Monday, October 16, 2017

"The Gap"

This whole summer I kept thinking back to where I was and what I was doing a year ago.  At this time last year I had recently come back from India, moved to Eugene, and started at UO.  I've been in Eugene for slightly over a year now, and it's only now feeling like the transition period that began last summer is finally wrapping up. 

One thing I found appealing about UO's chemistry program was that I would get to do a 10-week rotation in each of three research groups before deciding on one.  I'm grateful to have gone through that process and to have gotten exposure to multiple projects, but I was also extremely glad to settle down in one lab at the end of the school year.  (If you're curious, check out the Jasti group and our research here!)  Surprisingly, despite returning to a lab where I had already done a rotation, this summer felt almost like a fourth rotation.  I'm working on a different project than I was during my rotation in the Jasti lab, so in some ways I had to start from scratch. 

I've learned a lot in the past year, there's no doubt about it.  I started at UO feeling like my chemistry knowledge was really rusty after being out of school a few years (and honestly, even while I was in school the scope of chemistry I was exposed to was pretty narrow).  Last fall I was most intimidated by the prospect of being a teaching assistant for undergraduate lab sections, worried I wouldn't know the answer to something, but I can say now that teaching is in fact one of my less stressful responsibilities! 

As I take on my research project more fully and explore possible directions for it, I'm now in the stage where creativity is required just as much as knowing the answers.  It's exciting and scary!  I love that so much of what artists and other creative people express about their process feels so relevant to my own work in science.  Take Ira Glass: "It's hard to make something that's interesting.  It's really, really hard.  It's like a law of nature... that anything that's written or anything that's created wants to be mediocre... so what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will."  It's been wonderful this year to start having ideas of experiments to try or molecules to make.  That never could have happened before, and it's a lot of fun.  But that's me right now, trying to put in the effort to have an idea (and to do the work) that's maybe, maybe a little better than mediocre. 

If you want more Ira Glass talking creativity, and who doesn't, watch this: The Gap

The point is, science may not be "creative work," but let me tell you, SCIENCE IS CREATIVE AND IT IS WORK!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fragile Life Here --

I put these on my thoughts-to-come-back-to board months and months ago, just because I liked them.  They feel relevant now.  I highly recommend reading the full poems.

Fragile Life Here --
Which is what I say to strangers

When my aura gets dim
and I need an extra layer

of protection to steady me
through the day's unraveling reels

of atrocities.  I'll point
to my chest and remember

how joy survives,
humming through the cracks

of accidental grace,
making a home out of nothing.

Kendra Decolo
From "Sometimes God's Work is Sloppy but it's Always on Time"

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can't
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can't do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on a beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thing about God/ or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/ all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
as I need to be
alone because I can't do what I want with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up
like this
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own

June Jordan
From "Poem about My Rights"

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Intensive Hindi"

I spent most of the month of August in India with the intent of becoming more conversational in Hindi, which I have been studying on my own for about a year and a half. I had never taken a Hindi course before, so I was looking forward to more intensive, guided study and conversation practice. Due to logistical reasons I signed up for a course that's part of a study abroad program offered by the University of Minnesota.  The course happened to be in Bangalore, which is in the southern state of Karnataka, not a Hindi-speaking region.  (The predominant language is Kannada.)  I knew this beforehand but I figured since I'd be staying with a host family as well as speaking Hindi with the staff and other students, I'd get plenty of practice.  It turned out that none of the UMN students who will be in India for the fall semester opted to do this optional course, so it was just me and one other student in the Hindi class.  (She actually already spoke Hindi and just wanted to learn to read/write.  That's the opposite of me, so we were a good team.)  Our host family and most of the program staff knew or had studied Hindi but did not speak it on a regular basis.  So the Hindi learning did not happen nearly as much as I had hoped (though of course I still got more exposure in Bangalore than I would have in the US), but I would certainly still consider the trip a success!

Bangalore was the first city I visited when I went to India with the bf in December, so it was fun to go back.  Three and a half weeks was long enough to be able to establish a daily routine with my classmate and host family, to have time to relax at home, to explore the city and go to events, to travel a little in the area, and to get together with quite a few of the friends I'd met in December.  It was a really wonderful mix, and even the downtime felt like time well spent.

Bangalore is a huge city, and crowded.  This was more noticeable to me coming back to the US, where the streets feel almost deserted in comparison.  My classmate and I checked off the main points of interest in Bangalore, but even more rewarding was getting familiar with our normal routes through the city. It was cool to see noticeable progress in the number of landmarks we knew – a must for getting anywhere!  With each new place, you have to know at least one name of a landmark or neighborhood. You hope the auto/cab driver knows this name. If he doesn’t, you hope you know one back-up name of a nearby place. If you don’t, or you do but he doesn’t know of that place either, you hope the next driver up the street knows the place. Once you’re on your way, you hope you know how to get from the landmark to your final destination. If you don’t, you hope your maps app is showing your accurate location. You hope the driver actually knows the place. You hope he’s not just running up the meter. You hope you or he has change. You hope you don’t crash. You hope no one is upset you’re taking so long to get there. And then you arrive. You definitely don’t get there in the straightest, smoothest way (whether the road itself, the interaction, or the route), but you arrive. It’s such a simple exchange, but it took learning so many baby steps to make it happen!

The things we saw in Bangalore included the palace, numerous government buildings, an art museum, and temples ranging from Gavi Gangadhareshwara temple carved out of a cave to the big, shiny ISKCON temple.  We also got to spend some time in gorgeous Lalbagh botanical garden, where we heard about the many species of plants growing there and saw a flower show that was going on.
Bangalore palace
Bangalore palace interior courtyard
Photo in Bangalore palace
Tile in Bangalore palace

This tower (in Lalbagh, now fairly central in Bangalore) is one of four that was originally built to mark the outer edges of the city.
Exploring Lalbagh
One display from the flower show in Lalbagh   
Another temple
St. Mary's basilica

Our host family took us out for a day to their farm in Hanchihalli. It was nice to see the other side of the spectrum from the big city. As well as enjoying the fresh fruit and relaxing in the perfect weather, we also climbed up some of these huge boulders for a great view.

The most touristing we did was a long weekend trip around Karnataka, so that's when all the following pictures were taken. Our first stop was in Shravanabelagola, where we climbed up lots and lots of stairs to see a Jain temple, home to a huge and very famous (and very naked) statue.
Gommateshwara/Bahubali statue
View from the top

Belur and Halebidu have some incredibly ornate temples. (You’ll find much more on Wikipedia than what I could tell you about them or their history.)
Chennakesava temple in Belur
Chennakesava temple in Belur
Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu
Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu

We stopped and saw a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Bylakuppe.

Our last stop that weekend was in Mysore.  Since we visited over a long weekend (it was Independence Day on August 15), lots of other people were traveling!  It was a relief to get back to our normal daily lives in Bangalore.  
Chamundeshwari temple near Mysore
Mysore palace lit up at night
As is probably always the case with navigating a different place/culture, this trip made me get up close and personal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and negotiation.  Those are not easy things, but they made me appreciate both my own abilities and the many ways other people helped me.  I was so well taken care of the entire time!  This was also a chance for me to be a minority, something I don't experience often as a white American, but always a vivid reminder of my privilege.

I'm back in the states and starting grad school now, and though it's a very different type of transition, I'm trying to keep in mind some of those things that were so present and important while I was in Bangalore -- asking for help, asserting myself and my opinions, taking my best guess and trying things even when I'm not sure of the exact right way.  Here's to hoping grad school is as enriching an experience (and that I can go back to India soon)! 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Way Things Look

This is what two months of work looks like in a box:

This is what finishing a two-month-long project looks like:

This is what finishing a two-month-long project and then having the next day be your last day of work looks like:

On to the next thing!  :D

Monday, April 11, 2016

Spring, Summer, Fall

After months of waiting and thinking and being in limbo, I accepted an offer to join the graduate chemistry program at University of Oregon!  I had known since January, when I received my first acceptance, that I would definitely be attending school in the fall, but I needed to wait until I had more information to decide where.  I didn’t want to let myself get too excited about any one place until I knew for sure I’d be going there.  Now it’s all set!  I’ll be moving to Eugene, Oregon in the fall and hanging out there for the next five years or so. 

UO follows a trimester schedule, which means classes don’t start until the end of September.  In my first year there, I’ll take classes, teach lab sections, and spend a term each with three research groups.  This will give me the chance to try out different areas of chemistry and clarify what I'm most interested in.  I'm anticipating a big adjustment going back to being a student.  After undergrad all I wanted to do was something "not school" for a while, and I'm glad that I did take a break.  Now I'm choosing to return to school to further my own goals, but I'm not thrilled that I'll have homework again!  Then again, there will be perks I never had as an undergrad at a teeny school -- free bus rides and all kinds of student discounts.

So that’s fall.  Until then, I plan to take advantage of my last foreseeable chance to have several months to myself.  The only things I could consider bucket list items for Pittsburgh are trying a handful more breweries, finishing the series of bike maintenance classes at the co-op, and going camping at one of the nearby state parks.  Otherwise, I'll be working on my own projects, resting, visiting family and friends, and figuring out how to move myself across the country.  

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Grad School

I sent off six graduate school applications before leaving for vacation in December.  It's not that the application process was so much work, but I dragged it on for a long time.  (I tend to have unrealistic expectations of myself to finish things way before it's necessary, which means whether or not I am actively working on said things, they are hanging over my head for quite some time.)  In this case, the process started with me taking the GREs well over a year ago, and I had been thinking about grad school even before that.

It's just as much of a relief as I anticipated having the ball in someone else's court.  Every weekend rolls around and I realize that not only do I not have to work on applications, I don't even have to think about working on applications!  Of course, I'll have plenty to think about in the coming months as I begin to make decisions.  For now, though, I don't even know what choices I will be deciding among, and it seems pointless to do too much comparing and ranking too soon.

In any case, I'll be going to school in the fall!  Probably due to the time I spent job searching not very successfully, I had some doubts in the back of my mind about if I was applying enough places, if my statements were good enough, if I'd even get in anywhere, if I'd have to figure out something else completely.  I've gotten one acceptance so far, so thankfully those thoughts are laid to rest.  I'm looking forward to having more news to share with you when my specific plans are clearer!

For those of you asking what I'll be going back to school for, here's part of what I wrote about my reasons for wanting to go and wanting to go now:
I’ve become convinced—without much difficulty, in fact—that the only way to utilize chemistry responsibly anymore is through green chemistry. It is clear that we cannot keep using resources and processes without regard for long-term human and environmental impacts. Chemists have a responsibility to work toward greater sustainability, both through thoughtful, incremental modifications to our everyday tasks and through revolutionary ideas and actions that engender change to positive, restorative practices across the board. Chemists play a critical role in educating manufacturers, designers, lawmakers, and the general public about the harms associated with certain chemicals, as well as in providing alternatives and adding to the repertoire of benign and useful chemical building blocks. 
I want to focus my career on this intersection of chemistry and sustainability, so I have been looking for ways to build on my undergraduate chemistry degree and become better equipped for this work. I recognize problems in the ways we make and use chemicals and need to increase my level of expertise in order to understand the many contributing factors and find meaningful solutions. My desire to gain more tools for using chemistry for its greatest good is what is motivating me to pursue graduate studies. Not only do I want to expand my knowledge of chemistry as a general field, I want to learn some specific ways of thinking about and responding to problems—ways of thinking that I see demonstrated by those people currently working in green chemistry. 
Although I have acquired bits and pieces of green chemistry knowledge up to this point, I now desire a more rigorous, in-depth approach to learning about the topics that interest me. I am eager to discover more links among the ideas I have previously learned but also to try new things and find my own place in the field. By the time I complete a graduate program, I want to possess the following:
  • An extensive knowledge of chemistries used in common materials and industrial processes and of their corresponding hazards
  • Ideas about what kinds of chemical policies and regulations are most effective in increasing health and safety
  • Ability to find novel clean syntheses and make the business case for their implementation
  • Competence in using toxicology, life cycle assessment, and the principles of green chemistry to evaluate and make sound judgments among alternatives. 
To summarize, I am looking for a cross-disciplinary education in green chemistry. Because I’m more concerned about the why than the what of my future work, a variety of research areas interest me—everything from recyclable catalysts to alternative/benign solvents to bio-inspired materials to decontamination agents. 
After graduate school, my goal is to be a sustainable chemistry specialist, bringing chemical expertise, a life-cycle mindset, and a knack for problem-solving to any industry that wants to do better by human health and the environment.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Last October, I had a bike accident involving a cracked fork and a nasty fall.  After determining that fixing my beloved orange bike would be more of a project "for later" than a short-term solution, I found myself a lovely gray Schwinn.  I bought this bike from a co-op called Free Ride that fixes and sells bikes (or lets you buy cheap and fix yourself), so it needed just a little straightening and adjusting before I could ride it.  On my first ride, beginning of December, to a destination mere minutes away, I was hit by a car that pulled out of a driveway (slowly, thankfully) and right into me!  "Didn't you see me?" he said.  I wasn't yet too comfortable on that bike to begin with, so between the shaken-up feelings and the impending cold, I was out of commission for biking all winter.

This spring, I finally mustered the motivation to re-straighten the bent rims as best I could and get on the road!  Now that I'm driving to work every day, I've noticed a shift in my thinking (one I'm not fond of) that makes biking seem like much more of a hassle than it is.  Thankfully, it hasn't taken too many rides to give me back my confidence and remind me how much I love the feeling of being on a bike!  The handful of rides I've done so far this year is a far cry from what I was doing in the fall (I rode at least 1.5 miles 26 out of 30 days in September), but being able to get around by bike is probably one of my favorite parts of summer in Pittsburgh.

Free Ride also has a program where you can volunteer time in the shop and use those hours to earn a bike or maintenance classes for free.  I've been meaning to participate ever since I moved here 21 months ago, and I finally volunteered for the first time and went to my first bike maintenance class (on derailleurs) earlier this month.  One of my goals for this year was to do their whole series of six classes, so I'm pleased to have started!

Another exciting biking-related thing was going on an underwear bike ride!  Hundreds of people did a 10-mile ride up and down hills, over bridges, past houses and restaurants, and even through one of Pittsburgh's many tunnels wearing nothing but underwear!  This happens monthly during the summers here, but this was the largest one yet and my first.  Beautiful night for it, and what fun!