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365 Days of Academia – Year two

Analysis fails

I’m an idiot. So for the past few weeks I’ve been working with our super fun new dataset! Like a big kid, I did the statistics, made the checks to ensure that the assumptions held, then got my result. Everything was going well until I realized there was a typo (here) in my code. Well it turns out that wasn’t my only problem, but everything should be fixed now… should.

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The promise of tomorrow

We’ve reached the end of the 365 days of academia project, year two! Last year I wrote in depth about my past and in particular my suicide attempt (here). At the time it felt like a good way to wrap up an entire year of basically pouring my heart and soul into this blog. Writing every day for a full year, I didn’t think I would do it and now I’ve done it two years in a row (minus when I was trying not to freeze to death!). Since last year we looked back, today we’ll talk about why I’m alive. The short answer is in the title of this post, the promise of tomorrow, but I think I can explain better.

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A look back

What a journey, two years ago exactly I decided to start what I called the 365 days of academia project. It was an ambitious goal to blog, every. single. day. for a full year. Then in what felt like no time at all the year was over. Having a daily chronicle of my thoughts and knowledge is just as much for me as it is for all of you. It’s nice building a little archive of my journey and tomorrow will be the official end of year two. A year feels like a lot of time, until you hit the end of it. Like they say, the hardest part of any journey is the first step. Well, we made it to the end of yet another chapter, so let’s talk about it.

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The stress of change

When I think of change, I think of fall. Maybe it’s an apt time for a change in my life then.

I’m used to things changing. In fact, when things are static it’s actually slightly scary because I never had a stable life growing up. Things were always in flux, from what state I lived in to what school I went to, every few years it was time for a huge change. But things are different now and I prefer consistency, I try to live a structured life. Even if the only reason I do is to keep things simple because I feel like I’m constantly rushing around trying to get stuff done for my degree.

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A funeral is for the living

The steady climb of the death toll from the pandemic is once again ramping back up as more people are exhausted from living like… well like we are living in a pandemic. Misinformation and outright lies are being passed around as truth. What’s worse is the people arguing that COVID is not an issue treat the incredibly high and incredibly senseless amount of death that is a direct result of callous disregard for others as an acceptable price for the right to be selfish. I saw enough senseless death in the military to want to be the direct cause of more. But maybe that’s just me.

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You still need to wear the damn mask

I know, it’s been a long pandemic. I’m tired, your tired, so, so many people are dead. It’s a lot, hell it’s a plot of dozens of horror movies, but it’s not over. So once again I am begging my lovely readers to wear the damned mask. I know there is a lot of confusing information out there. Some of it says don’t bother with the mask, some tells you wear one if you’re not vaccinated, it feels mixed signals sure sure. Well let me make it incredibly simple, wear the damn mask. You put on pants when you go outside, wear the damn mask.

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A leap of faith

Well I did something today that I will not be able to undo. Since I have a policy of honesty with this blog, I will admit that I’m scared. I don’t like taking risks, but I didn’t have a choice so now I’m going through the grieving process wondering if I’ve made the right call and how quickly I will end up regretting it. I had a choice, I made a choice, and now we wait. It’s a leap of faith, one I’m not sure I am ready to take.

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The R21 Result

Well I’ve been meaning to write this for a bit now, but the R21 I helped write back at the beginning of the year was not funded. It was a longshot and my Co-PI who helped write and submit the proposal was not surprised as to the result. Worse, it was not discussed. Since I’ve spent the past year learning the hard way how grant writing works, I figure today I can pass on that knowledge and we can who knows, maybe it will help others who are grant writing.

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Countdown to the grant submission

We’re just days away from the deadline for the grant I’m writing. We’ve got an awesome team of people that have agreed to be a part of this project and the funding will go towards the big idea I had several years back (what I’m calling my “super secret technique”) so I’m excited! My main-PI thinks the proposal has a good chance of being funded and I trust his judgement since he’s been doing this for a long time. So today I figure I can brag about the team and what will happen in the next few days.

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An unfortunate typoo

Yes, the title was on purpose. No, I’m not thrilled at the moment. Sometimes you just need things to go smoothly, but life has other plans and yesterday I hit one hell of a stumbling block. The good news is I’ve caught it, but the bad news is there is now about 104833423x more work for me to do to fix the issue. No matter how careful you are, something is always going to get missed, yesterday was just a reminder that you can miss things even when you’re paying close attention. I may go as far as to say, especially when you’re paying close attention.

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Why is it always a rush?

Well my latest grant is due at the end of the week, so I am now just a few short days away from the deadline and rushing to meet it. There has been plenty of time between when the proposal for funding went out and now, so why does it always feel like things are last minute? It probably has to do with the iterative approach to writing and the edits that go on forever. Since I need a break from scientific writing I figure now would be a good time to talk about the process and why a far off deadline is never enough.

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The other funding options

I think I would describe my life as controlled chaos. It’s a delicate balancing act of stuff I need to do, mental health, physical health, and just my horrible luck in general. For the past few years my level of panic has been steadily increasing as the end of my funding was getting closer and closer. Try as I might, I have had no luck getting further funding for my PhD and in less than four weeks that dreaded deadline will be here. Which for those who are not students, means I will not be getting paid, my school will not be paid for, and the house of cards I’ve built will come crashing down around me. But there’s still some hope…

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Yet another grant…

The search for funding continues! We’re less than a week away before I need to submit my latest attempt at securing funding for my PhD to the end of my degree. Right now we’re running out of time and in just a few weeks I could be without pay, without tuition reimbursement, and basically on the verge of being homeless again… my how the tides turn. Not to fear though, I’m not doing this alone and I have options. Today we’re going to talk about the grant I’m writing, why it won’t help my current situation, and why I’m still going to do it.

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The final day of summer internship

Today marks the last day of the summer internship for our early career undergrad researchers. On paper, it’s been a long, sometimes bumpy road that wasn’t always the easiest thing to work through. In reality, it was all too short and it feels like we just got to know our interns and now it’s time to say goodbye. Through the experience I’ve got to watch the intern I was mentoring grow as a person, and grow more confident in herself. It’s been a privilege that I got to be a part of this.

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A small celebration

Salted caramel apple empanadas covered in cinnamon and brown sugar, the result of my labor of love (and frustration)

It’s my Co-PI’s birthday and to celebrate I’ve been busy. The rest of the lab took care of getting a cake and hanging the decorations. Since I split my time between two labs at the moment, I wasn’t around to help and I felt slightly guilty about it. I like my Co-PI and even though he’s (probably) leaving soon I at least wanted to do something nice for him. So in spite of all the work I had to do I got to baking.

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A surprising request

Basically the same face I made when he asked…

Well yesterday was unexpected. I got a phone call from someone I wasn’t expecting to ever hear from again. My former classmate who I wrote the journal paper we just finished reviewing and resubmitting. It was unexpected because after we submitted it the first time he sort of dropped off from contact (despite the back and fourths with the other people on the paper). He was asking for a reference for a research position and I said I would do it, but I was a little surprised given our history.

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So you want to email a PI

It’s that time of the year again, people are gearing up to apply for graduate school and with it a flurry of things to get done. Graduate school isn’t for everyone, but if you’re planning on making the jump, now is the time to lock in the schools you want to attend. More important than the school is the lab you want to work, you have looked into the labs at your dream school… right? Finding a good PI (primary investigator or the boss of the lab) is, in my opinion, even more important than getting into that dream school of yours. So buckle up and we’re going to talk about how we find the perfect lab.

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The end of summer internship

Well today wasn’t the official day, but we had our first presentations for the summer internship program. Friday will be the last day for the interns and we will bid them farewell and good luck with whatever they do in life. The presentations today were meant to be fun and just a way to celebrate everything the interns learned while they were with us. We got to see work done in all the labs and the experiences were varied, so that made for an interesting time. Basically summer is near the end and it’s a little hard to process to be honest.

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The hunt for knowledge

Sometimes science is like digital archeology. Thanks to the internet I have the sum of our collective knowledge at the tips of my fingers. I just need to ask the right question and I can find the answer. Unfortunately, the right question isn’t always the question you come up with. The right question may not be worded the exact way you think it should. The right question may not even be the right question at all, it’s just the first in a long list of questions you need to work through. In a digital world, we’re still stuck looking for ways to get the answers to questions the system may not understand. I’m on a hunt and so far I’ve been fairly lucky.

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Juggling papers

It finally happened, it’s the big deadline, or at least most of the stuff I have due is due pretty much right now. I’ve been working on three different papers, and now I have a fourth added to the mix that I sort of forgot about until my Co-PI asked me to review the work we did in that paper, so yeah a lot going on at the moment and it’s all basically writing. So of course I’m working hard on writing… this. The truth is I need a break so I figure blogging would be a good distraction while still feeling like I’ve accomplished something. It beats doom scrolling twitter until the entire day has passed me by.

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Nothing like the first time

There’s nothing like your first time. The first time you accomplish something is new and exciting. Feelings that are hard to capture a second time, much less repeatedly. It’s a magical experience, especially when the first time is good and can be a powerful memory to hold on to no matter how badly things go. When it comes to presentations, in my opinion, everytime is the first time and that can be a point of nervous energy for a lot of people. Next week is presentation time for the summer interns, for their the first time, ever.

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The complexity of biology

Why couldn’t things be simple? Maybe you would take a measurement and have the correct value every time. Or you would perform an experiment and get the same result no matter what. The human body is an amazing feat of engineering by evolution. It’s layer upon layer of stuff that all work together to do the thing that needs to happen. The fact that it works at all is amazing, it’s like throwing a bunch of computers into a room, shaking it, and out comes a fully working robot that’s more advanced than anything you’ve seen.

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The big presentation

It has been a day friends. Yesterday I got an email from my main-PI asking me about a funding proposal I’ve been working on and when I responded I asked if we were having our lab meeting this week since the last two have been cancelled. He said yes and he mentioned that today would be the day I presented the work I’ve been doing with my project. Thankfully I was ready for it, but it was pretty stressful and there are some changes that need to be made. Overall the lab seemed pretty impressed by the presentation and the work I’ve been doing.

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No tree survives alone in the forest

From season 2 of The OA

Humans are odd creatures. We have weird quarks that make us want to organize the world in ways that make no sense. In this case I’m talking about trees. We have this thing about planting trees in straight lines. I think it’s because it adds a touch of order to something so organic and wild. Being the tiny insignificant things we really are, we cling to that order as a little reminder that we are something special. We don’t often acknowledge the idea that plants are living and intelligent things because they act so differently than things we prescribe intelligence. Put bluntly, the things that act like us. In reality, from what we can tell, trees talk to each other (more) and they know that there is strength in family because the truth is, a tree falls alone.

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The long goodbye

It’s not official, but it kind of is… my Co-PI and I will be parting ways unfortunately. On one hand I’m happy for him, he’s found a better opportunity to help him grow and progress his career. We don’t do research for the money, but we do it for the adventure. We do it for the help we can give people. We do it for the discoveries and friends we make along the way. He has a chance to grow and it looks like he’s taking it. We worked together for over two years now and I didn’t expect it to be coming to a close anytime soon, but plans change and I need to change with it.

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Intro to MATLAB – Part 5

Well we’re doing it. We’re adding to the MATLAB course I taught. Today we’re going to dive into functions, more importantly why you may want to write your own function, when you probably don’t need to, and how to tell the difference. This of course was inspired by the stuff I had to do the other day and when I realized I should just stuff everything into a function, life became a lot less complicated. Don’t worry, functions are your friends!

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The value of planning your code

It’s no secret I need to write code, a lot of code. A mind numbingly large amount of code. Researching in a brain-machine interface lab is more about programming than it is about scifi brain hacking or anything the latest techno-thriller movies would have you believe. Anyone can do it, but it takes a certain amount of practice and a whole heck of a lot of time. Over time your skills develop and things get to be easier, but it’s not a linear progression (is anything really?) so things can be frustrating. These days planning saves me tons of time and effort, so today I want to pass that bit of knowledge on to you.

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Programming overreach

This is what happens when I try to get fancy with the work I’m doing. I end up attempting to do things that aren’t done easily or if they are done easily, I figure out the hardest way possible for me to get them done. A week or so ago (here) I was excited because I came up with a super cool way to do something and I thought that the hardest part was behind me. Oh how wrong I was… but I’m close to figuring this out, I just need to do a lot of work to dig out of this hole I threw myself into. This is why you should never do anything fancy!

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A five dimensional pain

This is what it’s like working in higher dimensions. Oh is it moving? It shouldn’t be, this is a still image. Welcome to the mountain of madness!

We’re back and this time working in five dimensions! But wait, we’re not done, we’re going higher and I’m not thrilled about this at all. Working in higher dimensions is a pain especially when we’re stuck in a three dimensional world. So what am I doing in a five dimensional space? Well besides pulling my hair out, I’ve been trying to do some not so basic math to find some significance, in life, but mostly in my data.

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Sometimes the progress is slow

Today has been incredibly busy, but incredibly frustrating. So far next to nothing has been accomplished towards the work I have to do, but I did help a few people out and we discovered some interesting issues with some software the lab uses. Okay not issues exactly, it just doesn’t work the way we thought it did. In any case, there has been a lot of running around and doing things, just nothing productive for myself. Some days are like that though, hopefully I will have better luck tomorrow or maybe even later tonight.

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More competing projects

Were does the time go?! I have no time left to get my projects done and yet there’s still a lot that needs to happen. Today is one of my semi-famous lists of stuff I need to get done in an outrageously short amount of time. Didn’t we just do this a month or so ago? I think so, but here we are counting down yet again to the newest set of deadlines and as with all my deadlines they clumped together and fall at what amounts to the same time. Don’t believe me? Well let’s take a closer look.

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I’m still afraid to open my eyes

There are some events in life that will forever change you as a person. I’m not the person I was when I went into the military and I’m certainly not the person I would’ve been had I chose not to enlist. Some things just stick with you for your life. This isn’t a military story though, I don’t particularly like talking about those days. Instead this is yet another story of my transition to civilian life and how difficult it was to make the leap. How even now, the stability I’ve found is only just so.

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An uncertain future…

Surreal door made from a question mark.
Surreal door made from a question mark.

My funding is about to run out. There I’ve said it. The problem is I cannot afford to live without the funding I get from school. If I don’t find someway to gap the issue I could quickly find myself homeless, or worse. I’m trying not to panic, but it is just a little scary to be getting so close to this invisible end. Both my two PI’s have offered workarounds, which may or may not happen. There are some good options, but those may be off the table. It’s complicated, so let’s just lay it all out.

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Midway through summer

Well in about a month and a half we’re going back to school! Wait… oh no. Okay the good news is I’ve accomplished a lot this summer! The bad news is I had no time for myself yet. That will change though, I plan on taking a few weeks for myself right before classes start back up again and since we’re at about the half way mark, I figured today we can look at what I’ve done and what I plan on doing. Today is where I force myself to take a damned break… eventually.

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A unique figure design

Over the past few weeks I’ve been hard a work making a new visualization for some of the data I’d recently processed. This again is for the project I won an award for (here), and while I’m not trying to brag, I’m super proud of how it came together. It was the first time I tried to do something like this and not only did my main-PI give me his approval it sounds like a lot of people from the lab were impressed with this as well. Unfortunately, I can’t quite give away what I did or how I did it, but I can share some of this.

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Initial results!

Okay I’m excited! I had a project my Co-PI offered me for the summer that I really, REALLY wanted to do (this one). We’ve been slowly collecting data and haven’t had a chance to do a detailed analysis of the result yet. It looked like we had something cool, but we weren’t sure what it was. Our data had a lot of noise in it (which is a given when working with EEG) and we needed to clean it to give us a better “view” of what was going on, so yesterday I sat down to do just that…

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Conferences in a pandemic

I’m vaccinated, I got vaccinated back before most of the public could because I work and do research at a hospital. Because I work with a vulnerable population, some of whom cannot be vaccinated, I still take the pandemic very seriously. I wear my mask like I wear any other piece of clothing and the hospital understands this risk because unlike schools and other places in the area, masks are still mandatory. It’s not just a vaccination issue, it’s that vaccines are 100% effective and not everyone can be vaccinated or has access to get vaccinated. So when my favorite conference came around, I was torn about attending… was.

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I’m teaching solid modeling, again.

The lightbulb from my last lectures, you can make one too (here)!

Well I got a surprise email from my main-PI yesterday reminding me that I was teaching two classes this week. I knew it was coming, the surprise was that the summer courses are still going on, I haven’t gotten a single email about them since I taught my intro to MATLAB class. Normally when I teach I put all the information out there on the web for all of you to use it how you see fit. This class isn’t going to be that way, but there’s a good reason for it.

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The big brick wall

Art by the incredibly talented Lora Zombie (who will never read this, but her art really helped me)

No one likes to think about dying. Death is one of those things that is taboo because we’re alive and don’t need to worry about that sort of thing right now. There’s too much to live for to worry about death, so we tend to ignore the big brick wall we’re headed right for. No one lives forever and frankly I’m not sure that I would want to even if I could, but I can’t help but think about what happens when I get closer to that wall and what life will look like before the day I hit it.

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Working in higher dimensions

Imagine if you will, only being able to move along a straight line. You’re now in one dimensional space. But wait! What if we are allowed, quite literally, to take a left. You are now allowed to move along a square space, this is two dimensional space. We can do better, though. You suddenly can move up and down, traveling in an area that’s the shape of a cube! You’re now in 3D space. Then suddenly you disappear from view, but where did you go? Welcome to the fourth dimension, you can’t see it, you can’t imagine it, but we can do math here and above!

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Finishing a project… maybe

Today is the day! Well, maybe today is the day, I’m hopeful though so let’s go with that. Today is the day I finish the analysis of the data I collected a while back for the experiment I wasn’t super thrilled about doing. The one I got an award for doing, funny enough (more). This project was a huge headache from the start, but I’m finally about to do the last bit of the work on the analysis and then all I have to do is write the paper. So let’s talk about what’s going on.

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Experimental limits

Well this is turning into a drama, but we keep having issues with the experiment. There are once again changes that need to be made, we’re four out of ten planned experiments into the project and while we’ve done the first four the same way, we keep trying to adjust our testing to a slightly different version of the protocol and it’s running into… issues to say the least. There are some things we just can’t accomplish using our testing paradigm and we have to accept that, but we still try to push those limits, even if it hurts.

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Changing the experiment

For the past few days I’ve talked about the importance of experimental design. Well sometimes midway through you realize a better way to do things. That was yesterday when I realized the thing we were looking for in our experiment could be found a better way. I’m not thrilled about this, but sometimes it needs to happen and I think we will have a better chance of finding what we’re after if we do it this way.

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Technical problems

While people worried about the robot apocalypse, I’m not. If I need to randomly turn my router off and back on again for it to work properly I doubt Skynet will somehow gain sentience and take over the world without someone needing to go in and reboot it from time to time. Technology is an imperfect thing, like biology, but we expect technology to be better than us at what we need it to do. Today we spent almost an hour doing a little dance with the technology in the lab trying to get all the pieces to play nicely. The robot apocalypse will be short lived.

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We meet again, figure 1

If you’re new around here, I’m working on a handful of papers all at the same time. Five in total, all first author journal papers. For those not in academia, that’s a lot. I don’t know how this happened or why it happened, but here we are. Two of them are basically finished, two are just starting, and one will (hopefully) be started soon. Which brings me to the topic of the day, figure 1. Figure 1 is arguably one of the most important figures in the type of work I do, so let’s dive into why and what I’m trying to accomplish.

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Sometimes you’re too close to the problem

I’ve had a breakthrough! I’ve been working for months on a problem and I probably could’ve come up with the solution sooner if I hadn’t been trying to force it. Maybe I’m weird, but I find the easiest way to come up with a solution to a problem is to just walk away from it. I don’t always do it, but I always end up regretting that I didn’t just step away from the thing long enough to get the full picture.

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Fourth of July

I’m a veteran. I have mixed feelings about most patriotic holidays (okay, all patriotic holidays) and today is no different. We could all use a day off and I honestly couldn’t care less about how the holiday is celebrated. The only real issue I have with how it’s celebrated is with the fireworks. The world is on fire at the moment (literally) and we don’t need to help it along. My main issue with the holiday is (of course) toxic patriotism and the inevitable misogyny and white supremacy that comes with it. Of course, that is how America was built…

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On the research I do

My 3D printed spine (as in my own spine made from my CT scans, make your own body part here!).

“They are changing the world and I want to help,” one of our regular volunteers told the guy who runs the hospital department. It was a glowing review from someone who had spent the better part of the last decade paralyzed after a high level (cervical) spinal cord injury. We’ve seen him regularly for the better part of a year now and you would’ve thought we coached him if you could hear the review he gave the man who came to see our little lab. I feel stuck a lot, but yesterday I was reminded of why I do what I do.

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The connections we make

Networking. It’s all we ever hear about. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Maybe it’s not even so much about who you know, but how you approach people. I know if it were not for the people I’ve reached out to, I would not be where I am today. In fact, I can think of at least a handful of people whom I’ve reached out to only to have them change the course of my life for the better. Yesterday I got the chance to do the same for someone else.

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Two wild days!

If you’re reading this then it’s too late for me. Or rather it’s too early for me since I need to be up super early tomorrow, which is today (when you are reading this). Confused? Well it’s supposed to be a daily blog of my progress, but I’m cheating and writing today’s post last night. That’s because really, if you’re reading this I’m in an experiment. No, it doesn’t matter when you read this as long as it’s the day I posted because I’m definitely in an experiment. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

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