My Life This December: Five Down, Three to Go

Hello, everyone! Happy December, and Merry Christmas! You may have noticed it’s not the usual week for my monthly life post, but I’ve decided to do it today since a week from today is Christmas, and I will take a one-week break from blogging. I shall be sure to tell you all about my holiday in January’s life post!

It’s been a good month so far! The major event has been wrapping up my fifth semester (out of eight, hence the title of this post). Three more, and I’ll have my degree! Yay! It was a long semester, though, and also went by very fast; somehow they always manage to do that. As of now, I believe I’ve finished out with good grades in at least half my classes, and I’ll probably have to wait till after Christmas to find out for sure about the others. But I feel pretty confident. I only had one final this semester (yay!), out of four possible, which was excellent. I got more time in the lab that way.

Speaking of the lab, research is officially taking over my life, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising. With the semester over, and the minor annoyances that are class times out of the way, I’m gearing up for what will hopefully be a productive winter break, including repeating an experiment and possibly (fingers crossed!) genetically engineering some plant cells. It should be fun, if a lot of work!

And because of all my research and associated applications for scholarships and summer programs and what have you, I have hardly written at all this month. To celebrate the end of finals, I did pound out one 1500-word scene a couple days ago, so that was fun! I’m taking next week off from the lab, so maybe I can squeeze in some synopsis writing for Circle of Fire, which I think I mentioned last month I’m doing to help with the editing.  Then maybe I can actually get to editing, and work toward my perennial goal of finishing a book.

Anyway, that’s it for me! How was your month? Did you do any writing/editing/outlining? Did you see the new Star Wars movie (which I forgot to mention I saw and am still deciding what my opinion is)? What are you reading? Did you finish a semester this month? Tell me in the comments!


Biology for Writers: What Scientists Do All Day

Hello, everyone! It’s the second Monday of the month, which must mean I’m doing a biology-for-writers post. Okay, so I know “what scientists do all day” doesn’t have that much to do with scientific topics of interest to writers, but it’s finals week and I wanted a post that would be quick to write but still informative. And hey, some of you might have scientist characters and be wondering what research looks like, or what different stages of academic science look like. (Science also happens in industry–pharmaceuticals, anyone?–but I’m most familiar with academia, so I’m going to focus on that!)

Life Stages of Academic Scientists

(I’m going to talk a little bit about this first, so I can talk about how research looks for the different stages of scientist in my next section.)

People don’t become scientists overnight. Especially in academia, there’s really a hierarchy, and you can find every stage of scientist working alongside each other in a lab.

Image source

The first step is to get your undergraduate degree in a science field (which is where I’m at right now). If you’re an undergrad scientist, you’re probably taking a fairly heavy course load to complete all your general education, major, and elective courses in four years. Undergrad costs a lot, too (at least in the U.S.), so you might be working on the side to help cover that. If you think you want to go to grad school, you’re probably working in a lab, helping a grad student with their research and/or assisting with lab maintenance things (yes, someone has to wash the flasks and beakers). If you’re extra motivated, you might have your own research project, but you get a lot of help from the professor who runs your lab since you’re still so young and inexperienced. And the project can’t be too big, because you really don’t have that much lab time when you’re also taking four classes and working. But you do what you can to get you into grad school.

The next step is to get one or more graduate degrees. If you want to work in industry, or you don’t have enough research experience yet to get directly into a PhD program, you get your master of science degree first. If you want to teach at the college level and run a lab (i.e. be an academic scientist like your faculty mentor), you need a PhD (short for Doctor of Philosophy). Master’s programs usually take two to three years, and PhD programs in the biological sciences average around five years. You take some courses, but not as many as you did when you were an undergrad, and once you’ve selected a faculty advisor, you get right to work in their lab on your thesis project. In order to graduate with your degree, you need to write a thesis (basically a book on your research) and defend it orally to your faculty committee, who will then decide if you get your degree or not. In a PhD program, you also have to pass a comprehensive exam somewhere around halfway through your degree, which will determine if you get to go on to “candidacy” (full-time dissertation research) or not. Now I’ve gone into a lot of details, but basically grad students do a lot more research than undergrads, because their degree depends on it.

Say now you’ve gotten your master’s and your PhD, and after eleven years you’re finally out of university schooling. Phew! What happens next? Well, if their research is outstanding, some lucky souls get hired straight to faculty positions. Most go on to postdoctoral fellowships (“postdocs” for short). The postdoc is the most senior member of the lab save the faculty member who runs it, unless it’s a really big lab and has a professional lab manager who reports to the professor. Postdoc fellowships usually last one to three years, and they work full-time, similar to grad students except no classes and no thesis defending. As I understand it, this serves as a time to build up one’s resume before applying to become a faculty member.

The highest tier is your PI (primary investigator), the faculty member who runs the lab. They determine what is studied in the lab and who works under them doing their projects. They also teach classes and, when they’re young, try to get tenure (which is basically where your university can’t fire you because you’ve proved the quality of your work). I’ve heard there’s a lot of pressure on young faculty to publish a lot of research in order to get tenure. Older professors (like my PI), who already have tenure, can be more relaxed since they are freer to study whatever they might be interested in–contingent, of course, on the availability of funding. PIs manage all aspects of the lab, mostly from their offices, although mine sometimes comes in and reorganizes things in the freezers or teaches students techniques. They usually teach classes for undergrads and grad students, and write up research articles for publication in scientific journals.

What Science Looks Like (In a Laboratory)

Image source

With some understanding of the academic science hierarchy, we can now get a general idea of what scientists actually do all day. Naturally, this depends on the discipline, in that different scientists do different things. A neuroscientist, for instance, might do behavioral experiments or brain dissections on mice. I have less idea what ecologists do, but my guess is they go into the field to at least collect their samples. When I worked in a seaweed lab, I used to go to the shore and collect seaweed sometimes. Now, as a rice geneticist/biochemist, I split my time roughly 85% lab/15% greenhouse. Some of the things I’ve done in my lab are in bullet points below.

  • Lab Maintenance
    • Washing dishes
    • Making tissue culture medium (think Petri dishes)
    • Disposing of biohazardous waste (seriously not a big deal–I’m only in a Biosafety Level 1 lab)
    • Cleaning up ethanol spills (also not a big deal–it’s basically handcleaner)
    • Preparing/organizing work surfaces (we put this paper on our prep room bench to absorb any spills)
  • Experimental Things
    • Collecting samples (read: cutting up rice leaves and putting them in tubes)
    • Subculturing tissue cultures (the medium dries out every so often)
    • Checking tissue cultures for bacterial contamination (things have to be sterile)
    • Extracting and quantifying biomolecules
    • Data analysis (Microsoft Excel, anyone?)
    • Checking raw data files for quality control (on lab computer)
    • Pouring salt water on plants (so I’m a little sadistic once in a while)
    • Planting seeds
  • Common Genetics/Biochemistry Lab Equipment
    • Petri dishes
    • Pipettes (used for EVERYTHING)
    • Disposable pipette tips
    • Microcentrifuge tubes
    • Boxes with little dividers for freezing things in tubes, and tube racks
    • Freezers (4, -20, and -80 Celsius)
    • Autoclave (a kind of steam sterilizer; usually common to multiple labs)
    • Heat/stir plate and stir bar magnets
    • Small spatulas, forceps, scalpels, razor blades, “scoopulas” (cross between spoon and spatula)
    • Beakers, flasks, graduated cylinders, other glassware
    • Test tubes (although I use these less than the microfuge tubes mentioned above)
    • Centrifuges, spectrophotometers, and other larger equipment
A pipette and Petri dish with medium (Image source)
A lady with some cool lab glassware. (Image source)


So that post was a little bit longer than I meant it to be, and it didn’t even include anything about specific techniques that are often used in biology. If there’s interest in a post about techniques, let me know in the comments and I’ll drum up something for next month!

That’s it for me this week! Did you find the day-to-day of science interesting? Do you think it will be helpful to you? Would you like to hear about techniques? Isn’t lab glassware awesome? (I’m going to be that person with chemistry-themed dishes someday!) Are you interested in becoming a scientist? Let me know in the comments!

Story Starters #10: A Wizard of Earthsea

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.  From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

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Good morning, everyone! Happy Monday and welcome to December! For this first Monday of the month, I am as usual analyzing the first paragraph of a novel. A Wizard of Earthsea is an excellent classic young adult fantasy by Ursula K. Le Guin (see my review for more!), which I highly recommend. Having been originally released in 1968, however, its opening isn’t quite as gripping as other’s we’ve looked at. Let’s break this down sentence-by-sentence.

  • The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts is peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. So this might not be the most immediately engaging opening line ever written (personally, I prefer openings that start right off with character action or dialogue), but it still catches the interest, which, as K.M. Weiland writes, is required for a hook. Why? Well, I think the answer is in two things: genre and phrasing. Genre, because as a fantasy novel should, this describes an interesting setting far outside the average experience, which helps to catch interest. Phrasing, because of the short-long-short phrase structure within the sentence (look at where the commas are). There’s a graphic I’ve seen floating around the Internet about how varying sentence length and structure reduces boredom in the reader, and I think it applies here to phrases within the sentence as well. In fact, if you want to go really far, you could say it echoes the three-act structure typical of writing in general. No matter how far you go with it, the phrasing does keep reader interest, in a slightly intangible and intriguing way. And of course, the mention of wizards doesn’t hurt; it helps reinforce what we expect from the title.
  • From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Ah, back to my later point on the previous sentence, here’s a longer sentence to support that shorter hook. The hook can’t reveal everything at once, so this second sentence is here backing it up. By now we can gather that there’s going to be an omniscient narrator, not uncommon in older works, and that this narrator is currently setting the scene, giving us the historical context before we actually get to our character. Of course, it’s dangerous to do too much of this, which is called “infodumping;” we want to save tidbits for later reveals, both in the cases of backstory and worldbuilding. In this case, though, it’s appropriate; we have just learned a little about Gont, and now we learn a little more, and that there’s a whole Archipelago out there of which Gont is only a part. And the wizard theme is reinforced once again, which leads into our next sentence.
  • Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage.
    Aha, our character makes an appearance (if only through the narrator talking about him)! And now that we have some background, we think, “Of course the greatest wizard came from Gont. Gont is known for wizards. Doesn’t everyone know that?” It makes sense with the information we’ve already been given. And the shorter sentence holds our attention better than if we’d been given another behemoth like the second sentence, which is good for introducing the main character. Oh, and dragons–don’t you want to keep reading now?
  • His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made. Wow, this guy really is important–they made songs about him! Oh, but we realize now that this story is about something the songs don’t tell about, which heightens our interest, because even if said songs are fictional, we like having exclusive information. This sentence completes the hook started in the first sentence.

Overall, this paragraph led in very nicely from setting scene and historical context to the context of our character, which in the next paragraph, will become a sort of biography of his early life. Although not necessarily something used in today’s fiction, this “funneling in” technique works well for A Wizard of Earthsea.

That’s it for me today! Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? If not, I’d love to know: did this post make you more interested in it? What do you think of setting the scene in your opening? Any further analysis that I may have missed? Tell me in the comments!