Thursday, April 22, 2010

And it Happened :)

OK. So today was the day, the Big Day for me. I woke up early in the morning and headed to the gym for my morning workout. I was only 15 minutes on the treadmill when my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I guessed it was most likely someone from college, because it starts with the familiar 252(…). Well, to be more honest, I’ll have to admit that a little voice inside me was saying that that was the phone call I’ve been waiting for. This call might be from the conference coordinator with some good news about my poster. It just might be; I’m not so sure.

I was right! “Hi, this is Tina,” the female voice says when I pick up.  Oh yes, Tina, the lady whose name is always at the bottom of all e-mails regarding conferences in our Little Institution and whom I never got to meet or even know what she looks like. “Are you Little Miss N?” She asks. “Yes, that’s me,” I reply. “I called to inform you that the conference committee has selected your poster to be awarded as the best graduate research project and poster, and we would like you to be with us in the conference hall at 12:00 pm. I’ve contacted your advisors, but you may call them again yourself to insure their presence as well.”

Now I can’t recall what I said exactly in response, maybe because I didn’t actually know what to say then. I perhaps thanked her and promised I would call my advisors, although I knew my co-advisor is currently overseas for some conference, but my advisor’s presence would be more than enough to me. It was about 9:15 am, and I started debating whether I had enough time to finish my workout or I should rush home to change into some decent, formal outfit instead of the casual attire I was wearing for the day. I didn’t have to think long before I jumped off the treadmill, headed to the locker room, showered, and called my parents while I was dressing. They were both very happy for me. They must be; they know I’ve been dreaming of this since undergrad, and today is the day.

I changed, trying on several outfits in front of the mirror before I made up my mind, and hit the road to college. I went to Advisor in his office, who told me that he had to be with his wife at the hospital at 12 o’clock, but he’ll try his best to be there. A little disappointing, but nothing could be done. He’ll try, he said.

I go to the lab for some reason, and I meet Postdoc there sitting at her rig. I tell her I won the prize and she congratulates me and says, "but you know, it's too bad Timothy Hunt was not able to come this year*. Seems like you have to recieve your prize from someone from here instead. When I won the prize, a Nobel Laureate (I can't remember the name she mentioned) handed it to me and I have pictures of me with him."

Oh well shucks. Why do you just love to ruin my happy moments? Just why? This is what I say in my head. But then I decide that this is not going to upset me. I got my prize and this is all what I care about.

I head to the conference hall. Listen to a few speeches and then prizes were given to the winners. Advisor was there, thankfully. Turns out that I'm not the only one from our department to get a prize. An undergrad student in our department got one as well, so today is a super happy day for the department. The ceremony was followed by lunch, and I got to sit at the table wih my sister (who is doing her undergrad studies in the same Little College) and one of my favorite female Profs. I just love this woman: humble, witty, and cheerful. We ate and laughed and joked, and discussed a bit what I might be doing after I finish my MS. She encouraged me, like everyone else to go for a PhD. The truth is, this is what I want to do too, but I'm still not sure when or where, and more frankly, I'm not sure if it's really worth it.

After lunch, everyone was removing their posters from the lobby as requested, except for the winners. I found that a shiny blue ribbon is now attached to the upper-left corner of my poster. So I took more pictures of it and with me, my sister and Advisor next to it.

So this was my day. Advisor said that a lot of people expected that the grad prize will go to me this year. He said that he was told by an insider that very few posters made it as finalists, and mine ranked the highest. No PhD students were even nominated for the prize. Advisor joked abiut this and said I don't need to defend my thesis anymore because my prize already says it all. Well, I wish. But that will just be in my wildest dreams.

*according our Little College's traditions, a Nobel Laureate is invited to Poster Day to give the keynote speech and to give the winners their prizes. This year, the invited person was not able to come due to volcanic dust and interruption of air traffic.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Annual Poster Conference (aka Poster Day)

So tomorrow will be the first day in the Annual Poster Conference in our Little Institution. My poster was done about a month ago, which is how my Advisor likes things to be done. He just detests last minute-work and prefers things to be done way in advance to be rushed the night before. I used a design similar to last year's. I just played a bit with the colors. At first I chose green to be my theme color this year but my friends suggested that using different shades of blue would look nicer. I went with there suggestion. Advisor said he has nothing to say about design and color because he thinks he doesn't have any artistic taste whatsoever. Well, by observing what he wears at times, I think it's true, at least partially.

Posters will be presented by scientists and physicians doing basic and/or clinical research,  as well as undergrad and grad students. First day will start with a keynote lecture by Nobel Prize laureate Sir Timothy Hunt at around 9:00 am, followed by poster display from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. There will be lunch break around 1 pm. Winners will not be announced till Thursday.

Presenters were asked to put up their posters today by 3:00 pm, so that everything will be ready tomorrow morning.

This year I really think I'll have more fun than last year because I have my friends and colleagues presenting too. Last year I was all alone hanging with a bunch of professors, embarrassed but still enjoying my time, having the chance to see how scientists talk and think, telling them about my work and ideas and getting new ones from them. None of my friends had data  good enough to present last year, but now three of them have posters and are given locations very close to mine, so we'll be standing there and chatting as time passes by. Advisor's own poster is also near mine, like last year, and he asked me take care of both posters as he's too busy just to stand there the whole day.

Now I'm off to prepare my gadget for tomorrow: clothes, accessories, a good pair of comfortable yet elegant shoes (to stand in for 5 hours), and a camera. Poster Day, here I come!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Thesis is back :)

So my thesis came back yesterday from the College of Graduate Studies (CGS) administration. Advisor called me yesterday afternoon when I was at the gym and had just changed into my exercise clothes saying that I should go pick it up ASAP. It was still 2:30 pm, and I was so excited and eager to see the CGS's feedback. So I dressed up quickly back again and rushed back to college, which is about 10 minutes away from the gym. Weird enough, Advisor had left by the time I got to his office, so I had to wait till today to get my thesis.

Thankfully, there are not so many changes to make. It should've been like this, since I tried my very very best to adhere to their format and to make my thesis as typo-free as possible. They had 5 comments: to mention the CGS grant number in the acknowledgements section (which I thought was funny; is the grant number really important as long as I did acknowledge them?), to leave more space between the name of the university and thesis title on the title page (which Program Director thought was funny), to italicise the journal name in one of my references (which is important, but I just missed out. After all, it's one out of about 300 references), to add a "hypothetical" graduation date at the bottom of the title page (they suggested April 2010), and to change the direction of the last page to the other side. Very simple changes, I can manage to them today and then print out six copies, spiral-bind them and give them to Program Director to distribute them to the committee members as well as to the external examiner.

At first, the date "April 2010" freaked me out. I'm not quite ready to defend in the next few weeks, neither emotionally nor intellectually. But they're telling me it's only an arbitrary date not leave the date space empty on the title page. OK, if that's what they want!

It usually takes an average of 1 month for the thesis to come back from the external examiner, and another 2 weeks from that date till defense. Days are running! While I wait, I should keep myself busy preparing for the annual Poster Conference and putting my defense presentation together. Wow! Poster Conference is nearly here. I just love this event for some reason, maybe because I think of it as our local Science Geek Holiday!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Submitted my Thesis!

Finally, after a long day of printing and binding (don't ask me why this process took me a ridiculously long time), I submitted 2 copies of the final draft of my thesis to the College of Graduate Studies at my university.

What I should expect now is that a committee there will revise the thesis (format wise only) and send it back to me within 2 weeks to make the required amendments (if any) and then send it back to them so that they can forward it to an external reviewer to review it and send me a report (actually I won't be receiving it for now, it will be kept with my Advisor till I defend). 

Advisor is expecting me to defend in June (latest). So let me keep my fingers crossed and wait and hope!

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? A Question Still Unanswered (II)

I read an article on Science Careers a month ago about gender equity in Science, and this article seemed to speak everything I was thinking of regarding my own career worries and fears that are leading to this torturing indecisiveness I'm suffering.

Now that I'm getting closer and closer towards the end of my research project and hence my graduate studies (for now), every single person I meet asks me: so you're almost done? What are your plans?
Essentially, it's the same old childhood question, but composed differently.

Oh how I wish I kept a gun in my labcoat pocket to shoot the next person who asks me this and walk on.

My plans? How should I know? I'm a minority (or better say an expatriate/foreigner) living in a place where all good career opportunities belong to the "natives", even if less qualified or experienced. Let aside the fact that I'm female, which makes my situation even more complicated.

What I really want is going for a PhD. I love science and research and I think this is something I can excel in. But then I think, will getting a PhD will make any difference for my career in this country? Is it worth it? Many foreigners here with PhD's and MD's here are working as RA's in science labs because they were not given an academic position (I can think of at least four right now who I personally know, all of which are females). So will it really matter if I get a PhD myself? Should I just seek an RA position with my MS (and that itself is very difficult)?

And another thing: what if I get married during my studies? What if I get married later on? Will I be able to go on with my career and actually succeed? I don't want to just be your average scientist. I want to do some real serious science. I want to run my own lab (which sounds kind of impossible given the situation in the above paragraph) and do my own research with my own original ideas. Can you do that when you're a married woman with children?

I'm totally confused. Should I find a science job with my MS for now and then decide about my PhD when I get married (which I have no idea when that might happen) and see how things will go? Should I leave science altogether and go for a less demanding job (like a pharmacy technician for example) just to avoid disappointment later on? I don't know.

I think that Prof. Geraldine Richmond of the University of Oregon states it best when she says in the article

"When you are 24 or 26 and are looking at different career options—industry, academia, or government labs—men see three clear paths and will know several people who traversed each one. They can see other men 20 years down the line. But for women it is more of a fog. They may not know anyone who has gone that road, or at least no other women. So they cannot visualize where they are going to go. If you plan to have children, but don't see any women who have gone that path, you may not be sure it's possible."

Yes. Keyword: a fog. This is what I'm seeing right now, if anything, when  I think about my future.

Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale University School of Medicine says, 

"The gap between female graduates and the pool of female applicants is very real, and suggests that focus next be placed on examining challenges such as family and child responsibilities, which typically impact women more than men."

So you see, people who have no other question to ask me but about my future plans, this is my situation right now. I'm not sure what my plans are. I'm trying to forget about planning altogether right now and focus on my thesis and studying for my defense. And don't judge me. It's not like I don't plan or I let my life go without planning. It's that I don't have enough given data to base my plans on. That's it.

So next time when someone asks me about what I'll do after I graduate, I'll just send them a copy of this article.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Double Bingo. Yay Me!

I finally finished writing my whole thesis and handed in the first draft. I now see the pieces of my puzzle coming together making a (hopefully) beautiful picture. Advisor said he liked my writing and thinks not much is left too. The plan is to hand in the complete thesis to the College of Graduate Studies in my university before the end of this month so that it will be sent for external judgment. This may take a few months so the earlier I send them the thesis the better. After that, a defense date will be scheduled, which I hope to be somewhere no later than May-June.

The second piece of good news is that my first paper ever got published. It's a review paper actually, adapted from my thesis introduction. It's published in a local medical journal, which my dad thinks is not something to make a big fuss about, but still he's happy and said he's looking forward to see my research published as well. Advisor and I signed a copy of the journal issue and gave it to my dad, who's a professor too, but in a totally different discipline.

One of my friends defended her thesis last week, becoming the first student in my class to defend and graduate. The next one is scheduled to defend next Tuesday. Just watching them giving their presentations fills my stomach with butterflies. Yikes! Better than thinking about the defense itself, I'm trying to direct my thoughts to the post-defense rituals and celebrations: who I'll invite to the presentation, what I'll wear, what I'll give Advisor as a thank-you gift, where I'll hold the graduation party and what food there will be etc etc . I know it's still too early to think of all that crap right now, but a little dreaming won't hurt, especially that I'm trying to convince myself that defending will be associated with a lot of fun and pleasurable things and is not an event to dread.

Coming back to our wonderful Real World, I have to keep in mind that the annual poster conference is next month, so I have to start preparing for that.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? A Question Still Unanswered (I)

We’ve all been asked that question dozens, if not hundreds, of times when we were younger. Some people always had the same answer: they had that “childhood dream” they’ve been persistently seeking throughout their lives, and never let go till it was accomplished.

For me, that answer constantly changed as I grew:

At 5: “I want to be a doctor,” I remember myself saying. I had an incredible pediatrician, Dr. Everest, who always made medical examinations fun rather than something to fear. I always wanted to hold his tools and play with them. I was also fascinated by the big hospital where my mom delivered my little sister, and was thrilled at the way doctors’ names were called out loud through little holes in the ceiling. “I want my name to be called like that too,” I told my dad. He replied, “then you have to study hard and become a doctor.” My parents started to call me that way at home; whenever they needed me, they would cry out, “Calling Dr. Little Miss! Calling Dr. Little Miss! Dr. Little Miss to the living room please!” I loved it. A doctor’s job is cool and that’s what I’m gonna be!

At 10: “I want to be an astronaut,” I frequently declared. I enjoyed learning about the solar system. “I want to be the first human on Mars. I’ll even go to farther planets. I’ll discover new planets no-one else has ever known about.” I started buying astronomy books and thought I should start preparing myself to be an astronaut. But it was not long before I changed my mind. I read somewhere that astronauts should have specific physical characteristics regarding their weight and height and their general physical health. “But that’s not fair!” I objected. “What if someone short wants to be an astronaut?” I gradually, though reluctantly, dropped the idea. Besides, physics and chemistry seemed to excite me more; and here is when I started becoming a real science geek. I used to pour my curious questions on my teachers everyday: should we consider ozone to be an element or a compound? Why does wood burn while iron melts upon heating? There can’t be only three states of matter, what is yogurt then? (I hadn’t heard about the semi-solids before then). I enjoyed science classes and doing experiments and finding ways to somehow replicate them at home, without the sophisticated equipment we had in our school labs. I even remember taking home a wedge of pure sodium in a piece of tracing paper (despite my teacher’s warnings) to show my parents how I can make a lighting match “pop” (by reacting sodium with water in a covered glass and holding the match above a crack in the cover). “This is so awesome!” I thought to myself. “I’ll become a scientist and do experiments all day long!” I never thought what my field of specialization would be, however. I just wanted to be a scientist.

At 15: “I want to be a chemist, definitely a chemist.” I became obsessed with chemistry in particular. All my friends and classmates accused me with insanity, but I still couldn’t stop loving my chemistry. Madam Curie became my role model. I wanted to have my own lab and make new discoveries. I frequently dreamed of getting the Nobel Prize. I wanted to be the first female from my home country to obtain that prize.

At 17: “Um, well, a pharmacist?” Here is when my miserable problem with indecisiveness started. A lot of people, including my parents, started to work on convincing me that studying chemistry is not a good idea. They told me that if I want to be a “somebody” in chemistry, then I definitely must go for grad school, which might be long path to pursue and I might not have the real desire, eagerness, or even the energy to do so by the time I earn my BS. They told me the only thing I can do with my BS in chem is to teach children in schools, which is not a very highly-paid job where I live, let aside the fact that teaching is a very tedious job, according to them.  The claimed that pharmacists have much more prestigious job opportunities, are better paid, and are “highly ranked” in our societies even with their undergrad degree. Pharmacists are looked up to as doctors, only without the long years of study. A pharmacist can always find a job wherever he/she moves or travels, but a chemist may not. Besides, half of studying pharmacy is studying chemistry; most good pharmacists need to have a good grasp of chemistry but not vice versa.

I was very na├»ve then. I’ve always believed that parents (and older people in general) knew best, and I was a perfect example of the “nice”, obedient daughter that did whatever her mom and dad told her to do. I argued a lot; I don’t deny that I didn’t, but eventually I was half-convinced, especially by the claim that “half of studying pharmacy is studying chemistry”. But I made a huge mistake that I always plead everyone graduating high school to avoid:


And when asking students, try to find those who are in a similar situation as yours (e.g. female, minority etc etc).

This is your future people. Make a careful and informed decision about it. Don’t just choose a particular school or college or field just because someone else told you to or because your best friends are doing the same. Everyone is different, and here is where you start to create your own self as you see it. Only you know exactly what and where you want yourself to be within the next few years, so don’t miss the opportunity to go for it. I’m not saying ignore other people’s advice and input. After all, they want is to see you happy. But those people may not have chosen the same path you’re about to, and may have studied a totally different subject. Therefore, their opinions and advice may be based only on second hand info that may have reached them out of context and therefore may or may not be true. Listen to them, keep what they’re saying in mind, and discuss that with people who really know what they’re talking about, people who have walked that path before you, people who can tell you whether studying this particular subject will really take you where you want. Tell them about your hopes and fears, get as much info as you can then make your decision. That way, you are more likely to enjoy what you’ll study and to succeed in it, or at worse, to not regret choosing that path.

My story with indecisiveness isn't over yet. It still continues till today. As I grow up, things seem to get more and more complicated and becomes harder for me to choose a career path with all my heart and without that stupid feeling of uncertainty or helplessness. I'm tired of typing right now, so I'll continue with that later.