Cultivating Mindfulness & Emotional Awareness

Mindfulness. (Credit: http://www.kazoobooks.com/mindfulness-drop-in-class/)

Mindfulness

There is always so much to worry about in graduate school: from academic performance, finances, staying healthy and in a nutshell, trying to achieve a balanced lifestyle. For the past year, I decided to go on a path for finding (and keeping) balance. This included getting to know exercise; attending yoga and meditation classes; committing to healthier eating choices; and above all, emotional healing. I ended up enrolling in a 4-week workshop offered by McGill’s Counseling Services (MCS) on cultivating emotional awareness (currently being offered as “Skills for Emotional Regulation” starting November 2nd.) Throughout the workshop, Philip Lemieux, a psychologist at the MCS, emphasized that the most important message to take home from this workshop is “the planting of the mindfulness practice seed”.

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Sciencescape: A New Tool For Accelerated Efficient Research

Image from Sciencescape

Image from Sciencescape

When my father was a young professional working for a German company designing solar panels, they used to have team meetings almost every day to discuss the progression of the research. Every day, the secretary would be the first one to arrive to scour new articles published in engineering journals in order to keep the team fully updated. He would then type up his findings and make several copies for the attendees to discuss during the meeting.

Now imagine how easier this job would have been if, say, there was a Twitter-like platform where he could log onto from the comfort of his home; check his feed on current literature; receive notifications as soon as a paper gets published; organize the literature in a virtual library; and be able to digitally share this library with the team instead of printing copies. He would be able to cash in quite a few more hours of sleep! But sleeping aside, imagine if you could have a Twitter-like platform being updated 24/7 and notifying you of all the breakthroughs in literature the second they come out. Imagine having not to miss out on reading a recent paper that might greatly improve your research or that might discuss the same experiments you are working on, giving you hints on what works or not so you can change your course accordingly without losing time. Suddenly, being scooped doesn’t feel like the approach of the apocalypse, but a minor setback in the course of your graduate studies.

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A Cup of Tea with Jini Reddy

instagram jini

Jini Reddy (Courtesy of Jini Reddy)

A couple of months ago, I was leafing through Psychologies magazine (December 2014 issue) and stumbled upon an article on a new rising economy: the economy of sharing and swapping that has taken bloom in the UK recently. By some mysterious force, I found myself drawn to the article: from the writing style to the engaging content that depicts a rare initiative of reaching out to people who are complete strangers – it inspired me.  I gathered up the courage and got in touch with the author of the article, Jini Reddy, to ask her if she would share some of her writing and life skills with me. An accomplished traveler and a writer/journalist who writes about eco-travel, nature-based experiences, wellbeing and sustainable living (pretty much everything I dreamed of becoming and still dream of becoming), Jini has quickly become a role model for me.

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Women in Science: An Interview with Dr Joan Steitz

Photo taken from ASCB (http://ascb.org/our-people-yale-s-joan-steitz-named-to-royal-society/) "HHMI Dr. Joan Steitz is seen posing for a portrait on the campus of Yale University on Friday, November 16, 2012 in New Haven. (Brian Ach/AP Images for HHMI)"

Photo taken from ASCB (http://ascb.org/our-people-yale-s-joan-steitz-named-to-royal-society/) “HHMI Dr. Joan Steitz is seen posing for a portrait on the campus of Yale University on Friday, November 16, 2012 in New Haven. (Brian Ach/AP Images for HHMI)”

This past July, McGill’s Department of Biochemistry hosted one of the most prominent female figures in the biological sciences: Dr Joan Steitz. Having been invited repeatedly over the past 13 years, the seminar finally took place in room 1034 of the McIntyre Building. The seminar saw a very big turn-out, including most of the biochemistry faculty members and graduate students from various departments in the life sciences.

Dr Joan Steitz walked in with an air of confidence and a general disposition of compassion. She was dressed in an elegant suit of sky blue and gray; hair beautifully coiffed up in a timeless updo and a naturally glowing complexion. The screen flashed with the title of her talk: “Non-coding RNAs with a viral twist”. For the next hour, Steitz discussed her current research and findings on how non-coding RNAs in the genome play an important role in viral infections and proliferation, specifically, the gamma-herpesvirus.

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Cornerstones of Academic Writing

Cornerstones of Academic Writing

My journey with academic writing began when I was a senior undergraduate applying for a fellowship. I had never written a research proposal before and so the result of my futile efforts came in the form of a very literary and romantic piece of writing about a faulty protein in Crohn’s disease – certainly not what you would present to a grant committee. The moment I laid eyes on the edits made to my proposal by my supervisor and saw the generous red markings, I almost fell over in my chair. That was a low moment in my writing career. But after I sat down with my supervisor and discussed the edits, things become remarkably clear, making perfect sense. The most valuable lesson I took from him that day was one simple word: Flow, which is the very first cornerstone I will talk about in this article.

Shortly after this incident, I enrolled in a course offered by Graphos and the McGill writing centre called “Cornerstones of Academic Writing”. It was truly a very fun and interactive course that I recommend to graduate students who are struggling with their writing, wish to improve it or simply want to try out an elective in an unrelated field. I’ll be sharing with you a few pointers I picked up from the course.

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Some (Random) Things that Uplift Me: An Anecdote

Random squirrel posing at McGill university. Photo taken by Yours Truly.

Random squirrel posing at McGill university. Photo taken by Yours Truly.

 

The Dilemma

I am the kind of person who gets annoyingly bored by the mundane and so I have developed an eye for those little obscure details in our surroundings. For example, after many months of observation throughout various seasons, I have noticed that there is a small conserved population of black squirrels that live specifically in that courtyard on the Atwater/Sherbrooke intersection, right at the 144 bus stop. That was the first time I had ever seen a black squirrel and probably the only place I have ever seen them in. I know black squirrels exist elsewhere, but please don’t burst my bubble and tell me otherwise. You see, it’s very simple: squirrels make me happy. The way they hop; search for food; naively miss the piece of walnut you just threw right in front of their scrawny paws; the way they stand up on their two hind legs while they’re checking you out (I mean, look at that guy in the picture, really!); the way their bushy tail is, well, bushy; the way they chase each other and interact with each other and the occasional human.

I’m about to pull a Miss Potter here and tell you a tale about black and gray squirrels. The only difference between me and Miss Potter is that I will actually be in the story – just very briefly. But let me do this properly like the good ole scientist that I am.

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Graduate Advocates for Sustainability

What sustainability really means. (Source: http://sustainability.csusb.edu/WhatIsSustainability.html)

What sustainability really means. (Source: http://sustainability.csusb.edu/WhatIsSustainability.html)

Sustainability is often wrongly dismissed as a synonym for environmental conservation and preservation. This narrow definition casts a dangerous blind spot on the economical and social factors that also make up the definition of a sustainable system.

McGill’s Office of Sustainability (MOOS) defines sustainability as “working together toward a shared vision for a flourishing future in a manner that integrates social, economic, and environmental dimensions.” Sustainability is therefore a very broad and inclusive concept.

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Writes of Passage

"Poetry Reading"  from www.analogartistdigitalworld.com

Café Mariposa is a tiny place located in Notre-Dame-De-Grace. It’s not very conspicuous and from the inside looks like a cozy room crowded with colorful objects. Paintings of a nude woman, with an overtly protruding bosom line the walls of the place. Inside, several tables are assembled together to increase the surface area of interaction for the guests of the Quebec Writer’s Federation Schmoozer. The focus of the event is to celebrate “Montreal Writes” – a writers’ group formed during a workshop by the QWF ten years ago.

I walk into a loud scene of people chatting animatedly, half-full glasses of drink and there is a foot-by-foot area by the door where a piano stands next to a microphone. A guitar is hung on the wall behind the mic, presumably for people who wish to do improv on open-mic nights (I had previously read that this place is notorious for open-mic nights for musicians). As I take a seat far removed from the crowds on a bench, I wait for someone to approach me and ask if I had come for the event but everyone seems so engaged in conversation. Where were the organizers? It suddenly dawns on me that, for the first time in my life, I am at a social event where I literally know nobody. I pull out my cell-phone and pretend to do something important. Occasionally, I glance up to see if anyone had noticed me.

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False Positives, False Hope

Matt and Gabumon stuck in a cave made by Matt's negative thoughts. (From Digimon: Digital Monsters, S01E52) I wish I had a Digimon, too in times like these!"

Matt and Gabumon stuck in a cave made by Matt’s negative thoughts. (From Digimon: Digital Monsters, S01E52) I wish I had a Digimon, too in times like these!”

I haven’t written in a long time because I’ve been swimming in what I’d like to call “Grad School Limbo” or the grey area where you don’t really know where you are and it’s getting difficult to navigate. My primary source of unhappiness has been stemming from the fact that my projects are just not working out. But maybe not exactly…

I’ve always been a perfectionist and found it very difficult to accept failure. I’ve almost always blamed myself, scrutinized my abilities and concluded my own incompetency when things didn’t work out. The simple truth about science is that, well, things hardly ever do work out and it’s nobody’s fault. Despite having been told this before and even reading about it in the context of biographies of all the great scientists in history, it somehow didn’t sit with me. I still believed that anything I can touch will magically be set to work by some mysterious force of hope and light. If you think that’s naive, you are definitely right. So for the past few months, I’ve been in grey limbo of low self-esteem, hopelessness and lots of anger against the fates that set me up with my project!

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“No Mountain Too High, No River too Wide”

From www.lastlemon.com, TrueLoveIs Doodles

From www.lastlemon.com, TrueLoveIs Doodles

Happy Valentine’s Day, to all you graduate students! Whether you’re in a relationship or single, this is a nice opportunity to do some crafts or bake some cookies for all your loved ones, especially your family, friends and lab mates. In this day and age where courting and long poetic serenades are no longer the norm, it is still worth it to break up with your phone/laptop/tablet for the day (just for a few hours!) and meet up with your loved ones to do some winter activities or simply watch the Winter Olympics together.

However, this might be the perfect time to lavish your phone/laptop/tablet with extra attention if your significant other is miles away from you. The unfortunate reality of being a graduate student is that we often have to travel to get good opportunities, which depend on a variety of reasons such as the field we want to pursue, the funding, the living conditions; maybe some of us decide to go back home to pursue their higher studies leaving behind their loved ones.

Long distance relationships are a special kind of romantic relationships. They often hardly ever show up in the spotlight and women’s magazines don’t usually bring them up. The downside of this is that it makes LDR’s seem less “real” or substantial. In other words, many people have come to refer to them as “promises of a relationship rather than an actual relationship”.

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Fiction at Odds

Pablo Picasso's abstract painting, entitled "La Lecture"

Pablo Picasso’s abstract painting, entitled “La Lecture”

Of late, I have come to notice that my screen likes to glare at me mockingly every time I attempt to write an entry. It is as if the whiteness of the page simply wishes to be undisturbed and I begin to wonder whether there has been an agreement between the proxy of the blog and my own “ordinateur” to deliberately instigate and encourage this case of writer’s block.

The ironic part remains that the very first piece I had written for Grad Life (unpublished) was specifically about writer’s block: an explanation and how to treat it. Apparently, to resolve this conflict, one must simply write. So I set to do exactly that but somehow, I always return to my conspiring empty screen. So what’s going on?

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Seattle’s Grace

P1000911

Seattle’s Space Needle

Happy New Year, graduates! Holidays are over and blue Mondays are back in season. Subzero temperatures and free ice-skating on the sidewalks seems to be the rage here in Montreal.

I won’t spend too much time talking about studying or grad school, since many of us are still in holiday mode so grab a mug of your favorite hot beverage and let’s share stories!

Let me start by what is freshest in my memory. Being in Seattle was a nice reality check. Despite it being one of the best cities in the US to live in, it still made me realize that there are several things I tend to take for granted in Montreal (no, not the winter):

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The Academic Shift

McLennen Library, Cybertheque

I’m writing to you from the 3rd floor of McGill’s McLennan Library. It’s Sunday evening and I have just saddled up to a desk with a white table top and a bright orange partition. Sitting, here I am surrounded by  the numerous desks I’ve occupied in this library for the last four years, memories of my many years as an undergraduate student come flooding back. I’m sure many of you can relate:  All those endless nights of studying, procrastination, stressful lingering, and tearful calls to my parents and banging my head on the wall trying to figure out some problems in calculus. It’s funny to think how in every one of those moments and for every exam or assignment, it felt like the whole world was hanging on it and nothing else beyond would amount to anything.

I followed the thread leading from these reminiscing thoughts to pondering on the different mindset i am in now. The amount of work in grad school isn’t reduced but several things are indeed quite different. Here are some examples: (more…)

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