As the year draws to a close, I enter a predictably pensive mood brought on by ever-waning daylight and chilly evenings forcing me inside with a cup of tea and prompting reflection on my growth as a person this year. In 2020, we have all come face-to-face with frustration, sadness, worry, anxiety, and discomfort. For me, this has been a year of discomfort and learning how to sit, embrace, and become friends with it . 

For me, this has been a year of discomfort and learning how to sit, embrace, and become friends with my discomfort. 


    For as long as I can remember, when something challenged my worldview, I was unable to think or move on until I figured out how to assimilate the new piece of information into my existing mental framework. Once I had a rational explanation, I could catalogue that thought away in my mind and let go of it. But for a while, answering a question would consume me. It was not that I had to go write a treatise on 'why the sky is blue' but more that I needed to have a mental pathway to explain something shocking. I feared if I did not answer the question or address the thought, my whole existence would implode. I'd be left with an existential crisis. 


    This need to explain my unanswered questions seems to be a good thing; however, many times my desire for an answer right away prevented me from truly understanding an issue at hand and learning from it. Ultimately, I would run kicking and screaming away from having to sit in a pit of discomfort and confront realities that new information uncovered. Interestingly, this year has taught me that the cognitive dissonance I run away from can actually lead to a lot of growth if I wrestle with it. Through multiple difficult situations this year I have seen this in action. 


The cognitive dissonance I run away from can actually lead to a lot of growth if I wrestle with it


    This year, I have been continually forced into areas of discomfort which has greatly challenged me. In January, I painstakingly troubleshooted code and wondered if I would ever graduate. In February, my husband went to Germany for a month leaving me and my people-person personality on my own. In March, we had to shut down all lab research and transition to fully working at home. In April, I grappled with the potential that graduation could be delayed due to COVID-19. In May, I realized the depth of systemic racism in our country and am still working to understand it. In July, my boss told me that I needed to 'sit and wrestle' with my data and think about it deeply so I could understand what it meant. In August, my grant proposal was due, requiring hours of digging into the literature to find an idea. September brought a period of depression where all I could do was read my Bible, clinging to the Lord being my only way through. In October, what I thought was a stomachache turned into appendicitis which brought physical discomfort to the plethora of mental and emotional discomfort the year has piled on. 


    I do not list these off to play the 'worse-off' Olympics but instead to share that all of these situations have not been comfortable for me. All of these instances involved me digging my heels in the sand, screaming at God 'WHY!?', only to be shown that these experiences were there for a reason. Ultimately, they grew me as a person and helped me realize that there is much to gain by being in an uncomfortable phase. 


These experiences were there for a reason -  they helped me realize that there is much to gain by being in an uncomfortable phase. 


    If someone else had taken over my coding project, I would not look back with such pride in my achievement to figure out the problem. Had I not wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with my thoughts on race and really sought to dig deep into better understanding that, then my heart would not be as burdened as it is now. If I chose to use my period of depression as a time to mope and complain then I would not have emerged from a time I felt my lowest in complete and utter awe of God and His faithfulness to me. I also would not have realized how crucial it is to acknowledge when you are going through something hard as you keep pressing on. 


    This year has taught me the importance of not just dealing with discomfort but diving into discomfort. Difficult days in my life are never easy to face, but I'm hoping that 2020 will give me perspective for the future. I want to look back on this year of discomfort with fondness because I know that hard things continue to grow me as a person and grow me closer to God. 


--GeneticGinger 




   
    I have been forced to admit my limits. Recently, I found myself convicted by both how much I rely on myself and how hard I push back on accepting others’ encouragement and help. This conviction stemmed from the realization that I am quick to help others in their times of need but reluctant to accept the help of others or even admit to others when I am struggling. 

    A few weeks ago, I laid on an operating table while surgeons prepped to remove my appendix. A persistent stomach ache, a negative COVID-19 test, and complete lack of appetite landed me in the emergency room on a Thursday evening. Thankfully, I mentally prepared for the possibility of an emergency room visit so my being there was not a shock. I also feel like the ups and downs of 2020 as a whole conditioned me to roll with the unexpected because both my husband and I handled the whole ordeal in stride and without stress. 

The ups and downs of 2020 as a whole prepared me for the unexpected ordeal of having my appendix removed

    After a successful surgery, I quickly realized how much I took for granted being able to use my core in basic everyday movements. I could not lay down by myself, I could pick anything up off the floor, I was not even supposed to lift a milk carton. I came to a humbling realization -- how quickly I am rendered “useless” and how much I had to rely on my husband and his care for me. It was a humbling realization of how little I could do for myself.

It was a humbling realization of how little I could do for myself

    Friends and family kindly offered to bring meals, and I accepted. There was no way I could cook, and my husband was already sacrificing much to take care of me. At first it felt odd to accept others ’help, but it blessed us immeasurably both in meeting a need and in seeing those around us joyfully rise up to meet it. 

At first it felt odd to accept the help of others but it blessed us immeasurably

    Most of the time, I can get away with my valued self-sufficiency, but when I physically could not function, I was forced to admit my pride could get me nowhere. I pride myself on my abilities to complete tasks, stay organized, and not inconvenience others.  However, that pride  only serves me. It does not seek to empower others who desire to help or encourage those who wish to fill an unmet need. 

When I physically could not function the same I was forced to admit that my pride could get me nowhere. 

    When I choose to be by myself and refuse to ask for or accept help when I really need it, I defeat the purpose of community. It is like standing on one leg and trying to walk - you can not do it! It is a common mantra to say that we would 'die for our friends.' This resonates with many because it signifies an underlying, hard-to-sever bond between two people. If we are unwilling to tell those close to us what is going on or that we need help - what is the purpose of the strong bond? 

If we are unwilling to tell those close to us what is going on or that we need help then what is the purpose of a strong bond? 

    Acting “strong” all the time is ultimately detrimental to both you and your friendships. No one person is meant to live this life alone - we are designed to live alongside other humans. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of a strong community. Fighting against that need for community damages your friendships too: it demonstrates an attitude of mistrust (that they will willingly help you) and uneven scales (you do not want to be beholden to them).  At the end of the day we are meant to give and to receive.

At the end of the day we are meant to give and to receive.

    From one self-sufficiency-loving person to another, I would encourage you to let your friends into your life and accept the help they offer. I have been so encouraged by those who have given of their time, resources, and pantries during this time. It has reminded me of my own limitations and how sweet it is to be blessed and loved by others.

--GeneticGinger

    She walks out of lab thinking "wow, I'm not here on the weekends - does this mean I'm not a good scientist?" 

    In the meeting with his advisor he hears about the progress of other grad students and wonders "will I ever make progress like them?"

    After attending her friend's fantastic seminar, she feels dejected because her project is not that interesting, and lacks a coherent story. 

    Self-doubt and the trap of comparisons is rampant in grad school. In grad school, the temptation is strong to compare your progress to the progress of others. Others are publishing papers, giving talks, writing up their thesis yet you sit on the sidelines cheering them on while simultaneously thinking you are a failure. Grad school is a unique time where there is no timeline. Ideally, you would like to graduate in 5 years but are fully aware that graduation depends on your research cooperating. As the word research implies - you must re-search often. This desire to compare comes from the unpredictable nature of grad school, but as an American culture we are used to predictability. 

Self-doubt and the trap of comparisons is rampant in grad school. 

    For 12 years of your life you are buffeted by a structured school environment that is built upon clear, achievable goals. College expands this safety net and is programmed in a way to allow you to finish in four years. Even if you do not finish in four years there are measurable steps to reach the finish line. Contrast this with a science Ph.D. program where you enter with a graduation goal, but are utterly in the dark of what it will take to get there and how long it will take. 

    For the first few years of your Ph.D. there are landmarks for you to follow: pass your classes, take your written qualifying exam, and defend a proposal at your oral qualifying exam. However, once you reach those goals the next goal is to graduate and depending on the program graduation requirements can be very different. There is a dedicated team of other Ph.Ds who form your committee and assess your progress. However, the goal of 'graduate' seems nebulous, unachievable, and difficult to process when you are in the throes of research. 

    I would argue that the comparison game stems from the lack of measurement present in the later years of your Ph.D. As you trudge through the trench you look around for someone, anyone to see how far you are along and how much farther you have to go. However, this desire, while understandable, leads down a path of hurt, jealousy, and bitterness. 

However, this desire, while understandable, leads down a path of hurt, jealousy, and bitterness. 

    Pursuing a Ph.D. in most fields involves many instances of groping around in the dark by trying a bunch of different experiments and hoping something works. This often leads to people describing the first 3-4 years of grad school as the bottom of an exponential curve where your accomplishments seem small and the hill you have to climb steep. The last 1-2 years of grad school are that peak of the exponential curve - things are working, you see progress and light at the end of the tunnel. 


    When looking around at other grad students most of us forget that we are all at different places on this curve and the curve does not directly scale with time. We talk a lot in science about defining your variables and if you want to compare two things statistically they must have the same base variables. Yet, when we compare ourselves to other grad students we do not consider this fact. This means that a 3rd year grad student should not even compare themselves to another 3rd year grad student because their projects, advisor, and timeline are different and thus can not be compared

When we compare ourselves to other grad students we do not consider that we are comparing totally different variables. 

    The comparison game is fun for no one. When I fall into the trap of comparisons I doubt myself as a scientist, worry that I am not doing enough, struggle with imposter syndrome, and ultimately start to harbor some bitterness towards the person I am comparing myself to. Those who we compare ourselves to are almost every time not as successful, ahead, or on top of things as we perceive they are. Yet, we place them on this pedestal that is unstable for them to stand upon because they are not perfect. 

Those who we compare ourselves to are almost every time not as successful, ahead, or on top of things as we perceive they are. 

    When the temptation comes to compare yourself to others I would encourage you to reach out to those who seem to have it all together and honestly say that you are struggling with comparing yourself to them. 9 times out of 10 they will assure you they are also struggling and comment on something they see in you that they compare themselves to. This is not a method to fish for compliments but rather is a way to break that cycle of self-doubt, misperceiving others, and imposter syndrome. Existing too long in the trap of comparisons can wreck your self-esteem and cause you to hate science - it is important to find ways to stop yourself from falling in this trap. 

--GeneticGinger  



Taylor Swift's most recent album Folklore debuted a few weeks ago and I have throughly enjoyed the more folksy direction she has taken. In one song, cardigan, Taylor croons 'when you are young they assume you know nothing.' I heard this line and my heart skipped a beat. My mind flashed with visions of people informing me in my past that I was 'too young to go to college', 'too young to have this job' or 'too young for me to trust you'. 

My mind flashed with visions of people telling me in my past that I was 'too young to go to college', 'too young to have this job' and 'too young for me to trust you'. 

To give this more context I am four years into a Ph.D. program and I am only 23-years-old. I graduated high school at 16 and college at 20. I'm two years younger than most of my peers. I have always been mature for my age which is one reason that many people are unaware of my age and in some cases it's been better to keep it this way because people can be cruel.

I have been ashamed of my age more times than I can count. There have been too many instances of someone treating my differently or never looking at me the same way again. In one of my first college classes at N.C. State I was told to do everyone else's work because I was young and thus had to be a genius. I have been discriminated against because someone on a hiring committee knew my age and thought that I wasn't capable to have a job that I was well qualified for. My life experience has been questioned because of my age and I have been discounted even though I have gone through hard things as a young person. 

My life experience has been questioned because of my age and I have been discounted even though I have gone through hard things as a young person. 

We often think that with age comes maturity and in many cases this is true. However, maturity and age do not have a one-to-one correlation. There are people that are old and not smart and also people who are young but mature. There's nothing wrong with either of these extremes but it would be unfair to say they do not exist. We do not call out the old people who are not smart to their face but why is it acceptable to tell a young person that they do not know much? 

There is definitely some age-related experience that must be gained by living life. You do see more when you live more. However, to discount someone just because of their age points to underlying insecurities of the accuser. The insecurities of others coming out in their treatment of me because of my age have hurt me more times than I care to recall. 

There is a place for age-related experience to play in someone's life but to discount someone just because of their age points to underlying insecurities of the accuser.

Thankfully, many in my life have sought to encourage me in my pursuits and have walked alongside me during the difficult times of me wrestling a feeling I was out of place because of my age and that I did not belong. I have been immensely blessed by these people and comforted by their encouragement of me to keep persevering through the hardship. 

I do not say all of this to establish myself as this wise, young sage. On the contrary, I am the first to admit that I am young and that I have much more to learn but that itself is an example of maturity. What I will not do is handicap myself because of my age. I have done that enough and felt waves of shame about something I can not change. 

I have felt waves of shame about something I can not change. 

One of my favorite Bible verses growing up was 1 Timothy 4:12 "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity." When others tried to limit my abilities because of my age this was the truth I held onto and continue to hold onto. Ultimately, my age is just a number and the Lord will use me no matter what that number is. 

--GeneticGinger






Ever since high school I remember people telling me "I'm surprised you like *this thing or that thing*, I would never have expected that of you!" As the years pass this has become such a common occurrence that I don't bat an eye. However, as I begin to think through these phenomena I am intrigued at what is going on in others's minds behind the scenes.


As human beings we like to put other human beings into boxes. "She's a preppy girl, he's a jock, he's an athlete..." and so on and so forth. This innate desire to stereotype others is almost like a form of compartmentalization but for other people and not ourselves. Normally, we compartmentalize to avoid dealing with something. This can be helpful to allow ourselves to not think about work, focus on tasks at hand, and avoid being paralyzed by something difficult going on in our lives. Compartmentalization can also be used to rationalize conflicting information and I would argue this is what we do when we see someone that doesn't fit in with our stereotype of them. 


I'm a study in contradiction.


I'm a Christian but I'm also a scientist. I majored in Genetics but also English. I love to jam out to some hardcore dubstep but thoroughly enjoy embroidering and listening to classical music. My two favorite book genres are Fantasy and British Literature. I have a nose piercing and a shaved side of my head but love to wear dresses. I weight-lift but get so excited to have a new color on my nails. 


Throughout my 23 years of life, I have elicited many surprise reactions from people if they know only one side of the coins above and find out the other side. Honestly, I'm perplexed at why people respond this way since most everyone I know has unique characteristics to them that go beyond a stereotype. Why do we persist in labeling people if no one *truly* fits into the labels that we have affixed to them? I would argue that we are lazy and it's easier for us to stereotype someone than to try and understand their many facets. 


Knowing someone enough to learn their quirky characteristics takes a lot of intentional time and energy. It's not easy and it requires grace especially when you learn something about someone you don't like. Further, most people have a desire to be deeply known but feel shame at what others could find if they make that effort to know them. 


To be known, you must be willing to open up and share with someone else but sadly not every person is a trusty confidant. 


I have had many wonderful family and friends in my life who have made an effort to know my quirks,  support my contradictions, and show me that what I thought were contradictions were God's unique design. Once I learned to start embracing the seemingly contradictory sides of myself I was able to stop caring as much about fitting in the boxes others put me in and be content in who God made me to be. Besides that, I could empathize better with other people and realize that they too have characteristics that run far deeper than the stereotype I had of them. 


--GeneticGinger

Check out the latest Steministas podcast about Alzheimers and Ultrasounds. You can follow me @geneticginger over on Twitter and Instagram



Everyone's worlds have been turned upside down in the past few months which has led to a huge shift in people's productivity. Bosses' and employees are adapting their work to be solely online, days filled with Zoom meetings are not uncommon, and everything seems to be moving slower than normal. With this new normal the message of 'not expecting a lot of yourself',  'give yourself grace', and 'just survive' have been spreading faster than COVID-19. For those of us who have had the ability to work harder, exercise more, create new things we've been told to 'stop making people feel bad' and 'take a break'. For the first time in my life, I've felt that being an overachiever is frowned upon.

I've always been an overachiever. I pushed myself to graduate high school at 16, finished college with two majors at age 20 (one of which was added for fun) and now I'm three years into a Ph.D. program in the sciences. I lead a small group, host a podcast, aim to read 52 books a year, and try to exercise 4x/week. I don't say this to promote overachievement - it comes with its costs since the potential for burnout is high. People have always been supportive of my nature to push the boundaries of my time, energy and effort - until COVID-19 hit.

My first week or so of quarantine was a period of adjustment as I began to process my new normal. However, after this time passed my overachiever habits kicked in. I set up a new exercise plan, began reading more books than ever, dedicated 40 hours of my week to work, set up walk/talk calls with friends, spent more time in bible study and prayer, applied to several conferences and prioritized science communication. I don't share this to brag but to illustrate the point that I've been my most relaxed and most productive since the start of graduate school. I acknowledge that I'm in a very fortunate position of not losing much income and having a job during this time. However, no one should be made to feel bad for accomplishing goals and making progress.

The articles encouraging people to not expect much of themselves during this time and to just 'survive' the pandemic always left a bad taste in my mouth because I'm thriving during this time. I began to question if I should be feeling worse about the situation that we've all had to deal with. There have been a few days of anxiety and on those days I'm a huge proponent of giving yourself grace when you need but most of the time when I'm feeling down I need stop feeling sorry for myself and do something. This isn't always the answer to my anxious days but getting outside of my head helps me more often than not.

Even before the pandemic, I hid my productivity and efficiency from people. When I do choose to share a personal accomplishment often I'm returned with a half-hearted 'that's great for you...'. Repeated instances of this happening has led me to hold back numerous work/personal/outreach/exercise accomplishments. No one likes to be around someone who is consistently making progress in areas of life where they also want to make progress.

Ultimately, I've had to accept that these judgments from others come down to them choosing to not celebrate in the success of others because they desire to have that success for themselves. We should strive to encourage and uplift everyone around us at all times - not just when we're feeling great about our life. When I'm in a rut in life, praising someone else's success can be hard to do but in the long run it deepens my relationship with that person, shows them I care for them at all times, and helps me see that there's more to life than just me.  Making others feel bad about their accomplishments doesn't produce good soil for a relationship to grow and instead produces bitterness and anger.

There is lot for all of us to learn during this pandemic - empathy being foremost. It's important to not judge others based off of what they are or aren't doing but instead to seek to understand them and support them no matter what.

To those of you who are overachievers, keep doing what you do! People will judge but you're not responsible for their judgments. You're responsible for your actions and your attitude and at the end of the day you have been given the capacity to handle many things at once and do great things so use that well. To those of you with overachievers in your life, encourage them and acknowledge the work they do. It means for a lot for their work to be seen.

--GeneticGinger




Graduate school has changed my life, however, very few people realize what graduate school is and what it actually encompasses. In this post I hope to walk you through what it looks like to get a Ph.D. in a STEM related field, how we’re not students or employees and how you can encourage those of us who embark on this journey.

Ph.D. life:
I am a third year Ph.D candidate in Genetics and Molecular Biology. I work 45-50 hour weeks. that are often unpredictable. My workdays are built around performing experiments which can take anywhere from four days to two weeks to do. Depending on the day I can spend 4-5 hours doing lab work and 4-5 hours of doing data analysis or writing. Often these exact numbers vary based on the amount of experiments I have going at any one time. People are surprised when I tell them I have to go in on the weekend to feed my cells or stay late because an experiment is working and I want to keep getting data. A Ph.D. student does not just work 9-5 and 40 hours a week. Our hours depend on experiments. We do have a more flexible schedule but with that flexibility during the week comes the need for flexibility with a personal life when there is a lot going on in lab.  

Uncertainty is a huge hallmark of science. Sometimes my cells decide to be uncooperative and grow too fast or slow. An experiment may work one week, but not work the next. As the scientist, a lot of my time is spent scratching my head wondering what changed between experiments and making sure to record every parameter about the experiment I can! Some scientists even track the weather to see if that impacts the data they receive from their experiments. This uncertainty leads to many experiments being repeated and very rigorous standards for keeping track of experiments.

Ideally, all of my experiments will help me answer a scientific question. With the data I receive from my experiments I can write a story about how I think a molecule is working or why the data looks a certain way. I base this story on all the other stories that have been written in science. My work should add something to the field I study so that other scientists can repeat my work and build off of it. In order to graduate I have to publish one of these stories in a scientific journal where it is reviewed by other scientists. This process takes a long time and I am only required to publish one of these stories, though I hope to publish multiple during my time in graduate school.

Besides time performing experiments, a significant amount of our time is spent writing abstracts, grants, and designing posters. This may seem like a huge waste of time but the time spent not pipetting is actually crucially important. Not only do we learn to tell a story that needs to be heard  but it allows our work to be critiqued. Anything we write, present or share in graduate school is chewed up and spit back at us with questions, comments, and a lots of red pen. We learn to thrive on failure and constructive criticism because that will make us stronger and better scientists in the end. 

We are also learning how to think differently. All of us study different topics so deeply that we become an expert in whatever our dissertation ends up being. We are taught to not take things at face value. Our classes consist of journal clubs where we read primary literature and pick it apart one paragraph at a time asking what else should have been looked at and if the right methods are used. We are taught to question everything and look at everything logically and with strong skepticism. I alluded more to the effect of this in a previous post, but this can lead to a lot of tongue-biting in social situations when your pseudo-science radar starts flashing. At the end of the day, we all receive a Ph.D. In all reality it does not matter what project people work on. I study muscle development but I could work on almost any project and learn the same set of core skills needed to grant me a Ph.D. 

This gets to the real kicker. Every other week a church friend or family member will ask me when I’m going to graduate and get a ‘real job’. First of all, science is unpredictable so I have no idea when my paper will be published and when I will get a Ph.D. At my university there is an average time to degree but so much depends on how your experiments go. When people ask this question it is one of the most discouraging because we have no idea and it can be a reminder that we have so much to get done. Second of all, being a scientist is a real job. We are asking questions about the natural world, learning how to answer those questions and communicating our findings. Through all of this, we are challenged to think deeper and more critically. People outside of STEM tend to make mass generalizations and treat scientists pursuing a PhD like we are just students even though we are training to become professionally recognized as a voice of reason in the scientific community. This gets into how grad students are defined. 

Student or employee or neither?:
In most of my conversations with people they try to classify me into one of two categories: student or employee because that's all they know. As a student, I have to fulfill certain class and teaching requirements as well as pass several qualifying exams and pay tuition. As an employee, I do not get summers off and instead have more time to dedicate to my research, but I am neither one of these categories. I would argue there's a third category that people don't know about. This third category is the apprentice in the trench and is a perfect depiction of graduate school. 

Our time in graduate school is one of purposeful sacrifice. We know more or less what we are getting into when we begin the five-year journey but we often are not prepared for the failure that vigilantly marches to meet us. This failure can take many forms: interpreting data wrong, messing up an experiment, an experiment not working no matter how many times you attempt it, a difficult class, months spent writing a grant only to not get it - the list goes on. Nevertheless, we persevere through this failure looking around for glimpses of light in the darkness. 

One week you can discover a glorious piece of data, the next you can be slogging through an experiment that never works. Most of the days during a five-year PhD program are full of hard work with little reward and your work can seem all encompassing. It's something you've fully given yourself to and that you labor towards which makes it different from a job. It's also something that has no defined ending which makes it different from school. It's an investment of your time, energy and ultimately yourself because you walk out of lab a changed person with a Ph.D. in hand. It is because of this consistent plodding through the thick and thin that I would argue we are apprentices in the trenches. 

I do not write all this to garner sympathy but rather to share what it is like in graduate school. We are not employees and we are not students. We are on a long journey in the trenches with a dim light at the end of the tunnel that hides behind clouds, trees, and other people to try to discourage us from the path. If you know a graduate student, give them a hug, a cup of coffee and stop asking them when they're going to graduate. Try to understand what they’re going through and try to realize that they don’t have all the time in the world to volunteer or spend time with you because they're barely able to get enough sleep or make food. Ask them about their science if you want to. But if you don't want to know about their science or don’t have time to truly understand it then don't ask because it hurts more for people to not care about this five year long war we are battling through.

 --GeneticGinger
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