Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What's the point of a PhD?

The Other Grad Student (TOGS) mentioned today that her sister is thinking of going into grad studies perhaps in England. Apparently someone told her sister or she read somewhere that a masters degree takes about a year and a PhD about three years in England. Not knowing much about grad studies in England I questioned this. I mentioned that usually shorter graduate degrees rely more on courses rather than actual experimental data and publications. TOGS didn't think so. She figured three years is all you need to get a PhD and that over here in North America 5 or 6 year PhDs in science are ridiculous. I'll admit that few people like to be in school that long but that's what a PhD is. TOGS logic went like this: research in grad studies is quite repetitive in the case of the experiments you do and so to learn the actual techniques doesn't take long. And learning how to analyze experiments isn't all that difficult so why does a PhD need to take 5 or 6 years?

I agree with the techniques not taking long to learn and sure analysis isn't all that difficult if you understand the point of the experiment but her comments about grad school left me wondering if she has learned anything in her five years. In my opinion if you want to just learn techniques and analysis then take a lab technician course and not grad studies. The point of grad studies isn't to just learn techniques and how to analyze data. It's critical thinking, being able to develop a clear research plan to effectively test a hypothesis and then being able to write up those results in a coherent format that will not only be publishable but will add to the current knowledge in that area. Sure that could be taught in a course but I think you need to actually do the work to be able develop the skills. I mean I could read a whole manual on how to fly an airplane but that doesn't mean I would be able to. Same with grad school, you can't learn critical thinking from a textbook.

Maybe I'm wrong and TOGS is right, grad school is all about the techniques you learn. Somehow I doubt that though since how many profs do you see doing actual lab work? So what should you get out of a PhD besides a lovely piece of paper?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong

Why is it that experiments that are supposed to be easy and straight forward always find a way to not work out?

For example, my co-IPs. I did them about a month ago and all was good. I got the result I wanted and did a happy dance. It was a good day indeed. So now I need to go through the formality of confirming the results. I do the co-IPs again on another set of cell lysates. I made sure I did it pretty much the same as with the first set. Well apparently not. It seems that I have a lot of background in lanes that are supposed to have nothing. So frustrating! This was supposed to be a simple confirmation experiment. Now for the trouble shooting. I normally wouldn't be so angry about having to re-do an experiment since this is science afterall and it's expected but I pretty much only have this experiment and one more (hopefully simple) experiment left to do and I just want to get them done. It just seems like the science gods are against me.

Oh and on that note I ordered some stuff for an experiment like a week and a half ago and I still don't have it. I went to our departmental order desk to see what's up with the order. It seems that the reason I don't have it yet is because they only ordered it on Friday - NINE DAYS AFTER I SENT THE ORDER TO THEM!!! Hello?!? I didn't order it because I need it next month I ordered it because I need it now. I swear the world doesn't want me to get my degree.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

La Cucaracha

The other day I had a very unwelcome visitor in the lab. I come strolling into the lab bright and early and what do I see staring back at me? That's right, a cockroach!!! I seriously considered turning around and walking right back out of the lab and calling it a day. But I had things to do and figured I'm not going to let a cockroach stop me. The cockroach was huge too. Ick. There used to be quite a bad cockroach problem in our building a few years ago but once they cracked down on the problem I haven't seen any for a few years. They even had the cockroach police at one time who you were supposed to report sightings to and we were instructed to kill the cockroaches upon contact. I left the killing up to the men in the lab. Well that was a few years ago and now the lab consists of me and another woman. She wasn't in yet for the day so it was just me and the cockroach all alone. Although even if she was in she probably would have ran away from it faster than I did.

So plan A in the battle of me versus the cockroach was a passive one - just leave it alone. It was on the other side of the lab so I figured as long as it stayed there we would both be happy. As I worked at my desk my mind started to wander. What if I go check on the cockroach and it's not there and I don't know where it is? What if it climbs up my pants? What if it sits on my chair and I end up sitting on it. What if it somehow lands on my head? What if, what if, what if?!?! That was it... time for plan B.

Plan B involved devising a plan to somehow capture the cockroach in something and then seal the container well and toss it in the garbage can. I couldn't find anything large enough that would allow me some distance from the cockroach so that plan was axed. They move so freaking fast and I'm sure I would scream bloody murder if it crawled on me. A few years ago I caught a bat in a pot and released it back outside and yet I was more scared of catching the cockroach than I was of catching the bat. So plan C...

Plan C involved briefly thinking about stomping on it. However that awful crunch sound and the fact that I would have cockroach bits on my shoe axed that plan. Then I thought that a textbook would do the trick. Too bad we didn't have any old crappy textbooks in the lab.

So it all came down to plan D. Plan D was to douse the cockroach in ethanol. This plan allowed me ample distance from the cockroach and I didn't have to touch it or worry that it will crawl on me. Armed with my squirt bottle full of ethanol I proceeded into battle. As I squirted him with ethanol he ran (of course) and thankfully away from me. Being as fast as they are I lost track of where he went. Then I see him coming towards me. Eeek. I jump on a nearby stool and squirt the ethanol like a crazy woman. By the end of the battle the aisle is covered in ethanol and so are the cupboards and the cockroach is sitting in the corner. He wasn't really moving so I figured plan D was successful. There was no way I was going to touch it or move it so as far as I know it's still in the corner. Hopefully it's cockroach friends don't retaliate.

At the beginning of my battle with the cockroach I was wishing someone else was in the lab to help me with the battle or even to kill the cockroach for me. However at the end of the battle with me standing on a stool grasping my squirt bottle and looking down on the pool of ethanol on the floor and towering over the little cockroach I felt a bit silly. I figured if anyone walked in at that exact moment they would have surely thought I lost it. For now the lab is safe... until the next invasion.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Teaching - not so bad... so far

Well week one went smoothly. My students seem pretty smart so hopefully that keeps up and they don't get lazy as the term goes on. There were the talkers though. Two girls who sat right at the front and talk, talk, talk. I couldn't figure out if they were discussing what I was talking about or discussing how their weekend went. Either way it was very annoying. They were trying to whisper but still. I'm not really one to stop what I'm talking about and look at them all mean and say, "Do you have something to contribute to the class?". I always hated when profs did that to someone and usually it didn't shut the person up. They just kept talking to piss the prof off. Maybe a few glares in their direction will shut them up. Honestly, if you are going to talk in class then don't sit right at the front right in front of me!

Other than the chatty Cathys things went pretty smoothly. Except of course when the carbon dioxide tank started to get really low and their anesthetised flies started waking up. I just envisioned all these fruit flies flying around the room. Good thing the students were quick and avoided the fruit fly infestation.

On an unrelated note, I've discovered Firefox. Yes, a bit behind the times. I've heard of it before but didn't really pay attention to it. I came across it as I was looking into getting a Gmail account. What's another email account when you already have four? Anyways, Gmail said it was the #2 PC product of the year. Of course my reaction was "what's #1?". It's Firefox! That sold me on downloading it. So far so good. Between Firefox, Thunderbird, Trillian, and VoIP (all of which were in the top 100) I'm loving the internet. Come to think of it, I never did get a Gmail account. I got so distracted by Firefox I totally forgot.

Anyways, I should get some work done before Earl and The Office are on. Thursdays are good TV days.

Oh by the way, if you're a lurker it's time to de-lurk. Comment, introduce yourself, say hello. Whatever. I know you're out there. I have my ways... mwahahaha.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Teaching... not so fun

I haven't even taught my labs yet this semester and already I'm not enjoying it. The lab I'm teaching is one I've never taught before. Not a big problem however this particular course has a lab that is like a lecture and a lab in one. Most labs I teach have more lab work than lecturing but this lab is the opposite. I don't quite get it. I feel sorry for the students too because even though the stuff I cover in the lab is a repetition or clarification of what was taught in the lecture it just seems like they are expected to learn a whole heck of a lot for an introductory course. Plus, attention span of a second year undergrad is what... like 5 minutes? And I'm to expect them to remain conscious for a whole three hours!?! Good luck.

The lab coordinator for this lab also wants us to have discussions with the students. That I don't mind because hopefully it will perk the students up but for the first few labs it's like pulling teeth. Of course the first lab is on mitosis. Good luck getting a discussion going on that. Even I have a hard time wrapping my head around all that goes on during mitosis let alone getting students, who are usually completely confused about mitosis, involved in a discussion on it.

Speaking of discussions, at the meeting last week for this lab I'm teaching the lab coordinator had a discussion on how foreign TAs can better communicate with their students since most of them have accents and usually students put a wall up as soon as they realize their TAs first language isn't English. Fine, a discussion is fine. However it went on for like a half an hour with nothing really coming out of it. Plus, the lab coordinator kept calling them "non-English speaking TAs". What?!? They can speak English it's just that it isn't their first language. I was getting so annoyed with his "non-English speaking" usage that I was so close to saying, "I think the problem with communication is that according to you they can't speak English".

I guess I should get back to preparing for my lab bright and early tomorrow morning. Ugh.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Grad Horoscope

The January 11th PhD Comics so graciously provides a grad horoscope for the new year based on your area of study. Mine (for biology) reads...
"Your feelings of intellectual inadequacy will temporarily subside. Used to disappointment, you are willing to take chances despite risk of colossal rejection and embarrassment. Aim high, it will make failure easier to rationalize. Now is the time to submit that doomed paper to the journal Nature."

After I read that I though, "Hmmm... not bad". How sad is that.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

First ever Science Geek Scientific Fraud Awards

I came across an MSN article about scientific frauds over the past 30 years. Being that the article only lists nine I'm guessing this is just a sampling. Although I've never actually researched the topic so who knows, that might be all. Well, at least all that have been caught. Perhaps if I had more time I would look into it further however for now I'll use these nine as the nominees for the first ever Science Geek Scientific Fraud Awards!

The award for best use of a sharpie goes to...

Dr. William Summerlin!!! For doing what only little kids would think of - colouring a mouse with a sharpie! Way to go Will! Since this science thing isn't working out so well for you perhaps you may consider a career as a kindergarten teacher.

The award for most research money obtained by fraud goes to...

Dr. Eric Poehlman!!! For managing to get millions of dollars in funding with no real data! Come on, if it was that easy everyone would have loads of funding and grad students would be rich.

The award for cutting and pasting goes to...

Dr. Ali Sultan!!! For plagiarizing a number of figures and text as well as interchangeably using his results from multiple malaria strains to show whatever it was he was trying to prove. Ali, Ali, Ali, even though the tubes are all labeled Plasmodium you need to also consider the species name. And shame on you for trying to blame it all on your post doc! Haven't you lied enough?

The award for best use of imaginary friends goes to...

Dr. Gary Kammer!!! For including his imaginary lupus afflicted friends in his study. Most of us lose touch with our imaginary friends by the time we start grade school but Gary managed to maintain communications with his imaginary friends all the way to adulthood. I'm sure Gary has plenty of time to spend with those friends now.

And the lifetime achievement award for scientific fraud goes to...

Dr. John Darsee!!! For not really doing any real research in 14 years yet still managing to get over 100 papers published. Way to go! Even though he is banned from receiving any funding for 10 years somehow I don't think this will be a problem for him. He could always go into writing science fiction. Oh wait, that's what he has been doing for the past 14 years.

Gentlemen, please come collect your awards which consist of an engraved frame containing a letter from the NIH stating that hell will freeze over before you get research funding from them. Congratulations and good luck in your future non-scientific endeavors. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Oh the life of a graduate student

Work late, sleep late, repeat.

Yesterday I got harassed by a former grad student turned lab coordinator in our department because he said for the last few weeks he has walked by my lab and the door has been closed. I stared at him with a look of confusion because since besides the week after Christmas when the university was closed I've been working my ass off in the lab. And even during that week off I was at home writing a manuscript. Then I clued in and said, "when do you come by? 8 am?". He just smiled and said, "Oh right, you're a grad student".

Then today as I'm arriving bright and early at 9:50 am I see him in the hallway. Of course more harassment ensued in which he pointed out in sarcastic amazement that I'm here before 10!!! Yes, yes, I'll admit I work grad student hours but I am a grad student so that shouldn't be such a shocker. My family also harasses me about this yet they don't seem to realize that even though I don't come in until 10 am I'm usually here until 7 or 8 pm and sometimes even later. Then when I go home I'm usually reading papers or analyzing data. How does that constitute a slacker? Plus, compared to the other grad student in the lab I'm a workaholic. The other grad student's idea of a long day is 4-5 hours. Must be nice.

However the grad student hours are soon to end. One week until teaching at 8 am starts. 8 am!!! That's just crazy talk. Thank god for coffee.

Monday, January 09, 2006

I thought computers were supposed to make your life easier

Silly me, I thought computers simplified life. However there is always a day now and then when you find yourself endlessly cursing at the computer screen. Today was such a day.

For days now I've been sitting in front of the confocal microscope taking picture upon picture of my cells and hoping that the next day isn't more microscope work. I need a break from the microscope. Even my eye has started to twitch (probably not microscope related but still). I rejoiced today when I was finally done taking all my confocal pictures. It was a short lived celebration.

You see, all of my microscopy work is done in the departmental microscopy unit and saved to the computers there therefore I need to transfer my images to something or other to get them from the computer in the microscopy unit to my computer. Sounds easy, right? That's what I thought but I swear the university strategically places hidden cameras around the university in order to see how grad students deal with situations such as the following.

The computer in the microscopy unit has a CD burner. That's all fine and dandy unless you have taken hundreds of images over the last few days that amount to about 6 gigabytes of files. That would be a lot of CD's. Instead of using a whole spindle of CD's just to transfer my files I figured I would use my pocket hard drive and transfer the files from the computer onto there. Oh but wait, the computer runs on Windows NT so no plug and play. Who uses NT anymore anyways? Then I figured, ok well I'll just transfer them over the network to the lab computer. Apparently I'm the only one who assumes that a computer that runs Windows NT would be networked. Ironic isn't it? Windows NT (a.k.a. networking) isn't hooked up to the network. Let me tell you, I didn't find it funny. I'm guessing that during the departmental virus outbreak of 2005 the IT guys figured they would disconnect the confocal computer from the network to avoid it from getting taken down by a virus. Good plan but hook it back up guys!

So now I've got numerous images that are currently stuck on the confocal computer which besides the confocal software doesn't have any imaging software such as Photoshop. So much for analyzing my images tonight. Instead I'm searching the internet for a Windows NT driver for my pocket hard drive. So far, no such luck. It's stupid setbacks like this that make me wonder if I'll ever get my PhD.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Have a craptastic day!

Today was not a good day. I won't bore you with the details however ironically while wallowing in my self pity I came across two quotes by Darwin that pretty much sum up my day.

A scientific (wo)man ought to have no wishes, no affections .. a mere heart of stone.
I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.
Sigh. Darwin was a wise, wise man.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


At the beginning of every semester all the grad students and profs get numerous emails with information regarding plagiarism and cheating and what to do if you have a student you suspect of cheating and/or plagiarism. Today I received a few of these emails. I had to chuckle to myself slightly because when I was working on that manuscript I came across a few instances of possible plagiarism in journal articles published in well respected scientific journals. I find it somewhat amusing that without fail every semester profs and grad students get up in front of their class and lecture about how bad plagiarism is and not to do it yet who do you think writes or at least okays these publications in scientific journals.

The reason I say I came across possible plagiarism is because it wasn't paragraphs of text that were plagiarized but perhaps part of a sentence or even a sentence or two. I read way too many papers to count when I was working on that manuscript and whenever someone would cite another paper I would usually go look it up. I've come across a few incorrect citations in my day so now if I'm going to cite something I go to the original paper to make sure the info is there. Well, lo and behold the exact same sentence that is in the original paper appears in the paper that cited the original. Coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not. I'll admit that in some cases some results can't really be reworded. Such as protein X binds to protein Y and causes result Z. It's hard to reword that however if it's some statement in the intro, say, that isn't results based but more of a theory and the exact same wording appears in both papers it seems odd to me.

In most instances of possible plagiarism I came across it was only part of a sentence or just one sentence that was the same. Now I know the definition of plagiarism is copying someone else's ideas and presenting them as your own. Is this a case of those writing scientific articles thinking that a few words copied word for word is so minor that it is really not plagiarism? In one case I even found one paper that had the cited paper's title word for word in the body of their paper. Come on? You couldn't at least reword that? Now that's just plagiarism with a side of laziness.

If ever you are unsure whether you are plagiarizing or not, go by this rule:

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Finally! Fi-na-ly!!! I finally finished that damn manuscript. Can you sense the bitterness? It was all going so well up until yesterday. With only a page or so left of the discussion and I was at a lack of how to tie it all together. Frustration reigned supreme last night but then I figured I would sleep on it. Today after hours of more reading I FINALLY finished it! Hmm... maybe I should take back a few finallys. I just sent it off to my supervisor so I may be a bit premature on the finally. I so hope he as well as the reviewers (when it gets to that point) don't expect major revisions. This paper and the research that went with it was kind of a side project and I just want to be done with it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Happy New Year!

You can run but you can't hide!!! 2006 is here.

Due to the holidays and my determination to finish that manuscript I've been working on for what seems like ages I've neglected my blog. Don't worry though, I've found other ways to procrastinate especially since I've found Shockwave games. Barnyard Invasion and Zuma are bad! This leads me to my New Year's resolutions:

* Don't procrastinate!!!
* Start jogging again

I swear I need parental control on my computer to block out all the websites I use to procrastinate. However, I'm determined that will all change as of today. No procrastination! I think I need a giant poster above my desk that says that.

As for that manuscript, it's coming along quite well so far. Just a page or so left of the discussion and then off to my supervisor so he can rip it all to shreds and tell me it sucks. I'm hoping not though. I think it's pretty good. Of course, working on that manuscript all week has put me into my writing schedule which consists of staying up until 2 or 3 am and then sleeping in. For some reason I write best late at night. I was determined to go to bed early tonight and get back on a more regular schedule since I have to start teaching in a few weeks at 8 am!!! However, being that it is 1:30 am right now and I'm not the slightest bit tired I don't think I'll be getting back into that routine anytime soon. I don't know how I'm going to survive the thesis writing combined with the 8 am teaching. I'm so not a morning person.