Grad School Slumps

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I’m reaching a point in my graduate career where I’ve realized I don’t know what I’m doing.

Now, some of you may have squinted your eyes in suspicion at that statement, especially my fellow graduate students. Really? Just now you’ve had this realization? You’re a graduate student! Of course you don’t know what you’re doing!

But it’s more than just scientific knowledge, or research knowledge. It’s more of an existential question. What, exactly, am I doing?

I go to the office. I sit in my office chair. I might check some code, I might look over some edits for my paper, I’ll probably spend more than an hour doing reading and taking notes on the high-level theory that will form the basis of my thesis. I’ll do this until my eyes glaze over. Then I will go home.

Slumps happen. Your research has stalled. Your paper is spinning its wheels in the deep muck of “is this even worth writing about?” Every line of the textbook you’re reading has three words you don’t know, and the definitions of each of those words each has three more words you don’t know, and the tree of your ignorance grows ever-more branches. You dread going to work.

The question, really, is how to pull yourself out of a “slump.” It’s incredibly difficult. It’s a lot easier (and more appealing) to just say “I will work from home today” and then lay on the couch reading the same page over and over.

It is said that the best way to combat existential malaise is to take action. That’s what has gotten me out of my most recent slump: I coded a thing, the thing made a plot, and now I have a new result to chew on while I make progress on my paper. I have ideas for new plots. I will make those tomorrow.

Write some code. Take some action. Avoid the couch–it’s a trap. And remember you can always talk to loved ones or colleagues about how you’re feeling. The reminder that you have people in your life who support you and want to see you succeed is valuable beyond measure.

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What does my knit sweater have in common with an avalanche?

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Avalanches don’t just happen on mountains! Scientists use the concept of an “avalanche” to describe other phenomena that evolve in similar ways, such as forest fires, a stock market crash, or solar flares. In a recent paper released on arXiv, French physicists made the argument that knit fabrics also behave in this “avalanche” fashion. This makes them very useful for studying the properties of avalanche behavior, since a knit is much easier than a mountain to fit into a lab!

An important part of describing avalanches is the phrase “stick-slip.” Imagine you are trying to push a heavy box of antiques across the floor of your grandmother’s basement. You push it, but it is heavier than you expected, and it doesn’t move. As you push harder and harder, eventually the box slips, and you can now push it across the floor with less force than what was needed to make it move in the first place. The moment when the box stopped sticking and started slipping is called a stick-slip event. You could also describe the very beginning of an avalanche–the instant when the soil/snow/sand at the top of the mountain begins to slip–as a stick-slip event.

Knit fabrics are made of a network of threads; these physicists showed experimentally that stick-slip events happen at the intersections of these threads when the fabric is stretched. The threads can hold on to each other for a time, but eventually they slip; the first intersection to stretch causes the next intersection to stretch, and the knit network expands in an avalanche-like fashion. This is slightly unusual because avalanche behavior is not typically expected in things that are as neat and ordered as textile fabrics (think of how chaotic a landslide is!).

Hopefully this discovery helps improve our knowledge of avalanches, and systems that act like them!

 

Knits: an archetype of soft amorphous materials.  Samuel Poincloux, Mokhtar Adda-Bedia, Frédéric Lechenault

Photo by Dom J from Pexels 

Blood of Komodo dragons could provide antibiotic alternative

pexels-photo-42754(Note: I initially wrote this piece for a workshop at ComSciCon-PNW 2017)

In January of 2017, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a much more frightening Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report than usual: a woman in Nevada had perished from a bacterial infection that no antibiotic in America could fight. Doctors administered 26 different antibiotics to no avail.

“If we’re waiting for some sort of major signal that we need to attack this internationally, we need an aggressive program, both domestically and internationally to attack this problem, here’s one more signal that we need to do that,” Lance Price, the head of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, told STAT News.

Recently, researchers at George Mason University made a discovery that could add to science’s arsenal against antibiotic resistance: the presence of powerful antimicrobial chemical compounds in the blood of Komodo dragons. Continue reading

Me as an interviewee

I attended SciTalk 2018 this year in Portland, Oregon. It was a lot of fun! I learned a great deal from the experts and professionals who shared their knowledge and wisdom!

I attended a workshop run by Abby Olena that included a discussion on best practices when being interviewed. I volunteered to be the first interviewee; watch below!

The main suggestions I received afterward:

  • To start with my answer to “why should we care” : Because there are chemicals in space, and we need to be able to see them!
  • To start with a hook, something that catches the audience’s attention

(Also, I blink a lot more than I would think!)

What do you think? Do you have more suggestions for me? Share them below!