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Believe nothing, question everything and never stop!

When I remember my days as an undergrad, I feel the good old nostalgia of those days when my friends and I gathered in the faculty cafeteria to prepare tests, homework or anything else. However, the challenges are quite different now. Back then the answers were almost absolute. If you were able to read the book and manage to improve your ability to solve logical problems, you were on the other side of the river. During a graduate research, who can say if something is correct or not? Of course, your supervisor (an expert in the field) must have a strong opinion about a subject, but if you find evidence rejecting his/her hypothesis, then who else can give a precise answer? In my own field, there are many questions that nobody has really answered, while some researchers publish papers with vague explanations to incredibly complex phenomena. And inside this whole chaos reside the real beauty of science. Many times we simply have no clue of what is happening. And our sole weapon was created a thousand years ago.

Photo by: @lyly.man #gradlifemcgill
“…after a close room, what hurts them most is a dark room, and it is not only light but direct sun-light that they want… People think that the effect is upon the spirits only. That is by no means the case. The sun is not only a painter but a sculptor.” Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing, 1860.

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Don’t Talk So Good, Not Dumb.

By N. Zelt

Ever speak with someone and not understand a single word they say to you? Then their incomprehensibility leaves you feeling like an idiot, and the other person treating you like one.  Trouble communicating is a failure of both parties, not just the confused one.

Being a student at McGill gives me countless opportunities to interact with people from a plethora of diverse backgrounds. And while English may be an official language in many countries, only a little more than 5% of the global population actually speaks it. Even fewer than that speak English as their native tongue. The result: there is no small number of people in this world who don’t speak English, or don’t speak English well. That’s not even considering that we live in Quebec, where 80% of the population are Francophones. (more…)

Fit As A Bird?

 

By N. H. Zelt

By N. H. Zelt

 

I never thought I’d wish that I were a bird, but by the end of this post you might also.

I exercise quite frequently, and though I’ve never been a big fitness buff (pun intended) I still make time to keep fit and healthy. Interestingly, not all species have to do that. Imagine not ever having to lift a finger, yet staying as lean as an Olympic athlete. (more…)

Solidification of a story

Gradlife Instagram photo by @steezsister

McGill Gradlife Instagram photo by @steezsister

 

Literally, the word “solidification” means making or becoming hard or solid, making stronger. I like to think of this word as a phase change, like from water to ice, or from magma to crystals or marble. The story that I have told so far in “The beginning of a story” and “Successes: the story continues…” has a liquid status that this text aims to solidify. A character without name will get one, a spatial location will be drawn around his body, a past will carve out his shape throughout the page. (more…)

Let’s talk about mental health

Photo from the Berkeley Science Review

Photo from the Berkeley Science Review

If you listen to the radio or watch local TV with any regularity, then you know that last month (Jan 25) was Bell’s Let’s Talk day; a fundraising and awareness campaign that uses social media to raise money for mental health research. And if you’re like most of us, you’ve let the ads come and go, and you may not have thought about mental health since.  But the reality is mental illness is still here, especially in grad school, and it’s an issue we need to talk about.

The University of California Berkley conducted a survey of their graduate students and found that mental wellness issues are alarmingly pervasive in academia.  On their campus, more than half of graduate students reported issues with depression and anxiety!  That’s close to 10 times higher than the national average for the US, and things don’t look much different here in Canada.

Why are grad students at risk? (more…)

Being digital humanists….

McGill GradLife instagram photo by @lyly.man

McGill GradLife instagram photo by @lyly.man

Before coming to McGill, I did not know what the expression Digital Humanities means. Now, one year and a half after, I’m focusing my research on this field. I presented it at the last Digital Humanities Showcase that this year took place at McGill on January 26th. It was not only an occasion to share my work with other scholars, but also an example of how this field has become paramount for the curriculum of any graduate student.

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What I Learned Last Year

Photo by @GradLifeMcGill instagrammer @aleksbud

Photo by @GradLifeMcGill instagrammer @aleksbud

As I was setting my goals for 2017, I had some time to reflect on everything I learned in the past year. 2016 was a year full of ups and downs, new friends, new experiences, and large milestones. I want to share some of the things I learned along the way, because these are the main themes that I’m taking with me into this semester and beyond.

  1. Things change: Plans, thoughts and ideas change.
    Change is inevitable, so be aware of it and be flexible when it arises. Never let it stop you from moving forward – if you can adapt to your changing circumstances, it may open up new ideas or paths that you didn’t know existed, and you may well be better off in the end.
  2. “You never know unless you try”
    This motto is true in many cases – you never know if you’ll get the job if you don’t apply. You never know if someone is willing to help you unless you ask. The result will either be exactly what you hoped, or you can take the outcome as a learning experience for next time. Simply putting in an effort is a huge step forward, and many new opportunities can arise if you just try. Put yourself out there, and be open to new experiences, because you never know what may happen! (more…)

The next step may be abroad

The picture of Dante holding the Commedia in his left hand is a reproduction of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence, 1465.

The picture of Dante holding the Commedia in his left hand is a reproduction of Domenico di Michelino’s painting, Florence, 1465.

 

What the…What is Dante Alighieri doing on GradLife’s Blog???

Dear Graduate Students, maybe this is going to be your last year at McGill, maybe not. Maybe you are graduating and thinking about what you can do after having gone through the Hell of your thesis and finally got outside of it, on the peaceful and lightened sand of Dante’s Purgatory. If that is the case, then you may find this post interesting. Before writing it, I was thinking about what to publish, then I told myself: “Hey, you are an international student and you took one of the most important decision of your life, let’s talk about how you choose where to go and what to do!”. Here it is then, a few words about people and things that may help you in choosing which path you want to take to climb the mountain of the Purgatory. (more…)

If only I was more organized…

Photo by @kipunsam.daily / @gradlifemcgill

Photo by @kipunsam.daily / @gradlifemcgill

One of my favourite (but often failed) New Year’s resolutions is to be more organized and better schedule my time. Now this is obviously not a SMART resolution, and to be honest I’m not the most un-organized person, but every year I wish I was a little more on top of things and procrastinated a little less. This is especially true this year as I’m hoping to submit my thesis and there are mountains of work to be done!

So how I am going to be more organized? Well Aleks wrote a while ago her top tips for productivity and I like a lot of them, but I thought I would add a couple of my own. (more…)

December stresses me out!

Photo by @aliisonw // Instagram @gradlifemcgill

Photo by @aliisonw // Instagram @gradlifemcgill

It’s officially mid-December and you know what that means. Snow, slush and exams! It’s the time of year where every coffee shop in a 20 minute radius of campus is full of undergrads and graduate students alike studying hard for exams. Personally, I’m in my last years of a project-based degree, so I finished my course work some years ago and I do not miss it one bit. The sleepless nights, the stress eating, and the caffeine-induced eye twitches are mostly issues of the past for me, but I feel for all of you out there currently in the middle of exam season. It is not fun, but hopefully it will be over for you soon.

Now while I don’t exactly have exams to manically cram for, this time of year brings my own special brand of stress, my annual committee meeting. Now I know not all the departments are the same, but as a Biochemistry graduate student you have to assemble a committee of professors (at least 2 plus your supervisor) that you meet with at least once a year to make sure your work is on track. Unfortunately mine has been pushed all the way to the end of this year.  All things considered, I prefer this annual evaluation to any exam I’ve written but it is still incredibly stressful. Basically it’s a presentation where I show all the work I’ve done over the years and I’m questioned on what I know, what I think and what I want to do next. (more…)

Conferences & Conferences…

 

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

In any language of this world, Graduate Life’s translation could easily be “Conferences”. Conferences here, conferences there, doesn’t matter who you fero cum or you want to confer (for those of you who understand Latin)…this is a word whose echo stressed, stresses and will stress most of our readers. Then, if you are one of those who have ever wondered “confer…hence?”, you may want to have a look at this post, where I’m going to share with you the amazing experience of being not a speaker, not a presenter, not a panel spectator who struggles to get more free-food than the others, but a conference organizer, the most grey, banal, yet amazing figure in this world of weird translations.

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Read it and Weep

 

H McPherson

H McPherson

The urban dictionary uses the expression “Read it and Weep” in the context of giving someone bad news, especially if that news is in written form. However, I am using the expression in a purely literary sense.  Although I am perhaps more than two years away from even beginning to write my PhD dissertation, I have been reading award winning alternative dissertations.  What I have read are things of beauty. Articulate, exquisitely crafted, rich with colorful imagery, depth and control of relevant theories. Some extend the boundaries of the genre moving between theory, fiction, autobiography, stream of consciousness fragments, poetry, epistolary forms, and bricolage. Some are hybrids that blend autobiography, ethnography, visual, and performative arts. Once upon a time, I did a MSc in plant breeding and genetics.  Quantitative all the way.  Hard science, pure science. Clean, precise. Predictable. Then my head went BAM and that is now all over. The end of my engagement with quantitative methodology. There is something about the depth and richness of context, of the ability to capture what people have to say in their own words, to describe experiences with emotion and depth. Qualitative methods, language – every word carefully chosen.  Every sentence slowly crafted.  A slow crescendo of language and theory building to a denouement, the outcome of a well-crafted story, where secrets are revealed, leaving no loose ends. There is no going back. I have found a new home.

 

Urban Dictionary, November 24: Folx. (n.d.). Retrieved Novmber 27, 2016, from http://www.urbandictionary.com/

Shots Shots Shots

By N. Zelt

By N. Zelt

Well, that time of year has rolled around again. That’s right, we’re getting into flu season. School’s coming into crunch time, working hard to get papers written and experiments finished up before the holidays. What could possibly be worse than getting sick at a time like this? So, don’t forget to get the influenza vaccine.

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Dear Edward Snowden…

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by : @digitalpigeons

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by : @digitalpigeons

“Standing in line to

See the show tonight

And there’s a light on

Heavy glow….”

(Lyrics from The Red Hot Chili Peppers – By the Way)

Verses, words that many of us know, words that came to my mind that late afternoon when nobody-knows-how many students, professors, people of the McGill community waited for hours before listening to Edward Snowden. I was among them and I strongly believe that GradLife should have a page about this event, about his words.

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The Dream You Don’t Dream

The Samuel Bronfman building is the house of business studies at McGill University. Each year a batch of students begin their two years journey of dreaming and a batch leaves the building with the satisfaction of having achieved their dreams and the joy that the last two years bought to their lives. But there are some dreams that no one dreams and that dream that you don’t dream is reality that surpasses your expectations. Something that you never imagined or fleetingly hoped for but never expected.

In 2012, five students got together at the third floor of the Bronfman building and decided that they want to tackle the problem of world food scarcity. They did not know what they would achieve but they had the courage to take up this challenge while braving the rigors of an MBA course. The team saw a spectrum of ups and downs but one year later in September 2013, the same five students from McGill University won the Hult Prize with their unique solution of using insect-derived flour to win a bid to address food security, in the process winning USD $1Million as seed funding to further pursue their idea. It has been three years since they won and the Aspire Food Group is still going strong with their mission of providing a sustainable food source to millions of people around the world.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton with McGill’s 2013 winning team (from left to right): Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor, Zev Thompson, Gabriel Mott and Mohammed Ashour. / Photo: AP Images for the Hult Prize

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton with McGill’s 2013 winning team (from left to right): Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor, Zev Thompson, Gabriel Mott and Mohammed Ashour. Photo: AP Images for the Hult Prize

The Hult Prize is the world’s largest student competition for social entrepreneurship and this year’s challenge is centered on “the refugee opportunity”, specifically reawakening human potential, and build sustainable, scalable social enterprises that restore the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees by 2022. Students have an opportunity once again to tackle an issue where social enterprises of any kind can help attain the target. The beauty of Hult Prize is that with such a broad topic, it allows students from all backgrounds to view the challenge with a different lens and uniquely use their skills in the quest to find solutions.

On Sunday, December 4th , McGill University is hosting Hult Prize @ McGill — the university-level competition for the prestigious Hult Prize. Winners from the university level event will go on to represent McGill at the regional competitions in March 2017. The winners of the regional event will then participate in a six-week long accelerator to refine their ideas before presenting at the finals at the annual Clinton Global Initiative in September 2017 and get a shot at securing USD $1Million as seed funding.

The Aspire group probably didn’t dream this before it happened, maybe you haven’t dreamed it as yet. But this is your opportunity to live the dream that you may have never dreamt and in the process impact the lives of billions of people.

Those interested in participating can find more information about the McGill competition and the Hult Prize. Follow Hult Prize on Facebook to get updates of events and workshops.

 

A Friend in Fear

It’s that time of year again, when the streets are lined with ghouls and monsters, department stores are filled with plastic skeletons and more candy than they have room for, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s finally Halloween! Even though I’m a sucker for all things pumpkin, I’m most excited about all the new horror that comes with each Halloween season.

pumpkin patch

I’ve always loved anything that’s designed to scare. Ghost stories, zombie hoards, slasher flicks, you name it; I was that kid in junior high that made my friends watch the Blair Witch Project for my birthday party! There’s just something so exciting about the sense of unease that comes with being scared and so, it seemed fitting that my first post with GradLife McGill should be about fear.

Of course I’m not alone in my love of horror, and perhaps it’s not surprising that my grad student tendencies lead to me wondering why so many of us are drawn to fear. A couple PubMed searches later and it turns out that I’m not alone in my curiosity either.

Researchers have looked at the allure of being scared from many angles and in many disciplines. Some psychologists have theorized that people are drawn to horror as a way to “practice” reacting to real-life situations (1). There’s even research on how horror movies help bond couples on dates (2)! After all, according to data scientists at OkCupid, liking horror movies is the number one predictor of long term relationship success (3). But as a meta-analysis in Media Psychology points out, the love of being scared might all come down to the way we interpret our reactions (4). In other words, some of us are drawn towards fright because we also experience excitement that we interpret as pleasurable; this also helps to explain why, although we all get scared, only some of us enjoy it.

I personally identify with the pairing of fear and excitement. I’d even add that fear can also be a powerful source of motivation; it’s just a matter of pointing that motivation in the right direction. Four years ago, the idea of moving across the country and starting a graduate degree and a new life away from everything I knew was absolutely petrifying, but it was also exciting. I used that feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach to push me towards my goals and, although it’s definitely not been easy, it was the right choice.

My grad school life, like many others, is full of situations that scare me. Whether it’s starting a new experiment with my hypothesis on the line, or taking on the mentorship of an eager, impressionable undergraduate, the excitement of what could happen is always accompanied by a vein of fear. So while I sit here surrounded by glowing jack-o-lanterns and with a classic horror movie playing in the background, I’m reminding myself to embrace my fears, and to use them to make the most of opportunities as they come along.

After all, grad school is terrifying. But maybe that’s why I’m here.

IMG_20161028_213938 (2)

 

Works cited:

1Christian Jarrett (2011). The lure of horror. The Psychologist. 24:812-815

2Zillmann et al. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3): 586-594.

3 Rudder, Christian (2014). Dataclysm: who we are when we think no one’s looking. New York, New York: Crown Publishers.

4Hoffner and Levine (2005). Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, 7: 207-237

Graduate studies: A decision between adventure and chaos – Part 2

Imagine yourself about to jump from a bungee platform. You will see the abyss below you and the urgent feeling of retreat. In that moment you have to options: chicken out and live with the shame in your comfortable way of living… or you jump and see the experience by yourself. In my very personal perspective I would not make the jump as I don’t see the point of throwing yourself off a cliff just for the “YOLO”.

20161031_131903

Photo by Luis Villegas

But I guess that I had a similar feeling when I was about to enter the manager’s office to explain to him that I was about to quit to go back to graduate school. Metallurgy and Materials Engineering to be precise (more details in the previous post Graduate studies: A decision between adventure and chaos – Part 1). He was a nice boss, but he was also a strong old-shaped man whose perception of academic life was not very positive. “Are you going there on the afternoons?” he asked, and I had to explain that actually, I was presenting my resignation. I could feel the disappointment when he reclined in his chair and threw a quick glance to me, but there was nothing I could do. I received several bad opinions from some friends and other close people about my decision by then, so I was starting to get used to that particular reaction. The notice was official, my replacement was selected and started to train him. I received good wishes from my colleagues and I remember that the very last day when I step outside the factory, I felt like I was ready to take over the world. Unfortunately, things started to get crazy during my first weeks in grad school. First of all, my paycheck reduced dramatically for obvious reasons. Second, for some strange phenomena, all days were Wednesday. That day of the week where you do not know if you should press harder as in Monday or to take it easier as in Friday, feeling in a procrastination limbo that lasted 2 years. Working on Sundays? Of course! There is no better day to put your thesis drafts together. Going out on Monday? Why not! After a while, a Tuesday is not really different from a Saturday.  I lost the perception of time in a very interesting way. The days were longer now. There was no work cellphone to wake me up at 3 a.m. However, now sending emails and writing abstracts at 4 a.m. was perfectly normal. At least I could justify my nocturnal eating habits.

All of this was really hard at the beginning, and I could feel tired, more stressed and a little bit paranoid sometimes. But I was excited like never before, my research took me to different places in my own country, I met amazing people and I discovered a whole new world of information. And then the best came when I realized that it did not have to end there. What if I could go further and get a bigger challenge? There was an old wish in my vault waiting since I was a teenager. And there was a maple leaf on it.

The beginning of a story…

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @na0mirlima

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @na0mirlima

 

Definitions of stories are enough to say that they are the way our life runs, works and expresses itself. Every act, every action, every single gesture or word is a component of that story that we tell by living. Then, let’s write a different story, one that would not describe a graduate life as a report, but one that conveys the sensations that graduate students feel in their day-by-day journey. Let’s put a character in the middle of something, a character that shows the way we are, faces reality the way it is, as many of us do. Although generally known as fiction, sometimes narratives can be the only way to clearly describe what we feel, what things are and not what they should be. Enjoy.

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That blind-spot in our Graduate Life…

At a first sight, the word surroundings sounds like something similar to shiny rounded rings enclosing something important in its center. However, these surroundings have often an importance in themselves and can be as relevant as the center on which we are too obsessively, crazily, stressfully focused. If my first post was about the relationship between graduate life and Time, the second one will investigate (wow, I’m so academic here) how the former relates to Space. Obviously, the two are strictly correlated and we will see that the idea of discovering our surroundings depends also on the choice to give time to this process of discovering and exploring. Yet, I do not want to be boringsophical here, just tell something that any graduate student may feel on his or her own skin.

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Goodbye, Technology

Photo by Flickr user Meghan Wilker.

Photo by Flickr user Meghan Wilker.

Recently, I’ve realized how much time I spend looking at screens. I spend all day in the lab typing word documents, running stats, processing data – all on a computer. Then, I come home and watch Netflix, check Facebook and Instagram, and listen to music – all on a computer or phone. By the time I go to bed, I’d estimate that I would have accumulated over 12 hours of screen time on the average day.

That number seems outrageous to me. Over 50% of my life is spent looking at a screen. While you can’t argue the enormous benefits technology provides to our daily lives, especially in grad school, including communication with other people, efficiency in our tasks, and increasing our productivity levels when used wisely, you have to wonder if it’s sometimes necessary to draw the line somewhere.

The shocking part is that screen time is usually directly related to sedentary time, or time during which you are completely motionless. Sedentary time has been found to contribute to chronic health in the exact opposite way than physical activity levels (i.e. excessive sedentary time reduces overall health and well-being). I won’t turn this into a post preaching the benefits of physical activity (although exercise is very important for your mental and physical health!), but I will say that I’ve decided it’s time for me to reduce my screen (and consequently sedentary) time.

Hence, I’m doing a technology cleanse.

I already foresee obstacles in this challenge, but I want to be aware of them and deal with them as they come. I know that I cannot completely eliminate technology from my life, as it is such a vital part of my daily functioning with my thesis work, communicating with my friends, family, and supervisor, and even how I spend my leisure time. However, I want to set some ground rules to work around these barriers and manage how I use technology in the short term.

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