Category Archives: Random Ramblings

The especially thoughtful posts.

Future Fun Facts

Remember when I said that my life is so much more than the pursuit of a PhD?

I’ve been keeping a “bucket list” now for a couple of years. It’s helped me defined what I truly want to do and see and become in my life. After finding Joel Runyon’s Blog of Impossible Things, I was inspired to refashion my list because my bucket list just wasn’t aiming high enough.

This list is designed to evoke statements like Girl, you crazy. You can’t do all that. That’s impossible.

But as I’ve mentioned before, now is the time to be outrageous.

Even more than that, though, putting this list together forced me to define an ideal future filled with possibility.

So without further ado, I present…

My Future Fun Facts


PhD Stuff

  • Publish a paper
  • and another one
  • and another one
  • give a lecture at Cornell (as a TA, as a guest lecturer)
  • Become a walking reference manual for SAS, SPSS, R, Evernote, Refworks
  • design a full semester course
  • design an online course


  • Complete 50 push ups in a row
  • Handstand or any inverted yoga pose
  • 200 consecutive squats
  • Complete one unassisted pull up (then five)
  • learn Parkour
  • Become proficient in four styles of martial arts (Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jujitsu, Kung Fu)


  • Visit every continent (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Antarctica)
  • Macchu Picchu
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances)
  • Pilgrimage to Rome
  • Great Wall of China

Confronting Fears

  • Learn to surf
  • Learn to hang glide
  • Scuba dive
  • Do an unassisted back flip
  • Ride a bike in a foreign country


  • Earn $5,000/year freelancing
  • Make a full time second income online (~$30,000 per year)
  • Write an e-book (besides my Evernote guide)
  • save $100,000

Renaissance Woman

  • Design a Tiny House
  • Build a Tiny House
  • Speak four languages besides English (Spanish, French, German, Esperanto)
  • Compete at Pre-Champ Level in two of four ballroom styles (Smooth, Standard, Rhythm, Latin)
  • Sing part of the Hallelujah Chorus

And that’s it for now! Do you have an “impossible” goal or list of goals?

Why Do I Do This?

I saw that secret in my first year of grad school.

It shook me to my core. It’s one of those I could at and say: “What if that’s me?” It could easily become my secret in 10 years if I let it.

I found that it was easy to get overwhelmed by the endless reading, writing, and thinking. It was exhausting to feel like I wasn’t making progress. But my life is so much more than a PhD.

I want an incredible life, too, and I don’t want to wait 10 years for it.

And so I live now. I make the conscious choice to enjoy every single day. To do fun things. To step out of my comfort zone.

Since starting my PhD program, I have:

  • started playing ukulele
  • joined a competitive ballroom dance team
  • lived in Rwanda and India
  • learned to use a DSLR
  • begun learning Spanish and French

How do I do this?

Since I don’t intend to do cool stuff at the expense of my academic training, I have to be incredibly purposeful about the way I structure my life.

I create systems to enhance my productivity without driving myself insane.

I don’t complain about how difficult my work is.   This is my challenge, and I embrace it.

No matter what your specific grad program is like, we all have five tasks in common:

  • Idea Generation
  • Idea Organization
  • Idea Presentation
  • Self-Promotion
  • Self-Funding
I’ve learned quite a bit about these five tasks over my past two years as a graduate student at Cornell. Most of the things I learned I had to figure out on my own. Now I am going to share what I know and what I discover.

I am here to encourage you.

Grad school is difficult and misunderstood. How many times did people question your decision to go to grad school? Or poke fun at you? Or tell you that you’ll always be poor and overworked?

How many of your peers endlessly bemoan the amount of work they have to do?  Every day, they work and work but they never seem to feel better!

There is a better way. Optimize the Five Tasks. Work hard on stuff that matters. Then stop and go play for a bit.

I will show you ways to work smarter so you can live the life you want now.

Thanks for reading along!


yes, that's me

Managing your “But I have too much to do” list

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you feel like nothing gets done because you’re too busy doing things?

That’s the week I’m finishing up now. We’ve all had to do lists that span multiple pages. We all have those days where completing the most insignificant tasks on your list seems like a Sisyphean ordeal.

The fact is, in grad school, you have to do a lot of work before the science happens. Science (*sung by a chorus of angels*) refers to whatever cool stuff you do. You know, the stuff you envisioned when you were first contemplating this journey to the PhD.

For me the cool stuff included travelling to Rwanda and India and conducting certain tests there. Both of those trips were the culmination of years of preparation for my advisor and months of preparation for me.  For some of my colleagues, the cool stuff is interacting with moms and babies, conducting specific lab tests, working with advanced computer programs, or generating some truly amazing images of spiders covered in gold.

Or this…

yes, that's me

In other words, the cool stuff is really cool.

But stuff has to happen before the science. This is where we are today. In order to do science, we have to build up to it with mundane but necessary tasks.

This is why it is vital to create systems to help us. I classify my “mundane” tasks into two categories: Idea Generation and Organization. I have systems to streamline these tasks. I’ve already shared how I keep up to date with publications using Google Reader. This is one of my Idea Generation systems.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to go into more detail about each of the systems I use to help me be a more effective graduate student and a more sane person.

Sneak peak:

  • how to use Evernote to organize journal pdfs, store my notes, and create drafts of papers.
  • how to use Twitter (yes, really) to get information about something you know nothing about
  • how to use Pubmed+Refworks to create quick, citable bibliographies and reference pages

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The importance of setting outrageous goals in grad school

Summer can be a wonderful time in the life of a grad student. The weather is lovely, the library is empty, everyone seems more relaxed.

But after a week or so, I find myself growing restless. I’m the kind of person who thrives on activity. I need hurdles to jump and goals to strive for.

This makes summer the perfect time for analyzing my personal and professional goals. Instead of making New Year’s Resolutions, I make One Year Goals from summer to summer.

Sometimes I have a hard time drawing up a list of goals because I tend to play it safe. I keep making baby goals–ones I know I can achieve. But now is not the time to be safe!

Now is the time to be bold.

What do you want to do this year? Suspend reality for a moment and consider everything.

Do you want to learn a language?
Do you want to travel?
Do you want to organize an event for your peers?
Do you want to make a serious dent in your proposal/grant application/dissertation?
Do you want to become an authority among your peers?
Do you want to buckle down and pay off student loans?

Think back before you came to grad school. What did you think it would be like? Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing?

Here’s the list that I made back in July 2011:

travel to two foreign countries (fully funded of course)
travel to two nutrition conferences
become independent of my car
register a domain name
dance three nights a week

I traveled to Rwanda and India this year for part of my research. Here I am celebrating Holi in India.

I presented at the Experimental Biology conference this year. I registered this domain name (and one other). And I dance three nights a week (publicly during the year, privately during the summer). I even competed!

When I wrote down my goals, I had no idea how I would accomplish them. (I mean, really, who in grad school has time to dance three nights a week??) And really, if you already know how you will accomplish a certain goal, that goal is TOO EASY. 

I didn’t reach all of my goals. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with work. I get that; I worked hard this past year, too. But having concrete goals in mind (and on paper) primed me to take advantage of opportunities that I might have otherwise dismissed. 

Action Steps:

  1. Set a timer for 30 minutes.
  2. Get out a pen and paper and brainstorm ideas.
  3. Pick 3 crazy goals for this year.
  4. Put them somewhere you can see them.
Remember, now is the time to be bold. You might be surprised what can happen in a year!




The Graduate Manifesto

There will always be work.

Over the past two years as a grad student, I’ve learned that I’ll often have 25 hours of work a day. Between the readings, the conceptual frameworks, the classwork, and the teaching, it’s a wonder that my mind doesn’t explode. At some point, I have to stop and accept the fact that there will always be something left undone. There will always be work left to do.

The world will not end when I don’t finish everything on time.

Even though it’s flattering to believe that the entire world depends on my work, most people function perfectly fine without it. Obviously there are times when others depend on me, but for the most part everyone else is too caught up in their own work to notice mine. This is a merciful reality.

Productivity = working hard and stopping

Keeping sane in this world requires that I focus on the most important tasks as hard as I can for as long as I can with absolutely no distractions and then stop and do something fun. Scheduling fixed periods of work and play is critical for both getting things done and getting much needed play and rest.

Sometimes creating a balanced life means adding something you love.

Most of the time when I hear people talking about living a balanced life, they talk about taking things away. During my first weeks of grad school, I felt completely overwhelmed by work. I had taken away everything else. Since work was my entire life, when it wasn’t going well I felt like my life was a mess. Then I added ballroom dance. Immediately the quality of my life (and work) improved.

It is possible to be an effective grad student and have an outside life.

I have other goals in my life besides getting a PhD, and I refuse to put my life on hold. I want to travel, to dance, to play the ukulele, to learn languages, to take care of my body, to meet interesting people, and to enjoy life. I also want to make an impact in my chosen field by producing meaningful work. I believe I can do this by focusing my effort on the most meaningful tasks and by eliminating distractions.

Follow along as I share my experiences and experimentations in pursuit of a balanced yet effective graduate career.



Lessons from the Field: Appreciate the People and their Problems

Last spring was a bit of an anomaly in my research timeline.  I spent five weeks in Rwanda and four weeks in rural India consulting on two nutrition projects.  As a Human Nutrition grad, many of the problems that interest me present themselves in developing countries and vulnerable populations (women and children). That brief time “in the field” introduced me to the unforgiving reality of the day-to-day life of the people I’m idealistically and naively trying to help.

I took the above picture while visiting a tea estate in rural Rwanda. We were trying to understand how life worked for the women who picked tea leaves there. How much money did they make? How many hours did they work? How far away did they live? How often did they eat? How often did they eat meat? Did they have enough food for their children? Where did their husbands work?

As we spoke with this woman, I couldn’t help but notice how she emanated strength and beauty. She was one of the “good” workers–one who consistently picked the most leaves–and you could tell she was proud. She was responsible for feeding herself and her family from the meager wages. When asked how often she eats, she replied that she would eat one large meal at night and one small meal in the morning. We were later informed that she was politely lying: none of the women ate more than one meal per day we were told. She only eats meat on Christmas.

It is difficult to know how to help. One of the hard parts about being a humanitarian scientist (as opposed to simply a humanitarian) is having to prove that something works. I can’t just do something that I think is helpful. I don’t want to do something that makes things worse. What if I wanted to create a program to give these women lunch?  I couldn’t just do that; I’d have to prove that giving them lunch makes their lives better. That means I have to only feed half of the women, but how can I ethically not feed them all?  And if it works, how would I sustain it?  It would be unbelievably cruel to introduce a lunch program, prove that it improves the quality of women’s lives, and then abruptly stop it.

The woman in this picture is  real. I talked with her and took her picture and then took a picture with her. It is 7:30am for her, and she is probably walking to the tea estate right about now getting ready to start her day. She has two children. She almost certainly doesn’t have the food her family needs.

In honor of her and the countless other hardworking women in Rwanda and India, I lend money through Kiva–a non-profit organization with a mission to alleviate global poverty–to enterprising women around the world. Right now some of Kiva’s supporters are sponsoring free trials. If you are interested in helping women through microfinance, please consider signing up for a free trial.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make this Rwandan woman’s life better.  I have learned from listening to her story. I have a richer (though by no means a full) understanding of the hardships she lives with. The picture of her face galvanizes me whenever I lose motivation, and I remember to appreciate the people I hope to serve.


Lessons learned from living alone

Yes, sometimes you have to entertain yourself.

I’ve been asked by a few people for advice about living alone versus living with others during the critical first year after college.  It is crucial in this time of transition to understand what we need from a living space.

Living alone is a unique experience; most women especially don’t get the chance to live alone. They go from living with family to living with roommates to living with a spouse. This is perfectly fine, of course; it simply meant that I didn’t have anyone to get advice from.  Now that other people are asking me, I will try to give a candid assessment.

Living alone means that you have to provide for yourself emotionally. I depended on my roommates for encouragement, so I had to learn to encourage myself. Back in February I wrote: “A big part of living alone this past year has been learning to affirm myself. Previously, I had always had family and close friends living around me to encourage me when I struggled and to congratulate me when I triumphed. I depended on them for that positive feedback and reserved my own thoughts for focusing on how to improve. Now each day I come home to a house occupied only by my thoughts. At first that meant I came home to a house of practical criticism. I would analyze every part of my day, pinpoint my shortcomings, and create a plan to improve the next day (this works wonderfully, by the way). I realized over time that I had to take responsibility for recognizing my accomplishments as well–that I needed to cultivate a sense of proper pride as well as the appropriate humility.”

Living alone reveals who you are when no one is watching. Some of this knowledge is flattering: I am strong; I am well-prepared; I know how to run a household. Other knowledge is not: I waste time when no one is watching; I leave dishes in the sink for days; sometimes I skip meals. The only person holding me accountable is me.

Living alone forces introspection. “I’m learning to identify and acknowledge my own feelings and, consequently, express them more often and more effectively…I often forget that my new friends don’t know much about me yet.” They can’t know what is important to me unless I open up. Likewise, I have to define what is important to me before I can express it. This became especially apparent around Christmas time last year. Anyone can celebrate when there are people around, but does Christmas still have meaning when I am alone? If so, how do I celebrate when I’m alone and any extra time has to be stolen from sleep?”  In other words, I learned why I do what I do.

Living alone can be scary. There are noises and shadows and spiders. Sometimes the smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night. One time I thought the carbon monoxide light went off (it didn’t, but I was really scared). If something happens, nobody will know. I got stuck in a snowstorm coming back from NYC with SP and friends. We had to stop in Binghamton for the night, and SP said: “Ok, everyone, make sure you let your roommates know where you are so no one worries!”  And I just looked at him and replied grimly: “I live alone; if I died, no one would know.” He was rather appalled.

Living alone is liberating. I get to define every part of my household. I set the thermostat. I choose how to lock my doors. I organize my kitchen in a way that is logical to me. I choose when to invite people over. I can stay up as late as I want studying or reading or writing or talking on Skype without worrying about disrupting anyone else.

Living alone reaffirmed my need for a community. I appreciate my colleagues and my ballroomies so much more because they make up my only social interactions. I cherish time spent around other people in a way that I hadn’t before. I value every phone call and Skype date and lunch plan and birthday celebration. Making a home on my own gives me crucial “me time” that charges me for interacting with others.

Living alone is a sanctuary. On the hardest night of my most challenging week, I came home and cried for two hours without holding anything back. There was no one to be strong in front of–no one to “be fine” in front of. My apartment gave me the time and space to sort through my thoughts and understand what I was feeling. 

To finish up, living alone has been one of the most rewarding parts of first year in Ithaca. During a year when I have had to define my academic and social purpose, it has been invaluable to have a quiet space of my own for reflection and prayer. But it is difficult…so difficult to be alone all the time.

Tomorrow, I’ll follow up this post with a list of considerations for people who are thinking about living alone next year. 

Let me know what you think.

photo credit: Sixth Lie via photo pin cc


What I learned from Eliot A. Cohen

Ronald Reagan Centennial, Feb 10-11, 2011, Washington DCphoto credit: Miller_Center via photopin cc

This afternoon I attended a guest lecture by Eliot A. Cohen hosted by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University. Dr. Cohen served as Counselor to the United States Department of State under Secretary Condoleezza Rice from 2007-2009. His talk was titled “On Giving Strategic Advice to Leaders”.

What most struck me about the lecture was the focus on advising as opposed to leading. From as long ago as high school, people have always emphasized leadership. You need to have leadership experience to get into college. College is a great time to engage in leadership roles and develop as a leader. The real world needs people with strong leadership skills. While this is very true, the implicit message was that if I wasn’t being a leader somewhere, I was squandering my time and talents. The thing is: I have never wanted to be a leader. I don’t like being the center of attention, and I don’t like making decisions for a group of people.

The summer before my year as a Lechner Hall Sophomore Advisor at Texas A&M, I went through a ropes training course with my teammates that was designed to elicit each of our leadership styles. I found out that I lead from behind. That made me feel better. Then in my senior year, I took Management 309 that delved in to all sorts of leadership types, but it made me aware of the fact that I am more effective in an advising role than I am in a leadership one.

Here’s how I see it.

Leaders reach out to multiple people and are amazing in that capacity. I’m better at one-on-one situations. I thought I was just weird, but now I’ve heard the perspective of “higher up” advisor. Here’s what I took.

The way academics think is very very different from the way politicians think.

Dr. Cohen described his journey from academia to politics and the vastly different cultures to be found. As an academic, he is alternately thought of as a naive outsider who doesn’t know “how things really work” or an arrogant jerk who claims to know everything. Between being thought of as a dweeb or a jerk, he “embraces the inner dweeb” – bright red bow tie included.

Academics often have a bias towards negativity which means that we are quick to criticize and point out flaws. I have noticed this in my own life. I am quick to notice inconsistencies–indeed I am trained to notice.  Because I can see these faults, I am very hesitant to actually implement any new plan.

As I am slowly learning, I will never have all the information I think I need to make a “good” decision. But these decisions have to be made.

Good counsel is risky to seek and to give.

He referenced “Of Counsel” by Francis Bacon to emphasize both the importance of good counsel and the perils of seeking said counsel. Leaders have to discern whom they can trust with information. Who can they have in what CS Lewis calls “The Inner Ring“? The desire to be included in the inner ring is universal, but it is an intimidating position. Somebody might take your advice; what would happen then?

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you?”

-Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

“People, in general,” [Athos] said, “only ask advice not to follow it; or if they do follow it, it is for the sake of having someone to blame for having given it.”

– The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

“Go in Whole, leave Whole.”

Here he referenced a story of four rabbis in the Talmud: “Four men entered the orchard — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.” Scholars have interpreted “the orchard” in different ways. Dr. Cohen used it as a metaphor for politics. He shared that the words “peace” and “whole” have the same Hebrew root. Only the rabbi who went in whole survived the perils of the orchard and came out whole. He encouraged us to use our time as students to develop our whole–our beliefs and creed–because it will sustain us throughout life.

Overall, I thought his talk was fascinating. He gave me new ideas to mull over about the interactions between advisors and leaders as well as hope that as an academic I could potentially have an impact that extends beyond my field.