On #Fieldwork and #SelfCare – my Salmonella experience

A year ago I was in the middle of my first true field season. I’d be spending over a month split between El Salvador and Nicaragua. I would also unknowingly be contracting Salmonella.

The symptoms started within the first week or so of my fieldwork, I ignored them to my body just “adjusting” to the field conditions – 100F heat and 100% humidity, lots of bugs, new food, new sleep schedule, etc. I took so many Imodium during that field season, it became like a daily vitamin. Obviously, that should have raised alarm in me, but I was on a remote island, and needed to get this field work done. I had worked tirelessly over the past nearly 4 years to get this project going, to raise all the money to get myself there, I was not about to back down due to some little stomach bug.

Oh, how stupid.

I continued on my field season, completed it nearly a month later. Flew back home to Texas, symptoms still raging, Imodium still a near daily-fixture (which, turns out – was just allowing what was in my stomach to fester, great). I had lost weight, felt nauseous most of the time, could barely stay out of the bathroom, and one light beer would make me wasted. Clearly, signs of my body saying, “GO TO THE DOCTOR”. But, I’m a PhD Candidate, I need to graduate soon, I have shit to do, research to be done, connections to be made! 

Two days after getting back to the field I attended a 2 week intense short-course in Utah. The first week of said course I ended up in urgent care because some mystery reaction happened, where red tender spots the size of a golf ball started on my feet and worked their way to my knees, hips, back, arms, and out the top of my head. Urgent care doctor had no idea what it was, understandably, and I went on gnarly steroids and antibiotics for a week, it seemed to go away.

My stomach was still not functioning properly and I continued to make excuses for it and push on. This summer school course is elite, and I was not going to miss it on account of my body not feeling right. I’ve worked too hard for this!

Less than a week or so after I got back from Utah, my husband and I headed to a friend’s wedding, where after 3 beers over 3 hours and a hearty dinner, I spent the night on the bathroom floor as if it were my 21st birthday and I had taken 10 tequila shots. I dragged myself to the wedding the next day, against the will of my body. I have worked hard all summer, I want to have fun with my friends, this “little stomach bug” won’t prevent me from this!

The morning after the wedding, at 6am, I had a flight to Wisconsin for a conference. I felt like hell at the airport, bought a new package of Imodium and some Dramamine for good measure then called my husband from the airport crying that I just felt so awful and didn’t know if I could get on the plane. But, I had to! I was presenting at this conference! I had earned a travel grant to attend, and was part of a workshop! I hadn’t been working hard to not attend! So, I popped an Imodium, got on the plane, and made it to the conference. I got to my hotel, called my husband crying again because I felt so awful. I had to go to the opening mixer and network (usually my favorite part), and I was dreading it because my body was so run down and sick, but I just sucked it up, popped another Imodium, noted where the nearest bathroom was, and headed to the mixer. My career, my science, I can’t miss this! I didn’t work hard to get here to not network!

Finally, I returned home from the conference. My stomach hadn’t been working correctly for months at this point, and finally small red spots started appearing on my skin. At first I had just a few on my arms, “hmmm that’s odd”, I thought. Then they spread all over my arms, on my chest, even on my boobs (how dare they!). I freaked the fuck out. I remember when I noticed how many there were, I was in my closet changing my shirt for school, I had just finally gotten out of the bathroom and felt okay enough to go in to the office. I saw the spots, broke out in sobs, and collapsed to my closet floor. My husband came in and said, “Enough is enough – you are calling the doctor today.” Husband and I are usually a democracy, but he was, rightfully, insistent. He had been telling me to call a doctor along every step of the way, BUT MY WORK! MY SCIENCE! MY CAREER!

EARTH TO KATIE – IF YOU’RE NOT HEALTHY, NONE OF THAT MATTERS.

It was now August, this had been going on since the beginning of May. Finally, I went to my primary care doctor and she was stumped. I had blood tests, stool samples, urine samples tested for everything, but we were stumped. The spots continued to spread. My stomach continued to wretch and the toilet continued to be my home. I lived off chicken top ramen, Gatorade, and saltines for over a month – not nutritious but all I could manage.

Finally I was referred to an infectious and travel disease specialist, I got a new round of poking and prodding, and ended up – finally – being diagnosed with Salmonella. I don’t even remember what kind of Salmonella, but an uncommon one, I didn’t have all the normal symptoms, and it showed up very faintly in my blood test results. I was told that I basically had to re-start my entire digestive system from zero. All the pro-biotics, Activia yogurt, kefir milk, antibiotics, and a few other prescriptions.

The stomach symptoms finally went away, over 4 months from when they started. Just in time for me to go to the field again, for my second field season.

I made sure to get clearance from my doctor, updated my vaccinations, and bought probiotics and antibiotics to take with me just in case. Upon immediate return from the field, I made sure to promptly make doctors’ appointments, to make sure that I had returned healthy.  I didn’t schedule any traveling, conferences, or other stressful work-related activities immediately after I returned. I gave my body time to readjust, to recuperate.

I am so very lucky that it was “just” Salmonella. It could have been much more serious, and letting it go that long – when it was clear, when I knew that something wasn’t right was irresponsible and just plain stupid of me.

A year later I am still rebuilding my digestive system, and the red spots still sometimes appear (usually when I’m stressed). The doctors tell me the spots are now an immune response that my body initiates, to not worry about them – that my body just hasn’t figured out they’re no longer necessary.

The excuse that I couldn’t “waste the grant money” by taking time to go the doctor, to leave a conference or a short course early – was just stupid. I have promised myself to never do this again, and if I am a professor or a mentor to others someday, I will advocate fiercely for the time they need for self-care.

So, fellow grad students, field biologists, and anyone else who uses work and productivity as an excuse to not take care of yourself. Please, make that doctor’s appointment and keep it. Get those blood tests done quickly, and if you need to leave a conference or the field early to take care of yourself: do it.

Your health matters. You matter. Take care of yourself, we need you.

 

Reflecting on changing labs: 3 years later I am happy and thriving

Three years.

Three years almost, to the day, that I severed ties to my old lab. My first lab as a PhD student, the lab that I set all my grad school dreams on, the one that would allow me to do the research and outreach I was passionate about, that would be the perfect fit. I just knew it. The lab, that my first year, was everything I hoped – challenging, inspiring, friendly. Then, something shifted. To this day I still don’t know what exactly, but as I’ve written about previously on this blog*, after that first year, things changed. They got bad, then worse, then irreparable.

Three years later, after recovering from the blow of being told I wasn’t cut out for this, that I didn’t have it, and would simply not be successful – I am thriving. In my new lab, with an adviser better suited for how I work, and the research I am passionate about, I am continually discovering that I am cut out for this, I do have “it” (whatever the hell “it” is), and I AM being successful. And, damn, does it feel good.

It feels amazing to walk in to weekly meetings excited to share what I’ve been working on, and to walk out feeling inspired to work on my next tasks, no matter how daunting they may seem. To walk in to a meeting feeling confident in my ability to admit I messed up, or don’t know something. To be able to discuss my mistakes as learning experiences, to work out how to improve on the next step and make it better next time. To be given suggestions on where to look for answers when I’ve reached a dead end.

It is incredible to have several moments, each week, where I think to myself, “I love my lab” and genuinely mean it. I promise myself I won’t take this feeling for granted, because I know how lucky I am to feel it.

It seems almost impossible that I am talking about graduation next summer, which, in the end, will be a total of 6 years in grad school, and 4 years since switching labs. This time spans 3 departments, 2 universities, and most of Texas. It encompasses two complete from-scratch planned PhD proposals, only one to come to fruition. It includes countless grant applications, published papers, conference talks, and an incredible support system of peers and mentors spanning fields, countries and generations.

Reflecting on this I am in tears. I know that I have been fortunate for the opportunities and experiences in my life that I have been able to take advantage of to get here, but it was not without struggle. I almost walked away. Three years ago, I almost gave up on grad school, gave in to the nay-sayers. I internally struggled, I didn’t sleep through the night for months, waking up with panic attacks and crying through the night. I drank a lot. Only finally seeking professional help to deal with the trauma months later, one of the most important and best steps I made during my transition, something in hindsight I wish I would have done sooner.  Through this, through the shattered illusions of what I hoped graduate school would be, my support system helped keep me grounded. My cohort, my family, and other faculty I had worked with, or been taught by, cheered me on and picked me up. They were louder and more persistent than the nay-sayers, who had long since written me off as a lost cause. My network saved me, I am forever grateful to them all, I tell them frequently and try to give back however I can**.

Three years later and I am thriving.

My dissertation is taking shape, in three years I’ve completed all of my fieldwork, passed my comprehensive exams, and funded my whole project through grants I have authored. I am publishing, presenting at conferences, have created a wide and positive network, am beginning my post-doc/job search, and am gearing up for the final year dash to the finish. I also just took a month off (without my laptop or any work) to travel around Europe with my husband on a once-in-a lifetime trip spanning 6 countries and all the delicious beer, food, and wonderful sights. I am happy, I am thriving, and I continue to be inspired by my work and all its possibilities.

I don’t say all of this to brag about my progress, and the last three years have not been without mistakes, setbacks, frustrations, and difficulties. But I share my story for students who feels stuck, who are scared to start over in another lab, who are unhappy in their situations – so that they know they have options. They have a choice, they are not stuck and they can move on, and that a better fit is out there for them. That a better, more positive experience is possible, and should be the norm. That they can still be successful, can finish their PhDs if they decide they want to. There are positive sides to academia, you don’t have to be and absolutely should not be miserable. You should be happy.  It will be challenging, but in the end you should be happy***.

Changing labs is not something done lightly, but it is an option, and it is not taboo. It happens more than we think, and for me, it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Changing labs is not failing.
Changing labs does not mean you’re unsuccessful.
Changing labs is not taboo.

You can still be successful.
You can still graduate “on time”.
You should be happy.

If you are struggling with this, you are not alone in your struggle. Reach out to your network, to me if I can be a resource. You have options, and the most important thing is that, through it all, you should be happy. You deserve that.


*Blog post on how and why I changed labs can be found here: https://katiewedemeyer.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/grad-students-youre-not-trapped-if-youre-unhappy-its-okay-to-make-a-change/

I’ve received wonderful messages form students over the past few years, that it has helped them and I hope it can continue to serve as a positive resource.

**I’ve also written about the importance of support systems in science with Dr. SE Myhre, the piece can be found here: https://medium.com/@SarahEMoffitt/for-our-science-and-ourselves-464096970218#.z96nucifj

***Another blog post that may be helpful if you’re struggling: https://katiewedemeyer.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/grad-school-finding-the-positive-through-the-negative/

Dear USA Taxpayers: my science is for you

Dear USA Taxpayers:

As a taxpayer funded scientist, having earned a competitive National Science Foundation Fellowship, I take my responsibility to serve the public and do my science for all seriously. This is why I take time and make it a priority to do outreach, like the talk I am giving tomorrow, to a high school in Pennsylvania via Skype. I want to be as transparent as possible in what I am doing, and to give back and inspire a new generation of scientists.

I am forever grateful for the funding I receive from the National Science Foundation, it has truly changed my life and made my PhD possible. I am earning my PhD to help inspire young girls, to be a role model and show that liking school and being smart are wonderful qualities. I am earning my PhD to bring science to non-scientists, to help share what it is we actually do as scientists. To show that we, like you, are people with jobs that we often love, and sometimes dislike. We have families, hobbies, and other interests and dreams outside of science. We come in all shapes, forms, walks of life, and expertise.

Doing outreach, sharing my love for science, my journey to the 21st grade, and the awesome stuff I get to do to study sea turtles is something that I truly love doing. Sharing my work reminds me why I do my work – to inspire, to reach people, to make the world better for all of us.

If I can be a resource for you, a teacher you know, or a child interested in science, please let me know.

Thank you, truly, for your support. My science is for you.

Sincerely,
Katie

PhD Candidate, University of Texas at El Paso
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow

“For our science and ourselves: We are only as strong as the support we give and receive” a conversation with SE Myhre for Medium.com

Sarah E Myhre, Ph.D. and I published an edited conversation on Medium.com, entitled

“For our science and ourselves:

We are only as strong as the support we give and receive”

You can read it here: https://medium.com/@SarahEMoffitt/for-our-science-and-ourselves-464096970218#.z96nucifj

I am forever grateful to my support system, I am where I am today as a result of their continued encouragement.  I owe them so much and am thankful to have each of them in my life. Science is a team sport, choose yours wisely.

Having fun and overcoming the impostor syndrome at SPATIAL 2016

spatial

This past summer I had the privilege of attending the University of Utah’s Isotopes in Spatial Ecology and Biogeochemistry Short Course (SPATIAL), led by Dr. Gabriel Bowen (@bumbanian).  The previous summer I attended the University’s complementary isotope short course, IsoCamp (@stableisotopes), where I had an incredible experience, which I write about here. Thus, going in to SPATIAL I had extremely high expectations, and it surpassed them all.

SPATIAL was two weeks of hard work, challenges, battling the impostor syndrome – and winning, of isotopes, laughter, of improving as a scientist, an academic, and a person. I left SPATIAL refreshed, inspired, and ready to kick ass on my dissertation – despite the two weeks of SPATIAL also dealing me an unexpected death in my family, and not-yet-diagnosed Salmonella I had picked up from my recent field season, which landed me one evening in urgent care.

SPATIAL taught me a lot about spatial ecology and biogeochemistry, helped refine my dissertation methods, and expanded my network, as are the course’s primary objectives.  However, the most powerful impacts SPATIAL has had on my career are that it helped give me the confidence to overcome the impostor syndrome and reminded me to have fun with my work. SPATIAL serves as another motivating and refreshing academic experience that displays what academia can and should be like.

SPATIAL started out by presenting me with all of these things that I didn’t know, but it was clear from the start that it was okay that I didn’t know them. I wasn’t expected to, and I was never once made to feel like less than because I didn’t. Being part of a group of students from various backgrounds, expertise, ambitions, and being taught by the leaders in the field could have been incredibly intimidating, and yet in this atmosphere it was warmly welcoming. As a graduate student, not knowing enough, feeling behind, feeling like you’re not enough is so common – not here, not among this group. Yes you may feel overwhelmed at all the information, but regardless, at SPATIAL you are enough.

Each of the expert mentors (including post-docs, professors, industry and government professionals) are teaching at SPATIAL because they genuinely want to help you. Not only do they share their expertise, introduce you to new methods, and get you thinking about things you’ve never thought about before and now can’t miss (looking at you anthropogenic dust) –they want to bring each student out of their shell, get you talking, thinking critically, expanding and pulling a piece from their lessons that will help you and your science grow. They will take the time to talk with you, to answer your questions – no matter how trivial they seem to you. They will miss a coveted coffee break (gasp!) to brainstorm about your research, to help you improve your project and will introduce you to methods you didn’t think were possible, but happen to be the perfect fit for you dissertation. They are there to help you learn, and to learn from you. You are colleagues, a team. As a graduate student, feeling that mutual respect is incredibly inspiring. SPATIAL is a refreshing reminder of academic comradery. SPATIAL values each participant – each grad student, post-doc, academic, government and industry professional as a highly valued part of the network. A network that I am thankful to be part of, and look forward to giving back to as my career grows.

Standout moments & lessons from SPATIAL 2016:

Changing the internal conversation:

The whole first week of lab, nearly every day, I would have a mini-internal panic, the voice inside my head yelling, “You should know this, how do you not know this already?! Everybody else looks like they do! muhahahah” When I was finally able to quiet that down, and remind myself that 1. I’m not in competition with anyone here and 2. I’m here to learn, I’d ask for help. Each of the mentors were so patient and approachable, that by the end SPATIAL had quieted that negative voice in my head down, and instead replaced it with, “You can do this, it’s new to you – so ask for help and learn how to move forward”.

A particular instance of this I remember vividly was while working in a lab group for our weekly project where I was asked to be in charge of something that required exclusive use of R, a program I was a total novice at. I can still feel that deer in the headlights look about me as I tried to figure out how to say, “Sure! Except I have no idea what I’m doing?” without revealing my actual thoughts on it which were much more like, “Shitttttt. I have no idea what to do, can I even turn R on? Do you turn R on, do you turn R on? wtf?” Luckily for me, our project mentor, Clive Trueman (@clivetrue), noticed me trying to deal with my internal panic, and before I said anything, he offered to help get me started with it. Clive sat down with me, talked me through what I needed to do step by step at first, was patient with me (thank you!) and helped me through my initial frustrations. Little by little he took the training wheels off and just like that, by the end of that one daspatial-birdy in the lab I was writing and altering code myself and was able to successfully complete my part of the project. Damn that felt good. I will always remember and be grateful for the vote of confidence and zero judgement I received for not having done this skill before. Again, I was reminded that it’s okay to not know everything, to ask for help, and the importance of seeking out and finding good mentors. In the end, the resulting project is one of my favorites, this lovely bird is a picture from our group’s presentation.

“Make this better”- Dr. Jason West:

Jason West (@DrJBWest) started off one of his talks with a slide that had, “make this better” written across it – a reminder to himself that he had missed when finalizing his presentation. We all got a good laugh out of this. I particularly appreciated this, because it was a reminder that there is always room for improvement (even when you’re the expert), and when you make a mistake –laugh about it, learn from it, and move on.

The best advice – have fun:

At the final banquet I was sitting next to Gabe and I took the opportunity to ask him a question I like to ask successful PhDs – “What is the best advice you got as a graduate student?” Gabe sat and thought about it for a moment, and responded with something along the lines of, “Find something you like doing that you have fun with”. Then he looked at me and said, “That was probably not the answer you were hoping for.” To date, it is the most refreshing answer I’ve gotten to that question. What a novel idea?! Not really, of course, but so often as graduate students so much focus is on the negatives of grad school, on the toughing it out, the dealing with it. I was so thrilled that his response was the anti-thesis to that. Grad school should be challenging, your work should be challenging – but it should be fun. It’s clear that Gabe took this advice to heart himself, and passes it on to students he teaches. There is a heavy dose of work hard-play hard at SPATIAL, and even through the long days of lecture and lab we were always having fun, laughing, and enjoying the work.  You guys, science is fun! It is supposed to be fun, and grad school should be too!

Science is a team sport, choose your team wisely:

Rebecaa Barnes (@waterbarnes) reminded us that science is a team sport and you get to choose your team, so don’t work with people that don’t make you happy. I repeat: don’t work with people who don’t make you happy. Choose who you work with wisely. Excellent advice for all stages of your career. Thank you for the reminder, Rebecca.

Rebecca also introduced us to the Earth Science Women’s Network (@ESWNtweets), an awesome network full of resources for, you guessed it, women in the earth sciences.

Another SPATIAL plus: several kick ass women mentors!

It gives me hope.   

SPATIAL offered another academic experience, where as a graduate student, I felt 100% respected, appreciated and encouraged. SPATIAL echoed IsoCamp’s emphasis on collaboration, on working together to building one another up and helping one another succeed – even if you’re competing against one another for grants and job applications. Work together, succeed together, build up your network, be present in it, and give back.  I am so thankful to be part of this network and for the positive example it sets for academia. It encourages me and gives me hope.

2016 Reflections & Cheers to 2017

Inspired by one of my tweeps’, Auriel Fournier (@RallidaeRule), blog posts on “2016 by the numbers” and “2017 goals” – I thought I too would look back on my 2016 and see what I’ve accomplished, and what I have to look forward to and work towards as the New Year approaches.

2016 Top Moments:

  • Finally visiting Washington D.C. with my Dad, something we’d been talking about for over 20 years
  • Standing inside the White House with my Dad
  • Settling in to our new home in El Paso and making new lifelong friends
  • Watching my husband excel during his career change from chef to full-time student
  • Turning 29 in El Salvador, and celebrating with my fieldwork friends/colleagues
  • Cheering on my good friend Sarah (@sarahpf19) from abroad, as she defended her PhD
  • Attending SPATIAL and nerding out on Isotopes at the University of Utah
  • Receiving grants to finish my field work!
  • Completing my dissertation fieldwork! (Woah!)
  • Listing my prospective graduation date in a fellowship application (Woah!)
  • My first invited-talk appearance at a conference workshop (NACCB), the skills learned and connections made, especially @SarahEMyhre
  • Pupusa making lessons and the hawksbill sea turtle festival in Bahia de Jiquilisco, El Salvador
  • Learning from & interviewing local fisherman in remote island villages in El Salvador & Nicaragua
  • Seeing my husband excel during his first semester of his year studying abroad in Germany
  • Buying my plane ticket to go visit him in Europe in 2017
  • Celebrating the marriage of my husband’s brother to his wonderful wife
  • Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
  • Spending Christmas in Hawaii with my amazing family
  • Publishing a paper with many of my academic idols
  • Finding my voice & sticking it to the impostor syndrome (mostly)

2016 Places Visited: (for work and for fun)

  • San Diego, CA
  • Santa Barbara, CA
  • Temecula, CA
  • Idyllwild, CA
  • Washington D.C.
  • Melbourne Beach, Florida
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Oahu, Hawaii
  • Chesapeake, Virginia
  • College Station and Houston, Texas
  • El Salvador
  • Nicaragua
  • National Parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Guadalupe
  • National Monuments: White Sands, Pearl Harbor, Washington D.C. in general

2016 Bottom Moments:

  • Coming back from the first round of fieldwork with Salmonella that lasted 4 months (don’t recommend)
  • Living away from my husband, although it is so worth it for us to each follow our dreams
  • Missing my cohort and good friends from where we used to live (I think academia is much more than a 2-bodied problem, more like a cohort-bodied problem – I need my people!)
  • Worrying about the future of science and our country

2017 Goals

  • WRITE. Manuscripts and blog posts. 3 manuscripts, and at least one blog post per month.
  • Read 200 papers (at least), and track them
  • Start working on my vision for a graduate student women support group/community
  • Continue as a graduate student advocate
  • Stay informed and pay close attention to what is happening in the world, fight for what I believe in
  • Volunteer at the YWCA
  • Analyze data for 2 chapters of my dissertation
  • Publish 2 chapters of my dissertation and 1 related paper
  • Solidify funding for final year of PhD, receive fellowship (fingers crossed!)
  • Build potential post-doc opportunities
  • Present at 2 conferences
  • Exercise 3-5 times per week
  • Host a #mhPhDchat
  • Do more outreach
  • Enjoy the time visiting my husband in Europe, try not to stress too much about work while there
  • Give back to those who have helped me along the way
  • Take time off to visit family

Cheers to a happy, healthy, productive, funded, published 2017! 

Unexpected lessons from the field: living the election season abroad

I’m not here for a debate. I just want to share my experience of living the end of this election season abroad:

I have had people in small, remote island villages in El Salvador and Nicaragua asking me about our election. Voice their concerns, and their knowledge of our country’s politics is impressive. These are people from towns without regular potable water, and some without electricity.

At the field station in Nicaragua there are some visiting German tourists. They asked me about the election and said their country is eagerly watching, because the similarity between Trump’s rise and Hitler’s are alarming. They said this timidly, not wanting to say either name and saying both names with the same uneasiness. This was incredibly powerful.

As we all know, this election is critical, and in case you didn’t know – the world is watching, from all parts and all walks of life. I know this is a passionate topic for many and again I am not here to debate – so please don’t start. These experiences have been very profound for me, so I wanted to share.

Please remember, we are all from this same wonderful country, we are all human beings and no matter of Tuesday’s outcome we are all in this together. Let’s treat each other with respect, let’s spread love, tolerance, and no matter what comes of Tuesday – we are the United States. We may not be happy with how our country is right now, but I know that I am proud to call it home. I know that after Tuesday, no matter what happens, many will be upset. Let’s try to stick together and no matter what, be the positive that our country needs so critically right now. I know this can seem hard, this election season has gotten me upset, frustrated, and down more than any has before. But I am determined to be some of the positive we need, to lead by example of my values.

I have seen the good in people, in people whose families have been here for many generations and in people who have come from all over, who call our country home. It is a special place, and I hope we can all remember that deep down we all want the same – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.