Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My Last Thursday: A Tale of Woe and Joy Interrupted by Memes

I've missed writing to you guys...dissertation and general life has been a little OP lately. (OP = "over powered"'s a slang term used often in the gaming world and I've been married to a gamer for too long to not use it.) I won't waste time saying that this is me starting up regular posts again, the dissertation is still not finished (though I'm getting close!) and I have a pretty busy few months ahead of me. I'm hoping to start back up this summer, after I (FINALLY) graduate, but I'm not making any promises just yet.

Today, I'm writing to you for a different reason. I want to share with you a part of myself. I'm going to tell you a story about a villainous brain who twarts the protagonist's attempts to bring honor and glory to her house by magically removing her ability to speak coherently before an audience. The malefactor's plan backfires as our champion's army of friends strikes at the heart of the brain's self-doubt and balance is restored.

But first, if you'll bear with me, here's some background.

My personality has always been a weird combination of shyness and extroversion. I was that kid that wouldn't talk to strangers at first, but was quick to become your best friend at the slightest show of kindness. When I'm in my comfort zone, I'm very much an extrovert and I intentionally push the bounds of that zone every chance that I get. When it comes to choices in my daily life, I try to do things in moderation and to be adaptable to and even enthusiastic about change. My emotions are not always cooperative to this end. I sometimes find myself dealing with rapid emotional fluctuations that I'm assuming stem from being passionate and often too stubborn for my own good. I've never been afraid to bite off a little more than I can chew or to throw just one more iron in the fire. I'm notorious for being over-analytical, especially in social situations.

I know that I put a lot of pressure on myself sometimes, and I have recently been extra cognizant of my need to engage in activities that lower my stress-levels. I drink a lot more herbal teas than I used to. I've been enjoying an adult coloring book and brightly-colored pencils that my parents gave to me for Christmas this year. I've been laughing and singing. I've even been exercising more and trying to make healthier choices about what I eat. However, some behaviors are deeply-embedded and despite our progress, we all have our moments.

I had that moment last Thursday night, when I stood on stage, ready to deliver a 3-minute speech about my research to an audience excited by the presentations of those who went before me.

Let's back up just a moment....

I'm not one who fears public speaking. Like anyone, I do, of course, get those pre-public speaking little butterflies (Lepidopterus gastricus), the tachycardia, sweaty palms...the whole bit. However, I've picked up lots of little tricks for "beating the bear" as my voice and diction professor use to call it. It probably started in elementary school when I read Earrings! by Judith Viorst as a 4th-grader for UIL Poetry and Prose. (For those who are non-native Texans, UIL stands for "University Interscholastic League". It was created by the University of Texas at Austin back in the early 1900s as a way to provide extracurricular contests in academics and athletics. It the largest inter-school organization of its kind in the world, and I grew up thinking that everyone had it until I left Texas.) I went on competing in prose and poetry as well as other speaking events (including cross-examination debate and modern oratory) right up through high school.

Image result for theatre loveI got into band, theatre, cheerleading, and was the school mascot for a few years. I was no stranger to performance and grew comfortable with being in front of an audience...both as one of many being watched and all by my lonely. While all of these activities helped, it was theatre that probably prepared me the most for public speaking. It taught me how to project my voice, how to deal with stage fright, how to improve when you forget a line or something falls on set, how to appear natural in a very unnatural setting. After all, the show must go on!

Fast forward to college. I began what would come a very long career as a university student. As a biology major, I gave many class presentations, but the one I remember the most was that one that I gave in a capstone-like course. We were tasked with presenting a paper on any subject in biology as if it were our own research. We gave the talk to our class of peers and were critiqued by our fellow students. The written critiques were submitted to the professor, who took them into consideration for our final grade on the presentation. I had few people that I would have considered friends in the class, and it seemed that many students rallied to give points to their buddies regardless of performance. I was a bit more critical, which made me less popular despite my attempts to be gentle when expressing my opinions of their work. Needless to say, my refusal to participate in peer-politics didn't earn me may glowing reviews. Looking back and considering that this was my first real-ish scientific presentation, I did pretty well, but critiques are never easy to take...especially when some reeked of subjectivity. (Isn't it funny/tragic that we remember bad reviews better than we remember the good ones?) I'll always remember getting points off from one student who commented something along the lines of "Why do you keep saying, 'we did this' and 'my team did that'? What, did you go to the rainforest to listen to these frogs yourself?". I can still hear the snickering of my classmates followed by the sudden hush with my comment of "We were assigned to present this as if it were our own research", which was promptly followed by the professor saying, "She's right. I'm not sure why the rest of you haven't been doing it that way."
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Shortly after getting into graduate school, I began giving more presentations, leading/participating in discussions, and becoming more and more confident in my ability to speak. At this point in my college career, I've spoken to crowds ranging from less than ten people in a classroom to thousands at an international scientific conference. While some have gone better than others, I have always felt proud of my performances (and believe me, that is what giving a talk is at the end of the day) even though I've never won any awards. I'm comfortable speaking in a way that is basically improvised using a prepared powerpoint and an idea of a few talking points.

A few weeks ago, I took on a new speaking challenge. I signed up to compete in an elevator speech contest. This contest, as it exists at my school, allows you a single powerpoint slide and three minutes to explain your research to a general audience. I tried this three years ago, at the first competition like this and choked in the preliminary rounds. I did really well up until the last line of my which point I stumbled over a word, failed to recoup adequately, and snowballed myself out of the competition. Last year, I was too embarrassed to try out again...but, when I went to watch the finals, and found myself sad that I hadn't tried to compete that year. I felt that longing to be on stage and a desire to share my passion for my research with a general audience for the first time.

Image result for success kid meme nailed itThis year, I decided to get back in the saddle. I was intensely nervous about the preliminary round...I had wanted to practice more and hadn't had the time between research, dissertation writing, and submitting papers. I felt under-prepared and was afraid I would make the same mistake that I made two years previous. My advisor commented that he had never seen me so nervous before speaking...and he has seen me speak a LOT over the last four years. I just about nailed my speech perfectly in the preliminary round. The judges had great feedback and I went on to the final round, which was to be a public, televised event the following week. I added a few sentences and cut some of the words to stay within the time limit and address the comments of the first judges. Again, I wasn't able to practice as much as I had wanted, but I felt okay because I could easily recite the speech even with the changes.

Then, I made the fatal error of over-thinking and started putting unnecessary pressure on myself. I started thinking about how I would be representing our lab, which for most of my time here has been just myself and my advisor. I wanted to showcase our work for the school...especially since so few people even know that we exist, much less what we do. I wanted to get fellow grad students, faculty, staff, and members of the general public excited about the super-cool stuff that I get to work on. I wanted to make my advisor proud of my ability to engage a general audience as well as I had reached an audience of scientists. All of the finalists received a cash prize that increased in value with your placement in the competition. I dreamed about putting my winnings towards buying a plane ticket for my husband to join me for one of my international adventures...and then thought more realistically about how the money would be needed to get us through our latest financial issues. (Which I still plan to do with my I said, we all got a cash prize.) This was my chance to really show what I could do....and yet, I felt like I was not ready.

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The night before the competition, I tried on my "conference suit"...the jacket didn't fit anymore. I have gained a lot of weight from the stress of the last year and have had difficulty in exercising consistently enough to manage this. It's given me self-image issues that I fight hard enough to avoid self-loathing, but I lack the mental fortitude to stick to an exercise regimen that would actually solve the issues. I also hadn't had a hair cut in the better part of a year and felt that it looked terrible, which didn't help. I wanted to go into the competition without being self-conscious, so my amazing husband took me to get my hair cut and to buy a new suit jacket. I got home feeling like a new woman in that way that only a new hair cut and clothes can do. I was ready. But I hadn't said my speech out loud that day because I had worked all morning and then took an hour or so for self-confidence. I said my speech in my head throughout the day, but there's just something different about saying it out loud. I started skipping words and lines. I started worrying about every detail instead of just remembering the gist of what I intended to say. This three-minute structure led me to needing the speech rather than my usual free-form style...otherwise I would have certainly gone over-time.

I found out that day that we were not being judged by faculty members in our department like in the finals, but by three outside individuals. One was the new director for the state museum (a wonderful person I had met at a party several months ago and had wanted to talk to about applying for museum positions after naturally, I wanted to impress her upon learning that she was one of the judges), a state politician, and the head of a local television network that would be broadcasting the event. I wanted to make a good impression on each of these individuals, but this desire contributed more to my existing nervousness than I ever should have let it.

Image result for moulin rouge show must go on
They scheduled me to go last...dead last. I got to hear every other person speak and my nerves swelled. I was doing everything I could to beat the bear back, but he was damned persistent that day. He ended up getting the better of me. When my turn came, I walked onto the stage, ready to wow them...and I did...they were wowed by my ability to...forget my entire speech three lines into it. I tried to recover, but I just felt like I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a spiraling hole of embarrassment and mixed metaphors. I thought about restarting, but didn't think I could restart and then panicked about how I was thinking about this instead of what I should be saying next. Then I tried to move on...and failed...and again, I tried to move on...this went on for a least a minute (though it felt like forever) until I managed to squeeze out the last few lines of an unintelligible mess of words involving poop and parasites and something about scratching and diarrhea. I smiled forcibly...the show must go on...turned, and exited stage left. I got backstage and collapsed. I think I said "dammit" or something along those lines while forgetting that the microphone was still attached and on. I was mortified and in disbelief. Was this a bad dream? Please let me be worried-dreaming...nope...I was still wearing pants.

In the midst of my humiliation, I learned how lucky I was to have failed in such a safe place. The next hour was a blur of hugs, reassuring words of genuine kindness, and an overwhelming sense of community that I had not felt in a very long time. Fellow grad students, faculty and staff members, one of the judges, and even administrators reached out to console me from the moment I collapsed backstage until my husband and I left the bar that a few of us went to after the event. I wish I could remember everything that everyone said to me, but I was too busy feeling like a failure to really hear most things. I will say, that I was impressed with myself about not crying. Part of being a passionate personality is getting worked up to the point that you don't give a rat's ass about crying in's happened, but that's a different story. Somewhere between the shock and all of the support, I maintained my composure fairly well throughout most of the night.

As much as those three minutes on stage sucked and as horribly disappointed as I was in myself afterwards (and I still am, though it's getting better each day), the big lesson for me that night was that I was not alone. One of my favorite lines from youtuber Ze Frank's An Invocation for New Beginnings is, "Let me not be so vain to think that I’m the sole author of my victories and a victim of my defeats." I felt like I was surrounded by family...some who knew me well, and some who knew me just a little bit, but all of whom were there to tell me that it wasn't so bad. It was truly amazing. I'm sure there were those in the audience making their judgments with regard to how bad my presentation...if you want to call it that...was that night, but I never felt the sting of those judgments. Several people stayed behind and allowed me to get back on stage after most people had left so that I could give my presentation again to the camera. This way, the monstrosity from before would not be broadcast locally. I was still shaky and kept losing my words even as I gave the presentation again, but the tech guy was sweet enough to patiently record bits and pieces that he could try to stitch together into something comprehensible. Afterward, we went out for drinks and talked about politics and television shows and books and technology. It was the best way I could have hoped to end an evening after an academic event.

The next day, I got a few messages from friends checking up on me. They were the highlight of my day and really made a difference in my mood even though I didn't respond to them as quickly as I normally would have. I'd be lying if I said that the lack of tears persisted from the night before. My advisor joked with me saying, "It's good to know that you are human after all". I thought about Ze Frank's An Invocation for New Beginnings a lot that day, but never went to watch it because there was much work to do that day. In the afternoon, I enjoyed coffee time...first with my advisor, his wife, and students (all of whom will be traveling to Sicily this summer), and then with two friends who are graduate students in my department. Afterward, I went out to grab dinner with one of those friends and had a wonderful time getting to know her a little better. She's pretty amazing and I am very lucky to have her in my life. :) (Also, she rocked the elevator speech competition in her division that night!)

Image result for saudadeThese series of events have really impacted me in a way that I never thought a silly little elevator speech contest would. I feel like I am where I belong and words can't really express how sad it makes me to think that I am coming to this realization so close to graduation. That sense of belonging, like art and life itself, is ephemeral...which is both dismal and oddly comforting. A feeling of happiness and gratitude has washed over me, but it remains intrinsically linked to a painful sadness driven by the awareness of this state of impermanence. I'm going to miss this place and these people deeply. In Brazil, they have a word for this, saudade. There is no good English translation for this word, but essentially it means to have a profoundly deep longing for something or someone that you love and miss in their absence.

Getting back to Ze Frank, I'm starting to see this whole incident in a more positive light, though I'm still reeling from the fact that it happened at all. In his An Invocation for New Beginnings (I really do love that video...), he says, "Let me realize that my past failures at follow-through are no indication of my future performance. They’re just healthy little fires that are going to warm up my ass." I am going to let this be one of those healthy little fires.

The Moral of the Story
I didn't intend for this to get so long, but it did, and I'm not sorry. Maybe this was more for me than for you in the end. Whatever it was that motivated me to write this post, I hope you enjoyed it, learned something, and/or discovered your own sense of stubbornness by reading it through this far. I've added what I *intended* to say during my speech below. Happy reading for those of you who are interested!

My Elevator Speech

Poop and parasites; two things that I love despite what other people think. Though not always appropriate dinner conversation, poop provides a wealth of data regarding diet and disease. This is as true for what many of you made earlier today as it was for humans thousands of years ago.

My dissertation focuses on retrieving data from 1,300-year-old paleo-poops known as “coprolites”, like the one in the middle of this slide. By analyzing coprolites, we are able to reconstruct diets and patterns of parasite infections that occurred in pre-history. This allows us to better understand the origins of human-parasite associations that still affect people in the modern world.

The coprolites that I work with come from a cave in Mexico known as “La Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos”. This cave held hundreds of coprolites that were sealed beneath two adobe floors, making for some of the best-preserved parasite evidence in the world…now that’s the kind of high-quality crap that we archaeoparasitologists dream about!

The diversity of parasites recovered from this site is amazing. Starting at 12 o’clock, we see a Physaloptera egg, which is associated with dogs. Moving clockwise we see a human whipworm egg, then at 4 o’clock we see Toxascaris, another dog parasite that infects humans from time to time. At 6 o’clock are the results of a molecular test used to look for parasites that don’t leave behind eggs. Ignoring the control wells on the top left, every place that you see yellow represents a positive sample for a diarrhea-inducing parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum. Moving along, the egg you see at about 7 o’clock belongs to a tapeworm and the green egg is that of a human pinworm. Finally, the one up there at about 10 o’clock is a fluke egg. Each of these parasites has a distinct life cycle involving different hosts and modes of transmission.

By recovering parasite data, we are able to infer patterns of human behavior, for example, the dog parasites I mentioned tell us that the people using this cave had close associations with dogs and the molecular test at 6 o’clock tells us that lots of people had diarrhea. The pinworm eggs were so prevalent among the coprolites that we know the vast majority of people at this site were infected.
At night, the female pinworm crawls out of the anus to lay her itchy little eggs on the perianal folds, so you know that as soon as the sun set on La Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos, everyone was either scratching or dealing with diarrhea.  It doesn’t sound like much of a party for them, but it does provide us with lots of information 1,300 years later!

As we continue collecting parasite data from this site, we will gain a picture of the daily lives of people who left no written record, only ancient nuggets of information reflecting what they ate and what was eating them.