Monday, March 31, 2014

When You Snatch the Pebble from My Hand, You Can Leave

As a new masters student with an advisor who has funding and a lab, I have been allotted an office. I use that word loosely--it's a grotty, gritty, dank basement room that can house up to six students. I have the place to myself at the moment, and thus I have a choice of desks. I picked one by the windows. It has some ancient plastic cubicle walls around it so there is a bit of privacy. Still, it's a step up from the undergrad experience of elbowing out other undergrads for an open seat at a table in the library. Don't mistake this for complaining. I am quite pleased to have the space and I will certainly use it.

The grad school experience is not quite what it used to be. Of course, geological sciences and animal sciences are different fields of endeavor and the graduate programs are funded and conducted in rather different ways. Still, I'm surprised at the amount of what certainly appears to be remedial learning that is required of grad students these days.

For example, grad students in animal sciences have to sign up for a handful of seminar courses every term. In my day, a seminar course was a cut-throat affair. My advisor had a stable of students at the time. His solution to managing us was to hold weekly meetings in which one student would make a brief presentation on his or her current research and the other students would rip it to shreds. It wasn't personal--we would go at published papers with equal frenzy. I look back on those years with some fondness. I learned to think on my feet and I learned to think critically. Tough love but excellent training for the real world. Believe it or not, as a child I was paralyzed by shyness. Stop laughing! Those five years in the shark pit were quite formative.

Instead it seems that hand-holding is the modern theme. Today, I received an hour-long lecture on how to read a scientific paper. Next Monday, I will sit through a lecture on how to make a technical presentation, starting with the title slide.

I'd laugh but that would make me quite the asshole, wouldn't it?

When you consider what I've done for the past 20 years (supporting myself for over a decade in a soft-money position in which I had to sing for every dollar, writing thousands of pages of technical reports, creating and delivering week-long training courses), these seminar courses seem unnecessary.

But that raises the $64,000 question: are they really necessary for any of the students? As I look around at the farm boys and girls with fresh manure on their shoes, obligatory hoodies in place, I think that it would be a mistake to underestimate them and, more importantly, a mistake to think that I'm a special snowflake.

I could be the asshole and sit there with the eye-rolls and deep sighs, surfing the internet or doodling on a piece of paper instead of listening. I may have walked barefoot to school for five miles through hip-deep snow, uphill both ways, but that doesn't mean that I know everything there is to know about reading a paper or making a technical presentation. Or about anything, really.

One lesson that I did not learn in the shark pit, a lesson that I truly began to understand only 7 or 8 years ago, is that if you pay attention and allow yourself to be in the moment, you can learn something new from almost anybody.

And that is what I will do.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Mimi is a silly, spoiled fox terrier.

Don't tell that to Harry, who is stretched out beside me covered in the grey blanket. The new recliner is so capacious it can hold me and two fox terriers.

Basset Face

Harry gave his vet quite a chuckle last week. It seems that he had developed a very itchy pyoderma around the corners of his mouth and under his chin.

Why is that funny? Well, this particular form of pyoderma is most commonly found on dogs with loose, flapping lips and jowls and is caused by accumulated caustic drool (ew). That most certainly doesn't describe smooth fox terriers!

The vet said, "He has basset face without basset lips!"

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Student Gig

I've got some big news! You'll recall that a few posts back I was bemoaning the fact that I wasn't having any more fabulous, exotic travel adventures. But quitting my job and going back to school has certainly opened up new kinds of adventures. I suspect that for some of you, becoming a student again sounds like entirely too much work. Well, I'm getting ready to take the student gig to a new level.

But first, some backstory (isn't there always a backstory?). With the exception of microbiology which I'm taking next term, I have finished the additional coursework that I needed to apply to the vet schools that I'm interested in (I have a short list of four schools at the moment).

All of the vet schools in the US use a single, online application form. They all use the same deadlines too. Applications are due this September for consideration for entry into vet school for fall of 2015. Yes, that's a year in advance. Actually, you are informed by March 2015 or so if you are accepted but you won't start vet school until that fall.

So I was wondering what I could do for the next 18 months. I didn't want to keep taking classes; I don't need them and college is damned expensive. I figured that I would try to get a job in a vet clinic as a tech and hang out here and see what happened. No point in moving anywhere until I knew where I might end up (my vet school choices are scattered across the US; OSU is one of them, however). And my chances of being accepted to vet school on the first application are not guaranteed. Many excellent candidates have to try a second time. I might be among them. 

I thought that for the spring and summer, I might try to get in on an undergraduate research project. I approached the professor who taught the Animal Nutrition course in the fall. I really enjoyed the course, and I learned that she had quite a lot of funding for undergrad research. So in January, I went to talk to her about this.

As she asked me more questions about my background, she got more excited, finally proposing something that I never even saw coming. 

She asked me to do a Master's degree with her in the 18 months' "gap". She's got research funding and several projects from which we could choose. She mentioned a fellowship that could pay my tuition and a small monthly stipend. She felt it was all quite doable.

I immediately sought some advice and information from a couple of other people in the department. Was I crazy to even consider this? It will be a lot of work. But the advantages are perfectly clear. Being accepted into an Animal Sciences graduate program then executing and completing a research project and thesis will be a significant boost to my vet school application. Half of the battle of going to grad school is finding an advisor and a project and funding. All of those things are being handed to me!

But wait, there's more! This professor works with poultry. Chickens, you are thinking? Really? Consider this: chickens are just about the only meat source without any major religious prohibitions and as a result chicken and egg production are taking off internationally. There is a TON of funding for poultry research from both the government and private sources. There are excellent, well paying jobs in the poultry industry all over the world. I am in fact interested in a possible international work experience. Why aren't more students flocking (heh, bad pun, it stays!) to poultry science? As one prof told me, chickens aren't cute and furry. Bah, I said. You don't have to take them home and make them pets. With respect to my vet school application, I am weak in my experience with production animals so working with chickens will help me out a lot there too.

Even better, the professor who asked me to work with her has a very strong focus on nutrition. It works both ways, you see. Better  nutrition for the chickens results in better nutrition for people who consume chicken products. Among other things, she studies how poultry diets affect the nutrient profiles of eggs. I am particularly interested in the tangled intersection of diet and disease (details are best reserved for a future post), but many vet schools don't even teach basic nutrition courses anymore. So I also see her offer as an opportunity to learn about specific topics of great personal interest to me.

So, in short, I applied and was accepted to the OSU graduate program starting in the spring term (which starts a short two weeks from now). In about 18 months, if all goes as planned, I will be getting a Master's degree in Animal Sciences with a focus on poultry science and nutrition. It was confirmed today that I'll get the fellowship that will cover my tuition.

And although this had little to do with my decision, I would mention that since I already have a BS and a PhD but not an MS, upon completion of the degree I'll have a complete set! Not a matched set since the other two are in geological sciences, but a complete set nonetheless. Sort of like shopping for dishes at Goodwill. My professional email signature will get really interesting. Imagine what it will look like if I add DVM to the list!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

End of the Term: Spring, Barn Owls, and Dead Calves

Spring is here in the Pacific Northwest. I'm sure that is of no consolation to the folks around the world still buried under ice and snow. Still, beautiful sunny days interspersed with gray rainy ones are a combustible combination for all the growing, budding, and flowering things. I've mowed the lawn once and it already needs to be mowed again. My metric for mowing is when the grass reaches Mimi's belly. She doesn't like wading through it to find the perfect pee spot. Yes, she is a princess. Yes, I spoil her terribly. (Example: I bought a new wide recliner, nice brown leather, over the winter holidays just so I'd have enough room for her by my side without being crowded.)

The spring weather is making it hard to sit inside and study for hours and hours as we prepare our end-of-term projects and get ready for finals. I once again took a heavy course load this term but only have two finals late next week. I had several significant projects that I wrapped up last week. 

I mentioned before about the cats that we dissected in anatomy lab. For the final project of that class, we had to dissect another animal with the goal of examining specific adaptations then prepare and deliver a presentation on what we learned. There was also some literature work involved. 

I was amazed when the lab instructor spent some time discussing what peer-reviewed, primary literature was; she even followed up with a handout. It's a sad commentary when a 20-year-old science major thinks that Wikipedia or JimBob's Big Website o' Facts According to JimBob are valid resources. Hey, do not mistake me here. I often use Wikipedia as a starting point, to get familiar with terminology that I can use when searching legitimate databases. But I would never think of citing it as a source!

The group of animals from which we could select our final project was diverse: a couple of gulls, a heron, a horned owl, a barn owl, a nutria and a beaver, and two large squirrels. A sea turtle showed up from the marine observatory associated with the university. The bird-heavy list is due to donations from the wildlife rehabilitation facility north of town; they receive far more birds there than anything else. I briefly considered the nutria but a quick half an hour's research suggested that they weren't that interesting. I never for a moment considered the beaver or the sea turtle. Too large, too complicated, and the professor wanted both dissections done in such a way as to protect various components for preservation and mounting as both were unusual acquisitions. I was enjoying the class but didn't want a final project that was going to be so time-consuming that it would interfere with my other classwork.

My first choice was the barn owl. After a number draw, me and a guy named Mike got the barn owl. We were very pleased! We worked well as a team. Our final presentation was extremely dense with all sorts of cool things we learned about barn owls in general and our barn owl in particular. It was a great project. I covered the phylogeny of owls (morphology and genetics) as well as feather structure and wing adaptions that allow barn owls to fly slow and quietly (getting into physics of flight). My partner covered ear, eye, facial ruff, and hind limb adaptations that allow barn owls to hunt so successfully in low-light conditions. We had the research and the dissection done in about two weeks, spent a weekend working on the presentation, and delivered it on Friday. Efficient and targeted, just like a barn owl!

The anatomy class attracts students from both zoology and animal sciences departments. Three of the women in the class are animal science majors, farm girls who want to work with production animals. They weren't happy with the available animal selection. Instead, one of them used some connections to get her hands on a few-days-old Holstein calf who had died. It was stashed in a freezer up at the vet school. They decided that they were going to dissect this calf. Holsteins, as you might know, are large animals. This calf already weighed well over 100 lbs. It was the size of a person. It arrived frozen solid in an enormous black plastic trashbag; it took days to defrost. They managed to skin it before deciding that when it came to getting into its innards, they were going to be dealing with a fluid volume issue that our lab wasn't really equipped to handle. (The turtle team had similar problems but the turtle shell acted as a basin; they tipped the accumulated turtle juice into the sink in the lab a few times each session.)

Now I know that understanding the workings of production animals is pretty important to the health of those animals and to the health of those who eat their parts. But I had to shake my head over their choice: next to dogs, cows are one of the most genetically manipulated animals that we use. Adaptations in a calf were going to be related to its fundamental nature as a ruminant but I couldn't help feeling that those were pretty mundane compared to the more exotic adaptations in the turtle or the barn owl. 

But the calf group's story got even odder. Once they decided that the Holstein wasn't going to work, one of the group quickly identified a replacement: a still-born Jersey calf, one of a pair of twins, that was lying in a field outside town. By the time they got the Jersey into the lab, it had been lying in the field for days. It was covered with mud and debris from the ground and it smelled exactly like hamburger meat that has gone off, way off. It was certainly gag-inducing (I'm glad I no longer eat beef). By this time, most of the other groups except for the turtle and beaver teams had completed their dissections. The calf group was just getting started. I have no idea if they ever finished either calf beyond skinning them. 

I firmly believe that your educational experiences are what you make of them. And to their credit, the calf group stuck with their decision. I hope they learned valuable things. But I also believe that you have to find a balance between competing tasks and responsibilities. Just because it's spring time and I want to be working in the yard doesn't mean I can ditch all the other things I need to do as well. Dissecting a calf probably seemed like a good idea at the time but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Using My Right Brain

I have been thinking about how I can continue my French during vet school. It will take quite an effort but I am more convinced than ever that it is important to do so.

I've been taking large class loads each term that I've been here at OSU. French contributes a lot to that, accounting for 25% of my total credit hours. Still, the regular exercise of my right brain has proven to be amusing, distracting, and stimulating in equal measures.

Our most recent writing assignment was to submit a critique of the film "La Haine". We watched the film in class over a couple of days. Made in 1995, it is about the violence and racial issues in the French slums (banlieues) that have metastasized around every large French city. The film was made in a documentary style, although it is mostly fictional, and it was filmed in black and white. It is full of shocking violence and profanity and sadness.

As usual, the assignment was open-ended. I decided to do an analysis of the main characters in terms of classical epic tragedy/comedy: buffoon, anti-hero, thwarted hero, villain, and so forth. I won't bore you with my actual essay but I can tell you that I labored long over it. I was utterly amazed with the result--it was insightful, concise, and written entirely in another language. Since the beginning of this term, I no longer draft my assignments in English then translate. I write them from the start in French. The cognitive leap that my right brain has to make to do this is pretty amazing.

The profanity in the film was interesting. The French are so much more creative than we Puritan descendants are when it comes to swearing. A friend gave me a pretty fun French profanity handbook a couple of winters ago and I considered doing my write up on the cultural basis of the profanity in the film. Then I figured, I'd better not push it. That might be a little too philosophical for my poor rudimentary French.

This morning I finished writing our final essay for the term. We had to write about clothing. I know, that's a pretty open ended topic as well, and not one that I find particularly engaging. And we had to use the conditional verb tense at least five times. The conditional is an easy tense to conjugate and it isn't an unusual one, but when you have to use it, it can seem a little forced. I have been struggling with this assignment for a couple of days. I couldn't get enthused about the topic until I came up with the hook: imagine what an extraterrestrial would think about clothing (ah, there's the conditional tense!) if he visited Earth 500 years ago and then came back again today. My essay has the proper mix of humor and cynicism that I have maintained in all my writing assignments. The prof will love it.

In a metaphorical way, using my right brain for all this creative writing in French gives my left brain a bit of a rest. I'm stuffing all sorts of vertebrate anatomy and biochemistry and animal physiology things in there and it gets a little crowded and stuffy. Writing about extraterrestrials observing human clothing styles...that's a bit of fresh air.