An Earnest Desire to Save the World

“TEACHER seeks pupil.
Must have an earnest desire to save the world.
Apply in person.” –Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

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As I continue to creep (crawl? stumble blindly? drag myself?) toward the completion of my PhD I have begun seriously contemplating what exactly I want to do when I grow up.  Progress has been slow and circuitous, much like this essay.  But I feel calmer than I did when I first realized “Be an ecologist!” had stopped being enough of an answer.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  

Regardless, I’ve been trying to take steps toward actually figuring this thing out for myself.  A bit of soul searching, a la Chelsea’s advice about a happiness brainstorm, really helped.  I’m happiest when I can travel but have a solid home base to return to, so I’m no longer prioritizing an academic career and the period of post-doctoral transience that usually comes along with it.  I’m happiest when I’m collaborating with lots of different folks who I can teach and learn from all the time.  I’m happiest when I can do public speaking and science communication, and I’d love to find a position where this is encouraged, valued, and incentivised.  I’m happiest when what I am working on makes a tangible difference.    Continue reading “An Earnest Desire to Save the World”

Part 3 – And Now for Something Completely Different


How We Came to be Here – A Story in Three Parts This week STS will be sharing stories of coming to careers in STEM fields.  We hope we can offer three different perspectives on finding your career path, navigating higher education, and deciding how and when your journey needs to change.  We’d love to hear any and all of your stories about finding your calling or your struggles/victories if you’re still trying to figure it out right now.  Please share!  It’s important for all of us (especially those in high school and undergrad) to know that there is no single, best way to approach this crazy adventure.  For Part 1, which is Rachel’s story, click here. For Part 2, which is Chelsea’s story, click here.
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Proof that I am six years old. But that’s, Junior Ranger Six-Year-Old to you. 

I have some impressive posts to follow! I am very lucky to have two wildly inspirational best friends that are both doing such amazing things with their lives. I suppose it’s time for my story. Unlike Rachel and Chelsea, after graduating from WKU in 2009 I took an academic year off to reconsider my options for moving forward. I’d had lots of wonderful experiences during my undergraduate years thanks to my mentor, Dr. Albert Meier. At that point I had done research, internships, studying abroad, an honors thesis, but even with all of this involvement, I still was terribly intimidated by the prospect of graduate school. Albert often reassured me that I could go straight into a PhD program, but to me that seemed like rushing the process. During the time I was working on applications to different programs I was living at home and working at a Red Robin to save money. A lot of my friends had already been accepted and moved onto graduate programs while I still had a giant pile of uncertainty in my future. This was a pretty bleak time for me.

For a while it seemed like every potential path was quickly met with disappointment. I thought I had a position lined up as a research assistant in Costa Rica for a short time, but I believe that graduate student ended up employing a friend instead. A professor that I had been talking to at UC Santa Barbara (close to where Rachel was at the time!), but again disappointment arrived as he informed me he was departing for a different university. It was getting late in the grad school search season and I was scouring the Ecolog listserv and Texas A&M Wildlife Job Board  for any PhD or MS listing that was even remotely interesting at this point. Thankfully, I came across a listing for a fully funded MS level grad program focused on algal research at a Fish and Wildlife department in New Mexico. Now the cogs were really falling into place.

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Plus, Chelsea was in New Mexico too!

Within 11 days I went from inquiring about the posting, to interviewing, to applying to NMSU, to acceptance. All of a sudden I had a plan and only a few months before moving across the country to start working on research that summer. Sure, it was intimidating going from spending most of my time in bed watching Netflix to leading a team of undergrads in designing and conducting experiments, but it sure was just what I needed to jump start my enthusiasm and motivation! I cannot say enough good things about my academic experience during my Master’s. I had a supportive advisor who taught me to be more confident and self reliant as a researcher. I found time to travel and attend conferences. I started taking more and more applied statistics courses which opened my eyes how useful such knowledge was to scientists. By the time I finished 2 ½ years later, I was emerging a much more self-assured, competent scientist.

My research and coursework left me with lots of new questions and motivation, and I was sure of wanting to return for a PhD. However, I once more went the route of gap year, this time with a much clearer vision of how to proceed. While my time in New Mexico was academically fulfilling, I was left a bit drained on a more personal and emotional level. I knew I needed to devote time to myself away from school and thanks to very supportive parents and the low cost of living in Las Cruces, I was able to travel for three months through Europe on my own during the summer of 2013. Even now I’m surprised at the extent that this trip has left such a lasting impression on me. I believe that the double dose of academic and interpersonal confidence was crucial for my next steps towards finding a PhD program.

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Some epic CouchSurfing festival Highland games in Edinburgh during my travels.

While searching for programs I was eager to incorporate my newfound interest in statistics with my established background in biology/ecology. I sent applications to Biostatistics, Biomathematics, Ecology, and Statistics programs, unsure of exactly what path I wanted to take, or even what was available. I even applied to a program at UC Davis which had the added appeal of Rachel’s lovely presence! Penn State piqued my interest when I stumbled across this site for a Center for Statistical Ecology and Environmental Statistics. Oddly enough, this center no longer exists, but I had already applied and been accepted when I found out! I was reluctant initially to accept a position in a purely statistical department, but talking to the graduate advisors, current students, and several professors during my recruitment visit that reassured me that I would have ample opportunity to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach. This was exactly what I needed to solidify my decision. Now I’m in my second semester as a statistics grad student with no regrets about my switch in fields.

I hope everyone has enjoyed our series on our respective paths to where we are now. Navigating life, school, and careers can be rough and we want you to know that lots of people struggle with finding a path. If you would like to share your own experiences, or even guest post for us, let us know! Until next time, check out these pictures of my besties and me at Mount St Helen’s.

Tricks of the Trade: LaTeX

Ok, guys. I’ve been studying as a baby statistician (scienctician? statscientist? ecologitician?)  for a little while now and I’m here to share some of their secrets. Before I started here at Penn State I had a couple ideas about what other grad students in my department would be like. First, everyone would be computer masters of any and all statistical programs: R, SAS, others that I hadn’t even heard of yet. Second, they’d all be completely on top of everything in all of our classes because they all would’ve completed undergraduate and master’s programs also in statistics. And thirdly, it’d be really hard to relate to other students because of my background in biology and my love for the outdoors (because clearly they’d all prefer sitting inside in front of their computers, right?). Thankfully, I was way off base and not only am I not left in the educational dust, but my cohort is full of awesome students with a wide variety of strengths and abilities. And I must collect them all. Yea, my new goal is to be like some sort of awesome Anna-Paquin-as-Rogue statistician and glean all of the amazing abilities and knowledge while I can. Except I think I’ll stick to taking the time to learn and practice things…instead of the whole touchy hurty thing she does. One of my absolute favorite new acquires is the ability to write code in LaTeX.


Another one of my pre-stats misconceptions was that whenever you saw an equation in a journal article it was created with Word’s super difficult equation editor.  Hopefully I’m not the only one who thought this, because now I feel really silly (Editor’s Note: I assumed mathematical witchcraft, so joke’s on me really.). LaTeX is a document preparation system for high-quality typesetting often used for technical or scientific documents. Long story short, you could be creating completely badass documents with lots of equations and badassery like these: [Homework with R Code, Homework with crazy stat stuff!]. I received my intro to LaTeX during one of the Cohort Workshops I have been arranging on Fridays for my department. Another grad student gave us a very brief introduction and showed us some of the basics. A few downloads, a bunch of googling, and several hours of practice later (not to mention an uninstall and redownload…) I was really starting to get the hang of it! Anyone who’s learning to program knows that you experience some of the most frustrating moments during that initial learning curve. WHY WON’T YOU JUST COMPILE AND SHOW ME A PDF OF MY NAME AND ‘HELLO WORLD’? I DID EXACTLY WHAT YOU TOLD ME…*deletes comma* Oh…well then. BEHOLD MY BRILLIANCE! FOR I HATH CREATED A MASTERPIECE!

I would like to encourage everyone to give it a go! I can answer basic questions, but I’ve found that the vast majority of my own beginner’s questions have been accomplished through a few key resources, including the Great Googily Moogily. Behold your starting point!

What to Download
  1. Tex – LaTeX is actually a sub-entity of Tex, sort of like Git and Github (which I also am just beginning to understand!) So you’ll actually need to download Tex in order to run LaTeX. Unfortunately, there are slightly different versions for Windows and Mac users but both deal with the same underlying program (if you run anything else, my apologies for being completely unaware of how to guide you).
  2. An Editor – The Tex download comes with everything you absolutely need, but I like using an editor for extra pretty colors and the option to code for other programming languages. I like working in Aquamacs, which is the Mac version of Emacs. (Update: I now use Sublime Text because Aquamacs kept giving me unhelpful error messages and I wasn’t having none of that.)
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Full disclosure: this took me a WHILE!
What to Try First
  1. Hello, World! – Your first task is to just compile and create a PDF file with the most basic of greetings. I used this website at Art of Problem Solving. Even still I spent way too long before I got my first code to compile and PDF produced. It’s a glorious achievement!
  2. Do a Homework in LaTeX – This is not applicable to everyone and for all classes. But if you have a math or stats course where the homework isn’t too intensive consider completing it in LaTeX! One of my professors even wrote lots of handy coding tips on one of my homeworks that helped me a lot the next time around. I love being able to feel accomplished at writing up a nice, clean looking final version even if the homework is crazy difficult. Helps me keep those imposter thoughts at bay!


Next Level Stuff
  1. Update your CV – This was one of my recommendations for our Motivation blog post last week. I used this one from Bradley P Carlin and you can check out my final form!
  2. Write and submit your next manuscript using LaTeX! – Now, I’m nowhere near this stage of my program but I’d wager that quite a few templates or style formatting guidelines available for submitting a paper using LaTeX! Go, go, go!
  3. Combine with RStudio to work with knitr and sweave to produce LaTeX documents with R code  and results spliced in!


Basically part of my grand PhD scheme is to master a lot of the computing and presentation side of statistics so that I will be a valuable asset and worthy of ALL the jobs. At least a few options after graduating will be worth the toiling away finding that stray comma or misspelled command. Now that you’ve heard my favorite new tool I’ve learned so far please share yours! Or even if your favorite is also LaTeX tell me all the little tricks  you’ve picked up! I want all the tricks!