NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month)

This coming month, April 2022, I am planning to participate in National Poetry Writing Month, and I will be writing a poem a day in response to prompts posted online. This is my first time participating and I am excited for the challenge. I will update this post with my daily poems.

*The italicized text gives the context and prompt for each day

DAY 0: Emily Dickinson Inspired Poem with Humor/Irony

To be in a room full of people yet still alone –  The warm closeness coexists with frigid emotional distance.

 

DAY 1: A Prose Poem that is a story about the body

CW: Eating Disorders/Body Image

Last year, when I saw her approach me, I examined the way her flesh bulged above her hips, the way her breasts draped over her ribcage like the comforter over the side of my bed. “Moti ho gayi. Khao mat,” I commanded, and she complied until she was back home at night after all her friends had left, and without the judgmental eyes looming over her, she headed right for the stash of protein bars and sugar-infused cereal, and she sat in a corner on the tiles of the bathroom floor and devoured bite after bite until it was time to throw the empty boxes into the recycle chute, and she cried and cried until the veins bulged in her eyes like raisins, and the salt-water stained her smooth, flushed cheeks, and I told her “Nikaalo.” I stared at the disgusting bulges on her skin, the fibrous white marks on her arms, thighs, belly, under her armpits until the nausea was too much for me to take, and she retched over the toilet and coughed until the smell was no longer bearable, and there was nothing left in her throat but stomach acid. Then, she glanced at me with eyes glistening and fresh tears streaming down her cheeks, and I nodded approvingly, and she rinsed and repeated, day after day. But this year, when we meet, I notice, instead, the glint of curiosity in her eye and the dimple in her right cheek and the cascade of shiny waves of her mermaid hair flowing down past her hips, her strong legs that allow her to run and her sturdy shoulders that allow her to bend the water she swims through, and the soft curves that could beget a new life if she so chose. I could have zeroed in on the bulges or the stretch marks, but this year, I am learning to be more kind.

 

DAY 2: Poem based on the definition of the word funny: FUNN-Y: “The -Y at the end of FUNNY is an old English suffix meaning full of or having the qualities of.”

After it happened, I stopped laughing. I still went through the motions of opening my mouth and deliberately letting out sounds that mimicked the involuntary expressions of joy from people around me, but the sound never reached my eyes.

I used to tell jokes, loads of them, just for fun, simply to make others around me laugh, to see the crinkles in the corners of their eyes and feel the warmth that I had spread to them. But I stopped telling jokes and stopped receiving them – they bounced off my ears like light hitting a mirror because the world no longer felt like a fun place. Because I didn’t see the purpose of fun anymore.

When she asked me how things had changed after increasing the dose of my medication, at first, I hesitated. I knew there was a change, a new spring in my step, a new air of lightheartedness, and less time spent wallowing in my own tears, but when I finally found the words to described the change, it came down to simply this: “The pills’ve made me funny again.”

 

DAY 3: An Attempt at a Glossa: A Poem that responds to another poem

This poem uses each line in another poem as the last line of the stanza. This poem I wrote is in response to the following lines in the lyrics of the song “We’ll Never Have Sex” by Leith Ross:

You look perfect, you look different

I don’t wonder about your indifference

If I said you could never touch me

You’d come over and say I looked lovely

 

Day after day, I listen

As you compare yourself to other women

You don’t think you measure up to their standards

But I think you’re enough because you are you

You look perfect, you look different.

 

You’re there for me through thick and thin

When you say you’ll be there, you’ll be there

Your affection for me is steady, safe

When you’re busy, you tell me you’ll be a while

I don’t wait by the phone; I know you’ll be back

I don’t worry about your indifference.

 

We can sit in silence devoid of tense awkwardness

Between moments of closeness, we also carve out space

Before lovers, our friendship was the foundation

And I don’t doubt that you would stay

If I said you could never touch me.

 

You are the standard and I refuse to compromise

Because I know it’s what I deserve

So for now, I wait and rejoice in solitude,

Learning to self soothe, so that when the time comes,

If I ever manage to want you without needing you,

You’d come over and say I looked lovely.

 

DAY 4: A Poem in the Form of Poetry Writing Prompts

  1. Go into the kitchen and turn the gas on the stove.
  2. Put out a frying pan and drizzle some olive oil.
  3. Finely chop a clove of garlic.
  4. When the pan is hot, drop the minced garlic into the sizzling oil.
  5. Write a poem about the sounds and smells that fill the room.
  6. Write about how your senses and emotions process the anticipation of an unrealized meal.

 

DAY 5: A Poem About A Mythical Creature Doing Something Unusual or Unexpected

Today, she floats deeper in the sea, watching her sisters from a distance as they lure men from the ships to the water with their irresistible, saccharine melodies. She swishes her tail back and forth, glistening eyes bobbing up and down above the water as she holds herself in place. She finds a pocket of warmth in the endless expanse of saltwater, cups her hands and leads it to her mouth, tilting her chin up as the water floods her dry mouth. She lets out a stream of gargles, before spitting it back into the ocean, expelling the virus that causes her throat to form a coat of mucus and makes her voice so hoarse that no sailor would ever come near her. She rinses and repeats for as many days as it takes for the raspiness to escape her tunes, and then she can return to her sisters, COVID-19 antibodies in tow.

 

DAY 6: Acrostic Poem with the First Words of Each Line is Part of a Phrase

IT’LL be a miracle if I ever

HAPPEN to find the love of my life

WHEN the era of meet-cutes seems over. Today, as an adult, if

YOU want to find love, especially as a queer person, you have to go on apps or at

LEAST make a conscious effort to leave the house if you

EXPECT to meet single and available, interested and interesting people, but

IT can be exhausting and hard, especially during a global pandemic that oscillates between complete and partial lockdowns.

 

DAY 7: A Poem That Argues Against a Common Phrase

“If they wanted to, they would.”

Sometimes, I want to,

But I’m too tired to get out of bed,

I’m too busy with responsibilities I can’t avoid,

I’m too bogged down with existential dread,

I’m barely able to remember to eat,

I’m worried that maybe you don’t want to,

That I’m burdening you with my presence,

That you’re only keeping the pretense of our connection

Because you’re afraid to say “no.”

 

DAY 8: A Poem About My Alter Ego

My alter-ego is a leader,

Someone who isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind,

Not concerning herself with being perceived as kind,

Someone who is social and eloquent and loud,

Someone who doesn’t hesitate to let you know they’re proud.

I AM HERE, she declares as she enters the room.

Heads turn and the voices of others drown out.

She is assertive, vivacious, and the life of the party.

Her energy commands you as if to say: ATTENTION ON ME.

 

DAY 9: An Attempt at a Nonet

Nothing made me realize my own growth

more than arriving face-to-face

with just what I used to crave

but instead of yearning,

pining, desiring,

choosing to turn

away, no

second

glance.

 

DAY 10: A Love Poem 

Platonic love is the true romance

ignored by poets and movies,

because it’s much more exciting to describe a rush

than a slow-growing fondness,

much easier to describe the intensity of a crush,

the spike of anticipation of all they could be

rather than the stable, even boring familiarity that blooms over years

of sitting together and doing nothing.

But there is something so beautiful and pure

about genuine platonic friendship and its characteristic comfort;

your friends, who have nothing to offer,

not the spike of adrenaline, not sex, not exclusivity,

but just the space to be authentic, messy, and untethered

to the anxiety, uncertainty, and inherent ephemerality

of attraction and romantic love.

 

DAY 11: A Poem About Something Large

My dog weighs just under twenty pounds,

The smallest member of my family.

When I first picked her up from the shelter,

she was just four pounds and quieter than pindrops,

and yet, when I carried her into a coffee shop,

a man approached me and said,

“That’s a tiny dog, but she has a BIG heart.”

And over the past seven years, time and time again,

living with little Lily has confirmed

the way she bounces to the door when I come home,

even abandoning treats in favor of a greeting,

the way she curls next to the bathroom door until I come out,

or the way she senses my sadness and licks my tears away,

nothing is as unquantifiably large and limitless

as the patience, loyalty, and pure love of a dog.

 

DAY 12: A Poem About Something Small

Hydrogen,

The smallest atom on the periodic table,

One proton, one electron, no neutrons.

Add one neutron to get deuterium,

and add two to get tritium,

both isotopes of hydrogen itself.

Adding or taking electrons gives a charged form of hydrogen,

and adding or taking neurons changes the mass.

Only adding protons changes the identity of Hydrogen,

and adding one yields Helium.

Hydrogen is present in many compounds,

including water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

So strange to think something so small

makes up the glue that binds

everything as we know it.

 

DAY 13: A Poem About Optimism 

I think the key to optimism,

contrary to what one might assume,

is not to have faith that everything will go according to plan,

for the expectations built to the point of distance from reality are often the root of our pain as they crash down.

Rather, the key to optimism is the conviction

that whatever does happen,

regardless of whether or not it is what we envisioned,

there is something to be gained from it.

Thus, one is not tethered to any unreliable, everchanging circumstances,

but rather the conviction that whatever our circumstances are,

they are nothing beyond our capacity to either endure or change.

 

DAY 14: A Poem About the Opening Scene of the Movie of Your Life

The opening scene of the movie of my life

starts with a pan above the 5-freeway in La Jolla,

with the vibrant turquoise and white freeway signs showing the exit,

La Jolla Village Dr,

and on the bridge running across, above the freeway, reads:

University of California San Diego.

My alma mater, a few hundred miles and hours from where I was born,

it was here that my life began, along with the grieving process

of over twenty years spent pretending to be someone else.

 

DAY 15: A Poem About Something You Have Absolutely No Interest In 

A seemingly innocent exchange begins

a few hours into the process of downloading a dating app,

uploading the usual collection of my most flattering five photos,

setting my preferences to “interested in women” and swiping.

The matches start to come in

and I feel a hit of validation at the thought

that these women I find aesthetically pleasing upon first glance

are interested in starting a conversation with me too.

“Hi, gorgeous,” a message pops in my inbox,

followed by a string of heart-eyed and fire emojis.

But after a few innocuous exchanges,

the inevitable surfaces:

“My boyfriend and I are looking for a third. Are you down to play with us?”

The high from the validation drops like the steepest waterfall,

and I resist the urge to reply

“There is absolutely nothing that interests me less.”

To be clear, I’m not opposed to something casual,

Something with a man or even polyamory.

What ruffles my feathers is the disrespect,

the assumption that my sexuality alone

determines how willing I am to lend my body

for the consumption of a man and a woman,

roots of heteronormative society’s ideal nuclear family,

simply to be discarded when they no longer have any use for it.

 

DAY 16: An Attempt at a Curtal Sonnet

I long to live a day without worry

A day devoid of deadlines approaching

A day where all the tasks are completed

An hour, a minute, a second, just one,

Where I don’t have to answer anyone.

I long to clear my list of tasks today,

But as the clock approaches the PMs,

The list seems to only grow even longer,

To-Do’s swirling around, vortices in my head,

Haunting me, even when I go off to bed,

For now, it seems endless.

 

DAY 17: A Poem That Is A Stream of Consciousness Starting With Dogs

Lily is my best friend in the whole wide world,

I might go as far as to say the best dog in the whole wide world,

But some might, understandably, protest that I’m biased.

She is a dog, but she behaves like a cat;

Rather than clinging to me, her attachment is more subtle,

She often protests when I attempt to give her a cuddle,

And yet she never strays far from my side.

There are times when she gets in a playful mood

And her eyes have a laser focus as she zeros in

At the ball, the bone, the toy, or the treat,

And she completes any task you throw at her,

Propelling herself forward or upward, her legs four coiled springs just released,

Hurling her long body in the direction of the target without a second thought.

Sometimes, I wonder if there is something to be learned

From this laser focus on an object,

Whether my unending questions of What? Why? How? hinder my progress,

If people who are motivated to continue in the rat race of capitalism

Simply by the anticipation of the carrot it dangles,

Growing further and further away as you approach,

Just as zero seems to grow further away each time you divide epsilon,

The endpoint is merely a concept, but not a tangible, achievable reality.

But perhaps it is easier to deal with the strife of chasing

Than the agony of questioning whether there is anything to chase.

 

DAY 18: Five Answers to the Same Question

I’ve always wanted to go the academic route, and nothing has changed.

The market sucks right now, so I might settle for any teaching position I get.

I’m actually looking at scientific illustration or intersections of science and art.

I’m open to literally anything.

Do you seriously think between the pandemic and climate change, our society is even going to survive the next few years?

 

DAY 19: A Poem That Starts With a Command

Please don’t talk to me:

I saw you

and I know you saw me

and I know you saw me see you

but we haven’t spoken in over a year

and even when circumstances brought us

in close proximity in the past,

we were never close,

never exchanging anything beyond

pleasant formalities.

I have things to do

and places to be

and you likely do too (though I wouldn’t know),

so please, spare me the emotional energy

from a fake “how are you?”

and a false promise to “catch up”

on a friendship

that never even crossed the start line.

 

DAY 20: A Poem That Anthropomorphizes Some Kind of Food

Chips are that food that I don’t particularly crave;

Clearly they aren’t quite the paragon of health,

But even the taste isn’t one that particularly entices me,

And when offered the choice between chips and crackers, my answer is clear.

But when there is a plate of chips sitting on a table in my vicinity,

Or a general bag of chips thrown in an event’s complimentary mealbox,

I will inevitably chase chip after chip with another chip down my throat,

Devouring every last morsel.

If chips had the ability to scroll through therapy infographics on Instagram,

If they came across some overused misattributed spiritual quote such as

“Never allow yourself to prioritize someone who treats you like an option,”

I imagine any self-respecting bag of chips

would make the executive decision

To stop allowing themselves to be consumed

By someone who only chooses them out of boredom.

 

DAY 21: A Poem that asks you to recall someone you were once close to but no longer in touch with, a job you once had but no longer do, and a piece of art that is stuck with you over time, ending with an answerable question.

Sometimes, I wonder if you ever think of me, if you dare to google my name and see all I’ve done since that Tuesday afternoon in March 2013 – how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown, but then I remember that if you cared, you would have reached out. You would have never let me go, You would have never abandoned me without a word after telling me, unsolicited, that I could tell you anytime I needed support when I felt suicidal, that I could count on you. That we were like family.

That monotonous, painful summer of 2013, I drove to my 9-5 babysitting job, choosing surface streets over freeways because I’d just gotten my license, stopping at every traffic light along Moorpark Street, turning a twenty-minute commute into an hour, with nothing to fill my emptiness but the scorching sun and the blaring ratio, 104.3.

You didn’t have to cut me off.

You treat me like a stranger.

Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.

The lyrics of Gotye’s Somebody that I Used to Know stuck in my mind like a tough stain on a white shirt, They pounded on my brain, forcing me to acknowledge the feelings I didn’t want to accept.

Gotye was likely singing about a messy breakup with a girlfriend, and you weren’t my girlfriend…and maybe that’s why you felt justified in leaving me without the closure that a romantic breakup would provide. I can acknowledge that there are reasons that I’ll never understand, why you chose to cut me off despite our close relationship – you have every right to, and you don’t owe me any explanation. But as someone who was my best friend, my sole confidante, my shoulder, my trusted listening ear – and also, I thought, an open book about your own fears and insecurities – I know with time and distance, after high school, our bond wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t be as strong, but I never expected it to end up like this, leaving me reflecting on the past three years, ruminating on every word I said, wondering exactly what mistake I made that made you change your mind about how “special” I was to you.

At the age of eighteen, you taught me everything I knew about love, friendship, acceptance, and pain, both by what you said and what you didn’t say. The lessons you told me about resilience and bouncing back from mistakes, about not expecting myself to be infallible, but using those mistakes as a springboard for growth – I had to apply those very lessons to the pain and shame I felt of losing you at a time I most needed the friend that you promised you’d be. I blamed myself that the one person I’d poured out my heart and soul and vulnerabilities to – and you assured me that I wasn’t “dumping” too much – was the only one who couldn’t bear my presence enough to tell me why you couldn’t talk to me. It made me question whether there was something wrong with me, if all my other friends would leave the same abrupt way you did. Scared to trust, scared to open my heart to someone new in fears that I was too high maintenance, too needy, too clingy, that my mental illness would scare them off – that they would go from being just a text away to blocking me on all social media in just a couple days with no explanation.

At one point, I’d have been dying to know what you’d think of me now that I’ve grown, now that I’ve found the will to live and I don’t need you anymore, whether you’d want to be friends again. But as I’ve taken the role of being the confidante, the shoulder, the friend to many others who depended on me, I realized that what we had was never true friendship or love, because I would never treat someone I love that way. I’ve realized that boundaries can be kind and that it’s better to be honest about any limitations in my ability to provide support, to learn to say “no” than to say “yes” to someone who depends on me just to avoid the discomfort of telling something that they might not want to hear. Ultimately, the lack of respect and communication hurts more than a loving “no.”

I’ve learned that closure can never come from the same person who made me seek it; it has to come from myself. And for me, closure came from realizing that I didn’t need closure from you to go on.

So I don’t care whether you google my name, whether you’d be proud of the person I am now. I’ve mustered up the courage to forgive myself, and to open my heart again to new friendships, knowing that there’s no way to guarantee that they’ll last, but choosing to risk it anyways.

Is there any way to avoid pain, loss, and disappointment? Will I continue the pattern of subconsciously seeking out friends and partners that remind me of you, that remind me of my mother, just to relive the trauma of being emotionally abandoned by someone I trust and depend on and hoping for a different outcome? I can never know for sure, but what I do know is that I used to seek people like you, to fill the void in my heart that the loss of our friendship left, and now I’m making an honest effort to seek people more like me. Because I know that genuine friendship is worth the risk. And whether or not you’d be proud of me, for that, I’m proud of myself.

 

DAY 22: A Poem that uses repetition

When I was young, I used to question everything.

Every phrase uttered by my mom, dad, grandma, or aunt was followed by “How come?”

“How Come?” was so notorious that my aunt donned me with the nickname “Ms. How Come.”

For every “How Come?”, my mom seemed to have an answer – a deceptively simple one.

I thought the path to adulthood would be like the driving test at Legoland- linear, with clear instructions, and easily transferable knowledge from parent to child.

I carried “Ms. How Come” to my high school Chemistry class, questioning everything we learned until my teacher admitted that once we got to college, we’d learn that most of what we learned was a lie anyway.

“They’re just lies to make things simple enough to learn at this stage,” she explained.

In college, I first learned the phrase “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Could it be that all I’d been taught in school was just a model, just an attempt to make sense of things beyond comprehension? A desperate search for patterns within utter chaos?

As an adult, I’ve realized that the distinction between childhood and adulthood is yet another useful lie to make things simple – while the official cutoff is eighteen years from birth, the real boundary is murky, fuzzy, and variable.

As adults, we eventually come to accept things as they come to us, settling into an easy familiarity and answering children’s questions with deceptively simple explanations.

But it’s not clear whether adults are closer to knowing “the truth.”

Sometimes, finding “the truth” requires questioning the useful lies we’ve been told to keep things simple, and doing so requires the wisdom to ask “How come?”

 

DAY 23: A Short and Snappy Poem

We’re quick

to call others

brainwashed,

our friends and family

seemingly sucked into

religion,

radical politics,

cults and MLMs,

failing to recognize

how we were so

brainwashed

that seeing the

very structures

that tether us

reflected

back to us:

ideologies,

personal biases,

groupthink and hierarchical corporate structures,

and we invent

a name,

brainwashed,

that we tack onto others

and not to ourselves.

 

DAY 24: A Poem with a “Hard-Boiled Simile”

When I started taking antidepressants,

I learned I couldn’t drink,

which for some might feel like a death sentence,

but for me, it was an excuse not to pretend to enjoy

downing clear liquids

that taste like the smell of nail polish remover.

 

DAY 25: A Poem in which a woman appears who represents or reflects the area in which you live

Every day I spend

shut up in my apartment

telling myself I will work

and failing to do so,

feeling guilty,

not only for not doing the work

but also for not taking a conscious, guiltless break.

The woman of the waves comes to visit me in my dreams,

Blowing from the Pacific,

over the sand of the beach,

across PCH,

up the flimsy, sandy cliffs,

through the park and the grass patches soaked in dog urine,

across Main Street,

past the British gift shop,

through First, Second, and Third Street Promenade,

and past the library,

all the way up to my patio glass window.

She knocks on the glass,

the cold of the night spreading remnants of air that fade in seconds.

“You forgot to visit me,” she mouths through the glass.

Another day and night of my eighteen-month lease passes

without taking advantage of my proximity to the beach.

 

DAY 26: A Poem about an Epic/Extended/Homeric Simile

My mind is like a planet,

Orbiting around the sun,

Only there are many suns competing for the same planet,

And the planet jumps from sun to sun,

From orbit to orbit,

Sometimes staying longer and sometimes making a quick transition,

Each time returning to the same, familiar, repetitive path around each sun,

Unable to break free from the cycles

Of cycling around a center outside itself.

 

DAY 27: An Attempt at a Duplex

The scariest thing to learn

Is that you are the only one you can rely on.

 

On days, someone might let an ear,

For years, you might share space with another.

 

Another day might come when that connection ends,

And you learn to reclaim the space as yours.

 

Your life, your body, your mind, your memories,

You might share them with others, but they’ll always be yours alone.

 

Alone is how you’ll spend most of your life,

Even when you live with others, there will be moments of distance.

 

Distance from some might drive you closer to others,

And one day, you learn that there was never “the one.”

 

One person will never truly fulfill you in every way, and that, for me, is

The scariest thing to learn.

 

DAY 28: A Concrete Poem

they

are shaped

like pears because

all the particles of liquid

are rushing to reach the center

of gravity, but they can’t all be at

the same place at the same time, and

and there are intermolecular forces th-

at bind the molecules to one another,

forming a smooth surface, but there

 are a few that fall behind, like strag-

glers in a race, forming the cone-

like protrusion on top.

 

DAY 29: A Poem about a Gift and a Curse

Sensitivity

is both a gift

and a curse.

Sensitivity allows you

to see past people’s smiles,

to ask them,

“How are you, really?”

To actually care about the answer.

It allows you to be attentive

to the most minute of details,

To craft the most compelling songs,

to compose the most vibrant paintings,

touching others

by capturing the essence of human emotion.

Sensitivity also makes you vulnerable

to the most disproportionate anxiety,

rendering you reactive

upon detecting the most minute change in tone,

the most subtle shift in energy,

the quietest cry for help.

Sensitivity can drain you,

flood you,

overwhelm you,

and the only thing that helps

is setting boundaries,

while taking care that they don’t turn into impenetrable walls,

preventing you from receiving the very information

that is the source of your energy.

 

DAY 30: At Attempt at a Cento: A Poem made up of lines taken from other poems

Today I don’t feel like doing anything,

My room is a tank, I’m a fish

The muscles in our legs aren’t used to all the walking

I’m laying on the floor

All day, staring at the ceiling, making

friends with the shadows on my wall.

Feels like I’m buried yet I’m still alive.

Some kind of madness swallowing me whole.

Sometimes I want to disappear.

Hold on, feeling like I’m heading for a breakdown.

Tomorrow might be good for something

Because there’s beauty in the breakdown.

The lines in this poem are taken from song lyrics in The Lazy Song (Bruno Mars), Strangemirror (Shyamala), Waste (Foster the People), affection (BETWEEN FRIENDS), If I Ever Feel Better (Phoenix), Unwell (Matchbox Twenty), Madness (Muse), Houdini (Foster the People) and Let Go (Frou Frou). 

 

And that’s a wrap for NaPoWriMo 2022! I’m glad I was able to finish the challenge and respond to all 30 prompts on time (though it took much longer for me to type them up here). One thing I found myself having trouble with at first was trying to water down my individual experiences to make my work more relatable for those who may or may not know me or share my identities, but I think I ended up preserving at least some of my individual experiences, and I will continue to unlearn this as I find my own voice! I also would like to get better at meter and writing poetry through more imagery rather than writing ideas literally, but I think this was a good start and I’m glad I tried this!

International Women’s Day 2022

CW: mentions of sexual harassment/assault/abuse, violence against women, internalized misogyny/homophobia, suicide/self-harm, body image/eating disorders

*names have been changed

“Hold on,” my mom yelled out, just as I had one hand on the doorknob. “What are you wearing?”

I glanced down at my chest, basking in the warm embrace of the oversized black hoodie I had bought from my university bookstore during my first day on campus as a college freshman. “What d’you mean?”

It was mid-December, just after Fall Quarter final exams had finished, and my mom was staying with me in my San Diego apartment just down the street from campus for a week before we headed home to Los Angeles for the winter holidays. My mom had some work in San Diego; she had spent the last couple of years when I had been in college doing research on the health benefits of mindfulness and teaching meditation classes all around the world, including in San Diego. I was in my second to last year of college, and I was working on a degree in mathematics/applied science, with a concentration in chemistry. In the fall, I had just begun working in a theoretical biophysics research group on a project on neuron ion channel dynamics. I had opted to use the week of no classes between finals and the week of Christmas to catch up on my project, in which I felt thoroughly out of my depth. It was around 8 at night, and I was meeting Daniel* in the Biomedical Library. Although Daniel* was the most junior member aside from me and the only other undergrad in the group, he was a physics and bioengineering double major, and he had been in the lab for longer than I had. I was hoping I could use some of his expertise to get past the basic computational issues I was having.

I shrugged. “Mom, it’s freezing outside. This is comfortable.”

My mom bit her lip. “Don’t you at least want to put on some of your nice earrings or some lipstick? Are you really going to go out and meet a guy looking like that?” She gestured at the way the thick fabric of my hoodie rendered my usually annoyingly protrusive curves shapeless.

I laughed. “Mom, ew! We’re just going to work. I’m not trying to get him to notice me or something.” Beyond the fact that I had absolutely no interest in dating or even being close friends with my labmate (I am personally a strong believer in not s**tting where I eat – what if I needed to vent about things going on at work?), I was also a flaming homosexual – but she didn’t know that then (and neither did I, for that matter).

She shook her head in frustration. “Paheli, you don’t understand these things. How you present yourself makes a difference, even if you don’t want to date him. You’re an attractive woman. Accentuating your natural beauty could open up doors for you in the future. You never know where these people will end up and what opportunities they could bring if they remember you.”

“Mom, actually what the hell? You are crazy.”

I dismissed her, laughed about what she’d said with my friends, and chalked it up to her being my naive old immigrant mother who had no idea how things worked in universities in the US. At times, I even felt offended by her implication that somehow my intellect wasn’t enough to bring me the opportunities I needed to succeed in STEM. She’d never wanted me to join this research group to begin with.

Although I had an early inclination for math when I was three or four, I’d never been the best in math exams at school. In the spring quarter of my freshman year as a Chemistry major, I overloaded myself with difficult courses, including second term physics (electricity and magnetism) and fourth term calculus (differential equations), which yielded grades of C and C+ respectively – my first semicircular grades. At first, I was discouraged from STEM, especially physics, but once I decided I needed to get it over with to get my degree, I became determined to prove myself for my last required physics course. In this course, I worked my a** off, went to my instructor’s office hours all the time, and ended up being recruited for the theoretical physics group, as my instructor had said I had one of the top five scores in the course and I knew how to ask the right questions to succeed in research. I was inspired by this recognition of my quantitative abilities and instantly decided that I loved physics and math and we had just gotten off on the wrong foot at first. Impulsively, I tried to change my major to physics, but as it was my second to last year and I already had too many credits from chemistry courses, it was too late, so I turned to the math department. I designed my major so I could use my chemistry theoretical credits to fulfill half my courses and applied math courses to fill the other half instead of laboratory classes, and this math background would provide complimentary training to succeed in my theoretical physics research group.

My parents were not shy in expressing skepticism for my sudden interest in physics – after all, I had gotten a C in freshman year. “Theoretical physics?” my mom asked, rubbing me the wrong way with her pronunciation of theoretical. “I don’t think you’re a theoretical physics person if I’m being honest.” My dad, who had an engineering degree in undergrad from India and went on to get a master’s and PhD in Finance when he came to the US, was a Finance professor and always compared me to himself. “I think you’re like me, Paheli,” he’d said. “You have that Physics envy. I definitely had that too – Physicists are seen as smart and brilliant, but not everyone is meant to do physics.”

I’d always felt that my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and, while they put pressure on me and my brother to succeed, they didn’t put an undue amount like many immigrant parents. “Most Indian parents want their kids to become doctors or lawyers or engineers,” my mom had told us when we were little. “But I don’t care what you do – as long as whatever you choose, you are the best you can be at that one thing. Even if it is a driver – be the best possible driver you can be. I just want to see that passion and persistence.” We’d grown up socioeconomically privileged, thanks to my parents’ hard work (and luck due to the economy at the time) as immigrants who came to the US to study from India. They worked their a**es off so that we wouldn’t have to worry about money the way they did growing up, and because of that, it made sense that there was no excuse for us not to strive for excellence – all we had to worry about growing up was studying and extracurriculars – no obscene amount of chores, no early parenthood/nannying of younger siblings in a 4-5 child household, and no rent and bills. They didn’t narrow the range of paths to excellence the way many of their fellow Indian immigrant parents did, so long as we made sure to pursue excellence. But I felt like my teachers in school believed in my science abilities more than they did.

There was a part of me that said “What if they’re just lying to me because they want to feel good about encouraging a woman in STEM? What if I’m just another statistic to them?” Although I had chronically low self-esteem for most of my life thus far, I must’ve had some shred of confidence, because I decided to stand my ground with my parents on this one. “You’re just going to have to trust me,” I told them. “I know you might not think I can do this, and I don’t know if I can, but all I know is that doing this gives me purpose. So maybe it’s not right for me, but I’ll have to find that out for myself by trying, not stopping before I’ve even given it a shot. All I need from you is support, not more negativity. I’m already terrified.” And I think my parents gained respect for me after that.

It bothered me at the time that my mom seemed to be suggesting that I needed to rely on my sexuality to get ahead in my career – I was already self-conscious about being sexualized simply due to the body type I was born in.  Since the time I was eleven, everyone, from older men on the street to my “friends” and peers, had made a point to express to me that they noticed my large breasts (which I never even asked for or liked). My freshman year suitemates had made a video compilation of my a** crack hanging out of my pajama pants and had laughed about it behind my back – I only found out about when my roommate told me after we’d moved out. The last thing I wanted was to voluntarily sexualize myself, and at first, I took my mom’s suggestions as a personal affront. Ultimately, I realized that it had absolutely nothing to do with me; her statements were a projection of her own experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field in the 80s. Moreover, underlying what seemed like a ridiculous statement to me was a reflection of a more sinister element of her own past.

My parents met in graduate school, when my dad was a new professor and my mom was a PhD student in his department (though not directly under his supervision). The way my mom describes her admission to graduate school somewhat explains the way she’d encourage me to dress up in the presence of my male colleagues. “I went to the dean of admission’s office, and you know, I was a pretty girl, and I think he was quite taken with me, so he let me join the PhD program.” She waved her hand. “Paheli, I was not a math person at all. I don’t understand anything you’re doing. I was scattered, unfocused, all over the place. I was always looking for male attention for validation. Thank god you have your dad’s focus. Just keep focused, don’t get into these silly things, and you’ll get further in your career than I did.” My mom had her undergraduate degree in mathematics, physics, and statistics. After she got her PhD in computer information systems in the business school, she went on to work in Bell Labs – a place I was familiar with only because my undergraduate computing class in C mentioned it in the textbook describing the founding history of computing. She worked as a programmer back when there were no laptops and even desktops – each computer was its own room. After she got married to my dad and was pregnant with me, she left her career in computing and went back to school to pursue a Masters of Social Work and start her practice as a psychologist. For years, she managed her therapy practice, our house, and our family of four, driving me and my brother between school and art class and gymnastics and swimming and music and home, often cooking four different meals in one night. As a teenager, I was hospitalized twice for self-harm and overdose attempts, and I think that’s what led my mom to quit her therapy practice and pursue mindfulness meditation instead when I went to college.

We grew up in a community of hyper-competitive and wealthy elitist Indian immigrants in Los Angeles, some of whom we were friends with and some of whom my mom pretended to be friends with but couldn’t stand for the life of her. I distinctly remember attending one of our family friends’ parties in college, and one of my mom’s frenemy aunties whose kids had attended my high school, Aarushi* aunty, asked me what my major was.

“Math-Applied Science,” I told her.

She widened her eyes. “Oh, I see!” She whacked her stubby fingers on my shoulder, leaned in, and chuckled, rasping, “You probably got your brain from your dad then, eh?”

Before this, I didn’t know much about Aarushi* aunty besides the fact that she was a strict mom who thought that unless her kids got into Harvard, they were failures, but I’d never known exactly what my mom’s problem with her was until this moment. The blood boiled in my cheeks. While my mom had always joked about how she wasn’t a math person and how she wasn’t focused enough, I thought it was a bit of a stretch to say that she didn’t have a math brain. One of her undergraduate majors was math, and she’d done a whole a** PhD in a math-related field and even landed a job in one of the historically groundbreaking labs. She’d chosen a different path ultimately, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have the brain and capacity for it. Who the f*** was this Aarushi* aunty and what did she know about my family? Unlike my mom, I cannot pretend to be friends with someone, so I quickly dismissed myself from the conversation after that.

Right after undergrad, I went to pursue my PhD in Biomathematics, where I started working on my own project on mathematical/biophyiscal modeling of the relationship between neuron structure and function across cell types under the supervision of a theoretical biophysicist whom I admire greatly. I’m now in my fourth year in the program, have advanced to candidacy, and am starting to think about applying for academic jobs after the program. Later this month, I will be attending my second (but first in-person) American Physical Society Conference in Chicago, where I’ve been accepted to give a talk about my new paper in the works. Although I’m definitely not the best physicist in the world or the brightest or most productive graduate student and I’ve definitely been lucky in a lot of ways from all the support I’ve received, I think I’ve gotten further than I thought I could in conducting independent research in theoretical biophysics and I find the research as well as my mentoring and teaching duties meaningful. My parents are proud that I stood up for myself against their skepticism and pushed through my difficult undergraduate experience despite the fact that it was traumatic for me – I couldn’t have gotten here without it.

This past winter holiday, I was lucky to spend some time with my parents, and somehow, the topic came up about whether my mom had changed since she had kids. My parents were reminiscing on their experiences when they were around my age, when my mom was a PhD student and my dad was a junior professor. The way my dad was describing how my mom used to be – well, she reminded me of how I used to be when I just discovered my passion for physics, how I found nerdy references to make about everything in everyday life, and how I was quick to come up with scientific explanations and theories for everyday phenomena. “Mom, you seemed so…nerdy. But you’re always talking about how you’re not a science person and you don’t understand my nerdy jokes. Do you think having a child changed your brain at all?”

“Oh, of course, ” she said, and she grew somber. “Something I didn’t expect is how about half my cognitive capacities were out the window after pregnancy. It was impossible to keep up with things like I used to. I used to love reading proof books and trying to understand things and discussing ideas, but, well, my brain changed. It was a biological change.”

“Wow. Well, that sounds horrible. I’m so sorry to put you through that, and I never want to have kids.”

“Paheli, it’s a choice you make,” my dad insisted. “Yes, you make some sacrifices, but when you’re ready-”

“Actually, it didn’t really feel like a choice,” my mom countered. “I mean, yes, I chose to change my career and I chose to have children. But losing my cognitive capacities – that didn’t feel like a choice. It was biology. My brain was just wired differently after having kids, and it won’t be the way it was no matter what choices I make.”

One thing I found strange about the exchange is how my dad seemed to insist that it was a choice, as if he knew what it was like to have womens’ hormones and go through a pregnancy, as if it was a choice that he had to make for his body. Or how my dad used to make fun of my mom for leaving her assignments until the last minute in her master’s program when she was literally growing a human in her body (me). How my mom somehow had to make the most sacrifices for the family including her bodily and cognitive autonomy, and my dad could just continue with his professor job unaffected. Just the subtle misogyny or lack of understanding – despite the good intentions of my father – that I’d overlooked as a kid, as a teenager, and even to some extent as a college student, but could no longer ignore. It just seemed so unfair.

“I used to love reading books and learning and thinking about ideas,” my mom had lamented. “You know, for my PhD thesis, I worked on the simplex algorithm.”

My dad shook his head disparagingly. “No one uses the simplex algorithm anymore. There are much better numerical methods now.”

“But it’s still important,” I protested. “We spent a whole week on it in my computational algorithms class in grad school.”

“I had presented my ideas to one of the main people in the field. I think he was pretty impressed with me.” My mom continued.

My dad snorted. “He was trying to seduce her. Everyone knew about this.”

My mom laughed. “I had no idea about any of this. I mean, he was married. I thought he just wanted to talk about ideas. There were a lot of times I talked to men because I thought we were just discussing ideas, and I liked thinking about things with them, but it turns out they were interested in me. I had no idea.”

The whole conversation made me want to throw up, but it made me suddenly realize why my mom was so convinced that she was not a math person, and it made me understand how my mom had reacted to me in certain ways, how she’d told me to befriend more men because women were “catty” or “too much drama,” how she told me to give men a chance even if I didn’t like them, how she had pushed me to lose weight to be more attractive since I was 9 years old, how she encouraged me to use my looks to open up professional opportunities, and how she refused to acknowledge the gravity of the experiences of sexual violence I’d faced. It was internalized misogyny. It was the lens through which she’d always viewed her own womanhood, surrounded by all these men in graduate school, and it was the only lens through which she could perceive mine.

I should have realized this about four years ago when I had told my mom about a disturbing experience I’d had with one of my math professors. He’d been the most encouraging and dedicated math instructor I’d ever had, holding extra office hours and review sessions on the weekend and helping me with math far beyond the confines of the course. We’d talked about some of our shared interests in mathematical physics, and he went out of his way to not only recommend books for me to read, but scan, print, and laminate chapters from his copies of the books and give me PDFs so I wouldn’t have to find and purchase them myself. I did all the extra credit problems for his course, and he’d told me that he thought I was talented and he thought I was good at math. He was part of the reason that I became interested in my current program, Biomathematics, which is an applied math-centered program with research focusing on biology problems.

There were times this professor made me feel uncomfortable with his proximity and his comments about how he loved watching me write math on the board, but I chalked it up to the fact that he was so nerdy that he must be just excited about math. This man had such an incredible reputation and an army of cronies (almost all men) who would visit his office all the time and write proofs on the board, so I didn’t trust the unconscious bodily reactions that my senses picked on, signaling that this was not a safe environment for me. I had social anxiety and I was used to feeling nervous. It was probably just that.

It wasn’t until the last couple of days I spent with him that he started acting strange (throwing things) and showing some attitude. He’d commented disparagingly about my interests in biology, stating that biology was a “weak field” and biologists didn’t know what they were doing. He made demeaning comments about how my parents were rich and I didn’t have any problems in my life aside from getting into graduate school, and that I didn’t deserve anything I had (I had no idea how he knew anything about my family, because I’d never mentioned them to him). He said that I’d be lucky to get into graduate school because it means I would have gotten three professors to lie for me in writing letters of recommendation.

For a long time, I’d blamed myself, thinking that I’d done something wrong, that I wasn’t focused enough, and that I wasn’t aware of my privilege in having parents in academia and wasn’t working hard enough to progress in math. It wasn’t until I told my mom about it, and she’d laughed, saying, “Well, maybe he had a crush on you.”

“What the hell, mom?” The thought had not even crossed my mind. I was a silly, bratty undergrad – as he’d made it perfectly clear – why on earth would someone so much older and smarter be interested in me? “That makes absolutely no sense. If he liked me, why was he so mean? Wouldn’t you be nice to someone you liked?”

She shook her head. “Men and women are different. I remember when I was your age, I had similar experiences. Guys would get all sarcastic and rude suddenly, and it turns out they had been expecting something from me and were angry when they realized I wasn’t interested.”

As I processed the situation over the years, I realized how much of an impact it had on my self-esteem, how it made me realize that no matter how hard I worked, I could never force anyone to respect me or see me beyond my identity as a woman, as a “modest Indian girl”, as a gay woman (as some kind of sexually deviant pervert), and as that girl with the big, saggy boobs and visible butt crack. I’d always thought that I could work hard, gain skills, and use my skills to prove that I was smart and capable and worthy of respect, but getting a near-perfect score in this professor’s course wasn’t enough to earn his respect. I started to lose some of the emotional connection I had to my identity as a nerd who has “no life” and who had her “nose in books” all the time, the identity that had temporarily allowed me to find myself outside my insecurities about my weight, my body, and my sexuality. This abusive man was the epitome of that caricature, and he was the last person I wanted to be like. I went off the other end. I lost over sixty pounds by compulsively exercising, abusing laxatives and diet pills, and forcing myself to throw up after meals. I started to obsess over my appearance and weight. I objectified myself. I put myself in sexually risky situations, including with men I had no interest in, to validate myself as an attractive woman despite the fact that I was gay, and there were all these stereotypes about gay women being ugly and overweight and predatory (probably made up by the same salty men who can’t have them and think that they’re “taking women off the market”). I lost interest in academic communities, left the lab at 5 pm and went to hang out with my friends in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. I was just so tired of being around people who had no concept of life outside school, who had repressed their sexuality so deeply that it exploded and came out in their strange ways. I didn’t want to be that person, so I finally allowed myself to be myself. To find community in the LGBTQ+ community. To embrace the part of me that enjoyed being a person and having friends, and not just proudly advertising that “books are my only friends.” The experience destroyed my self-confidence as a scholar and intellectual, but I ultimately found myself as a person, which was a plus. But now, I want some balance. I want to rediscover the part of me that loved school and wasn’t just going through the motions of grad school and preparing for an academic career because it was the only future I’d ever envisioned for myself. I don’t want to give anyone else the power to quench my passion.

“Mom, why do you say you’re not a math person?” I asked her one day at dinner, a few days after that conversation with my dad. It was just the two of us and my brother this time. “I mean, you have a degree in math. You got a whole PhD. I mean, not everyone can do that. You worked on the Simplex Algorithm. You had a job at Bell Labs. You yourself said you used to love reading proof books and discussing ideas. You sound just like me. So why do you think you’re not a math person?”

She laughed gently. “Paheli, don’t overidentify with me. I was not focused like you. I was always thinking about boys.”

“So?” I challenged her. “So? I’m not always thinking about math. I think about girls sometimes. That simplex algorithm dude who was trying to seduce you or whatever, he wasn’t so focused on math, was he? But he still gets credit for the simplex algorithm. Does anyone call him unfocused? Dad was obsessed with you for years before you agreed to date him, but he’s still a professor and respected in his field. Does anyone call him unfocused?”

“But you don’t understand. You just have the math brain! My brain just wasn’t built for that.”

“What do you mean by that? Explain,” I insisted.

“You know, I was able to succeed in math if I worked hard. But if I stopped working on something for a little while, it would go away! I had to practice all the time to have it!”

My brother and I giggled.

“Mom, that’s literally everyone,” I laughed. “You just don’t know that because you were surrounded by arrogant and overconfident men like dad! You think they didn’t struggle like that too? You think they don’t have to practice to get it? They just don’t have people constantly breathing down their neck, expecting them to fail.”

My mom looked at me with such an innocent sincerity in her eyes, and she said, “That’s true, being a woman did make it harder. And as a woman, and, you know, I always wanted to go study out late and discuss ideas with all these men in grad school, but…well, being the only woman, it wasn’t exactly safe…Paheli, maybe you should talk about this in front of dad. Maybe he would understand then. He doesn’t listen to me, but he listens to you.”

In that moment, I felt that a lot of my resentment towards my mother had dissolved. My mother, who was feminist enough to keep her last name and give us a hyphenated name, but who told me not to report my professor for sexual harassment because he was an immigrant and an allegation like that would destroy his career – prioritizing his career over other young women’s who he had the power to ruin. My mother, who was liberal enough to have gay friends and to attend their weddings, but not liberal enough to consider the possibility that her kids might be queer, and it might not be a choice. My mother, who was a licensed therapist, but who tried to handle my depression/anxiety and PTSD with toxic positivity. Throughout my life, I’d put adults on these pedestals that they could not sustain, seeking something from them that I could only find in myself, from my mentors and professors to my own mother. I knew now that she wasn’t able to validate my experiences, not because she didn’t care, but because it took the woman I’d grown into without her to validate hers.

Asexual Awareness Week

Happy Ace Awareness Week! It’s four weeks into our ten-week quarter, and between my Machine learning class, working on the last edits for my paper, my job, and my board position, I have been making time to attend a weekly virtual space hosted by the LGBTQ center at my university: the Ace/Aro space. Today, in honor of Ace week, we had an Ace Awareness Social, which was incredibly empowering and affirming. I’m still processing my gratitude for this space, and I thought I would take some time to reflect on it a little.

This is a part of my identity that I haven’t discussed with most of my friends in-depth, but since it is global Ace Week, and this quarter is the first time in my life that I have actively sought out Ace-centered social spaces in my university, I thought I would dive in and try to unpack some of my experience. Keep in mind that this post is only one person’s experience, and I still have a lot to learn about myself and others who identify on the spectrum with different experiences. If you want to learn more, there are a myriad of more comprehensive resources. With that, I will get started on discussing the basic theory and my experiences.

From what I understand, the basic pillar behind Asexual Spectrum theory is the split attraction model. The main idea behind this is that romantic and sexual attraction are separate from one another. The Ace community exists on a spectrum; there are some asexual people who are romantic, who date and have romantic feelings and deep emotional connections and commitment with little or no sexual desire. There are also people who are aromantic, who have platonic relationships, no relationships, or purely sexual relationships. And there are people who lie somewhere in the middle, people who experience sexual and/or romantic attraction very rarely, and people who are demisexual or demiromatic, forming sexual or romantic attraction, respectively, only after forming a close emotional bond.

Typically, in mainstream culture, we tend to view romance and sex as closely intertwined, or at the very least, romance always seems to have some sort of sexual undertones. For me, these things have always been separate, and low sexual attraction has always been a point of isolation for me even in the queer community. With the hypersexual and sex-positive, colorful environment, even though I love it and cherish and respect it, I often feel there is something missing for me. It has been extremely affirming for me to find spaces this quarter to discuss these things and hear like-minded experiences.

Growing up, as many young women are, I was taught that if a boy or a man asked for my number or asked me on a date, to say “I’m flattered, but no, thank you.” I memorized these lines and recited them, without giving thought to what I wanted. I felt confused when girls my age started showing interest in boys, and during sleepovers, I would dread the inevitable question: “who do you like?” When boys showed interest in me, it flew completely over my head, and I only became aware of it when my friends pointed it out to me. I tell people that my first love was Chemistry, because once I discovered my passion for science, I didn’t have eyes for anything else. In my senior year of high school, the running joke amongst me and my friends was that I was asexual, because I was the only one in the group who had absolutely no interest in dating.

In college, things became a little more complicated. In my first year, for the first time, lived in a dorm with fifteen other girls. I was in a triple with two other girls, and the three of us were close with one of our floormates and adopted her as our “honorary roommate”. The four of us did almost everything together, from late-night study parties and microwave cooking to exploring gelato shops, restaurants, and beaches in San Diego. After almost a year of being friends, I started to develop a stronger emotional attachment to one of my roommates. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was romantic, because I didn’t feel any sexual attraction towards her. She was a close friend, and we had edited each other’s essays for our college humanities courses and confided in each other about our vulnerabilities. She was the only person I had trusted with my high school trauma, and she seemed to be the only one who could understand the depth of my emotional experience. It was confusing because it didn’t feel to me like more than a friendship, except for the fact that things were suddenly awkward. I started to become shy around her. When we were hanging out in a group, I became self-conscious. I noticed her from the corner of my eye, and I talked to everyone else in the group but her. “Why are you being weird around me randomly?” she’d asked playfully. At some point, we talked about it. I didn’t understand my feelings at the time, but I explained that I felt more emotionally attached to her than my other friends. She told me that she would always be my friend, but that she preferred to set boundaries in friendships. It was confusing and painful at the time, but eventually, our relationship repaired itself and I grew from it.

I was still not willing to admit that my feelings were romantic, but a few months later, I questioned my sexuality. I downloaded dating apps and tried talking to women. I matched with a lesbian woman who was around my age, who was beautiful by all conventional standards, and who had similar interests and hobbies, including pets. On paper, it seemed perfect. We made plans to meet up with our dogs at a nearby dog park. I enjoyed talking to her and I enjoyed her company, but I didn’t feel any spark. We became friends and kept in touch, but it never became anything more than that. I concluded that it was just a phase, and I didn’t actually like women that way.

A couple of years later, I tried dating men, and was met with the same disappointing results. I liked them as people and understood they were attractive by society’s standards, but I didn’t feel any sparks. I remember telling my friend that I was confused because the guy I was seeing kept texting me between dates. I was going to see him in less than a week. Why was he so clingy? My friend burst out laughing and told me that was normal for guys you’re dating.

Although I’d had admiration crushes on my female teachers in the past, a lot of it had more to do with wanting to be like them and seeking their approval. The summer before my last year of college was the first time I had a crush on another woman, which made me realize that I definitely liked women. Suddenly, I became a clingy texter, much like the guy I had been seeing. I wanted to talk to her all the time, but I convinced myself that it was just because I admired her and really wanted to be her friend. There was so much shame and unpacking my own trauma that came with that experience that I denied it for several months. But finally, during the spring break before my last quarter of college, I watched the movie “Love, Simon,” a coming of age story about a teenage boy and his process of coming out to his friends and family. I was inspired by this movie, and I joined a support group in the LGBT center in my university, which helped me process my attraction to women.

About a month before graduating, I finally came out to one of my friends. She’d always teased me about men, and it never even occurred to her that I might like women, which made the experience scarier. But she was incredibly supportive, and she told me that she wanted to take me to a gay bar, which remains one of the only girl bars in California. When we reached the bar, she looked around at all the women and asked me “So, any prospects?” Although I was extremely moved by her support, the idea that one could be attracted to someone they’d never even spoken to baffled me.

When I came to grad school, I became a lot more involved in the LGBTQ+ community on campus. I made a lot of new queer girl friends, and I felt a sense of belonging from being in spaces where attraction to women felt so normal. But even in those spaces, I found myself suppressing parts of my identity in order to fit in. I realized that most people form attraction upon first glance, that they can immediately tell from looking at someone whether or not they would date them. This is something I’ve never been able to relate to. Even during the times when I’d experienced attraction to women, I never really had the thought that I wanted to date them or become physically intimate – it was more that I had affection for them and wanted to get to know them better – but on a different level than with friends. Although a lot of my attraction was based on feeling emotionally connected, I recently learned that in asexuality theory, there are, more complex forms of attraction, such as aesthetic attraction. You can be drawn to someone because of how they look, without the underlying desire to be physically intimate.

I’ve realized that part of the reason dating apps never seem to work for me is because the intimacy feels forced. In order to have genuine intimacy and a connection that doesn’t feel like a chore, I need to get to know someone on an emotional level, in a setting that doesn’t feel like there is pressure to date or escalate things physically. However, to avoid complicating my friendships by developing feelings, I have started keeping more emotional boundaries with all of my friends. Sometimes, I wonder if I will always be lonely. But today, something a woman in the Ace Awareness Social said really resonated with me, about demiromanticism, and wondering if romantic feelings arose simply because society puts pressure on us to “find someone.”

I’ve thought about that often, whether I really want to “find love” or I just romanticize the idea of falling in love because I’ve never experienced that deep, powerful feeling that they show in the movies, where you love someone with all their heart and they love you back in exactly the same way and you lean on each other and support each other through all your endeavors. I’ve spent so much of my life taking care of myself and focusing on school that I often feel that having someone else there would make me feel stifled. But then looking around and seeing everyone else in love makes me feel pressure to find “the one.” I know that at some point, most of my friends are going to find “the one” for them, and since society tends to place romantic relationships high on a pedestal over friendships, I sometimes fear that I’m going to be left behind.

When I first started grad school, I considered attending the weekly Ace Space, but it was at 11 am on Friday, and I always had a class or some meeting or the other during that time. This is the first quarter where I don’t have a full course load, and the online setting makes my schedule even more flexible. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to find the time to squeeze it in. Attending the weekly space and this Ace Awareness Social has been extremely powerful, because I’ve realized that there are other students in my university who share my experiences, whose lives aren’t centered around physical intimacy and they’re okay with it. I’ve started to grow fond of this space where students get into passionate discussions about tea and animals and aesthetics and ice-cream flavors, as well as deeper discussions about self-discovery and finding our place in the world. With the pandemic, the election, uncertainty about the future, and navigating this perpetual feeling of being an outsider in society, it’s easy to feel lost. But during this month, the Ace community has been an anchor that has been keeping my hope and motivation alive, and for that, I am extremely thankful.

October 2020: 3rd Year PhD Begins

This was the first full week of the new quarter and the 2020-2021 academic year, the beginning of my third year as a PhD student. I have about an hour right now before my virtual therapy appointment, which is not enough time to get research work done, but probably just enough time to reflect a little on the start of this new year. With the global pandemic, remote learning, and the upcoming election that could have enormous implications for my rights as a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this is no doubt going to be a strange and difficult year. I hope that by focusing on self-care as much as possible, I can mitigate the negative impacts on my mental and physical health.

During Septemeber, I feel that I was able to pull my paper draft into pretty good shape – I feel proud of the overall piece I have, although there are still a lot of changes I still need to make. I am hoping that I will have a new draft ready for my advisor to review by the end of this weekend, but that will require me to really focus during this weekend. I have been struggling a little bit with chronic back pain issues, which have been flaring up because of stress during the pandemic. This month was especially hard, but I had a zoom appointment with a doctor who prescribed some muscle relaxing medications. As I try to mitigate some of the mental stress I have, I hope that the pain will be reduced. I think part of the stress I’ve had comes from feeling like I’m not in control of my schedule and the structure of my day. Now that my schedule for the quarter, between research meetings, classes, my part-time writing consultant position, and students org meetings has been more or less decided upon, I want to try to keep a structured schedule and act like things are normal as much as possible – for my own sanity.

About halfway through the month of September, I completed a training for my “side hustle” position at the Graduate Writing Center. It was five days of zoom lectures and activities from 9 am – 4 pm. It was pretty exhausting to be on zoom for such a long period, but I enjoyed meeting with the other consultants and getting to know them a little through our discussion-based activities. Before the training, we had about 8 hours worth of readings to complete about writing pedagogy. There was a lot of interesting material presented there, from scientific writing, which I’d never really thought about formally before, and assisting ESL students with writing English. It brought up a lot of interesting discussions during the training about wealth inequality and language barries, and how English language and grammar is often used as a way to gatekeep elite academic opportunities from low income and international students. Thus, as a writing consultant, I see it as my duty to give students directed support with their writing that they might not otherwise receive, and in a way, help with wealth distribution. I’ve been thinking a lot about how even though I worked very hard to get the NSF fellowship, there were so many elements of luck involved, including being born in this country in a family of academics, going to a high school that emphasized writing skills, having access to research opportunities in undergrad, and having my advisor be willing to read over my research proposal and give me directed feedback. I know that not all students at my university are lucky enough to have those privileges, even though they are just as qualified in terms of skills and abilities. Thus, I see this position as an opportunity to pass on what I’ve learned and hopefully help other students win the fellowship. Students who have not had the privileges that I have had earlier in their careers will gain access to more opportunities and career advancement through this fellowship, and the least I can do with the privileges I do have is pay it forward and increase access.

After the training, we were assigned our shifts for the quarter. Mine are 9 am – 11 am on Thursday and Friday, and I just finished the four sessions for the week. I had a lot of anxiety about waking up on time and time management during the sessions (they are only 50 minutes each!), but I was surprised at how smoothly they went. I feel I got a range of experiences even just in the first week, from fellowship personal statements to journal and conference papers. While research often feels never-ending, discouraging, and insurmountable, it was uplifting and rewarding to feel like I had helped these students in such a short amount of time. I am looking forward to continuing these sessions throughout this quarter.

At the beginning of the month, I volunteered to be the representative for my org, QTSTEM (Queer & Trans in STEM) for the LGBTQ Center event for incoming students, called Queerantine Connections. I spent a lot of time on this project, hand-drawing infographics for an Instagram post, updating information for our org on the university website, participating in a zoom panel, and hosting a zoom “table” where incoming students could come learn about our organization and find information on how to sign up. It was very draining but worth it, and I feel I did my best to contribute to the community. I also think it is a good practice for my social anxiety to challenge myself to speak in these kinds of events. This year, I will be serving on the board of QTSTEM as Treasurer, and I will be attending the weekly meetings as well as board meetings.

I started off the quarter taking two classes, even though I only have one more class to complete for the department requirements. I decided I want to drop the other course and focus on the one course, the Machine Learning for Bioinformatics course. There is a final project for the course, and I have an idea I’ve been sitting on about applying machine learning to my research. Thus, I am hoping to hit both with this course and project and maybe try to get a second paper out of it? It seems ambitious, and I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I will keep it in mind as a possibility.

My department pub nights have started up again, and while I haven’t kept in touch with many of my department mates over the summer, it was nice to be able to chat with them for a little. One thing that was validating was that there was one student, a man in my department, who had bothered me with some of his comments last year, which seemed somewhat demeaning. But then when he learned (through other sources) about things I had accomplished, he suddenly had more respect for me. When we were discussing a male professor in my department who had been biased towards me, this student said, “Well, because you don’t really talk that much about your accomplishments, people might get the assumption that you’re not as competent. But clearly, that’s not true.” I am past the point where I need approval from men in order to feel competent, but it did make me feel validated to hear him say that (although ideally, women and minority students should be treated with basic level of respect without needing to earn it or assert their value – I’m hoping our achievements will challenge the implicit biases a lot of people have and make it easier for people in the future). Then, I had long discussions with my department mates, including some of the senior students in my lab, about the messed up nature of elitism in academia and the publishing industry. I’ve been feeling a lot of publishing stress given my current paper draft I’m working on, so it was helpful to hear the perspectives of students who had more experience with it.

I haven’t been able to keep up as much with working out and healthy eating, but I think I might have to be kind and lenient with myself until I have this paper business sorted out. Overall, I hope that once I have more structure in my schedule and less pressure once the paper is submitted, I will be able to reintroduce those things in my life with more regularity.

That’s it for this post. Until next time!

NSF Fellowship Application Tips

Around this time last year, I applied to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). It has a pretty low acceptance rate and is highly dependent on factors outside of our control, such as the review panelists we are randomly assigned and their moods on the day they read our statements. I knew it was a crapshoot, and I was mostly applying because, as a second year, it was my last chance to do so. Getting accepted for the fellowship was a very pleasant surprise. It has made me feel a lot more confident in my abilities and career goals and has made me somewhat more motivated to work through these very difficult times.

I was the only person in my department who applied last year, and most of the resources I used for my application came from online, and from the advice and examples of successful statements by my seniors in Queer organizations on campus I have been participating in. I am also very thankful for my advisor, who gave me thorough suggestions on my proposal. I know at least one person in my department is applying this month, and I would like to pay forward the support I’ve received in the ways I can. I have started a part-time position at my university campus Graduate Writing Center, where I will be reading other students’ statements and providing them with feedback and support. I will not be publishing my statements online, but I will provide some general suggestions and strategies that I have learned here. If you would like to see my statements, you can feel free to contact me, either through the contact form or through other means if we already know each other! If this is helpful for you, my application was in Mathematical Sciences – Mathematical Biology.

Tip # 1: Read the program solicitation. Read all of it. Make sure you understand exactly what they are looking for. The two main review criteria for this fellowship application are Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Make sure you devote enough in your statements to the Broader Impacts portion, as this is a common shortcoming of many applications.

Tip # 2: This is not the time for modesty! If you were meeting a new friend for coffee or going on a date, it might be a good idea not to rattle off a laundry list of all your accomplishments. But you are not trying to get the review panel to like you as a person. You are trying to convince them that you are worth throwing government money at. Make sure to list everything you’ve ever done, especially when it comes to publications and presentations. I will say right now that I did not have any publications when applying, but I am currently working on a first author publication (fingers crossed that it’ll be submission-ready this month!). So I listed this tentative paper with the year 2020, and wrote In Preparation. I would highly recommend this, especially if you currently do not have any publications, or if you are in the process of preparing a first-author publication – which often carries more weight. Also, make sure to list every poster and/or oral presentation you’ve ever done, even if it was just a department-wide poster session or presentation and you don’t think it was a big deal. This is not the time to leave anything out.

Tip # 3: Make sure you give your letter of recommendation writers enough time to write letters, and make sure they are people who know you and know your research well. As a general rule, I would suggest asking them at least a month or three weeks in advance, although earlier is probably better. I would also suggest giving them reminders as the deadline approaches, as you want to make sure everything is submitted on time. It is probably not the best idea to ask a random professor that you never spoke to but got an A in their class. You want to have someone who can vouch for your abilities in research. In addition, make sure to mention to your writers about the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts review criteria. The reviewers will be looking for both these things in your letters as well as your statements. If they aren’t familiar with your outreach work, provide them with a CV and/or description of your activities. One thing that I think really helped my application was getting a letter from a woman who was a postdoc in my undergrad lab and is now a tenure-track faculty member. She could speak to my research abilities, but also about the conversations we had as fellow women in a field where there aren’t many (theoretical physics). I also mentioned in my personal statement how seeing that representation in my undergrad lab encouraged me to apply to graduate school and pursue a physics-centered research group.

Tip # 4: Create a narrative about your scientific journey. If you are applying for this fellowship, it is likely that you have a range of professional experiences before this point, whether it is working in a lab, industry, healthcare, or peer-led projects. There is probably something that you’ve gained from each of these experiences that have led you to the project you are proposing today. Make sure that everything you are listing somehow ties into skills or perspectives you’ve gained that have made you more able to conduct the project you are proposing. Make sure you don’t list anything without somehow tying it in to how it has shaped you as the researcher you are today.

Tip # 5: For Broader Impacts, while it might be helpful to mention your own personal adversities and minority status, what will be even more useful is to list the ways that you plan to uplift other marginalized groups on a broad level. If you are not a member of a marginalized group, talk about initiatives you’ve taken to support those in marginalized groups throughout your career, and how to plan to continue doing so as you progress. If you are a member of a marginalized group, a good way to mention it is to bring it up in the context of outreach organizations you’ve participated in, and how you plan to use representation to encourage others in STEM, such as recruiting people to your program and increasing retention by making workspaces safer for marginalized people. If you identify as LGBTQ+, but you have never participated in and do not plan to participate in identity-based orgs, I would suggest not including it. However, if you were inspired by a talk by an LGBTQ+ identifying faculty member and it has shaped your confidence and pursuit of your career in some way, that could be a powerful thing to include.

Tip # 6: If there are any gaps in your records, such as lack of publications due to time limitations in your undergraduate research or lower grades because of some personal and/or financial adversity, I would include some kind of explanation in your personal statement. For example, I included the two projects I was involved in during undergrad, which have stalled in the research group in favor of other projects and my contributions were never published. However, it is best not to make the hardship the focus of your statement and delve too much into it.  Instead, you can use this as a testament to your resilience and persistence, something that is incredibly important, as research is hard and will involve a lot of failures that you will have to be prepared to overcome. Remember the purpose of the application, which is convincing a panel of strangers who have never seen you to throw money at your project. You want to make sure that everything you include in your personal statement has some purpose that is highlighting either your intellectual merit or your potential to benefit society as a whole. The overall feel of the statements should be positive.

Tip # 7: For your research statement, I would recommend organizing it in pieces. What I did was start off with a biological introduction, lead into a broad question, and three sub-projects that fall under the umbrella of addressing my broad question. I then created separate paragraphs for each of these three sub-projects. It can be helpful to use bold or italic font to highlight these themes, and the specific steps you plan to take to address these things. You want to show that you have thought about methods, and especially if you are already a grad student, show the panel that the institution you are in has the resources to help you carry out your project. The more clarity and organization you have in laying out your plan, the better. It could be helpful to provide a figure or an equation (if you are in a more mathematical field such as mine). Make sure to address broader impacts of the research, as well as potential broader impacts that come with communicating the research and recruiting and mentoring undergraduate students participating in your research.

Tip # 8: If you don’t get the fellowship, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED. It does not mean anything about you as a scientist. There are so many faculty members I admire and respect who have been rejected by this fellowship, but they still went on to be amazing scientists. There are peers of mine who deserve it just as much as I did, if not more. It is a very random process! I also know someone whose labmate applied one year and got rejected, and applied the next year with nearly the same application and got accepted. That just goes to show that getting accepted and rejected has so much to do with factors that are out of your control. It is always a good idea to try, because you never know (for the same reasons), but just know that even if you don’t get it, you are incredibly awesome and you can still do amazing science!

I hope this was helpful, and feel free to contact me for any feedback! Also, know that these tips are just one person’s opinion, and there are many more resources for advice and support! I will include some that I have personally used:

NSF GRFP Website

Tips Websites:

https://www.alexhunterlang.com/nsf-fellowship

http://www.malloryladd.com/nsf-grfp-advice.html

https://www.profellow.com/tips/8-tips-for-crafting-a-winning-nsf-grfp-application/

http://www.christineliuart.com/writing/2018/8/31/advice-for-applying-to-the-nsf-grfp

http://www.clairemckaybowen.com/fellowships.html

YouTube Videos:

BLACK LIVES MATTER

CW: violence, abuse

BLACK LIVES MATTER. Find out ways you can help here. Sign Petitions. Donate. Vote. Educate Yourself. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I owe my rights to activists like Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman who was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall riots protesting against police brutality towards the LGBT community in 1969. Today, Black transgender women are targeted at alarming rates and often aren’t covered by the media because they are trans. The least we can do is pay it forward, fight for justice, listen, educate ourselves, show up for our friends, and be actively antiracist.

Update, 12/13/20:

After FKA twigs shared her story about being in an abusive relationship on Twitter, she shared a list of organizations to donate to, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline,  a free and confidential hotline to support survivors and people who are worried about others in their lives. Through her tweets, I also found out about an organization in the UK called Sistah Space, which is specifically aimed at supporting Black women and girls. Black women and girls who are survivors of DV face unique challenges because of their relationship with the police. On one hand, due to discrimination, they are worried that they will not be believed if they report abuse. At the same time, they are worried about the treatment Black men face by the police. Although they do not want to continue experiencing abuse, they are worried about potentially causing harm to Black men and the Black community by involving the police. Due to these factors that uniquely affect the Black community, Sistah Space is an extremely important space for them to receive support specific to their needs. Domestic Violence is increasingly prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic, given that many survivors are trapped at home with their abusers.

This organization is currently facing issues with their physical location, and they are in need of funds so that they can keep their property and continue to provide a safe space for survivors. Please consider contributing anything you can here:

http://gofundme.com/f/a-safe-space-for-african-heritage-dv-survivors

Every dollar counts!

Qualifying Exams

Ever since I found out what qualifying exams were, I was absolutely terrified. I remember being an undergrad listening to the grad students from my research group and my TA sections talking about “that test you have to take after the first couple years where you can be tested on literally anything in your field and if you fail, you get kicked out of grad school lol” and, as someone with low to medium key test anxiety, it sounded like my personal kind of hell. Even after going through the grad school application process, my entire future rested on a few hours and a few pieces of paper?

Our written quals are subject-based. We have five core courses: Deterministic Models in Biology, Modeling in Biology: Structure, Function, and Evolution, Stochastic Modeling in Biology, Biomedical Data Analysis, and Computational Algorithms. The qualifying exams for those subjects are offered at the end of August each year. Each subject exam can be assigned a PhD pass, a Masters pass (slightly lower level), or no pass. In order to pass the overall comprehensive exams and remain in the program, a student must get at least three PhD level passes and one Masters level pass. Each student gets two tries to get the required number of passes.

It might seem like these qualifying exams are just like final exams, since, after all, they are single exams self-contained in just five 10 week courses, right? Wrong! What I quickly learned when I entered grad school was how much all of these courses built on years and years of knowledge from high school and undergrad mathematics, how much of this knowledge was assumed background knowledge that was required in order to even begin to comprehend any of the lectures. I realized how kind my undergrad professors and TAs had been in taking the time to rehash material from basic algebra 2, trigonometry, and differential equations in office hours in order to help us understand more difficult material. I missed the warm embrace of assumed ignorance, as my graduate school professors were surprised, disappointed, and in some cases even mortally offended if students showed the slightest sign of rustiness in material we should have learned in our undergrad probability theory courses, in our numerical linear algebra courses, and in our complex analysis courses. It was intimidating, to say the very least, and I certainly did not pick up all of the material from the lectures the first time around. Aside from reviewing all my undergrad course notes and textbooks and completing all the core course problem sets on time, there was so much to do and so much to learn during the quarter with research, preparing for group meetings, and neuroscience electives. Throughout the year, the prospect of qualifying exams seemed to be looming over my head. To the put it in the most graceful and delicate way possible, I was terrified because I didn’t know s***.

During the first part of the summer, before my San Diego Pride trip, I spent my days in the lab, partly working on research and partly reviewing and rewriting all my notes from the lectures and the textbooks. After the trip, after recovering for a few days, I collected myself (physically and emotionally) and collected all the books and notes from undergrad that I thought would be useful in order to decode the notes that I had spent the first half of the summer writing. First, I went through all the problem sets that I had already done during the quarter. Looking at the solutions I had written up (most of which I had forgotten by this point), I tried to recall the theorems from undergrad courses I had used, and the corresponding textbooks that would have more detailed information I could review. After finding these textbooks all around the various bookshelves in the house, I went through the sections I thought would be useful. Below is a stack of the textbooks that I used during this process.

IMG_2345

For me personally, I found that the most gaps in my knowledge were in probability and linear algebra, as my Stochastic Modeling and Computational Algorithms classes (both taught by the same professor) took a lot of the theorems and proofs I learned in those courses for granted.

Something I really came to appreciate through studying for these exams was the sheer intellectual brilliance of my professor who taught my Stochastic Modeling and Computations Algorithms courses. He had written textbooks for these courses, and I am ashamed to admit that during the classes, I had skipped over many of the proofs and examples in the book. A fourth-year student in my department and in my lab, one of the few people who entered my program with more of a biology background than a math background, shared some advice on passing this professor’s exams, for someone with less confidence in their mathematical abilities. “Read all the examples and proofs in the textbook. Make sure you can understand how he got to the conclusions. His books are very dense and compact and he skips a lot of steps. Make sure you know how to fill in the gaps.” This seemed like a daunting task, but this older student (bless his soul) also provided me with a 75 page stack of his notes on the textbook examples from the time when he was studying for quals three years ago, where he filled in the gaps, and I could use them as a reference in case I got stuck. For example, my professor used things like binomial theorem and Taylor expansion approximations to condense a lot of the equations, things that weren’t immediately obvious upon first glance. It was a daunting task, and I didn’t get through the textbooks cover to cover. But I got through a significant portion of the chapters that were more emphasized in the courses, and in the end, I felt like a stronger applied mathematician. My eye had gotten better at recognizing when to use these little tricks to simplify expressions and approximate.

One of the courses, the Structure, Function, and Evolution course, was taught by my own PI, which meant it would be important for me to pass this particular subject because I do want to remain in his lab. The interesting thing about his course is that it was not mathematically the most challenging, although there were some complicated PDEs there when we started talking about diffusion and population genetics. During the classes, when we had problem sets due, his office hours would be completely full with students from the course probing him what exactly he was trying to ask with the questions and trying to decode his convoluted wording. According to the older students in our program, the main difficulty about his exam was interpreting the questions. After looking at some of the past exams, I noticed some general themes, as he tended to ask questions that bridged concepts we learned earlier in the class, relating to network theory and geometry, and later concepts in population genetics.

Biomedical Data Analysis was one that I felt least prepared for, as during the class, we had focused a lot on using R to extract statistical parameters from datasets and fit models to the data, but not much on deriving statistical results. Particularly for me, since I did not have much of a statistics background in undergrad, I felt even more overwhelmed by the unfamiliar vocabulary that my professor assumed we had learned in kindergarten. I studied for this one by making a lot of use of statistics videos on YouTube, which proved to be more useful in aiding my conceptual understanding than our textbook. In addition, our professor was kind enough to host a review session at the beginning of August, which clarified some of the confusion I had.

The older students in our department had told us that very few students in our department had obtained PhD level passes on one of the exams, the Deterministic Models in Biology Course. It was taught by a notoriously tough professor with a background in Physics and a joint appointment in the Mathematics department, and many of the homework problems he had assigned didn’t even have analytical solutions. Since my main goal was to stay in the program and I only had a couple months to study for these exams, I followed the advice of the older students and spent the majority of my time on the other subjects, leaving only a couple of days to study for that one.

Before August, I had spent most of my time studying at home, since I did not want to lug all my undergrad textbooks around on campus. However, I believe that in preparation for exams as intense as these ones, it can be very helpful to study with others to get some feedback and test understanding. During August, I spent a lot of my time studying with my classmate Janet* (name has been changed for privacy). She is the only other PhD student in my year and already has a medical degree and had studied in China, where early math education was much more advanced, so I definitely worried that our study groups would end up being her incredible brain carrying a lot of my dead weight. I had declared my major in math late, and didn’t know what proof by induction was until the latter half of my second to last year of college. Meanwhile, she already knew how to apply proof by induction while crawling out of the womb (okay, this *might* be a *slight* exaggeration, but truly not that far off). However, I think we got a really good, productive, mutually beneficial flow going when we were studying together in August.

At first, I spent the whole day studying in the office, but after a while, I realized that being around the older students stressed me out more than it helped. One of my pet peeves was when they would try to quiz me on random facts from some of the courses, shouting at me things like “Hey, quick, under what conditions can you add the powers when multiplying matrix exponential? When the power matrices commute, duh! Those are easy points you’re missing!” Of course, I didn’t know how to conjure these facts on the spot, but I felt that I did know more than it seemed from my blank looks, because after thinking about it for a moment, I could even conjure a proof for that fact. Although these students were well-intentioned, I knew what worked best for me, and it was not being holed up in the office all day, subject to this stressful banter that left me feeling discouraged about my prospects for the exams.

This roadblock turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I soon fell into the easy routine of going to the campus at around 7 am, spending the day reviewing past exams in the Biomedical Library until 3 in the afternoon. From around 3-5 pm, I would go up to the office to discuss these exams with Janet. I found that though she helped a lot with the more probability theory related problems, I was also able to help her a lot with my PI’s convoluted wording in his past exams due to the language barrier. Plus, I felt that after working for my PI for almost a year, I got a sense of how his brain worked and the kinds of questions he was asking. I was glad that I could contribute to these study sessions as well as gain from them. I think this process of studying improved my work ethic and anxiety management, forced me to review individual undergrad courses and bring them together in ways that I didn’t know existed, and improved my confidence in problem-solving. Something I think about a lot is how in undergrad, I took a variety of applied math courses, but learned about mathematics mostly from a theoretical perspective without truly understanding how to apply what I learned to research. I think that the process of studying for these five courses in-depth helped me understand not only what mathematical tools are available, but how to use them in real biomedical problems and why they’re important.

Finally, at the end of August, the exams began. We had three, spaced out days of exams. The first two days, we had two exams each. The first day was Stochastic Modeling in the morning and Computational Algorithms in the afternoon. The second day was Structure, Function, and Evolution in the morning and Biomedical Data Analysis in the afternoon. The last day was just Deterministic Models in the afternoon. For each session, we got a 30 minute reading period, where we could read the exam questions and ask the professors for any clarification about the wording of the questions. Then, the three of us were split off into three separate rooms on the floor. I was assigned the classroom where most of our courses had occurred, which was encouraging because I had read research claiming that recall of material during exams can be enhanced if the exam takes place in the same room where learning occurred (to be fair, though, most of my learning had occurred during the summer at home, in the Biomedical Library, and in the office rather than the classroom). We were allowed to eat and drink during the exams, and the older students were very nice and brought us chocolates and water the day of our first exam.

I will admit that after every single exam, I felt terrible and slightly violated, although none more than the last exam, for which I didn’t even finish half of the questions. The good thing is that for a lot of the exams, it was not necessary to answer all of the questions to completion get a PhD pass; it was more important to show how we are thinking – something I had been trained to do since my elementary school math (“show your work!” is permanently etched in my brain).

After the exams, I took a yoga class with one of my college friends, ran a lot, swam a lot, bought all my textbooks, binders, notebook paper, and replenished pencils for my fall classes, worked on my poster for a quantitative and computational biology retreat where I’m presenting at the end of September, and went to a Diversity in STEM Conference in Irvine where I got to catch up with a friend who is a PhD student there. It was busy, but I needed to keep busy so I wouldn’t keep thinking about my anxiety about the results.

A week later, much earlier than I was expecting, I got the results: I got a PhD level pass in all the exams except Deterministic Models in Biology – I got no pass in that subject. I learned that Janet also got no pass in that exam, and since she’s one of the smartest people I know, in a twisted way, it made me feel a little validated that it’s not like only dumb people get “no pass” or something! (I’m saying this slightly in jest, as I do recognize it as a toxic thought, but it will take some more time to train myself to not have these thoughts.) I will be taking a 2 quarter sequence in Mathematical Physics in the Physics department this coming year, so hopefully, I will fill some of the gaps in my knowledge on that side of Biomathematics. Overall, I’m pretty happy with my results in all the other classes, thrilled that I get to stay in the program and continue working on the project I’ve been working on, looking forward to my last year of courses – all very interesting elective courses I chose because of their relevance to my research – and very much looking forward to meeting all the new grad students in my department (there are five, and mostly other women, by the way, which makes me happy).

This coming Monday is our Department Orientation for the new students, and at noon, there is a potluck where everyone from the department meets the new students. I remember last year, when I was a first-year coming into the department, the Vice Chair announced that both the two second years had passed their qualifying exams. It might seem silly, but during my pre-exam anxiety and habitual catastrophic thinking, I remember thinking about how that if I didn’t pass my quals, it would be announced to all the new entering students, and then I would have to go through this same process again with the first-years next summer. I’m very relieved this will not be the case.

Overall, although I know I will probably forget most of what I learned during this summer, it was helpful for me to have a broad idea about the vast breadth of tools in applied mathematics – knowledge that I will be building on this year in my applied math and physics elective courses. I might not remember the details of how to solve every type of problem by hand, but generally knowing what kind of tools are available, I believe, will make me more informed and better able to come up with ideas to tackle new problems in my research in the years to come. The details are things that I can learn on the fly, as needed.

July 2019 Grad School Life Updates

It’s halfway through the month of July and I realized I haven’t updated this blog since April! There are some things I can talk about in more detail in the future, but for now, I will just give a basic summary of my life updates since the last time I posted here.

First, this spring quarter, the last quarter of my first year of graduate school, was challenging but rewarding in a number of ways. I made some significant progress on my research project, and I feel that I gained a lot of valuable experience in conducting independent research, programming, and data presentation. Although I had a full course load, I tried to set aside enough time to work on research each week so that I would have something to present at our weekly group meetings, and my PI seemed impressed with my progress. He gave me some suggestions for developing what I have so far, but said that during the summer I could think about starting a paper draft, which is pretty exciting. I have been spending a lot more time in the lab and getting to know the other grad students and postdocs who work there, and I feel a sense of community with them much more so than what I felt in my undergrad research group. My course load this past quarter consisted of two neuroscience courses and one biomedical data analysis course. The neuroscience courses were more challenging than the systems neuroscience course I took in winter quarter, but were extremely valuable in providing me with more of the biological background as well as a deeper understanding of how experiments work. I also made valuable connections with my classmates and some of the guest lecturers. I have been continuing conservations with two professors I met through these courses, as there might be a potential for setting up collaborations.

At the end of next month, August, I will have a series of five qualifying examinations, of which I must pass at least 3 in order to continue in the program. These exams are only offered once a year, and students get two tries to pass them. Ideally, I will be able to pass them in the first round, this August, because it will be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, and that way in my second year, I can fully focus on my new elective courses and research rather than worrying about reviewing the material from the core courses. For the first half of the summer so far, I spent part of the time reviewing all my notes in these five subjects, and part of the time working on image analysis in the lab and connecting with neuroscience professors. My plan is that after today, I will completely direct my focus to the qualifying exams. After the last set of exams end in August, I will have almost a full month before courses start for the fall. During that break period, I can work in the lab full time and start thinking about writing a paper draft.

This first half of the summer has been both enjoyable and meaningful and has helped me organize my goals and remind myself of the things that are important to me. Since classes ended, I have been going into the lab during weekdays from 10 am to 5 pm, spending half the time on research and half the time on studying for quals. In the evenings, I had time to go to the gym, run outside, and swim, grab dinner and catch up with friends from college who are around during the summer, hang out with my roommate, play with my dog, and work on some painting. I felt balanced and in control of my schedule, and it reminded me of how much I’m looking forward to when my classes are over and I can fully focus on research during the day and hopefully get a little downtime in the evening. I feel lucky for the fact that both my PI and the postdoc who works in my subgroup seem to be advocates for work-life balance. In undergrad, I spent most of my time studying and working on research, and I didn’t feel like I was taking care of my physical and mental health as much, but coming to grad school, I have come to appreciate the value of balance, both for short-term work efficiency and long-term health. In the next month and a half, I will be focusing a lot on the qualifying exams, and although I hope to continue my workout schedule and play with my dog a little in the evenings, I will probably cut down a lot of socializing and painting during this period. I feel motivated by thinking about how good I’ll feel after passing and how nice my life could be after getting through this initial hurdle.

The past couple of months, I have been a lot more social than I usually am. It is interesting because recently, a lot of people who are important to me have come out to me as members of the LGBTQ+ community, possibly because I have been more out in social spaces and become more comfortable embracing my own identity. I have realized that there are a lot more queer people than I originally thought, and it feels a lot less isolating knowing that I can relate to people in ways that I didn’t know before. One of my friends came to visit me during the weekend when one of the queer orgs I am a part was having a social event in a drag cafe in West Hollywood, and we had a great time watching the show and going bar hopping later. I think I enjoyed the experience a lot more than I usually enjoy those settings because she is someone that I feel very comfortable with and can connect with on a lot of other levels outside just queerness. This past weekend, she and one of my other friends who recently came out to me joined me on a road trip to San Diego for the Pride Parade and Festival. When we were there, we met up with a friend I met through my undergrad research group, and the three of them got along with each other surprisingly well. San Diego Pride is special to me because so much of my coming out process began there, and it was in that city I feel I truly began my growth as a person rather than just as a student. In addition to the parade in Hillcrest and the festival in Balboa Park, I was able to visit a lot of the old spots in San Diego that I enjoy, such as Chocolat, a gelato shop in Gaslamp, Downtown San Diego, The Living Room, a hookah lounge and restaurant in Downtown La Jolla where I spent many days and nights studying during undergrad, and Gossip Grill, the only girl bar I know of. One of my favorite queer female artists, King Princess, was performing at the festival, and it was incredible to watch her live and sing along to the songs that I had heard so many times in my own car.

Another event that I recently participated in this summer was the LGBTQ+ STEM Day, a conference in the LA LGBT Center that connected a lot of universities in California. I found out about it through QSTEM, one of the orgs I participated in, and I challenged myself to participate in the open mic, where people could give five-minute research talks. It was my first time speaking about my research in a setting where most people are not from my field, but I think I was able to connect with the audience. After the talks, an undergrad I vaguely know from QSTEM came to talk to me about his research interests and how they relate to my project. I told him about the PI I worked for when I was an undergrad, since his interests seemed to align well with the focus of that group, and he is considering graduate school sometime in the future. I also ran into a woman I had met three years ago when I was taking a summer class in undergrad. She was taking classes in San Diego during that summer, but she is currently a student in my grad school institution in Los Angeles. She introduced me to some of her friends there, and a few of us ended up hanging out during the fourth of July. Overall, it was a meaningful experience to connect to fellow queer people in STEM and challenge myself to speak publicly about my research. I hope to look into more opportunities to present my research and network in the future, such as conferences and other LGBTQ+ STEM events.

Today, I deleted all my social media apps and am planning to limit my screen time until after qualifying exams, as I would really like to get through them during this round. I hope that I can find ways to stay motivated and enjoy the process of learning this material, as a familiarity with the vast tools in applied mathematics will probably serve me not only for these exams, but for my research progress in the future. During the pride roadtrip, an interesting point one of my friends said was that success is often a result of the combination of three main factors: 1) prioritization of long-term goals over short-term satisfaction, 2) insecurity about ones’ current position and a desire to improve, and 3) a slight sense of elitism. I thought this was extremely interesting and somewhat helpful in guiding the remainder of my quals studying process. Deleting social media apps and limiting hang out sessions and painting are examples of prioritizing my long term goal of passing the quals over short-term pleasure, and the fact that I am not sure whether or not I will pass and be able to continue in the program is an example of the insecurity piece. I think the elitism piece is also interesting, and I definitely believe that some level of overconfidence in one’s natural abilities can be helpful for performance. When I was in undergrad, my grad student mentor once told me about this exercise she saw where women in STEM were asked to write down good things about themselves before taking exams, and it actually helped boost their performance. I tried this a few times and it actually did help improve my headspace before exams a lot. Thus, I think that it will be helpful for me to keep a notebook during my quals studying process, and every now and then try to write down things that remind me of my own strengths, but not quite to the extent that I no longer have the anxiety about passing and the motivation to study harder.

That is all I have for this post – I would post group photos from queer events, but I would like to respect the privacy of the other people in the photos. Hopefully after the exams in August, I can update more frequently and maybe make more science posts about my research process. Until then, I really hope I can get through these quals!

Spilling the Tea: Born This Way

CW: Internalized Homophobia

I grew up trying to please, sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce with my back upright and ready to hang on to every word that came out of my teacher’s mouth. When I asked my mom if I could marry a woman – after all, the curly-haired British twins in our class had two moms – she told me that women didn’t usually marry other women, because if there was no man they would never be able to carry the groceries into the house. Because marriage was between a man and a woman, I was reminded time and time again as my mom squealed words of disgust when the TV showed two women kissing on the lips, or when my uncle said that Netflix should get rid of their Lesbian and Gay genre because it would influence the kids.

But they didn’t have to worry about me, because I was a good girl, I was taking AP classes and didn’t waste my time on frivolous things like hanging out with friends or going to after school peer support groups, because I was busy studying, of course. I wore clothes that covered my legs and pretended that cramps didn’t hurt and counted calories and straightened my long, dark hair every day, because I was a good girl, not like those rebellious girls who would bleach their hair and chop it short and burn their skin with tattoos and eat what they wanted and talk about what they really felt. I chose to be a good girl. I chose not to be gay.

I still remember when my friend and I spent the whole Sunday afternoon at her place, painting our nails and curling our hair as she confided in me about the boys in her life. When it was my turn to share, and when I showed her a journal entry I had written about losing someone I considered one of my closest friends in high school. I remember her peals of laughter as she read, each one like a slap in the face. “It sounds like she was your boyfriend and you guys just broke up or something!” she shrieked in between fits of giggles, and I pretended to laugh along with her, as if I had written the whole thing ironically, as if I didn’t know deep down that I was in love with her and that was the real reason we couldn’t be friends anymore. From that day I understood that sharing the real me was like that recurrent nightmare where you’re stuck standing in front of a crowd of people naked, vulnerable, and exposed.

When I was twenty, my uncle asked my parents if they should start looking for a man for me. They seemed to have already planned out a ten day, elaborate wedding in Jaipur with camels and obnoxiously shrill flutes and intoxicated uncles and aunties. When I came back to visit my high school friends and the only thing I could share about my college experience was school, they told me that they needed to find a man for me. When I tried to tell my mom that I might be only attracted to women, she told me that I was just going through a phase, that I was too young to know my romantic orientation for sure. I was twenty-two years old.  For the longest time I felt that the only way to please the people around me was to find a boyfriend like all the other girls around me. I tried to choke back the revulsion at the thought of being intimate with a man. I tried to convince myself that was what I wanted.

It wasn’t until I was in my last term of college that I began to wonder why I cared so much about making other people happy and why I wasn’t extending the same kindness to myself. I realized that if I didn’t take care of myself, no one else would. I realized that it was okay to say no to things that I didn’t want to do, and I didn’t have to put up with people who brought me down rather than building me up. I didn’t have to try so hard to protect the feelings of people who didn’t think twice about mine. I will apologize if I say or do anything that hurts someone else, but I will no longer apologize just for being who I am.

Sometimes I wonder if my process of coming out would have been easier if there was someone in my early life to tell me that sometimes girls like girls and boys like boys and some people like both girls and boys, and some people are born with a set of chromosomes that don’t match their identity, and that all of these people are simply born that way, not because they chose to be rebellious or promiscuous. Or that sometimes you might love someone with all your heart and they will never feel the same way, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you – all it means is that they aren’t meant for you. That feelings of attraction are natural, normal, and feeling them towards a woman doesn’t make you any less of a woman, or less beautiful, or less deserving of love and acceptance for who you are and not for who others want you to be. That there are women out there who might have the same feelings for you that you have for them, but that there’s no rush to try to find a partner, and it’s okay to devote time to caring for yourself and investing in your future. These were the things I wished someone had said to me, and the things that I am finally learning to say to myself.

April 2019 Grad School Life Updates

I originally planned to update this blog every week or so during school, but as soon as the quarter started, things got super busy and it was easy to put this off. Hopefully, I will be better about it this quarter!

To give some background, ever since I started thinking about applying to grad programs, I knew that I wanted to come to my school and program, Biomathematics. I did a lot of research on different aspects of the programs, and even more after I was invited to the interview weekends. I chose this place based on a lot of factors, including academic fit, future goals, advisors, general feel of the program, location, and LGBTQ+ friendliness of the campus.

The program has been wonderful so far and has even surpassed my expectations. It is a pretty tiny program, only 15 grad students total, so the classes are very small and everyone in the program knows each other. Every Thursday, the grad students, some of the students who work for our professors but are from neighboring departments such as Math and Biostatistics, and postdocs all go to a nearby bar, Barney’s, for “pub night”, where they basically drink beer, spill (metaphorical) tea, and relieve stress. In my experience with the students, they have all been incredibly helpful, friendly, and inclusive. I have been careful about sharing personal information with them and thus have only come out to one person in my program so far. I hope that I can make closer friendships with the other students over time.

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Grad school classes have been an adjustment in a lot of ways. On one hand, there is a lot more material covered per class – there have been times when the entirety of a math class I had taken in undergrad was covered in just two lectures. Moreover, it is impossible to get all the required background simply from attending class, and it’s necessary to do a lot of extra reading. One thing that has been surprising for me is that in my program’s core courses, as well as the neuroscience course I took, it didn’t seem as difficult as it was in undergrad to get good grades (despite the material being a lot more daunting). I think this is probably because in undergrad, there were more tricks on exams that were designed to weed people out, and now, the focus is on learning, asking questions that may or may not have answers, and being self-motivated to seek extra references for more information, but we aren’t being directly or comparatively evaluated for those things.

Another difference is that there is a lot more emphasis on reading papers and critical thinking, such as proposing potential experiments or critically examining the presentation of data and results in published papers. Some of my core biomathematics courses had homework problems that had no analytic solutions, or that there were multiple possible approaches, and the professors just wanted to see us come up with ideas, defend our assumptions, and solve as far as analytically (or numerically) possible. This is obviously quite different from undergraduate mathematics or chemistry classes, where there are standard solutions to most classical problems either in the back of the book or somewhere on the internet! But I suppose it is moving more reflective of problems in research that have not been previously solved.

I have particularly enjoyed the aspect of courses that involve choosing papers to review for final presentations, and it has allowed me to explore applications of mathematics and computation to neuroscience and has made me more excited about research. When I was in undergrad, although I studied in a theoretical physics group that looked at neuron dynamics, I wasn’t sure if I was doing it only because that was the main opportunity that came my way, but not out of real passion. I think I was too stressed about the prospect of grad school at the time to really develop my passion in research. However, I have always found myself drawn to related topics for class projects and during our department seminars. Biomathematics is a broad field, and I was originally considering exploring the statistical genetics route that is popular in my department, but after starting here, I think that my interests truly lie in neuroscience and mathematical physics, and I am now much more certain in choosing my research focuses and courses.

My department has many course requirements (4 core biomath courses, 2 biomath electives, 6 applied math courses, and 6 biology courses), and as a result, unlike some of the more experimentally focused departments like biology and engineering, they encourage us to focus on coursework and passing the qualifying exams during the first year. We don’t have official research rotations, and we don’t have to decide on an advisor until the end of the second year. However, all of my classmates have started working with potential advisors.

Although I unofficially attended research meetings in fall quarter, this winter quarter was my first official quarter of directed research. At the same time, one of my core courses was taught by my potential advisor (or PI, although my friends who are not in science keep thinking I mean “private investigator” when I use that term). He was an amazing lecturer; he wasn’t the kind of professor who continuously spews information while we furiously try to scribble everything down, but he led us to certain ideas by asking questions. One thing I really like about working with him, both through the course and during the research meetings and updates, is that although his work is clearly mathematically oriented (his background is in particle physics – interestingly, just like my PI in undergrad), unlike a lot of mathematicians and physicists, he has a very conceptual and biologically relevant approach. Some people in our program prefer more mathematical rigor, but for me, it seemed to be a perfect blend.

My advisor has done a lot of previous work on cardiovascular networks and the scaling of radius and length of individual vessels across levels of the network. I came to visit him before applying to the program, and when I told him that I was interested in neuroscience, he said that he could imagine the possibility of applying the same methods of analysis to study neuronal networks. Since I came to the group, I have been working on formulating this problem, solving for scaling ratios using Lagrange multipliers (more details about this method in my First Quarter Research Progress post), and analyzing data, both from images and quantitative data from 3D reconstructions of neurons. I have reformulated this problem so that instead of minimizing the power loss due to dissipation, I am minimizing conduction time. For neurons, one of the major evolutionary driving factors is the speed in conducting signals. For example, if you touch something hot like a stove, it would be helpful to have this sensory information relayed as soon as possible so you can pull your hand away before burning it! I have also been reading some papers from the fifties about conduction velocity in neurons and the effects of myelination (fatty layers that provide insulation for nerve fibers) on this speed, and have recently incorporated the degree of myelination as a parameter. I am also looking to modify the space filling constraint to fit neuronal systems, but I am not quite sure how to do this yet. Taking neuroscience courses concurrently with this project is helpful because sometimes I will get random ideas from class that I might be able to translate to math in a way that I can incorporate it into my model. Sometimes, I watch videos of talks by researchers in biology about dendritic morphology and structural neuroscience and feel somewhat overwhelmed, because I am obviously making a lot of simplifying assumptions and not taking into consideration factors such as genetic influences.

Overall, although research is messy and involves a lot of seeking information from various fields, as well as catching up on basic electrodynamics, fluid mechanics, and neuroscience that I never learned in a class, I am enjoying it a lot. This is my first time having my own project, as in undergrad I was for the most part working as a minion, completing menial coding tasks for grad students’ projects. My office mate in my undergrad research group, now a fourth-year grad student in the same group, came to visit me over spring break and told me I seemed a lot more confident than I was last year. Which is strange to me because I feel more overwhelmed and confused the more I learn! I suppose the “confidence” might come from accepting that I don’t know everything, or even a lot, and I’m more comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes any sense at all.

As I anticipated, making friends has been quite difficult for me in grad school. It was especially difficult in fall quarter, when I avoided going to LGBTQ+ specific events out of fear of the unknown, mostly, and just went to the weekly department pub nights every now and then, and spent the rest of my time shut up in my own room. My department mates are wonderful and lovely, but aside from the fact that I am not hugely into drinking, the conversations were centered around heteronormative romantic experiences, and I found myself feeling isolated a lot of the time – especially since I’m not out to most of them. When I talked to my mom about it over winter break, she suggested that I add queer org meetings to my schedule rigidly, with the same priority as classes, just so that I could feel more of a sense of community. I decided that this was a good idea, as mental health is an important thing to commit to.

In winter quarter, I regularly attended two queer orgs. One of these is called QSTEM, or Queers in STEM. It was founded by a second year PhD student in Geochemistry who identifies as a gay man. This org is mostly other graduate students, and the vast majority of them are men, which is not entirely unexpected. I have enjoyed participating in social events such as board game nights and ice cream socials. They also have a lot of outreach opportunities, which I hope I have time to get more involved in as my courses finish up and some time is freed up.

The second org I attended was called Queer Girl, and is only open to women and non-binary people. I was the only one there who wasn’t an undergrad, but was a nice social space to discuss things like queer representation in media (or the lack thereof, especially when it comes to women) – it gave me the opportunity to talk about Shay Mitchell in Pretty Little Liars and a random Korean webtoon I found called “Fluttering Feelings.” There’s definitely a lot I could learn from these women, as they would talk about their sexuality openly, which is something I’ve never been comfortable doing. Being around other women like me helped normalize my experiences a little. One of the coordinators of the group was a fellow Asian woman from San Diego (when I went to undergrad), and it was nice to meet someone I could vent to about missing San Diego and people always assuming we’re straight (being Asian/South Asian and having long hair is a surefire way to convince everyone you’re straight).

One of the social events in this club was a trip to Cuties Coffee, a queer owned and themed coffee shop in East Los Angeles that is designed to be a daytime, sober space for queer socialization and an alternative to the gay bars in West Hollywood. I loved visiting this place so much that I have now made it part of my weekend routine – I go there from around noon to four almost every Saturday to either study for classes or work on coding for research. I have included a picture from that day, and used the rainbow pride flag emojis to cover faces for the privacy of the other org members.

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I can’t stress how important it has been for me to have a queer sober space to go to, as I would say I’m pretty far on the introverted side of the spectrum and I never quite feel comfortable meeting new people in bars or nightclubs. (I still mostly keep to myself, drink my coffee/tea, and study during my trips to Cuties, but I hope I will cross the barrier of talking to strangers soon!). At the beginning of winter quarter, I went to West Hollywood a few times to check out the gay bars and nightclubs. Although I love walking on the main strip in West Hollywood, and enjoyed the experience to some extent, it’s not ideal for me because 1) the bars and clubs are largely catered towards gay men – Wednesdays are the only nights specifically for women, and there are no specific clubs for women, and 2) for some reason, being in these spaces where I’m (theoretically) approaching random strangers who are making snap judgments and impressions about me solely based on my physical appearance spiked some of my body insecurities, and to be honest, that’s not a headspace I want (or need) to be in. Right now, the focus for me is on meeting new queer friends and building community, and I’m grateful for these multiple sober spaces I have had access to this quarter.

Another extracurricular activity I participated in this winter was a club that does educational outreach in the form of presenting posters about various neuroscience to elementary through high school students to get them excited about learning about the brain. I was part of this Committee called Project Glia, which is responsible for designing and creating posters. I really wanted a way to keep in touch with my art – it can be extremely cathartic and rewarding, and I also want to catch up on the neuroscience background I never had in undergrad for my research, so this was the perfect opportunity for me. I designed this poster for “Music and the Brain”, and I was working with two undergrads who did a lot of the neat typography and shading. The director of Project Glia is a senior undergrad who happens to be taking one of my current graduate neurosciences classes with me, The Biology of Learning and Memory.

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One thing I found strange in participating in these activities is that sometimes the undergrads I interact with seem to look up to me in a way, or think that I know things because I am a grad student. One of the students was talking to me the other day about imposter syndrome and comparing yourself to other people, and I ended up saying something along the lines of “Oh, I totally understand that feeling because I used to do that too. But honestly, you can drive yourself crazy comparing yourself to other people – I know because I have done it too, but I realized it was no longer serving me, and I realized I don’t have to be this ‘star student’ to still enjoy what I’m doing.” “That’s SO true,” she had responded sincerely, and meanwhile I was internally panicking during this entire interaction. It was different than listening to a friend, someone who considers me a colleague, and I was suddenly aware of the power dynamic and how much responsibility I had. I think because I’m currently a woman in a grad school program in a related field, some of these women who have goals of grad or med school see me as a sort of safe person to vent to who knows what it’s like to go through this kind of application process and how demoralizing it can be. I was quite nervous about saying the right thing, and having the right mix of relatability and encouragement – all without sounding too preachy or pretentious. When I talked about this later at pub night later with a sixth-year in my program, someone who has significant teaching experience, he reiterated that I have the power to reduce these young women’s imposter syndrome in STEM simply by listening to them and encouraging them. Which is exciting, but also intimidating, because just a year ago, I was that undergrad.

Anyways, that is the (long-winded) gist of the updates of my grad school life over the past quarter. I have some ideas for future, more focused posts, but hope to update more often with these topics as they come up! Until then, I have an exam coming up in my cell neurobiology course, a data analysis assignment, and a research presentation coming up. Wish me luck!