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:

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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 Wednesday. That was a stroke of genius from yours truly.

The Girl in Yoga Pants,


Ph.D.: Piled higher and Deeper

The summer before I started my Ph.D., I met a wise gentleman who informed me that Ph.D. stands for “Piled higher and Deeper”. If you don’t know what that references, here’s some background. Many people take the progression through academia by first obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree, commonly abbreviated B.S., which is known to also stand for BullSh!t (I’m trying to keep this as PG as possible). Then a Master of Science degree, or M.S., also known as More Sh!t. And finally, the Philosophiae Doctor (Doctor of Philosophy in the English language), Ph.D., as in sh!t that is piled higher and deeper. To be fair, “piled higher and deeper” is an accurate way to describe my car–that is packed to the brim with all of my belongings…and I have not even begun taking any of my doctoral classes.

Even though the “piled higher and deeper” comment is a joke, there is an underlying truth. Some people are degree collectors. They don’t have an end goal as to why they’re getting more degrees, other than to continue being a student, put off entering the world of jobs, the inability to find a job, or, just because. And hey, I can completely understand. I loved being a student. I love learning. It is incredibly difficult to find a job that you love and pays the bills and is hiring. But, I’m a firm believer in getting a degree for a reason.

I’m going to graduate school, not so that people can refer to me as Dr. Alexa (hey, that’s doesn’t sound too bad), but because earning a Ph.D. will allow me to take the next step in my career. I want to lead my own projects, to be my own PI (principal investigator), and to make my own decisions. It’s nearly impossible to get a position like that with only a B.S.; nowadays, a Ph.D. is the minimum. To clarify, this is specifically in the field that I’m in: wildlife/fisheries science, marine biology, and conservation biology. Other fields have different standards. Here, a M.S. will not directly help me. It can make it easier to be accepted to Ph.D. programs, as many universities will not accept students without a M.S. because that degree can teach critical research and writing skills. However, I’m skipping the M.S. because I was able to gain those skills in other ways and found a university that saw that. I’m not looking to stay in academia. I don’t want to be a professor. I give huge props to those people who do. I’m stopping after a Ph.D., no postdocs, no lecturing, and no professorships. I’m going back to the science. And hopefully, at some point, these upcoming 5 years devoted to a Ph.D. will help me lead my own projects.

And, who’s to say that all sh!t is bad sh!t? If being in the field looking for cetaceans, figuring out how to run my code, and learning about new ways to communicate science are consider the sh!t, then pile it on, baby. Pile it higher and deeper.


Piled Higher and Deeper_Newport Fieldwork
Using a theodolite to track gray whales in Port Orford, OR. (The really good sh!t)

From under a small pile of sh!t,




Look at you! You look great!

According to a quick Google search, that’s a common phrase uttered when friends see each other for the first time in a long time. So, I say let’s skip ahead a few sentences and move on from the mindless chit chat. For a few years, I took a sabbatical from blogging. It was completely unintentional and my life was anything but dull. Here’s a quick run down on what I did between September 2015 – August 2017:

  1. Hiked. A lot.

    Iron Mountain, Poway, CA
  2.  Had some surgeries. A lot.

    Too many surgeries to count.
  3. Counted whales for work on cold winter days.

    Fieldwork in Granite Canyon, CA.
  4. Floated down the Peruvian Amazon.

    Polka dot tree frog hanging out.
  5. Got lost snow hiking.

    Somewhere near Lake Tahoe, CA
  6. Spent time with friends and family.

    With my grandmother at Seahurst Park, Seattle, WA.
  7. Didn’t let anything stop me from doing the job I love.

    Found a glove large enough to cover my cast.
  8. Learned that trail signs are inaccurate.

    Before I discovered that the trail was 17 miles instead of 8.5miles. Vail, Colorado
  9. Quoted John Muir for a wedding reading.

    The Sierra (2), “Mountain Thoughts” by John Muir. Vail, CO.
  10. Fulfilled my lifelong dream of being Eliza Thornberry.IMG_0362
  11. Rode on the shoulder of an eagle.

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    Eagle Rock, Pacific Crest Trail, Warner Springs, CA
  12. Did the Vegas thing.

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    Before you club, you have to eat. Mastro’s Ocean Club, Las Vegas, NV.
  13. Sailed as much as possible.

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    Back in my element. San Diego Bay, CA
  14. Watched whales in the sun.

    Scientists know how to point very well. Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, CA
  15. Traded hiking boots for high heels.

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    Fieldwork to a wedding in less than a day. Charlotte, NC.
  16. Jumped off a boat.

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    Warm waters and great people. San Diego Bay, CA.
  17. Bought a baby.

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    My new lens-child.
  18. Took a solo road trip throughout California.
  19. Relaxed in Hawaii.

    Taking a quick break from snorkeling. Maui, HI
  20. Oh yeah…and I started my Ph.D. in Wildlife Science! Surprise!

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    The token college student photo. Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR.

I think you should be all caught up now! Or at least, I’ve hit on just a few highlights over the past years. As part of my graduate studies I’ll be blogging related to my science on a different site (http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gemmlab/). Note: this blog is for the entire lab, so there are multiple authors. However, I’m going to try to cross post and include more of my personal and non-science life here.

Thanks for being along for the journey. And, let’s stay in touch better.


The 8th Wonder of the World: Torres del Paine

Enter the gorgeous mountainous terrain of Torres del Paine, complete with turquoise blue lakes, breathtaking glaciers, and unique rock formations. This is one of the highlights of Patagonia—which in itself is full of beautiful national parks. However, Torres del Paine, located in southern Chile just north of Puerto Natales, is known for the Cordillera del Paine. This rock formation is composed of granite and gabbrodiorite laccolith, along with sedimentary rock—all eroded by glaciers, which are still visible in small remnants. With its signature glacier, Glacier Grey, and lakes, such as Lago Pehoé, and different viewpoints of the “horns” (Torres), it is no wonder that UNESCO declared Torres del Paine National Park a Biosphere Reserve.

Welcome to the picturesque Torres del Paine National Park.

Our trip began with a bus ride at 5:30 in the morning from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales. Most people slept, but I watched a brilliant red sun rise over the rolling hills and marshland of southern Chile. It was a panoramic sunrise. Probably the most breathtaking sunrise I’ve ever seen. Every direction I looked, there were colors—pale pinks to radiant reds painted on the clouds and reflecting in the ponds surrounding the road. The sun glistened road led us to the Last Hope Sound (Seno de Última Esperanza); the area’s name has origins tracing back to the mid 1500s when the European explorer, Juan Ladrillero, thought he had finally discovered the Strait of Magellan, only to realize it was merely an inlet.

Amazing lenticular clouds formed from high winds rushing around the tall peaks.

Next stop: an ancient Milodon cave—complete with bones of ancient milodons. I’ve always wanted a Giant Ground Sloth. I think they would have been the coolest creatures. Okay, I guess if we lived in harmony with those, it would also mean I’d be running from Saber-toothed tigers. So yeah, maybe not.

Finally, we swerved up into the mountains on gravel roads and saw the blue water that Torres del Paine is known for…paine translates to blue in the Tehuelche native language. We hiked in 100km/hr winds across teetering suspension bridges, impressive terrain, and ice-laden aqua lakes. I think the experience of having to link arms with my two friends in order to not blow over and protect myself from flying pebbles just adds to the story. No matter the wind, the views were something out of a fantasy novel. The peaks were picturesque, the colors unheard of—due to blue green algae. We saw guanacos, rheas, Andean condors, Black-chested Buzzard-eagle, South American gray foxes, and more. It was lively with vibrancy. Now I know why my father has this place on his bucket list. It’s more magical than I can describe. The photo at the header of this blog is from there and that truly is the color of the water. This is the view from the road. THE ROAD! Winter winds were worth braving the cold to see this wonderful place.

The hardest part of a long journey is the goodbye.
The hardest part of a long journey is the goodbye.

The fun had to end at some point. The drive back was interesting. I may have pole danced fully clothed on a broom. The bus had to get a tire changed. And, we didn’t make it back to the hotel until 11 in the evening. But, the full day was even more fulfilling than I could have hoped. (Note: this trip was super affordable)

Feeling like I’m in a dream,


Packing and Prepping in Punta Arenas

The last day of responsibility. The only task left for the scientists is assuring that the samples are packed correctly; with so many biological samples, many need to be stored at -80C or -20C. This only required a few people, so I decided to stock up on some cereal bars from the ship (i.e. free food) for tomorrow. Why? Because I decided to take a tour to Torres del Paine. The national park is known for it’s jagged peaks, breathtaking fjords, incredible glaciers, and ancient caves. I’m so glad I made an independent decision to get on this all-day trip, even if it meant traveling solo. Thank goodness for my semi-decent understanding of the Spanish language because reserving the trip ended up being rather simple. A few more people from the scientific team have chosen to join me on this great adventure! Woohoo for mountains!

Sunrise over Punta Arenas

But, I can’t get overly excited for tomorrow; I need to live in the moment…with hot chocolate! My celebratory “back in port” steamed milk with a melted bittersweet chocolate bar was exactly what I needed. I stocked up on a few afajores for me, my family, and a few of the crew who made my voyage extra special. These are traditional South American cookies of various flavors filled with a fruit or leche (sweet milk), and then dipped in chocolate. To simplify: they are bites of heaven.