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Another day off

When I started the 365 days of academia project, the goal was simple. Write daily, that was it. In hindsight it was both a lofty goal and one that has been as rewarding as it has been challenging. It turns out I have a lot to say about a lot of topics and despite feeling like I would run out of something to write about, almost three years later I still have things I want to say.

However, we all need a break sometimes. So for my mental and physical health, this is all I’m writing for the day. I hope my little break reminds you to take one as well. Because rest, like food, water, and shelter, is part of the process of living, not separate from it. It is certainly not a reward for doing something, so kick your feet up and take a break. I’m sure you could use one too.

The myth of “better”

It’s somehow Friday, finally. It’s been one hell of a week and things are slowly ramping up so it’s only going to get worse. There are a lot of moving parts happening right now and I’m just trying to keep a handle on things, so if mental health seems to be the theme of the week, then well it’s with good reason. Also it’s mental health awareness month. Which, somewhat ironically, I was not aware of until recently. So the theme of my life fits the month I guess.

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The mental health stigma

You don’t look depressed. Chances are if you struggle with depression you’ve heard that once or twice, or dozens of times on a seemingly never ending loop. If you have a broken bone you can be diagnosed via an x-ray or CT. If you have cancer, there are blood tests or MRI scans that can catch it. If you get sick, rapid tests or PCR will tell you if it’s COVID. But how do you diagnose depression?

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It’s okay to not be okay

It’s okay to not be okay. The world is on fire, almost literally, people are having rights stripped away before our eyes, the environment is a disaster, global warming is going to kill everyone in probably very horrible ways and no one cares, and the pandemic is being ignored, much like everything else on this very long list. In the face of all of this and far more than I can list, I will let you in on a secret. It’s normal to not be okay right now.

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Freedom fight

Well yesterday I quietly had a small breakdown in the good sense because I was finally getting the care I wanted from my healthcare providers and when I logged onto twitter for the evening I found a flurry of activity regarding something the supreme court was doing. Wow was I in for a shock when I realized what was going on. I hoped that in my lifetime I wouldn’t see something like this happen. Afterall we were slowly chipping away at the problem, but here we are.

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Fighting to live

drowning being pulled underwater by dark tentacles

Medication roulette, it’s what I call the process I started over a decade ago. It’s the process where you start a medication, wait weeks/months for side effects or benefits from it, inevitably stop because something serious happens, and then the painful, literally, process of coming off only to go to the next. If you’re lucky this process is quick, you try your hand at the roulette wheel and you walk away slightly better than when you stepped up. Or if you’re like me, you play like a gambling addict hoping for the magical win. But what if you found it, then had it taken away?

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Another deadline rush

Why is it always a rush?! I wish I had answers, maybe as scientists we just like to procrastinate, but whatever the reason, we have a huge deadline just five days away and it feels almost insurmountable. As hospital-PI puts it, I have 12 hour nights I can get it done, he’s kidding… I hope. It’s time to break out the hard stuff, caffeine that is, and get ready for the week ahead.

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The first flush

With fancy computer equipment comes annoying computer maintenance. Today has been a challenge! Thankfully finished, mostly. It’s been roughly six months since I took the plunge and built my own custom watercooling loop for my computer. Since today is the first flush, I figure I can tell the story and talk about how it went. Spoiler, it went both better and worse than I expected.

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The lab brain drain

Today was another proposal defense! No, not mine thankfully, but one of my labmates who’s been in the lab for some time now. As the term is coming to a close, I think a lot of us are in the proposal defense phase, which means things will be changing dramatically in a year or so for the lab. It made me realize that there was a rather large gap between those of us finishing and the new members, which means big changes once we graduate.

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Iteration engineering

Well yesterday, after four long years, I got to open up about the robot I built and it made me realize just how many design changes I went through to get the final product. Technically it’s not even the “final” product, it’s just where I stopped and the next person took over. There’s still a lot of work left to be done with the design, but looking through all the photos of the process, I realized just how much work that robot really was.

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So you want to build a humanoid robot

See, standing on its own!

IT’S ALIVE, ALIVE! Robot paper is live that is and to celebrate this achievement, I’m giving away all my secrets. My poor robot was two long years of work to get right and four years to publish this. But as of this writing, it’s possibly one of the most advanced platforms around, if not the most advanced. That’s a bold claim, so let’s talk about how I did it, why I did it, and what makes it so advanced. This was four years coming, so forgive me in advance for the long post. I’ve REALLY wanted to talk about this.

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The cost of research

I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been tasked with gathering quotes for new equipment. It’s not even just with the hospital side of things either, the school side has suddenly asked me for quotes as well. I understand the logic of having gather the quotes like this, after all it’s a huge time sink, but I’ve learned a lot over the past month or so from dealing with all this and that is research isn’t cheap.

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The return of last paper

If you love something set it free, if it comes back it was meant to be. What a bunch of garbage. Well maybe just in this case. I’ve slowly gotten out from under the weight of not one, but four different first author journal papers I’ve been working on. Three of the four are published (with one going live any day now… I think?! That should’ve happened a week ago…), but one paper, last paper, has been a struggle all its own and now it’s back with a vengeance.

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3 aims, 2 experiments, 1 year

It’s now official, I have a rough timeline for everything I want to do and I’ve got the greenlight from my committee that the work I propose to do will be enough to earn my PhD. I’ve spent the past day trying to plan out the rough outline of what the next year will look like in context with all the other work I will be doing and it will be busy!

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Weekend outreach

A few of the exoskeletons we have in the lab

It’s been a super busy week, but we’re not done yet. That’s right, my inability to say no to things has come back to haunt me! It’s not that bad though, two 15-minute talks to two different groups and that’s the extent of it. So you know not too bad, but I do enjoy doing some science outreach when I have the chance anyway, so not totally a bad deal.

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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.

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The main event

Well tomorrow is D-day, proposal defense day that is. Technically there will be one more defense day after that, my actual PhD defense. The difference being, when that’s all done I’ll have a piece of paper to show for my efforts. That won’t come until next year… hopefully. But in the meantime, tomorrow is the (other) big day and I’m getting just a touch nervous! After all, it’s only the next year or so of my life I’m laying out for my committee members, what could go wrong?

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An ounce of preparation

What a week. It’s only Wednesday and it feels like it’s just never going to end. There are three major events coming up this week, meaning I will be working this weekend unfortunately, but at least I made it through the day. Tomorrow will be a major event for me, dare I say bigger than my proposal defense just two days away.

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The return of big idea

I had hoped to discuss robot paper today, but something more exciting has happened so today we’re talking about the “big idea’ I had a while back. It feels like it’s been forever since I had the idea, but things were moving slowly lately so we’ve had to wait. I’m happy to say the wait is finally over! If all goes well, by the end of the week I’ll have the first dataset from big idea and I am very excited!

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The new papers

With three out of four of the papers I was working on published — or at least in the case of robot paper, about to go live any day now — I’ve got a new batch of papers I’m working on. Thankfully I don’t think I’ll have another pileup of work like that again, hopefully. Currently I’m working on two different papers and I already have plans for at least six more, so it will be a busy year for me.

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Old wounds

You ever wake up anxious and wonder what the hell happened? It occurred to me upon further reflection that today is Easter and while the day itself fluxuates I will always associate Easter with loss. Sometimes you want to forget something, but for whatever reason your brain won’t let you. Not that I ever really forget, or that I didn’t know the day was coming, but in the fog of waking up, you don’t generally expect such intense feelings.

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The audacity of anonymity

Peer-review can be brutal. For every one positive reviewer you get one that would rather be doing something else and they WILL let you know and WILL take it out on you. Maybe it’s because I’m still getting used to the journal publication process, but behind the veil of anonymity people can be cruel. We see, and these days somewhat expect, it from public forums like facebook, twitter, or even linkedin, but maybe I’m naïve enough to have thought it wouldn’t happen in the world of peer-review. Afterall, we’re all professionals here, right?

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Seven days…

Okay, I’m not going to do a countdown to my proposal defense, as much as I really want to do it. But since we’re a week away from the big day, I wanted to give an update on the plan and maybe recap a little about where I am. Yes, it feels like a theme, but with such a large milestone coming up, it’s basically all I’m focused on for the moment!

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The OR waltz

It’s back to the OR I go! Which means exhausting times ahead, but also very exciting times. It’s been months since our last OR experiment and things have been shelved, literally, equipment has been packed away because we weren’t using it. So it’s time to once again to shake out the equipment and do our familiar dance with the clinical staff.

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The first practice

My dissertation proposal date is fast approaching and I just barely set it! There’s still some work to be done, but today was the first practice presentation in anticipation of the big day. I’m happy to say it went better than expected, but there are a few things I need to change. Since, as usual, we can’t talk about the details of the proposal itself, I can talk about the changes. As an added bonus that’s a broadly applicable thing to talk about, so it may not just benefit me.

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The proposal defense date

Single business person untangling giant rope

Okay not going to lie I had a minor freakout the past few days. One of my committee members wasn’t responding to my emails so I could not schedule my proposal defense. Last night out of the blue, reality smacked me in the face and it occurred to me that next week was the first week I was trying to schedule and time was running out. People are busy and I didn’t want any of the PI’s to have a conflict. But it all worked out…

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New and old projects

It’s finally my chance to put my own spin on the stuff coming out of the hospital lab and I’m incredibly excited about what is coming. Unfortunately I can’t talk about it! However, I’m hopeful that this year will be an excellent year for me with regards to the research I’m doing. Things are slowly falling into place and while we’re still at the beginning, things are looking bright.

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Education and mental health

In the US, roughly 12% of college students report the occurrence of suicide ideation during their first four years in college, with 2.6% percent reporting persistent suicide ideation.

I write about mental health a lot, full disclosure because my mental health is bad on a good day. I’ve found little respite from the depression, PTSD, etc. via pharmacological means or through therapy. I still try, but the results are the same and what’s that saying about crazy meaning trying the same thing and expecting a different result? In any case, there are few things in this world that tests my mental health like education. Because the system is broken and there’s nothing that can be done.

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Slides, robots, and figures. Oh no!

I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate this into robot paper (not serious… semi serious)

Since there’s a mile long list of things I need to get done this weekend, let’s just grab the top three time consuming things and cram them together into one post! When I took on the full-time job while (hopefully) wrapping up my PhD, I didn’t expect for things to be so… busy? Okay, things are always busy, that’s a theme of any PhD journey, but it does feel a bit excessive lately!

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The big rush

A while ago I had an idea, a “big idea,” but the second I had that idea the clock was ticking. Because ideas are not that unique. There is a gap in research and we try to fill that gap when we see it. I noticed a gap and because I noticed it, there’s no reason others won’t notice it as well. Now we’re in an unseen race to publish and there’s still some speed bumps in the way that are causing some issues. I’m hopeful we can get there first, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had competition.

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The other presentation

With just a few days to work on the project, I was asked to present the data we’ve recently finished collecting at work. The presentation will happen Monday, as in three days away Monday. So between now and then, I need to process the data, make some figures (so many figures), and generally draw some sort of conclusions based on the work.

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The lost children

Can you mourn the loss of something you never had? Imagine for a second you were born without a limb. Can you miss it if you never had it to begin with? I’ve been struggling with this question a lot lately, not because I was born without a limb, but because I was born without a family and in some ways that isn’t too different. Maybe it’s wrong to compare a missing limb to a missing family, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe it, because family is an extension of you.

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The finalized proposal

Well today was kind of a big step, I’ve finalized my proposal, got school-PI’s approval to send it out, and now I’m just waiting for a few people to select their availability so we can schedule the actual defense. I’m just a touch nervous! I still need to modify my slides and of course practice, but we’re now roughly two weeks away from the actual proposal defense!!!

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Success! Journal paper 3 of 4

Days turned to weeks, turned to months, turned to years. I was slowly getting to the point that I wanted to give up and I honestly didn’t think this day would ever come. Yesterday night I got the news, robot paper was accepted for publication and I literally cried. I almost have a whole ass PhD and this was my Masters work, but we can now get things ready for actually publishing the damned thing!

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Figure rush

Always with the figure making! Why do we need to make a figure, damn it I’m an engineer not an artist! Yet I’m in a tight spot for the moment because I need to start creating about half a dozen figures showcasing the stuff that we’re doing at work. Oh and I need to make at least one more for the dissertation proposal, not including any additional figures for my slides. It’s going to be a rush job for sure.

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The proposal edits

We’re just a few short days away from the two week mark to dissertation proposal defense day, maybe, I’m still waiting for responses from three committee members, two of which I speak with on a regular basis, so I’m not too worried about them, one has been ignoring everyone’s emails, so I am slightly anxious to hear back about that one. Since the time is rapidly approaching I need to have both my written proposal and slides figured out, like now.

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Practice makes… less terrible?

I wouldn’t say practice makes perfect, because unless I’m recording something it’s not going to be perfect and even when I record talks/presentations it takes hours longer than anticipated, multiple tries, only comes out somewhat decent, and are not easy to do in general. So I’m opting to think that practice makes presenting slightly less terrible. I enjoy giving talks and sharing science, which is why I’m here writing frankly. But it’s not all off the cuff.

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Not so smooth sailing

Incredible art by: Nunzio Paci check out the rest of his stuff, he’s super talented!

When we last left our exhausted student/medical professional he was anxiously awaiting the meeting that was scheduled for today. It was a rough ~24 hours, but here we are on the other side of the meeting and now there’s a firm(er) plan in place moving forward. So what does that mean for our haphazard student? Well, it could be worse… probably… maybe?

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An ominous meeting

Yesterday after my post I got a phone call (not a text) from surgeon-PI. We discussed his role in my dissertation and the funding we were awarded for my project. There have been some lingering questions about the involvement of the hospital and whether it will be necessary to have a second IRB agreement for my degree. Who knew my decision to take the job at the hospital would make life so difficult?

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Dissertation proposal progress!

After yesterday I wasn’t expecting to write this so soon, but here we are. I’m scheduling my proposal defense. Seriously, I got the email late last night from school-PI and while the proposal still needs some work, it’s close enough that he feels confident in starting the scheduling process now, meaning full speed ahead for me. Honestly I’m a little in shock because things seemed to be moving so slowly that I thought for sure I would be in purgatory for another few weeks minimum, but apparently not!

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Dissertation proposal prep

Well I’ve done it, sort of. I’ve submitted my revised proposal to school-PI and I’m hoping to hear back soon regarding his feedback. In the meantime I’m going to have to start working on the sides for my proposal. I think this is an important step, so today I’m going to discuss the dissertation proposal and what goes into it. Because somehow I can’t find a post where I talked about this… oops.

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Committing to the story

For the past few days I’ve been talking about telling a story with your data. Because at the end of the day as a researcher that’s what we do. We do an experiment and, assuming it goes well, we have a story to tell about the result we found and what it means to the people reading the paper. Ideally any good story will have great visuals to add to the story and to help the reader. Which is where I’m still stuck…

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Characterization of interlimb interaction via transcutaneous spinal stimulation

A graphic hospital-PI put together to share our results. I made the figure on the left under the methods heading, which I’m still very proud of.

I was debating about talking about this because I’m “only” the second author on the paper. Apparently I’ve gotten picky now that I have a handful of first author papers in review/published. I’m joking, but seriously, this paper has a special place in my heart and today I want to talk a bit about the science, but also the story behind the paper, because it is an interesting one!

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A busy weekend ahead

This feels a lot like my workstation… Art by: Erlson Neba

As per usual it feels like there’s a lot going on and I’m getting nowhere. It’s an interesting feeling, but I’m sure we’ve all been there. Since there’s a lot of things, I’m once again grouping them into a single post so I have something of substance instead of several very short posts over the span of the next couple of days. What’s going on this weekend you may ask, well just the (hopefully) final version of my dissertation proposal, some data analysis for an experiment we’ve been working on, and a bunch of prep work for all the things happening next week.

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Data visualization dilemma

Data visualization is an important topic to think about. How do you best convey what the data are telling you? It’s something I struggle with because I take it so seriously. Most things can be done simply, the old standby the line graph, box plot, or even scatter plot all work well enough, but more often than not, you want to tell a story and sometimes the obvious plot isn’t the best choice.

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Intellectually curious

I don’t recall what sparked the memory, but I was reminded today of an email I got from school-PI complimenting my new job. He said I was intellectually curious and that struck me as a touch odd because I assume we all are in our own ways. It’s not that I’m not appreciative of the complement, because I am, it’s just that I never understood how we can live in a world full of mysteries and not want to at least glimpse behind the curtain.

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The dreaded dissertation timeline

Things are slowly moving forward. I’ve got an IRB approval, I’ve got a proposal mostly written, and I’ve passed along the needed equipment list to school-PI for purchase. Once I finish my proposal modifications, I should be ready to start scheduling my proposal defense. At which point, I should have the greenlight to collect my data and, in a perfect world, graduate soon! But…

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Robots, dissertations, and disappointments

If today wasn’t a whirlwind of emotions I don’t know what was. There were ups, there were downs, there were robots. I think it’s safe to sum up today with the quote, “the best laid plans of mice and men…” which as you may have guessed, didn’t go the way I had expected. It’s not all bad news, but it’s not all good either. Let’s just quit being cryptic and dive into the events of the day.

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On the shoulders of giants

Tomorrow I’m doing something for the first time, ever. I got an email yesterday with the good news and while we don’t have all the equipment we need for the project, we can still get some good data and an early look at what the data will look like. I’m so excited I’m shaking, I barely slept last night, and my mind is swimming with the possibilities. This is what it’s like doing research on the edge.

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Big claims and big evidence

In science, ideally, when you make a large claim, you need a lot of evidence to support it. In theory anyway, in practice with the speed of the internet, claims often get taken as truth no matter how self correcting later. The claim that vaccines cause autism for example has been thoroughly debunked over and over, but the claim still persists despite the piles of evidence to the contrary. Global warming is another good example of how having a lot of evidence doesn’t mean acceptance.

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