Thoughts on education and motivation

Last week I had the opportunity to visit with a large number of my extended family (I think there were 16 people at are Thanksgiving dinner, and that wasn’t even everyone that I saw), and one of the really cool things about seeing everyone was seeing how everyone’s educational pursuits have gone in different directions. My cousins are pursuing or have completed degrees in business, accounting, event planning, robotics engineering, and more, and my aunts have recently taken classes to become a counselor and a master gardener.

Despite these varied educational foci, everyone I saw over Thanksgiving has had similar experiences in their education as I’ve had. Examples are people having to learn new computer coding skills without the computer science background, facing many of the frustrations that I’ve experienced in conducting research in completing senior projects, the importance of planning out coursework, and the importance of self-motivation.

This last point is very important, I think. One of my cousins took some time to work before pursuing his degree, which gave him the time to really figure out what his goals are. Having that type of direction has given him the perspective to take his classes seriously and to really get the most out of his education, rather than just going through the motions because it’s what was expected of him. I’ve seen students, both when I was an undergrad and now as a grad student, who are getting a bachelor’s degree because it’s what society expects and because their parents want them to, rather than because they feel driven to pursue higher education. In my experience, these students tend to do poorly in their classes and are unhappy with their educational experience. My cousin certainly thinks that he wouldn’t have been as good a student as he is now if he had been pushed into college before he was ready for it.

Self-motivation doesn’t just apply to deciding which educational path to take and when. I’m well aware that when I lose sight of the big picture or the importance of my research in graduate school, I can lose my motivation suffers because the tedious nature of my work can get to me. External pressures can help me get things done by a certain deadline, but without my own motivation driving me, my productivity decreases significantly. But it can be so easy to lose perspective! So the next time I find myself lacking motivation to work and am scrolling through facebook or wasting time on the internet, I’m going to remember the great conversations with my family about why they’re studying what they’re studying and remember why I’m doing my research and what motivates me to do it. I encourage everyone else to do the same.


First trips out in the boat

I have now been in Sweden for just over a week, and so far I’ve explored Visby, spent some time in the country, and of course spent some time at the field station and on the boat, collecting fish. We’ve had some really beautiful weather the past few days, and it really feels like spring!

Spring cowslips

Spring cowslips in Visby

We’ve gone out on the boat twice now, the first time to see if the fish were there and the second time to catch some fish to bring them back to the field station to practice marking them. The first time we went out, we caught 6 female and 8 male Syngnathus typhle, the broadnosed pipefish, which I’ll be doing some mark-recapture work with. We also got lots (maybe 100) Nerophis ophidion, the straightnose pipefish, which are really pretty with blue markings on their faces. I’ll be collecting those later to do some population genetics work.

Nerophis ophidion

A Nerophis ophidion (viewed from the top, so the blue isn’t visible, sorry!). In the background you can see the seagrass/fish ball from the trawl.

Bucket of Syngnathus typhle

A bucket of 16 Syngnathus typhle.


Yesterday we also practiced tagging the fish. To tag them, we mix up a colored plastic (elastomer) tag and inject it right below the skin of an anesthetized fish. We’ll be tagging every S. typhle that we catch before returning them to the population. After practicing a few times I got the feel for it, and I think it will work out really well. Now we’re monitoring the fish we caught because we want to make sure that they aren’t negatively impacted by the tags before tagging an entire population. 

tagging pipefish

Sander, a masters student helping with the project, is tagging a S. typhle

Scientific Illiteracy and Outreach

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but today a friend posted this NY Times article and it reminded me of why I started this blog in the first place.

The science world can become so small and insular that it is easy to forget that not everyone knows what a gene is, or even what the scientific method is, let alone can even fathom the basic premise of my PhD. Often our interactions with the ‘outside world’ are with the undergraduate students at large universities, who are in the classes to check a box and would rather not be there. We get bogged down in the details of our research and the politics of our fields, and we forget how important it is to remind people of why we chose this career. It is a tough, time-consuming job and we all do it because we love it. How could we not? We’re exploring the universe and understanding life itself! What is more empowering than that? 

We often get frustrated by the ‘outreach’ and ‘broader impacts’ sections of our grant proposals, and how they take up precious space which we could otherwise be filling with more information about the project we’re trying to get funded. But it is good to keep in mind that for all intents and purposes it doesn’t really matter if your research gets funded if 46% of the people helping fund your research don’t even understand science well enough to comprehend that evolution isn’t something you ‘believe in’–it’s a theory, like gravity. So, I say to you, fellow scientists–be grateful that your grant proposals are forcing you to think of ways to interact with the community! I sure am. Part of my NSF Predoctoral fellowship grant proposal was my citizen-science project, and the few people who have contacted me with photographs have consistently brought a smile to my face. 

And to all my non-scientist readers: give yourself the challenge of periodically learning something new about science. If you’re looking for good sources of information, here are some of my non-jargon-heavy favorites:

The major journals, like Nature and Science, also have recaps of some of the more notable papers of the day/week. 

So remember to be excited about science