Category: grad school

Great news, everyone. Scientific papers do eventually get published and aren’t caught in a cycle of peer review and edits for eternity! The paper I started working on a little over a year ago has been published.

(I originally wrote this up to share my research with my non-scientific friends and family and realized it fits well within the scope of my blog so here you go)

In most phylogenetic studies, the ultimate goal is to construct a tree that accurately reflects evolutionary relationships between species. We used to do this by entirely comparing anatomy, but once DNA sequencing was introduced, things were revealed to be more complicated than we could have anticipated. In the beginnings of DNA sequencing, we were pretty limited in how much we could sequence. People would sequence a single gene and be pretty pumped about their phylogenetic tree. But with advances in sequencing, we learned that the phylogenetic tree created from a single gene merely reflects the history of that gene, not necessarily the species themselves – each gene has its own evolutionary history. So folks were like, okay, we’ll just get a few more genes and maybe a phylogenetic signal will emerge, a consensus between gene trees, thus giving us the true species tree.

Then there’s my project. We sequenced 962 gene regions – surely such an absurd amount of genes that would tell us a relatively clear story of evolutionary history? But it hasn’t. It’s an absolute mess. There is a profound amount of disagreement between all of the genes, each telling a conflicting story about what happened in the past. And I am fascinated with this mess. I looked into this group of species because we suspected hybridization, and this mess of gene histories further supports that – maybe the reason there are so many mixed signals is because we’re not getting genes that have stayed with a single species throughout time, maybe they’ve have been passed between species.

Anyway, I am super super pumped. I’ve wrapped up the project for the purposes of the class I’m doing it for, but I am absolutely going to push further. This is so much more exciting to me than a clean and tidy phylogenetic tree!

I’m presenting my project in a week to the department, and I am so jazzed because I came up with the best title: The Hairy Hybrid History of Vagabond Varieties

I suffer from impostor syndrome like every other grad student, but for me I take it more as a challenge than a point of weakness. I’m like, let’s see how far I can get in science before people realize I’m just an artist who’s winging it. It’s a game I’m playing.

As a teaching assistant, I would do absolutely anything to ensure the success of a student in my class. You are never bothering me. I want you to come to me with all of the hurdles that are standing between you and your success so I can guide you through them.

This is not something I understood as an undergrad. I never went to TA office hours (except maybe for stats class…) because I didn’t want to be a bother, but those office hours are there for you to utilize. Your TA is a resource. Use them. Ask stupid questions. Come to every single office hour if it helps you. Let them know why you’re struggling so they can help you brainstorm ways to overcome/manage them.

I just realized I can have the Kitten Academy livestream running on my second monitor while I read scientific literature, and if that isn’t life hacks I don’t know what is

This semester I am taking a Phylogenetic Systematics class, and for the class project I’ve decided to work with some metagenomic data we have for the genus of lichen-forming fungi, Xanthoparmelia. Yesterday I googled Xanthoparmelia to familiarize myself with the genus, and boy oh boy was I unprepared for getting slammed in the face with supplements and health information for “sexy foothpath lichen” Xanthoparmelia scabrosa. 

Please don’t eat my lichen friends for your erectile dysfunction.

I was always a bit worried because it seemed like my one strength as a scientist was remembering scientific names and being able to ID plants/mushrooms/lichens with relative ease, which is a helpful skill but not necessarily sought after. Now, however, I have uncovered another superpower thanks to my advisor encouraging me to go down rabbit holes: being able to dig deep into the literature and efficiently synthesize knowledge on a topic I know next to nothing about. I am so excited to share my new knowledge with all of ya’ll!

This blog will be in a bit of a lull for the foreseeable future – I rarely get out for photo hikes these days (not necessarily because I’m too busy but because Utah is not really for me – I prefer meandering not climbing mountains), but I spend a tremendous amount of time reading scientific papers so that I can set up my research projects. My goal is to create a bridge between my research and non-scientists. I believe that lichens are one of the coolest things on the planet, and I refuse to keep my findings inaccessible within the ivory towers. Everything I learn is something I hope for you to learn too. But it will take a bit for me to get to the point where I am organized in my deliverance of knowledge (I’m always open to spontaneous questions on Tumblr though, especially if I am looking for a break/distraction).

My chronic illness has been flared up bad, and today I am trying to understand sexual reproduction in lichens when my brain is an absolute fog. And let me tell you, trying to understand reproduction in a composite species in which only one biont reproduces sexually but wouldn’t be able to form reproductive parts if it weren’t for their other bionts, where species can be sexual or asexual or both or seem like they’re always asexual but then you find this random population that’s sexual, where we apparently haven’t made much effort into investigating what causes it to be sexually reproductive in the first place (maybe because it’s too hard to observe in the lab?)…trying to understand this – not just understand it but think critically about it – when I have two or three functioning brain cells at the moment is quite a challenge.

I love lichens, and I am deeply passionate about my research, but sometimes I regret not choosing a more straightforward organism to study.

What is grad school like? I hear it's super toxic, is that universal? (i am very much hoping that i am not wrong in assuming you are in grad school oh lord)

I can say from personal experience that it is not universal. I started grad school in North Carolina and ended up leaving because I had an abusive advisor who discriminated against me for my chronic illness. She straight-up said she’s a workaholic and expects anyone who works under her to match her work “ethic.”

My current advisor prioritizes a work-life balance, and a majority of the other grad students have already started families, so there simply is not a culture of working yourself to death.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about grad school and mental health, and I think change is on the horizon. People are acknowledging the destructiveness of grad school, and that is the first step toward enacting change.