Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Life in Pharmaceutics

It has been nearly a year since I decided to leave Boston and MIT. And what a year it has been! I feel like I've grown a lot since I graduated college and headed off for graduate school. I was very naive when I arrived at MIT, convinced that following my dreams of studying chemistry was the only important thing. Since then I've learned that graduate study is more than science and research. It's chalked full of politics, popularity contests, ethical dilemmas, and anxiety. I experienced things I never imagined: intense competition, discrimination based on gender, race, and PI, and a huge heaping pile of imposter syndrome. I also made powerful allies and a few lifetime friends. It was a bittersweet experience and I still struggle to combat the feelings of failure and the cynicism that can come from disappointment.

When I look back to where I was last year--unfairly forced out of my lab, at odds with an immature and inexperienced boss, at the mercy of an indifferent and bigoted thesis committee, faced with uncertainty... Whew! Talk about stuck between a rock and a hard place! I was under a lot of pressure to do whatever it took to stay at MIT. Many said it would be worth it in the end to hold a degree from a #1 program. But at what cost? The toxic environment there was not allowing me to live my life. Life is too short to be miserable and I honestly believe every person is worthy of a place in life that rewards and celebrates their individuality. MIT was not that place for me and though it was painful- no, excruciating, at times to take steps against the current, I had to let go.

A masters in organic chemistry is sometimes viewed as a black mark- a sign that you failed to get a PhD or a sign that you quit. It's hard to believe that some would look down on any degree from MIT, but believe it! This is the real world we live in and the world of chemistry and science are as brutal as they come. The joke is on them though because when I received my masters diploma I was so relieved. I danced out the door with both middle fingers in the air  because in the end I was being true to myself and I'll be damned if I let anyone else define or belittle my accomplishments.

In the end,  it is not my institution that defines me, it's my drive and ambitions. It's how I handle tough situations and how dearly I hold to my family and friends who helped me get to where I am today.

And today, I'm already well on my way to getting my PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry. It's going to be a long road, at least 4 more years! I'll make it through though. My new boss Shawn Owen is a gem too and I think I've found a good fit in his lab.

This blog is a testament to the fact that I am now living the life I had imagined for myself. Of course as things progress there will be less time for hikes and adventures outside, but to be honest, the adventures in lab will surely be some of the greatest.

Here are some photos of my new life. It's pretty sweet, I won't lie.

My new house complete with kitties

The interior of Skaggs where I work

Fancy schmancy

The lounge area near my desk

This is a goofy picture of me "working"
Skaggs exterior with patio where I eat lunch.

PS. To MITs credit, they have been taking steps to improve the culture of the students there. All of these efforts are spearheaded by the students who must advocate for themselves. I am so proud of my peers there who are some of the best people I've ever met. Some of their goals are more accountability for PIs and higher standards of respect all around. (A good example of this is not requiring students be at lab during emergency campus shutdowns like during the Boston bombers and police shooting incident) I'd really love to see a more collegial and positive atmosphere there because they set an example for accademia worldwide. Why take our top talent and then grind them into the ground and drive them to therapy and/or substance abuse??? It makes no sense. Things have got to change.

Circle all

This past weekend was a doozy spent mostly indoors with an extreme toothache. Before that got too bad though, I was able to get out for a short hike on Thursday up Broads Fork. One of these days I'll make it up Mt. Raymond that lies at the end of that trail, but for now I'm content to hike to the basin and then to Circle All Peak which is more of a ridgeline overlook than a peak.

Needless to say, the wildflowers were amazing and the trail is steep which allows for plenty of photo breaks. The light was low and it was overcast, raining in the valley and further up the range. There was a lot of thunder and lightening all around which made for even more magic.

I can't tell you why I'd rather hike alone on this trail rather than, say, mingle with a throng of twilight concert goers down in the valley. There were a few others that I shared the trail with- a couple kissing in the meadow and an old man lounging in the trail smoking his pipe. I guess they were after what I was after, one of those quiet, lonely, and beautiful moments.

Is it a hairy or a downy woodpecker? I want to say hairy but it's tough to tell in this light.

I caught this little guy feeding his chicks in a hole in a nearby aspen

Wildflower selfie

Indian paintbrush, geranium, balsam root, and more!

Wild lupine

Not sure what peak this is

A subdued sunset

Spotted this little guy!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blame it on the Tetons

This weekend was a doozy.

I had planned on a two night backcountry trip in the heart of Yellowstone, but instead ended up with food poisoning the first night and what turned out to be a lovely cabin stay in Targhee valley just outside of Driggs, Idaho.

I feel very lucky that I wasn't sick on the road or on the pack trip (any food outside a bear canister can be trouble in grizzly country if you catch my drift). The next morning was pretty terrible though and I barely made it driving through the sleepy green countryside running a fever and stopping several times along the way. Luckily Owen's friend Kyle is a saint and when we arrived he had a very nice cool sunlit basement room for me to crash in. I recovered quickly enough and was able to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Overall the Tetons were spectacular and bounded on all sides with clover filled fields and rustic fences and barns.

The cabin sits on a giant property filled with a sagebrush meadow with a cold stream running through it. We mostly grilled and chatted with friends. Owen and I took a short and leisurely hike in teton valley and it was lovely. There were several waterfalls from the runoff above, one of which began spontaneously and we watched as the water started flowing off the rocks and into the trail. There were SO many wildflowers I could hardly believe it. Wild columbine literally everywhere. Giant stands of indian paintbrush, endless lupine and many others. The perfect place to picnic and lounge by the river.

Here are some photos.
Tori the dog wishing America a happy birthday

Columbine everywhere.

Prairie smoke and sage brush

Small prairie smoke 

Tiger swallow tail on some scarlet gilia

Everything is adorable

I love this stuff!

Indian paintbrush

Owen in the splash zone

"Tell your friends all around the world 'aint no companion like a blue eyed mearle"

Blue bells and matching caterpillar

Sticky geranium and  genial bumble

Teton valley Owen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Subway in Zion National Park

My family was never a camping family and so throughout my life I've had to be somewhat creative about my interests in the outdoors. Early on there were the basement campouts, sleeping in small disney themed tents with my brother. Then there was sleeping outside on the trampoline which was as wild as you could get in west valley where I grew up. Later there was girl scout camp. All I really wanted to do was ride horses and though I was initially lukewarm about the short hikes and camping that went along with it, I eventually got on board. My first long hike happened at a youth camp that is operated by the Granite School District. We went on a 10 mile hike with a teacher from school and were mostly allowed to run free and explore at will. On this trek I watched birds in a bird blind and lost a shoe in the mud at a beaver pond. Covered in mud and all smiles my best friend at the time Kevin exclaimed that I was a true tomboy. It was the highest compliment for me and I was hooked on nature ever since.

Without any real experience to go off of, I've been seeking out opportunities ever since. My next run in with nature was when a friend Adrian invited me on a backpacking trip to the Uintas in junior high. Though I had never hiked seriously before and found hiking with everything bunjee-ed onto my school book bag quite difficult... and though I didn't bring enough food and nearly starved, I knew that I wanted to hike more and be outside as much as possible. Adrian was a saint in that she lent me all the equipment I needed to go on a few intermediate excursions. There were lessons along the way such as the difference between camping in an established campsite and squatting on private land- That's a good story!- and how dangling one of your mothers pots over open flames would ruin the pot and get you into a lot of trouble. It wasn't until college that I realized I wanted to get a better idea of how to be self sufficient in the wild.

In college I took several backpacking and rock climbing classes trying to educate myself and gain experience. Soon enough I was off adventuring in canyonlands, the uintas, and wherever else. I fell in love with southern Utah and the desert and became bound and determined to explore all of it whatever way I could. That's where canyoneering comes in and what leads us to my excitement over my most recent adventure.

I apologize for the lengthy preface, but it is important to understand the wonder and mystery that wilderness areas hold for me. These places were not accessible to me as a kid and little by little I have woven so many hopes and dreams around them. For me, canyoneering has stood as the next frontier of adventure. Anyone who has been in a slot canyon knows that there is nothing quite like looking up at high canyon walls and feeling so so small. Canyoneering is about using your knowledge to gain access to places you cannot go merely on foot. It's all about understanding the elements and what you can do to mitigate them. It's about being prepared for anything and about knowing you can survive in a place as hostile as it is beautiful. It's all very romantic you see and hiking the subway is the first notch on my belt. The first of many to come hopefully!

On to the hike! This hike is one of the most popular in zion and so it is limited to 80 people a day. This requires you obtain a permit in a lottery system usually 3 months in advance. Luckily there is a last minute lottery system that I entered. Out of some 600 bids for my particular day I won! I was excited but also nervous because repelling is not something I have a whole lot of experience with. Luckily I have recently made a friend who is very experienced and so I filled my four slots with her, my neighbor, and my step sister allie.

The hike is just short of 9 miles and involves steep climbs and downclimbs, navigating obstacles in a narrow canyon, rappelling over obstacles and into water, and oooing and ahhhing at amazing scenery and beautiful rock formations. Due to some serious dawdling and a bottleneck at one of the obstacles it took us just over 13 hours to complete the hike. Luckily we got started early with the help of a rather expensive shuttle (in the future I might try hitchhiking instead since we saw several groups with big pick up trucks). It was a great time overall despite one missed turn that cost us some time. Highlights include swimming beneath some debris lodged in a rather narrow canyon slot, sliding down a natural waterslide, and rappelling 30 feet while trying to ignore some rather risky behavior going on behind me.

If I had any complaints it was about a group that was going through about the same time as us. I realy prided myself on being prepared with the necessary equipment and knowhow- extra clothes/food/water filter so that we would be prepared to stay another night as well as helmets and harnesses. This group was a great example of what NOT to do. They were disrespectful to the canyon, other hikers like ourselves, and the very members of their party. Firstly, they did not have a permit which despite being wildly disrespectful to everyone else, is hazardous because it leaves no itinerary with the park which would delay a potential rescue. Secondly, no one had harnesses or helmets and they were "handlining" over the obstacles on a rope that is really meant for tying down loads on a truck and not for holding people at all. They had several kids with them and were merely tying the rope to the kids and hand lowering them over the obstacles. Thirdly, they weren't using the anchors properly which can damage the anchors. Lastly, they were rushing us and not giving us appropriate space to set up our own anchors and handle our business which was mostly just really annoying. We eventually let them get ahead of us but the last obstacle is the longest drop and it took them almost two hours to lower their 19 members down the 30ish foot cliff. At this obstacle, their rope was becoming very frayed so for some reason they opted to try to use another anchor on the other side of the chasm that gave access to a more gradual slope rather than a vertical cliff.

Unfortunately, getting to that point required jumping over a 5 foot gap which one of the kids was not tall enough to do comfortably. They tied a rope around the middle of the boy (just in case!) and three men stood on the other side of the gap holding the rope encouraging him to jump. That poor kid stood there for 15 minutes shaking and fretting, looking down between the boulders. Meanwhile we were sitting there becoming increasingly unsettled with the knowledge that if the kid fell, he might certainly bring the three gentleman standing on the sloping cliff down with him. Is anyone involved wearing a helmet? No. Unfortunately none of these boys seemed to have a mother around to lay down the law. Luckily, the boy made it safely across and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The relief was short lived however as they still had to descend the cliff using their frayed and melting rope. The drop off on that side was much longer, however, and their rope was 5 or more feet short of reaching the ground requiring lowerers to grasp at the bottom of the rope and stretch out on the wet cliff face to the water below.  Miraculously, no one was hurt in this endeavor but man, I would never gamble on my life and limbs like that! Witnessing this was a shame and detracted somewhat for our own experience. But what can you do?

Overall it was a good time and I gained some experience and confidence that I plan on putting to good use in future canyoneering adventures! In the meantime, it's back up to Yellowstone this weekend to hopefully get a glimpse at old faithful and if I'm lucky, a wolf!

So here are the photos in chronologicalish order. Props to Olivia, my neighbor for taking most of these and letting us share her camera. She really did a great job didn't she! Though I must admit I cropped a few of them to enhance the composition and tweaked the levels here and there. It's strange for me to be the one pictured in photos. I feel much more comfortable behind the camera! The ones I did take will have a JRM. Click to enlarge. Check back a little later for some photos of the natural waterslide we were playing in.

Girl power!

In the morning, down into the canyon. JRM

Emily and Olivia showing Allie and I how it's done. JRM

Allie at the first obstacle. JRM

Russel gulch! We climbed all the way down there on a real steep and sandy trail. JRM

A cold swim. I've seen many pictures with just the boulder in this swim. Today, there is a big log where you must swim underneath!
Rappelling down keyhole falls thanks to Emily's anchor building expertise. 
Another swim!
Olivia getting in rappel position. JRM

Olivia snagged this gem

Olivia out ahead. JRM

Everyone lounging in the sun after the cold swims. JRM

There were dragonflies everywhere, landing on my arms and buzzing around. These sat still for just long enough. JRM

Allie bemused JRM

Girl power selfie!

This scene is truly classic.

Either I snapped this one with Olivias camera or we had the same idea. Can't remember! 


More great shots from Olivia

The final rappel into a beautiful system of pools. Can't imagine doing this without a harness!

Here are some photos from the disposable camera. Though the film and plastic aperture make for low resolution fuzzyness, they also seem to capture the magical dream-like quality of moments spent in a beautiful place and the feeling that lingers in the memory thereafter. Or at least that is what the peeps over at instagram are banking on!

Allie lounging in a pool in the subway JRM

Sunlight illuminates the delicate waterways JRM

Blue shade in a particularly beautiful narrows. JRM

The narrows open into a sunlit grotto where Olivia is illuminated.

Gorgeous waterfalls and hanging gardens JRM

Emily examines the famous log JRM

Epic! JRM

Allie is all business as she rappels down keyhole falls JRM