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Um novo ano, um novo desafio! Or: how to learn languages for cheap in Montreal.

Which language will it be?
Image from rgbstock.com

Two days ago, Kristina wrote a great post, reviewing both her year just past, and the one to come, all in an upbeat and confident mood. And, Kristina, you wished us all that the year “be filled with dreams come true” – thank you for the good wishes, and may your year turn out as you intend to, too!

Speaking of dreams, though, here’s a personal one for 2014: if all works out well, this will be the year I learn Brazilian Portuguese, for the sake of my thesis (on Brazil), for related travel plans, and for the general fun of it. But how does one get started with such a project? The paths and possibilities towards new linguistic skills can be bewildering, and they took me some time to sort through before I even said my first word in Portuguese. I’ve since found my way, however, and thus proudly present the clumsily titled “2014 starter’s kit to learning languages for cheap in Montreal” – with my very own special recommendation at the end.


Learning how to read again

Some months ago Alexandra wrote about how she had to ‘re-learn’ writing for a blog after spending most of her time writing for academic publications. I am faced with the converse: re-learning how to read academic publications after spending most of my time reading laymen’s writings.


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.


Writing Wednesdays

Ask anyone what Graduate School is about and the first thing they will probably tell you is that you have to write a thesis. In reality, we all know that Grad School is about a looooot of different things (some of which we had no idea about before we started our Grad School journey), but I think we  would all agree that the main goal is to pop out that dissertation and leave a trace of ourselves and our contribution to the research community.

So, is it just me or are others also faced with the ironic situation that the one thing we should really be doing also happens to be the one thing we devote the least time to in our everyday PhD lives?

Of course, there are many steps to complete before even beginning to write the dissertation. First,  you argue, you need to get all those other pesky requirements out of the way (depending on how your Department works) – coursework, Comps, the research proposal, etc. Then, if you’re in an experimental field, the next phase is devoted to obtaining Ethics, recruiting participants (or finding animals, growing cultures, whatever you’re into!) and testing – oh, so much testing. (By the way, have you ever tried to use your lab keys to open your front door at home? Testing can be draining.) You can’t POSSIBLY write during this period, right? And, after all, you need to have something to write ABOUT, don’t you? It’d be atrociously silly to start writing papers when you might have to re-think, re-analyze, re-organize and re-write it. And, needless to say, there are all those urgent interruptions along the way – the kinds with deadlines (conference abstracts, conference presentations, paper reviews), the kinds with heavy expectations (attending meetings, being involved in other work in the lab, participating/organizing departmental events), and the kinds with neither, but that we simply cannot live without (Facebook and various other procrastinatory activities).

Excuses, excuses!


Preparing a conference presentation: Part 2


Photo by AdamR, Freedigitalphotos

About a month ago, I wrote the first post of a two-part guide on how to prepare a good conference presentation. I had asked my colleagues to give me their best advice, as I had never presented in a panel session before.

Well, now that the presentation date has come and gone, I thought I would share some follow-up thoughts.

Here’s how it went:


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…)

The wonder and wander of research

curiosity-driven cartoonThe word “research” first appeared in the English language sometime during the 16th century. It comes from the Latin word “circare,” which means “to go about and wander.” So really, research is all about wandering.

But research that is commercially and politically popular has a different agenda. That agenda is oriented towards the development of new technology, tools, and cures. Such as, for example, vacuum cleaners. (more…)

How to prepare a great conference presentation:Part 1

Part 1:  The Dos and Don’ts

In approximately 21 days I will be presenting my first ever oral presentation at a conference as a graduate student. I have presented posters before but this is new, exciting territory.  Instead of 3-5 minutes of floor time, I have 15-20! Instead of a single poster, I’m generously allowed to present at least 15 electrifying slides!

The possibilities are endless, and apparently so are the jitters. Luckily, I work with a laboratory full of truly brilliant researchers, each of whom have had more experience than me in presenting at conferences all over the world. Looking for their guidance on preparing the best conference presentation possible, I asked them three questions:

  1. What was the best advice anyone has ever given you concerning presentations?
  2. What are some mistakes you have made in the past?
  3. Is there something you do every time you present?

I’ve summarized their golden nuggets of wisdom for your benefit and mine: (more…)

Roses blooming in the rain


Photo by Kristina Kasparian

 This post is a sequel to my previous post “Growing Smaller“.

 ~ April 20th, 2013

I had been in Italy for nearly two months. I had grown accustomed to my Italian life – to my quiet neighborhood on the bank of the Adige river, to the melody of Italian filling my ear, to the resounding church-bells that sliced each of my days up into half-hours, to the kitchen drawers and cupboards and supermarket aisles, to my bicycle Isabella, to the yellow house on the hill that always caught my eye as I’d wait for the bus in the morning, and to all the faces — of strangers, and colleagues, and new friends – I would see on a daily basis in the small town.  Reluctantly, I also grew used the way the weather would go from sun to rain in fifty seconds, the way the mountain-tops were destined to remain snow-capped in this impossible spring, and the sight of the shivering vineyards, desperate to become green and full, and to keep their promise of wine and life. I had even grown accustomed to the towering mountains, standing like an edgeless backdrop to the scene. They had become my anchor, so much so that I noticed my posture had changed, and I walked much straighter, looking ahead rather than down.



Who is leading the chase? – The dynamics of research fields

dynamicsAs a researcher, every time you enter a new research field or start to work on a new problem you need to review the knowledge that is out there already and find out about what is currently being done in that field. A great part of getting to know what is actually out there is usually done with some sort of literature review or survey. Sometimes, a literature review is a formal part of the first year of grad school and is completed in the form of a write-up.


From West to East and Back Again: What I’ve learned about setting up research away from McGill

Travel Stamps I’ve spent almost two years in China researching tuberculosis control. Along the way, I’ve garnered a lot of experience in setting up research abroad. Here, I lay out ten points of advice for Grad Life readers that are on the road to do research away from McGill:



The academic travel season

I am off west! While writing this blog post I am on my way to the US to spend a month at Washington State University in Pullman (WA) and University of Washington in Seattle (WA). This is my first trip in the 2013 academic travel season, and I am really excited.


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?


The world is my oyster.

Oysters at The Saint.

That’s a photo that I recently posted on albumatic after having oysters at The Saint in Toronto. Albumatic is a new social networking app that lets you upload photos into the same album as some friends who are at the same event as you. Instead of the hassle of “emailing” the photos, you can simply all “join” the same album and post them simultaneously while at the event.

This post isn’t about oysters (although The Saint’s oysters tasted great). It’s about graduating. Finally!

The first question people ask when you say you are graduating is: “so what’s next?”

That question seems to echo into a vast and empty space and really yield no answers. Makes me feel like a wayfarer in the middle of a long and arduous journey. Holding only a long stick with a handkerchief attached to it. Somewhat Huckleberry Finnesque. Looking out into the distance, wondering, “where am I going?” (more…)

How to write a conference abstract (or how NOT to write one)

Source: PhD Comics

The summer and early fall are what I call “conference season“; somehow, all the conferences that interest me in my field always take place between mid-June and early September, and I find the rhythm of my summer (and much of the year) dictated by these events which are fixed points in time, unlike the rest of the wibbly-wobbly, and largely self-imposed, timeline of the PhD. Attending at least two conferences per year means having to stay on top of data collection, data analysis, presentation skills and networking. It also gives you the chance to think about your work from several angles, and especially about how it fits into the existing dialogue between researchers in your field, which is extremely useful for sitting down and writing papers (ideally right when you return from the conference). But it also means that, as much as my summers are characterized by last minute analyses, PowerPoint slides, practice talks, packing, travel and jet-lag, the winter months are characterized by writing abstracts, and finding an interesting story to tell about my research….

…in just a handful of words. (more…)

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. 

When lying is LYING


Hi, my name is Brocke and I lie occasionally.

Like this: Did you know elephants have 5 kidneys?

That was a lie. However, if repeated enough (or read) it won’t make a difference. Why? Because your brain doesn’t always care about complex aspects like, validity, truth, logic or degree. Often it just wants a new fun fact for the fact book (Maynard et al 1992). So by saying – Seriously, elephants have 5 kidneys – several times. You very likely will not recall that I am telling you it is a complete lie. This is often why we highlight things in papers and books in an attempt to memorize single phrases or ideas for our fact book. Rote memorization and recall involves considerably less hardware than say, describing why you think the tall brunette next to you is attractive or what the concept of time is. So,


EndNote for the iPad: giving a second chance

So after a first negative reaction, I decided to give the EndNote for the iPad a second chance. Basically my second impression is more positive than the first one, but I still think there are things to be improved in the overall EndNote ecosystem, if we can call it that way (desktop versions, sync, and iPad).

Let’s start with the syncing issues I reported. After my first post, I found that they had just fixed it, as well as the usability issues for the Mac version. So make sure you update both PC and Mac versions to the latest patch (6.0.1 and 6.0.2 respectively). That’s the first step. (more…)

I now live in the lab

An actual piece of lab equipment I once used

If (and this is a very likely if) your experiment involves lab work in any way, you can look forward to the joys of using lab equipment.

Laboratory science is not like working in a wood shop; you usually don’t have the option to just sand off a little more to cover up your blunders. Lab experiments should be done to a ridiculously high standard. Everything is calibrated, tared, titrated, compensated for… and then re-checked.
As the differences you are looking for are often so slim, the tiniest bias in one way or the other can efface results, or worse, give you false ones.
Standard operating procedures are the holy scriptures of lab land. These documents provide a step-by-step explanation of a rigorous, standard way of doing many types of experiments. Because they are ‘standard’, many other researchers will use them as well. Sharing methodologies is not just a short-cut from developing your own; it means that your results will all be comparable later on as you used the same procedure. (more…)

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…)

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