Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Graduation from 25th grade!

Having recently successfully defended my dissertation for a PhD in Biology, I have had time to reflect on the journey that has been my education. Honestly, many times, I thought that I would never finish and that I would be a student forever or eventually give up. I can barely take credit for a fraction of what I did, and so I wanted to document the inspirational people who helped me every step of the way.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This is a question I remember being asked a lot, as I am sure most people can relate hearing this same question as a child. I remember giving stereotypical answers including wanting to be a police officer and fireman. But to be honest, I really wasn't interested in "growing up" so I didn't really think about it. In high school I remember thinking I wanted to be an engineer, even though if you asked me what an engineer did, I would not have been able to tell you. My sophomore year of high school, however, I really liked my chemistry class. Learning about the periodic table of elements and how they behaved and were organized made a lot of sense in my mind and seemed fascinating, so I decided I was going to major in chemistry when I got to college. Still, I didn't know what I was going to do with a chemistry degree, or what I wanted to be, I just was interested in a subject and decided to roll with it.

Freshman Year of College

I was elated when I received my acceptance letter to Brigham Young University. There was no where else I wanted to go. I remember a high school teacher saying I should try applying to Stanford or other schools, and I laughed. Stanford, or anywhere besides BYU just wasn't for me. This was for 2 reasons 1) I wanted the unique experience of practicing my faith while attending school. I had had enough of swearing, drinking, crude jokes, bullying, etc. that was found in high school, and I figured being around 99% mormons could allow me to practice my faith, have a fun social experience, and get a well-rounded education. 2) I wanted to go someplace warm. Utah, to most people is a cold place, but coming from Alaska, it felt tropical.

So my first semester I moved into the dorms, made some friends, and declared myself a chemistry major. Unfortunately, this was also my last semester as a chemistry major. I lacked the maturity and study habits to do things like, "stay awake in class", or "study before a test". So I finished my first chemistry class with a C-, and really jeapordized my future GPA. This meant that it was back to the drawing board for my future career, and I decided my next semester just to take general classes until I figured it out.

My mission

Another reason for only taking general classes was that I knew I wanted to serve a 2-year mission for my church, and I didn't want to get into my major and then have to try and remember courses for 2 years. In preparation for my mission I received the Melchizedek priesthood, and decided to get my patriarchal blessing. Eva, my sister came to my blessing, and I am so thankful she did. It was one of the most spiritual experiences I have had in my life and it was great to have her to share it with me. Before the patriarch gave me the blessing he asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to know or was seeking answers for. I had only one thing on my mind. I said "I would really like to know what I am going to be when I grow up". There were many sacred things said in that blessing, but among them were specifics to a career involved in teaching about "life and living things". After thinking about it I realized this was an interest I had that just didn't recognize. I had pet lizards, gerbils, and snakes, spent most of my childhood outdoors, and was fascinated with animals. My new goal was to become a professor of Biology, but I knew it would have to wait till after my mission before I could get into taking classes.

On my mission, I didn't really learn much about Biology, but I did learn a lot about people. I learned how to work hard, and to serve others no matter what I got in return from them. I learned how to study and apply what I had learned. I was disciplined and focused. When I returned from my mission and went back to school, I knew I would be better able to succeed in the challenges of studying and learning. 

As a Biology Major

As a 21 year-old sophomore I started taking Biology classes as soon as I came back to school. I also made friends with some pre-med students who were much further along in their major. They would meet in the library and study often times late at night, and would go crazy, pulling all-nighters before exams. My first batch of exams were not good (Cs and Ds). While mulling over these horrible grades, and looking at the examples of my new, nerdy friends I realized I need to be more intense in my  studies like these pre-med students. In a bit of a "Captain Obvious" moment I learned that if you wanted an A you had to know EVERYTHING the teacher had taught. It seems so simple, but that's all it took. I rebounded from a bad first round of exams and started getting A's and B's in my classes. One of the courses I got an A in was Biodiverstiy with Dr. Kent Hatch. During the course Dr. Hatch asked if anyone was interested in volunteering for research in his lab. I jumped on the opportunity, and did my time as animal care worker before he offered me the opportunity to do my own experiment. But he didn't have the money to fund it, so I also applied and was awarded my first grant.

As I continued doing research and taking courses I got into the groove of how to study and started take more interesting classes as I got further along in my major. One course I found particularly interesting was Mammalogy with Dr. Duke Rogers. One of the assignments was to write a research proposal. I wrote a proposal about working with migrating bats, and applying some of the research methods I learned in Dr. Hatch's lab. This proposal was important to my graduate school education.

Getting into graduate school

I didn't know much about how to get into graduate school, but I wanted to use my research proposal assignment to maybe get my foot in the door of anywhere that would accept me. I looked up every bat researcher I could find and emailed all of them about my research project and being admitted into their research lab. I heard back from some of them, but after a few email attempts many of them stopped responding.

Luckily I married up...way up. My wife, Kim, and I were married in December of 2003 and she encouraged me to pursue my dreams. She has always been my biggest supporter and cheerleader. She was also raised with the mentality/motto that the "crazy man always wins". This was a bit of a new concept to me, as I tended to be a little more passive in my pursuits. After I had not heard back from anyone in a while Kim told me I need to call any and everyone that would possibly take me into their graduate school until it happened. Reluctantly during Christmas break I gathered phone numbers and decided to call all the professors I had previously contacted. Nobody answered, I left a few messages, and then, someone picked up the phone. Dr. Troy Best of Auburn University picked up the phone and we talked for 10 minutes or so, and he said he was very interested in my project and it was something he was trying to do as well. That developed into many exchanged emails, and an interview in Auburn. The only hindrances was that I didn't meet the minimum verbal GRE score.

I have always been great at math/logic, but reading is something I never really gravitated towards. I had a good technical vocabulary within Biology, but the GRE tested on a variety of vocabulary and reading skills, so I was not naturally inclined to do well. I decided to take a GRE prep class and retake the test. The GRE was given electronically and your score was given to you instantly. I'm not sure how much the prep-class helped me, but I did my best and prayed hard during the test. When I submitted the final question and the score popped up I didn't want to look. I finally peeked through my hands to see I had done well on the math portion. I slowly scanned down to my verbal score and saw...... the exact minimum score I needed. I said a prayer of thanks and then ran out of there to tell Kim. With that score I was accepted to graduate school and also given a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, which meant I would get paid a small stipend and have my tuition paid for. I was also accepted to work with Dr. Hatch at BYU if I wanted to pursue a Master's there, but felt it would be better to diversify and we moved out to Auburn, Alabama.

My Master's degree

I loved graduate school. It was much more flexible than undergraduate school, the classes were stimulating and I was given opportunities to teach labs. I did not have any problems with my committee members or classes, but I changed the species of bat I wanted to do my research on. The only problem was this species had only been caught in a few locations in the state and I needed a lot of them to do a robust analysis. I spent many nights in Northern Alabama and had a lot of help, and I was fortunate enough to find a decent number of these bats, perform my analyses, and write my thesis. It seemed to go without a hiccup and I finished my master's degree in only 2 years. I looked at a few other PhD programs but decided to stick with Auburn, thinking it would be a seamless transition.

My PhD degree

To begin my PhD I did not have a research project firmly decided. I had a few ideas and explored them, but nothing that sounded too promising. During this formative time in my PhD program my sister called me and told me about a friend of hers in Barrow, Alaska, where she was living. It just so happened that she was babysitting for this friend who worked for the Department of Wildlife and did lots of work with polar bears, caribou, and other Arctic animals. My sister said to contact her (Dr. Cheryl Rosa) and I sent her my CV and a link to my thesis. From there a project developed working with baleen from bowhead whales, and I had a more firm objective and idea of my research.

So everything seemed to be going easy peesy, and I felt like I was coasting through my PhD. My advisor was very hands-off and did not require much from me or others in his lab, but made himself available as needed. This hands-off approach to mentoring, my family, and other needs on my time attributed to me becoming less engaged in my program and department. It wasn't a conscious decision, but I just didn't put the time and energy into my PhD that I should have. This became apparent when I took my written and oral exams, and my committee noticed. After these exams I had a conversation with Dr. Wooten (one of my committee members) and he bluntly told me he thought I made a mistake in staying in Auburn, that getting a PhD was not going to be easy, and essentially that I was not living up to my potential. This was a wake-up call for me, and was exactly what I needed to hear. That very conversation was a turning point in my education. He was right, and I knew it, except I also knew I could change and do better.

After this conversation I did a few things that made a big difference 1) I made a more conscience effort to be involved in my program. I started to organize lab meetings for my lab, attended other lab meetings, attended more seminars, immersed myself in the scientific literature, and engaged myself in my PhD. This active involvement paid off. While attending seminars I found that other graduate students questions and analyses could be applied to my work, and the first chapter of my dissertation was a direct result of inspiration from Dr. Nandini Robin's dissertation seminar. 2) I got a big grant. I have had few more exhilarating moments in my academic life than when I found out I was awarded a National Pacific Research Board grant-in-aid of research after applying for 4 consecutive years. 3) I started to teach courses as an adjunct instructor. Teaching allowed me to review concepts in Biology that had faded since I learned them. I also felt more connected to Biology and really enjoyed helping students learn. I also learned how much I had learned, and that I had something to offer other people.

Dr. Wooten was right. It continued to be hard. The research I was trying to do had never really been done before. I messed up a lot. A lot of things didn't work. I had to redo a lot of things. I lost precious data that would have added to my analyses. I didn't have enough samples to do all the things I wanted, and when I asked for more I was turned down. I had writers block. I felt discouraged many times. I doubted that I would ever get it right, or that I would ever find anything significant. But, I could only control what was in front of me, and I decided just to do the best with what I had. Progress was slow but continually headed in the right direction.

My final frustrations

In the spring of 2015 I took a position to teach at Pacific University in Oregon starting in the fall of that year. I wanted to finish my Phd before I started teaching because I knew it would be harder to finish with a job. To help me focus, my angel of a wife took our kids and stayed at her parents house for a month. I was committed to getting a lot done while they were out of town. I would sometimes be in the lab till 12AM working on samples. I started writing the first chapter of my dissertation and by the time we moved to Oregon, I had most of it written. After going back and forth editing my dissertation, I submitted my first draft to my committee in September of 2014. I didn't get feedback from all of my committee members from all of my chapters until August of 2015. That was a full year of weekly reminder e-mails, nail-biting, and dancing around how busy my committee members were. I know that my committee members were/are busy people, but sitting on a dissertation, waiting, feeling helpless, made me think that my dissertation was never going to end. It also made me doubt the work that I did. Maybe they were taking so long because it was horrible work? so when I finally scheduled a defense date, I was still skeptical that I would be awarded my degree.

The defense

I was fortunate to have faculty at Pacific that let me do a practice run of my defense as a department seminar. They gave me some good feedback and I made a few changes. The week of my defense I was so busy running around trying to get ahead so that all my responsibilities were taken care of while I was gone, that I had little time to review my presentation and what I had written. The only time I was able to really practice was on the plane ride to Auburn. The night before I tried to sleep, but I couldn't recall some of the analyses I had performed and I was worried I would be asked about them, so I was up till 2 AM refiguring out what I had done. The day of the dissertation I was so tired. I also had to run around getting all the paperwork done, and again did not have time to practice my presentation. I got all the necessary documents turned in as I sprinted across campus and arrived at my seminar with only 15 minutes to prepare. I was sweaty as I arrived at the classroom to my seminar. Luckily all this running around didn't afford me the ability to be nervous, and so I just got up there and talked...Somehow it went really well. I was prepared for the questions that were asked and my friend, who showed up to watch who didn't have a biology background, said he understood 90% of what I said. So I felt a little relieved after getting some positive feedback.

There was a 2 hour break between my presentation and my defense. So I was able to gather my wits a bit, but I was still skeptical that I was going to pass. I was mentally prepared for the worst. And I was so tired. I was operating on very little sleep, was under a lot of stress, and had just been running all over campus in my dress shoes, long-sleeve shirt, and tie. My committee members asked me questions for 2 hours. I was surprised that all the questions were very positive and progressive. They asked my opinion on some relevant issues, for clarification, and some possible applications of my research. But at no point did I feel over my head. Finally they excused me from the room, and I wandered in the hall for 15 minutes.

Again, I was so tired I wasn't nervous. I just wanted it to be over, one way or the other. I had given it my best, my all, really, and that was good enough for me, so I was prepared for whatever they had decided. Just as I had gotten myself a chair to sit outside the door, Dr. Best came out, scanned the hallway and held out his hand. "Congratulations, you passed". I shook his hand and also tried to give him a hug which turned into an awkward side grab, but I just couldn't believe it. I walked into the room, shook hands, and breathed a large sigh of relief. I started to express my thankfulness to my committee and then I realized if I continued I was going to turn into a crying, blubbering idiot, so I cut it short and just said a big "thank you". They only had some minor revisions for me to do, and then the rest was paperwork, but it was over. The pressure was gone, but I was still too tired to emotionally celebrate.

As I walked away that evening I started to reflect back on my education. I realized that every step of the way I was guided by a force greater than myself. I had some sense of accomplishment, but really I was shaped, prodded, encouraged, helped, hugged, and coerced into this PhD. The points in my life I listed here were the big events that were significant to my progress, but there were countless many who helped in so many ways. My family, my children, my wife, my church, my friends, gave me more emotional support and praise then I ever deserve. I feel so honored, humbled, privileged, and loved to have finished my PhD. I, more than ever, want to give back. I want to be in the significant moments that shape others. I want to inspire and serve through my teaching and research to honor those that have helped me.

I believe in God. I know that you can look at all these events in my life and say that they are just coincidences of fortunate randomness. I can see why and how people are atheist and I myself have debated whether I am just a compilation of chemical reactions or the spiritual offspring of deity. But it's the feeling surrounding these events, the reflection of God's touch, that keep pulling me back to my belief. I believe in God, and He is with me (and my PhD).