Thursday, May 21, 2015

End of Term Freakout

In the next few days, I have to complete the slides for and practice a talk I am giving on Wednesday to my Ruminant Nutrition class entitled "Supplementation of Ruminant Diets with Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids," study for the second midterm exam in that same class to be taken on Wednesday after my talk, and finish writing a grant proposal for my Comparative Immunology class on a project to use laying hens to study ovarian cancer (due Thursday). Far more brilliant minds than mine have been working on immunological problems associated with cancer for decades--why in the hell did I choose to wrestle with that topic?

In case you were wondering, laying hens are a preferred animal model for ovarian cancer for a multitude of reasons. Four of these reasons are: they develop it spontaneously, like women; their risk of getting it is associated with the number of lifetime ovulations (that is, risk increases with age, as in women); the histopathology of the tumor cells in their ovaries is the same as that in women; and in late stages, the cancer metastasizes to other organs, as in women. If that wasn't amazing enough, let me just point out that sauropsid dinosaurs (later evolved into birds and reptiles) separated from synapsid dinosaurs (later evolved into mammals) around 360 million years ago. Oh, and I shouldn't forget to mention that in avians, the left ovary regresses before they are sexually mature and they are left with only the right ovary and oviduct.

But back to my freakout. Course work, pfff, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Following the discussion at my thesis defense, my advisor and I decided to re-do the statistics for my second experiment, necessitating a complete re-write of the results and discussions sections of that chapter in my thesis, not to mention making new tables (about 10 of those) and new figures. She's going out of town next week so I have to meet with her on Tuesday to go over the new results. All of the thesis stuff has to be finished up and submitted to the graduate school in the next two weeks. There's certainly some French homework due next week too but I'm afraid to look.

I've not slacked off and let this stuff go to the last minute. It's been like this all term, lurching from one thing to the next. But it has piled up just a bit excessively this week and I'm having a bit of a freakout here at the end of the term.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. When I leave for campus each day, the dogs are already settled in. This picture helps calm me down just a little bit. 

Yes, Mimi is a complete princess, requiring not only a dog bed but two fleece blankets to lie on, plus a third blanket that partly covers her. Azza gets nothing in her crate but there is a thick, folded blanket between her crate and the cold floor.

It's a comfort knowing that even before I leave, they are in position, waiting more or less patiently for me to come back home.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Empathy and Sympathy

I haven't written much about my new job, mainly because I'm more than a bit overwhelmed by it. And I don't mean that in a good way. There is so much that I don't know and every week I come up against a tidal wave of more stuff I don't know. 

I am a part-time assistant night nurse in a large emergency care vet clinic. The clinic is open 24/7/365. It has regular clients during weekdays, people who come in for nail trims and annual vaccinations for their pets. But it also has emergency patients that might show up at any time. I work one night a week (Saturday night to Sunday morning). I am most decidedly not in charge of a damned thing. I assist the certified vet tech who works all of the weekend nights and one of three vets who work night shifts (they rotate weekends amongst them). It's not the assistant part that frustrates me, it's my inability to be of much use in doing tasks independently. 

But I'm learning, and I'm a fast learner. I usually only have to be shown something once, like the location of a specific item or a specific protocol. Still, I'm at at the bottom of a very steep learning curve.

I have also been reluctant to write about emergency patients that come in to the clinic. There is confidentiality to be respected. And while an emergency patient might require surgery, which is complicated and exciting, that might not be a story that belongs here.

Tonight I assisted with a euthanasia. I almost wrote "my first" but it isn't, of course. I have been with several of my pets when they died. This time I was on the other side of the exam table.

A man stumbled in cradling his terrier-beagle mix in his arms. His dog had been hit by a car minutes before and was not in good shape. It was clear the dog was in a lot of pain. The dog was older, about 14 years, and the man said that he wanted us to euthanize the dog, that he knew that his friend couldn't be healed this time.

The vet tech and I took the man to an exam room, then took the dog to the back and put a catheter in his leg. She drew up the drugs, two of them, a sedative then the drug that would stop his heart, while I returned to the exam room and put some fleece blankets on the table. We returned with the dog and placed him on the blankets. As she injected the drugs, I collected all of the syringes and bits of plastic into my pocket, not for safety concerns but because it didn't seem right to leave them there. The man was sobbing and I am not ashamed to tell you that my eyes were filled with tears. Even the vet tech had to wipe her eyes. She verified that the dog's heart had stopped then we left the man alone with his dog. 

I kept watch outside the room. The man was bent over his dog crying. It was very sad. After seconds or maybe hours, he stood up and began pacing. I knocked, entered, and asked him if he was ready to leave, but made sure he knew he could stay longer. No, he said, he wanted to leave. 

I walked him to the door of the clinic. He was sobbing and I felt so sad for him. I touched his shoulder and I said, it's a blessing that we can do this for our animal companions. He turned and suddenly wrapped me in an enormous hug. I think he needed to verify that he was still here, still present.

This is not something I would ever have initiated because lots of people don't like to be touched by strangers. But I guess I was in the right place at the right time for him.

Afterwards, we were in the office working on the charts and the vet tech said, I wish I could have given that guy a hug. I said, he hugged me when I was walking him out. And I got nods and murmurs of approval from everyone. 

Empathy and sympathy. They are related emotions but we don't always feel them at the same time.

I knew that this sort of thing was going to be an inevitable part of working a night shift in an emergency clinic. I am sure this won't be the last euthanasia I assist with. And I hope that every one of them touches me as deeply.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lilspotteddog, B.S., M.S., Ph.D.

I now have the privilege of adding two more letters after my name. Not that I use the ones I already have, but it's the thought that counts.

Don't get me wrong. Completing the M.S. is certainly a Very Big Deal, and I have no doubt that it helped me get into vet school, making up for my deficits in other types of animal experience. I dived deep into the topic of animal nutrition and learned a lot of cool and useful things. Plus, chickens--there's good money in chickens.

There are still a few more hoops to jump through. I have to pass the courses I am currently taking. I have to revise my thesis according to comments from my committee members and submit a copy of that in various places. But for all intents and purposes, I'm done. 

Most uncharacteristically, I did not go to my immunology class today and I didn't do my French homework for tomorrow. As for the former, I told the professor last week that he should expect me to be absent today. He assured me that it was not a problem, given the reason. As for the latter, well, the thesis defense itself wasn't a complete stroll in the park. My committee made me work for it. So I decided that I had scholastically performed enough for one day. 

One of my committee members threw me quite a curve ball on Monday by asking about a particular aspect of my research that I had not covered very clearly in the thesis. His comments were relevant but as a result, I frantically added four slides to my presentation, even getting up at 2am last night because I couldn't sleep to work on them some more. That forced me to change my presentation content elsewhere to keep the talk within my 45-minute limit. These are not things you want to be doing the night before you give the thing. Plus I was worried that my advisor might think I was going too far off-topic with the new slides, which she saw for the first time this morning. First rule of working with other people: no surprises. Turns out she really liked them.

On top of that, I found out last week that I was expected to provide food to the people attending the defense. My presentation and the initial Q&A are open to the public (in reality, that means faculty and students in the department). In addition to my committee, another faculty member attended plus about a dozen students made time to come.

I thought the student who told me about the food-bringing was having a joke at my expense, but he was completely serious. When I went to verify this astonishing fact with my advisor, she said, oh yes, and you should get some orange juice for those who don't want coffee.


I went with chocolate chip cookies, the premixed dough that you break apart and bake yourself. That way it would look like I made an effort even though all I did was turn the oven on. And really, who doesn't like chocolate chip cookies? Undercook them by 30 seconds and they are soft and just the tiniest bit gooey in the center.

They aren't healthy at all, an ironic touch since my talk was about improving human health by creating poultry meat products enriched with n-3 fatty acids. The pre-made cookie dough contains corn-based sweeteners that are rich in n-6 fatty acids as well as emulsifiers that have been shown to increase insulin insensitivity and obesity, not to mention seriously messing up gut biota.

I tried to make the best of it. Several of my peers are on calorie-counting diets like me so I carefully weighed every wad of dough, adjusting them so that they delivered the same fixed number of calories. I told my friends this morning, the small ones are 70 calories each, the large ones 80 calories each, you can make your own decisions.

Baking cookies was not how I planned to spend the evening before my thesis defense. I made 100 cookies just to be sure I had enough (laugh away, it's ridiculous and I laugh with you). Still, to look on the bright side, a surprising move given my general cynicism, it prevented me from obsessing over everything else. Well, except when I couldn't sleep at 2am and got up to add some more labels to my slides. Mimi got up with me and curled up in a dog bed at my feet so I didn't feel too crazy.

While this feels like an ending, it's really a beginning. The M.S. was never my only goal, simply a way to help me get into vet school. I think the craziness will start in the fall.

Eh, that's months away. Plenty to do between now and then.

Monday, May 11, 2015


I'll just leave this here.

Take that, Ithaca!

Thursday, May 07, 2015


Like most departments, our runs a series of seminar classes that graduate students, or a subset of them, are required to regularly attend. For example, the animal nutrition grad students meet weekly to read and discuss journal articles in our particular area. There are also monthly seminars for the dozen or so first- and second-year grad students with guest speakers telling us about useful resources on campus. While I don't necessarily need that information (for example, how to use PubMed to find useful peer reviewed articles, which I can do in my sleep), I am technically a "first-year" graduate student so I have to attend. Sometimes I learn something useful but most of the time I listen politely and try not to fidget or doze.

Our speaker this past Monday was from the Graduate Writing Center. I've used the more general services of the writing center that are not necessarily grad-student focused, and found them to be extremely helpful. Last summer, I took in the personal statement for my vet school application for them to review, and they made some extremely useful suggestions that without a doubt improved the document. I have recommended the Writing Center to other students and I was interested in hearing this particular speaker. 

That is, until he flopped out this question as the lead-off to his presentation: "Who in here feels like an impostor?"

I had to pick my jaw up off the table. 

"No, wait," he said, "no need to raise hands. I'll tell you that I certainly do. I know that we all do."

I know that we all do.

I came very close to walking out at that point. But that action would have reflected poorly on the two faculty members present (I couldn't have cared less about the opinion of the guest), and most of the students in the room would not have understood why I was leaving. 

If you spend years of your life studying some bit of scientific minutiae in detail, you damn well better become the world expert on that bit. If you feel like an impostor, you didn't achieve that. You, Mr. Guest Speaker, have now told me that you are not an expert in anything except perhaps self-denigration and low self-esteem. 

To tell a room full of young graduate students, still damp behind their ears from their undergraduate experiences, that "everyone feels like an impostor" is possibly the worst message that anyone could give them. That suggests that no matter how hard they study, no matter how many papers they read, no matter how hard they slave in the lab, no matter that they spent years learning how to navigate within a rigorous scientific field, no matter that they get a good job right out of school, it doesn't matter because they will never feel like they earned any of it.

That is complete and utter bullshit. 

Here is how I see it. When we speak as professionals, at a seminar or at a scientific conference, people come to hear us because they are interested in what we have to say. They don't come to tear us down or trip us up with sophistry or the throwing of rotten fruit. They may disagree with us but that's how science advances. We test ideas, we make observations, we talk about what it means, and we find ways to make a better test or different observations. 

I've had to give several presentations in the department during my time here. One student wrote on an evaluation that listening to me talk about my research "was like having a conversation with me"--and she studies bonding behavior in domestic cats and knows nothing about nutrition.

Just two days ago, I had another student ask me when my thesis defense was going to be (it is in four days) because she wanted to make sure she made time to attend. She said, you are always so confident when you speak. I'd like to be more like that. 

I thanked her for her kind words, then I said, there's no secret. People come to hear you speak because you are the expert in that particular piece of science. They want to learn more about it and they want to learn it from you. Confidence is about your attitude. Be confident in what you know but never be afraid to say "I don't know."

An impostor is someone who practices deception.

I am not an impostor.  

UPDATE: I've learned there is actually a thing called "impostor syndrome." This makes it even more important that shiny, new grad students aren't given this message.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Sheep! Lambs!

My stint of feeding the sheep and lambs is nearing its end. You can see that it is a highly technical procedure. The triplet lambs get bottle-fed twice a day. They nurse from the mother but since she may not be making quite enough for all three, the evaporated milk is an important supplement. After two weeks, two of the lambs are on board with things and come running up to me. The third one, the smallest one of course, is a little butthead and I have to catch him to feed him. Fortunately, catching him isn't difficult since he follows his mother closely and all I have to do is herd her into the pen and he'll tag along.

Besides the six ewes and nine late (that is, little) lambs, I also have to feed 21 lambs and I think 15 or so ewes that are kept in the upper field. In the video, you can see the lambs going into a creeper pen. The openings are too small for the ewes. Some of the lambs are now almost too large to get in there too. Waiting for them inside the barn are green alfalfa pellets and brown concentrate pellets with corn and other grain and molasses. They all go nuts for the brown pellets, thus the literal feeding frenzy as the lambs all try to push at the same time into the one opening that is still large enough for them.