Super commuter: Grad student edition

I recently learned that there is a name for the thing I do nearly every week: super-commuting. Most Friday afternoons, I catch the bus in downtown Montréal and go home to Trois-Rivières for the weekend to see my cats, my home, and my boyfriend. Admittedly, the distance is only about 150km, so I don’t know if it counts officially as a super-commute, but it feels like one to me. It is certainly better than my previous super-commute, which was between Panama and Trois-Rivières, was closer to 7,600km, and only happened every 4-6 months.

 

Everyone’s favourite Friday afternoon.

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To tweet or not to tweet: why use social media?

I’ve recently been bitten by the twitter bug.

 

A little birdie told me.

I’ve had an account for years (Twitter says since 2011), but I’ve only started using the social media platform in the last couple of months. A recent conference here in Montreal had a big social media push, and several of my friends and colleagues are tweeters, so I tried my hand at it. I have since been posting fairly regularly. Not only have I learned that live tweeting is a lot harder than it looks, but I’ve also learned that twitter is a pretty awesome tool. Here are some of the things I think are the most useful about it:

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Small World: Conference Season Begins

Last week I attended the Genomes to Biomes meeting, held right here in beautiful downtown Montréal. This was the first ever joint meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution-Société canadienne d’écologie et d’écolution (CSEE/SCEE), the Canadian Society of Zoologists-Société candadienne de zoologie (CSZ/SCZ) and the Society of Canadian Limnologists-Société canadienne de limnologie (SCL). A lot of acronyms for one meeting!

So what does one do at a scientific meeting? Well, for the most part, you talk.

G2B_Sucrerie

After the talks comes more talking. The closing banquet of Genomes to Biomes, at the Sucrerie de la Montagne, May 29, 2014.

 

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Concept Mapping with the McGill Library

Concept mapping is a way to link ideas and concepts in a visual and easy to follow way. Yesterday, I participated in a workshop held at the McGill Library that was all about using this method to organize and visualize ideas. So why would a graduate student want to spend part of their day learning about concept mapping? Aside from adding another bit of non-standard software to my computer, concept mapping seems to be a useful way of connecting ideas; be that as part of a research project, a course curriculum, or even a way of collaborating with others.

At the most basic level, concept maps consist of two ideas linked by an arrow labeled with words or phrases that connect the two ideas in a meaningful way. The example given in the session was (pie) –is–> (good). Voilà, a concept map! Yes, this is really a technique that can be used for just about anything. Several ideas can be linked using linking phrases, and gradually built into a map of concepts, which can help to to clarify concepts, and more interestingly, highlight areas where connections could be made.

A concept map about concept maps. From the IHMC Cmap Tool Website, http://cmap.ihmc.us/

 

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Indecision Québec 2014

PLQ Corrumpu

Anti PLQ election graffiti in MontréalParti BourguoisAnti PQ election graffiti in Montréal.

In case you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks (or under a thesis), you should know that today, Monday April 7, 2014 is election day in Québec. Across the province, people are making their voices heard in what has been an interesting (to say the least) election campaign.

This year, it was easier than ever for students to vote, as we could vote on campus over a period of four days. As a resident of a riding outside of Montreal, this made life easier for me, as I’m sure it did for many other students. I actually cast my ballot last week, without trouble. Then again, I have been resident here for more nearly 7 years; I pay taxes here, I have a Québec driver’s licence, a RAMQ card, and I own a house in Trois-Rivières. I’m already on the list of registered voters. I walked up to the polling station, presented my identification, and was handed a list of candidates for my riding, marked my ballot, placed it in a sealed envelope and went on my merry way.

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Working Holiday (hold the holiday)

A marine invertebrate biologist in her natural habitat, the rocky intertidal.
Playa Venado at Veracruz, Panama.
Photo by Maryna Lesoway

Picture this: Reading week. Tropics. Panama.

You’re probably imagining sandy beaches, palm trees, dense forest, a canal. And if this were a regular trip, you would probably be right. But this is a field trip. And while a field trip for me does in fact mean a trip to the beach, it is one that involves wearing long pants and a long shirt, a big hat, dive boots, a cooler full of collecting gear, and being covered in mud. This is the fun part.

Field work also means finding funding to go to the field, stressing over getting permits, organizing equipment, going out with the tide, hoping you get what you are looking for and then spending more time in the lab to process everything than you do collecting it in the first place. This is slightly less fun.

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Future McGill Graduate Student?

Photo by Maryna Lesoway.

In the last several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with prospective students who are interested in joining our lab here at McGill. When considering starting graduate studies, particularly when starting a doctorate, it is important not just to check out the website of your potential supervisor and future lab to see that your research interests line up. It’s just as important to meet your potential supervisor, to check in with the students who are currently members of the research group, and to be sure that your personal styles are a good fit. Starting graduate studies is a decision that will make a big change in your life, and it is important to be aware of issues that could arise during the course of your studies.  After all, you will be working together for the next few years! (more…)

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Thinking about thinking.

I started teaching again last week, and one of the ice-breaker questions I ask my students is what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a good way to gauge your student’s maturity and interests, and to get to know them a bit better. I also ask them about their preferences in superpowers, so it’s not all serious. Funnily enough, the question of what to do with the rest of my life is something that I have been asking myself lately. As the PhD finish line comes into sight (far on the horizon, but it’s there), I start to wonder if a life in academia is really for me.

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All I really need to know, I learned from other graduate students

I’m an R hero now!

Yesterday, I participated in an R workshop hosted by the Québec Centre for Biodiversity Science (better known to members as QCBS, CSBQ pour les membres francophones). For those who aren’t familiar, R is a free, open-source computer language that allows you to manipulate data, perform statistical analyses, and make pretty plots and graphs for publications, all under the same umbrella. I’ve been hearing about the wonders of R for years from other graduate students, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to actually learn it. And now that I have some data that I’m trying to produce pretty graphics of for publications, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn something new! The workshop itself, Zero to R Hero,  was led by members of the R Montreal user group, who have taken it upon themselves to spread the good news of R to those of us (myself included) who are just starting out. Like any new computer language, there is a steep learning curve, and getting going can be intimidating. The idea of the workshop was to help you to get over the first hurdles and to be able to use R for your own research.

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So, what is it you do all day?

Too due list, from everyone’s favourite cartoon of academic life, “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

Everyone knows that graduate students are overworked, underpaid, and busy, busy, busy. But what exactly do they do all day? Myself and another graduate student that I live with were recently posed the question by a houseguest, who was amazed by our laid-back morning style: breakfast and coffee over the morning paper, eventually deciding that it was time to get out the door, and making it to the office by 10am. It has to be said that this isn’t necessarily a typical day – after all, we had a visitor! But graduate studies are definitely not your typical 9-5 hours.

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The only certainty is uncertainty

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

The longer I am in graduate school, the more I feel that you need to be extremely comfortable with high levels of uncertainty in order to be happy in this life. Research itself is, after all, an attempt to move from a place of uncertainty into a place of more and different uncertainties. Contrary to popular belief (and much undergraduate coursework), science is not really about collecting and expanding a body of facts, but expanding the number of things we can ask questions about. In Stuart Firestein’s recent book, “Ignorance” (reviewed here and recommended reading for scientist and non-scientist alike), the author suggests that doing science is a lot like looking for a black cat in a dark room, where there often turns out to be no cat at all. Although you might have a good idea of the outcome of an experiment, you don’t know what the end result will be. And of course, unexpected results can lead you to new questions that you didn’t even think you were asking.

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