Thursday, April 2, 2015

Toughen Up

Recently my friends and I went on an awesome adventure to canyon lands! But more about that another time. Today I have bigger things to talk about.

I've decided that April is for getting TOUGH.

I've been grappling with some big-deal issues lately and like any physical injury, emotional injuries can leave you limping around. 2015 started on a bittersweet note. A new year is exciting, but I realized that I had been limping around, feeling sorry for myself, ignoring that I had a problem that needed to be addressed by professionals. I tried to be positive and pretend it would just go away on its own, but it didn't. It makes sense, right? If you keep running around on a sprained ankle, eventually it's going to give out and that is exactly what happened.

When you're having an emotional crisis, even little things like brushing your teeth can turn into huge frightening, difficult tasks. I was struggling to get to school on time and get my assignments in on time. I became discouraged and I felt guilty because I wasn't making any progress in overcoming my problem and now it was interfering with making progress towards my degree!

In the past I've been a very private person. Most people see me as happy, giggly, energetic, and positive and I am that person, at heart. Even in the darkest days at MIT I tried to find something daily to smile about, tried to cheer someone else up. I don't like to be a complainer. I don't like to seem weak. I definitely don't like to ask for help. Problems seem like excuses and I thought being tough was never making excuses.

Today, I've decided to be more open about my issues. The first step to promoting a positive culture is to dispel the myths that only weak people have problems and that crazy people need professional help to solve them. That requires honesty. It requires me to be honest with the people around me and with myself.

So I went to the doctor and got that emotional ankle sprain in a brace. I asked for help from my boss, from my friends, and from my professors. I gave myself permission to limp. Being injured is not the same as being lazy, right? I went to Canyonlands to try and distill some of the magic there to help me finally move forward.

So now the brace is off and I'm feeling a lot better. But I can't keep limping around, I've got to start building flexibility and strength. I need to be honest with myself and start working harder than ever because recovery is hard work. April is for getting TOUGH! It's for setting goals, self reflection, and self discipline.

An example of April TOUGHness.

Yesterday I gave a group meeting presentation and I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. My boss called me into his office and gave me some advice on how I could make my presentation more effective. Before, this might have sent me into the depths of a paralyzing anxiety spiral. But I'm not limping anymore. Being tough means taking criticism and making it constructive by first reflecting and then adjusting your actions. To make sure I was taking his advice to heart, I wrote a presentation check list to use in the future to make sure that I don't make the same mistake twice. I made a plan to make presentations at least 3 days in advance. I'm going to try to stick to this plan! That's where discipline enters in.

My boss is really a gem because he understands that you can be tough without being cruel. He understands how his words and actions and body language affect me, especially now that I've asked for his help in overcoming my problems. Asking for help was tough, but accepting help is even tougher. When you accept help, you have to take responsibility for your feelings and for your actions. Don't let the help go to waste! You have to get TOUGH and use the tools the help provides to propel you past the obstacle.

Overcoming this particular obstacle is not going to happen in a single day, but I'm going to use this mindset all month and see where it gets me.

What are you most longing to do? What is standing in your way? How could you ask for help overcoming that obstacle? How could you get TOUGH with yourself to help propel you forward towards your goals? Let's do this together why don't we?

Friday, March 13, 2015

[March forth!]

So this semester has been a lot crazier than I initially anticipated. February all but disappeared leaving me wondering why more didn't get done. I found myself in a tailspin almost overnight and after so many months of smooth sailing, it caught me a little off guard. Whenever I feel disappointed in myself, however, I try to learn what I can and do my best not to fuck up again in the future. 

One of the lessons we teach in my mentorship program is all about maintaining a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the idea that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Trite, I know, but I've been slowly realizing that it is more than that. Having a growth mindset is about being honest with yourself. It is about first analyzing your flaws and weaknesses, accepting them, and then realizing that in order to reach your full potential, you must plan a path forward. 

"Forwards ever, backwards never"- Stephanie Bernritter. 

Mrs. B, whose quote I will always cherish, was my high school creative writing teacher. She was highly uncouth, probably smoked pot with the students, and once read us a poem from her personal journal about masturbating. She was also talented and insightful and she was one of few educators in my life who truly saw me. She really called me out. I wasn't always so engaged in high school. I was more than content to fly under the radar wanting to be noticed but too uncomfortable in the spotlight. I spent most of my school day daydreaming my way through classes doing my own thing. But she really needled me into a state of presence. She believed in me. She encouraged me once to recite a poem I had written on stage at an arts assembly. I can hardly remember the event because it was so terrifying, but I recall that I managed to get the words out and that afterwards there was applause and a few distant shouts of my childhood nickname. It was very unlike me, but I could not say no to her. Mrs. B wasn't long for this earth- she died of leukemia not long after I graduated, but she really made an impression on me. She was very real and honest. She wanted to connect and unlike many of us, she wasn't afraid to expose herself, and even more impressively, she dared to look inside others.

I bring up Mrs. B because I needed her help back then. I didn't realize it, but she was insightful enough to reach out and to push me forward. 

Recently, I went to the high school to help my mentee and her friends with their math homework. The other girls were overly excited to have me there and begged me to walk them through concepts they were struggling with. My mentee, who was carefully matched to me by the program coordinator, turned her back to me, working diligently on her own, obviously uncomfortable with accepting my help. I couldn't help but laugh because I realized she was just like me!! I always felt the need to be as tough as possible. I never wanted to ask for help. 

These days, I'm an adult and I have to believe in myself. There are a few Mrs. Bs out there, but often times it's up to me to push forward. But I still can't do it alone. I still need help but it's up to me to ask for it.

This past month I was struggling in a way I haven't really experienced before. Though I can be a procrastinator, I rarely miss deadlines or blow off class. Even at MIT I managed to pass all of my classes and complete my research projects under an extreme amount of stress and pressure. I won't dwell on the details of my recent crisis, but it's left me in a distracted fog like I'm moving in slow motion and thinking in slow motion. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate making excuses. I'd rather own up to the truth than get a free pass with a lie. I know when I'm not doing my best work and I like to hold myself accountable. Though this makes for one of my greatest strengths, unfortunately it also means that I often do not know when to ease up on myself. One of my greatest weaknesses is my inability to ask for help. But having a growth mindset means that I can work on this and so that has been my adventure for this month.

I fell behind in my research ethics homework because the ethical issues we were discussing tested the dressings of too recently closed wounds. Usually I would take the hit and whatever grade my subpar performance earned me. This time, though, I reached out to my TA and explained my situation and so he allowed me to turn in the assignments. For some reason this tiny act was more difficult than solving any rate equation or synthesizing any complex target. I haven't really been producing in lab lately and so instead of cowering and hiding from my boss, I explained my situation to him and asked him for his help. I asked for his support and I received it. I explained to my mentee recently that asking for help does not make you weak, in fact, it makes you stronger. 

Having a growth mindset means planning ahead. You have to anticipate the trials and show up prepared. Knowing how to navigate a mental emotional crisis is a good skill- one that is rarely formally discussed or practiced in our society. Part of my recent crisis is related to a string of student suicides at MIT, one of them a student in my own department. I think it's perfectly natural to feel so alone and hopeless at times, but it's important to have a plan so that when you find yourself suddenly lost (it happens so quickly) you'll have to tools to make it back home. The most important part of that plan for me is to ask for the help that I need to get me through.

Another integral part of my plan is to take time for myself to connect with nature. Nothing is more grounding than a good hike. When my mind is a mess I like to give my body a task it can accomplish. I set it to walking and breathing and climbing. Soon, the scenery and the fresh air cause my mind to pause and reset. I needed it this past month more than ever. The moon was so bright and full that Zhesen and I decided we should night hike up to lake blanche. It was very dark when we set out but soon the moon was rising over the mountain and wow! Suddenly it wasn't night anymore. It was a special moment and it helped get me back on track. 

Look! You can see me trying to fit in down there.

On a lighter note, for valentines this year, I decided to love myself and in leu of chocolates, I allowed myself to spend a long weekend with Zhesen in Escalante canyon country. I'm literally counting the minutes until I can go back to the escavolcano pictured below to get a nighttime shot. In the meantime enjoy a few shots from the trip.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

[Winter is just warming up!]

*** Well as January ends and a new semester kicks into hyper drive, I figured I'd check in. Despite the warm weather, oportunites for outdoor adventures have been limited. I'm hoping to change that soon, but until then I will continue to focus on other things.

The Bueno Avenue String Band!
 Adventures in drawing: I had made a goal to sketch every day in January and while I didn't quite make every day, I did create several doodles and I had a lot of fun. I had challenged my friends and family to practice something all month and then complete a final project at the end... My goal was to create a larger marker drawing but I only got about half way through that before things got hairy. I'm still working on it though and once it's complete, I'll post it up!
Here's a funny sketch of Bob Dylan!
The bar in Ogden where I open miked it.
Adventures in music: One big goal of mine is to become more comfortable being in the spotlight. I had made a lot of progress in conquering my stage fright while in Boston, but I've noticed a significant backslide in my confidence over the last year. To combat this, I decided to step back outside of my comfort zone and perform some music at a local open mic. I did my best to practice and practice and in the process I waffled back and forth, unsure whether or not I'd be able to go through with it. On the day of, however, the stars aligned and I had no choice but to do it. My neighbor Shanin Blake is a super cute singer/songwriter who, despite her youth, inspired me to put it out there and sing out loud! My longtime buddy Dorian accompanied me on his doumbek (small hand drum with a tambourine inside)which was a huge help. In the end, playing was a lot like skiing- you just point your skis downhill and slide- the rest is up to gravity! I just played and played and when I was done, I looked down and realized I had broken the tip off of my guitar pick!! There weren't many people there, but a few of them came up to me and complemented my performance which was nice :D. I'd like to perform again sometime, but in the meantime I'm more than satisfied with this effort haha.

Ollie can be a little demanding when it comes to cuddle time. Here he climbed up onto my shoulder while I was trying to record. It's kind of hard to play guitar with a cat on top of you.

Also, I uploaded a newly minted song to my soundcloud. I have a couple new ones in the pipeline so I hope I can get all the music worked out. It's cool to see how my song writing/ guitar playing has improved over the last year. My voice continues to decline though haha. That's what I get for yelling all the time and doing other voice unfriendly things lol. Check it out!

The stuff I've been making is very purple
Adventures in grad school: My paper got published!!! With a big project like grad school, it's difficult sometimes to gauge how much progress you're making. I didn't accomplish much research wise last year and I was feeling kind of bummed about it, but seeing my paper in press made me feel like I managed to get something right. Luckily this semesters class load is much lighter than the last and so I will have more time for research. My next goal is to get results as quickly as possible and so I'm going to really try to start pushing, working harder and smarter than ever before. We'll see how that goes!

Retrosynthetic Road map:  A preliminary sketch for the blog's logo.

Adventures in science writing: So I'm working hard trying to put together the first few posts for the career blog. I've got my awesome buddy Emily on board for this project and so I'm hoping it will really take off! Or at least I hope I can fit it into all the other stuff I've got going on. :D Well that's pretty much it. Until next time!!

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Retrosynthetic Road Map: Identifying career destinations and strategies for success"

That's the working title of my new science blog.

This is something I've been thinking about for a while now and if you've endured any of my overly-excited rubber ducking on the subject, know that I'm very grateful.

 What is this all about, you ask? When I think about my journey, the hard lessons, the successes, my mentors, and all of it, I often think back to how I got here. As a mentor in the big brothers big sisters mentor2.0 program, I've been helping to guide a high school student through a structured curriculum designed to teach them skills about self advocacy, maintaining a growth mindset, and other strategies for success. This program targets at risk youth and students of color and I've been blown away by how much I have learned both from the lessons and from my mentee. I think back to a younger, more naive, Jessica and how things might have been easier if I had learned these lessons. I learned so much from my parents and teachers, and even from my mentors in my undergraduate and graduate labs. But they could not prepare me for everything. Few in my family hold an advanced degree. Even with excellent training as an undergraduate, with few african american, or even female role models in my academic life, I was not prepared for some of the specific struggles I would face. Without any knowledge of the industry in chemistry other than "you can't avoid death and Texas," and "go to a good grad school, get a good job," I still to this day have a difficult time seeing beyond graduation. All I knew, especially back then, was that chemistry was fascinating.

Why? This is a big project, but my experience with mentor2.0 has shown me that students need everything spelled out for them. They are presented a limited outlook on life after college; given only a primary color palette for choosing a career. I graduated in the top 10% of my high school class and I still couldn't see beyond "I want to be a chemist."

I want to go back in time and tell high school Jessica that she could be a pharmacist, or a clinical pharmacist, or a medicinal chemist, or an analytical chemist, or a laboratory technician, or a lab manager, or a member of a small start up R&D team or a member of a big Pharma R&D team, or a lecturer, or a science writer, etc etc. Even when I got my BS, no, even when I got my MS, I had no idea what real chemists do! And I had no idea what I was going to do, especially because internships are discouraged if not forbidden in grad school.

This blog will be designed to tell college Jessica that a MS in chemistry doesn't exist and so maybe she should choose a profession that doesn't require a PhD. It will advise her to get an internship before going to graduate school. I want to give people the nitty gritty day to day and let them know what is really important when choosing a career. I want to highlight the unsung heroes of industry and academia and thereby provide students with a diverse palette of careers to fill the gaps in between college drop out and nobel laureate. I NEED to show high school Jessica that women of color can accomplish anything.

I want to teach college and masters Jessica the importance of self advocacy, how to gain confidence, how to negotiate with superiors in a professional but assertive manner, and how to confront imposter syndrome. I want to provide counter examples- people with no college education who are successful. People who dropped out of grad school, switched majors, got fired, suffered from physical or mental illness and lived to tell the tale. I'd like to redefine failure and redefine success for young people who often see in black and white.

I'd like to highlight alternative careers and those at the interfaces between fields. (Wouldn't it be nice if Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Chemistry, and Molecular Biology could hang out and be friends?) I'd like to discuss strategies for bridging the gaps, enhancing a collaborative atmosphere, and a growth mindset approach to academics and policy. In conclusion, my blog's mission statement is to highlight voices of successful scientific professionals and students in order to improve the culture of the scientific community. By encouraging communication, eliminating misconceptions, and starting a dialogue about taboo subjects, I hope to identify career destinations and light the way toward a future beyond graduation.

My personal goals for this project are to develop my science writing, project management, and networking skills while providing a resource for highschool and college youth to learn about careers.

As for structure? Each blog post would highlight a member of the community in a particular profession. I'd like to focus on women and minorities in order to build a community and to provide exposure for these groups. The posts would be part interview describing their journey and part infomercial- the good the bad, the pay, the top employers in that field, and the various degrees that lead to it and a representative example of what prerequisites in college (and high school) you might need for it and maybe a discussion of what kinds of colleges you might want to attend. All of this information would contribute to a database that would be searchable by college major or profession. I'd also like the blog to have some other features such as an "ask me anything" section where I answer questions from readers about science or life, pulling from various sources and contacts on a case by case basis. I'd also like to have a literature highlight, technology review, and protocols section.

This is a big project and I'm still in the planning phases. Preliminary hurdles include:

-Identifying contacts and topics for the first few posts
-Composing an interview questionnaire that provides the maximum information with a minimal time commitment.
-Designing a website and determining the overall structure (separate pages/posts for high school, college, or graduate audiences).
-Recruiting collaborators (I can't really do this alone)
-Creating a mission statement and pitch for collaborators and contributors
-Crowdfunding for small gifts (i.e., amazon gift cards) to provide incentives for participation and other funding (site subscriptions, domain name etc)
-Market research to see what's already out there, what needs are still to be met, and to identify sources for content.

I know this blog has a limited audience, but with my new blog, I hope to change that. As a lab rat, being in the spotlight makes me uncomfortable and I have decided to work on that in order to be a stronger scientist and to fulfill my obligations to society by giving back what little I can. If you have any feedback, positive or negative, I would gladly appreciate it!