August 25, 2011

Eating paleo

by flickr user Stephen Rees
Maybe you've heard of Paleo (paleolithic diet), maybe not. If not I encourage you to check our Robb Wolf's blog (or buy his book, it's informative and entertaining), he has been researching this diet for a long time and knows all the details. I'm a newcomer to it and I'm passionate about it because scientifically it makes sense, and it's given me great, sustainable results in a short amount of time.

What paleo is
Paleo is eating lots of tasty lean meat, a variety of fruits and veggies, and the right kinds of fats. It's a commitment to eating whole foods, not highly processed ones. By eating the foods that humans evolved to eat, you can eliminate many of the 'diseases of affluence": obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Paleo is backed by lots of reproducible studies from several different researchers from around the world. As I scientist I was convinced to try it because not only does Robb Wolf discuss the science behind Paleo in his book and blog, he provides pages and pages of references to the journal articles that document the relevant studies. Besides the diet, the Paleo lifestyle sets a goal of reducing stress and getting adequate sleep every night. There's no counting calories either, when you're eating this way you naturally feel fuller faster and end up eating few calories without even trying.

What paleo isn't
I wanted to start with what you can have, because when I list the things that Paleo restricts you from eating most people I talk to sort of freak out and say "I could never do that!" Strict Paleo says don't eat grains, dairy, or legumes. It's a short list, but when you consider the standard American diet it eliminates most of the foods I grew up on and used to eat every day until 14 weeks ago. No pasta, no bread, bagels, muffins, milk, cheese, beans, peanuts. Why, you ask? Have you ever heard of coeliac disease? (It's ok, go read the wikipedia page, I'll wait.) Coeliac is an intolerance to the protein gluten which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and a similar protein is found in oats. For you geeks out there, gluten is very rich in proline, so it makes it through the stomach and intestines undigested. In the intestines it is able to pass into the blood stream and your body's immune system attacks it as the foreign invader it is. Over time this can worsen and lead to systemic inflammation which has enormous repercussions for the rest of your body. It turns out that many of our native proteins are similar enough to gluten that the antibodies raised against it can start attacking our own tissues, leading to autoimmune diseases. Sounds pretty nasty right? Well guess what, dairy and legumes don't have gluten in them, but both have proteins that act in similar ways to it, not to mention how many people have an intolerance to lactose in milk.

My experience with starting Paleo
Look. I could dedicate post after post to this lifestyle in hopes that you'll believe all the science behind it. In the end, the best proof you can have is just to try it. That's how I started, it sounded good but I wanted to know if it actually worked, so I conducted a little experiment. 30 days, that's it. Go strictly Paleo with your meals for 30 days and see how you look, feel, and perform (Robb even has a 30 day meal plan in the back of his book to get you started). In my first 30 days I lost 8 lbs, my chronic heartburn subsided, I felt more alert and energetic. I felt so good that I haven't looked back. Sure, I'm not perfect and I've given in to having a cookie or some excellent Mexican food complete with beans, rice, and cheese occasionally. But it's my life, and I own my diet...there's not some Paleo police that will come knocking on my door and tell me I've been bad, but my stomach sure was upset after that cookie. Mainly I think it's important to learn what works for you, if you can tolerate dairy occasionally without feeling like crap then go for it! Gluten all around is just a bad idea though...when I indulge I go gluten free and it's still delicious.

Where I'm at now
I'm totally a Paleo girl. After 3 months I've lost 20 lbs effortlessly, just by changing my diet. That's right, I haven't been to the gym once. (Don't get me wrong, my eventual goal is to start working out and get some tone, but drastically changing your diet like this takes some effort, and I want to make sure I get that right.) I've been able to stop taking my acid reflux medication completely, and my heartburn is gone. I wish I could just post this and then it would spread like wildfire and everyone in America would try it out and we'd be a healthier nation. I know that will never happen, but maybe I can change a few lives. My brother helped change mine by introducing me to Robb's book. I was at a point where I knew I needed to make a change, and this has been better than I could have hoped. If you're at that point too, take this as the push you need: get the book and try it for 30 days.

August 23, 2011

There's no PhD in Team

by flickr user sunnehh
One thing I've noticed after transitioning to my new job is that my team is actually a team. People genuinely want to help me when I have questions because our success is really determined more as a team than as individuals. We all have to depend on each other to complete various parts of projects as they come up, and it's nice to have a support system, especially as a new employee.

Contrast this with a typically research group. In most groups it's less a team and more a group of individuals. Yes, in the good groups people behave nicely and will help you out. But how many times have you seen that turn into them jockeying for an authorship spot on your subsequent paper? I've seen it happen a lot, often from people I never expected. As a PhD student you have to prove that YOU have what it takes, not your group as a whole. So you're always looking for ways to distinguish yourself and get as much credit for yourself as you can. I was in a lot of meetings where someone felt very angry and slighted just because the presenter did not give them verbal credit for their help with an experiment or for having given the presenter the idea that got them through their roadblock. They wanted that public pat-on-the-back so their advisor would be aware of how nice and helpful they were (and probably to help make up for their failed experiments or perceived lack of results.) I totally understand why things are this way, but is it still appropriate in today's market? Let's ignore the fact that there are no (maybe a few?) jobs for chemists, isn't there a big push toward collaboration? Most schools are pushing collaborations between researchers and departments and they love to toss around the buzzword "interdisciplinary". So should there be such strong individualism when the culture is moving toward one of teamwork? Aren't today's problems getting harder to solve as a single scientist isolated in a lab somewhere? The problems are bigger and more complex, and it's often impossible for one person to have all of the knowledge required to complete a single project.

I feel like scientists would probably get a lot more meaningful work done if real teamwork was encouraged, but a lot of it probably comes down to the economics of research. You have to prove that you deserve all that money, so you have to have your name on all of those results. Am I wrong?

August 20, 2011

Recovering from grad school

It's been a long time since I've posted, and there have been a lot of changes in my life. New job, new diet (more on that soon), new apartment. No promises on how consistent I will be on posting, but with time comes perspective, and I wanted to share some of that. Just think of it as one of those reality tv shows, where the show goes in and changes someone's life and then a few months later they revisit them. In my revisit, I'd like to talk about what it takes to recover from graduate school.

I think anyone that has been in grad school will agree that it's enormously stressful and that they take solace in knowing that it is a temporary predicament. There's overwhelming pressure to produce either brought down upon you by your advisor or self-imposed by your desire to succeed. Not to mention the physical exhaustion from long hours, and the depression that can come from lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and the fact that your experiment failed yet again and you have no idea what to do next. Throw on top of that the fear of your future career (fear which is experienced by every grad I've ever talked with), and it's easy to end up a mess. For me all of this was pretty easily fixed after I started a new job and no longer had to deal with the daily stresses that come from the grad school environment. This was one of the best rewards for me in my decision to leave, I just feel happier and less stressed.

Did I mention the lack of sleep and poor nutrition? It's easy to succumb to a fast food diet, and I found myself indulging in comfort foods constantly. Sugary coffee drinks, cookies at every seminar, pizza when grading tests, beer at every social event, burgers, chinese, or mexican food for lunch and/or dinner when I felt too tired to cook. (Sounding familiar?) So not only did I put on the freshman 15 in college, I quickly put on another 15 during grad school. (On a side note, kudos to the grads who use some of their few hours of free time to go running or to the gym, I've never liked either and didn't find it a good way to relax.) I also developed acid reflux, which my doctor told me I'd have to deal with for the rest of my life by taking a pill every morning. To sum up, grad school definitely did a number on me, one that I will be recovering from for months if not longer. If you're on your way to or in grad school now, I encourage you to do what you can to eat well and get enough sleep to hopefully make life a little easier for yourself.

On a happier side-note, with my new diet I've already lost 20 lbs and my acid reflux has totally subsided. I'm following a Paleo diet (for a great introduction get Robb Wolf's book The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet), which I highly recommend and plan to devote a whole post to later.

It was pretty hard to say goodbye to all of my friends and move into a new circle of people. And let's face it, it's hard to spend time with grad students when you aren't one yourself. I do still see a few occasionally, but not nearly enough. I'm working on making connections at my new job, and that's something that takes time whenever you make a transition like this.

Haha..this one is a joke. Having a real job is AWESOME. My salary nearly doubled and I have no complaints.

Do I have any regrets?
None. I'm as happy and confident in my decision as I was once I had committed to it. I have no desire to go back to the bench and I think the world of IT is a much better fit for me.

May 10, 2011

So I realized why there aren't more blogs by people who leave grad school

So I made a promise about a month ago that I'm finally following through on. Don't worry, my job is going quite well and that's why I've been absent from the blogging scene.

by flickr user Xelcise
Let me elaborate a little on my title. Once I finally left grad school and started my new job, all the fire went out of me. That desire to preach to young graduate students about the perils of their upcoming academic journey and to find reassurance from other Chemistry MS-holders that the road before me would be ok, just didn't seem to matter any more. I think that's why I couldn't find other blogs written by chemistry students who quit grad school with a Masters; once you get out of the grad school bubble you forget about the drama and angst and you just move on.

If you're struggling with the decision, take heart! It does get easier. There's definitely some fear when you're looking for a job or whatever your next move is, but once you start that next journey you forget about the old stuff that used to stress you out. The best thing that's happened for me is that I'm just happier. I don't worry about work, I don't bring any of it home with me. I work hard during the day, I feel like I'm making progress, and I go home to relax and live a little. All in all I know I made the right decision for myself.

April 13, 2011

My apologies...

Wow, sorry about the gaping whole of nothingness that has been this blog as of late. Corporate America has been a lot more demanding than I thought it would be, so I haven't had time to post. I will try to correct that tonight when I will touch on some of my observations of the differences between Corporate America and Academia.

March 31, 2011

Do you have the skills to pay the bills?

by flickr user dulk
Because I am seeking an alternative science career, the skills I've acquired through my education really aren't that useful. I mean, yes, I know a lot about chemistry, but what good is that for a desk job? So which skills are the most valuable in terms of securing employment?  Well, in my humble opinion they happen to be the skills that I developed independently as hobbies. For instance, the computer skills I've developed over a lifetime. I taught myself how to code HTML / CSS and became very comfortable with image manipulation software and office products. Some of those skills were valuable in graduate school, academia tends to greatly value free webdesign in my experience. The hard part is explaining to employers that my hobbies really have trained me in these skills well enough to justify employing me in a job where I do only that.

Luckily, I found an employer willing to take a chance on me. So I'm leaving chemistry for his sexy younger brother: computer science. I will be starting a job with a software company in a few weeks, and while I have mixed feelings about abandoning science, I am excited about the position and hope that I find it enjoyable. Regardless the position pays much better than a grad student stipend, and it allows me to stay near the other half of my two-body problem.

Right now I consider this a hiatus from alternative science careers, but who knows where this journey will take me. I hope to continue writing about topics relevant to the audience I have built, but apologize in advance if I begin to diverge into tangential topics.

March 20, 2011

'Tis the season for recruiting

**Part 2 of the 2-for-1 day!

by flickr user thinboyfatter
All of the prospective graduate students have come and gone from Big U for this year's Chemistry recruiting season. I saw the recruits in a completely new light this time. Granted, my exposure to recruits was limited as I wasn't allowed to host (wouldn't want the "bitter" grad student leaving with a Masters to say anything negative about the department), but I did interact with them at the poster session and a couple of the informal dinners.

I was struck by their naivety. Many expressed their desire to go the academic route, becoming a professor at a small college, and faithful readers will know how I feel about that. As soon as I heard this I wanted to start quoting stats as to the limited number of academic positions, the huge number of applicants, and therefore the low odds of getting that coveted spot. In general I wanted to warn them of the troubling job market for PhD chemists and the possibility that we just have too many PhDs. Did I tell them any of these things? Nope. I knew that my cautionary advice would fall on deaf ears, especially once they heard that I was leaving the program. I was in their shoes once, and I was so confident that I was different that I would have thought that those statistics didn't apply to me. No, instead I kept my mouth shut and hid behind the mask of a graduate student in good standing. I cringed and squirmed a little when they asked about the attrition rate and how many people quit with their Masters. Thankfully one of my close friends fielded the question and answered truthfully that people leave for all sorts of reasons. After all, six people have left from our class, and we all left for distinct reasons.

So readers, did I take the easy way out by staying silent? Do you think they would have heeded my advice? I believe that there really are some things people can only learn through experience, and by documenting my advice here the information will be available if they choose to go looking for it later.