Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Thesis

Here are the numbers:
  • 223 pages, 27 pages of front matter and 196 of text
  • 9 chapters
  • 29 figures
  • 39 tables
  • 122 references
Yep, that's my master's thesis. It's a rather substantial document. Turns out that I had a lot to say about feeding broiler chickens whole flax seed and carbohydrase enzymes. 

I officially entered the graduate program a year ago. I conducted the feeding trials during May through July and spent all of August and September in the lab. I collected and read most of the references during the summer and fall. We ran all the statistical analyses in the fall. I wrote the thing during the winter break (I spent the last three weeks of December doing nothing but writing). My advisor and I have been working on the edits for most of this winter term. During the coming spring term I have to prepare a talk and a poster for the national Poultry Science Association meeting that I will attend in July (we got ambitious and submitted two abstracts), and draft at least one paper that will be submitted for publication. Along with all of this, I've had to complete over 33 credit hours of graduate coursework and that doesn't include any of my French classes.

But we are at last done with the thesis. Or rather, she is finally ready for me to release it to the rest of my committee. I told her she didn't leave much for them to do. She mumbled something about always checking things that go out under her name. She did more than check, she pulled a damned nit comb through it. We both found errors that required re-runs of some statistics, and she reined in the worst of my florid writing and arm-waving pronouncements.

In case you care, the title of my thesis is "Enzyme supplementation of broiler chicken diets containing whole flax seed as a means to increase n-3 fatty acids in human diets".

The thesis defense is scheduled for May 12, Tuesday, at 8:30am. That will give me time to make final changes to it and get all forms submitted to the Graduate School in time to meet the June graduation deadline.

Then I can add a couple more letters after my name. Not that I used the ones I already have, but it's the thought that counts. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Applying to Vet School: An Update

I haven't posted on this topic in a while! Information about the process of applying to vet school is unreliable and spotty at best. It is frustrating that every applicant has to learn anew what other applicants already learned then either forgot or repressed....

The 28 US vet programs and the handful of foreign programs that are accredited by the AAVMC all agree to accept a unified application (regulated by VMCAS), to accept the same deadline for completion of that application (October of the year before you want to begin vet school), and to use the same deadline for acceptance of admission offers (April 15 of the next year). But some schools have supplemental applications. All six of the schools that I applied to had some sort of supplemental application that was either a rehash of the VMCAS material (that was frustrating) or additional questions that were relevant to that particular program or the state in which it is located (for residency decisions, etc.). Some schools interview candidates. The time at which admission offers are sent out varies widely, with some schools sending out offers in December, others waiting until late March. So there is some overall structure but the details will be quite different depending on which school(s) you apply to.

My list of six has narrowed down to five. University of Illinois invited me out for an interview/info session. But if I declined to attend one of their pre-determined dates, my application would no longer be considered. I declined.

Why would I do this? Well, an offer to attend an info session is a guarantee of absolutely nothing. Even being invited out for an interview means nothing. I would have had to miss classes (I currently have a 4.0 GPA for my graduate course work and I work quite hard for it). I would have had to pay for airfare, hotel, meals, and transportation out of my own pocket. And out of my six, Illinois was without question the last on the list. 

And there was another reason. In early December, I received an email from Oregon State University (where I am now completing my MS degree) with an offer of admission to their vet school program for fall 2015. So with an offer in hand, I looked at the pseudo-offer from Illinois sitting there in the bush and made my first decision. Six became five.

Oregon is unusual in jumping out of the gate so early, but that admissions offer is for an out-of-state slot, and there is a fixed number of those. They also sent out first-round rejection letters to in-state applicants at the same time. They didn't send offers of admission to in-state applicants until early February, following a more normal time schedule for those sorts of things.

All vet schools have an alternate list for candidates that meet their criteria but for some reason just weren't enticing enough to put into the first round of admission offers. I am on the alternate list for three schools, and in ranked position one for one of them. I don't know the size of the lists or my rank on the other two; most schools are quite coy about this. But there are many good reasons for this. Sometimes there is no rank at all. Vet schools may seek to balance each incoming class between large animal and small animal, or research and clinical, or even males and females (women outnumber men by a large margin). 

I still haven't heard from one school but I know that it is interviewing applicants now so I expect to know something from them soon.

I am of two minds about being put on an alternate list. I am disappointed that I did not make the cut at those three schools but I am pleased that they didn't reject me outright.

I've been talking to my network of mentors and advisors and have learned that all schools, every single one, even Cornell and UC Davis and others with that glittery panache of reputation and national ranking, dip into their alternate lists. This horse trading will begin in April and can continue up to the weeks before classes start in the fall! To get an offer from one of the schools that put me on their alternate list, someone else has to decline a prior offer of admission. Maybe several someones. There is a good probability that I will receive an offer from the school at which I'm ranked alternate one; I have no idea about the other two.

Which brings up an extremely important question: how valuable is an offer given to me in early May from school X when they didn't love me enough in January to make me an offer then?

I will of course accept Oregon's offer of admission. But this puts me in a bit of a quandary. How long do I wait to hear from the other schools? If I am going to move to some other place, I need time to find a new place to live, to pack, to move, to settle in. I'm not 21 years old, carefree and footloose, with possessions that fit in the back of my car. I passed that point decades ago.

I am drifting in unmapped territory. Most people apply to only one vet school, the one in the state in which they reside. Some of the high achievers apply to several. But "here be dragons".

I had hoped that the more information I gathered, the easier my decisions would become. Instead, I am only becoming more anxious about this process. 

If you started reading this hoping for resolution, I'm sorry to disappoint. It may be weeks yet before I know what is going to happen this coming fall.

But one thing is certain. I left Saudi Arabia two years ago with a plan, a crazy plan, to get into vet school (well, to be honest, I conceived the plan almost three years before that). And somehow, I managed to pull it off. I will be going to vet school in the fall. I just don't know which one it will be!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Parler En Ma Propre Voix

I've not posted much this term about French class. The third-year class has two sections offered back to back. The noon to 1pm section is a lively little group of about a dozen. I'm so glad that most of them will return next term. 

Because we are required to talk to each other so much (duh, it's a language class), we know each other much better than we do other people in our other classes. Sometimes better than other students in our own home departments. And of course our grammar and vocabulary are constantly expanding. These have combined to produce two interesting results. 

First, in those few minutes before class begins, as people arrive in ones and twos from their other activities, we chit chat with each other about events in the news, about our other classes, what we did during the weekend, even banalities like the weather. In French. We don't even think about what we are doing, it just seems normal.

But the second result, the one that I find kind of exciting, is that as our ability to create more sophisticated sentences is improving, we are speaking in our own voices. In other words, we aren't just parroting sentences from our grammar books. I've listened to Anne and Will and Evan talking about freshman physics in English. I know what kinds of jokes they make and how this one speaks in short sentences and this one speaks in more complex ones. And even when run through the meat grinder of French grammar rules, I can now hear those same patterns when they speak French. I know that I am doing the same thing. Our own voices, but in French. 

That is very cool.

Madame McC. assigns us a variety of exercises in which we can practice different aspects of the language. We have written assignments that are often based on a particular grammatical component, such as writing about a defined topic using only the subjunctive. We have been reading short stories and we have to answer questions about them both in writing and orally. And three times each term, we have to "listen to something in French and write about it".

That last assignment seems pretty open-ended, and boy, is it ever. One girl watches interviews with Canadian hockey players and writes about a different one for each assignment. Another watches episodes of "My Little Pony" dubbed into French for each of her assignments. My friend Melodie watches full-length French movies on NetFlix and writes a synopsis of each one. Others watch news reports about current events. There is no defined limit to the length of what you can watch, and while there is no defined limit to what you write about it, most of us cough up about a page, somewhere between 300-600 words.

As for me, I dabbled a bit in a gastronomy program, and last term I watched one full-length film (Le Placard; fantastically funny). But my speciality has become short films (les courts métrages) that I find on YouTube. 

My criteria are simple: less than 20 minutes long so I can watch it three or four times, no violence, no animation. I don't need subtitles although those are nice.

Because the assignment is so incredibly broad, I even chose one short film this term that had no dialogue of any kind! It was made by a French director with French actors so it technically was French. I chose to retell the story then explain what I though it meant. For the last listening assignment due this term, I decided not to discuss the story told in the film at all but to focus on the language used by the two main characters--plenty of slang, profanity, and less offensive but "common" expressions that also get the Académie's panties in a twist (for example, expressions like that last phrase right there). My appreciation for the versatility of "putain" has increased exponentially.

Short films are like short stories. It sounds easy but making/writing a good one is extremely difficult. Lots of people try and fail, utterly fail. It is important to develop the characters quickly. And it helps if the ending is a surprise. I think that I've managed to choose some particularly fine examples of the art of the court métrage:
I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Special Snowflakes Behaving Badly

The PI of the cow project had to call in a lot of favors to get enough supervisors to cover 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for nearly seven weeks (a total of 40 days when the calving phase ends on Monday when the last blood draw is done on the last calf). Three of them are vet school students. I don't know them and my shifts never overlapped with theirs. But as soon as the project started, I began to hear whispers about them.

The gossip started with the PI herself. It was the first week of the calving period, and the schedule was a bit sketchy. We had one birth one morning and she asked me to stay for a few extra hours--she had to run home and shower before going back to the vet school to teach her class (I ended up being at the barn for 9 hours that day). I stopped and looked at her, and said, Jean, you teach vet students. Vet students! What’s wrong with showing up in barn clothes to teach? So you work with animals. If I were a vet student, I’d sure be pleased to know that my instructors had hands-on experience with real cows, not idealized spherical cows. Oh my, she said, they would get extremely upset if I went into class smelling like the barn. They would accuse me of disrespecting them, of not taking their education seriously.

She was completely serious. And I was speechless. At the time, I thought that maybe she was being overly sensitive. Maybe she was projecting her own desire to appear as professional as possible onto the situation. Which was perfectly fine.

Then a few days later, I began to hear the student helpers talking about the vet student supervisors. Apparently the vet students never showed up alone but always in groups of three or more. They promptly shoved all the undergraduate student helpers out of the way. They never explained anything. They were rude and demanding. Half of them didn’t want to get in the pens, and when they did, they tiptoed around the piles of poop. In short, they were special snowflakes acting badly.

At first I took this with a grain of salt. Some of the undergrad helpers were quite inexperienced and that might color their interpretation. But I kept hearing the same stories over and over from many different student helpers.

Then, completely unprompted and in a completely different context (we were discussing my upcoming decision about which vet school to attend), two different professors made similar comments to me about how many of the OSU vet school students acted like entitled snots. One in fact said that he hoped I would accept OSU’s offer of admission so that I could “shake things up a bit”.

I have been mulling this over for weeks. I am by no means perfect but I regularly marvel at all the amazing things I have learned in the past few weeks, not just here in blog posts but to my professors and others. This is an extremely complicated project. I have been physically and mentally challenged throughout. But I get up every morning excited to learn more.

I always thank my student helpers. I go out of my way to involve them. When I ask them to muck pens at 2am, I get in the pens with them, shovel in hand. I take the time to explain what the project objectives are, and how it was designed to obtain specific data to address those objectives. I never drew blood from a calf without letting everyone present feel the vein. I give anatomy lessons and show the students how much variation there is in the size and placement of the jugular veins. Heck, I even taught two students who had no prior cow experience how to draw blood from the calves, letting them get samples while I held the calf. Both of them were perfect on their first attempts! That was a way for me to thank them for showing up on a regular basis during my pre-dawn shift. All this sounds really warm and fuzzy but of course I have ulterior motives. I believe that by teaching others, you solidify your own knowledge and learn new things in the process. One component of science is communication. Not just telling peers about your results, a formalized process that is important for credibility as well as verification, but also telling others who are not knowledgeable about your particular type of science what you are doing and why it is important. It’s like moving cows and moving around cows. It’s two sides of the same coin.

I think the second shoe finally dropped for me with respect to the vet school students when one of them sent out an email the other day asking to switch days with someone, and I replied to her, not to the entire group, with a very brief comment about how I hoped the cow would calve and we’d not have to worry about this anymore. Her quick reply was incredibly patronizing and rude.

The special snowflakes have failed to grasp at least two life lessons. First, there is no reason to act like an entitled shit. Getting into vet school is certainly hard but the bar isn’t set THAT high. Magical super powers are not required. And second, those professors and students that you are treating so poorly represent introductions for jobs, reference letters, sources of useful information, maybe even friendships. To be so self-centered at precisely the time in your career when you need to be cultivating those relationships is just stupid, naïve and stupid. That so many of them behave this way worries me a little bit. Is it something in the water? One or two ringleaders with bad attitudes? It's not my job nor in my own interests to fix whatever has gone off the rails at the vet school, but I'm now hyperalert to my own thoughts and actions. No doubt people say many things about me, but I don't ever want them to say that I am a special snowflake behaving badly.

(I was informed from a reasonably reliable source that the vet students who were reluctant to get in the pens probably only had interests in small animal medicine. Vet school training requires that you work with many different species, however. They probably showed up hoping to see a calf being born, preferably from a shit-free vantage point outside the pen.)

Cones and Clickers

It’s almost springtime in the Pacific Northwest. We had a mild winter so the transition has been a subtle change from cold and damp to cold and less damp. Cold is relative, of course. I mentioned the freezing pre-dawn temps that I work in at the barn (the last cow had her calf this morning; we are almost done), but once the sun comes up, things warm up nicely. In other words, our winter has not been nearly as intense as what the rest of the US has been experiencing these past few weeks.
Even with the drier weather, the ground is still far too muddy to do much outside. My schedule with the cow project has been rather hectic and I come and go a lot. Since I always give the dogs a treat before I go, I plan ahead and do a few minutes of training with them a couple of times a day.
Azza is about as mature and stable as she will probably ever be so I decided to try her again on simple agility equipment. I’m only using a cone and a jump bar. And I’m using a clicker. She never really took to the clicker before but she’s pretty into it now. I wonder how much of her enthusiasm comes from sitting on the couch just a foot or two from Mimi, whose level of excitement for clicker training is quite impressive.
One of my training goals is to have the non-working dog wait quietly in one spot while I train the other dog. No crate, no restraint. But no barking or whining or leaving that spot. I frequently click and treat the dog who is staying quietly in the spot. It’s good for the working dog to see this--both of them have to get on board with the idea of sharing training time and space.
Another training goal is to have the dogs reliably go out and around a cone. I'd like to set them up to work backsides of jumps when we can get outside and have more room. Mimi’s problem has always been too much handler focus so I work more distance with her. Azza, well, I just want her to go around the darned cone. At first all she wanted to do was touch it with her nose or paw--excellent, rewardable behavior in most circumstances but not what I wanted. Sometimes I lay a jump bar on the ground with the cone at one end. Azza has been particularly afraid of the jump bars. But she has been doing extremely well with this exercise, diving around the cone with quite a bit of momentum, and taking a little hop over the bar without stopping to worry about it or acting like it will bite her. My long term goal is to get her to reliably jump real agility jumps set with low bars, say, 12 inches. She is of course physically capable of clearing much higher jumps but I just don’t think that is a realistic goal. If she touches any part of a jump, she shuts down. And if she knocks a bar, well, it may take days before she’ll even approach the jump again. So for now, it is a bar on the ground and a cone.
I also decided to convert two of Mimi’s behaviors into verbal cues only. She has a “spin” (she turns to her right) and “turn” (she turns to her left). I use verbals for these commands but she responds mainly to the hand signals. She is handed and performs the spin much better, faster, and more consistently. So I worked on the turn for a few days to get it in better shape, then I started fading out the hand signals for both, making them smaller and smaller until I reduced them to a finger twitch. I’m now insisting on the behaviors with verbal only. It’s funny to watch Mimi process this. She KNOWS what I mean when I say “turn” but she tries half the behaviors in her repertoire before she will do the turn without any body motion from me. She often tries the rally obedience “around” in which she moves from a position facing me, around my back, into heel position on the left side. She’ll try this two or three times, spinning in tight loops around me. And she always falls back on her favorite trick “beep beep” in which she backs up while facing me. But she is definitely making progress. It's a silly game, really, but she certainly enjoys it.
And the last trick that I'm working on is the two-dog heel. Mimi has been trained to heel on the left side. That's conventional. But for dog management purposes, I trained Azza to heel on the right. I happen to use the exact same phrase for both of them: get ready. So I'm working on putting them in sit stays facing me from a few feet away, then releasing them at the same time and having them get into heel position at the same time, one on each side of me. Also a silly game but quite amusing for me.
Let’s be honest here. Mimi’s agility competition days are long behind her. Azza will never compete in agility. That environment is far too complex for her to deal with. But there’s no reason not to keep their minds challenged and their bodies active. They like the extra treats too, of course, but having all my attention focused on them is certainly motivating for both of them.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Penultimate Cow Experience: Milking a Beef Cow

The ultimate cow experience will be seeing that last cow have her calf. She's been holding out on us for days. This is week 9 of the 10-week term and students in the calving class are dropping like flies because of the demands of final projects, term papers, preparing for final exams. I have the same demands on my time on top of working on the thesis but I don't have the luxury of slacking off. 

I promise that this is the last pregnant cow post. I hope to have some dog training stories in the queue shortly. A nice change of topic.

But today I have to write about the penultimate cow experience: milking a beef cow.

Besides pulling blood from the calves every 12 hours, we get blood and colostrum from the mothers. Despite overseeing new calf activities for many calves, I have not yet collected colostrum myself. There wasn't any reason or excuse, it was just one of those things that I thought that the students could do. They aren't allowed to draw blood so I tried to get their hands on the cows and calves in other ways. We only need 50 ml of colostrum so it's a few pulls on a teat to fill a plastic collection tube and you are done.

But a calf that was born yesterday has not been thriving. We all thought she was nursing, it certainly looked like she was nursing, but she lost nearly 5 lbs before the PI decided we needed to bottle feed her in an attempt to teach her to nurse properly. What does one put in that bottle? Mother's milk, of course. And there's only one way to get that. So we've been hand-milking the cow every five hours or so and bottle-feeding the calf. 

These cows are not the gentle pets that dotted the Swiss Alps around Heidi's village. They aren't feral range cows either, but something in between. You don't pull up a comfy stool, rest your head on the side of the cow, and milk into a bucket, surrounded by meowing barn cats. No, you have to run the cow into the squeeze chute, take the sides off the chute, and crouch down beside it, reaching under to squeeze a teat with one hand while holding a plastic bottle under it with the other, hoping that the teat is pointed into the mouth of the bottle because you can't see a darned thing. You don't squeeze all at once but sort of close your fingers sequentially along the length of the teat (no, you don't pull on the things, that produces nothing). Your hands are cold because it's been 28F in the barn the past week or so during my pre-dawn shifts, and the cow most certainly does not like you messing about with her udder even in the best of circumstances. You have to move from one side of the cow to the other to reach all the teats (there are four, each with its own milk reservoir). You have to be ready to pull your arms and head back if she kicks, or pees or poops (splashy). You have to be patient: once you empty a teat, it might take a few seconds to refill. This is not a fast process.

I'd never in my life had my hands on a cow's udder until 4am this morning but I was able to pull 3 pints out of her in about half an hour. The student who was helping me never got the hang of it so he supervised.

Before I got it down myself, I managed to spray milk pretty much everywhere. Of course it quickly froze so my jacket cuffs and hands and the outsides of the bottles were soon sticky and icy--raw milk has a lot of fat in it, and that part doesn't freeze but the rest of it does. The crouching is viciously hard on your thighs. My wrists and forearms are now stiff and sore.

Good thing I've got some other career plans in place because I'd never make it as a farmer or in the porn industry.

I spent most of the half hour mumbling about the insanity of this mammalian progeny-feeding system. What was evolution thinking?

Anyway, we got the milk into the calf eventually (it took longer to get it into her than it did to collect it). And I just got an email from the PI saying that they managed to get the calf to successfully nurse from the mother while in the pen (not the chute). So it looks like we turned the corner on that one.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

We Are Cultured, Dammit!

I am sure that many of you watch Downton Abbey. Despite my brief exile in Saudi Arabia and lack of a television now, I can assure you that I also go to some lengths to keep up with this PBS show.

In fact, I revel in Downton Abbey, and not because of a simplistic love of things British. No, I like the show because of the sly bits that the writers slip in here and there, references to literature and art and politics and science and philosophy.

This year, the fifth of the series, has been particularly entertaining. The first episode included a scene between the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) and Lady Shackleton that had me on the floor rolling with glee. I nearly peed myself when this exchange took place:

     Lady Shackleton: A single peer with a good estate 
                won't be lonely long if he doesn't want to be. 
     Countess: You sound like Mrs. Bennett.

Of course! Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Her novel was just as relevant in 1924, nearly 100 years after it was published, as it is now. The fact that the Countess made the reference underscores how the novel was even then connected to both the past and to the emerging modern age. It still resonates today, I think.

There are a handful of books that helped to shape my young imagination: The Hobbit, Watership Down, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre. I read these books again and again, and I still re-read them today. Of course, I am aware of the many flaws in these stories, the many stereotypes of class and of sexism, but on each reading of these novels, I find new insights into the human condition. I find magic in these stories.

(Re Jane Eyre, IMO there is no better cinematic interpretation than the one directed by Cary Fukunaga in 2011. It's fantastic.)

Downton Abbey rekindles some of this magic. Not in the thin fantasy style of Harry Potter but in the style of the great authors who have shaped our ideas and our culture by writing about the people around them in a way that gives us insight into ourselves 200 years later. I'll admit, I teared up when Lord Grantham unveiled the small plaque he had commissioned for the nephew of Mrs. Patmore. That was good writing and good drama.

And since our topic of today is Downton Abbey, and I have just watched episode 8, in closing I have to warn you all, don't fuck with Lady Sinderby ("And then you will have a scandal worthy of the name.")