St-St-Stuttering!

A lot is conveyed through language. You don’t need me to tell you that. Because many of us rely on speech in our interactions with others, we often exploit it to form assumptions about them. Our perceived answers to “How well does this person articulate their ideas?” informs us (although erroneously at times) about this person’s, say, sociocultural background, and it’s thinking about some answers that people probably conjure for me that’s got me feeling down lately. Maybe more than usual.

This is what happens when I speak (especially in class when there are dozens of eyes on me or even one-on-one with a professor when I’m obviously the ignorant one in the situation): I open my mouth; one or two words escape; my brain divides into two parts, one that thinks about what I am going to say next, and the other that thinks, “Does this person think I’m stupid? Is what I’m saying stupid? Does this person think I’m stupid? And if I am stupid, will I always be stupid? Does this person think I’m stupid? Will I forever be saying stupid stuff to brilliant people who can see how stupid I am?”; I stumble on my words; the latter part of my brain seizes the controls over the former; my brain shuts down; and everything goes blank. The desire to communicate my opinions becomes eclipsed by a suddenly urgent need to salvage my sentence on some half-decent note.

Nearing the end of September, Almighty Chem Wizard*, Alex, and I attended this special Writers Fest event at the Chan Centre, which featured author Salman Rushdie in conversation with Hal Wake. (I know, I can barely believe Rushdie was in Vancouver too, and I was freaking there!) After the event, when we were gushing about how intelligent and humorous and profound this guy was, Alex said, “He’s cool because he’s at this level where he talks as well as he writes. It’s like you’re listening to someone write right in front of you.”

I never wanted so much in that moment to be able to do just that, to take all of what I loved best about reading–the diction, the clauses, the syntax–how the careful organization of each of them, and sometimes the deliberate misuse of them, can elicit such intense emotion and debate in and among us–and be able to churn it out so spontaneously, offer it in a medium so tenuous–literally mere reverberations of air–that people would be forced to pay attention to it in a way that’s impossible with text. Much as I love the printed word, there’s something to be said for a form of art that can’t be skimmed, that requires real-time engagement, because it’s not like you can rewind speaking, at the minutest level, a word and have the person not yet hear it.

Long, long ago, I watched a documentary on sand mandalas. A posh voice speaking over scenes of crouching Tibetan monks kept stressing the importance of why the mandalas would be destroyed soon after their completion, almost as if to placate the viewer who would mourn their (tragic) loss, but even as a kid I could never disapprove of the monks’ motives. There’s a lot to be said for work that endures, but the ephemerality of all the rest makes them just as beautiful and just as meaningful, don’t you think? Because when they’re gone, that’s when we realize that we lived in that special, almost miraculous moment in which both our existences collided, and no one else will ever have that experience ever again. And although it’s sad when the things we loved aren’t here anymore, the simple fact that they evoked this pure, earnest feeling in us lends greater credence to their value.

Besides, everything eventually gets lost to the human consciousness anyways.

People are often fooled by high rhetoric. You know how in The Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio is all like, “So may the outward shows be least themselves./The world is still decided with ornament./In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt/But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,/Obscures the show of evil?” when he’s deciding on which casket to open to win Portia’s hand? I totally agree. Yet is it wrong to desperately want this power too, to be able to fool the world with my (currently non-existent) verbal prowess? I admire the people who can speak in class so effortlessly and elegantly, because to me it means that their minds also work that effortlessly and elegantly. Meanwhile, all I’m able to muster is a babble akin to some first grader describing her favourite t.v. show–all superficial: “Um, yeah, I liked the part when Franklin shared with his friend, Bear, because that was the kind thing to do.” Makes me feel like I am a first grader.

Part of what I like about writing is that I get to think it through. I can rise above, say, the limitations of my sociocultural upbringing. I don’t have to be that dumb and dumbstruck student when I can mull over questions as long as I want with no one the wiser, and I can give my response in a well-organized, well-articulated fashion with sources to boot. I don’t have to worry about all the variables that come with the spontaneity of speech. Or maybe it’s true, and my mental dexterity will never match up with everyone else’s, as evident by my sucky speaking and writing, but at least for that one moment, I feel that I get an honest chance to try and be a realer me, a me that deserves to have her opinion heard because it’s a damn good opinion.

Problem is, people don’t communicate through pen and paper 100 % of the time; I know this and I can accept this, but it’s hard to. It is so, so hard. And yet…I can’t seem to shatter this tiny kernel of hope within me that someday, I’ll be able to talk the way I want to. Tl;dr: I wish I could speak like a champ in class and in life.

*Obvs not her real name. 

How to Get Into Research Part 3: Getting Out There

Step 2: Submitting an Application

Some labs will specify what they want in their application, but what all applications boil down to is pretty much this: your transcript (a screenshot of your grade summary off of SSC is fine, no need to pay that fee at Brock Hall), your C.V., and a cover letter.

Most labs require a minimum GPA for you to be an RA (usually 75 % or 80 % and above). If you don’t meet that GPA, you can always try to explain in your cover letter why you might still be an excellent candidate, but please, please don’t photoshop your transcript. You know why.

Unlike what your Planning 10 teacher might have told you in high school, a C.V. is not exactly like a resume. It’s more focused on your academic achievements, and you can get a sense of what I’m talking about by looking up the C.V.s of the PIs you’re thinking of contacting. Yours doesn’t have to be as extensive, though, especially as you don’t yet have your Masters and PhD, ha ha. Stick to the resume rule of being no longer than two pages, and you should be fine. Of course, try to tailor the experience you put on your C.V. to what you think might be relevant for the lab. Previous lab experience is great, but assuming you don’t have that, say, if the lab you’re applying for studies infants and you used to volunteer at a day camp for preschoolers, that’s a legitimate point to note down. At least the PI/lab manager(s) will know that you can interact with people just fine.

Most people forget a cover letter. Don’t! Sure, you can just email a PI/lab manager your transcript and C.V. saying, “Here’s my application, Please consider it. Byyyyeee!!!!”, but why not put in a tad more effort? For your cover letter, you don’t want to write a novel, but you do want to include enough information to convey who you are, what experience you might have that makes you a good candidate, and your reasons for wanting to join the lab. Most PIs should have a website that lists the papers they’ve published. It would be in your best interests to go over some of these papers, or at least the abstracts, and note one or two in your cover letter that you found particularly rad to show that you are actually keen on the research of the lab.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate reply, or even a rejection! I got every response from no replies (this also happened to my friend this summer, so perhaps this is not all that uncommon) to a kind reply about how the PI whose research I was really, really interested in was actually retired (!) and chilling in Papa New Guinea (!!) to a few requests for interviews. In fact, the first interview I was about to have I never got to go to, because later on I learned I needed a lab for PSYC 366, and the lab I wanted to work in couldn’t accommodate. The struggles of applying to be an RA are like the struggles of applying for a job: people get hired when they have past experience in the field, but how are you supposed to get to that point when you have no experience??? My friends, the tough answer is perseverance.

Step 3: Mastering the Interview

Interviews are conducted differently for each lab. Some questions you might be asked are: What are you planning to get out of being an RA? What experience do you have that’s relevant for XYZ, which is a common RA task in this lab? Are you planning to pursue research further after you graduate? My advice? Be honest, and if you really want to be a part of this lab, let your enthusiasm show! In my experience, this is just as much an opportunity for the interviewer to tell you more about the lab as it is for you to convey why you want to be in the lab. Labs need people to run, and it’s best to know from the get-go whether you and the lab are a good fit. Positive feelings have to be mutual.

Step 4: What Next?

There are two kinds of labs; wet labs and dry labs. Think micropipettes for the former and human participants for the latter. As an RA for either of these labs, you’re likely to start out doing administrative work: cleaning, preparing solutions, booking, data entry etc. Take this as an opportunity to explore the workings of your lab a little more, like the people and the research. Once you get a feel for this, if you’re still pretty enthusiastic about what you’re doing, consider asking the PI to take on more work. From my experience, there’s always room for growth as an RA, even if you are just an undergraduate student. I’ve known RAs who’ve taken on actual studies and had their names included in research papers and RAs who have presented in conferences from BC to Texas. If you’re just starting out, consider presenting for UBC undergraduate conferences like LSURC and MURC.

Being an volunteer RA allows you to move onto other positions in the lab that allow you to take on more responsibility. For Psychology/BNS students, you can apply to be a Directed Studies student through your undergraduate advisor. What this involves is taking on your own research project and writing a paper about it, either for one term or the full school year depending on what you and your PI work out. If you want to be more serious about it, consider becoming an Honours student. Conduct wicked science and earn school credit! If you’re more financially inclined, look into becoming a Work Learn student. Get paid to be an RA!

So that’s a wrap! Before I end off this series, I want to say a few things because I can never stop typing, ha ha. (1) It’s never too late or too early to get into research. PIs/lab managers deliberately seek out young RAs (read: first and second year students), because there is potential for these RAs to stick around. If you’re older, that’s not so bad either; you’ve likely accumulated a lot of experience to help you out with the application process. (2) Most labs seek out RAs at the beginning of a term, and some labs even operate over the summer if you want something to do and have less schoolwork to juggle. Keep this in mind when you send off your applications. (3) Some labs are huge and have as many as twenty RAs, and some are small. There are pros and cons to each of these situations. If one lab doesn’t work out because of the people or the research or whatever, you can always try finding another one. (4) You know, I didn’t expect how much I would enjoy being an RA, but it’s really been an eye-opening experience for me. I hope it is for you too if you decide this is what you want to do.

As always, if you have any questions–or even tips of your own, if you’ve been through this–leave a comment! Best of luck!!!

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How to Get Into Research Part 2: Resources

Hunting for labs is always fun. There’s so much cool stuff that gets done at UBC, you shouldn’t bother with applying for labs doing research that doesn’t interest you. Something’s bound to come at you with that “Ooohhh” factor.

Now, being an RA is a huge time commitment. Most labs require 6-10 hours a week and either a full-term or full-school year commitment. You should be confident that you can balance this along with your schoolwork. That said, although some labs may require fewer hours out of your schedule, it’s as the saying goes: “You get what you put in”: a lab that requires more commitment might be the better determinant in what you choose to do in the future. I speak from personal experience here.

Just something to keep in mind.

Step 1: Finding the Right Lab

If you major in Psychology or BNS, you might have already received emails from UBC IT SSPA about RA calls for psych labs. (It really is a good idea to pay attention to your emails, folks!) These emails direct you to the Department of Psychology’s Get Involved in Research page, which is a good place to start hunting for labs, since there’s at least some guarantee that the principle investigator/lab manager is looking for new RAs.

Another resource to take advantage of would be the bulletin board on the main floor of the Kenny Building. Lots of labs that don’t always know how to connect with UBC IT post RA calls there. I recommend taking photos of the postings so you can research their respective labs further at home. (Side note: this is also where you might find info about other volunteering opportunities, clubs, and PAID (!) studies that you can participate in.)

If you’re planning to participate in any HSP studies, ask for the contact information of the researcher. The grad student in charge of an HSP study I once supervised let me give out her email address to participants who were interested in joining the lab.

Also, talk to your prof! I know a lot of these resources concern psych labs, but this advice applies to anyone looking to get involved in science. One of my peers became an RA in her first year through this method. Over the summer, a friend of mine sent out emails to profs who had taught courses she enjoyed, and she eventually scored a lab to work with for her Honours thesis. You know how profs are like, “Come to my office hours! I’m down to talking about anything!”? This is your chance, my friends!

Lastly, if you already have an idea of what branch of research you would like to contribute to, you’re in the best position. Snoop around some UBC departmental websites to get a sense of which labs best align with your interests, then politely email the PI listed. For Psychology/BNS research conducted at UBC, check out the Department of Psychology’s Labs page.

And so the search begins! Keep an eye out for my next post in which I go over how to apply to labs and what you might expect once you become an RA.

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How to Get Into Research Part 1: Preamble

Last year on Imagine Day, I sat through one of those “Welcome to your major!” talks that my undergraduate advisor was giving to the newest cohort of Behavioural Neuroscience (BNS) students. One of the points I remember distinctly from his presentation was when he talked about his own experience as a UBC BNS student and how he had entered the program with absolutely no plans to go to grad school. He’s a professor now, so I guess you know what happened next.

“I highly recommend you take on a Directed Studies project,” he urged us several times throughout his presentation. “It will be a worthwhile experience.” For me, who still wasn’t so sure how I felt about this “Holy crap–I actually switched majors” thing, factoring a Directed Studies course into my immediate academic plans was just way too extreme. Other people, real BNS students who got their major right the first time around, got to have this mythical experience of working in labs, not me, the quasi-BNS student.

I forgot how doubtful I had felt about getting involved research until recently. A fellow research assistant (RA) in my lab had mentioned how pursuing a Directed Studies project had never seriously crossed her mind, because she had always thought Directed Studies students were too smart–smarter than she could ever be, at least. Which is totally false. She’s one of the best RAs of the team, I kid you not. But you know what I’m getting at, right? Oftentimes, the biggest obstacle standing in your way is yourself.

So if you’ve been thinking about getting into research (or whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do, as I’m about to dole out some pretty general ~life advice~) and yet feel kind of nervous about it, just know that if you never put yourself out there, even if it’s at the risk of rejection, you’ll never get to where you want to be. Everyone has a beginning, and you shouldn’t compare yours with someone else’s middle. Try out new stuff! That’s part of the uni experience. If you don’t like it, move on. At least you know. And if you do happen to like what you got yourself into…Well, maybe some attentive students will be listening to your presentation on how you got to where you are in the near future. ????

Okay, so enough of my “You can do it!” spiel. Time for the good stuff. You’ve decided that something new you want to try out this year is to work in a lab. (Maybe you’re dead-set about going to grad school, maybe not. Maybe you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do with your degree, and this may be just the opportunity that will help you narrow down your goals.) What now? Obviously, you have to find a lab first. In the next post, I’ll go over what I learned applying to be an RA for different labs, and hopefully some of what I’ve written will help kickstart your dazzling new future in research!

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A Sick Day

Or rather, sick days. I caught a cold on the Tuesday. The night before, I had worn a hoodie over my pyjamas and, mistakenly, had thought it would keep my warm enough to forgo a second blanket. (I need more blubber, is what my mom tells me.) That could have been the cause, or maybe not, but regardless, I woke up that day with a sore throat, and now here I am, feeling like I’ve done nothing but swallow fish bones for the past few days and my nose constantly dripping. I have taken to carrying a whole box of tissues in my backpack. I haven’t gotten sick since, I dunno, tenth grade? As colds go, this is not the worst I’ve contracted, but I forgot how clouded your head can get. People tell me things, and all of it goes straight through my head like an ragged arrow. It’s like I’m always on the brink of a headache when I try to hold a thought in my head, but that could also be me trying super hard not to sneeze at the same time. There’s so much work I want to do, but maybe I’ll take it easy tonight and have a nap, drink some chamomile tea. Or maybe not.

Goodbye, Summer

Taken at UBC at the start of the summer. Can you guess where it is?

This summer has been so different from the other summers I’ve had.

I didn’t enrol in a course this time, which logically makes a lot of sense but is still a point of insecurity for me. I hate the idea that I’m slacking, but I know there are limitations to my abilities to excel in a course and devote my time to other just as important means of gaining experience. (Yeeeaaaah, I’m a course fiend–there, I’ve said it.)

I did some of my usual stuff: volunteered a the hospital, went to festivals, visited the typical cool spots in Vancouver, chilled at the library (ha ha, yeeeeaaaah, I’m that kind of nerd)…

But I also took on a bunch of new responsibilities that challenged me and made me reconsider what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go in the next few weeks, the next few months, maybe even the next few years.

This summer, I interned for an online magazine, I volunteered for some labs and a program that seeks to educate kids in science, I got hired at a bookstore, I went to China for the first time with my family. I met new people, and some of them, as this summer draws to a close, I might never see again.

I also lost a few opportunities taking on too much beforehand, and at times still regret it. I dealt with some devastating news concerning friends and personal health scares. My fears on how I am an utter moron (because yeeeaaaah, I have low self-esteem sometimes) couldn’t be trampled despite everything, and I went through a couple of bad days. I noticed a bitterness in me that came with the sunshine I always pine for come winter, and for once I missed the calm that comes with the rain.

And of course, there was always the occasional lazy day in which I did nothing at all. And that was nice.

It has been a long and eventful four months. I don’t have any epiphanies to share, because now more than ever learning has become a gradual and tumultuous experience for me rather than an earth-shattering “Eureka!” moment (although I wish, heh heh), but I appreciate the challenges that I took on and overcame and even those I’m still in the process of overcoming.

As a student, the start of September is more like New Year’s than actual New Year’s. I am fearful and excited as always for what’s going to come next, wondering how I might be able to sustain this feeling into the school year of trying to be someone worthwhile.

How was your summer, folks, and how do you feel about this upcoming winter session? ????

Refined Ramblings: Poetry to Make You

Today I want to introduce you to a great poet that I know and her poetry. Her name is Alex Nastasa. We came to know each other when we were both students of Science One, but it wasn’t until the summer following that school year, when we happened to both enrol in the same creative writing class, that I realized the extent of sheer awesomeness that I was dealing with. I mean, this girl had brains and confidence and could sing a pretty damn good rendition of your favourite pop song (side note: if you’re into choir, consider joining the UBC C4 Choral Composition Club, which she founded), but now you tell me she’s a brilliant wordsmith too? Dude, some people have it too easy.

After second year, I saw less and less of Alex as our classes never intersected (she’s a Biophysics major with a Creative Writing minor, I study Behavioural Neuroscience and English) and UBC is just too darn huge to have too many coincidental meetings, but I never forgot how amazing it was to be able to read her work that one summer and to talk about books and authors and craft and the purpose of writing, if there was any.

Just last year, though, a friend pointed out that Alex ran a blog, REFINED RAMBLINGS , where she publishes gems such as these:

Sequence

By Alexandra Nastasa

The human brain fills me with awe. There’s a hint
of lemon and a whole lot of human. I am scared
of the dark
because I do not know it.
I don’t want to think about serial killers
and monsters in the closet
and guns. The thought of going
to space terrifies me. I sleep
like a tranquilized muskrat. I love lilacs
because they smell like cat
pee and comfort. Once, I held someone’s hand;
it was awesome. Someone somewhere
crossed a river, and someone else
died because of it. Never leave the top
off the toothpaste. De ce
nu ai nici un castravete? Never again
will I offer to carry things for whole
groups of other people. Grace is
curling your pinkies in but not
touching the cup.

And obviously my first reaction was to wish I was talented enough to write poetry as beautiful as this and gosh, I was sooooooo jealous, but then I stopped being jealous because as I kept scrolling through all of these lush, gorgeously written poems, all I could feel was: <3 <3 <3. Because for me, those poems were a reminder of what it felt like that summer to rediscover my relationship to writing and, for maybe the first time, what it was like to have friends who also loved to write and read and talk about writing and reading as much as I did. And I was so happy to discover that Alex had never stopped writing for herself, that her writing was more intelligent than ever, and all I wanted was for her to keep writing for a long time so that I could always be inspired by her.

Anyhow, I hope that in sharing Alex’s poems, they inspire you too. Ha ha, I’m such a fan, but seriously, people, check her blog out–and leave a comment if you can! ????

 

Food, in Excess

Apparently there’s this belief that eating too much turkey will make you sleepy. This may or may not have originated from people noticing that after every Thanksgiving turkey dinner, no one wants to do anything but take a nap. There’s a common misconception that turkey increases tryptophan levels, which facilitates melatonin production in the brain, which in turn brings on the drowsiness.

But if that was the case, my entire diet must consist of turkey (which it doesn’t), because ever since twelfth grade, it has been almost a losing battle trying to combat that food coma once lunch time hits. Do any of you have the same problem? It’s particularly bad during the summer when the heat just invites laziness.

The sleepiness you experience after your Thanksgiving dinner is likely a result of just getting stuffed, especially when your meal is high in carbohydrates. It’s true that tryptophan and its relationship with melatonin will make you drowsy, but the best way to get tryptophan to the brain is not with turkey (which has only a moderate amount of tryptophan). See, tryptophan shares this active transport protein with other amino acids, phenylalanine included, to get to the brain. Eating carbohydrates increases the insulin in your body, and insulin moves phenylalanine into storage so that there’s less competition for tryptophan to do its Sandman business in your noggin.

So there’s your fun fact of the day. Science, people. You got to love it. ????

References:

Kalat, J. W. (2016). Biological psychology: Twelfth edition. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Choosing Your Major

For all you first/second years out there, I’m guessing it’s nearing the time when you got to officially declare your major. First off, congrats on finishing your year at UBC. You’ve taken a range of courses that you were either required to do or you picked for fun (while also, hopefully, fulfilling those credit requirements), and now you have to think long and hard about what you enjoyed out of those courses and what you might be okay with never seeing again.

My advice? The latter part can be both the easiest thing and the trickiest. It’s easiest when you know you hate a subject. You can’t like them all, and that’s fine. Don’t kid yourself that you love, for example, labs when they make your palms sweaty and your heart palpitate just thinking about them but you think that the Chemistry designation would look cool. If you like two subjects too much, you might want to consider combining them into some kind of Integrated major if your faculty allows it, or if that’s not an option, there’s always the opportunity to double major or minor.

I’ve had one full year of being a Biochemistry major and another full year of being a Behavioural Neuroscience major. I also double major in English. If you’re thinking about going into any of these, you’re welcome to leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you on what I can answer! And so, my personal rundown on the majors:

Biochemistry

Pros: You get to mingle with the Chemistry kids, you get to experience a nice array of science courses (genetics, mathematics, cell biology, etc.) before even touching the biochemistry material, you have a lot of lab work

Cons: Lots of memorization (which is okay if you’re interested in glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, ATP, etc. but, like my prof once said, will be like a march through Siberia if you aren’t), course load is pretty heavy (even in second year, there is a timetable you’ll have to pick from, and some of the courses seem only vaguely related to your major (e.g. calculus III)), you have a lot of lab work

Behavioural Neuroscience

Pros: The program is small and you have a lot of opportunity to work in groups; the program is flexible in its course requirements, meaning that you can take some pretty wacky electives and still graduate in 4 years; there’s a lot of opportunities to get into research, both in the micro-pipetting sense and the interacting with humans sense.

Cons: Grades are scaled, but this can be problematic because the program is so small and competitive to get in (although the prof does have some power with the averages, and most profs I’ve had are pretty reasonable about where they set the average to be); lots of Psychology courses seem to follow a 2-midterms-and-a-final format, so there’s the possibility of burnout if you’re taking a lot of Psychology courses in one term and you’re halfway through midterm season; the major is rather research-oriented

English Literature

Pros: You get to read super awesome texts you may have never picked up on your own, you get to analyze texts through interesting lens brought up in class or recommended to you by the prof, passing and failing doesn’t rely on memorizing a lot of obscure facts but rather your ability to engage with the material you’ve been presented throughout the term

Cons: You will forever be behind in your readings, what you get out of the class can really depend on the prof, you might not love all the readings but have to get through them anyways

That’s was pretty brief and in no way sums up accurately all of the cool and uncool things of each major, but maybe it will get you thinking in the right direction about what you want to pursue in your time here at UBC. You’ll notice that I repeat some things (e.g. lab work) in both the pros and cons section of a major, and that’s because it’s really dependent on you how you’ll take that info.

Declaring your major can feel pretty binding, and sometimes you might not feel 100% ready even when UBC says that you should. You should think carefully about what you want to do and choose wisely, but remember that your decision doesn’t mean the end of anything. You can switch, you can pursue extracurricular activities, you can take electives…tuum est, right? Best of luck with wherever your university years take you! ????