Tag Archives: grad school

Living in Babylon, Buying New Pants

In Jeremiah 29, the Israelites have recently been exiled from their home and moved to Babylon. They’re dejected and confused. “Why would God take us out of the land He promised us?”

The prophet Jeremiah, remaining behind in Israel with the very poor, has heard from God and sends a letter to the exiles in Babylon. I imagine they were expecting some hopeful news: “God is sending some warrior angels to rescue you! He will defeat the Babylonians tomorrow! Pack your bags!”

Instead, he has harder news: you’re not coming back to Israel for 70 years. Settle in.

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

I have long loved this chapter in talking to new graduate students (the not-so-subtle metaphor here is to see grad school as exile, though I think rarely is grad school one of God’s punishments). To thrive in graduate school, one needs to view it not as a transitory period, where the temptation is to focus on schoolwork to the exclusion of all else. Jeremiah’s letter reminds us that we should invest deeply in our communities while we are there – make deep friendships, get involved in a church, even date, get married, and have children. Grad school is real life – not another holding pattern before “real life” starts.

Now I find this passage meaningful in a new way. I’ve been in the long, painful wait of infertility for about two years now. The extra challenge of infertility is that every month could be the last one. The uncertainty, the pain, and the hopefulness cycle over and over again, one after another.

I recently went to a support group where I found people who understood the unique challenges of this season. We shared many struggles, even down to not wanting to buy new clothes. “What if this is the month I get pregnant, and then I won’t be able to wear them?”

One woman wisely shared that God was asking her to live in to her current circumstances: buy a few new clothes, make the “baby room” a sewing room, make an appointment with the doctor. Don’t put your life on hold awaiting the good gift of a child.

I connected this beautiful idea to my beloved Jeremiah 29 passage*. I am especially meditating on the phrase, “Multiply there and do not decrease,” or in another translation, “Increase there and do not decrease.”

Alas, the immediate context of this phrase (meaning, “Have babies”) and being in the state of infertility are mutually exclusive. What, therefore, does “increase there and do not decrease” mean for me? What is God trying to grow in me during this barren time?

I am listening, I am praying, I am waiting as I sit here in Babylon, trying to grow and waiting for the call to come home. And I bought some new pants last week.

 

*I also have “Run the race that is set before you” (Hebrews 12:1) pinned to my desk. I only have to run the one race that God has given me, which at this moment includes infertility.

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Patient Quotes to Remember

“How are you doing today, sir?” “I only have 4-6 months to live, so I’m not sure how to answer that question anymore. I just hope I can help you with your research.”

“You’re just an angel – there’s angels all around taking care of me. An angel here to take my blood.”

(Translating) “She says, We are all in the hands of God.”

The doctor comes out of the room looking sad, shaking her head. “There’s just nothing we can do.” I enter, in expectation of a somber atmosphere, to shouts of joy: “Oh! It’s the finger-pricker! The finger-pricker’s here!” There was so much laughter in that room.

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A Thursday in May

Second entry chronicling a day in the life of a grad student.  (First entry here.)

My alarm was set for 8 am so I could be awake in time for my 9 am conference call.  My first check of email reveals that the meeting was cancelled at 7 am, so I hit snooze again.  Greg comes in around 8:20 to drag me to the breakfast table (orange cinnamon rolls!) before he heads to work.  I get dressed, clean the house for the bug man, open and close the house for the very efficient bug man, and head to work by 10:30.

I check on my undergrad, who’s helping me out with a particularly frustrating project.  I take care of administrative tasks before lunch: gathering agenda items for tomorrow’s meeting, asking our consultant to help me decipher some info regarding pesky antibodies, and trying to contact a company (again) to get chromatography paper samples.

At noon, I go downstairs for an awards luncheon.  Free lunch (yay!), awkward table time with professors I’ve never met (boo), and an award certificate (fun!).

I change clothes, check on my undergrad’s results (promising), and piddle on my computer until my 2 o’ clock meeting.  I flip through my slides for next week’s talk and decide that the only change they need is to our lab photo.  We recently took a new awesome one, but needed a few absent members photoshopped in.  I play around with their Facebook pictures and Powerpoint’s editing features to hilarious effect.

I meet with the other two members of the “Chemical Segregation Committee” – formed in response to $100 Starbucks gift card bribes.  We take a break for leftover cake that appeared in the breakroom, then head into the lab to start sorting chemicals by hazard class.  At first, we thought $100 gift cards were a ridiculously good deal, but now that we’ve started, they’re starting to look quite fair.

We stop for the day around 3:30 so that we can all get some other work done.  The project that I’ve had undergrads working on for the last 3 semesters now has a rapidly approaching deadline, so I’m getting more involved.  We’d narrowed it down to pH issues and an extra chemical.  This afternoon, I try the reaction at a higher pH and without the extra chemical.  I add the chemicals to the paper, and then play Candy Crush in the lab while it dries.  (Ahhh, Science.)

After it dries, I add samples.   Looks good… I take it to the spectrometer.  It worked!

Okay, that’s good.  But will it work for less concentrated sample?  …  YES!

There was skipping and dancing and singing and praising God happening in the empty lab.  I cleaned up the lab, sent an excited email to the undergrad who’s done a ton of work on the project detailing what I found and what needs to happen next, and saved and copied and printed the data (can’t lose this one!).

I left the lab around 7, dropped off banana bread to some friends going through quals, and came home.  We’ll have ice cream tonight!

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Getting Out of a Lab Slump

I’m on my way out of another dreaded Lab Slump: a time when your project/device/experiment isn’t working and you have no idea what steps to take to fix it.  (It also sort of sounds like Lab Swamp, which I’m sure is related to the Fire Swamp.)
I’ve had several Lab Slumps: I first panic (IT’S BROKEN AND  THE SKY IS FALLING!) and then get apathetic (I can’t do anything productive, so why even bother going in?).  So far, I’ve always managed to get out eventually.  Here are my steps for getting out of a Lab Slump:

  1. Show up everyday.  I love this advice from APW editor Meg Keene, learned from her days as an art student:

I’m glad that I was trained with the idea that you show up Every Single Day (we were only allowed three absences in studio per semester), no matter how ****** or uncreative you were feeling, and you do the work. You do the work when what you’re doing sucks, you do the work when what you are doing seems brilliant, you do the work when you’d rather be in bed. And thank God, because that takes some serious pressure off. You just have to show up and work, not show up and do brilliant work. So every day these days, I show up. I write stuff. I send emails. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s brilliant. But I’m glad I know that I have to do it every day. (More here)

So, I do my best to still show up in lab, even if I don’t think anything productive can happen that day.  Sometimes the most productive thing that happens is I clean out my desk; other times, I have a brilliant insight and get my project to work.

  1. Write it down.

Write It Down

There are two parts to this piece of advice.  First, write down every little data point you’re gathering.  I often feel as if numbers shouldn’t go in my lab notebook unless they’re part of some organized experiment.  NO.  Writing down the little thing you’re fiddling with in the code and the numbers your device displays after can be important.  Having things on paper often lets you see patterns that were invisible if you fiddled with things and tried to hold the results in your head.  It’s also useful as a record of how your project was behaving at that moment in time, which may be valuable to you if something else breaks down the road.

Second, write down your big picture.  I use scratch letter-size paper (a technique learned from watching my mom run her dance empire – every time she has an explosion of things to do, she starts putting tasks in a grid on a folded sheet of paper).  Write down the steps you’ve tried that haven’t solved the problem (adjusted code, replaced battery, measured laser output, etc.) and list your possible next steps (change out detector, test with different samples, test on another machine).  This process can help keep you from getting bogged down in a side track that doesn’t contribute to your overall goal.

  1. Make a presentation.  Put the data (see previous point!  you need data to do this) into a form that will allow you to present it to other people.  Putting it on a slide can help you see obvious holes.  I imagine my advisor and labmates looking at my presentation: what will they be confused about? Clarify it now.  What experiments would they suggest?  Try to do them before you meet.  Even if you don’t intend to present to anyone, working on a presentation and imagining questions can be useful.
  2. Ask for help.  Having data and a presentation will help you ask for help!  My advisor, thankfully, is very gracious when I come to her with problems, but sometimes I get nervous that somehow I’ll be in trouble for the experiment’s failure.  However, in science, the amount of effort you put into a project does not always directly correlate with the results you get out on the other side.  (i.e., you can spend your whole life working to prove that gravity isn’t real, but your results are never going to amount to anything.)  Don’t let fear of someone judging your work ethic keep you from asking for help – most of the time, they’ll be so busy puzzling over your data (see above!) that your “work ethic” won’t even come up.  (Additionally, your identity is not tied up in the work you produce.  Christ is your identity – this fact gives us great and wonderful freedom to try and fail!)
  3. Finally, step away from your project.  If the only thing you do is stare at it, you probably won’t get any new insight.  Take care of yourself – sleep, eat well, shower, take a Sabbath day off every week.  Your mind can’t focus fully on the problem if your body is deteriorating.  (And you might get one of those famous in-the-shower ideas!)  I also feel better if our house is reasonably clean and tidy.

Go do something fun – paint, watch a movie, go out with friends.  Get your active mind on something else while your subconscious chews on your problem.

For me, at this point, I need to be reminded of step one – Show Up.  Take a bit of rest, and then get back to it!

I am heading to bed and then to lab to finish off my latest pesky problem.  Almost out of the Lab Slump!

What do you do to get out of a slump?

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A Wednesday in January

Long agoI said I would start chronicling what a day in the life of a grad student looks like.  Here’s the first!  I’m thinking of doing this approximately monthly.

My alarm went off at 8, and I hit the snooze button until 9.  I ate breakfast, then settled down to some work in pajamas: editing an essay for my side business, answering emails from the undergrads I mentor, and preparing a presentation for my advisor.

I finally got dressed, then procrastinated by checking my email one more time.  It turns out that the book I contributed to over a year ago is finally published!  That helps with the motivation.

I headed up to work and settled down to some data entry.  It’s easy on the brain and requires little motivation since I can stay at my desk.  I listened to RadioLab while working.  I tried to puzzle out patterns in my data by making and re-making graphs.

My friend and I went out to the patio to eat our packed lunches.  In January.  It’s wonderful.

I went into the lab and discovered that my reference instrument wasn’t working.  It turned out that the AA batteries hadn’t been replaced in ages, and they had leaked into the device.  I did internet research on my phone (clearly, walking back to the office to use the computer is too much work) and learned that vinegar is a good solution (hah!  get it?).  I hunted and found that we didn’t have “real” vinegar, but we had concentrated acetic acid – the stuff that lives in the acids cabinet and has warnings all over it.  More internet research to figure out how to dilute it to make vinegar without coming to harm.

Success!  I made vinegar (no accidents), cleaned up the battery mess, and was rewarded with a functioning device.  This result was great since I needed to take this hard-to-obtain instrument overseas in… 5 days.  Oi.

I started performing final tests on the device that I built to be tested on this trip.  I got caught up talking to an undergrad working in the lab about grad school and research.  I finished up my experiments by walking back and forth, taking samples to the spectrometer to get something to compare my results to.

I returned to the office for more data entry.  I finished up my presentation, adding the new data, and sent it to my advisor.

I went to the lab to prepare some supplies for my trip.  One of my reagents needs to warm up to become liquid again (it gels at “lab temperature,” which is usually less than room temperature).  I usually leave it in the warm water bath for 15 minutes or so.  This time, the water bath had been drained, its contents strewn across the bench, and the power left on.  While this could mean that someone started cleaning it and forgot to finish, you can never really be sure what was going on, and I hated to refill it unbidden.  (A few days later I gave up trying to figure out who did this and why and refilled it myself.  No casualties.)

Instead, I went to the soldering room to prepare more supplies for my trip.  Briefly forgetting the awesomeness that is the inside of a ThorLabs box, I opened my new box of parts to dig out photodiodes and also discovered a LabSnacks box.  LabSnacks are bribes sent by ThorLabs to keep graduate students loyal to them – every part, no matter how small, gets shipped with a box of snacks.  Excellent.

I wrapped up my soldering by 6:30 or so and headed home for dinner, hanging out with Greg, and packing.

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Advent in Labor & Delivery

I’ve spent a large part of this Advent season waiting at a Labor and Delivery ward collecting blood samples for my study. I hang out in the residents’ lounge until we get a possible patient, and, with an average of 2 eligible patients per day, it’s been a lot of waiting.

I thought that the waiting here would be exciting – new babies! Joy! Laughter! New fathers and siblings trolling the halls. Balloons. Shouts of celebration.

It has, in fact, not been that way. While there may be celebration in a patient’s room, the lounge and hallways are not so happy.

There was a woman who was G4,P0 – pregnant four times with no living children. Her current pregnancy didn’t look good as the resident went to deliver the news.

A pregnant 21-year-old was recently admitted not for concerns about her pregnancy, but because being in the hospital was safer for her than being at home with an abusive father and brother.

The attitude of the residents hasn’t helped me. This morning, I was greeted with the doctors discussing an upcoming D&C – a dilation and cutterage, a gruesome form of abortion. Techniques were discussed freely, as if it were any other medical procedure. The new laws leading to the closure of many Planned Parenthood clinics invoke a, “That’s so sad.” The one resident who likes to hold babies gets a hard time for it from the others. They look for any slight indication to use forceps so they can “get their numbers.” (One patient called them on this attitude.)
I sense that these new doctors see babies as a problem to be solved in the poor patient population here (via abortion, post-delivery contraception or sterilization, or invasive techniques to deliver a baby) rather than a gift to be celebrated.

I’ve been keeping my head in my book, trying to stay out of everyone’s way and tune out the disturbing conversations, and praying. It has been a sad way to spend the season.

On Wednesday, the lounge cleared out as residents went to assist in a delivery. I happily buried my head in my book and continued reading in peace. I was jostled out of the story a few minutes later by the loud, healthy cry of a newborn as the radio reached its climax: “Oh night DIVINE! Oh night when Christ was born…”

This one event hasn’t entirely redeemed my experience waiting here, but it has helped. That baby’s perfectly timed cry in the midst of all this… muck and pain is the perfect allegory of the Christmas story. Christ comes in the middle of a messy world – “long lay the world in sin and error pining.” He descended from heaven to be born in the mess of a stable and to live among sinners in order to make them whole. Waiting here in L&D during Advent has been a good reminder of just how much we need Christmas. And, of course, seeing very pregnant women is an appropriate reminder of the first Christmas.

Advent is also a reminder that Jesus is coming back. Though Jesus’s death and resurrection established his Kingship over the world, the world is not yet made new. We still kill the most helpless among us and turn our backs on the Lord. Creation is groaning for Christ’s return – groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22). Someday, she will be delivered and we will celebrate, with joy and laughter and maybe some heavenly balloons.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

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Reflections on the New Year

Today I’m sitting in the library basking in the change of scenery from my office.  I’ve got a great view onto the main quad of this beautiful campus.  With classes starting Monday, I feel the excitement, the anticipation, the pregnant stillness of a college campus just before the start of the semester.

I’ve felt that atmosphere before (The Night Cometh).  What a difference just four years can make!  From the mundane (texting Google to get a Scripture?  Now I’ve got the whole Bible on my smartphone) to the world-changing (when I wrote that post, I hadn’t even heard of the man who would be my husband).  Just a few weeks later, I wrote “I’m trying to figure out how to get to my goal of helping large numbers of people in third-world countries with simple technologies.”  And now, that’s what I’m doing.   Here.  In this library.  Thank you, Lord, for fulfilled dreams.

There is no statue of Jesus on this campus to sit in front of, yet still He’s here, working.  Working “the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”  He’s worked amazing changes – big and small – in my life these last four years.  What will He do this year?

 

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