World AIDS Day: Why it matters.

December 1st: Today is a very special day. I’m not talking about the first day to break into those advent calendars for those who celebrate Christmas nor the last day of classes before finals for those of us in school. Today is World AIDS Day.

At first glance, strangers wouldn’t guess that HIV/AIDS was a disease that would impact me–directly or indirectly. It’s 2017 and I’m a middle-class, caucasian, American, heterosexual female in my mid-20s with privilege (education, resources, community, money) coming out the ying-yang in comparison to others. I’m not a young, homosexual male, living in Southern California in the 1980s, having unprotected sex. But, my uncle was.

My uncle and I loved Hawaii, Hawaiian prints, and each other. (And we’re in Southern California). Photo circa: early 1990s

My Uncle Brian was the life of the party. He was the epitome of a class clown. He was the master of elaborate gag gifts. He was an incredible chef. He was a people-person. He loved a good Hawaiian shirt, especially when worn in Hawaii. He had incredible friends. My Uncle Brian was “my person”.

Kissing my uncle while vacationing on Maui, HI. Photo circa: early 1990s.

I didn’t even know my uncle was gay until I was in middle school. I grew up with my uncle’s partners being part of my life, but I never knew they were his partners. I thought he had really good friends who would vacation with us and come to our family events and who would buy me presents. Being gay wasn’t something I understood. I didn’t get it because it was never a point of conflict. Gay was just a thing. Akin to being white or having brown eyes or having attached earlobes. It really didn’t matter to me as long as that person was happy. So, when I was 11 and on my way home from a Christmas family reunion at my uncle’s home in West Hollywood (now it all makes sense), I sat in the backseat staring out the windows and asked my parents if Uncle Brian was gay. They replied, “yes”. I think I probably shrugged and continued staring out the window. Nothing changed. No big deal. But, what I’m getting at, is my uncle never told me he was gay. He was my person and he didn’t tell me. I don’t blame him, I blame society.

My uncle hugging me when he was visiting for Thanksgiving. Photo circa: early 2000s.

Flash forward a few years, and I’m in high school where I’m heavily involved in my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance: participating in the Day of Silence, protesting Proposition 8, volunteering for LGBTQIA events. Then, it’s the summer of 2009 and I’m studying to raise my SAT scores from good to amazing. And, it’s then, that I had an eery feeling. My intuition told me something was wrong with my person. I spent the day trying to contact my Uncle Brian, only to find that he was in the Intensive Care Unit at a top Los Angeles hospital. I dropped everything and drove four hours to find him gasping for air, his body consumed by Pneumocystis pneumonia, among other infections. My uncle was frail, but still managed to smile and open his eyes wide when I walked into his room. Between breaths of oxygen being pumped into his lungs by the BiPAP, he whispered to me how proud he was of me and then he thanked me for loving loving him for who he was. THANKED ME FOR LOVING HIM FOR HIM. This was what mattered the most to him in the end: unconditional love. Isn’t that what we all want and deserve? (The answer is yes). I was the last person to hear his voice. I spent the following weeks driving up to see him, sitting at his bedside and reading books by Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman or studying SAT vocabulary. I spent my 17th birthday beside his shell of a body ridden with infection. My Uncle Brian, my person, died from an AIDS-related infection and I never even knew he was HIV positive.

Both sides of the family with healthy college football rivalries. Front row: Uncle Brian and my dad. Back row: maternal grandmother, me, my paternal grandparents. Photo circa:  early 2000s.

My uncle was not perfect. To err is human and he was human. But, he did not deserve to die in pain with people hating him for being himself: a beautiful soul, a wonderful friend, a jovial spirit, a gay man who was HIV positive. AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is the most advanced stage of the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) when the immune system becomes so weak that it cannot fight off infection. It was not discovered until the 1980s when it was still greatly misunderstood in terms of transmission and treatment. It really was a death sentence back then. Now, people know how it is contracted and therefore preventable, in addition to being more treatable. It can be managed and patients can live without the same imminent fears.

I say all of this because now we know. Now we can inform others on measure to prevent transmission, free HIV testing, and resources for treatment. There should not be shame associated with a disease. We should treat others with kindness. So, no matter your political, religious, and/or personal leanings, I share my story of my Uncle Brian, in hopes that you can imagine what you would want if “your person” was in the same position as “my person” was.

I mentioned that we like Hawaiian prints, right? Photo circa early 1990s on another trip to Maui.

Even though I write this through tears of sorrow and joy, I’m happy. Today, the world is a different place. Identifying as part of the LGBTQIA, specifically as a gay man, is not a death sentence. HIV isn’t a death sentence, especially if you live in first-world nations where treatment and testing is available. According to HIV.gov, there are more than 1.1 million people in the USA who are living with HIV today and 1 in 7 don’t know it yet. Worldwide, there are an estimated 37 million people living with HIV and 2.1 million of those are children. All of them matter.

Taking my Spring break in college to spread my uncle’s ashes off the Maui coastline. (2011)

Tonight, I’m wearing red in an effort to shine light on World AIDS Day. You’ll find me at a dance night with proceeds going to charity that helps in providing testing and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. So, I’ll be on the dance floor, throwing my hands in the air like I just don’t care, smiling from ear to ear, and living like my uncle would have wanted: to the fullest and loving people for who they are.

Dancing and bringing attention to HIV/AIDS treatment.

~@lexa

Advertisements

Meet the Matriarchy

“The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” ~Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding

There are many animal species who live in strongly, matriarchal societies. The first to pop into my head is the orca (commonly referred to as killer whale). Orca form extremely tight-knit family groups that are dominated by an older female, frequently the “Grandmother”. For those of you who follow marine science news, or if you live in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, then you’ve probably heard about the story of “Granny” or “J2”, the esteemed matriarch of the J-pod of southern resident killer whales. Granny was beloved by the people of Puget Sound and afar. Although her age was disputed, it was estimated that she lived to be somewhere between 65-105 years old (yes, I realize that is a wide range). Her legacy is living in what the J-pod is today.

I am lucky that one matriarch in my family is still alive. Better yet, she lives on the land surrounding the waters that J-pod calls home. She sends me newspaper clippings about the southern resident killer whales–and, often these articles quote my colleagues. She had children and her children had children (more specifically, her children had all daughters). Although, we, the granddaughters, are all at ages where conceivably we could have our own children, that’s not in the cards at the moment. So we haven’t made it to four generations, like J-pod, but we’re crushing it with three generations of strong, independent, future matriarchs.

The matriarch and her grandchildren. From left to right: Katie, Lauren, Edith, Lisa, and Alexa.

When you see this photo you might see an astrophysicist, an educator, a Jill-of-all-trades, an engineer, and a marine scientist or maybe you see a family. We may not look alike or have similar career paths, but we all take after our grandmother Edith: determined, intelligent, and a wee bit stubborn. She’s our McGill-side matriarch and we’re the future. So watch out, because there’s a clan of badass (sorry for swearing, Grandma) women who don’t take “no” for an answer and are here to run the world. Cue: Beyoncé. We’re definitely not orcas…too many of us don’t eat meat. But, we’re pushing out the patriarchy in favor of the matriarchy.

And if you want to hear about my lab family at Oregon State University, which also has a matriarch as its leader, one could say, then read my recent blog, aptly-titled “We Are Family”!

~@lexa

Flipping the Focus: Looking face-first into the lens

Some days you need to revel in your accomplishments. For scientists, that often means that much-needed grants were awarded (hold your enthusiasm; that isn’t what I’m blogging about today). Today’s accomplishment was something on a much more basic level. After undergoing countless hand and wrist surgeries to repair sports-related injuries, I was able to take a selfie with my camera. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, don’t you do that daily?”. Yes and no. Yes, with my phone I can take a decent selfie. But, I haven’t been able to balance my Canon 7D in a single hand with the lens facing me and a finger on the shutter in years. Years. This camera isn’t for taking selfies. The lens I have on it right now is an 18-135mm–definitely not an ideal “selfie-taking” focal length. Additionally, I’m never the photographer and the subject without some sort of timer as a buffer. This isn’t some Hogwarts magic trick (gosh, don’t I wish!).

However, I have been waiting for the day when I’d finally be capable of doing this. After countless hours of weekly upper body workouts, patience, and sheer determination, I finally managed to get that darn selfie. So, I present you with the selfie that captured my moment of success.

Me.

Your photographer-turned-model for the day,

@

When Leaves Attack: Fall in Oregon

Sun setting over a field in fall at Oregon State University.

Change is in the air. Fall is upon us. I first realized this when I was biking to class at my usual pace—a rather brisk cycle, but slow enough to dodge blissfully unaware pedestrians—and leaves began to pelt me in the face. Now, that’s quite a feat seeing as I’m wearing a helmet and my usual glasses. But, let me tell you, fall leaves are tricky beasts. When the wind picks up, the leaves will mob you with their brilliant colors. It’s beautiful chaos.

The progression of leaf color seen on campus at Oregon State University

I have this notion that the leaves doing the whole “Pocahontas” Colors of the Wind, Melissa McCarthy lip-sync style, is the universe’s way of outwardly displaying the internal pandemonium of the students. The tension is palpable. One of the amusing ironies is that the undergraduate students tend to show their fearfulness towards exams/papers/responsibilities WAY more than the graduate students. Graduate students are frequently told that your research comes first and then academics, and yet to “pass” in graduate school you need a 3.0 minimum GPA (versus the 2.0 for undergraduates). If you were to take a bike through Oregon State University between weeks 4-6 you would likely see the undergrads visibly panicked. In contrast, grad students seem to keep their cool under this heightened pressure. I’d hypothesize that grad students have already experienced this and are now in this mental state where they acknowledge that external academic pressures are merely a part of life.  This week wrapped up my first half of exams. One of these was my first ever open-book and open-note (which means open-computer) exam. That was a bit of shock. It’s become second-nature to have a strict testing policy at schools; unfortunately, people cheat. However, it is refreshing to have 1) a professor who trusts her students and 2) an exam that focuses on applied knowledge, rather than sheer memorization (so notes and books and exams really are not terrible useful). I’d like to think that even though my life has been stressful (more on the personal side than on the academic and research sides), I’ve somewhat contained my cool…ish.

Oregon State University campus in mid-October.

The weekend before an exam as an undergraduate, especially in my first years, you would not find me out dancing until 1am. You’d more likely find me in my pajamas by 8pm. Well, technically both of those were true this weekend. On Friday night, I was in bed at 8pm, exhausted, catching up on some reading for my Monday morning exam, and then I read a message about people going out dancing. Now, if you know me, you know that this song (Meghan Trainor’s “Better When I’m Dancin’) embodies me. So, within 10 minutes of reading the message, I’d thrown my hair up into a bun, thrown on some jeans, a nice top, boots, mascara, and boom. It was so necessary. I got out all of my feelings just by cutting a rug on the dance floor with no cares in the world about what other people might think. Maybe this is how grad students maintain that nonchalant attitude about exams: they find healthy outlets and a little more balance. No matter, it worked for me.

Student running at sunset at Oregon State University.

But I didn’t just go out dancing, the next day I went to the William L. Finley Wildlife Refuge with another grad student and his brother to track wildlife. Luckily, my fellow grad student is an experienced tracker, so I got to learn out of a classroom (my favorite way to learn), get soaked in the rain, get muddy in the dirt, and see some amazing creatures (and traces of). And then, after showering with my boots to get off the clay-rich soil, I studied. And study I did.

Rough-skinned newt seen at the Finley Wildlife Refuge basking in the rain.

Apparently, distractions are the key to success in grad school. Whether that translates to television, hiking, recreational sports, and/or photography, they all maintain sanity. So, maybe Timon and Pumbaa had it right when they sang, “Hakuna Matata”. Perhaps, no worries, or minimizing worries, really is the problem-free (reduced) philosophy, that will help me succeed.

Your Disnerd Grad Student,

@

 

 

Mind Your Mind: Self-care in Graduate School

Scientists, and graduate students in particular, are extremely susceptible to mental distress (Elisabeth Pain, Science). I’m by no means immune to that. On the contrary, I make an effort to be public about this. We all struggle. There’s no shame in that. And I applaud those who recognize that they need help. I hope to destigmatize seeking help–in whatever form that may be, by being honest about my own imperfect life.

In graduate school, we’re told that your research comes first, your academics come second, and the rest of your life comes third. And here is where I’m in complete disagreement. Your health, your well-being, your life–should be a priority. By putting yourself first, you can produce better science and therefore, be an even better graduate student.

I still spend plenty of time on my research and my academics. “Lunch breaks” are simply the time when you can find me shoveling a salad into my mouth while reading up on some statistics or trying to get my code to run. But, true breaks are necessary. Vital, some might say.

Fisheries and Wildlife Graduate Students hiking in Crater Lake National Park, OR

As a graduate student in the Fisheries and Wildlife Science Department, I’m a part of the FWGSA (Fisheries and Wildlife Graduate Student Association), which has already helped me immensely. These students understand what I’m going through and can commiserate when I need to vent and give advice when I seek wisdom. Oh, and they’re also a bunch of super cool (nerdy) people who recognize the need for breaks. They organized a campout in the beginning of October where about 25 of us spent the weekend in Umpqua National Forest, exploring the great outdoors, playing games, and letting loose. Sure, we all have full plates, but we also are human and need some fun!

A weekend off the grid for grad students. Umpqua National Forest, OR

I encourage everyone to seek out friends, family, colleagues, who can help you be in a better place. Sometimes that means a phone call, other times, that means getting off the grid for a weekend hiking around Crater Lake. No matter what it is, remember: you matter, your mental and physical health matter, your happiness matters.

~@

Another Blog: More about science, less about me.

“You have another blog?!” Not quite. I am a contributor on the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab blog. This week was my week to post, so, you get to read TWO blogs this week. You must be having an excellent start to your week on this Marine Mammal Monday! I take a deeper look into the role of social media in science communication. Don’t worry, I stray from the technical science-y stuff, and instead give you a glimpse at how I moderate what I do and don’t post on various forms of social media.

So please, READ IT:

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 7.14.15 PM
Preview of my blog post

 

Your Neighborhood Scientist,

@

Mission Accomplished: The First Week of School

I made it through the first week of grad school! Although, apparently, it’s called Week 0 here because it was only Wednesday-Friday. So, I can’t give myself the full credit of making it through a full week. Either way, the first week is behind me and my overall impression of my classes is that they’re going to be work-heavy, time-intensive, academically rigorous, and extremely pertinent to my research.

First Day
Relieved to have made it through the first week!

I was told that my statistics course, the first in a series of three, is the equivalent of an introductory statistics class for graduate students. Great. Except, that this was incorrect information. I reject the null hypothesis (see, I did my reading). On the first day of class, the professor told the class of almost 200 students that this class is cross-referenced as an advanced statistics course for undergraduates and that everyone should already have a very solid background in the subject…Well, awesome. I guess I’ll be putting in more work than I had expected.

Luckily, my other classes, spanning from ArcGIS to Pilates, have students with a range of experience. And, bonus: because I’m taking Pilates for a letter grade, I have a fantastic excuse for wearing my exercise clothing all day on Mondays and Wednesdays. That was a stroke of genius from yours truly.

The Girl in Yoga Pants,

@