How to be a good graduate student

Continuing the “How to be a good scientist” series of posts that I have been doing here lately, I wanted to call your attention to this excellent piece written by Indira Raman (of my former institution, Northwestern University): “How to Be a Graduate Advisee”. I recommend all scientists read it, regardless of what stage they’re at in their career, because much of its advice applies to doing science in general.

Here are my reactions to a few points that I particularly appreciated:

“The science you are doing is the real thing. Although many students do not immediately realize it, graduate study is not a lab course, not a summer experience, not an exercise for personal enrichment.You are a real, practicing scientist, albeit a trainee, from day one”.

It is important for a young scientist to feel part of a larger community. At my graduate institution, a small but meaningful way that the program emphasized this was to explicitly request that members of the department at all ranks address each other by first names only. On day 1 of our graduate orientation, we were told “You are our colleagues now, so don’t use titles with us.” Small things like that make a very big difference to young graduate students. As a graduate student, take pride in your work and understand its context with respect to the rest of your discipline.

“Do not let yourself get accustomed to failure…..every day you should be able to account for what you did: practice articulating for yourself what worked, and what you will do differently tomorrow. The worst thing that can happen to you scientifically is to get used to going into the lab, doing a procedure in a fixed way, getting no useful result, and going home, with the sense that that is all that science is. You must see movement on your research, not necessarily as daily data, but as a sense that what you did today gets you closer to an outcome”.

I think this is the best piece of advice a graduate student could read. Mistaking motion for action is an easy trap to fall into, and I’m constantly struggling with this. I don’t have any great insights into how to “cure” this problem, besides offering what I do: when I recognize that I’m in a rut, I step back, reevaluate, talk to my PI or colleagues, and try a new approach. Sometimes even something as simple as taking a day off to go hiking and just brainstorm is enough to get myself back on the right track. While I’m in this mode, I try to ask myself at the end of the day what I specifically did to move myself closer to a larger goal. What do I need to do differently tomorrow? A tool that I often use for breaking things down into the critical “taking action” tasks vs. the optional ones is the “Today and Not Today” smartphone app. Don’t get hung up on the specifics, though–just find something (a tool, a protocol, a confidant) that works for you and use it!

“Cultivate the ability to get inspired. When you see other people excel scientifically—your peers or seniors—you can have several reactions. One is to dismiss those people as extraordinary, perhaps contrasting them with yourself so that you feel dejected or inadequate. A second response is to put those people down by criticizing an unappealing attribute that they have. A third, and perhaps the most constructive, reaction is to look at those people’s abilities as something to aspire to. What can you learn from them?”

Several years ago when I lived in Utah, I was invited to train at Gym Jones. Being surrounded by athletes of the highest caliber fundamentally changed my outlook–not only physically, but also professionally. It might seem odd that a gym could help me become a better scientist, but physical training was only a means to an end. Exactly what I learned there is a subject that could fill an entire post. But reading the point above reminded me of one particular core philosophy of the gym, articulated here by Mark Twight:

“You become what you do. How and what you become depends on environmental influence so you become who you hang around. Raise the standard your peers must meet and you’ll raise your expectations of yourself. If your environment is not making you better, change it.”

To become a better graduate student, you need to surround yourself with scientists who are better than you, and whose work inspires you to become better yourself. If you can’t find them in your own department, at the very least you should be following the work of the leaders in your field. Twitter is a good place for this, as are blogs and books. For example, here is a book that inspired me last year.

At the same time, recognize the dangers of imposter syndrome and know what is reasonably expected of you at each level. Comparing a graduate student’s scientific accomplishments to those of a tenured professor is inappropriate. Try to learn something from every experience, and from every person you encounter.

Raman goes on to talk about a number of other excellent points, from how to work with one’s advisor, to how to maintain one’s scientific ideals. I strongly recommend you take a look!

Thanks to @mwilsonsayres ( for the link!

Weekend ephemera

I know it’s technically no longer the weekend, but since it’s a holiday here in the United States, I’m going to ignore that fact. Here are some things I found interesting this past week:

Something I read:
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright. I’ve been reading this a chapter at a time on the El while commuting to my lab, and I’ve finally finished it. It’s an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of Scientology, coupled with a history of L. Ron Hubbard and how he came to found the organization.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago on a date** I actually went to a Scientology-sponsored “Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights” traveling exhibit in Bucktown called “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death”. Essentially, the exhibit consists of a series of movies (which were boring and I skipped), and posters with super scary images:
Scary scientology psychiatry photo
with explanations in text about how psychiatry is a global conspiracy with a mission to generate profits and control the world by making up diseases and using torture treatments to subjugate people. Evidently psychiatry is the true cause of all the past evil in the world, responsible for the Holocaust, torture, apartheid, scientific racism, Russian gulags, and Hemingway’s death.

The exhibits were utterly fascinating, and all entirely wrong. I’m not going to go into a detailed refutation of their inaccurate claims here (although I could do that in another post if anyone’s interested). But I do want to encourage people to read a bit about the history and philosophy of Scientology, because efforts like these do have consequences. Not only do they misrepresent a medical profession and ongoing scientific research associated with it, they also further stigmatize mental illness and potentially increase the reluctance of people afflicted with such illnesses to seek treatment for themselves. While there are certainly worthy and interesting discussions to be had about the use of psychiatric medication, I urge you to educate yourselves and recognize the difference between legitimate critiques and blatant manipulation.

On a (much) lighter note…

Here are some things I found interesting on the web:

–This wind map of the United States is completely hypnotic . Definitely recommend staring at this for a while if you get stressed. Our planet is astonishing.

A blog post about how my sister, Julie Kedzie, poses a significant challenge to current UFC champion, Ronda Rousey. Obviously I agree!

–And finally, this stunning color film of London in 1927 gave me chills. I love glimpses into the past like this.

Do you notice how slowly vehicles moved? Life was at a different pace back then.

What do you think about Scientology? Am I now a Suppressive Person for speaking out about it? What did you like best about the London film? Do you have any book recommendations for me? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. And have a lovely and adventurous week, everyone!

For Americans, today is Memorial Day, a holiday to honor soldiers killed in wars. If you’re looking for a way to make a charitable gesture in this spirit, consider donating to the Wounded Warrior project to help injured veterans find financial assistance and employment opportunities.


**Yes, I go on incredibly weird dates.

Introducing myself in more than 140 characters

“I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine” -Neil Armstrong

There were only two possible career choices for me: astronaut or archaeologist. I chose the latter based on a combination of reasons, which included watching the Challenger explode in kindergarten, having bad eyesight, and discovering Elizabeth Peters books in fourth grade.

I combined Ph.D.s  in archaeology and biology to become an anthropological geneticist. These days, I delve deep into the genomes of living and dead people to see what I can deduce about their origins and prehistory. I divide my time between traveling to the high Arctic to excavate human remains and collect DNA samples and sitting in front of a computer reading lines of code and endless strings of AGTCs.

I’ve been training in martial arts since I was a little girl, and have had a few fights in Muay Thai, MMA, and boxing. Throughout the course of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and befriend some of the most extraordinary people in the fighter community, and I hope to share some of their stories and insights here.

My fellow scientists are curious about my love of fighting; my fighter friends seem to be interested in my scientific research. This is a place where I write about both aspects of my life.