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Why Montreal is Magnificent for Master’s Students

Photo by Aleks Budarick.

It’s official: Montreal was recently ranked as the best student city in the world.

I’m not surprised. While I’ve only been a post-secondary student in two other cities (one in Ontario and one in Australia), both of which I liked very much, Montreal is the perfect city for my life as a master’s student. Why, you may ask? Well, let me explain some of my reasons.


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.


Successes: the story continues…

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @yogipetals

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @yogipetals

At the end of The beginning of a story, the story was left open on purpose. Hope, possibility, opportunity, chaos, chance were the words that concluded that post, but now it’s time to add chaos to the unfolded life of that character.

The phone was ringing loudly. The noise annoyed him. He answered to just stop it and did not even speak. On the other side of that coded and decoded connection through which a human voice was reaching him, a man was producing sounds with his mouth. The sequence took form and meaning, became denial of purposes and ideas, refusal of something that the guy had sent to the journal whose the man was an editor. You don’t know anything about what you are writing, do you? You should read this and this and this and I will write everything down but your article was so…empty that I preferred to call you to vomit all my disappointment on you. Sounds, meaning and delusion. 


I like to do surveys (like this one)

Lucky me, all the people I study for my PhD are dead a couple of centuries ago. I don’t have to ask them any questions, even if that would be a great help sometimes. Well, all the time, but I can’t. I have to find the answers I need in ancient documents. But some grad students really need to interact with other living humans and ask them questions.

When I studied and worked in communications, I came to understand the value of some surveys. From that time, I almost always answer when someone wants to ask questions for a «good» cause.

The same thing is happening now that I am in grad school. I almost always say «yes!» when somebody needs to do study in order to complete their research. I am even on a waiting list for research about baby’s communication.

If you want to help too, there are quite a lot of surveys you can answer, like this one about Doctoral Students’ Work-Life Balance and Well-Being (psss, you can win 250$ or even 500$!).

How do you find answers to your research’s questions?

Ps:.: I made mistakes? Please, help me improve!

Late Entry: When is the right time to do a PhD?


Photo:  H. McPherson

Photo: H. McPherson

I have not counted the number of times that someone has asked: So why are you doing a PhD? The question does not stem from genuine interest in my proposed research, nor does it come from an interest in my possible future career aspirations in academia. Rather, the question arises because I am clearly old(er). Over 50 older.

In our department (DISE), the age of doctoral students is more or less 1/3 under 30, 1/3 between 30 and 45, and yes, 1/3 between the ages of 45 and 60. No one asks the under 30 crowd why they are doing a PhD. It is understood that they wish to challenge themselves, or they feel a driving force to explore and learn new things, to improve their abilities to understand and solve problems, and they all hope to find a career in academia. This is obvious, and to ask this demographic why they are doing a PhD would be superfluous. The trajectories of 30 – 45 group are similar, with the added experience of engaging in the job market for a number of years, and a sense of certainty that research and academia are truly where they want to be. Again, this is not questioned.

And that leaves the last third. Myself and the other late entrants. So here is why we are doing a PhD. We are all in the last 10 years of our career. We all have unanswered structural questions about how things are organized in our respective professions, and so back to school we went. I think the main characteristic we all share is curiosity and a sense that completing a PhD will be personally fulfilling. Our careers are rewarding and we are happy in our careers. We are all working full time or part time, and are pursuing a PhD full time. But there is that intangible something that meant, for all of us, that this journey had to be initiated. This was made possible because all graduate courses in the Faculty of Education are offered at night. Which implies that the nature of education, being an applied discipline, genuinely values/needs PhD students who possess a clear intellectual and academic thread to their portfolio that is combined with previous work experience in the field of education.

Each age group in our program has unique strengths that we bring to our studies. The under 30 group has no responsibilities, no money, and a clear and concise vision of where they are going. Late nights are just late nights. The 30-40 age group bring experience to the table, and a drive that comes from having done something else and knowing precisely why they are pursuing a PhD. Many of the students in this demographic have young children, and are juggling job, family, and school. Hats off to them – their juggling expertise has the respect of all. Finally, the late entrants have adult or almost adult children, which means free time, a fulfilling careers, and a thirst for answers. Just please don’t ask us, “So uh, WHY are you doing a PhD?

When is the right time to do a PhD? Well, when the time is right for you. Anytime is the right time. Enjoy the journey and embrace the roller coaster ride. Just do it!

Top 5 Tips to Increase Productivity

Photo by @GradLifeMcGill instagrammer @steezsister

Photo by @GradLifeMcGill instagrammer @steezsister

Ah, grad school. Aka the years of your life where you’re learning how much you don’t know, pushing your personal and professional boundaries, and managing an outrageously busy schedule. Grad school schedules come with deadlines. Deadlines for abstract submissions, funding applications, and course work, on top of lab meetings, data collection, and social endeavours. Here are my top 5 tips to increase productivity, to maneuver these deadlines and actually get work done:

1. Make a list

This tip is probably the most cliché of all, but couldn’t be left off of this list. The fact is: it works. I find it much easier to prioritize my tasks when they’re all laid out in front of me. I can see what needs to be done, estimate how much time each item will take, and start working from there.

Make your list before you start doing any work. Include even the smallest tasks, because it’s a great feeling to check items off, and any progress is good progress!

2. Set a timeline and stick to it

When I’m working in the lab, I tend to pick a task to work on until lunch time, and then take my lunch break. Then, I pick another task (potentially the same one, if it’s larger), and work until the end of the day. I always have a time when I know I’ll be leaving the lab, and I stick to that timeline. This helps me set aside blocks of time for each task I need to complete in a day, and knowing how long I’m going to be working on something helps me stay focused and be more productive.


Rolling with the Punches: Coping with Change in Grad School

Photo by Flickr user Frederico Cintra.

Photo by Flickr user Frederico Cintra.

Entering the second semester of my master’s, I was following my proposed schedule perfectly. I had completed all of my required course work, applied for funding, and helped with data collection for our second year master’s student. I learned how to use relevant processing programs for my lab work, read what felt like one million articles, and put it all together to develop my thesis topic. From there, I wrote my literature review (after reading more articles), worked tirelessly to process pilot data, and even found an undergraduate student who was willing to help me. Finally, my formal thesis proposal presentation was one month away. I went into my weekly lab meeting feeling very accomplished, ready to informally present my progress and finalize what was going into my presentation.

During that meeting, my thesis topic changed.


Tropical Tribulations, Final Episode: Small Fieldwork, Grand Finale.

*** I just wrote a lengthy, thought-out post, then accidentally clicked on a link, and when I came back I had lost it all. I have no energy to write it again. Thanks, WordPress, for saying you have an auto-save function that doesn’t actually work. Aaaaaaarg. At least it’s not my thesis. Hm. Below is the part I didn’t loose. Co-Bloggers: please hit “save draft” more often than I did in the past two hours…***

24082014732When I arrived in Brazil, one big question lay over the country: would it be enough for the “Hexa”? The sixth title? Here, at home, with the world watching?

It was not to be. The World Cup – which some considered a flawed enterprise anyway – came and went, at lightning speed, as did the Summer. At the end, as I left the country, footballs still flew high in Brazil – as the picture shows – but new hopes had come to decorate the streets. On the school wall, the talk is of “luz”, “esperanca”, “respeito” and “abracos” (light, hope, respect, and hugs); and although the “Hexa” is still visible, somebody has since sprayed a new dream over the old one: “amor por favor” (love please).


The Summer is Heating up

With temperatures as high as 32°C and humidity levels above 50%, Montreal sweltering summer heat has finally arrived. When your colleague, back from China, says the weather in Beijing was cool compared to Montreal, you know it’s hot.

What is also heating up is work on the Thesis. The August deadline is looming on the horizon like a heat shimmer. Is it hot outside or is this bead of sweat here for another reason? Let’s just say I haven’t been writing blog posts lately for good reasons.

What is hard about academia is determining where to draw the line in the proverbial hot sand of research. It is clear to me at this point that there is no endpoint. No finishing tape to cross. It is all about the next questions that can be asked and the new spaces that can be explored. The results obtained are never completely different from what has passed before. What is next will not be too far from the present either.


Brush away but hopefully not in bad lands
(Source: Jurassic Park – The Lost World)


3 minutes to summarize 2 years

My master’s thesis is about 95 pages long. That’s a lot of information to reduce down to a two-page script that can be read in three minutes. But that’s what I did, along with 11 of the most inspiring young researchers I have ever had the chance to meet at McGill. It all happened on March 31st at McGill’s 3rd annual 3 Minutes to Change the World.

My fellow *amazing* presenters at 3 Minutes to Change the World

My fellow *amazing* presenters at 3 Minutes to Change the World 2014


Concerns of women in research

How can women foster a work-life balance in their research careers?

Did you know Aretha was awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton?
She had it right in demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

How do we make tough career decisions?

Why do we sometimes feel we’re not good enough to be here?

These are some of the questions that were tackled at McGill’s 2nd annual In her own words 2: Stories from Distinguished Research Careers. The speakers on this panel were Professor Suzanne Fortier (our current Principal), Professor Grace Fong, and Professor Morag Park.

Their advice was thoughtful, but also sometimes discouraging—in the way the best can make success look so easy. This post is for all you who didn’t make it to the event but are curious as to what these power-houses had to say about pursuing a career in research. (more…)

Event: McGill Gets Inspired by TED-Talks

Three Minutes to Change the World

“Fast paced” is practically the antithese of “Grad School.” When you think about explaining your research, doing it quickly is rarely part of the experience. Most of us are prone to panic attacks when our presentations are limited to 45 minutes, discounting the question period as optional.  So what do you think about someone trying in less than 5?


An Ig Nobel before a Nobel.

"The Stinker" - The Official Mascot of the Ig Noble prizes (Courtesy of the Ig Noble Prize website)

Being a scientist is tough. There’s no two ways about it. It has huge rewards, but also involves a lot of dedication, hard work and Lady Luck. Late-night endeavours are frequent and don’t always lead to results. The system is slow, and publications don’t come easily. As graduate students, we are constantly under stress and, sometimes, we forget the bigger picture. If you want to keep your sanity, not being attached to the outcome of an experiment is a necessary quality in research. All the more reason not to take yourself too seriously. That is also why it is important to celebrate science and see the humour in it all.

Luckily, I am not the first person to think this way. Satire has been around for a long time to ease our displeasures with the world. Cue the Ig Nobel Prizes. This is not a typo, but rather a sort of parody of the Nobel Prizes. These awards are handed out every year for research considered improbable by the scientific humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). Yes, such a magazine does exist.

The Ig Nobel Prizes have actually been around for over 20 years, and recognize genuine achievements. In 2012, one of the awards was given to a paper published in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results (again, this is not a typo), for which a researcher (Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara) used fMRi to examine the brain of a dead salmon as it was being shown pictures of humans to see whether it could detect emotions.

The whole salmon-in-an-MRI-scanner started as a joke. Before scanning a person, the equipment is checked and the background level is accounted for by using a phantom object as a control. Because any object can be used for this purpose, Bennett and colleagues, for the fun of it, decided to use random objects, which is how they ended up with a dead salmon in the MRI machine. The Ig Nobel Prizes’ motto is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Funny as the subject matter may be, the paper’s authors argue that fMRI science can be prone to false signals and that scientists should use rigorous statistical corrections to interpret the data. If fMRI data is not carefully interpreted, brain researchers can potentially find brain activity anywhere, even in a dead fish.

One of our own McGill professors, Peter Brass, also won an Ig Nobel Prize in the past, for his work titled : injuries due to falling coconuts. Although it sounds like a laughing matter, such injuries are quite real in places like Papua New Guinea, where Prof. Brass was stationed as an MD and where people nap under palm trees. When asked about receiving an Ig Nobel Prize, he said: “Life is hard. It’s good to have a laugh now and then.”

Another award winner is probably also laughing now. Andre Geim from the University of Nijmegen became the first person to win both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel Prize. Incidentally, the Ig Nobel came first, in 2000, for research on frog levitation using electromagnetism. Then, in 2010, he shared the Nobel prize in physics for his work on graphene. 

Perhaps we all need to risk a little ignobility in order to become noble. Work hard, be dedicated, but remember to take yourself lightly.For those who are interested, the next Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is scheduled for September 12, 2013. 

Scientific research: one for all and all for one

Science is a wonderful thing. Research is its means. Through our day-to-day research in our respective labs, we – graduate students, research assistants, associates and technicians, undergraduate students and even PIs – conduct research in order to understand the mechanisms underlying life, diseases, and things seen and unseen. From the study of submicroscopic matter that is physics to the study of celestial objects more than 109 times the diameter of the earth that represents astronomy to everything in between, science is everywhere around us. Anything we see, with an aided eye or not, is subject to one of the many sciences that encompasses our world. (more…)

Yes or no?

One professional philosophy that I’ve tried very hard to embrace is, “be open to the possibility of doing new things or taking on new responsibilities”: a new collaboration, a new side-project, a new outreach activity, a new workshop.  In other words, to say, “yes” whenever possible.

I’ve observed a trend towards grad students saying, “I don’t have time”. They spend most of their waking hours working on their research, their papers and their theses: in other words, being good, conscientious students.

I do get why so many grad students balk at doing something new:  “new things” almost invariably translate into “more work added to an already stupidly busy student workload”. And while I have no doubt that these students will be great successes academically, I do worry that some of them are letting important professional opportunities slip away.


Getting the most out of academic conferences

In my field, the first few months of the fall term represent “conference season”. Last year I went to my first entomology conference as a PhD student. This year I’m upping the ante considerably: I’m giving a total of 4 talks at three conferences (one is provincial, one national and one international). Larger conferences are pretty darned fun and full of awesome brain-candy. In addition to the beer and free food and hotel rooms and t-shirts and field trips and bookslighter, more social aspects, they also provide excellent opportunities to interact with people in your field and to learn about exciting new research.

A plenary talk at the 2010 ESC conference (Photo by Rick West)

I’m now at what I consider to be a fairly crucial stage of my PhD, in terms of completing projects I’ve started and developing quick additional projects to round out my thesis. As such, I’m considering this conference tour to be (potentially) very important.

I’ve read some blog posts in the last year or so that provided students some sound advice for maximizing the conference experience. One idea that I’ve come across has stuck with me: have a focus. I think this can apply to any number of things the conference-goer might wish to accomplish. (more…)

Field season report #2: the research

Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk research, shall we?

My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners.  The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.

col·lab·o·rate  (k-lb-rt)intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates

1. To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their caterpillar prey.  Me – I study beetles.
Our sampling methods and research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip.  In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for sampling/collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.
This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.
Happily, this is not what happened on my trip.  I have proof:

Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.

Field season report #1: the beauty

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle - km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

I’m back from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory, and can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway


If science is cake, then this is the icing…

I can honestly say that I love 95% of my work, 95% of the time. Doing Science makes me feel happy and satisfied, and I can’t imagine doing anything else as a career.

That said, if science is my cake, then this is the time of year is the icing on top – it’s field season! Elsewhere, I’ve chronicled some of my Arctic adventures from the past two field seasons, from my first incredible summer living in Kugluktuk (for example, here and here) to my stay in beautiful Yellowknife last year. This summer, my research will take me with a small team to the Dempster Highway, in the Yukon.

Photo by Chris Buddle, used with permission

I’m excited about this for a few reasons, the first of which is that, after this summer, I will have visited every province and territory in Canada. I think this is pretty neat. Second, according to my advisor, the Dempster is the most beautiful place on the entire planet to visit. From his photos, I have to think he’s not exaggerating. (more…)

Conferecing 101

Ok, so you are supposed to go to a conference, and don’t quite know what to expect. I fancy myself to be something of a conference veteran and here are few tips in no particular order:


  1. Funds: look for a conference that has student awards. Some organizers will pay you for minor voluntary work. You can look for the McGill Travel awards. Try the usual methods to look for cheap tickets. Work out the costs before going. Typical heads to budget for: tickets, visas, conference fees, local transport, board and lodging, per diems.
  2. (more…)
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