We're a little crazy, about science!

The last project

Today was my proposal defense day and I would like to say it went well. I would like to. Kidding, I think things went okay. I’ll leave that to the handful of people who read my blog regularly to judge. My committee members all thought the work was interesting and my plan of attack was good, so now the real work begins. It’s the last project before I get my PhD.

First, for those who could attend, thank you for the support and kind words. It means more to me than I can say, truely. I hope you weren’t disappointed with my performance and that you learned something fun, interesting, and/or, sad. Spinal cord injury is a major issue and there haven’t been good ways to improve outcomes or treatment, but with a little luck we can start changing that.

For those of you who don’t know how the process works, I wrote my proposal a few weeks ago (here) and sent it out to my committee. My school requires that I send it out two weeks prior to my defense, which I did. Today I did my proposal defense, which involved a presentation where I talk about the work I want to do and lay out the timeline for the next year or so of my life. If you attended, you got to see this portion of the defense.

Then came the behind closed doors talk. That was when I was left with my committee members alone and we spoke as a group in a slightly less formal (but still incredibly stressful) situation. This was where (if you attended), you didn’t get to watch. During that time my committee members further discussed with me the things I would be doing along with any questions they still had. Mostly it was a chance to hear what they really thought about the project without others around, so again less formal.

The feedback I got during this time was very kind. Most were impressed with my thought process and my “super secret technique,” which was nice. I was worried that because I’m firmly in uncharted territory with this project that I may get a few questions about feasibility, but they were all supportive of even just trying. Surgeon-PI, who is far too kind for his own good, suggested that if I were successful this was nobel prize winning work. To which I said I would settle for my PhD. I mean, slow down there, one thing at a time.

After the discussion I was asked to briefly leave the room, at which point my committee spoke about the project without me among themselves. This was thankfully a short period and I got to be in the company of some of my labmates who had left for the previous private talk. Once they finished I got called back into the room and they made the announcement that my proposal was approved.

Really I am grateful to be in this position. It’s been a long journey and it’s not done yet, but I feel a lot better about it than I did even just a few months ago. I mean, I’m still nervous that the whole thing won’t work because that would suck, it would be a dead end, but at least we tried I guess. I’m just happy my committee was on board with the project and signed off on the things I want to do. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s the last thing on my list of requirements before I graduate, so I’m okay just doing the work.

That pretty much sums up the experience from start to finish. However, there was the pre-proposal time when I arrived about an hour early, set up the lab to give my talk, and then frantically paced around the room trying to work off the nervous energy I had. Luckily for me by the time I started my talk I had calmed down enough to make it to the end without having a panic attack or something. I probably should’ve brought extra meds just in case (note to myself for next time!), but I honestly cannot complain about how things went.

Today wasn’t the end, but it was one more step forward.


2 responses

  1. Congratulations, Alex. You made it. No more uncertainty about scope; no more worrying that somebody will pull the rug out from under you. I’m happy to hear you’re feeling better about your degree path now.

    And thank you for inviting everyone. I really enjoyed being a part of that. Me, disappointed? Hahahahaha no.

    Will it be appropriate to discuss the SST in public now, or does that still need to stay off the internet until you publish? I did have a “wait, did I understand that right?” dumb layman’s question that I was afraid to ask at the defense.

    I think it’s intriguing that even the people with really serious spinal cord injury still have electrical activity in their muscles when they try to move. I would have thought things would be more binary (“if the wires are severed, nothing gets through”). I assume that means there’s redundancy or distributed connectivity in the cord.

    I’m glad your committee was kind to you during the closed-door part. When you started saying, “Okay, everybody leave now,” a weird little protective instinct kicked in. “What? I don’t want to leave. I’m supposed to lurk in the background and make sure they’re not too hard on him!” It’s not like I was actually upset, I knew I was being silly. But some little piece of my brain still vaguely felt as if I were being herded away while you got lowered into a tiger pit. I laugh at myself.

    Rest easy. You’ve earned it.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 23, 2022 at 12:27 am

    • Yep, we finally have a final plan going forward. I’m very thankful for that.

      Thank you for attending! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Unfortunately SST will remain “super secret” until first publication. Then we can talk about it. I would’ve happily answered any questions during the proposal defense, but if you want you can either DM me on twitter or email and I can answer anything you want to know..

      SCI rarely (if ever) causes a complete dissection of the cord, so there will almost certainly be some communication across the lesion. But yes, both sensory and motor pathways through the spinal cord are complex and arguably redundant. Sensory pathways in particular are a hot mess of neurons and weirdness, like my favorite spinal tract, https://loonylabs.org/2020/01/28/spinothalamic-tract/ which does things other tracts of the spinal cord do not do (the tract of Lissauer is super weird).

      Haha! Thank you, it went okay though. From here on out it’s more double checking my work and less about testing me. My qualifying exam was more being lowered into a tiger pit though! My actual defense will be very similar in format to what you got to see yesterday by the way, but typically speaking the private session is more about celebrating and figuring out what is next for my career. Thankfully I’ve got some of the short term stuff figured out already, so I’m not worried about that.

      I slept like 10 hours last night, I felt like I had a hangover after my defense, probably from all the stress. I feel much better today though!

      Liked by 1 person

      April 23, 2022 at 11:32 am

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