So it turns out that grad school is an exercise in self-control. “I can do this,” I tell myself. “I motivated myself through homeschooling high school and through college.” However, in the second year of grad school I have neither parents and siblings monitoring my activities nor (many) deadlines hanging over my head. I find myself going to bed at late hours, putting off productivity. And yet, when I realize that I’m embarrassingly late somewhere, I can shower and pack my lunch in a breeze, though I had previously procrastinated for hours.

(portrait of Gilbert DeBlois by J.S. Copley at Boston MFA. photographed by myself)

But think of all the *other* things I could be doing!

This is probably because in the real world, the what motivates me is what needs to get done. So I suppose what I should be asking myself is “What am I ok with leaving undone?” Am I ok if I never write for fun again? If I do not prepare sufficiently for my oral exams, do not submit grant applications, if I never set aside time to talk to God? Am I ok if I don’t comment on some aspect of my students’ lab reports? Well, maybe I’m ok with that last one.

This priorities-time management thing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Yet, I can’t help but think that maybe it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever struggled with. I’m not giving up just yet.

(Image is portrait of Gilbert DeBlois by J.S. Copley at Boston MFA. photographed by myself)

Something You Probably Shouldn’t Ask A College Student

Someone recently asked me whether I felt “victorious” in the context of checking up on my progress through grad school. I demurred, but if you think about it, that’s a really relative question.

victory First off, unless you’re talking about college students who just aced really difficult assignments, I don’t think students generally feel “victorious”. (Maybe your experience has been more special than mine.)  I don’t feel victorious, like, ever. I feel loved. I feel safe. I also feel stressed and , scared. The good news is the answer to that question does not determine how things are actually going.

This is firstly because my feelings do not determine reality and reality does not determine my feelings. Sure, there’s a strong correlation there, but it’s one which (I hope) grows weaker by the day. Secondly, we have to draw a distinction about who’s doing the winning here. If I ace an assignment, but don’t feel I’ve done my best, I’ve lost. If I ace an assignment, but have to work myself to exhaustion, both the teacher and I have lost (It’s not supposed to be that hard). If I fail, but I accomplish what God has me here to do, He’s won. If I do my best, learn a lot, and still fail, I’m not sure if I’ve won, I’ve lost, or I can draw a tie. (Also, who do I win against? Myself, the educational system, or a difficult subject?)

You’ve asked the wrong question, probably because you don’t know what you want to know. Even I don’t know whether I feel victorious. If you want to know how I am, ask directly and expect an honest answer. You probably don’t want to ask about my studies unless you want to hear jargon. I’m not going to tell you my grades. I’d rather you told me you were praying for me. I’d rather you told me about a really hard test you once took (and didn’t fail). I’d rather be a person rather than a collection of grades and feelings.

Spring Semester Summary ’13

I have been told many times in many ways that sleep is one of the most important tasks. I’ve written about how important it is many times. This past semester I neglected it and became a zombie. That wasn’t good. Beyond that fundamental lesson, I also re-learned some other things in the past few months.

  • Scientific papers are really interesting. But only if you have already read about three on the same subject and just need to skim the introduction. By that point, you know the jargon and can actually focus on the cool discovery. Before that point…it’s a nightmare.
  • Because it is a nightmare to read scientific papers, you should not procrastinate. Indeed, simply skimming the paper is better than doing it “right”, because that way you might pick up some of the jargon. Obviously, however, procrastinators do not learn from nagging (or teacher’s warnings would yield results) nor do they learn by example (or procrastinators would not remain procrastinators), but maybe they learn from other people’s examples. Allow me to mention the twelve-hour take-home test and the night-before presentation of this past semester and the five-hour ODE homework and the two-day massive essay of the semester before as well as the people who waited until the end of the last semester of senior year to write their thesis.
  • Most importantly, try to have fun with it. Because if someone is just in a career for the money/prestige, it won’t pay nearly enough for the headache. And if being in school isn’t somehow a means to an end, where that end is either a dream job (which you will enjoy, and which will use the things you are learning now, no?) or enjoyment of the new found knowledge, then why are you even in school?
  • No matter how many times I learn these things, I always ignore them and end up a frustrated sleep-deprived mess. My professors do their utmost to reassure me that it’s never as bad as you think it is. Or perhaps it is, but freaking out never helped anyone.

I’ll admit that wasn’t a summary so much as a list of un-learned lessons, but I’m sort of trying to learn them. This past semester I took Physical Biochemistry, Instrumental Analysis, Chemical Thermodynamics and World History I. The semester before was actually a bit harder and involved Advanced Organic Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Quantum Mechanics, and Ordinary Differential Equations. I will now compare my classes in the fall and spring semesters in excruciating detail.

  1. Advanced Organic Chemistry was meant to be a laid-back sort of class. We could have notes in the tests, but there was a great deal we had to figure out on our own using “chemical logic”. I don’t feel that I was very good at it. Physical Biochemistry was similar, although there were a lot of papers out there we could look up to figure out why proteins fold the way they do. Both also introduced a lot of biology which I had been avoiding since high school. Surprisingly, however, that was really helpful, making both classes really interesting. And from the sound of my Physical Biochemistry teacher’s dark murmurings, I’m going to need to know biology as well as math, physics, and chemistry to do drug delivery research. Maybe I’ll actually be a halfway decent researcher.
  2. Analytical Chemistry was actually taught by one of the most laid-back teachers I have ever met. He flew through the material, and always seemed to assume that we were a great deal smarter than we actually were, so I was exposed to a great many things, but without the depth I would have liked. Instrumental Analysis was like a second semester of analytical chemistry, only it was taught by one of the more detail-oriented professors in the department (who is also the Physical Biochemistry instructor) so we got a focused description of certain aspects of electronics and lasers and spectrometry, it was rather an interesting contrast, especially as the laid-back analytical professor taught the lab in a sort of Socratic-independent-experimental manner. I discovered that I really am rather interested in electron transitions, but I almost felt it should have been much harder. Perhaps that is where independent study comes in. (My Structure and Bonding professor for Fall ’13/ new research PI heard me say this, cackled with delight and gave me the textbook he will be using so I can study over the summer.)
  3. Quantum Mechanics and Chemical Thermodynamics were both taught by my original PI, but they were very different. Quantum exposed me to the math of electron transitions before I actually knew what it was for (but was rather cool in a confusing sort of way). Thermodynamics was very specific about what the math was used for, but it also became evident to me that we were looking at very simplified systems. Quantum was also simplified. The mind boggles.
  4. ODE and History present an interesting contrast. ODE was a pain in the neck. I am positive that it was simplified to fit into one semester, but it was also amazingly awesome and interesting. The professor, who was a good lecturer, made the homework a pain in the neck by using Web-assign, which gives no partial credit whatsoever. And he gave homework for which we were not allowed to use mathematica or maple. For example, we had undetermined coefficients problems involving the third derivative of two or three sets of the cosine and sine of expressions of things like (2x +4)3x. Each time you take the derivative of a term like that, you get an additional term [For cos(2x^2+12x), you get -(4x+12){sin(2x^2+12x)}.] so if you had five terms originally, and derive three times, you get 5*2^3=40 terms if you have not messed up somewhere. Anyway, it was a pain. History, on the other hand was taught by a sweet lady who told stories, always let us out fifteen minutes early, and gave multiple-choice tests. I wish I could have heard more of her stories.

So that was not only my spring semester but my fall semester as well. It’s been fun, if a bit dramatic on my part. And if you made it through that long description of my year without feeling an urge to kill me, then you might be a chemistry major. Come join me!

Things I’m Learning about Learning

I’m spending the summer at Princeton with a lot of really fun people. But where I’m learning isn’t as important as what I’m learning, and I’m learning a lot. Or at least, I’m trying to learn a lot. There is much I do not understand, and much of what I am learning (and relearning) is unrelated to what I’m studying.

1. Stop faking. If I pretend I know what is going on when I don’t, I put myself at a disadvantage. People will assume that I understand, and later, it will be harder to ask for help. I’m going to try to ask more questions. They can’t answer them if someone doesn’t ask them.

2. Ideas are everywhere. Other fields I don’t know much about have really good ideas. A lot of people are just happy to explain what they’re doing. It doesn’t count as plagiarism or stealing if they help you apply their idea to your own field. It’s called collaboration.

3. Literature is important. Scientific papers reveal what other people have already tried to do, and can provide ideas as well as warning. Brevity and clarity are important. Operating manuals for machinery are pretty boring, however.

4. Have fun. One of my supervisors recommended a voluntary project in addition to our assigned project. People who enjoy what they do tend to be better at it. It has to be voluntary. Relaxing without an extra project is also useful because it allows me to be more productive during work times than I would be if I worked all the time.

This “genius millionaire playboy philanthropist” sounds suspiciously like Buckaroo Banzai.

5. The Curve is steep. It’s really hard to absorb physics (and chemistry) on the fly. So I don’t beat myself up that I don’t ask more questions, that I find user’s manuals boring, or even that I’m scared and out of ideas for a side project. Or that when I relax, I spend hours reading web comics. People do not change in a day, but day by day. Likewise, a discipline is not conquered in a day. Unless you’re Ironman.

Maria Hill: When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?

Tony Stark: Last night.

~The Avengers(2012)

New Years 2012

Not only will I build abs of steel, I will save the world! Again...and again...and again...

I don’t go in for big showy resolutions because I don’t believe a year can be evaluated in light of an aspiration born out of cheerful optimism. No one really cures cancer by publishing their first book on building abs of steel in forty days. Unless, of course, that person features in infomercials for the teeth whitening properties of acacia berry and lowering one’s car insurance with one ridiculously easy old trick originally used to make dermatologists everywhere hate you. Wow. That guy in the infomercials is like Superman.

The other problem with New Years resolutions is that even if I can keep them, they are an insufficient meter stick for the rest of the year. “So yeah, I dropped out of college to have more time to train for a marathon. I won the scholarship prize on the marathon, but, you know, then I wasn’t in college.” Or maybe the reverse. “I graduated from college with honors but I never worked up the courage to donate blood.” (Eventually I’ll get up the guts to do that.)

Yet another problem with resolutions is the unpredictable ways in which people change during the year. I’m braver and more responsible than I was last year. (Take my word on this.) Sometimes it’s a sign of growth to be unable to fulfill one’s goals. This time last year, I could fill up two pages with vague idealistic garbage on what I was going to do with my life. Now I’m smart enough to know that specifics are better, even if I have no idea of how I’m going to get there or what exactly these rogue interests in magnetism, quantum mechanics, florescence, crystallography, and optics have to do with curing cancer.

Sometimes, even though the year feels like a defeat, you’ve got to remember that even victorious soldiers stumble back to their camp and fall asleep. We’re not beaten yet, only exhausted. (And we defeated the first half of basic physics. Yay!) The great thing about college? You get to start over every six months.

(Another problem with resolutions is that sometimes success is hard to gauge. You got fit, but how fit? I’m going to join the club. This year, I will be more positive.)

Writing Lab Reports

If brevity is the soul of wit,

I am a nitwit.

Time is too limited for great lit

So I  go with it.


Words are special,

Insightful professors amazing.

Despite my initial poor lab skill

I learn fun things.


Things like I’m needing

to go to bed–still.


Waking Up is Hard to Do

I slept in on Tuesday. I woke up just in time for my 9:30 class. I pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed my keys, wallet, cell phone and backpack, and rushed out the door. “Ha!” I thought, halfway  to the math and physics building,  “I may just get there before we start.” (Classes never start on time in the South.) Then I realized I was still wearing my pajama shirt.

Aside from possibly becoming the first person in pajama shirt to attend an introductory physics lecture at my university, I’m not sure I learned anything from the ordeal–not even physics.  In fact, I think I did the same thing in Calc I last year. I obviously learned nothing from that experience  either. I had four alarms set on my cell phone this last time, turned them all off and rolled back into bed, “just for a minute.”

What I need is a surefire way to wake myself up in the morning while not reducing my quality of sleep or waking up my flatmates. These stipulations eliminate

  • cold marbles. I’d need either a Rube Goldberg machine or a flat mate with a sadistic sense of humor although I may have the latter.
  • open blinds and sunlight. I have a street-light outside my window. I can’t sleep without blinds and curtains combined.
  • outrageously loud alarm clocks. I’m not sure flat mate number two shares flatmate number one’s glee in finding innovative ways to wake me up.

My physics lab takes place at one in the afternoon. The department head, who leads it, offered to help engineer a Rube Goldberg machine for anyone who had trouble waking up by that hour. He also suggested a range of clocks worthy of a sadistic mastermind, including a vibrating clock, a roomba-like clock, and a clock that launches the pin that shuts it up across the room. Alas, I cannot justify paying the price for these machines. Nor am I sure that the clocks fulfill my need. The projectile clock does not seem to have a volume control but, I’m fairly certain I could pacify it with the pointy end of a pen. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure the DH is a sadistic mastermind. He has a good evil laugh.

Now, the ultimate way of waking up on time would be to go to bed by midnight. But  we all know that’s not always going to happen. As I work on improving my sleep schedule, I’ve posted a  red sign above my bed, commanding


I can’t read in my sleep, but the problem has always been staying up.

I turned off my alarm again this morning and went back to bed, heedless of the scarlet letters filling my weary eyes…But I woke with my second alarm.