thioethers. I’m studying for an exam about leaf energy budgets, plant water relations, and ecosystem modeling. And I’m collecting more things I know I don’t know with every paper I read.

It doesn’t feel like molting, or like migrating. It feels, besides terrifying, quite right. We’ll see.