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.

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:

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.

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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.

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!

Introduction

Hello to everyone reading this!

I am a first-year grad student in California, and I decided to create this blog to document some of my experiences on this path working towards becoming a scientist. I would like to use this page as a record of some of my ideas in research, as well as some personal reflections about research, classes, teaching experiences, social experiences, and pursuing hobbies.

My department, Biomathematics, is a small basic science research department within the school of medicine. It focuses on theoretical, computational, and statistical modeling in biology and biomedicine. My research interests are in neuroscience, and the project I have been starting to work on this year focuses on applying tools from physics and applied mathematics to model neuronal networks.

I started college as a chemistry major, but after a while, I realized that while I loved the theoretical side of chemistry, experiments were very much not my strong suit. I changed my major to mathematics/applied science, which allowed me to take theoretical chemistry classes along with a set of courses in applied mathematics. I have always found myself interested in neuroscience, and in my last two years of undergrad, I worked in a research group that studied neurons and neuronal networks from the perspective of theoretical biophysics. There, I picked up a lot of skills in programming and applied mathematics. More than anything, I learned how to find the background information I need for a given task, which has been tremendously helpful transitioning into graduate school. 

Aside from curiosity, my main motivation to study neuroscience comes from a desire to improve our understanding of the brain and mental health from a quantitative perspective. Mental health diagnoses are often based on self-reported qualitative data such as questionnaires, which are imprecise and very susceptible to bias. I believe that a greater understanding of the brain and cognitive processes from a theoretical perspective could not only better inform diagnosis and therapeutic intervention, but could reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are often not taken as seriously as physical illness. As a result, many people suffer in silence and do not seek the treatment they need. A greater understanding of the mechanistic aspects of cognitive disorders is, I believe, a step towards recognizing the biological basis of mental illnesses and validating the health concerns of those affected. It motivates me to think about this as a long term goal, and that my studies in science are not only for my own benefit, but towards the benefit of society as a whole.

During my free time, I like finding content on the internet, in the form of blogs, art, and youtube videos. Since school is obviously a large part of my life, I like content about college and graduate school. I have found some content about life as a STEM student in graduate school, and I have felt a sense of inspiration and motivation from watching others working towards their research goals while simultaneously pursuing their hobbies. However, since my field, the interface between biology and mathematics, is relatively new, I rarely find content from students who are studying similar things that I can relate to. So I decided that if it doesn’t already exist, why not create it?

I believe it will be helpful for me to have a record of my progress in learning the material I need to know for my research, and writing things out in a pedagogical way would probably aid my own understanding of the things I’m learning. I also think that it will help me hold myself accountable, not only for my research progress, but also towards personal goals and hobbies, such as drawing and painting, swimming, dance, making new friends, and putting myself out there in the queer community.

It is likely that this blog will mostly be for my own record, and maybe some of my friends who might be interested in what I am doing. However, part of the reason I found it difficult to identify with other people in STEM is that I am often surrounded by peers who are very different from me. I have often benefitted from meeting other women, people of South Asian origin, and queer people in my field, and I know from my own experience how important representation is. I would love to know if anyone relates to any part of my experience, so please do not hesitate to contact me.

Here’s to a fruitful new year, and I am excited to begin this new journey.