Homesickness

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Drawing Space II (2)

I am out of my math element here. I’m in the BU bioinformatics REU, and the lab I was placed in is a biochemistry group.  My desk is literally in the middle of a chem wet lab, which is somewhat of an inconvenience as I like to take off my shoes and drink coffee when I program or do math. But, of course, that’s against lab safety rules! :P

I like the work that I’m doing, which is primarily writing scripts for a protein sequence clustering analysis program. I don’t understand enough biology or chemistry to tell you what type of proteins I’m putting through my programs or why we’re clustering them in these ways: to me they’re just numbers. I like it better that way, and see my programs as puzzles in which I need to trick the computer into outputting the groups of numbers that I want.

Being in the chem lab is kind of cool, if somewhat uncomfortable. The grad students around me are doing things with chemicals that I will never do and are far outside my range of knowledge. I’ve learned what a glovebox is, and have been able to see and appreciate the way chem experiments are very time, location, and temperature sensitive.

On Friday I took a break and walked across the street to the Mathematics + Computer Science building. Whenever I am working for a long time, I tend to take short mental breaks where I just sort of wander the halls and stare at the posters.

Outside my chem lab, I see symposium advertisements for “21st Century Genetics: Genes at Work” and research posters on “Reductive Activation and Catalytic Insights in Bacterial c Peroxidases.” In the math department, I saw their posters for SIAM and BSM, as well as a course descriptions list that I fully understand. It was very comforting. Home-y.

I think I’m going through a culture shock and homesickness of sorts up here in the chem department!
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Bio_Info REU Day 1

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Monday I found myself in a conference room on the tenth floor of the Life Sciences building, listening to my post-doc advisor explain his most recent project. Hundreds of issues of Nature and Science covered the bookshelves, and a wall of windows overlooked the Charles, Harvard, MIT, and the “infamous CITGO sign.”

LSEB

10th Floor LSEB

My post-doc said something that I was acutely aware was meant to be a joke. The biology reference went over my head, but I pretended to laugh anyway to ease the awkward.

I took notes while he was talking to me, but most of them consisted of things I was too embarrassed to ask about:

  • What does SSN stand for?
    sequence similarity network, not social security number
  • What’s the workflow?
    the order in which you run big programs? sort of?
  • What does “PI” stand for?
    principle investigator, aka the head of the lab. not 3.14159

I only have a NYS 10th-grade knowledge of biology. Yet this is the second time I’ve decided for some reason to join a bioinformatics research group.

For both projects, the first day has been the same: someone with a PhD in a biology-related field explains to me what they are working on while I try to keep my brain from exploding. It always makes me wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Last fall, on the first day I met the Hungarian neuroscientists, for example, I spent the entire 2-hour research meeting thinking they were studying this phenomenon called SHARK wave ripples instead of SHARP wave ripples. I thought that was cute, and totally saw the resemblance between the SWR pattern and a shark fin in the ocean:

Drawing Space II (1)

(to be fair, their Hungarian accent was really thick)
These kinds of experiences make me worry that I don’t belong here, that I’m not going to be able to help with the project, that I will be annoyingly slow– IMPOSTOR syndrome.
I try to remember that this is an REU and the point of it is for me to learn. I’ve already been handed a textbook and five papers to read through! That should be a start!

More Math-y Adventures

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I started this blog a year ago to help me get ready for two adventures that involved a whole lot of high-level math, in two places I’d never been, with a lot of people I’d never met. I was preparing for my summer at SMP in Minnesota and then my Fall semester at BSM in Hungary.

A year ago, I was questioning my abilities in math. I was in the depths of my Real Analysis course which was the first math class I really struggled in and had to work for. I was incredibly nervous about spending the next summer and semester surrounded by all this high-level math and all those math geeks. What if I didn’t fit in? What if I didn’t like math that much? What if wasn’t smart enough?

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined the ways in which SMP and BSM would change my life. I made so many new friends and met so many new people who I have laughed with, loved with, cried with, and worked with. These math people? They’re my people. I am now so confident in my math abilities and love of the subject. I’ve learned what it means to DO math, as opposed to just study it, and have found the joy in learning and doing as much of it as I can. I’ve become one of those people I used to joke about who read their math books for fun.

A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever feel that I’d “outgrown” my liberal arts math department. Even though there are still courses I haven’t taken, I’m jealous of my BSM friends who go to University and have more than two options of 300-level math courses, and I miss being in class with other students who want to use their math education to be mathematicians. The level of intensity I learned while at SMP and BSM makes me feel like I don’t really belong here.

I’ve spent this semester transitioning back into New England, suburban, liberal arts college life. I’ve been taking a math course on optimization, learning the headaches of debugging hardware in my robotics workshop, writing for my journalism class, and trying to finish up my music minor.

And now I am SO ready for more math-y adventures!

This summer I am going to Boston to work in a bioinformatics lab group. I don’t really know what I’ll be doing or who I’ll be working with, but I am excited to live in the city that my sister calls home, and to be part of a research group again!

Just like a year ago, I can’t know what’s coming my way, but I’m ready for the challenge.

Me and my sister.

Me and my sister on the Bp metro.