During my first day of grad school

I was walking around the building with the professor I’m doing rotations with this quarter, and we ran into (who I now know is) one of the secretaries in our business office.

Secretary: Hi! *pauses awkwardly* …Is this…?
Me: ?
Prof: *long confused pause, then realization* …my WIFE?!
Secretary: *nods*
Prof: *laughing* No, this is my first roton!
Secretary: Oh, I’m sorry! I just remember someone saying your wife was younger than you, so…

Real thoughts about grad school to come later, you know, when I’m not actually busy with grad school.

People warned me about the Seattle rain…

…but not the spike pits and Wall of Death.I’m going to be walking past this every day on my way too and from school. I hope this isn’t an omen.

On the bright side, I’m happy that my new iPhone 4G (yes, I broke down) takes such nice photos! My old camera was 4 years old and being held together by duct tape, so this is a nice replacement. And while I’m rambling about iPhones, App suggestions are welcome.

Thoughts on grad school

“What are you most looking forward to about grad school? What are you hoping to achieve? And, what will you actually be studying? I mean, is there really more to know about copulatory plugs?”

I’m most looking forward to finally be studying what I’ve always wanted to research: human genetics and evolution. I don’t know the exact topic yet since UW has you do a year of lab rotations, but there are a lot of exciting projects going on there. I haven’t been able to investigate that area yet since no one at Purdue really researches human genetics or evolution too much – I think mainly because we don’t have a medical school.

So no, I’m not going to be researching copulatory plugs anymore. Even that wasn’t my main project at Purdue. My bigger project was looking at population genetics and historical demography in kangaroo rats. I’ll be able to talk more about them here once they’re officially published, but until then, I have to keep quiet.

And looking at the bigger picture, I’m excited to be furthering my education and becoming an “expert” in my field. I really enjoy research and teaching, so I think academia is the right place for me. And I just love to learn – I’m geeking out about all the advanced classes that I’ll be taking, which I think is a good sign.

…Okay, and it’s nice knowing I have an assured paycheck for five years in this crappy economy and that I’ll be Dr. McCreight at the end. But really, those are just perks! Really nice perks, hehe.

Seattle, here I come!

While I alluded to it in a previous post, I still wasn’t 100% sure. But now it’s official – I’ll be going to the University of Washington to get my PhD in the Department of Genome Sciences in the fall!

That still sounds crazy when I say it. I’m going to go get a freaking PhD. Who knew that would happen ten years ago, when I was still amazed by the simple puzzle of a Punnett square, or when I still didn’t quite grasp the whole evolution thing. I’ve come a long way.

So come September, I will have officially escaped the Midwest. Wooooo! Though I admit, I’m nervous. I’ve lived in Indiana for the past 21 years (lived 5 minutes across the border in Illinois when I was an infant), and I’ve never lived in a big city. Purdue is only an hour and a half from my home town, so I was still close to family and retained some of my old high school friends. It’s kind of terrifying knowing I’ll finally be completely on my own. It’s like I’m an adult or something!

If you have any tips about grad school in general, the University of Washington, or Seattle, now’s a good time to let me in on all of the secrets. Or you can just use this post to celebrate along with me. Hurray!

Rejection and Acceptance

If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you’ll know that I recently found out I was rejected from both Harvard and Stanford. I think it’s important to blog about the process, not just for cathartic reasons, but for anyone else who might be in the same boat or thinking about applying to graduate school in the future. I waited a couple of days before typing this, because on Saturday I was still crying, wondering all of the “What if”s, and feeling melodramatically doomed about my future.

I’m feeling significantly less doomed, though my self esteem hasn’t quite recovered yet. For those of you who don’t know me well, I have very, very high standards for myself. Where any normal human being would be elated about their achievements, I can always come up with ways that I can do better. I know I’m a successful student because I’m so hard on myself. While I know I’ve accomplished some great things in college, it still never feels like enough.

And I’m my worst critic. All of my professors have been constantly telling me since freshman year how grad schools would just be dying to snatch me up, that they’ll be heavily recruiting someone with such a strong record, that having more than one publication under my belt would make me a shoe-in, that I’m Harvard and Stanford material, easily. And for most of the time, I was skeptical. I knew I was a good student, but I was going to keep working hard and not get my hopes up. I’d apply, and see how it went.

And apply I did. And then I got interviews. I was flown out, wined and dined, told by department heads how my resume was ten times better than theirs when they were applying to grad school, told how other schools paled in comparison to theirs, told how they can’t wait to see me in the fall. I left suddenly believing what those professors had been telling me all of those years. For a rare moment, I felt that I really was smart and hard working enough to belong in Harvard or Stanford. I felt proud of what I had accomplished, that four years of working my ass off and being passionate about science had paid off.

And then I was rejected.

If I had never gotten an interview, or if the interviews hadn’t seemed like they blatantly wanted me, I wouldn’t have been as upset. But instead of this being a predicted outcome, it was a ginormous let down. I know I shouldn’t bitch about not getting into Harvard or Stanford, since I have been accepted to the University of Washington – which I loved and is a fabulous school in itself. It’s just that for once in my life I had the amount of self esteem I should have, and it was dashed against the rocks.

I actually felt a bit worse when everyone found out, because they were so shocked. My one professor just seemed to share my disappointment, but the other (a Stanford alumni) seemed mixed between flabbergasted and mad at Stanford. My friends seem to have the reaction of “If anyone should be getting into those schools, it’s Jen!” And that really makes me feel like I screwed up somehow – that the unanimous opinion is that I rock, yet I still failed somehow. Though to all of my friends and readers who tweeted at me, emailed me, commented at me, and texted me – thanks for the support. With the attention I got, you would have thought I had posted a suicide note or something (I’m not that upset, sheesh).

As for why I was rejected, you never know. Both letters can be summarized by “You’re awesome, but the economy sucks, so we have no money or space and more people applied this year, sorry!” And if that’s the truth, it actually makes me feel a little crappier. Any normal human being might feel relieved, but I hate it when things are out of my control. It drives me crazy that even if I had worked harder, I still would have gotten screwed over by chance.

And when it comes to grad school, there are so many variables to take into consideration. Maybe they really were only able to take a few amount of people this year, and I just happened to be the worst of the best – I should still be proud of being with such a smart group. Maybe way too many human population biologists applied, and labs had space for different types of genetics. Maybe Purdue has a crappy genetics reputation compared to other places people were coming from. Maybe I was less desirable since I haven’t already worked on humans. Maybe ten people have generously donating alumni for parents. Maybe I have the interviewing skills of a troll. Maybe they found my blog and saw it as a liability (I doubt this one, since all the profs were all “Yay atheist clubs!”).

You never know. And to keep my sanity, I’m trying not to dwell on it. Instead I’m reminding myself how much I did love UW when I visited, how I did get into an amazing and well respected genetics program, how awesome Seattle is, and how soon I’ll be the first person in my family to get their PhD. For once, I’m trying not to dwell on how I could have done better, but be proud of what I have accomplished.

Stanford summary

Let me provide you with a visual explanation of why I want to go to Stanford:
Oh my god, how could one place be so beautiful? I think I’ve been living in Indiana way too long.

Seriously though, I really enjoyed Stanford, and not just for the lovely weather and beautiful palm trees (but those were definite perks). The professors and students were super nice and easy to talk to, the research was really interesting, and I think it would be a good fit for me. I’ll find out if I’m officially accepted later this week! The major downside is the cost of living – the cheapest apartments there are more than twice than what I’m paying now, sheesh. At least in grad school I’ll actually have a pay check. If I can live off virtually nothing, I think I’ll be okay even on a grad student’s salary.

In addition to going through the typical interview process, I also was invited to AHA!‘s meeting at Stanford. It was basically a big Q&A session where I talked about my experience blogging and a little bit about being an atheist in the midwest. I had a blast, and really enjoyed meeting the club members! Depending on my grad school decision, I might be going to those meetings a lot more often.

On Saturday we got a mini vacation, which was a lot of fun. We went to the Exploratorium, took a boat ride out to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and ate at a yummy pub in downtown San Francisco.

Sea lions!
I had no idea that there were boat police that could actually pull over other boats. And with a mounted gun! …I am easily amused.
Alcatraz and San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
And meeeee, just to prove I’m not just making up my adventures.

Come see me at Stanford!

On Wednesday, March 3rd I’ll be hopping on another plane to my grad school interview at Stanford. The Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford have been nice enough to invite me to give a little talk! I’ll be discussing my experiences as an atheist blogger, touching on my thoughts about the atheist blogosphere, how my blog rose to popularity, and what it’s like being a woman in a male dominated community.

When: Wednesday, March 3 at 7 pm
Where: Old Union 201 at Stanford University
Who: Me!

It’ll probably be pretty informal (ie, I will probably only have time to work on it on the plane), so come with fun questions to ask me. I won’t be able to hang around afterward since I’m off to an Official Grad School Dinner, so try to make it to the event!

Thanks so much for inviting me, AHA! I feel pretty special to have my own bio and everything. Let’s just pray to the FSM that my flight doesn’t get delayed…

Fun times in Seattle

Not sleepless, though. Seriously, my hotel bed was the most comfortable thing ever. Slept like a baby. I think I’ve figure out my sleep problems: stop sleeping in beds that are older than I am.

Anyway, Seattle and the University of Washington was a lot of fun. The whole time I was there it was sunny and in the 50s, which felt balmy after coming from below freezing weather. On the downside, apparently people in Seattle are so used to their gloom and rain that they have no idea how to drive when it’s sunny out. Seriously, the traffic was absolutely horrible. The Olympics, Bon Jovi concert, and Yo-yo National Tournament may have also had an affect (you know people love their yo-yos).

But that didn’t stop me from going on an adventure. One of my readers, Jaki, picked me up so I didn’t have to battle the traffic on public transportation. She sounded sweet enough on the phone that I felt my odds were good that she wasn’t going to turn out to be an axe murderer. We made our way over to the Pacific Science Center and met up with two more of my readers, Jason and Jerry (it was a J-name party!).

I had a lot of fun. Probably way too much fun than anyone over the age of 10 is intended to have in this place. We went to the dinosaur exhibit first, which had a bunch of animatronic dinosaurs. I hate to say it, but they looked crummy compared to the quality of the brand new Creation Museum, which made me said. But then I was happy when I read all of the information and played the games that were actually teaching good science and not a bunch of make believe.

Where are the human animatronics? I’m so confused. This isn’t what I learned at the Creation Museum…

My favorite part of the museum was the big section on genetics. I love science museums like this because it’s full of hilarious silly games, like this one where you’re a European corn borer and you’re trying to destroy as much corn as possible. Hellz yes. It may be corny (ha), but it cracks me up. How many games do you get to play as a European corn borer?!
It’s also full of bad puns. What’s not to love?

They also had a new exhibit on what it would be like being an astronaut going to Mars.
Some nice subtle product placement there, Microsoft. Apparently now we don’t just have to worry about them taking over the world – now we have to worry about Mars too!

It was pretty neat. They had stuff ranging from gloves that simulated the pressure of space, a low-gravity harness simulator, genetically modified plants. They also asked “Who should go to Mars?” with the makings of a reality TV show:
I swear to god I did not do this. Some bored dad was laughing at his creation when I stumbled upon it.

After we had enough of the center, we went and had a nice dinner nearby. It was a ton of fun hanging out with everyone! Unfortunately we didn’t get to hang out at the pub too long, since a bunch of people were waiting for tables, but I pretty much fell straight asleep when I got back to my hotel anyway. Body was definitely still on Eastern time.
The next couple of days were devoted to my UW interviews. I was with a group of 16 students, and apparently another 16 had come two weeks before. We were showed around the city, got to see some apartments, met a lot of graduate students, and interviewed with professors. I thought their program was wonderful, and I’m still amazed by the high throughput sequencing resources they had. And today I got an email from one professor that I interviewed with that I was officially accepted, yay!

It’s definitely going to be a hard decision. I like UW just as much as Harvard, but for different things. I think I’m going to have to visit Stanford next week, let everything soak in for a bit, and then try to make a decision. Because right now I have no idea what I’d do!

Australian PM: PhDs are a women’s excuse to not have babies

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was recently giving a speech about the nation’s aging population and the problems it will cause. Seems like a serious topic that needs discussing – but it got interesting when he met Nina Funnell, researcher and reporter.

Arguments were made about superannuation and the strain on healthcare. But there was a deeper message: young people (women in particular) are failing in their civic duty to reproduce. Apparently, gen Y is to blame for the inverted population pyramid.

There were hundreds of people in the room but only a handful under 30. As one of the under 30-crowd, I shuffled nervously, hoping no one would recognise me – and my empty womb – as the deeply unpatriotic and traitorous felons that we are.

After Rudd came off stage, he spoke to me and the few other under-30s (we had congregated for strength in numbers). He extended his points about the problems with the ageing population and the financial problems gen Y will incur when the baby boomers become pensioners.

At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the “excuse” that “all” young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I’ve come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.

…I can’t imagine how a politician, someone who should theoretically be a master of political correctness and choosing his words carefully, would say something so horrendously stupid. Yep, women choosing to further their education is really just an excuse to get out their Ultimate Duty of Making Babies. Not because of, you know, the pursuit of knowledge, a passion for research, the desire to teach others, the excitement of discovery, the satisfaction of exploration, or the joy of personal fulfillment. Nope, it’s because we don’t want to patriotically pop out babies for the motherland.

Another annoying part is that multiple factors make many women feel like motherhood and academia just don’t mix. How can you balance morning sickness with field work? How can you do lab work with dangerous chemicals that you’re not allowed to use? How are you expected to write your thesis when you’re taking care of an infant? These are all daunting challenges.

Are women getting their PhDs with the nefarious plan that they can use these things as excuses to avoid reproduction? Of course not. Plenty of women want to have children, but put it off because they feel it’s impossible in the current academic environment. The solution isn’t to stop women from getting their PhDs. What we need to do is develop ways to make motherhood easier for academics. Make day cares more available at Universities. Make pregnancy leave a viable option for grad students. Take pregnancy into account when evaluating publications when I woman is up for tenure. Encourage men to spend more time with their children, rather than assuming that’s mom’s job.

Many women have survived grad school and motherhood simultaneously because they had appropriate accommodations. This should be a cause Rudd can rally against: I mean, all he wants us to do is breed, right? He won’t care if we happen to get a little smarter at the same time.