A RefreshED Look Back at STS’s First Year

Sweet Tea, Science, the idea, was proposed by Rachel in November of 2013. However, it was during our annual get together with our wildly amazing group of friends for New Years 2013/2014 that the ball really got rolling over on our Tumblr. Recently, we’ve brought in the New Year once more with some of our favorite, most inspirational people in the world. Among these friends is the creative whirlwind that is J.D. VanSlyke, one half of the voices behind our favorite podcast: RefreshED! He was kind enough to lead this interview so that we may share some of what we’ve done over the past year, and a lot of what we’re thinking for the future!

HUGE thanks to JD for his completely fantastic interview questions. Be sure to tune into RefreshED this year. We are very much looking forward to the times ahead and the opportunities that may present themselves. Please let us know if you have any ideas for potential guest posts or if you’d like to collaborate with us in some way! 

Science Book Club: Ice Whale

It’s time again for an installment of the STS Book Club! This time, it’s a novel of the young adult variety. Perhaps a perfect stocking stuffer for the 11-year-old, nature-lover in your life? Or, you know, your story-loving 20-something PhD student.

My co-conspirators, then and now.  Notice that I have grown in my
appreciation of pants-wearing. 
I grew up on a farm in south central Kentucky with a small expanse of second growth forest rimming the yard and cultivated fields.  My siblings, cousins, and I would spend hours in those woods, building treehouses, turning over rocks, and chasing imagined creatures through the understory.  Mostly, we would pretend that we were surviving.  We would play like we were 100 instead of, maybe, one mile from home.  We had our dogs and we had our “tools” (usually a pocket knife or a hammer), but mostly we had our bravery and our brains.  It’s that same feeling of playing at survival that thrills me about backpacking or long canoe trips to this day.  No doubt this persistent desire to prove myself against some sort of untamed wilderness was inspired, in part, to my childhood reading list:  White Fang, Hatchet, “To Build a Fire,” Julie of the Wolves, and My Side of the Mountain, to name a few.  I rediscovered my love of young adult and children’s novels when I was writing my Master’s thesis.  I found I had less dreams about amphipods if I read before bed, and usually, by the end of the day, I had the reading comprehension of a 14-year-old.  I rediscovered my well worn copy of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and the rest is history.  

“Not hope that he would be rescued–that was gone. But hope in his knowledge. Hope in the fact that he could learn and survive and take care of himself. Tough hope, he thought that night. I am full of though hope.” ― Gary Paulsen, Hatchet

Over the past 3 years, I’ve re-read many of my childhood favorites and also discovered a few new novels in the genera that I truly love.  I’d like to share one of those with you now.  Ice Whale, by Jean Craighead George is a book I read over the summer when I was traveling.  George has a great track record with her writing, as she is also the author of My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves, a novel which won her a Newbery Medal.  Plus, I read on her website she has a memoir for children called The Tarantula in my Purse.  If I write a memoir, I hope the title is half as impressive!   

On with the review!

What is Ice Whale about?

This is an epic tale, spanning families, generations, and two centuries.  The real story begins in 1848, when young Eskimo boy, Toozak, witnesses a bowhead whale being born.  He feels connected to the whale, which has a distinctive marking that looks like a dancing Eskimo.  Some years later, the boy, now a young hunter, accidentally betrays the location of a group of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) to a whaling ship.  To atone for this mistake, the young man and his future offspring are bound to the fate of the whale whose birth he witnessed, and they must protect him till he dies.  Bowheads can live over 100 years, so this initial plot point propels the story through time.  Characters and families come, go, and weave together in unexpected ways.  There are numerous themes: ocean exploitation, changing culture of native peoples, survival, and science!  All the action of the novel is set against the raw beauty of the arctic, an area close to George’s heart and a location she often visited during her life. I really think everyone can find something to love in this novel.   

Why I liked it?

So many reasons.  First, this novel was published after Mrs. George’s death by her two children, Twig (a writer of children’s literature) and Craig (a biologist who wrote his PhD dissertation about bowhead whales!!).  You can hear Ira interview the two about working on the novel on Science Friday.  I love the idea that the author’s interest in her son’s research inspired such a creative endeavor.  Also, as Craig edited the novel with his sister, you know the biology is spot on in the book.  

Second, the whales are characters with personalities, but I’m not certain I’d call George’s approach ananthropomorphism.  Whales have names, but they are represented by squiggly lines intended to represent whale calls.  Whales do not converse so much as share their intentions through the author. The whales live, fear, love, and are aware of other beings. I love this passage about a meeting between Toozak and the whale, which the Eskimo has named Siku. Below, Siku’s name is written from the whale point of view, as a line representing a series of sounds.         

 surfaced to breathe again, saw the boy, and rolled on his side to bring his eye to the surface.  He looked at Toozak and Toozak looked at him, and saw his human-like eyes, with pupils, irises, and eyelids much like his own.
stared long into Toozak’s kind eyes. And something happened between them.”

Finally, I love the science this book sneaks into its pages.  I learned a lot about bowhead behavior, range, and general biology while reading this book.  I also learned some new facts about the arctic.  The conservation message is clear, though I cannot say I 100% agree with it (if you read it, let me know your take!).  On the whole, I think this work stands as a vision of a hopeful future with a strong warning about the follies of the past.  

What could have been better?

The novel spans 200 years, and, honestly, the characters and connections can be a little dizzying.  And for a book with such a complex plot, the writing was very simplistic, stark almost.  Obviously, the intended audience is somewhere between 10 and 13 years of age, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the actual plot would be too confusing for a child of that age.  You could take the same approach my mother always took and read the same books as your kids.  That way, you can discuss it together (fun!) and help with any potential confusion.    

Bowhead photo courtesy of NatGeo
Who should read this novel?

As I said before, this is a novel for middle school kids, but I really enjoyed it.  Once I accepted the sparse writing style, I was really taken with the world George created.  So, I think everyone should read this book!  Maybe you’ve got a child, a case of childhood nostalgia, or you have an overworked brain and just want to be transported.  In any case, this is a book for you!

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out Jean Craighead George’s official website.  For a particularly adorbale side-note, look a the section “On Writing.”

Check out some other reviews of the book here, here, and here

Here is a great NY Times tribute to the author upon her death.  

Check out this NOAA page with some fun facts about bowheads!

If you read the book or plan to, comment on this post!  I would love to discuss it with others!

Is there a Doctor in the House?

I’m over a month into my PhD program and I’m still oscillating between wild, ecstatic optimism and stone cold, stop you in your tracks fear of the route ahead.  Completing a Master’s degree was two and a half years of hard work and setbacks culminating in one of the proudest, happiest moments of my life – successful defending of my thesis. I’m back on track for five more years of the grad student life, but these will be harder, faster, stronger times ahead than before. Good thing I’ve got my Daft Punk pandora station ready to go. My Masters program didn’t entail any qualifying or comprehensive exams so they seem like lofty, impassable goals now. A sentiment shared by my cohort members, but we’ve found that the more information we have the more confidence we gain. We here at STS would like to share what we know about our own roads to knowledge with you the readers so that you guys can find the confidence to face this journey too.

Not freaking out. I am not freaking out. I’m not. 

First things first, what exactly is the difference between quals, comps, and a thesis defense? Well, if you’re in grad school you at least know enough to be shaking in your boots at the prospect of any one of them. As you progress through your PhD program the powers that be (general your advisors) will want to ensure that you’re advancing at the desired pace, thus a few intense, intimidating milestones are thrown at you. The first of these, the Qualifying exam, serves to assess whether the student is capable of conducting doctoral research/scholarship. Quals often also serves as the PhD candidacy examination. Qualification exams are taken early in your program and are often based on required coursework. Once you pass your quals (and sometimes it takes a few tries, don’t worry!) feel free to relax a tiny bit and allow yourself to celebrate! Throw a wild soiree with your cohort! The PhD Comprehensive exam is given by members of your committee once a student has completed the required coursework (generally year 2 or 3, but ultimately depends on your program) and serves to evaluate mastery of the major studied. Sometimes presenting your research proposal can be wrapped up within Comps, as a way so show you have mastered the content necessary to proceed. If you’ve passed your Comps go ahead and celebrate once more! Now all you have left is research, thesis writing, and a thesis defense! It’ll be tough, but you’re in the home stretch. A lot of students are terrified by the time they are fast approaching their thesis defense. A lot rides on that final presentation of research and oral examination by the committee, but honestly once your committee signs off on a date for you to present and defend you’re practically finished already! They don’t want to set you up to fail (it reflects poorly on them as well)! Smooth sailings on through to your doctorate! Congrats once more! You’re a doctor!!

Post Masters Celebrations!

If you picked up on how it sounds like your committee has a lot of power of your progress through your PhD project, then you’re not far from the truth! However, they will also be there to provide you with all of the guidance and insights that you could possibly need. After all, they’ve been in your shoes before and have helped others through your journey. The majority of your committee will be comprised of professors from your department, but if you’re one of those brave souls that goes for a more interdisciplinary approach you’ll likely find members from other departments or even other institutions.  You are in charge of approaching and inviting generally four professors to serve on your committee. Something to keep in mind while forming your own band of professors is that you’ll want to ensure that you choose members that will have the time and resources to help you with your thesis research, writing, and defending. You’ll need to have a close working relationship with these people so don’t be afraid to choose based on how well you foresee getting along with them. A highfalutin big wig in your field sounds great to have involved, but if they have no time for you then maybe it’s best to find someone else to serve instead. You want people who are passionate about being on your team and helping your grow and develop to ensure that upon completion of your PhD you’ll be ready to find a postdoc or a job in a variety of fields!

Workin’ hard with the cohort.

 If you are, like me, at the very beginning of your program with all of these hurdles strewn in your future it can be incredibly intimidating. A lot of doubts can creep into your mind about your ability to gain a mastery of the content, especially if you’ve changed fields! I’ve had quite a few chats with my cohort already about our looming quals at the end of this year. Our department recently changed it’s program for PhD students and we’re the first group to go through this new design! We feel a lot like guinea pigs – the kind that people eat rather than keep for pets! I have dealt with this nervousness by finding out as MUCH as I can about how I am expected to progress through each year. But what has really quelled my quals fears has been talking to my academic advisor and hearing his reassurance that no, the department really isn’t trying to scare anyone off or try and weed us out. They earnestly do want each and every one of us to pass and will provide us with all the resources to do so! Rather, instead of being a weed out process, the qualification exam more serves as a way to ensure that WE are absolutely sure that we want to put in the work necessary to earn a PhD. I’m so grateful that I am part of a large, wonderfully supportive cohort that is already working hard to make sure no one falls behind. If I can recommend just one thing to new graduate students feeling that fear creep in, it’s to talk to your cohort, the grad students that are ahead of you, and professor in your department. The reassurance I’ve gotten from admitting my fears and insecurities to others and in turn hearing theirs has been a tremendous confidence booster!

You can check out my (Meridith’s) Statistics PhD program expectations in the slide included! If you are interested in hearing about Rachel’s Ecology program (she’s in her 3rd year and has just schedule her comps!) you’ll want to keep an eye on our Sweet Tea, Science Tumblr this week! If you are also working on getting your PhD (or Masters!) we’d love to hear how these major exams work in your field/department! There’s so much variety that we can’t hope to cover how these things work for everyone, but go ahead and let your experiences be known down in the comments.