Friday, December 16, 2011

Sick Papes

I have seen the future of science blogging, and it is called Sick Papes.

100% pure gold, guys. Science gold AND comedy gold. The only thing better than seeing a new Sick Papes post on Google Reader is reading Sick Papes posts out loud.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I'm in the Washington Convention Center right now! No time to write a blog post (who knows when there will be...?!) but I'm tweeting up a storm, which is unusual for me but has been fun so far. Stay strong, laptop battery!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More nerdy podcasts for you!

Way back in 2009, I wrote a post about my favorite science podcasts. Since then I spend less time on the cryostat, so my listening habits have changed. But I still love a good radio story, so I thought I'd share an updated list with you.

Radiolab: Probably everyone already knows about Radiolab. If you're not already listening, you should. It takes a while to get used to the unorthodox audio production style, but I think it's worth sticking it out even if you're initially annoyed by it. The episode entitled Limits of Science was a particular favorite of mine, but they're all pretty interesting. And Jad Abumrad won a MacArthur this year for his work on the show!

The Story Collider: This is my newest discovery, so I haven't listened to that many episodes yet, but it seems promising. It's basically The Moth for science-themed stories. (And if you're not already listening to The Moth, you should be. Certain Moth stories have reduced me to tears on the shuttle bus, they're so powerful.)

Planet Money: OK, this one isn't technically about science. But as a scientist, I find that I often get a "Tell me something I don't know!" kind of attitude when I'm listening to popular science stories. Planet Money takes topics that I don't know much about (economics / finance) and explains them really well. I always come away feeling like I've learned something, even if I don't necessarily agree with their analysis. They work closely with the best radio show ever, aka This American Life. And their blog is fun, too.

Just for fun...

In the run-up to SfN, things are getting pretty stressful. I'm frantically trying to get those last tidbits of data together for my poster. I'm preparing myself for the onslaught of massive amounts of neuroscience. And, I'm beefing up my immune system with a flu shot (scientists aren't invulnerable to Con Crud!).

During this hectic time, it's nice to have a labmate who is willing to inject some whimsy into the most tedious experiments. We're currently immortalizing mouse embryonic fibroblast cells. These are skin cells taken from mouse embryos that we use for a lot of different cell culture based experiments in our lab. The problem is, primary cells (i.e., cells harvested from a donor animal) don't keep growing forever, so eventually you have to go back and collect more from new mice. In "immortalizing" the cells, we're selecting for cancer-like cells that will keep on dividing and dividing and dividing indefinitely, making our lives easier and requiring the use of fewer mouse embryos in the future.

So, naturally, my labmate and I gave this experiment a Mortal Kombat theme, and named each dish of cells after a different character from the video game. Which line of cells will be the champion?!


I'm personally rooting for Goro. Look at that dude! Talk about an interesting model system.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why "Neurotypical?"

I keep thinking that I should write a little bit about the title of my blog, why I chose it, and what "Neurotypical?" means. When I check my Google Analytics stats, "neurotypical" tends to be one of the main search terms that people are using to find me, so I feel a little bad that I've never written about it. But, ultimately, I am not at all an expert in disability studies, neurodiversity activism, or people on the autism spectrum, so I apologize in advance if this piece misrepresents anything about the term or the movement. If you think I messed up, please leave a comment and I would be happy to respond to your feedback.

What does "neurotypical" mean?

Initially, the term "neurotypical" was used to describe any individual who does not have psychological or neurological traits that qualify them for diagnosis with an autism spectrum disorder. It has since been expanded by some to refer to anyone whose neurological development and present neurological state is consistent with what most would consider to be "normal." The use of "neurotypical" instead of "normal" is meant to remove stigma from people with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Creating a dichotomy of "autistic" vs. "normal" puts people with autism into a marked class, while leaving non-autistic people as the default or unmarked class. A label like "neurotypical," on the other hand, is a neutral way to refer to a person based on their neurological state that does not "other" individuals who are in some way atypical. A great discussion of marked and unmarked classes (in the service of explaining why we should use "cissexual/cisgender" to describe people who are not transsexual/transgender) can be found in this post from Speaker for the Diodes.

Some people also use "neurotypical" as part of discussions advocating for neurodiversity. I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, but as I understand it, the neurodiversity movement is about reframing some traits that are normally classed as pathological, such as atypical communication styles, sensory perception, or emotional regulation abilities. Neurodiversity activists seek to broaden the definition of "healthy" to reflect people whose behaviors might seem different from what we're used to.

For example, here's a video from Amanda Baggs, a woman with autism who is involved in activism within the autism community. Her way of interacting with the world is not typical, but that doesn't mean that she is somehow "less than" a neurotypical person:

In general, I think of terms like "neurotypical" and "neurodiversity" as reminders to check my assumptions and my privilege.

Why did you call your blog "Neurotypical?"

I'll admit it; I was mainly looking for a pun. I'm a neuroscientist and I was trying to think of good "neuro" titles. So, "Neurotypical" popped into my head. But then... I added the question mark!

In part, I was hoping to create some wordplay by writing about my "typical" life as a neuroscience graduate student, with the question mark implying that it may not actually be typical, or that I may not actually know what I am talking about... But, I think "Neurotypical?" also gets at some interesting questions about how we define mental illness and mental health. As someone who studies disorders and diseases of the nervous system, I think it's important to keep in mind the lived experiences of people who have been diagnosed with those disorders as we seek to develop treatments and therapies. It's appealing to me, as a scientist, to reduce everything down to a plain yes/no answer (p < 0.05), or a straightforward biochemical pathway, but nobody's mind is that simple. Do neuroscientists strive to make everyone neurotypical? Is that okay? Do we even know what that would look like?

Are you neurotypical?

That's another interesting question, and kind of personal. I will say that I am generally read as neurotypical; I don't commonly display any behaviors that lead people to think I have a neurological disability or disorder. However, that doesn't mean that I've never had any experience with neurological disorders or mental illness.

One example that I'm comfortable talking about publicly: My first year of graduate school, I suddenly began to experience frequent hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. These "waking dreams" are vivid hallucinations that occur when you're falling asleep, or shortly after waking. They can be related to other sleep disorders, like narcolepsy or sleep paralysis, but I didn't have those. My experiences with them were very scary, and after they started happening, I was really worried that I might have schizophrenia (hypochondriac neuroscientists are great at self-diagnosis...), or maybe a brain tumor. I saw several doctors who told me that my symptoms were probably due to sleep deprivation. Then I moved into a different apartment, and I realized that my old apartment next to the train tracks had not permitted me to get a decent night's sleep for an entire year. The hallucinations went away almost immediately once I moved out of earshot of the proverbial midnight train to Georgia, and they haven't come back in the past 2.5 years.

Was I neurotypical during that year? Am I now? What about someone who suffers from clinical depression, but keeps it mostly controlled through medication and/or therapy? It's not always easy to define membership in a class, but society always seems to want to put people into nicely labeled categories. (The DSM is a good illustration of this urge...) I don't mean to draw false equivalence between my temporary experience with a sleep disorder and the very real stigma that someone on the autism spectrum experiences every day. I just sometimes wonder about how we define these classes, and how useful those definitions are.

I will also say that although I am read as neurotypical, I have friends and loved ones who are not, and that I feel very strongly about advocating for their rights. Finally, I have noticed that there are lots of people in the neuroscience community who could be called neuro-atypical, or who got into neuroscience because of their experiences with family members and others who have neurological or neurodevelopmental disorders. So, I think this is an area where neuroscientists could stand to learn more from people involved in disability studies scholarship, or social justice activism.

Where can I learn more?

Here are some resources that I've used to inform myself about disability, neurodiversity, and general issues related to social justice and progressive social movements. If you know of others, please leave a comment!

Temple Grandin's books and talks: Temple Grandin is a fairly well known writer who has autism. Her books describe what it was like for her to grow up "different," and how her autism makes her in some ways uniquely qualified for her work. A fairly comprehensive resource for the neurdiversity movement.

FWD: Feminists with Disabilities for a way forward: On the intersection of gender and disability. The blog has stopped updating, but the archives have some good discussions.

Shakesville: My favorite blog in the progressive blogosphere. Most of the content is written as part of an advanced feminist space and thus might be off-putting for newbies, but this piece about living with depression was really eye-opening for me, in particular.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

B.A.N.T.E.R. at SfN

You know you love neuro-tweetups, even if you don't know what their acronyms mean. (Society for Neuroscience on Twitter: rocking awkward acronyms since "SfN the meh.") Mark your calendars!

(via Dr. Becca)

Monday, October 3, 2011

It's Okay to Be Smart

If you're not reading It's Okay to Be Smart, a science-themed Tumblr by biology PhD student Joe Hanson, you should get on that. First of all, he blogs like, a million times more often than me. Secondly, he's hilarious. And thirdly, his Tumblr regularly features groovy little bits of science media, like this video about cholesterol.

Scientific American: Cholesterol from Alphachimp Studio Inc. on Vimeo.

I loved the shout-out to anterior/posterior embryonic patterning! Really nicely done.

Friday, September 30, 2011


Two weeks in a row, I have completely forgotten about lab meeting. I can't even explain what's going on. Either I forget that it's a Thursday, or that we have lab meeting on Thursdays now, or that we have lab meeting in general (like, that lab meeting is a thing that my lab does, which I am expected to attend)... It's getting kind of embarrassing. Let's hope I remember next week, since it'll be my turn to present.

Although I'm apparently experiencing mild cognitive impairment, at least I've gotten some cool data recently. Go, qPCR!

Monday, September 12, 2011

OIST DNC 2011 Write-up

OIST has put up an article about the Developmental Neurobiology Course (which they shorten to DNC -- it always makes me think "Democratic National Convention") that I attended in July. I'm quoted! There are also some great pictures of the students and labs, including the one pasted below (that's me in the green tank top!).

Laura in the zebrafish lab with Dr. Ichiro Masai and DNC 2011 students

And, there's a video of us messing around in the lab! I think there should be more science-themed reality TV. Wouldn't you watch a whole hour of people doing experiments (and getting frustrated when they don't work)?

I haven't seen any information about a 2012 DNC, but I will definitely keep you posted about any future neuroscience courses at OIST. The 2011 OISTers are already planning our SfN meetup!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

More advice for new grad students

Today I spotted a couple of links that might be of interest to all the science n00bs in the house: some tips from faculty, to go along with all the advice that I like to spout off around here.

Dr. Free-Ride's Advice for the new grad student

Prof-Like Substance's letter to new grad students

Are you new to grad school? How's it going?

Monday, August 29, 2011

GTPases in the blogosphere!

During a recent chat with my adviser, she casually mentioned reading about a new study on "the GTPase blog." To which I replied, "There's a GTPase blog?!" I think she was pleased to know more than I did about some aspect of science blogging. So, cheers to my adviser for inspiring this post!

GTPases: From the Bench is a blog by Dr. Anna Delprato that focuses on all things GTPase. Since I'm doing my dissertation on a small G protein (the coolest small G protein... but of course, I'm biased), I'm obviously all over this. In addition to blogging on peer-reviewed research, Dr. Delprato posts information about upcoming conferences that might be of interest to fellow GTPase enthusiasts. You can also follow Dr. Delprato on Twitter (@Gproteins). I admire her dedication to this protein family, and look forward to reading future posts!

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Choosing a Lab

Yesterday the lovely Ragamuffin shared some of her concerns about choosing lab rotations in this candid post. After composing an epic comment on the subject, I decided that maybe I should turn it into a post over here. The new neuroscience PhD students hit Emory this week (after a highly successful retreat last weekend -- we formed a five level human pyramid, if that gives any indication of how awesome it was) and are starting to think about their rotations, too, so this seems like a good time to write about it.

So, for all the science n00bs out there, I present: Laura's Helpful Hints for Choosing a PhD Lab. As a fourth year student (yiiikes), I've had some time to think about what works for me and what does not. But, I should mention that everyone has different preferences, and that the culture at your institution may make it more or less difficult to find co-mentors, collaborators, etc., so this advice might not fit your individual situation. Also, as I'm sure the more advanced scientists in our midst will mention, I'm not much more than a n00b myself, and may lack the perspective that a more experienced researcher can give you. So don't take my word for it; get lots of feedback.

Helpful Hint #1: Think Outside the Box. A lot of people come into graduate school with several years of experience as an undergraduate researcher or a research technician. They have honed their skills in a few techniques and feel comfortable within their subfield. Knowing this, they are forced to decide whether to stick with the same thing in grad school, or try something new. I would strongly encourage all new grad students to try new things, especially since most PhD programs in the life sciences require several lab rotations. Even if you're 99% sure that you want to study the same thing you've been doing since your undergrad days, it can't hurt to get exposed to new ideas in a rotation. You may find that you love animal behavior studies after doing all your training in cell culture, or that you find electrophysiology really satisfying after years spent on fMRI, or... whatever. You're in graduate school to learn, so it would be a shame to spend your PhD years doing more of the same.

Helpful Hint #2: The Science Almost Doesn't Matter. This is a weird piece of advice, especially in combination with Hint #1, but hear me out. I've encouraged you to try something new, even if it's outside your comfort zone. But what if you try it, and do your PhD in it, and realize that you want to spend your scientific career doing something else? OMG, the pressure!!! Well... chill out, because you don't have to decide right now. In fact, if you want a career in academic research, you're going to need to do postdoctoral research after you get that PhD. Choosing your postdoc lab will be a major decision, because most PIs base their independent research on the training they received as postdocs. But it is generally expected that scientists will switch gears between PhD and postdoctoral research -- you shouldn't do a postdoc focused on the exact same thing as your dissertation. Again, these training experiences are meant to teach you new things, so you're going to need to keep expanding your scientific horizons. Thus, if your PhD lab works on something that you don't really want to study forever... that's okay! You're going to do something else as a postdoc, and that's going to be way more important in shaping your future as an independent investigator. Obviously it's helpful if some of the techniques or concepts can carry over between PhD and postdoc, but you have a lot of freedom to change course. That said: this Hint is called "The Science Almost Doesn't Matter." It matters in that you have to find it interesting. If you're not genuinely curious about the answer to your research questions, it will be tough to keep working on them for the next 5+ years.

Helpful Hint #3: The Training Environment Really, REALLY Matters. The first two Hints were all about how you're here to be trained, damn it, so you should come prepared to learn a bunch of new stuff and not worry too much about the specifics. This Hint is about the "training environment," which is a catchall for your mentor's training style and the overall lab dynamics. As you consider a potential lab, you need to determine whether you're going to be able to effectively learn a bunch of new stuff in this environment. Things to consider: Is the PI a jerk? Are your labmates jerks? Does it bother you to work with jerks, or can you handle it as long as the group keeps churning out awesome data? Obviously, each person has their own definition of "jerk," but for me, it boils down to: if I have really, really screwed something up, can I handle the thought of walking into my PI's office/labmate's cube to come clean about it? Because... you are gonna screw up, eventually, and you need to be able to recover from it without being completely crushed. Other things to consider: Are you being handed a project to complete, or do you have some leeway to develop your own ideas? Do you want to learn more than bench techniques (teaching, grant writing, service, etc.)? Is the PI cool with you spending some of your time on that? Different faculty have different opinions about how much freedom to give their trainees. And, finally, you should consider the really tricky stuff, like how much funding the lab has, whether you'll be expected/required to secure your own funding, and even whether an assistant prof is going to get tenure (and what the plan is if they don't), or whether a more established prof would move the lab elsewhere if they got a job offer. Talking about those last few things can get uncomfortable, but for me, if I don't feel comfortable asking someone about hard topics, I don't really want to work for them. (Although, I did not actually ask my adviser all of these things before I started working for her. I didn't think to ask!) If you don't want to go there with the PI, you can ask other lab members about this stuff (and I recommend doing so anyway, to test the waters and see if everyone's on the same page!).

Helpful Hint #4: Don't Playa Hate; Collaborate. (Runner-up title for this Hint: "Stop, Collaborate and Listen.") Although The Training Environment Really, REALLY Matters, your mentor's lab does not have to be the end-all, be-all of your PhD experience. Maybe you've considered Hints #1-3, and your lab of interest measures up pretty well, but is lacking in a few areas. Maybe the research is interesting, but everything they do is in vitro, and you want training in animal models, too. Maybe the PI is an awesome new assistant professor, and you want to do some experiments that require the resources of a well-funded, well-established lab. If there's another lab at your institution (or a nearby institution) that has what you're looking for, collaboration could be the answer. This is something that I think can vary a lot between universities, but thankfully, I've found Emory to be extremely conducive to collaborations. I know several grad students here with two co-advisers (and one with three!), which can be tricky to navigate but also incredibly helpful for certain projects. While I have only one formal adviser, I have gotten a lot of help from the faculty on my dissertation committee and from other labs in our department. This includes access to equipment and reagents, training in new techniques, and an open door policy for times when I want to bounce ideas off an expert in a topic outside of my adviser's expertise. Your university is full of brilliant, successful scientists, and you should develop relationships with as many of them as you can. This is especially important if you're applying for fellowships and need multiple letters of recommendation -- yes, your DGS can write one for you, but I think a letter makes much more impact when it comes from someone who has really seen you in action as a scientist, whether that's collecting awesome data in their lab or designing clever experiments in their office.

Helpful Hint #5: Communicate. This Hint should be applied in combination with Hints #1-4. You should be very forthcoming about what you're hoping to get out of your PhD experience, what you need from your adviser, what your questions/concerns are, and what you're currently unsure about but hoping to figure out as you go along. Hopefully, your potential adviser will be equally forthcoming about his/her expectations, mentoring style, and resources. Ask about previous grad students, how their projects were chosen and developed over time, and what they're up to now. Assess whether the PI has rules that everyone is expected for follow, or whether they are more flexible about adjusting their training style to the individual. Discuss their philosophy on how your progress will be measured as you work toward your degree, the way work is divided among lab members, the number/type of publications you're expected to write, conferences that you'll attend, classes that you'll take, and anything else that you think might be relevant to your training experience. Ultimately, you're not going to figure everything out during a few early conversations, but you'll get a sense of whether you think the PI is being reasonable or not. Frequent, effective communication is critical in a mentor/trainee relationship: know what is expected of you, do your best to achieve it, and figure out how you'll address the problem if an expectation can't be met.

I think I've spouted off enough for one day. New grad students, I hope you find at least some of this to be helpful. As a neurotic over-thinker, I spent a lot of time agonizing about which grad school to attend, which rotations to do, and which lab to join, and I think it worked out well in the end. But I also think that if I'd made different decisions, I would still have been okay. So, I guess the last Hint is: Just Roll With It. Whatever lab you join, you're going to experience some success and some discouragement and some mind-boggling confusion and some cringe-inducing failure. Welcome to grad school! We'll get through this.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer "vacation"

Oh, hello. I've sort of forgotten to blog much this summer. The last month or so has been a blur, and now the academic year is starting up again. Where did my summer go?!

Well, let's see. In mid-July I left for the Developmental Neurobiology Course at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. I admit, I was rather nervous about the trip -- Japan is so far away, and I was going by myself and didn't know what to expect. But I'm so glad that I went. I met a bunch of amazing scientists and learned about cool research that's happening all over the world. Plus, I got to stay on a beautiful island. The student housing was right beside a private beach! I put up a few photos from my trip in this Google Plus album, if you want to check it out. I thoroughly documented the bathroom, because I'm weird. (It was a really nice shower!) I also made a separate album with photos of the jawdroppingly beautiful new OIST research campus. Their plan to fly me out there for a course so that I'd come back and promote the new university is obviously working.

I also think that the experience empowered me. I wasn't sure I'd be able to get over my anxiety about the trip, the food (I'm deathly allergic to most seafood, so Japanese cuisine was a little intimidating -- thankfully, they were very careful with my meals), the science, the big group of strangers all thrown together. Yes, I am neurotic, hi. But while not everything went 100% according to plan, I was fine in the end. And neuroscience teaches us that exposure to anxiogenic experiences during which everything ends up being totally fine makes them less stressful the next time. I didn't even have to take any D-cycloserine to feel better about the thought of future international meetings.

Since returning to the USA on August 1, I've been keeping busy. Last weekend I flew to Boston for a friend's wedding, and I'm heading to another wedding in upstate New York on Labor Day weekend. I've also got the annual Emory Neuroscience Program retreat in north Georgia this Saturday. These social events are super fun, and I always enjoy hanging out with my friends, but I do find myself wishing that they were spread out a bit more. My experiments have been hampered by a month of busy weekends -- not all science can fit into a Monday-Friday schedule. But, I have been getting stuff done.

What kind of stuff? Well, I've been tracking down reagents to use for some tricky experiments that I planned for my dissertation work. I think I finally have a system that will allow me to observe most of my proteins of interest in the same cell at once, which is cool. I've also been helping with experiments for another student's paper (I get authorship, so it's cool with me), training the new grad student, testing new antibodies (I will be thrilled if they work, because if a commercial antibody is available for our lab's favorite protein, we won't have to keep sending our precious rabbit polyclonal to investigators all over the world), and exploring a new side project. I'm especially psyched about the side project, because it means that in the future, when my main project hits a snag (like this recent search for workable reagents), I'll be able to work on something else that's still "mine." Also because the side project was 100% my idea, which makes me feel like a science badass for coming up with an interesting research question by myself. Maybe I can run a lab someday...

Even though I haven't been writing much, I've still been reading my favorite science blogs. I hope everyone out there is gearing up for a great year of research and awesomeness, and I'll try to post more. Oh, and I'll be at SfN in DC this fall, so hit me up if you want to grab a drink with a fellow citizen of the blogosphere...!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Crowdfunded, open source PCR machine now available!

A couple of months ago, I helped my husband pick out a used microscope (his hobby, collecting and identifying wild mushrooms, sometimes requires 1000X magnification for spores) and joked that I can't get away from biology equipment, even at home. Now it's also possible to kit out our basement laboratory with an inexpensive, open source PCR machine.

I sort of love the idea of backyard biologists using these OpenPCR devices to replicate their BioBricks, but a more likely application would be for science labs at public schools, or medical diagnostic facilities in the developing world. The PCR machines at my lab cost around $10,000 each; OpenPCR costs $512.

Of course, for PCR to work you also need access to DNA primers, nucleotides, and polymerase, which you aren't likely to have lying around the house. Determined citizen scientists will have to track down a source of those materials if they want to get into the PCR game. Still, pretty cool!

(Via BoingBoing.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Journal of Neuroscience launches "Journal Club"

My graduate program director just emailed to say that The Journal of Neuroscience is soliciting reviews of recent articles for a new series of features that they call "Journal Club." Trainees (students and postdocs only) are invited to review publications from the past two months, although "inappropriately harsh or glowing reviews will not be considered." Submissions should be no longer than 1500 words.

This should be of special interest to neurobloggers, who are often creating this sort of content anyway for their blogs. (Although, this bit will be tough for bloggers: "Titles should be informative; the Journal discourages word play.")

I'm intrigued, and also a little intimidated. I mean, it's fine for me to spout off about a paper on the internets, but J. Neurosci? That's playing for keeps.

Do you plan to submit any Journal Club reviews?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hello, readers/classmates!

Recently, quite a few of my peers have told me that they read this blog, or have read it at some point in the past. And yet, they have never commented, and they seem to show no signs of starting blogs of their own. If you are my classmate, or an anonymous grad student from another program, and you are reading this, please speak up in the comments! Let me know what you like about my posts, what you'd like to see more of, and what factors influence your own decision about whether or not to keep a blog. (Actually, you are welcome to chime in even if you're not a grad student.)

I know that my "applying to grad school" posts are fairly popular, and that prospective grad students for my program have found this blog by searching for info on Emory Neuroscience. What else are my readers interested in? As my work in the lab, in the classroom, and on the Graduate Student Council becomes more demanding of my time, I find myself with less time for blogging. It would be great to hear what you all are looking for when you read this site, so that I can focus my efforts on the stuff that provides the greatest value.

Thanks for reading! I will try to post more this summer, especially about the short course in Japan that I am attending in three weeks. I've also been considering a post about sleep disorders that tries to integrate some science with my personal (and rather freaky) experiences, but as it turns out, writing about articles outside of one's subfield is pretty tough. Please bear with me!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

3 Awesome Things

Here is a list of things that happened today, in order of increasing awesomeness for my science life.

1. I discovered this exquisite protocol for making DNA loading buffer. So nerdy! So useful! (The blog author also has a handy breakdown of life science stipends that I should add to my "applying to grad school" guide...)

2. A new grad student officially joined our lab! Two of my labmates graduated within the past 6 months. Now that there's a newbie, I'm definitely a "senior student." Gulp...

3. OMG, MY GRANT GOT FUNDED! Earlier tonight the American Heart Association sent me an email, CCed to my adviser, saying I could log in to see my application status. My adviser emailed me 5 minutes later to tell me to hurry up and log in so she could hear the result. Then she figured out that she could log in as the application sponsor, read the summary statement, and sent a congratulatory email before I'd had the chance to do anything. It was a flurry of triumphant email activity, let me tell you!

Screen shot 2011-05-25 at 7.43.25 PM.png


Just for the record, I'd also like to state that one AHA reviewer specifically praised my "excellent" grades in undergrad as well as grad school. This is in contrast to the person at NIH who cited "mediocre grades at Brandeis" as a weakness on my NRSA application. That one stung. (Probably because I secretly fear it's true... I didn't excel at all of my science classes, way back when. But I got funded anyway!!!eleventy!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Students in the News!

After proctoring and grading my students' final presentations yesterday (fun, but tiring...), I was psyched to see that Emory Magazine has published their four-part feature about the On Recent Discoveries by Emory Researchers (ORDER) program. The web version of the story also includes personal reflections by three of my students.

The main piece, "Trickle-Down Knowledge," focuses on the other section of ORDER, "Blood, Brains, Death and Disease." My section was entitled "Good Germs, Bad Angels, Mutant Mice, and the Secret to Success," bringing together instructors from neuroscience, religion, sociology, and microbiology, but the general concept of the seminar is the same. And all of the student-written pieces come from the class that I helped teach. Here's an excerpt from Makoto Mori's description of ORDER:
Scrolling down a window on my web browser mindlessly to find a course to fill my writing requirement, I came across a class titled Good Germs, Bad Angels, Mutant Mice, and the Secret to Success. Not only did the title grab my attention, but also the fact that the course was cross-registered in eight different disciplines told me it deserved a detailed look. After reading the course description, I learned that this was a course designed to write a research grant proposal while hearing about experiences of researchers from various disciplines. It seemed to fit my interests perfectly. By that time, I was heavily involved in a computational chemistry research lab and was considering research as a component of my career. The only problem was securing a spot in the roster. Even as a senior, I struggled to find a spot and had to wait for one to open up.

So far in the class, we have listened to three PhD candidates in neuroscience, microbiology, and sociology speak to us about their research and life experiences that led them to their research topics. As an undergraduate at Emory, I had opportunities to listen to the lectures of many accomplished researchers, including Nobel laureates, but it was eye-opening to hear about what led the early-career researchers to their projects and accomplishments. Their personal stories made the career in research seem more approachable.

Go see what else Makoto, Zahra, and Billy had to say about our class and their independent research projects! I'm really proud of our students and I'm glad that these three chose to share their enthusiasm about the program.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Personal is Professional?

Last summer, when I was developing the curriculum for my ORDER teaching module, I started with a plan that hit the highlights of every biology course I've ever taken and every popular science book I've ever read: cool experiments, wacky phenotypes, stories about the history of science, elegant examples of fundamental concepts. I wanted to borrow from the best in order to supplement the story of my own research. At an early course development meeting, Dr. Lynn listened to my ideas and then gently suggested that I rethink the entire curriculum. He reminded me that I was supposed to design a unique new course. "You are the selling point," he told the Teacher-Scholars. He strongly encouraged all of us to spend class time discussing our personal journeys into academia and our reasons for choosing to study the things that we study. We were positioned as models and mentors for our undergraduate students, and he wanted them to learn about our lives as well as our dissertations.

I was initially resistant to the idea. Why spend time on my undergraduate research experiences when I could be talking about Nobel laureates? But, ultimately, I heeded Dr. Lynn's advice and centered my classes squarely on my thesis and the topics surrounding it (including a day on animal research, during which I told personal stories about how that aspect of my work makes me feel, in addition to more formal discussions of ethics and regulations). It's impossible to say whether my students would have preferred my original plan, but I think they enjoyed the module. And, I've noticed that my own blog reading habits seem to confirm what Dr. Lynn was emphasizing: science is more compelling when scientists feel like real people rather than detached manuscript authors. I love Research Blogging, but I find myself more likely to skim those posts on other blogs, and I've noticed that my own posts attract more comments when I talk about my personal experiences than when I review an article.

Sometimes I skip writing here because I don't feel like I have time to compose a well-researched scholarly analysis on whatever topic has popped into my head. I feel pressure to meet a high standard because I blog under my real name and I want future professional contacts who read this to think of me as a Serious Scientist. Especially after learning that my adviser regularly includes links to this blog when she writes me letters of recommendation! (The realization left me feeling both proud and terrified, which seems to be the optimal emotional state for PIs to evoke in their trainees.)

But, what I value most about science blogs is the community, and how fellow bloggers give me a window into the lives of my peers and near-peer role models. If that's what I'm getting out of it, perhaps I should put more in, and write more of that sort of content.

I hope to follow through with more self-reflective writing in the future, although the thought still weirds me out a little. I am debating whether or not to write a series of posts on my experiences with some neurologically-relevant phenomena (I swear this is not code for recreational drug use). Many of my favorite bloggers who write about the intersection of science with family responsibilities, personal crises, and social factors are pseudonymous. Given my... "nymity?"... I'd appreciate thoughts on the line where community-building crosses into over-sharing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hunger Hormone Enhances Sense of Smell

ResearchBlogging.orgThe smell of coffee wafting through the air this morning may have inspired me to write about this Journal of Neuroscience paper from Dr. Jenny Tong and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati. Their work showed the effects of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin on the olfactory system. It seems only logical that hunger should have effects on food-seeking behavior, including the detection of food smells. This study sheds light on the mechanisms through which ghrelin modulates olfactory processing in both rats and humans.

But first, a little background on the wonders of the olfactory system. I am not a systems or behavioral neuroscientist, but if I was, I would totally study olfaction. The olfactory system appeals to my interests in cellular, molecular, and developmental neuroscience. We all have tons of olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs), each of which somehow expresses only a single odorant receptor gene (out of approximately 1000, in humans). And each ORN, depending on which receptor it expresses, sends its axon into the olfactory bulb, where it joins up with the axons of all other ORNs expressing that receptor in a beautiful structure called a glomerulus. To get a sense of how cool that is, observe this image from Feinstein and Mombaerts (2004) showing mouse ORNs expressing an olfactory receptor called M71, labelled in blue:

Mouse ORNs, from Feinstein and Mombaerts, 2004

Check it out: neurons in the olfactory epithelium inside the nose (left side of the image) are exposed to the air, which allows them to bind to inhaled odorant molecules. They send their axons through a bone (the ethmoid) in olfactory nerve fibers that converge on the appropriate glomerulus (near the upper right corner). Glomeruli occur in stereotyped locations, residing in the same part of the olfactory bulb in every individual. What's not shown here is that there are ~2000 distinct glomeruli in the bulb, and ORNs always find the right ones. The olfactory system, in short, is really cool.

Studying olfaction doesn't just provide a great excuse to say words like "glomerulus" (Latin for "a small ball;" from the same root as "conglomerate," as in to roll a bunch of disparate things into a ball). The system is a minor miracle of carefully regulated gene expression, axon pathfinding, and tricky neural coding used to translate the activation of ORNs into a downright Proustian experience. Perhaps that's why the first people to figure some of this stuff out received a Nobel Prize.

But enough of my olfactory fangirling. Back to Dr. Tong and her colleagues, who were interested in how this elegant system functions after the glomeruli have formed and the animal is out there in the world, sniffing for food. Specifically, they wanted to know how changes in nutritional state affect olfaction. Do hungry animals differ from satiated animals in their food-seeking olfactory processes? To test this, the researchers specifically measured two factors important for functional olfaction: sniffing behavior and olfactory detection thresholds (that is, how sensitive are the ORNs to very low levels of an odorant?). They found that ghrelin enhances both.

Neuroendocrinologists have identified a bunch of hormones and neuropeptides that contribute to sensations of hunger and satiety, but the main "hunger hormone" is ghrelin. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and circulates throughout the body to stimulate feelings of hunger and increase food intake. (After learning about ghrelin in our first year systems neuroscience course, my classmates and I frequently invoked it at lunch time. "Are you ghrelin?" "Yeah, I'm ghrelin like a felon!" ... it was a timely joke in 2008, okay?) Interestingly, ghrelin receptors are found on facial motor neurons involved in sniffing movements, which implies that this hormone may regulate food-seeking behavior in part by inducing animals to start sniffing for their next meal.

For this study, the researchers first showed that ghrelin receptors are found not only in "sniff neurons" in the facial motor nuclei, but also in the olfactory bulb itself. This provides a mechanism through which ghrelin can modulate not just sniffing but also olfactory sensitivity. They confirmed that ghrelin increases olfactory sensitivity in rats by measuring whether the rats could detect very low levels of an odor in their drinking water. After rats were conditioned to avoid an odor (odorized water was paired with a drug that made the rats feel sick), Dr. Tong and colleagues measured how much the rats drank from a bottle of pure water versus a bottle containing very low concentrations of the odor. Rats that were given an infusion of ghrelin avoided the odorized water, even when the odor was diluted by a factor of 10-10. Untreated rats still drank from the most dilute odorized water bottles, indicating that they were unable to detect the odor at such low concentrations. This implies that ghrelin binding to olfactory brain regions lowers the threshold of odor detection -- in other words, 'hungry' animals are more sensitive to smells. There does seem to be a maximum level of ghrelin-mediated olfactory sensitivity, however: rats that fasted overnight were more sensitive to odors than rats that had recently eaten, but treating the fasting rats with ghrelin did not further improve their ability to detect very weak odors.

Dr. Tong et al. also showed that ghrelin increased exploratory sniffing in rats "using a video-based, fully automated behavior analysis system (HomeCageScan, Clever Sys) that recognizes, records, and quantifies the movement of the nose tip while the animal was either fully or partially reared in a home-cage environment." (That is not even close to the funniest/weirdest sentence from an olfaction paper, either. My favorite is from Stowers et al., 2002: "The time required to discover a hidden cookie (latency) is similar in mutant and wild-type mice," followed by a graph of "cookie latency." Cookie latency is a standard measure in the olfactory behavior literature. This particular paper contains other LOLs, though -- it's about how mice that lack a certain ion channel lose the ability to distinguish between males and females, and thus display indiscriminate mating behavior. End immature parenthetical.)

The researchers also measured sniffing behavior in humans. Here, I think, is where the Materials and Methods section of the paper becomes really awesome:

Sniffing behavior was evaluated using the sniff magnitude test (SMT) as described previously. Briefly, a canister was placed ∼2 cm beneath the nose, and subjects were instructed to take a single, natural sniff as would be taken when sampling a perfume or food. The stimuli used were as follows: nonodorized air, baby power odor (baby power fragrance oil, 50% dilution, The Good Scents Co.), banana odor (isoamyl acetate, 1% dilution, Sigma-Aldrich), and tomato odor and rosemary chicken odor (both undiluted, formulated by Givaudan). Three sniffing trials were collected for each odorant and six for air. A specialized software program identified the initiation of sniffing, recorded sniff pressure at 10 ms intervals, summed sniff pressures, and measured each sniff's duration during a 5 s sampling period. The sum of the pressure values was defined as the sniff magnitude. The subjects were also asked to rate the pleasantness of the odors immediately after each trial using a visual analog scale [scores ranging from −5 (slightly unpleasant) to 15 (best smell ever)]. The order of stimulus presentation was randomized. The average sniff magnitude and odor pleasantness ratings were used for data analysis.

Subjects were given the SMT after an infusion of saline or of varying levels of ghrelin. The result was that the cumulative sniff magnitude was significantly increased by all doses of ghrelin, but not by saline. Ghrelin treatment had no significant effect on the pleasantness rating of any odor, however. (I wonder why the scale doesn't go below -5? Artificial banana odor sounds more than "slightly unpleasant" to me. Certainly nowhere near "best smell ever.")

In sum, ghrelin increases an olfactory food-seeking behavior (sniffing) in both rats and humans, as well as olfactory sensitivity in rats. No measurements of odor detection threshold were made in humans, however, which I found a bit disappointing. It would be unethical to induce conditioned odor aversions in humans, but it seems like it should be possible to ask people to discriminate between scented and unscented samples, or between two different odors at very low concentrations. Perhaps it was too difficult to design that study, or to recruit enough participants interested in receiving i.v. ghrelin infusions. (Perhaps a "ghrelin like a felon" TV commercial would be helpful?)

One surprising result of this study was that ghrelin levels had no effect on sniffing for food odors vs. non-food orders, nor on how participants rated the pleasantness of individual odors. Other studies have shown that feelings of hunger increase human preferences for food odors, but these results imply that those effects are not due specifically to the action of ghrelin. Rather, ghrelin seems to upregulate food-seeking behaviors like sniffing without necessarily affecting the hedonic value (pleasantness) of food-related cues. Perhaps other appetite and satiety hormones, like orexin and leptin, are involved in food odor preferences in hungry individuals. This just goes to show that even the most basic biological drives (everyone eats!) aren't as simple as we might expect.


Tong J, Mannea E, Aimé P, Pfluger PT, Yi CX, Castaneda TR, Davis HW, Ren X, Pixley S, Benoit S, Julliard K, Woods SC, Horvath TL, Sleeman MM, D'Alessio D, Obici S, Frank R, & Tschöp MH (2011). Ghrelin enhances olfactory sensitivity and exploratory sniffing in rodents and humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 31 (15), 5841-5846 PMID: 21490225

Feinstein P, & Mombaerts P (2004). A contextual model for axonal sorting into glomeruli in the mouse olfactory system. Cell, 117 (6), 817-31 PMID: 15186781

Stowers L, Holy TE, Meister M, Dulac C, & Koentges G (2002). Loss of sex discrimination and male-male aggression in mice deficient for TRP2. Science, 295 (5559), 1493-500 PMID: 11823606

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

OIST Developmental Neurobiology Short Course

I'm very pleased to announce that I will be spending two weeks of my summer in Okinawa, Japan to participate in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology's Developmental Neurobiology Course. Given how much fun I had at last summer's Gordon Conference on Neural Development, I'm sure I'll return with a head full of ideas for exciting new experiments, just in time to have them shot down at my next committee meeting. No, but seriously, it sounds really cool. And as a bonus, all my travel expenses are covered by OIST.

I have to admit that I am a little hesitant about traveling to a far-off location for several weeks by myself. It's not like I'll be wandering around lost in a foreign country -- science conferences and courses are very structured, and all of our sight-seeing will be supervised. But I've never traveled to a meeting without classmates or labmates before, and I've never traveled internationally for work at all. My nervousness has reminded me that I'm privileged to live in close proximity to most major scientific conferences. I don't envy the jet-lagged folks from around the world at SfN each year, and now I'll get to walk a mile in their shoes.

Despite my qualms about the travel, I'm excited about the course. I'm especially looking forward to the lectures and labs on invertebrate development, since most of my research experience is in mammalian systems. I have wondered if I should try to do a postdoc using flies or worms instead of mice, but my only experience with Drosophila was in sophomore year bio lab, and I've never even seen a C. elegans nematode in person. The course will provide some hands-on experience and a lot of interaction with experts in these systems, so I hope to come away with a better idea of what it would be like to work in an invertebrate lab.

In general I'm left a little stunned that someone wants to give me an all-expense-paid science vacation. I'm pulling a 13-hour work day today (not typical; it's a long story) and haven't had a work-free weekend in quite a while, but I have to say that the perks of being a grad student are pretty cool.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Wicked Burn, PhD

Me (giving lab meeting): I'm not sure if this protein motif is important or not. It seems conserved, but then again, if you stare at the amino acid sequence long enough, you start to see all kinds of stuff.
Labmate: Like the face of Jesus?
Me: I've never looked for Jesus in a protein sequence. But I did BLAST my own name once, to look for MARIANI peptides.
Adviser: ...Wow.
Me: Bet you didn't know I was that much of a dork, huh?
Adviser: Oh, no. I knew you were that much of a dork.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Next Steps for Undergraduate Researchers

In my last post, I wrote about the undergraduate teaching I've been doing this year, and about my attempts to guide interested students along the path to careers in research. The other ORDER Teacher-Scholars and I serve as role models by talking about our personal journeys to graduate school alongside our research findings. In addition, we try to design lectures and classroom activities that will be helpful to our students outside the context of this course. We also provide group and individual mentoring for students pursuing their own research interests.

I've been thinking a lot about where our students might go after completing our seminar. How can we help them apply what they've learned? Can they aspire to something more than just an 'A' on their transcripts? Can our class help them add a line or two to their CVs? In that vein, here are some of the goals that I've encouraged my students to pursue.

Undergraduate Research

This seems a little redundant, given the title of my post, but not all of our students are currently engaged in research on campus. Last semester, the students were all first years, so they hadn't the opportunity to get involved in research yet. By structuring our course around our own research process and requiring the freshmen to design and carry out their own projects, we tried to empower them to think of themselves as researchers and scholars.

Since the end of the fall semester, I've had five students (out of 18) contact me with questions about finding a lab. I've written letters of recommendation for summer research programs, encouraged students to apply for Emory's SIRE and SURE fellowships, provided lists of Emory faculty working in various fields, and even helped one student join my adviser's lab. I'm very pleased with this outcome. Although the majority of the credit surely goes to the high-achieving students themselves, I like to think that the mentoring we provided had at least some impact on students seeking out research opportunities.

Education and Outreach

Each student in the ORDER seminar formulates a group or individual research project. In addition to writing papers about their findings, the students are required to integrate a "creative component" into presentations of their work. Last semester, students made videos, wrote and performed original songs (with costumes and choreography!), and acted out skits to convey the key points of their research to an audience of their peers. We also encouraged them to think about how they might convey their work to other audiences, like K-12 students or the general public. In class, I've promoted programs like Brain Awareness Week, where students can use their creative presentation skills to engage kids in discussions of neuroscience. I tell my students that this kind of outreach is important for scientists who depend upon public interest to fund their work, and that volunteering in an area related to your field also looks good on your CV.

Last semester's students will soon be participating in an event for high schoolers who are considering an Emory education. They will present their original research projects and answer questions from the visiting students. I haven't heard whether any of them have been motivated to volunteer off campus as a result of the class, but maybe they'll be more inclined to do so next year, when they're allowed to have cars!


Most scientists scoff at the thought of publishing a paper after only a semester's worth of work on a project. (Although, I do know a few lucky grad students who were able to publish the results of their rotation projects!) For an undergraduate, though, a semester-long research project is a substantial achievement, and many of our students are interested in learning how to publish their results. This semester, one student also asked me about publishing a lengthy review-style article that he wrote for a previous class.

I identified a couple of journals in my field that would be appropriate venues for this kind of work. The Journal of Young Investigators publishes scientific research articles, reviews, editorials, and features. They also sponsor a snazzy virtual poster presentation contest:

For students particularly interested in neuroscience, there's also Impulse, an undergraduate journal of neuroscience.

Both of these journals feature peer review by other undergraduates under the supervision of faculty sponsors. While most submissions are eventually accepted, students submitting to the journals will still go through a dialogue with the editors and typically make a round or two of revisions. It's a good introduction to the publication process, and it provides another way for students to get credit for the high level of work that we ask of them in class.


This semester, we're having our upper-level undergraduates write mock funding proposals. Many of the science students have shown an interest in NSF Graduate Research Fellowships or NIH Intramural Research Training Awards. We hope that by asking our students to design research projects and write them up in a grant-style format (including a background and significance section, a research strategy and timeline, and a personal statement), we can prepare them to actually submit these sorts of proposals.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't even know that these funding sources existed. Learning about them will definitely give our students an advantage. But, grant writing is hard, and it has been challenging for me to mentor a diverse group of students who are all at different stages in the research process. Some have already spent years working on a project in an Emory lab, while others aren't sure what kind of graduate program interests them the most (a few haven't even picked an undergraduate major!). I'm trying to set reasonable expectations for my students, given that many of them have never attempted anything like this before. But, I also want to make sure they understand that in order to get a proposal funded, they will have to work hard, revise a lot of drafts, and read more than a handful of primary sources.

I hope that I'll be able to report back later this year with an update about what our students have achieved! I've been putting a lot of effort into teaching (to my adviser's occasional chagrin...), and perhaps my ambitious goals are a result of the newbie's rose-colored glasses. But, I'm having fun. Last week I met with a small group of students to talk about their grant proposals. When class time had run out, several of them stayed late to continue our conversation. One told me that she didn't want to leave because this was her favorite class. I never get that kind of feedback from mice in the lab!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Undergraduate Researchers: What's Their Next Step?

I've written before about my participation in a teaching fellowship called On Recent Discoveries by Emory Researchers (ORDER), but I wanted to reflect a little more on my experiences working with the talented undergraduates in these classes. Because I want to preserve my students' privacy/anonymity, I'll be discussing them and their research projects in fairly general terms. But, I will say that I have been consistently impressed with my students. I'm privileged to be a mentor for them as they pursue their academic goals.

The cool thing about ORDER is that it's interdisciplinary. Last fall, ORDER fellows (we're actually called "Teacher-Scholars" in official ORDER materials) taught a first year seminar for the incoming class of INSPIRE students. This meant that most of our class had an interest in the sciences, and some had even pursued scientific research experiences in high school. Even so, when they were asked to devise independent research projects as part of the course, the students created and tested hypotheses that spanned the social sciences as well as the biological sciences. Several of them also decided to take classes in the social sciences and humanities after completing our course. This was at least in part because of the research shared by Teacher-Scholars from the Department of Sociology and the Graduate Division of Religion, as well as the students' own inquiries into non-science topics.

This semester, my ORDER cohort is teaching a similar course for upper-level undergraduates in multiple disciplines. (The seminar is cross-listed in: Chemistry, Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Physics, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, and Theatre Arts!) Our students are more advanced than last semester's freshmen. Most are currently pursuing research and/or have decided that they are interested in postgraduate education. Many of them have been supported up until this point by the awesome undergraduate research programs at Emory. They are so awesome, in fact, that there are YouTube videos documenting them!

Programs like Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory (SIRE) support undergrads working in all majors, not just the sciences. I know of many universities that have scientific research opportunities for students, either during the summer or the academic year, but it seems less common for disciplines like sociology. So, I think it's really cool that Emory is supporting research by students like Kristen Clayton:

By providing a pool of funds dedicated to undergraduate researchers, SIRE allows all students to access a research experience. This is crucial — some faculty might not be able or willing to pay an undergrad from their own funds, and many students don't have the financial luxury of taking an unpaid position. SIRE also provides training in communication skills, research ethics, and other important areas that students will need to master for a successful career.

In working with these students (not just SIRE fellows, although I think the presence of the program encourages more Emory undergrads to get involved in research in general), I've been thinking more about how the other Teacher-Scholars and I can prepare them to take the next step in their research careers. How can we help them use their Emory experiences as a jumping-off point for their graduate and professional education? Pondering this has forced me to think outside my own areas of expertise — I'm responsible for mentoring neuroscientists, but also chemists, sociologists, humanists, artists, and students who still haven't made up their minds about what they want to do.

In my next post, I'll share a couple of the ideas that I've come up with (in collaboration with other members of the ORDER program). In the mean time, I'd be interested in hearing ideas from the peanut gallery of the academic blogosphere. How would you approach this kind of class? What do you wish you'd known when you were preparing to graduate from college, and how can I convey that information to my students?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Self-Promotion

There's been some buzz around the blogosphere lately about the Science Online '11 panel on "Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name." Especially interesting to me (and a lot of other people!) was Ed Yong's comment that while he receives lots of inquiries from male bloggers asking him to promote their work, he has never received a single message of the sort from a woman. Prof. Kate Clancy wrote about this at her blog, and there's some great discussion in the comments, too. Dr. Becca spun off from the discussion to talk about her own self-promotion tour, which sounds pretty awesome.

These posts got me thinking about ways in which I promote myself and my work, or fail to. For example: Back in 2008, when I was applying to graduate schools, I was still working as a technician at Children's Hospital Boston. Because of the hospital's affiliation with Harvard Medical School, all kinds of fabulous scientists came to visit and give seminars on a regular basis. It's standard for students and postdocs to have lunch with visiting speakers at most institutions, including Children's. Technicians are less likely to be invited, though. Then one day, a Famous Guy from a Really Good University came to give a talk. I was really excited, because I had decided to apply to Really Good University's Neuroscience Graduate Program, and I was interested in Famous Guy's lab. So my PI said that I should go to the student/postdoc lunch with Famous Guy and introduce myself.

Well. The time came for lunch, and I sat there with my sandwich and cookie at a huge conference room table with like 15 trainees and Famous Guy. I had never been to one of these lunches before and I felt very intimidated. I thought the grad students and postdocs were much smarter than me, and that they probably had cooler projects, and were more successful, and I had no idea what to say to Famous Guy about my own project, or my graduate school dreams. And, forget about asking a question about his research -- I was sure that any question I had would do nothing but reveal how ignorant I was about his field.

At one point, Famous Guy asked everyone at the table to go around in a circle to introduce themselves and summarize their research (also fairly standard at these lunches). As I listened to everyone else, I started to feel more comfortable -- I might have been clueless about Famous Guy's work, but at least I could describe what I'd been doing for the past 18 months and sound halfway intelligent. I waited for my turn, thinking about a punchy elevator pitch for my coolest result.

So, the person on my left finished talking, and then there was a bit of discussion around the table as Famous Guy asked questions and other people jumped in to answer them or ask their own questions. I waited for a lull so that I could get back to the introduction game and have my say. And then, the woman on my right took the opportunity to jump into the discussion. She said "I want to ask you about something, because my project is focused on [stuff], and I think it really relates to your work on [other stuff], so what do you think of [idea]?"

Famous Guy was really interested in her idea, and they started this rapid conversation about her project and stuff related to her project that lasted for the last remaining minutes of the lunch. She totally skipped me! I was so flummoxed; I had no idea what to do. Everyone else had talked about their science while I just ate a sandwich.

At the time, I projected all of my resentment onto the trainee sitting to my right, who had seized the moment and gotten Famous Guy's attention. I felt like this had to be an intentional slight against me, and that she was being rude by not giving me a perfect moment of silence in which I could give my spiel. But now I realize that being heard at a group discussion requires that kind of assertiveness, and I know she wasn't trying to steamroll me. She had to kind of steamroll everybody, or else she wouldn't get a chance to share her idea. (Looking back, I also think that they had way too many trainees in the room for that lunch -- things are much more pleasant when there like five trainees, and everyone has time to gab about the weather or whatever in addition to the science talk.)

Anyway, I didn't get into Really Good Graduate Program. I didn't even get an interview. But I got interviews at five other graduate programs, and was accepted to all of them. During one-on-one interviews, I felt very comfortable talking about my project at Children's and my other accomplishments. I was able to get over my shyness, and people responded positively to what I had to say, which increased my confidence.

I've continued to get better at the game. This week I had lunch with two different seminar speakers at Emory. Now that I've had more training, I'm able to see how my work relates to the speaker's work, most of the time, and ask intelligent questions. I'm also no longer afraid to say, "I hadn't even heard of [thing you study] until I looked it up on PubMed yesterday, but is it possible that [insert wacky idea related to my project]...?" And, I no longer resent it when another student or postdoc monopolizes the speaker's attention. Instead, I wait for a pause, and then say something like, "Well, I guess I should introduce myself: I'm Laura..." (Or, if I've already had my turn, I'll say, "Hey, I don't think [other person at lunch] talked about her work yet... did I miss it?")

I really enjoy these opportunities to meet visiting scientists and talk about my research with them. The trainee lunches are nice because they give me a chance to ask my stupid questions in front of a smaller group, since I'm still usually too scared to raise my hand at seminars in the big auditorium. Obviously I need to get over this. I also need to work on putting myself out there at conferences, where the Famous Guy types tend to walk around surrounded by a herd of admirers. I have not yet mastered the technique of getting their attention in a crowd, so if they don't visit my poster, I'm kinda out of luck.

My blog is another story. What's the equivalent of the trainee lunch (i.e., self-promotion training wheels) for science bloggers?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bad Project

This video has gone viral amongst Emory neuroscience students on Facebook, so I thought I'd share it here. I love the costume design!

Contains swearing, so might be NSFW, depending on your work.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Long Time No See!

Hello, blogosphere! It's been a while.

I spent the past few months dealing with the busiest semester of my life. Here's a little summary of what I've been up to:

I submitted my first grant ever! After submitting for the August deadline, my NRSA was scored, but the percentile was not good enough to be funded. Still, not bad for a first try. I've taken the comments and used them to whip my grant into shape for resubmission. In fact, I'm revising it right now for the American Heart Association's predoctoral fellowship. (I know what you're thinking -- why is a neuroscientist applying for funds from the American Heart Association? They also fund research on stroke, and on "related fundamental problems" in basic science.)

I went to a sweet Gordon conference! The Neural Development one, at Salve Regina College up in Rhode Island. I also used the meeting as an excuse to go visit a bunch of friends in Boston. The whole trip was a blast. I definitely want to go back for the 2012 meeting, and I may try hit another Gordon conference this summer. Emory just sprang for $650/year in professional development funds for every single graduate student, so I hope to attend a small conference and SfN this year.

I taught my first class as an instructor (as opposed to a TA)! My first semester as an ORDER Teacher-Scholar was great. I teamed up with three other grad students to teach a seminar about our research on diverse topics. The freshmen in our class learned all about neuroscience, microbiology, sociology, and ancient apocalyptic literature. I was blown away by how talented Emory students are -- the students' research projects were creative and interesting, and their papers were actually fun to grade. This spring I'll be teaching a modified version of the same course to upper-level students. I'm looking forward to revising my lesson plans to keep the things that worked and tweak the things that didn't. (One thing that worked: I had the students score abstracts in a mock study section! Clearly, I had grant writing on the brain.)

I finished my coursework! After a scheduling issue last spring, I had to take an elective in the fall to complete all of my required credits. I ended up in a seminar about ion channels. Ion channels aren't really related to my research, but reading X-ray crystallography papers made me feel smart (and also, at times, really dumb).

I mentored a student in the lab! She's still working with me, actually, and doing a great job on her project. In the process of training her, I've gained new respect for all of the people who trained me, and a little bit of new respect for myself, when I consider just how much I've learned over the past eight years in various labs. It's a lot to teach! But it's been a lot of fun thus far.

I PASSED MY QUALIFYING EXAMS! Yeah, that deserves all caps. Be glad I'm not using the < blink > tag. I'm a PhD candidate now! My entire cohort passed quals on the first try, because that's how hard we rock.

And, last but certainly not least, I got married on January 2! (I remain Ms. Mariani, for those who may be wondering if my Blogspot address and Twitter handle will need to change.)

I definitely would not have made it through 2010 without a supportive partner to start dinner, fold laundry, buy groceries, pick me up from classes that ended after the bus stopped running, and listen to me vent when I was stressed to the breaking point. While I would not necessarily recommend planning a wedding during one's craziest year of grad school, I'm thrilled to start the new semester as a newlywed.

Most of Atlanta has been snowed in for the past week (!), and I'm enjoying the lull before going back to academic life. Here's hoping that 2011 is a bit more laid back than 2010, so I can return to regular blogging.