Monday, September 23, 2013

LinkedIn for Career Success: 7 tips to stand out from the crowd

This past Wednesday, The University of Calgary Career Services hosted Steve Watt, the Canadian Marketing Manager for LinkedIn. He spoke to a packed lecture hall of undergrad and grad students alike, eager to learn how to optimize the use of LinkedIn for building your professional brand and finding long term career success.

As per usual, I took notes... here are the highlights!

The current standards for hiring are incredibly inefficient, both for the companies doing the hiring and for you, the applicants. Steve Watt boasts that he is proudly a disruptive force, trying to shake things up in the traditional game of job seeking. Teaching companies and talking to students about what the changing world, including of course LinkedIn, means to you and how not to get left behind. What it all comes down to in a nutshell?

Don't think in terms of your Resume and CV any more, think about Building your Professional Brand.

And what better social media service for building your professional brand is there than Linkedin? It's all about getting out of the stack of hundreds of similar resumes and into real, human connections with the people making the hiring decisions.

Steve offered up 7 tips to stand out from the crowd. (as to why 7? Lanny McDonald wore 7 when he played for the Leafs! yeessh not another Leafs fan!)

7 Tips to Stand Out from the Crowd

1. Start with a Photo and Headline: simple facts, profiles with photos get 7 times the clicks as those that don't have them. But remember, go with something professional. As for your headline, it should be a true statement about who you are. Steve's best advice, ask yourself, would anyone say the opposite... and if no one would then how does it make you stand out?

2. Write a Compelling Summary: if your headline was the bait, here's where you get to real them in. Stay tight and concise, no one wants to read forever, and don't forget to update it as you grow and change.

3. Recommendations and Skills Endorsements: Nothing goes farther than an authentic recommendation, I mean if I wouldn't buy a camera on Amazon without reading some good reviews, I probably wouldn't hire you without seeing what people have to say. Go for quality over quantity here. Skills Endorsements, relatively new to LinkedIn, however develop a picture of you in the aggregate, if 50plus people say you have great salesmanship skills, it must be true.

4. Every Employee is an Ambassador: What if you aren't actively looking for a job? Your LinkedIn profile should still best represent the organization you work for. A robust, well connected profile makes your company look least that's what you can tell your boss when he catches you updating it on company time.

5. Engage Your Network: this is digital networking. How can you drive traffic to your profile? establish yourself as a leader in your field, share articles, join groups, and get involved in conversations.

6. Did I Mention Join Groups?: There are over 2 million groups on LinkedIn, and some of them are amazingly robust communities. Seek those which are big and vibrant in your field. Join in and think of it like a cocktail party, take a couple laps around the room to get the mood, and then ramp up your engagement, Make sure you leave the impression on people that you want.

7. Take advantage of LinkedIn Today and Influencers: LinkedIn Today is a newsfeed you can tailor to your interests, and may be full of important news that sets you aside from your peers at an interview. Influencers are established, successful individuals, who you can follow (similar to a blog or twitter) and try to absorb their knowledge.

How have you successfully used LinkedIn along your career path? Which of these tips are you going to make use of ASAP?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Should You Go to Grad School?

You're facing the end of your undergraduate degree, and the thought of leaving the cozy bosom of the academic life behind terrifies you. Lets be honest, college was probably the best 3-5 (or more) years of your life, and you're not ready to give that up yet. Or maybe you just don't have some other plan.

If you weren't like me (already set up with a graduate supervisor long before I crossed the stage to grab my diploma) you might be wondering if graduate school is right for you. How do you make that decision? Well that is one of the topics I'll be addressing in the Prospective Grad Students section of this blog. But in the mean time, why not try out this choose your own ending adventure, brought to you by the people at .

Its a bit of fun, and includes helpful tools like a prospective salary calculator for your life 20 years down the road, with and without gradschool. And if you don't like your ending, you can easily back track and take a different path!


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Scientists Curse the Name Eugene Garfield: Impact Factor

Eugene Garfield seems like a likable enough name, if one that brings to mind images of a fat cat eating lasagna. However at a recent departmental retreat during a science trivia game, his name came up as one to curse. This is of course because he is credited for subjecting us to the terror of the Impact Factor.

A much better method for calculating impact factor, in my humble opinion.
The further you advance into the wonderful world of academia and science, the more aware you become of the hefty weight of the impact factor. For those of you unfamiliar with it, impact factor is a numerical rank applied to journals based on the number of citations they receive in a year (not unlike google's page rank, calculated based on links back to your page). Top journals, Science, Nature, NEJM etc have high impact factors, and it is therefor more desirable to publish in them, as they increase the likelihood your own work will be cited and deemed influential.

However impact factor wasn't intended as a tool for scientists per say, but rather for libraries to determine which journals to purchase. It bears in mind to remember that while impact factor means something about the rank of a journal, it does directly reflect the quality of all the science published within.

And scientists, in of themselves, do not have impact factors.

Except wait, I was at a meeting in Toronto this past week and the way people were talking, it seemed like we did.

In the increasingly competitive realm of academia (only 15% of PhDs will attain the coveted tenure track position one day) a numerical ranking of job applicants may seem like a great idea. Much like a GPA for those of us who are no longer taking classes, our CVs are being read like transcripts. You may be asked to include the impact factor (quoted to up to 3 decimal pts!) of the journal of each of your publications, add or average them up and your potential employers have a simple way to rank all their applicants.

While the value of publishing peer reviewed papers in high impact journals should not be understated (and anyone of us may be willing to sell our souls for a Nature paper) should a scientist's value really be quantified this way? Increasingly the science community has called for better understanding of the true meaning of impact factor and rallied against its prominence as an evaluative tool of science and scientists. Recently, a multidisciplinary group of scientists, editors and publishers met in San Francisco to outline suggestions for moving away from the impact factor.

The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)

And this past month, the editor-in-chief of Science wrote an excellent editorial on the topic.

Impact Factor Distortions

At the end of the day, science is rapidly becoming more multi-disciplinary and expansive than ever, and the research scientist, an individual who's value far exceeds only his/her publication record. So while the impact factor may not be all bad, it is important to remember it is certainly not all good either.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Writing that Research Proposal 005

This past week I finally wrapped on my research proposal, a labour of love, hate, and 8months of carrying stacks of papers around. While completing it and having my supervisory committee sign off on it marks the countdown towards my candidacy exam next month, having it finally finished couldn't feel any better.

The research proposal is a critical endeavour of the graduate career, whether it be a master's or PhD program. Typically undertaken after a year of preliminary experiments and background reading, it may be simply a necessity of your program or, in my case, provide the materials around which you will be tested for candidacy. In either case it may represent the first time you, as a student, are asked to think creatively and critically, independent of your supervisor, proposing a hypothesis and the experiments suitable to test it.

I began my own efforts on my proposal at the end of last summer, throwing a blank poster board up on the wall of my living room, and brain storming a concept map around the data I had collected so far. From that map I tried to arrive at a clear hypothesis, and a set of three major research aims.

From September to December, I wrote, scrapped it, and rewrote my draft a number of times. Without deadlines enforced by anyone other than myself, I struggled to prioritize this project over numerous others that sprung up with harder deadlines (applying for funding, submitting abstracts for meetings etc). And that is nothing to say for balancing effective reading and writing with the experiments necessary to move the project along.

Then came the rounds of edits from my supervisor, the flip-flopping back and forth between styles of presenting my aims, and going through things with a fine tooth comb (I am a notoriously bad speller, and incredibly fond of typos). The finished product, 20 full single spaced pages of text, 9 additional figures and some 60 or so references....oh and literal blood sweat and tears put into the effort. (Who ever said there's no crying in science?)

Along the way, here are some things I've learned that would make it go smoother next time around (only there had better not be a next time).

  1. When you read papers, take notes! Detailed notes that you can write from. And organize, organize, organize. You'll want to be able to find the reference easily when your train of writing needs it.
  2. When you get fed up with writing, take a break. Burning yourself out on one go will only make it harder to get back to it later.
  3. Practice writing and reading often. The major pitfall of many proposals is that unclear writing leads to mis-communications leading your committee wondering what you are trying to say (or if you know what you're talking about). Reading other peoples proposals, papers etc. will help  you develop your own writing skills. In particular, if you can read bad examples, you'll learn in a hurry what to avoid. If you're are ESL, take advantage of a friend to read through and give comments on the writing.
  4. Say exactly what you mean. Avoid unnecessarily flowery text, or ambiguous statements. This is your proposal, so be confident enough to make clear statements, and be ready and willing to defend them.
  5. Remember it's just a proposal, you may never do half of what is in it. Science is often a study of opportunity, a novel or unexpected result may take your project in a directly you could have never predicted. So avoid the sense of anxiety that if you can't complete everything you propose you've somehow failed. Take this as an opportunity to write you ideal project proposal based on what you know now.
  6. At the end of the day, sometimes you just have to leave good enough alone. Remember this is a document that only a handful of people will ever read, and is intended more as an exercise in developing the knowledge and skills you will need to apply for grants and run your own group one day. So maybe after that 5th or 6th round of revisions, just call it done.
  7. That being said, take it seriously, the skills you have the potential to develop, through preparing an excellent document, will help you enormously through the rest of your career.
I hope some of this advice will help you when you undertake your the writing of your own research proposal. Although I may have hated it at many points along the way (and am dearly looking forward to burning a copy in a bonfire when I finish my candidacy) I managed to produce a document which I am immensely proud of.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

10 things to do when grad school is stressing you out

This post was inspired by one I saw on a great mommy blog - The complete guide to imperfect homemaking. I recommend you go read it, especially, I can imagine, if you have kids.

10 things to do when grad school is stressing you out.

  1. Sit in on an undergrad class, and take pleasure in how little they know. It may have only been a few years ago, but it's amazing the amount of knowledge we take for granted as grad students. (Caution, this only works for subjects in your immediate field, as a first year physics class would floor me right now.)
  2. Attend a talk with free food, and get seconds. Need more be said?
  3. Make a powerpoint slide or two of your recent progress. Somehow it's easier to see how things come together when you put them into finalized figures or slides.
  4. Go read a paper somewhere with natural lighting. If you can get outside, even better. Sometimes we forget what the sun feels like when we spend all our days in the lab.
  5. Cry over your project. Preferably not where your supervisor will catch you.
  6. Tackle something easy on your to do list. Sometimes sending that email you've been meaning to send only takes two minutes, but crossing it off your list will leave you feeling good all day.
  7. Remind yourself that your supervisor didn't have it all together when he was in your shoes, either, and somehow he still has a tenture track position.
  8. Resolve not to multitask when over stressed. Chances are more things won't work than will.
  9. Turn off your computer. Sometimes a day away from the constant emails can be the most satisfying and productive.
  10. Plan a break. Having even a short vacation/long weekend to look forward to can keep you motivated. If you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, than light lots of candles along the way (so to speak).


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ponderings of a PhD Student: Grad School Blues

Lately it seems every time I open my inbox, check twitter or flip through the pages of a science community publication, I come across an article that makes me pause to question my graduate studies. For instance, the winter edition of Health Solutions features an article with the sub-heading "A Ph.D. is no guarantee of a university position". The March University Affairs? An article "the PhD is in need of revision", which while lamenting about long times to completion and high drop out rates, also draws attention to the fact that in many fields, 'we may be producing more PhD students than we need.' Says the vice-president academic of UBC, Dr. David Farrar, who goes on to say "They need to know when they get into this where it's going to take them."

Even on my own blog, I've often draw attention to the shockingly low success rate for PhD's eventually finding faculty positions at universities (only 20-35%). The suggested solution? apart from revamping the system to be more selective of graduate student admissions (read as: train fewer of us). Is to provide extra funding (usual only one year) after completion for you to train for another field entirely. Many people opt to head towards public policy, law or business.

As it stands for me, I still can't imagine myself anywhere outside of an academic institution. So what I'd like to see, fewer articles focusing on the negative, suggesting we opt out of academia early; and more good advice on how to develop my self over the next 3 years into becoming a part of that lucky 20%.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Value of Mentorship Part 1 - 004

Who do you consider to be your mentor? Your supervisor? A helpful Post-Doc? Your parents? The key to academic and career success can often be to find the right mentors early on.

Whether formed organically, intentionally sought after or implemented in a mandatory fashion; there is much to be gained from a good mentoring relationship. A quick qoogle search on 'Mentorship in Academia' gives some 14 million results, interestingly many of the top hits specifically aimed at women. Invited speakers at past Young Women of Influence events have all commented on the importance of strong mentors in their own career success. In fact one piece of advice which stands out came from Evelyn Ackah, who told her own boss "Hello Liz, I want your job" and began a series of mentoring conversations which eventually lead to her running her own law firm.

While most graduate students have a primary mentor in the role of their supervisor, the development of broader mentoring networks is becoming increasingly necessary for success. In fact applications for provincial support in Alberta now require the development of a Mentorship Committee consisting of three or more members (independent from your typical advisory committee). One member of which is specifically intended to be a career mentor. Perhaps this trend is reflective of the increasing numbers of graduate trainees, no longer do Tenured professors take on graduate student protoge's who will replace them one day. Increasing numbers of graduates and shockingly low hiring into tenure track positions, makes it clear than effective career mentorship, early on, is needed to ensure you have a career after graduation.

That being said, seeking out mentors outside your immediate laboratory or research group environment can be intimidating, confusing or forgotten about. As such I'll be focusing the next couple of posts on my own efforts to develop a better mentorship network. My first step? Tonight I'll be attending a Young Women Of Influence Evening Series featuring former biotech CEO and current professional mentor Cynthia Roney, who will talk about The Power Networking and Mentorship.

Have you begun to develop a mentorship network? How have mentors played important roles in your own academic or career success?

Monday, March 4, 2013

How to Ask Good Questions 003

One of the qualities, which I feel truly sets me apart from my peers, is my inability to keep my mouth shut.

Now that opening statement is not what it seems to be. What I am talking about is asking questions.

We've all heard the old adage "No question is a stupid question." and for the most part I have to agree. At the very worst, a question may reveal you're failure to pay attention or your lack of knowledge on the topic. In both of these scenarios, you will still be rewarded with the information you are missing.

I once bravely put my hand up to ask, "What do you mean by ESCs?" an acronym which the presenter had been using without definition, assuming it was common knowledge. Now I don't work with cell lines, I had no idea he meant 'Embryonic Stem Cells.' Sure I felt a little stupid having to ask the question, but I would have felt a whole lot worse to have sat through the whole 20 minute talk not knowing it.

Each week I attend a number of talks, from journal clubs, to work in progresses, to departmental seminars. Typically, when the presenter is finished, and asks if their are any questions, a couple of profs and maybe a post-doc or two put their hands up. It is the rare grad student in my experience who is able to consistently contribute to the discussion with questions.

I however am someone who cannot keep my mouth shut, I am forever curious, and always throw my hand up to ask a question or two. Lately I've been rewarded by comments from other faculty in our department that the questions were 'good ones.' It's good to know that faculty other than your own supervisor are taking note of you.

Some advice for asking 'good' questions:
  • Pay attention to the talk, yes they are often mandatory, often unrelated to your work, often incredibly boring. I get over that by taking notes, no matter what.
  • Jot down any questions you think of during the talk so you remember them at the end.
  • Put your hand up right away. There's nothing worse than thinking of a great question only to have someone else ask it first.
  • If something was unclear during the talk ask for clarification, not only does it benefit you and the other students unwilling to ask, it also provides constructive feedback to the presenter.
  • If you disagree with some conclusion, ask about it, but avoid being argumentative.
  • Remember, the purpose of these presentations is often primarily for trainee development, and learning how to ask effective, informed and critical questions is a skill you should be developing here. Take advantage of the opportunity to do so in a familiar environment.
Finally, for me personally, the best way to learn is to actively participate in the discussion.  If I take the time to ask questions on a topic, I am more likely to retain that information in the long run. As a grad student, my time is precious, and weekly journal clubs and work in progresses cut into that time. I am determined, however, to not have it be time wasted. By asking questions, partaking in the conversation and leaving a good impression of myself, I am able to take full advantage of the opportunity presented each week.

So whatever point you are in your education, don't be afraid to ask questions, like any other skill asking effective questions is one you can and should develop.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sciencey Youtube Channels you Should Be Watching

I subscribe to a lot of pointless YouTube stuff, lets be honest, who doesn't.

However, there has increasingly been a movement towards the production of high quality, educational channels, with the intent of providing free learning to the masses. I am totally on board for that. So without further ado (I just learned a grammar lesson on that one) here are some YouTube Channels you should be watching, they will definitely not be a waste of your time.

Hank Green's SciShow

John and Hank's Crash Courses (the Biology one was amazing, Chemistry looks pretty good so far)

The Brain Scoop with Emily Graslie (sometimes graphic...dead animal parts)

 DNews (D is for discovery)

The wealth of information, easily accessible online, for free is one of the true wonders of the internet. YouTube, TED talks, and more, wasting time on the internet has never been so productive. What YouTube Channels spark your interest most?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Women in Science Infographic

I had this infographic sent my way via email the other day. If you've been here before you may have noticed that every now and then I have something to say about women in science, or working in a male dominant field. Check out this infographic for some of the stats.

Source: via Sara on Pinterest

Do you work in a male dominant field? Do you ever have concerns about your gender holding you back? Have you made career choices based on accessibility to mat-leave or child care?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Candidacy Exam Tips 002

A few weeks ago I took time out of my day, headed on up to main campus, and attended an event organized by the University of Calgary's New 'My Grad Skills'. The primary focus of this event was to provide advice, by way of a panel of faculty and students, to PhD students facing candidacy in the next few months.

The candidacy exam, or comps or quals (depending on what school you happen to be at) is the penultimate academic exam. Upon its completion (usually around the 2 year point of the PhD student's life) you have the privilege of referring to yourself as a PhD Candidate. While the format  varies from program to program, it typically involves a written component (in my case a research proposal) and an oral exam. The oral exam, already the stuff of nightmares for me, will be a 2 hour questioning period by my committee members, plus 2 extra faculty. It's sink or swim, and a pass is determined by their opinions of how well your preformed and ultimately a vote, while you sweat outside in the hallway. I had the candidacy exam explained to me as "they will push you off a cliff, and they don't expect you to fly, but rather will see how far you make it before you crash."

Fun stuff right?

So any opportunity offering advice for dealing with the exam is much appreciated by grad students, regardless of faculty or field. Much thanks to My Grad Skills for organizing this session, and for those of you who couldn't attend, here are some of the big take home tips.

  • The vast majority of students will pass the first time, really it means more work for you committee if they are going to fail you. So they want you to pass too.
  • Make it your goal to have fun with it. Try to see the exam as an exciting conversation about your topic of interest, rather than as an exam. Really you are having an 'academic discussion, while convincing them you are up to the task of a PhD.'
  • Its an evaluation of how well you can think on your feet. Any type of 'defence' style practice will help (past thesis defences, defending papers at journal club, defending your proposal to your committee, *MOCK EXAMS*).
  • Its often the unpredictability or uncontrollability of the situation which lead to the most anxiety. You can make things more predictable by having a solid understanding of each examiner's field of expertise as this is likely where their questions will come from. Unfortunately you really can't be in control, they are.
  • The examiners are looking for an appropriate sense of breadth and depth to your knowledge of the field, they will likely leave areas of clear strength alone and probe areas of weakness more.
  • If you get to abstract, theoretical or philosophical questions, its likely a sign you are doing well and now they're just having fun with you.
  • Start you prep early, when you first start working on your project.
  • Develop a reading list. Send it around to your examiners and ask if there are major areas or references you are missing.
  • Make a reading schedule and stick to it!
  • Take advantage of campus services, like counsellors, to help avoid being sunk by anxiety.
  • Be as calm as  possible in the week leading up to it, and don't forgo normal activities entirely (like exercising, or your favourite TV show) you don't want to crash at the finish line.
  • Don't be afraid to answer that you don't know (obviously this shouldn't happen too much) its better to be honest about it than it is to try and BS an answer. Remember your examiners can smell BS from a mile away!
So if you're taking your exam soon, good luck. I hope you can put these tips to good use (I certainly plan to). Please add any more you may have in the comments. And really, don't forget to have some fun with it. It seems like you'll remember your candidacy for the rest of your life, hopefully you can do it fondly!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Advice for would be grad students. 001

Today's advice: Have a unique, transferable, skill.

 photo IMG-20130118-00379.jpg
Tools of the trade.

When I applied for the Co-op position which eventually lead directly into my PhD studies (no master's degree here), one of the things which certainly helped me out: Skill with Tissue Culture.

By which I mean: I had, during a brief research project during undergrad, gone out of my way to develop a skill set including animal handling, micro-dissection, tissue/organ bath work....and more specifically, all with smooth muscle tissues. It's no coincidence that the model system for my current project involves vessel culture in the Living Systems bath featured above.

So what do I mean by "have a unique, transferable skill?" You need to have something to bring to the table, that you would not have picked up in basic first and second year lab courses. You can do this either through working as a summer student/volunteer student in a research lab, or by taking advanced upper year lab courses. Finally, by completing a technique heavy honors thesis.

What kinds of skills am I talking about?
  • Tissue Culture
  • Cell Culture (more advanced than the brief intro to aseptic technique you may have gotten in Cell Bio)
  • Patch Clamping
  • Vector cloning/production
  • Protein/antibody purification
  • Real Time PCR
  • And many, many more
The majority of undergraduate students don't necessarily pick up more advanced skills than basic bench work. Or if you are exposed to a more unique technique, likely you only see/do it once. What you want here is a specific skills set to put on your CV that will set you aside from the herd.

Come back next Monday for more helpful advice for the would be grad student!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Francis Crick's 'The Gossip Test'

Recently I posted about what I want to be when I grow up. How such a loaded question can require different answers for different audiences. How it implies that we have to decide now, with ultimatum like holds, on what we want for the rest of our lives. How I'm nearly 25, and still happily am uncertain. More important might be the question, "Are you happy with what you are right now?"

Last week was the first week back to classes, and for me, my first week back to TAing. I TA an undergraduate Cell and Molecular Biology Class in the Bachelor of Health Sciences program here at UofC. Each year on the first day we ask students to answer the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And as this program, and the one it was derived from at my undergraduate institute, are often considered to be the elusive 'pre-med'; not surprizingly do upwards of half of the students answer "a medical doctor." It will be interesting if this fraction should change over the course of the sememester.

More interesting, only a tiny fraction of students answer "I don't know yet." It seems they may have things figured out better than myself.

Recently I came across some good advice for how to figure out what you should be doing. It comes from the memoir of the Nobel Prize winning Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick, discoverers of the structure of DNA). The book, titled "What Mad Pursuit." comes highly recommended for anyone interested in taking the research route, and focuses on the choices that lead to Crick's stunning career in molecular biology.

While I'm not quite done reading it, I cam across one particularly interesting piece of advice quite early on. "The Gossip Test." At first this may seem like an effective test to discover what your lab mates are saying about you behind your back. However, that was not Crick's aim in divising this test.

You see Crick was originally trained as a physicist, and it wasn't until he was 30 that he made the choice to switch to the life sciences. Proving of course that you're never to old to start something new. In picking his choice of feild, he asked himself what kinds of science did he find himself gossiping about. By which he means, what science do you rush home to blab about to the 'lay audiences' in your life. If you gossip about it, you have a true interest in it, and so that is what you should probably be working on.

Crick's gossip test narrowed the field between neurology and understanding the molecular basis of life. He passed on neuro, headed up to Cambridge and eventually found himself in the esteemed Cavendish Laboratory. Met up with Watson and Wilkins (that's right the duo wasn't just a duo) and the rest is scientific history.

So give yourself the "Gossip Test", this may let you know if you are headed in the right direction.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Books for Young Health Scientists : The Emperor of all Maladies

I read a lot of books, many types and genre`s of books, many shapes and sizes of books. Books written by authors living and dead, Canadian and abroad. And although I truly believe that reading in any way, shape or form is beneficial to anyone, I`d like to begin to read and highlight books which I feel are important for the young health scientist.

Firstly I`d like to address whom I am implying is the audience.

Young is a relative term, while for instance the students in the Bachelor of Health Sciences course which I TA are younger than myself, and certainly an apt audience for these posts (and subsequently these books) I certainly consider many people older than myself young. In the fields of research and medicine alike, you are considered quite young in your career long after I might consider you old in years.

As for Health Scientist, by this I mean anyone who considers themselves involved in furthering or applying the science of human health. Grad students, pharmacists, nurses, doctors of all types and many many many others; you should all remember that at the core of what you do is health science.

The first book I`d like to recommend, I`d like to do so in brief. Particularly because the book itself is a weighty tomb (both in pages and content); so I feel you time is better spent reading it, than reading what I have to say about it.

Siddhartha Mukherjee`s `The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer` is one of the most engrossing books I`ve ever read. Well worthy of the Pulitzer Prize proudly adorning the cover of my copy. SM takes you on a story through the life of cancer, made personal both by the stories told of patients as well as of his own fellowship as an oncologist. From the earliest diagnosis and prognosis of cancer in Egypt in 2500BC (`there is no treatment`) through the ages to modern medicine and beyond to a world of personalized, genome driven treatment; you will not want to miss a single word.

While the content may seem heavy at times, and particularly disheartening (especially when reading of the disfiguring radical mastectomy and chemotherapy intentionally pushed to the limit of human tolerance, both later found to be excessive without benefit) overall the book is one of hope. Our understanding of cancer has evolved quite rapidly over the past 50 years, from a disease of the 'black bile' to 'an altered version of our normal self'. We are now finally at a place where the vast combined effort of biological science is beginning to contribute to effective, specific, non-toxic treatments (herceptin and gleevec for instance).

Finally SM provides the reader a story which will change the way we think of cancer. If cancer is simply the cells of our body, following the most natural of directives "to grow and divide and pass genetic material to daughter cells", albeit in hyper-drive;  then perhaps we need to find a way to live with cancer rather than fight to destroy it. That the 'War on Cancer' need not be won (and likely cannot be) by total obliteration of all cancer cells; but rather by finding the right combination of treatments that a person with cancer can live out there normal lifespan despite it. Specifically, that a personalized medical regimen, tolerated without side effects, can be matched to each patient to keep cancer in check.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

This week in science: Cancer on the Brain

This week I will get back into the lab, back to TAing and give a research update seminar. Somewhere along the way I hope to find time to finish reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Because I've spent the last week or so engrossed with such an amazing book, I've found my mind dwelling on cancer (a topic well outside my field of work) more than usual.

Here's a couple interesting current stories, all related to cancer, whether it's prevention, early diagnosis or treatment; all worth reading.

Of course the beginning of the new year means about 1/4 of people (myself included) have set weight related resolutions (although that's not what I'm calling mine). Or maybe you set another popular goal, to lead a healthier lifestyle (quit smoking? drink less). Either way, you might be looking for a little inspiration to get you though the beginning stage and to the point where it becomes a habit. Cancer Research UK has collected a set of inspirational individuals who have had success with their goals in the past year, and subsequetly dramatically reduced their risk of developing some 40% of cancers which have been linked to unhealthy lifestyle. Check out one video here, or click on through for the other 3 inspirational stories.

On the other hand, what if your risk for cancer is something you cannot change? This New York Times article adresses the question of "is it better to know, genetically your risk?" It's written by a young woman, who's been knowingly BRCA1 positive for most of her life (a mutation which carries a 98% chance of developing breast cancer. With the advent of the $1000 dollar genome era, and websites such as offering to give your information about not only your genetic heredity but also you risk for a large list of diseases for as little as $100; you have to ask yourself, do you really want to know. Or, is ignorance really bliss?

And what if you already know. What's on the horizon, treatment wise? Out with the old conventional chemotherapies, cell and virus based therapies are in vogue in research groups around the world. Of particular interest: How about cytotoxic T-cells targeted at the tumor? Isolated in low quantity from patients, converted into stem cells to be rapidly multiplied; redifferentiated and and reintroduced. A home grown, autologous, army against cancer; personalized medicine at its best. Recent work out of Japan show's that we may be getting close to developing this kind of 'miracle' treatment, read about it at the BBC here.

A pair of Tcells attacking a cancer cell, image source.

That's all for this week, stay tuned for more review of the above mentioned book (spoiler I love it so far) and DFTBA.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Despite being, what many cultures/peoples/my parents, would call an adult; I still often ask myself "What do I want to be when I grow up?" As a 24 year old student, the answer to that question is surprisingly distant (Hey I'm looking at 3+ more years just in this degree).

I suppose I could just answer it with 'Scientist' and consider myself already there, but that's not as accurate as I'd like.

Over the recent holidays, while at home visiting family and friends (and far away from my academic cocoon) I was asked numerous times: "So what are you going to be when you're done all this school?" While when I pose this question to myself, I am often satisfied to know that I probably won't know the answer until I get there. When faced by it from my loved ones I fined that it demands a response more hopeful than "I'm just going to stay in school forever."

How do I currently answer it? "I'd like to stay in academia, become a profession, ideally with a 50/50 split between teaching and research." I neglect to mention that, statistically speaking, less than 20% of PhD graduates will ever get an academic position; and female students in particular are most likely to leave academia for work in the private sector. But really, I do (at least for the time being) want to be a prof. one day.

So you can imagine that I was very  interested to see "University Professor" listed as the single least stressful job of 2013.

Read about it from Forbes Magazine Here.

And needless to say, I wasn't the only one to think that assessment was dead wrong. As comments and emails poured, Forbes responded today with a "Top 10 Reasons Being a University Professor is Stressful" list.

Of particular interest on the list:
  • Personal vendettas by that anonymous 3rd reviewer
  • The constant fear of loosing your funding, and subsequently your lab
  • Success rates for those grant applications are at an all time low
  • Dealing with students, parents, and the administration for grading course work 'too low'
When you take all this (and more) into account you begin to wonder just why anyone would want this job. But, despite it all, most comments on that original article insist that they are doing work they love and wouldn't change it for the world.

So what do you want to be when you grow up? For now, I'm going to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where that takes me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2012 in Science Infographic by Nature

If you haven't scrolled through this animated infographic released by Nature to overview 2012 in science yet, then you absolutely should.

Additionally, here's a fun science blog I stumbled upon via twitter today. Check it out.

It's Okay to be Smart.

Finally, I got around to updating the about page for this blog today (yeah) click the link in the header bar above!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Resolutions Infographic

Welcome to 2013 here at ! Hopefully you are as excited as I am to kick off the new year with a bang. My question for you is: `Have you, like 50% of Americans, made a New Years Resolutions?'

I thought I'd share with you some statistics on the topic. I'll warn you it makes for a rather grim picture.

With such a low success rate, you might think why even bother? Well even if you don't complete your big resolutions, just setting yourself them may make you more likely to complete smaller goals throughout the year. For instance, this past year I set myself the challenge of running a half marathon (Check out all my 25 before 25 goals here) and although I didn't complete it, I did run over 200km, including 2 10km races and a Spartan Mud Race. All of that success was pushed by the bigger goal I set, and worked towards.

What advice do I have for you in setting goals for this upcoming year?
  1. Set measurable goals. Rather than 'Study more' say 'Study 1 hour in the library each day'
  2. Work your goals into your schedule. I put my goals right into my google calendar, with reminders coming to my phone. And repeated throughout the year.
  3. Share your goals publicly. People will often check up with you on your goals: "Hey you wanted to write a novel this year, how's that going?" Knowing other people car will drive you further.
  4. Check up on your success. Reevaluate your goals monthly or quarterly to see what needs more work.
  5. Set Big Goals. Cliched maybe, but shooting for the moon, you'll at least land among the stars.
Whether you set New Years Resolutions, Have a Bucket List, or set Birthday Goals, any type of well thought out goal setting is always beneficial. So good luck with your resolutions this year.

Feel free to share them in the comments!

Don't forget, to go over to my lifestyle blog to follow my day to day adventures for more fun, recipes, DIYs and more.
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