My Scientific Training Brought Me to My New Favorite Book Genre

‘Tis the season of failed New Year’s resolutions

It was about this time last year that I found myself falling flat on the admirable New Year’s resolutions I had set. My daily yoga routine had evolved into a 30 second toe-touch in the morning and my new eco-friendly products were still in a shopping list on Amazon. As a 4th year graduate student all too familiar with failed experiments, I couldn’t stomach an unsuccessful project at home as well. Luckily, pursuing a PhD comes with strong problem solving skill sets. What is Step 1 of The Scientist’s Plan of Attack when faced with a problem? Turn to the literature to see if a solution has already been found. This is how I found myself in the societally constructed land where sad, desperate singles with three too many cats hang out: the self-help aisle at the bookstore.

Rather than using SciFinder to tease out quality sources, I turned to Goodreads to sort through books that could help troubleshoot my failed resolutions. My first self-help purchase was “The Willpower Instinct” written by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. Professor McGonigal (Harry Potter fans rejoice) wrote the book based on a course she taught at Stanford about the science of willpower. After a few years of teaching and feedback from her students, she wrote this book outlining the currently accepted research associated with willpower, peppered in with some anecdotes from her students and how they applied the conclusions from these published studies to their own habits. Between the author’s credentials, solid reviews, and over 20 pages of references in the back of the book, this seemed like a good place to start.

It’s a year later, and I am now one of those people that goes around flinging self-help book recommendations to anyone who mentions a personal problem they’re having and constantly saying things like “this book changed my life”. But… this book changed my life.

“Self-Help” has taken on such a negative connotation that many bookstores re-brand these aisles with names such as “Personal Growth”

McGonigal walks us through a series of published rat and human studies that identifies two separate parts of the brain that either experience anticipation of a reward or the pleasure from the reward itself. In other words, while the anticipation of binging Netflix sure feels more rewarding than anticipating 20 minutes of yoga, this book taught me to pay attention to how much pleasure each activity actually brought me. I immediately found that I felt happier and less anxious during and after yoga, while watching TV left me feeling less refreshed. After learning to be mindful of what I was anticipating versus actually enjoying, I had a better shot at ignoring the distracting anticipation of a television reward.

I also learned that I was using what psychologists call “moral licensing” to give myself permission to not adapt green habits because of the little things I did, like making a saved shopping list on Amazon or sharing articles on social media. She cites many studies demonstrating the ways consumers use small green actions to assuage their guilt for participating in more harmful behaviors. After realizing what I was doing, I took concrete steps to switch to reusable grocery bags and decline plastic straws at restaurants. However, I wouldn’t let that give me permission to make more wasteful decisions later in the day.

My new identity as a self-help book reader is a year old and I am still learning new cheat codes to navigating adult life with each addition to my library. However, the stigma of the genre makes my recommendations for others often fall on the ears of unwilling readers. My 2019 New Year’s resolution? Convince you, the reader, that this genre deserves a re-brand and a chance. As scientists we are trained to find reputable sources of information, and as graduate students we have a remarkably high chance of suffering from mental illnesses. Let’s use our skill set to find quality self-help books to add to our artillery of problem solving tactics that can be applied to ease some of these stresses that make it home with us after a long day in the lab. I hope to one day walk into the self-help aisle and see lonely, desperate singles with three too many cats and any other person who wants to be a proactive researcher and peruse the literature to find personal solutions to any minor problems they find themselves needing better resources to solve.

Peer edited by Rashmi Kumar.

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How Your Gut Bacteria May Be Talking To Your Brain

Bacteria are a big part of who we are as humans. They live all over us, forming distinct communities, or microbiomes, on our skin, in our hair, in our mouths, and in our guts. We host these microbes, and increasingly we’re learning that in turn they have a profound effect on our health. This is particularly true when it comes to the gut microbiome, which has been linked to conditions like Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel Disease.

The idea that the bacteria making a home in our guts have a role in our intestinal health doesn’t seem that far-fetched, but for several years there have been intriguing suggestions that our gut bacteria may also have an influence on our mental health.   

This has lead to a lot of hype around the idea that our gut bacteria may be controlling our moods or appetites to further their own ends. Experiments in mice and small-scale human studies have shown correlations between mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and alterations in gut microbiome composition.

The gut-brain axis is like a high-speed connection between your central nervous and digestive systems.

It’s long been known that there is an intimate connection between the gut and the brain. Often termed the gut-brain-axis, this connection is like an eight lane highway facilitating a constant exchange of chemical information between the central nervous system and your belly. Ever since it was discovered in the 1980’s that bacteria produce compounds that have significant similarity to human hormones like insulin, scientists have wondered if gut bacteria may influence our mental state by producing their own sets of chemical signals.  

But the field hasn’t quite gotten far enough to definitively say how exactly that process might be taking place. This problem is particularly challenging because of how hard it is to make observations in the human gut. How can we work out what gut bacteria are doing if we can’t directly see them?  

Now, recent work from a group in Belgium has made one of the first efforts to address this question and functionally characterize how bacteria might influence mental state.  

By comparing the gut microbial compositions  and quality of life scores among a cohort of 1,054 Belgians, the group was able to test if particular bacteria were correlated with different mental health markers. While this type of association study isn’t new,  what is most exciting about their work is that they have developed a method for characterizing the neuroactive potential of certain gut bacteria.

The group built what they call “gut-brain modules,” which are essentially groups of genes associated with the synthesis of compounds with potential to interact with the human nervous system. They constructed 56 such modules, all centered around a different neuroactive molecule, such as dopamine or serotonin.  

By applying this gut-brain module framework to the gut microbial makeups of patients diagnosed with depression, they were able to identify and verify a single gut-brain module correlated with higher scores for social functioning. This module is associated with metabolism of Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that has been linked to pleasure and depressive disorders.

While this study doesn’t go so far as to argue a causative role for gut microbes in mental health, it does demonstrate a feasible approach to studying the black box of the human gut and that we may be one step closer to  understanding the role microbiomes play in our health.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Dardis.

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Science communication drives away my graduate anxiety

I did not know graduate depression was a thing almost a decade ago when I studied for my Master’s degree. I experienced a period of depression symptoms but I did not confide in or consult with anyone. I felt ashamed to talk about my problems. “Didn’t everyone survive and eventually graduate?” I thought to myself; it must be my poor ability that stopped me from making progress. Now I am halfway into my Ph.D program and I realize an essential element to motivate myself: the exercise in science communication.

When I finished my undergraduate, the transition to advanced research did not come easily despite continuing in the same research lab. At the beginning of the first year, I started to suffer from insomnia. Every night in bed, my brain would not stop emulating the worst scenario. I could get humiliated in public or get kicked out of the program for poor performance. Often I felt my anxiety so intensely that I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night. I screamed, silently, so that I would not perturb my roommates. I cried to myself, declaring my desire to quit. However, I did not dare to talk about it and acted normal the next day. I also avoided contact with my advisor. I would sneak out of the office when he came in, pretending to go for a walk so I wouldn’t have to talk about my research progress which was nonexistent.

My lack of motivation continued for a semester until I returned from a week-long holiday. During the break, I revisited a couple of critical journals relevant to my research which I had a hard time fathoming. I tried turning numbers into schematics and summarizing their work with my own words. My advisor was impressed that I was able to convey the project after a short period. He did not know what happened to me during the break, and neither did I. Without knowing it, I was learning to communicate science to a broad audience. Only, at first, that audience was me. With better communication with my advisor, my anxiety disappeared. I graduated in the expected period and began to climb the career ladder in my field.

Looking back, I did not know I was experiencing mental depression. I was not even aware that I fixed my crisis through science communication practice. Years later, I decided to accomplish a bigger goal: to earn a doctoral degree. What I have feared the most, is that the graduate anxiety which once hit me would not just resolve itself, even though I now felt more mentally mature. Doing my graduate work and living in a new country, the social and language barriers frustrate me in many ways. I felt the need to find a community where I can get support and also advocate for myself and others in my situation. I wanted to have a supporting network to protect me before the graduate depression had its chance to strike me again. I started searching for an opportunity to reach out, and that was when I met the Pipettepen and began my journey of science communication training.

To get my feet wet, I made a start on editing work. And then my first article discussing the effects of the nanomaterials on our daily life was published, a topic inspired by my research project. I remember I worried about failing to meet the expectations and any tough judgment. Thanks to the good and helpful suggestions from the Pipettepen editors along the way, my confidence in writing built up since the first attempt.

I am particularly fond of writing regarding effective communication. Science writing fuels me with the energy to keep on the track of graduate life. Not only is writing an independent activity which suits my personality, but the process also provides me with a safe place to develop my voice. The process of organizing an article also helps my professional work. It makes me less fearful of starting a longer and denser manuscript. More than that, I have begun to explore science and science communication in many aspects. I attended the regional ComSciCon workshop in Triangle this spring, an event that I would have been afraid to even think about if not with writing experiences in the Pipettepen. I set up my Twitter account and get to glimpse another side of scientific expression and events that I did not even know existed!

Graduate life has its ups and downs. We all have our very own struggles. Keep looking for a place to develop your voice.


Graduate life can be very stressful. Sometimes I am in limbo and doubt my decision to earn a Ph.D., and still don’t know what I want. The truth is, I always know what I want, and that is to be happy and live my life to the fullest. Pursuing a Ph.D. degree is one of the life goals set in my early research years. I am approaching this goal while acknowledging the mental health crisis among graduates. By doing things I am good at and enjoy, along with the main work of research, the wheels of my graduate life can keep turning.

You might not find writing as enjoyable but remember, there are many channels to reach out and express your voices. Most importantly, it is to build a supportive network where you can transform your frustration or anxiety into something positive.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Budziszewski.

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Is Your Impostor Syndrome Showing?

Image by Kelsey BreretonI was sitting at my kitchen table with a scattered mess of textbooks and notes studying for my first graduate school final.  The white board was filled with incoherent scribbles of chemical structures and electron arrows.  I had hit a wall, and all the thoughts of self doubt and inadequacy played on an endless loop through my brain: “I’m not as smart as everyone else, I don’t deserve to be here, and now they will really know I’m a fraud.”  I ended up passing the courses, so clearly I am smart enough to be at UNC. However, those negative feelings kept creeping back up to the surface over the years, no matter how many P’s I earned in my courses, positive reviews I received from my PI, or even fellowship awards I won.  The nagging feeling of inadequacy remained!  It turns out this emotion has a name: impostor phenomenon, aka impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is described as feelings of perceived inadequacy even when there is plenty of evidence otherwise.  Many people struggle silently with feelings of chronic self-doubt, intellectual fraudulence, anxiety, and depression.  These can become so severe that it stifles performance in graduate school or the workplace.  Ironically, it’s usually successful people that suffer from impostor syndrome; even acclaimed celebrities and high profile business executives are not immune. They will attribute their success to luck or generosity of others – anything but their own hard work and skills. This is extremely common for many professionals and graduate students. These high achievers set unsustainable, high expectations on their work and when the standards are not met, allowing feelings of deficiency to creep in.

The impostor phenomenon was first studied by Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Clance, who  saw a strong link between the impostor syndrome and perfectionism. Imes posits that impostor syndrome could result from growing up in households that place an exuberant emphasis on achievement.  This resonates with my personal experience. In my family, we got A’s. Not A-’s. Only A’s were acceptable, and before long, I became overtly self-critical when I didn’t get an A on a test or even a homework assignment.  It’s no wonder why self-worth becomes directly tied to achievement.  Students either fear their work won’t be perfect and procrastinate, or they develop obsessive work habits, spending more energy than necessary.  These unhealthy study habits, developed in high school, can become firmly seeded during undergraduate careers.  In intensive graduate programs, that sense of achievement, once drawn from grades, gets drawn from the success of research projects.

Graduate and professional students spend years struggling to learn extremely difficult material, overcoming failed experiments, and (hopefully) becoming experts in highly specialized fields.  It is easy for students to lose their sense of personal identity as they become expert scientists. Perfectionism and attention to detail are described as skills by many successful scientists, but these skills can also be holding us back in many ways if we succumb to the Impostor Monster.

Do others see your impostor syndrome?

Most of the time, the people suffering from impostor syndrome hide their symptoms extremely well because they are afraid of being exposed as a fraud.  If impostor syndrome becomes too bad, others will start to notice your lack of self-confidence and increased self-doubt.  This can be problematic during performance evaluations, job interviews, and committee meetings and can start to negatively impact your life other than just emotionally.

How could your impostor syndrome be holding you back?

Impacts on graduate school:

  1. The fear of being exposed as a fraud can lead students to take less risks in lab.  Students would be afraid of an experiment failing and having to tell their boss they failed, over time leading to less creative research and lower productivity.
  2. Holding back on submitting publications or proposals because they might not be absolutely perfect.
  3. Negative self talk can lead you to think you’re not good enough, then you don’t do your best work which, by default, reinforcing the negative thoughts.  
  4. Constantly comparing yourself to others only feeds the impostor monster and wastes energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Impacts on professional career:

  1. Not taking ownership of personal accomplishments can result in not getting a promotions, awards, and recognition.
  2. Miss opportunities for new experiences: lowering career goals to match feelings of being unqualified. For example, deciding not to pursue a tenure-track position at a research intensive university because of the feelings of fraudulence and inadequacy.
  3. Work way too hard to make up for your “deficiencies” which can make you more likely to burn out.

So what can we do about this impostor syndrome?

Most people struggle with this their whole lives, but there are ways to keep it from running the show.  

Put your impostor syndrome in perspective: Identify your feelings and do a reality check.  Assess whether your feelings of incompetence are exaggerated.

Remind yourself what you are good at: Determine what your skills are and what you have accomplished so far.  Remember, getting into graduate school itself is a major accomplishment!

Write down the compliments that you receive: On days when you’re struggling with negative thoughts, reading the positive thoughts others have about you will boost your self-confidence. Also, try to accept compliments with a simple “thank you” rather than discounting them.

Build a support group of trusted friends and family: There’s a good chance that most of your peers are going through this too and think that they are also the only one suffering.  

It’s been a few years now since my first graduate school finals, but my impostor syndrome still resurfaces from time to time. I still struggle everyday with setting realistic standards for the amount of work I can accomplish and avoid my excessive perfectionist tendencies. When I start to think “I’m not good enough,” I stop and remind myself what I’m good at and how much I have improved as a scientist since starting graduate school. Don’t let your impostor syndrome run wild and limit your future success in life.

Peer edited by Tom Gilliss and Kelsey Noll. 

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A Ph.D in Anxiety

I’m standing in front of a long conference table, rubbing my clammy palms on my blazer. My committee is discussing my transcripts and research progress.  One professor is questioning the importance of my project, someone is whispering that I have no idea how the laser works, and another says I shouldn’t be in graduate school at all. After their deliberation, they tell me I have to retake all of my courses and my oral exam!  

Tears start welling up in my eyes and my chest tightens. I can’t breathe.  “How can this be happening to me?  I already passed the classes!”  Suddenly, I wake up. It is 3am, a cold sweat covers my skin and my heart is racing.  I sit in bed for a while trying to convince myself it was just a dream.  This pattern of nightmares continues for weeks after my oral exam.

Over the next month, my nightmares got worse and I was exhausted all the time.  I tried sleeping more instead of going out with friends.  My social life became non-existent, which just heightened my feelings of isolation. During my time lying awake in the middle of the night, I scoured the internet to find ways to recover from burnout.  

The more I searched my symptoms, the more I learned about anxiety.  

  • Lack of focus?
  • Obsessive worrying?
  • Increased heart rate?
  • Guilt? Whether I was in lab or at home, absolutely.

I realized that this was why I could never catch my breath, why I felt on edge. I was actually suffering from anxiety and somehow, putting a name to the issue made me feel like I could find a solution.

Many graduate students suffer from anxiety and/or depression.

One of the worst feelings was that I was alone in this, but I am not.  An article from Science Magazine discusses mental health issues common for graduate students including depression, anxiety, and burnout resulting from the stresses of maintaining work-life balance, graduate school progress, and career development.  A study done at University of California-Berkeley also confirmed the heightened prevalence of depression in their graduate student population.  About half of their graduate students admitted to struggling with depression.  The stress of planning career prospects, balancing financial stability, progressing academically, and maintaining advisor relationships were common triggers for many students.  

This launched another study to discover the connection between graduate student mental health and career development.  The researchers have all had personal or second hand experiences with various mental illnesses.  As of April 2016, the researchers had designed the online questionnaire for which they would collect submissions for 3 months and anticipate publishing the findings at a later date. One of the researchers,  Lindsay Bira, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, believes that having a social support network is essential for graduate students.  Having people who understand what you are going through can be comforting and also help each other develop supportive friendships.  This is just one way to cope with the stress of graduate school life, listed below are other ways I have found to reduce my stress.

Coping strategies:

  1. Practice Mindfulness: When things are going wrong in lab, take a step back from the situation and try to acknowledge your frustrations in a non-judgemental way.  As a graduate student I spend a majority of my time focused on my research that I feel if my experiment failed then I failed as a scientist.  I have to work at removing myself emotionally from the failed experiment and remind myself that I am more than just a scientist. I am not a failure because my science failed.
  2. Physical Activity: Get a buddy and hit the gym, go for a bike ride, or take a walk.  Exercise produces hormones that relieve stress and improve your mood.
  3. Hobbies: Daily journaling, reading, watching a movie, hiking, and photography are great activities to do that get your mind off your research.  Taking time to do activities you enjoy improves your mood, outlook on life, and builds self-esteem.  Joining clubs centered around your hobbies is a great way to meet new people and even shown to increase work performance.  
  4. Adequate sleep:  Sleep deprivation and mental health disorders seem to be linked and getting enough sleep may boost mental health resilience.   People with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders have shown a prevalence of sleep problems.  But how much sleep is adequate? That is widely dependent on the individual. However, sleep schedule and sleep quality were the factors that determined emotional well-being. Now I know most of us haven’t had a bedtime since we were in middle school.  It turns out, our Moms were right about this being good for us.  Try to go bed and wake-up around the same time everyday, yep even the weekends.  “Bingeing” on sleep on the weekends will only make you feel extra groggy on Mondays.  I have used  a sleep tracker app, Sleep Cycle, to help set-up a regular sleep schedule.  This app monitors your movement in the bed and uses that information to generate your personalized sleep cycle.  The alarm function is linked to the cycle so it wakes you when you’re in the lightest sleep state.

Even with more awareness and coping strategies, the stigma of mental health is still heavily present, especially within graduate programs. We need to treat mental health issues just like any other illness.  Seeking help when you are hurting is a wise decision, not to be mocked.

Source: Kelsey Brereton

Graduate students face many stressful situations.

Where can someone go to get help?  Students suffering from mental health issues can get help at UNC through CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services).  Sometimes, all you need is a nonjudgmental ear to listen, and these resources are here to keep things in perspective during the perpetual stress of graduate school.  CAPS offers students confidential walk-in appointments, self-help and online self-assessment resources, and a variety of therapy options.  

I confided in my friends about my struggles with anxiety and they suggested that I talk to a professional.  I went to a doctor who helped me get my anxiety under control.  I have made it a priority to schedule time daily for my hobbies.  I started reading historical fiction novels again and picked up crocheting.  I have gotten called an old lady for this, but I’m telling it helped me!  The repetitive task gave my mind something else to focus on beside the negative storm of thoughts about orals prep and experiment failures.  A bonus was my family got blankets and hats for Christmas.  I still have days that anxiety threatens to creep back into my life, but now I know how to manage it.  I feel confident in myself again and sleep much better.  No more dreams about my committee failing me, just a T-rex in a clown suit chasing me through a maze. That’s a story for another time.

Edited by Katie Veleta.

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