Saturday, May 14, 2016

Why do I always think the words “suggested” and “possible” imply “optional”?

So, technically, they do. But it always evades me that an assignment being “suggested” is like hearing “I suggest you don’t leave your dog’s crap on my lawn.” Technically it’s optional, but… you also might end up staring at flaming dog poop at some point in the near future questioning at what point your life took this turn. Here’s to hoping my blog posts actually satisfied the suggested topics and weren’t just humorous sentences that left the instructors wondering, “Okay but where’s the actual assignment?”

I’ve also learned to triple check due dates. Just because you swear everyone has said “5 pm,” it’s equally likely everything is due at 11 am and you’re going to be the sad individual copying and pasting things that were done days ago into a box at 4 pm hoping you don’t end up staring at flaming dog poop in a week questioning the meaning of life.

My internal dialogue

Fairly often, I find myself thinking back to the saying “time flies,” but not just when you’re having fun. Judging from the number of times I’ve heard things along the lines of “those four years are just gonna fly by,” I think we can all agree that if we could take the derivate of time, its second derivative would be positive. Not to beat sayings we’ve all heard before to death, but it’s like we’re on a bus going downhill and the brakes don’t work and all of a sudden there’s no such thing as friction and the road is life and welcome to the struggle bus.

Sometimes I take a moment to admire the beauty of it.

Sometimes I pause, take a breath, and just stand there thinking about the game it feels like life is playing with us. Don’t get me wrong, I do not complain about the going being rough or having too much work. I know what I signed up; we all do. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t made an active choice to do so. But I bemusedly contemplate my outlook on life, how I desperately cling to the thought “next week will be better” or “these two weeks are tough but it’ll get lighter soon,” and I think a lot of us feel that way. Or when that moment to breathe finally comes, we find ourselves scared to actually relax.


I guess I should be frightened by the realization that this is probably never going to go away, but the truth is I don’t want it to. Life would be boring otherwise, at least for me. These blog posts are worth maybe 1% of my final grade, but there’s something strangely relaxing, pleasantly calm, about sitting down and having an excuse to get my thoughts together. Not “how am I laying this essay/paper/report out” thoughts, but straight up “what am I actually thinking” thoughts. It’s easy to get lost in your head but it’s also so easy to lose yourself in your head, to forget you are a person who exists in there and have your own thoughts and desires and needs and wishes. It’s so easy to forget how valuable you are as a person, that you’re more than all the assignments you have to do, more than that list on your calendar of things you need to accomplish today.

And even though I wrote 95% of this three or four weeks ago, it’s no less relevant now than it was when I sat there for two hours procrastinating on a Tuesday night. Bring it on, life. Although in a week I hope to be staring at a flaming grill, I’ll take whatever is thrown at me in stride, as I have and as I always will. And maybe I’ll learn to actually pay closer attention to not only the due dates, but also the times.  

Some things get better, some things never change

“Huh, journal club?” I remember thinking.

“What in the world is a journal club?”

I bemusedly considered the similarity between the words “journal club” and “babysitters’ club” – I vaguely recalled that might have been a book series I had never read not intended to read.

Fast forward a little bit to me thinking, “Oh, public speaking? That’s totally fine!” And no, that wasn’t sarcasm – I genuinely have never really minded public speaking, although I don’t necessarily reallyyy like it. “How hard could this be?”

It was not the public speaking that was difficult, nope, it was finding time to prepare. In my defense, I got stuck with my presentation day, and the week I did my presentation was absolutely jammed with assignments. Going into it I knew I wasn’t prepared well enough, but alas, what could I do? I had put as much time as I could into making my slides flow with the points I wanted to hit, I added an animation here and there, and I practiced… once.

Oh my Jesus, I thought, this is not going to end well. But it didn’t end terribly, and in the end, I was really pleasantly surprised by how fairly I felt I had been graded. However, I wanted a second chance. I needed a second chance. I wanted to prove I could do it better. I eagerly awaited the final assignment, the research proposal, and when it came around, I discovered that – some things change, others don’t.

I had expected to have more time to work on the presentation, but even though I objectively did have more time, somehow it got lost (in the research, I’m 98% sure) and I ended up feeling the same sense of foreboding and “I wish I had more time to prepare.” Luckily, I practiced more than just once, which truly paid off, but I think there was a much bigger factor leading to my improved presentation performance – I realized how to make presentation slides.

Although my questionable allocation of time may not have changed much – I still spent way too much time deciding on how to lay out figures and pictures and too little practicing – my preparation was drastically better because I realized you need to figure out what you’re saying first.

I know – surprise!!!

You’d think it’s common sense, but I find that what is common about common sense is how commonly we entirely forget it exists.

Now, this might not work for everyone, but writing down what you’re saying before making your slides is the ultimate time-saver and the best way to prepare. Your slides are there to supplement what you’re saying, not to guide your speech. You’re presenting an idea with the help of slides – not presenting slides with the help of an idea. Having first written out a speech and made slides to supplement it, I was able to go into my presentation feeling confident in what I was going to say and not feeling like I relied on the slides to guide me. When I realized just how much this strategy had helped me, I almost wanted to look at my slides and go “Who’s the boss now????”

But PowerPoint is still intimidating and the understanding of how its themes work still evades me, so maybe I’ll hold off on antagonizing Microsoft Office for a little while longer. 

Sometimes what you discover about yourself is neither particularly new nor surprising

- and a heartfelt thank you to Bremy for being an amazing lab partner.

~ ~ ~

I have this really bad habit of leaving things partially undone, in this sad state of 90% completion, for all eternity. Like for example, blog posts. I have no less than 4 blog post drafts that only require a final pass through, and of course, I waited until the very last day to finalize my last couple of blogs and post them. And, of course, in classic me fashion, I decided to sit down and just start a new one from scratch.

The same thing happened throughout the whole semester… I sit down and plan things out, get a ton of pieces done, and then just kind of push it aside at the final step when all the pieces just need to be glued together. Now, although technically this is something I learned about myself this semester, it’s also neither new nor surprising – my mom has been telling me this my whole life. The number of projects I’ve started only to lose interest right before completing them… It’s enough to drive just about any mother insane. So Leslie – I swear I wasn’t lying when I turned in homework late and said it was because it was almost finished just scattered in pieces through a few Word documents on my computer!

A questionably accurate representation of what Leslie saw at one point during the semester

Now, this ties in really well to another character trait that I learned some new things about – my teamwork abilities. In this case, I myself have worried on many occasions that I may never be able to be a good team player because I’ve always tended towards the alpha side in situations requiring cooperation. As you can imagine, this, when combined with the tendency for my attention to fluctuate, doesn’t make for a good teamwork situation… Enter: Bremy!

Bremy and I were both skeptical of each other, to be honest. Unlike most other groups, we just kinda… happened. I was the odd one out and he happened to join our section on the second day. But it was like a match made in lab partner heaven. While I oscillate between crazy, hyper, psycho cat thing and demure, is-she-still-alive blob, Bremy is a consistently calm, determined, motivated workhorse chugging along – so we perfectly filled in all the roles a good partnership needs. I had the excitement to get the ball rolling and brighten the day, and he could push me forward when my excitement waned. He never lost his patience when I would pull up ten different Word documents with thoughts all over the place as he pulled up one well-organized file. I never stopped annoying him with my outbursts of “Oh! I just had an idea!!” And I never tired of sighing “Bremy, let me take that paragraph and rephrase it into a sentence,” and luckily, he never had any hard feelings!

Once a high school newspaper editor, always an annoying "wait I can rephrase that" connoisseur 

So in the end, although when it came to learning about myself I didn’t discover mind-blowing new abilities or crazy hidden weaknesses, I did discover the magic of finding a work partner with whom you just… work. I definitely gained a brand-new appreciation for working with another person, something I had never been able to do well in the past, and I finally found myself being able to whole-heartedly trust the person I was working with. For once, I don't agree with these pie charts for haterz: 

20.109 - dispelling every preconception you've ever had and making you question the fabric of reality

20.109 definitely taught me more about the real world than any other class I have taken ever.  Not only was it the most useful and practical class I have taken, it was one that made me finally understand what biological engineering really is. Trying to come up with a topic for the research proposal presentation was the most interesting yet challenging task we had yet faced. There were just so many possibilities, so many interesting topics, and the fact that the sky was the limit when it came to fields of science that bioengineering can be applied to made it so difficult to narrow it down.  No seriously you can go into neuroscience, molecular biology, bioinstrumentation, medicine, biochemistry, biomechanics, ecology, genetics, the list goes on and on. And that's the best part! Now when someone asks me what bioengineering is, I know it can be anything I want it to be, there is no set one answer that encompasses all the possibilities. I truly have to say thank you to all of the instructors for making me confident in being a course 20, and making me love my major. 

Thank you for a great semester, all the time and hard work you guys put into engineering the modules and fixing all the things that went wrong after hours, all the weekend office hours for hours on end with endless snacks, and most importantly for helping me improve my skills as a researcher so drastically in such a short amount of time.  I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and 20.109 will truly be missed (even Friday afternoon labs :D).

Evolution of my Writing Experience in 20.109

Mod 1 Protein Summary:

  • I write too much
  • Why does everything have to be in bullets?
  • Seems kind of choppy
  • What on earth am I supposed to say about this?
  • At least I have my partner
  • Promised myself I would revise on the flight home
  • I didn't necessarily lie to myself
  • But we still did most of the revision the night before
  • Sorry for the somewhat sassy revision cover letter

Mod 2 Research Article:

Now I was all on my own. There was no Nicole to help me with some miraculous new idea. Not only that, but we would not be given a revision step with feedback. Also, my thoughts actually had to be written down in concise sentences, which was still a skill I didn't possess. I spent many hours writing my report, finding peace and quiet either at Stata, the Stud, or one of the mini lounges in four east. I spent over 32 hours working on that report. The funny part is that I still don't have any closure: Nicole and I received each other's graded articles and have yet to exchange them.

Mod 3 Mini Report:


Money on my mind...

Of all the times I have been asked to come up with the kookiest, craziest, most ambitious research project I could think of, I've never before had the task of constructing it into a grant proposal. In Module 3, we were asked to go beyond the bounds of our imagination, while maintaining a real-world-applicable structure. With time and resource constraints to be considered, the kookiest science I could come up with became a lot more real.

Because now we're training to be real live biological engineers. And it's not just the money that was on my mind. Going through 20.109, especially focussing on the grant proposal in Module 3, has taught me that research is more than just what happens in the lab. There is no lab fairy to magically replenish our supplies, and no matter the outcome of the project, our science must have relevance to the wider scientific (and human!) community. The world informs our science, and our science informs the world. And no matter where I go, or what I do, the lesson of this consideration will remain with me throughout my biological engineering life.

Thank You For Everything

Yes, I'm going to write a completely cheesy post. My roommate would say that I'm being a total "cheese sandwich." However, I think a few very special people deserve my immense gratitude.

Dear Leslie,
Thank you so much for being the main person I could go to for any questions. I swear, we have these long email chains that mainly consisted of me frantically asking for advice or clarification on a major assignment. You always took the time to ease my anxiety as soon as you could. I know that looking over slides I sent you or some of my questions took time away from your family. I know how valuable that time must be for you and I'm very grateful for that. Thank you for making yourself so approachable and such a great professor to work with!

Dear Noreen,
Thank you for being such a positive force. Every morning you would always smile and say good to everyone who walked into class. You'd ask how our week had been and if there was anything going on the next weekend. Although someone might consider those things small or just being polite, those actions can really change a person's day from a bad start to a good one. Thank you for listening to my embarrassing story when I was worried about the journal club presentation and sharing your own. Thank you for coming in on a Sunday so I could make up the protein purification lab. You're truly a kind person!

Dear Maxine,
Thank you for going the extra mile. On multiple occasions I had heard you had prepared something for our lab the next day or was told "Ask Maxine, she's the expert on this." There were many times during lab that I would be struggling with a calculation and all I would have to say is "Hey Maxine, could you help me with this?" and you'd come over, check our calculation, double check your calculation, and offer me any help you could. Thank you for suggesting research articles for possible explanations in our Mod 3 mini report. Thank you for being supportive and taking the extra step to help me understand something better.

To you three lovely ladies, thank you for all the time and effort you have dedicated to this course and to our success. I hope you all have a relaxing and amazing summer! Perhaps I might see you around?

Best Regards,
Liz Strand