Rural Internet Access and Diversity in STEM

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As you can see, white men have typically dominated physics research. Dr. Chien-shiung Wu (1912-1997), professor of physics at Columbia University, with “Dr. Brode”

It is no secret that many STEM fields, especially physics and engineering, suffer from a lack of equal representation by race, ethnicity, and gender. Approximately 75% of all physics degrees go to white scientists, and 80% of those degrees to go men. While much of the work in inclusivity in STEM has focused (for good reason) on women and racial/ethnic minorities, there is also an underrepresentation of scientists from rural geographic locations. A common problem contributing to the lack of diversity in science is the lack of diverse role models and representations of scientists in the media. Other factors involve the complex intersection of socioeconomic status and access to resources like textbooks, science equipment, and high-speed internet. Because the internet is both an avenue for information transfer and a platform for seeing diverse role models, the importance of internet access cannot be overemphasized in its impact on fostering inclusivity in STEM. Resting at the crux of the diversity in STEM problem and lack of internet access is rural America. In an effort to make science accessible to geographically diverse populations and thereby attract as many talented students as possible, scientists should advocate for wide-spread, affordable, high-speed internet access for all.

Diversity produces better science

While the diversity buzzword has generated a lot of press recently, many in the science community and beyond still roll their eyes at diversity efforts and question the utility of programs aimed at increasing diversity in STEM merely for diversity’s sake. But, it turns out that including diverse perspectives actually makes you do better science: diversity improves problem solving, makes your papers more likely to be cited, makes you prepare stronger arguments, and prevents groupthink. With so much evidence that diversity is good for science, it is unequivocally in our best interest to foster inclusive environments and make science accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. But, to make science accessible, we must first make internet accessible.

Internet’s Critical Role

Over the past decade, the internet has quickly morphed into an absolute necessity for modern living. Bills are posted and paid online. Retail is moving online. Even brick-and-mortar stores now use internet services to process credit card payments or digitally cash checks. And of course, the internet has become the main avenue for information transfer. Schools post assignments online and online information repositories have replaced physical textbooks in many schools. Science news is largely disseminated via Facebook, Twitter, online radio streaming, online journals, podcasts, and Youtube. Google is an invaluable tool for the student of science at any education level. Scientific journals necessary for professional science are increasingly moving from print to online formats.

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Social media connects scientists around the world.

In addition to being essential for learning science, the internet is also a crucial tool for finding diverse representations of scientists. Diverse representation of scientists is vital because when it comes to role models, seeing is believing. Growing up without internet access and only local tv programming, the only scientists I could name were Albert Einstein and Bill Nye the Science Guy. With the advent of social media, users now have access to online communities like the National Society of Hispanic Physicists and the #BlackinSTEM community. For students without ready access to online media, their access to scientific role models and science resources will be severely restricted. This may be a contributing factor to the underrepresentation in STEM of students from rural areas where high-speed internet is unavailable.

 

High-speed internet unavailable in many rural areas

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined broadband internet as 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. According to that same report, roughly 10% of Americans lack access to those speeds. Of the 10% lacking access, 70% live in rural areas. Put in the context of the total population of rural Americans, this means that about one-fourth of all rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet. Further, this report merely addresses the availability of high-speed internet without taking into account the prohibitive costs for many consumers. The true accessibility of high-speed internet depends not only on having the infrastructure in place, but also on imposing regulatory pricing so that high-speed internet is affordable everywhere.

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Map of the U.S. showing broadband internet access by county

The reason high-speed internet is unavailable in so much of rural America is simply because it is not cost-effective for the internet service providers to install the infrastructure in areas with low population densities. Even in well-established cities, you don’t have to go very far to find that internet availability has suddenly disappeared. At my apartment in Carrboro, I can access up to 400 Mbps internet services. (Again, whether or not anyone could ever afford to pay for 400 Mbps is another story.) Just 12 miles away, outside the city limits of Hillsborough, my father has access to only 3 Mbps speeds no matter how much he is willing to pay. With speeds this slow, video streaming is impossible and even surfing the web quickly becomes frustrating or impossible. Certainly areas which lack high-speed internet access have a significant handicap in the dissemination of science information, resources, and models.

Internet access and geographic diversity in STEM

While there are probably many reasons factoring into the lack of geographic diversity in STEM, one of them is not that students from rural areas are inadequately prepared for STEM classes at the collegiate level. According a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Education, students in rural areas performed as well as or slightly better on standardized math and science tests as compared to their peers in urban and suburban areas in grades 4, 8, and 12 (pgs 50 and 54 of that report). However, at the college level, rural students are severely underrepresented in STEM fields, and this under-representation may have grown worse in recent years. This implies that science is suffering by not attracting talented students from diverse geographic locations.

One of the barriers preventing rural students from entering STEM fields is the lack of high-speed internet access in rural areas. Because the internet is not being treated as a utility, there is currently no federal mandate that high-speed internet access be made available nationwide. Further, internet is not subject to the same federal ratemaking regulations as are electricity and natural gas to prevent providers from suddenly introducing huge rate hikes. Some companies such as Microsoft have publicized long-term plans to implement the infrastructure needed to make high-speed internet available in rural areas, but progress is difficult to see. Until then, some rural communities have taken matters into their own hands and are building their own community broadband networks. This progress is slow and relies on individual communities having the resources to individually finance their internet infrastructure installation. If we really want to increase access to science and foster diversity in science, scientists should turn some attention to making high-speed internet accessible and affordable for all. 

Peer edited by Jon Meyers and Sara Musetti.

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Defying Regression Towards the Mean

As a young woman in pursuit of a career in academia, I find the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers, and specifically scientific research, to be a daunting statistic to face. In STEM fields, the percentage of tenure-line faculty positions held by women has merely increased from 19% in 2004 to 23% in 2012. In comparison, women composed 44% of non-STEM, academic positions in 2012.  STEM fields are failing to matriculate women into faculty positions in equal numbers to men, and it is difficult to uncover the forces that create unfavorable and, at times, inhospitable environments for women in academia. Antiquated gender biases, intrinsically male-centric tenure track pressures, and deeply institutionalized chauvinistic attitudes do perpetuate inequality in academia, but what accounts for the discrepancy in STEM fields? Amid the institutional struggle to unravel the cryptic barriers impeding the advancement of women in STEM careers, I offer only my own struggle with gender bias and how it has shaped my career goals, and in turn what it means to me to be a woman in science.

When I began my graduate program at The University of California, Riverside (UCR), an institution renowned for its diversity, I did not expect to encounter resistance based on my identity as a woman in science. During my first year of graduate level courses, a professor requested that I meet with her to discuss my future. I assumed she wanted to discuss my academic progress or perhaps inquire about my research topic of interest. Instead, she cautioned me that despite being an intelligent woman, I would need to change my personality to be respected as a scientist in academia, as I was too outwardly feminine. She impressed upon me that I would never be accepted by peers, be taken seriously by male faculty, or advance in the ranks of academia since it was still a “boys club.” Alternatively, she suggested that it could be in my best interest to refocus my career goals on positions at institutions with a higher emphasis on teaching rather than research. My perceived femininity would be a liability as I sought to climb the ranks of research institutions, and possessing effeminate qualities meant I was ill-equipped to undertake the rigors of a research career. Her message was equal parts pejorative and subliminal: I was the wrong kind of woman to be a researcher. In limiting my aspirations, she believed she was advising me. I was devastated; and yet, throughout my graduate work I struggled to escape echoes supporting her warning.

Three years into my doctoral research, I developed a body of evidence that won funding for an international research collaboration. During the first collaborative meeting, a foreign PI glibly remarked that the inclusion of women on research proposals was simply for appearances. He complimented my contribution, expressing more gratitude for my name than for my research, and he subsequently refused to share significant experimental responsibilities with women on the team. Not only was he disinterested in including women, he promoted the use of women as pawns to advance his own success, appealing to the image of gender equality without subscribing to it. My thoughts wandered back to the meeting with my past professor, and I wondered if she had possibly endured any similar experiences over her career? I imagined how discriminatory attitudes could have misshaped her own gender perceptions, misleading her to marginalize another woman’s potential under the veil of guidance, as perhaps she had limited herself.Image Credit: Carly Sjogren

I hope for a future where any semblance of gender bias is relegated to anecdotes of the past, but for now – though it is still very much a reality – I choose to persevere. The only thing that truly matters is that I am a woman who loves science. I will not become less feminine simply because it may be perceived as a weakness to some, and I have absolutely no intention to pursue an alternate career. I aspire to become a professor at a Research I institution, and my training at UNC will propel my development as an independent researcher to become a competitive professorial candidate. As such, I will be more than just a female STEM professor – I strive to become a woman with a superb record of research who serves as a positive and inclusive mentor, educator, and role model for my community and for other women striving to reach their greatest potential.

Peer edited by Salma Azam.

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Cells and Samples Have Race Too!

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Science should reflect the diversity of its subjects.

If I told you that a tumor DNA sequencing research study found 25% of lung cancer patients have a mutation in the gene KRAS, would that truly mean that if I were to gather together every person on this planet who has lung cancer, 25% of them would have a KRAS mutation? There are of course countless confounding factors to consider that would likely make it not so: age, race/ethnicity, and gender being a few. These traits are likely much more diverse in the global population than what they could ever be in a study population. And although we all consider it obvious that there are many such factors that we should consider when performing biomedical research – I wonder how much we actually bother considering them in practice. When we perform an experiment with a well-known cancer cell line that researchers have been using since the 1970s, for example, do we ever stop to think of who the cell line came from? What if we found that the majority of cell lines came from one specific ethnic group, age group, or gender? Would we still consider our findings as scientifically sound, or as relevant to general populations? Or if you read a paper and see that the authors are able to reproduce their findings in multiple cell lines or in a handful of patient samples in their final figure of data, are you satisfied that their results have clinical relevance? Or do you question how representative and relevant those samples are to the target patient population?

Take this example. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a huge, multi-million dollar sequencing effort involving 20 different collaborating institutions across the U.S. and Canada to obtain genomic, transcriptomic, and epigenetic information from multiple cancer types. In total, TCGA obtained data from almost 11,000 patients. This effort has resulted in a slew of high-profile, high-impact papers and has provided enormous data sets that countless groups are mining and using to inform their research. These data have allowed researchers to discover many new targets which are being investigated for developing into new cancer therapies. A vast cohort of researchers have invested a great deal of time and effort into following up on studies directed by findings from TCGA. But, who are the actual patients represented in these datasets, and from whom we are drawing all of these sweeping biological conclusions? According to a brief report published in JAMA Oncology, 77% of the patients enrolled in the study were white, 12% were black, and most other ethnic groups were represented less than 5%. Interestingly, this mirrors the composition of the U.S. population fairly well: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2015, 77% of the U.S. population is white, 13% is Black, and most other ethnic groups are at 5% or less (as of 2015). One dramatic difference to note, however, is that about 17% of the U.S. population identifies as Hispanic, but only 3% of the patients in TCGA dataset are Hispanic.

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Cancer is a global disease, and requires study of all patient groups.

One could maybe argue that the over-representation of certain ethnic groups in TCGA datasets is justified as it is a fair representation of the racial composition of the U.S. population, and thus we are focusing on understanding the majority of patients. But even, for example, the teeny 1% minority of the U.S. population classified as American Indian/Native Alaskan is still equivalent to about 3 million people – not at all a small number deserving to being ignored! Furthermore, cancer is not an American disease, it is a global one, and as arguably one of the most powerful, influential, and wealthiest nations in the world, it might be fair to hope that research in the U.S. is invested in finding cures for a larger cohort of human beings, and not just a subset that is the majority specifically in this country. The JAMA report further shows that for virtually all the cancer types they looked at in their report, there were only a sufficient number of TCGA samples for the White patient group, and not any other ethnic group, to detect a 10% mutational frequency rate. In short, TCGA datasets may have so poorly represented certain ethnic groups that we could be missing out entirely on important biology that drives their cancers. Thus, although TCGA is typically thought of as a huge dataset that is representative of a diverse population, the reality is that it may only be highlighting the biology of a specific subset of individuals.

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Diversity within race needs to be considered in scientific studies.

Obviously, it is much easier to point fingers and complain than it is to actually do something to address the problem. And the issue, of course, is much more complex than even what I discuss here. White patients, Black patients, or Asian patients aren’t exactly homogeneous groups in and of themselves: the diversity within a socially-defined “race” is not something to be dismissed either. Regardless, this is certainly an important issue and one that we need to discuss more. TCGA proudly claims on their website that they obtained data from 33 cancer types, including 10 rare cancer types, but I hope in the future we can make similar claims about types of people.

Peer edited by Tamara Vital.

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The Impossibly Ideal Scientist

Image and artwork created by Lindsay Walton

The solving scientist: can this be fixed in time?

Beverly Crusher. Roy Hinkley. Emmett Brown. Samantha Carter. Sheldon Cooper. The Doctor. Abby Sciuto. Temperance Brennan. What do each of these scientists have in common? From creating a Geiger counter out of bamboo, to discovering, identifying, and curing a disease in the nick of time, each of these cinematic scientists has completed impossible tasks. Often works of fiction create all-knowing scientists who can solve any problem posed to them in the nick of time. However, do these depictions affect public expectations and imply that scientists are experts in every scientific field imaginable?

During recent years, many stereotypes about scientists have shifted, allowing researchers to shed the traditional “geeky” scientist persona. Some say that new perceptions of scientists reflect their cinematic portrayal as heroes and experts, “mavericks” who overcome obstacles both cerebral and physical in nature, persevering until they successfully save the day at the last moment possible.

However, how do these changing ideas about scientists translate to public expectations of the average scientist? Do “maverick” scientists portrayed in film cause people to idealize scientists and lead to the expectation that they will have all the knowledge Data, the android in Star Trek, has in his memory banks? In a recent survey, 49% of polled scientists stated that they felt the public has unrealistic expectations about the speed at which scientists should generate solutions to problems. Perhaps scientists feel the pressure of comparing themselves to their science fiction counterparts. The data certainly shows that the public has historically had high expectations for scientists. When polled, most Americans predicted scientists would cure cancer within 50 years, with polling starting as early as 1949. However, cancer still has not been cured, as exhibited by the recent National Cancer Moonshot proposal generated by President Obama, pushing for research funding to improve cancer patient outcomes.

Is it even possible to be the all-knowing scientist? As a lowly graduate student, I know that I will never be as brilliant as Dr. Beverly Crusher, who could probably cure cancer within one single episode. However, I believe that each of these idealized scientists creates a good model of what we should hope to be as scientists — individuals who thrive on the work, constantly learn new things, contribute to current knowledge, and reward the faith and trust that the public places in them.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich. Image by Lindsay Walton.

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What Will A Trump Presidency Mean for Scientists?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore.jpgThe votes are in, and to the surprise of pundits and pollsters everywhere, Donald J. Trump has been elected the 45th president of the United States. However, many scientists are concerned about what a Trump presidency would mean for important issues like climate change and research funding. For one, Trump is cautious about allocating resources for scientific research (see this pre-election article from Science and Q&A session at Sciencedebate.org for more). On the other hand, Trump has also stressed the importance of continuing research relevant for public health, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Due to his unclear stance on research funding, it is difficult to predict whether Trump will propose more budget cuts to the NIH and NSF.

More alarming, however, is Trump’s consistent denial of climate change. He has repeatedly called climate change a hoax and has strongly endorsed the US pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. On November 2nd, less than a week before the election, the Bloomberg BNA reported that Trump, at a Michigan rally, proposed to end climate spending.

“We’re going to put America first. That includes canceling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary wants to increase, and instead use that money to provide for American infrastructure including clean water, clean air and safety,” said Trump.

One example of infrastructure Trump wants to expand in his first 100 days in office is the Keystone XL pipeline, which would provide a more direct transportation of oil from Canada into the US compared to the current Keystone pipeline. Although Trump has not yet met with TransCanada specifically, Trump has consistently pushed for removing environmental regulations. Perhaps in a significant conflict of interest, he also owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for building the pipeline. President Obama and Hillary Clinton had opposed the pipeline because they did not believe building the pipeline would have a significant impact on the economy, creating jobs, or lowering petrol prices. In addition, environmental activists worry that this deal with TransCanada Corp. could instead increase America’s reliance on carbon fuel.

Nevertheless, Trump’s stance on many key issues in science and technology are still unclear. Ars Technica expresses concerns about his unclear stance on net neutrality and encryption (Trump’s campaign statement for cybersecurity can be found here). Trump’s senior advisors have suggested that even NASA could change focus under his direction. Based on his business background, backed by a Republican-majority Congress, it’s possible that Trump will place his efforts in science and technology as they relate to job creation and deregulation.

At this point, there’s still much that is unknown on how Trump will impact science policy. For more info, check out this Nature news article summarizing the concerns of other scientists.

Peer edited by Aminah Wali.

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Why Aren’t Politicians Talking About Science, and Should We Care?

http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/through-the-looking-glass-climate-change-denial-conflict-of-interest-and-connecting-science-to-policy-297

Politicians’ and scientists’ information do not always match up. Photo credit: © Jesse Springer/Union of Concerned Scientists

With two months to go before election day, we’ve already seen numerous candidates in numerous debates.  It seems like politicians will debate everything…except science. Science is all around us, and has wide reaching economic, health, and social implications.  Despite this, science is conspicuously absent in the current political discourse.  With science affecting so many aspects of our lives, it is imperative that politicians discuss how science will shape their decisions and policies.

Some would argue that politicians should not talk about science because they are not scientists.  They readily discuss economic issues, but are not economists, so what makes science different?  Many organizations are calling on our presidential candidates to have a debate about scientific issues where candidates could discuss how their views on issues related to science will affect their policy.  For instance, will they implement laws affecting companies contributing to global warming, or will they create regulations on genetically modified foods?  One such organization, ScienceDebate.org, is a nonpartisan organization promoting the importance of science in the national dialog.  They are currently crowdsourcing questions for political candidates to answer during a live debate about science issues.  Their effort, backed by Nobel laureates, scientific leaders, presidents, and celebrities, encourages everyone to get involved in starting this dialog, and challenges politicians to be clear on their stances regarding science related issues.  In 2008 and 2012, ScienceDebate.org posed 14 questions relating to science issues written in by citizens to the canditates (Obama and McCain then Obama and Romney) and received answers, which they then posted in side-by-side comparisons.  It revealed the candidate’s views on specific scientific issues such as stem cell research, genetics research, and scientific integrity, which may have otherwise never come up during a political debate.  (If you want to get involved, sign the petition calling for a 2016 science debate of the presidential candidates, or submit a question about science issues important to you.)

Although politicians are being encouraged to talk about their views on science, how much of what they say can we believe?  Organizations like PolitiFact are doing their part by fact checking politicians’ statements to ensure that the public is receiving accurate information.

How true are the statements made by politicians? PolitiFact checks the accuracy of statements made, and ranks them from True to Pants on Fire. Data from politifact.com

How true are the statements made by politicians? PolitiFact checks the accuracy of statements made, and ranks them from True to Pants on Fire. Data from politifact.com

So how are they doing?  After PolitiFact checks the accuracy of statements made, they categorize them into one of 6 grades ranging from True to Pants on Fire.  PolitiFact releases what they call “report cards” showing of all the statements they have checked for accuracy, and how those statements are graded. Hillary Clinton has most statements falling into the Mostly True category (just one step below True), while Donald Trump has the most statements falling into the False category.  

So with pressure to make accurate — well, mostly accurate — statements, and growing pressure to discuss science related topics, what will we be seeing from the candidates?  Hopefully, we’ll hear what the presidential candidates have to say about everything from genetically modified food, to space programs, to vaccines.  However, there is just one issue that the candidates have been asked to discuss so far; climate change.  While Hillary Clinton has clear plans for the imminent threat of climate change, Donald Trump denies climate change is happening until someone can “prove it to him”.  So despite overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real and a serious issue, politicians’ views are wide ranging, from serious threat to pseudo-scientific theory.  These views will shape how they make choices about policy.  Science matters, it is real, let’s talk about it.


Peer edited by Tamara Vital

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Science Outreach: Is It Really Worth it?

Standing off to the side of the demonstration, I watched a six-year-old girl carefully pick up her paper airplane from the ground and bring it back to her work station. With intense concentration, she snipped away a part of each wing, making the plane more sleek and adept for flying. After several more snips, she held it up to her mother to observe, then ran to an open area to test her experimental adjustments.

“This is fun,” she said to me, as she watched her plane soar through the air. “I want to design real planes when I’m grown-up!”

Such are the moments that we live for as scientists who are truly passionate about outreach. Whether we work with children or adults, we all have a common goal: communicating our love of science in a way that inspires others. To me, there is no better reward than that.

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Science outreach often involves teaching others about science, which many people find rewarding.

Or is there?

As a PhD student at a large R1 school, I know how competitive it is to win a fellowship. From the moment we enter graduate school, we are encouraged to apply for every grant we see. Through organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), millions of dollars are provided to support graduate students in performing groundbreaking research that largely impacts society. However, as I come to meet more scientists, my faith is beginning to wander concerning the true intentions of those who are supported by such agencies.

In my first semester of grad school, I was required to take a semester-long class to learn the art of grant-writing. The biggest point I took away was that institutions like the NSF pride themselves on two main focuses: intellectual merit (the impact of the research on the field) and broader impacts (science outreach). It’s common for students’ applications to be rejected due to their lack of outreach. Thus, to avoid rejection on next year’s round, they get involved with outreach events wherever they can – museums, libraries, schools, and the like. However, once NSF’s application deadline passes, so does students’ interest. It’s already a line on their resume, so no need to continue attending, right?

Don’t get me wrong, even forced science outreach can be valuable. But to someone who actually enjoys volunteering and public service, this is quite a nuisance.  Even professors sometimes do outreach solely to include it in their grant proposals. While these activities nonetheless help bring science to the community, I argue that it takes away from the true greater good. If we’re only doing outreach to put it on our resumes, what prevents us from skimping? Can we be confident that our work is being done well, and if it’s actually benefitting others?

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Grant applications (i.e., research funding) often require a PI’s involvement in science outreach.

In order to really make a difference, we need to look past the funding allocations and prestige of awards. We need to stress the fact to our scientific colleagues that outreach is a critical component of good science. Additionally, if we want to be good educators, we must first educate ourselves. A great way to do this is through workshops and classes that teach us the importance of good science communication. It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon that we use in the lab every day. By learning how to be effective presenters, we can better understand what inspires others, and can lead them to share in our enthusiasm for science.

On the other hand, we must recruit and retain motivated scientists to accomplish this task. Grad students, I’m looking at you! There are so many ways to get involved in outreach, both within and outside of the university. Find something that you’re passionate about, then share your excitement with others. The beauty of science outreach is that you get to be the author of the story that you tell.

The only question left now: will you help us? Ultimately, the choice is yours.

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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.  

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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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#NotAStudentHere

 

rutgerstouncIn January 2015, my Ph.D. adviser invited me into her office at Rutgers University, where I was enrolled, for what I thought was a typical meeting.  After the requisite small talk, she began alluding to possible research opportunities for me at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  I was intrigued and curious to know why the subject of studying at UNC was being suddenly brought up.  But then she dropped the ball on me: she would most likely be taking a job there and wanted to know if I would consider following her.  Whoa! I was shocked!  I didn’t know what to think at first, but I was excited about new opportunities.  Ultimately, I decided to follow her to UNC halfway through my Ph.D. while remaining a student at Rutgers.

I’ve been living in Chapel Hill for a year now.  It’s been a whirlwind of ups and downs, but has mostly been a positive experience.  In case you find yourself faced with a similar decision or are curious to know what it’s like in this position, here are some of the pros and cons that I’ve encountered from this big change:

Con: “#NotAStudentHere” seemed to become my personal hashtag.  Since I am not a student at UNC, there’s certain benefits that I haven’t been able to take advantage of such as not being able to use the gym, not being able to register for classes, or not being able to hold leadership positions in student groups.

Pro: Doubling my professional network!  I now have amazing connections at both Rutgers and UNC that I am able to foster and build. I’ve also got to expand the science that I can do such as collaborating on additional projects and taking advantage of state of the art instrumentation available at UNC. A new university means new opportunities!

Con: As an environmental science graduate student, I work in a wet lab with lots of equipment and analytical instruments, so I spent quite a bit of time helping to pack up the old lab, moving everything, and then unpacking and setting everything all up again

Pro: Although it was a lot of work, setting up a new lab, which involves deliberate organization and choosing of lab supplies was an incredibly useful experience that I will be thankful for if I ever build my own lab

Con: After being in New Jersey for three years, leaving the friends that I’ve made while I was there and then feeling like the “new kid at school” was a quite overwhelming

Pro: Making new friends and living in a new state! Southern hospitality is a real thing. It didn’t take long to find people and communities that I easily connected with. NC is pretty cool, not gonna lie. 

Given the pros and cons, for me it was the right decision. Things like this do happen and each situation is unique. For now, I’m taking the good with the bad and keeping my eye on the prize: that Ph.D.!

Edited by Tamara Vital.

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Does Inside Out Accurately Portray Memory?

With the recent release of Pixar’s latest movie, The Good Dinosaur, I thought I would revisit their previous film, Inside Out. Inside Out follows the five main emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear) of 11-year-old Riley as they guide her through her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Themes of the movie include how Riley experiences her world and how these experiences are translated into long-term memories, some of which define Riley’s personality. As a graduate student who studies memory, I was intrigued by the movie’s depiction of it. Fortunately, the movie does a nice (and entertaining) job. So what does it get right? Continue reading