My (Obligatory) 2018 Goals Post

Hey everyone! So it’s 2018, and it seems (at least to me) as though everyone out there in the blogosphere is putting together posts about their goals for the new year. I figured I’d hop on the bandwagon, just for fun! Plus, it’s a nice quick post to put together for the first week of the spring semester. So, in no particular order, here are some of my goals!

1. Read the books of the Bible I’ve never read.

Yes, it’s true: I’m 20-and-a-half, and I haven’t read the whole Bible. Last year, I started going backwards through the Old Testament to finish up the books I’ve never read, and I want to finish this year. I’m currently a good way through Jeremiah, then I only have 1 and 2 Maccabees (Catholic here) to go!

2. Read 24 (non-Bible) books.

A little history of my Goodreads yearly goals…. In 2016, when I joined Goodreads (in March), I thought 24 books would be a feasible goal for the year. I failed miserably with only 17 books finished by the end of the year, so last year, 2017, I set a goal of 20. I reached that goal, and even read two books extra–yay! So this year, I figured I’d go back to 24 and see if I can do it. So far, I’m already on my third book, re-reading To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson.

3. Apply to graduate school.

My initial reaction upon thinking of this goal: Oh, shoot, is that this year already?!?

Seriously, though. I’m going into my senior year of college this coming fall (!) and it’ll be time to start applying to PhD programs. I am currently working toward this goal by making very many spreadsheets (thank you, Microsoft Excel) of potential schools I’d like to apply to and faculty I’d like to work with. It’s so crazy to think that in about a year’s time, I’ll start hearing back…. Let’s move on, shall we?

4. Make time for writing and other creativity.

This is SO important this year. I think in previous years, I’ve gotten so caught up in college that I haven’t been able to make time to do the other things I really want to do, specifically writing. So I have resolved to write, outline, edit, or worldbuild–anything that contributes directly to one of my books–at least five minutes three days a week, just to keep in practice. So far I’ve already failed on that, with only two days last week (don’t look at me like that; I took the GRE on Saturday), but I think I made up for it with the map I drew Saturday night. I think it’s my best version yet!

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My latest map for my fantasy book Windsong.

Well, those are some of my goals for the year! What are some of yours? How are they coming so far? Tell me in the comments!


Biology for Writers: Some Awesome Genetics Techniques I Use in the Lab

Good morning, everyone! Welcome to the first Biology for Writers post of the new year! Today, I wanted to talk about some common techniques used in genetics and molecular biology, particularly those I use in the lab, since those are what I’m most familiar with. As a result, the list will probably be skewed toward plant biology, but I will include other techniques I’m somewhat familiar with too. If you’re interested in a specific discipline or something you don’t see listed here, let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to tell you what I know or help you find some resources! Let’s get started!

DNA/RNA Extraction

Why? If you’re working in genetics or molecular biology, you often need to isolate a nucleic acid, be it DNA or RNA. These molecules are useful for learning about genes and the various proteins, including enzymes, they produce (more on this another time).

Why DNA vs. RNA? Well, the DNA contains a gene’s complete sequence, including introns (which are removed in the messenger RNA that determines the protein’s amino acid sequence) and regulatory sequences that control when the gene is turned on or off. So if you’re interested in the pure molecular genetics of an enzyme, you might extract DNA. DNA is also useful if you’re trying to sequence a new genome (the complete DNA of an organism); genomes are often useful for future research.

Image source

RNA, on the other hand, might be useful if you want to, say, produce a human protein in bacteria. To do this requires gene cloning, which is much easier with only the coding sequence (the part that actually codes for the protein–i.e. messenger RNA) rather than all the extra introns and “junk DNA” that comes along with a complete gene. So for things like genetic engineering, it’s better to extract RNA and back-convert it into DNA (more on this in a minute).

How? Extracting DNA/RNA is, in a nutshell, getting it out of the cells of your plant or bacteria or whatever organism you’re starting with, and separating it from the proteins, fatty acids, and other stuff that also belongs in a cell. (If extracting DNA, you also want to separate it from RNA, and vice versa.) The first thing to do, then, is to break open your cells. In plants, you usually start this by freezing your leaves in liquid nitrogen, which helps minimize molecular degradation, and grinding them up in a mortar and pestle. Then, a lysis (cell-opening) buffer is added to fully lyse the cells. (Buffers are solutions with a specific pH that “buffer” against big changes in acidity.) During this process, nucleases, which degrade DNA, are inhibited by the cold temperature from the liquid nitrogen. Other chemical inhibitors may be added as well.

Next, a series of centrifuging steps separates the DNA (in various liquid buffers) from proteins, lipids, and other cellular detritus (often in the form of a pellet at the bottom of the little test tube). DNA in the top liquid, or “supernatant,” is removed into several different tubes, until ultimately it is collected without the liquid on a little pad within a special tube. The DNA is then resuspended, or “eluted,” in super-sterile water (a small amount, like 150 microliters–a microliter is a millionth of a liter). This serves to make the DNA more concentrated. You can then measure how much DNA you extracted with an instrument called a fluorometer, and if you got enough DNA, you’re all set to go on to the next step!

Polymerase Chain Reaction

Why? Once you’ve extracted DNA, what do you do with it? If the answer is “isolate a gene,” your next step is polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is an “amplification” technique that takes advantage of DNA’s structure to make many copies of your gene of interest. Then, you can move on to DNA sequencing, genetic engineering, or something else.

How? Let me first make a small digression into the basics of DNA’s structure. DNA is made up of four kinds of nitrogenous bases (let’s just call them A, T, C, and G) that join together in two long strands. The bases pair in a complementary manner to form that familiar double helix shape; A only pairs with T and C with G. When I talk about “DNA sequence,” I’m talking about the order of bases; AATCG is different from ATACG, for example. “Complementary sequence” refers to the sequence of bases on the other strand of the DNA; each DNA strand is the opposite of the other. For example, TTAGC is complementary (opposite) to AATCG. Got it? Great! Let’s go on to the technique.

PCR exploits DNA’s structure to make many, many copies of a gene or other sequence of interest. You can find a great fact sheet about PCR, including a helpful figure, here. Basically, if you know the sequence of your gene of interest, you can order custom short DNA molecules, called oligonucleotide primers (or just primers), of 15-25 base pairs each which are complementary to the ends of your gene. In a tiny little test tube, you mix together DNA, water, primers, and free nucleotides, and stick it all in a machine called a thermocycler, which can be programmed to heat and cool the tube for certain times. The heating profile basically does the PCR.

There are three basic steps to PCR. First, denature the DNA (separate the strands) by heating to about 95 Celsius. Next, drop the temperature to about 60 Celsius for annealing (of primers to DNA). The last step is extension (addition of new nucleotides to make a new DNA molecule), which happens at around 70 Celsius. Together, these steps make one cycle. PCR is usually repeated in about 36 cycles, which because there are more templates with each cycle, makes thousands of copies of the gene of interest, hence “DNA amplification.” PCR is a very useful technique and is indispensable in most genetics laboratories.

In fact, a form of PCR called reverse transcription-PCR (RT-PCR) is used to back-convert extracted RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA). RT-PCR uses primers that are specific for messenger RNAs, enabling the isolation and amplification of only the coding sequence of an organism’s genes. This is the next step from RNA extraction (see above).

Gel Electrophoresis

Why? This is a sort of confirmation technique. Once you have your extracted DNA/RNA or your PCR products, you want to make sure you did your previous techniques right, so you run an agarose gel. This helps you determine the size of your DNA fragments (or genomic DNA in the case of an extraction), so you know you can proceed with the next step in your research.

How? Gels are made from agarose, a compound found in seaweed, and buffer. You pour molten agarose into a rectangular mold with a comb stuck in, so when it hardens and you pull the comb out, you have a flat, rectangular Jell-O like surface with a line of wells at one end. After pouring buffer over the gel so it’s under the surface of the liquid, you mix your DNA/PCR product with a blue loading dye and put one sample into each well (called a “lane” once you’ve run the gel). You should always load a size standard, called a “ladder,” into one lane, and it’s good to run a positive control (you know the result will be what you want) and negative control (you know the result will be the opposite of what you want), so that if something’s wrong with your samples but not the controls, you know it’s the samples themselves, not your PCR.

Once you’ve loaded all your samples, the next step is to turn on the electric current and let the gel run. Because DNA has a slight negative charge, it will migrate toward the positive end of the gel (away from the wells in which you loaded it). As it moves, it will bump into all sorts of molecules within the gel, i.e., the gel itself will get in the way of the DNA’s movement. This allows for size separation of DNA fragments; smaller fragments will bump into the gel less and therefore move a greater distance in the same time. When you look at the gel under ultraviolet light, you see bright “bands” that indicate where the DNA is; the closer to the wells, the longer the DNA fragment. Comparing these bands to the ladder size standard (which shows up as many bands of known sizes) allows you to identify the size of your PCR product, so you can tell whether you got the right gene. This makes gel electrophoresis an immensely useful technique.


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)

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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!


My Life This November: In Which College Life is Crazy and I Give Up on NaNoWriMo

Hi folks! It’s the last Monday of the month (already), which must mean I’m here telling you all about my life. It’s been a little crazy this month (isn’t it always? I can’t remember the last time I had a quiet month), so I shall try to organize my thoughts by putting them into semi-coherent sections, and hopefully thus not overwhelm you all. Here goes!

Student Life

Ah, the dominant section in the great dichotomy of my life. Well, by November, the fall semester is always in full swing. All my classes have ramped up considerably; we’re doing unknown labs in microbiology and the very complex topic of intermediary metabolism in biochemistry, and I have three exams on December 1st, lucky me! But at least I had Thanksgiving break this past weekend; happy Thanksgiving, everybody! I’m thankful that I got to sleep in for three days in a row (luxury!). And I’m also thankful for time spent with family this weekend, and creative time (more on that later), and that I registered for spring classes before Thanksgiving–yay! Next semester, I will officially be taking Genetics of Prokaryotic Microbes, Biochemistry II, Biostatistics, and Plant Systematics, which I’m the most excited about because I love plant classes.

Research-wise, I’ve been plugging right along. In two weeks, I should see the end of a long experiment involving rice leaf development that I’ve been working on since September. Then, over winter break, I plan to get cracking on all the work I haven’t been able to do by being busy with classes, as well as running another drought/salt experiment (I just love torturing rice plants, haha). But before then, we will of course have Christmas, and I’ve enjoyed watching decorations get put up this weekend, though I haven’t been able to participate because of studying. It’s so strange to think the year is almost over already. But more of that next month.

Writing and Creativity

Those couple paragraphs I wrote above do not convey how completely school has taken over my life. Yet I’ve had more creative time this month than I thought I would. I started the month on the whim of doing NaNoWriMo again, knowing how good it was for me last year, and I epically failed. I got almost to 2,000 words in two scenes, and that took five days. I have concluded from this (and other) experiences that you really can’t force creativity. Don’t get me wrong, writing every day and being super disciplined like that is amazing, and I admire all you who do it; but I’m at a stage right now where it’s more beneficial to the quality of my work (and my mental health) to go with the flow, write whatever comes into my head, create however I feel like it.

So writing-wise, I haven’t gotten much done. I’ve picked at my Windsong reboot a little (I actually need to finish a scene), and it’s at about 18,000 words, which I’m proud of. I did decide, against the conclusion of my last paragraph, to do a disciplined rewrite of Circle of Fire, last year’s NaNo novel, but first, I’m writing a synopsis for it. So far, I’ve almost finished the rough draft of that. I meant to work on it more this past weekend, but I got caught up in the visual arts; I don’t usually think of myself as being inclined toward, or having any talent in, painting or drawing, but I started a watercolor a couple weeks ago, found it fun, and on Thanksgiving surprised myself with a decent pencil drawing of one of my characters. It’s always good to have creative outlets other than writing, and I think I’ll be doing more visual stuff in the future when things pop into my head.

That’s it for me this month! How was your month, and your Thanksgiving? Did you do NaNo this month? Did you win, or give up like I did, or something in between? Did you not do NaNo but still write? What are your creative outlets other than writing? If you’re also a college or high school student, how’s your semester going? And have you started decorating for Christmas yet? Share in the comments!




My Life This March: In Which I Do Lots of Science and Celebrate a Blogoversary

Hey, everybody! It’s the last Saturday of the month, time to wrap up what I did this month. March was kind of crazy for me, and I can’t even remember most of what happened, but here are some of the major things.

Mostly, this month has been full of school. I’m taking 19 credits this semester, rather than the usual 16, and four of my five classes have associated labs. Don’t get me wrong; I love school, and it’s great to finally be taking advanced genetics courses. It’s just been crazy taking that many credits and squeezing in time in the lab.

One of the major things I’ve been doing this month is writing a 12-page proposal for my summer research project. I really thank God that He gave me the inclination to write in my childhood and that I’ve practiced enough that I can now write what everybody said was a pretty killer proposal. But it wasn’t without its difficulties. There are enough articles written on the role of polyamines in rice to fill a two-volume encyclopedia, and I had to boil that down into five pages for the literature review part. But it worked out in the end, thank God, and I was able to submit it for my funding request. We’ll see what happens!

Just because I hadn’t finished the proposal didn’t mean I couldn’t start my research. I’ve been spending a few hours every week in the lab, growing rice and, this week, starting tissue cultures. I’m really excited to try to make this work and to present my preliminary data next month.

Because of the general madness, I didn’t get much writing done this month. I think I picked at Circle of Fire maybe four times, but progress is progress, right? I also haven’t thought much about This Hidden Darkness, which was supposed to be my secondary project, but that’s because I’ve decided to treat my “break” from the Windsong storyline as one long brainstorming session. This may even involve a prequel that won’t make it into the main storyline. So far, I’ve done some thinking about villain motivations and being more creative with my worldbuilding.

Also, this month marks my first “blogoversary”–I’ve been blogging for a year! Yay! *throws confetti* I’ve really enjoyed having this blog since I started it last March. I love interacting with everyone who reads, likes, and comments, and writing about random science and book things that I enjoy makes a great little break from studying every week. I definitely plan to keep it up further this year. Stick around; I have some good things in the works!

So that’s my month in a nutshell; how was yours? Did you do anything exciting, or was it pretty much the usual? If you have a blog, when’s your blogoversary? How much writing did you do this month? Have you ever done a research project? Share in the comments!


My Life This July: In Which America and I Have Birthdays and I Acquire Many Books

My word, it’s the last Saturday of the month already. (Actually, the last Friday as I’m typing this, but you know. . . .) This month has been rather a whirlwind, but I find they’re all like that these days. In fact, it’s hard to think of a time when they weren’t. It would have to be before my memory.

Anyway . . . with that little ramble behind us, let’s get on with today’s post! On the last Saturday of each month, I post a little (long) blurb about my life this month, some notable things I did, etc. Probably the most notable thing that happened to me this month was that I became a year older than I was last year. (In simpler words, I had a birthday, so I’m nineteen now.) And the country I live in decided, as usual, to promptly follow up with its own birthday. (Read: My birthday is July 3rd. Independence Day is July 4th. People are always shooting off fireworks on my birthday for some reason.) America is now 240, a good bit older than I am and a nice round number to celebrate. I’m excited to be around for the 250th in ten years!

For those of you wondering, I had a nice time on my birthday. Chocolate cake and beloved family members help with that. (I cannot, however, say whether America had a nice time on its birthday. Sorry.)

Books also helped with my having a nice time on my birthday, or, more generally, the week of my birthday. I received Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland as a gift, which I initially thought was pleasant, because I read Weiland’s blog (Helping Writers Become Authors) devoutly; her writing advice has really helped me, and I wanted to read one of her books. Six days later, I put the book down and proceeded to rant and rave about it to my best friend. (Look for my review next month! But while you’re waiting, go start reading Dreamlander right now.)

It’s such a good book!


Near the end of the week, my library held its annual book sale, with hardcovers for $1 and paperbacks for $.50. There were many great deals. I picked up Isaac Asimov’s Nemesis and The Rest of the Robots to contribute to my current sci-fi kick (and Nemesis is a beautiful hardback, too!), a thriller called First Daughter by Eric van Lustbader which looked like it fell into the same genre as the Grisham and Clancy books I’ve taken up lately, and a sleek translation of Beowulf with English and Old English on facing pages. That should be interesting when I get around to tackling it. For nonfiction, I grabbed an encyclopedia of cacti, a volume called Power Unseen: How Microbes Rule the World, and a forty-year-old title on The Biology of Flowering, to complement the old textbooks that have been lying around free outside my lab.

I’m reading Nemesis right now.


Speaking of the lab, in general updates, I have continued enjoying my summer research. I did another DNA extraction last week, and have been raising up little seaweeds in culture plates. I can’t believe my fellowship will be over in a couple weeks, and a couple weeks after that, I start classes again. . . .

Another general update pertains to my book Windsong (which I guess is the official title since I can’t think of a better one). I was gifted Scrivener for my birthday, and promptly (ignoring much of the ages-long tutorial) copied Windsong into this fancy new software and started organizing. (When I say “promptly,” I mean it took me three weeks to copy and paste all the scenes.) Now, I’ve finally starting kicking into gear on my editing, which means I may have this draft finished before the fall semester starts! (Actually, knowing me, I probably won’t, but it’s worth a shot.)

And that’s the major points of my month!

How was your month? What did you do? Did you acquire any books? Have you read any of the books I mentioned? Did you have a birthday this month? If you’re American, how did you celebrate the Fourth of July? Tell me in the comments!


On Certain Heavenly Bodies in Our Solar System

Think about this for a minute: What is a planet?


This is what I got when I searched Google. Simple, right? A planet is anything orbiting a star, like our sun. That includes all of these:

But wait just a minute. Wasn’t there a big deal a few years back about Pluto not being a planet anymore? What was all that about? And if a planet is anything orbiting the sun, what about that asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter? Instead of eight planets (or nine, depending on whether you include Pluto or not), are there really a thousand or a million? And are there any more “real” planets out there?

Great questions! I’m glad you asked. Let’s get started, shall we?

Pluto was discovered in 1930, and for the next seventy-six years, it enjoyed the distinction of being the ninth planet in our solar system. In 2006, though, it was stripped of its status as “planet” and reassigned to the new category “dwarf planet,” which, believe it or not, is not the same thing. So why did poor Pluto suddenly become a dwarf planet?

Pluto: planet or not?

The answer to that question, my friends, lies in the Kuiper Belt, a band of “objects” (including comets and dwarf planets like Pluto) out past Neptune, in Pluto’s vicinity. In fact, Pluto is listed on the NASA website as “King of the Kuiper Belt.”

Scientists have discovered many other small “planets” similar to (some maybe bigger than) Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, as well as in the asteroid belt, and the International Astronomical Union decided it needed a new classification for these worlds. Hence, the dwarf planet was born.

The IAU, you see, has three criteria that a space object must meet before it can be called a planet. First, it must be round (which Pluto is). Secondly, it has to orbit the sun (which Pluto does). And third, it must be massive enough to dominate its orbit, that is, clear it of space debris. This is where Pluto fails. It doesn’t even quite dominate its primary moon, Charon; NASA considers them a binary system. Hence, Pluto is a dwarf planet, no longer the smallest of the planets. Various other Kuiper Belt objects, as well as Ceres in the asteroid belt, join Pluto in this designation.

Ceres, one of Pluto’s fellow dwarf planets.

So there are only eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. But might there be another real planet out there? The answer is, well, maybe. Scientists have never actually seen it, but they have noticed that six Kuiper Belt objects are all orbiting along the same path, suggesting that a planet five to twenty times Earth’s size is out there dominating its orbit. Several research teams are busy investigating to find out whether Planet Nine, as it’s called, actually exists. Some are trying to zero in on its location, based on the aligned orbits of Kuiper Belt objects. Others are trying to catch a glimpse of Planet Nine itself, based on the conjecture that its atmosphere might contain highly reflective gases.

So there you have it! Everyone has a different definition of the word “planet.” The International Astronomical Union says Pluto is not a planet, since it doesn’t dominate its orbit quite right. There just might, though, be another proper planet out beyond Pluto. We shall see as the research goes on.

If you’re interested in reading more about Pluto and Planet Nine, here are my sources!

What do you think? Should Pluto and the other dwarf planets be considered planets or not? Are you interested in astronomy? Tell me in the comments!


My Life This June: In Which I Visit Washington, D.C. and Do More Research and Editing

Hello, everyone! It’s the fourth Saturday of the month, which must mean I’m describing my life this month for you. This June, I went on a family vacation to Washington, D.C., which made me promptly forget about everything else I did this month. . . . I did, however, do some more lab work and writing-related things, which I’ll talk about at the end of this post.

So I was in D.C. (we stayed in Maryland, actually) from Saturday the 11th until Saturday the 18th, which is why I didn’t respond to any blog comments made during that time until I got back. Sorry for the delay, everyone! On the 12th, our first day out doing things, we went to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, even though it was over 90 degrees outside and the zoo is a very walking-intensive place (from where we parked, you had to go all the way up a giant hill to get to the famous pandas). Despite that, it was a great place to visit! I had only been there once, ten years ago, so it was nice to go again. Below are some of the animals we saw. It was particularly cool to be in some of the exhibits with wild birds loose around us.

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The next morning, we walked around various monuments (since Washington, D.C. is monument land) and passed through the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden. This was the first day we passed cool buildings, like the National Archives and the Department of Justice.

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Later that afternoon, we visited the National Gallery of Art itself. This is a great big art museum composed of two buildings; the east wing was designed by famous architect I.M. Pei and is very modernist and cool, while the west wing is a more traditional design. The east wing was a pretty quick tour, since it was under renovation, so we quickly passed under the street to the west wing. This wing was full of beautiful and interesting art, including Ginevra de’ Benci, the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in either American continent, and The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dali, my new favorite painting (even though I don’t usually care for Dali’s surrealist work). Anyway . . . here are some more pictures for you.

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On Tuesday, we attended to the actual reason we were in the D.C. area, which was so my brother could compete in the national competition of National History Day. For those who haven’t heard of it, and are junior high or high school students, you should check it out (at the link above). Students compete in the paper, exhibit, performance, website, and documentary categories, as individuals or groups, junior or senior high. I’ve never done it, but this was my brother’s fifth year, and his first attendance at nationals. It was pretty cool to go. Students from different “affiliates” (there were students from places like Guam and South Korea as well as the fifty states and D.C.) traded buttons to try to get all of them, and the different range of projects was pretty interesting. Although my brother did not win any awards at the Thursday ceremony, he still had fun and will do NHD again next year.

On Wednesday, we did a few different things. First, we visited the U.S. Botanical Garden, which was a really neat place, not least because it was the result of George Washington’s vision of a botanical garden in the nation’s capital to educate the populace about plants. (George Washington appreciated plants!) There was a conservatory and some outside gardens. My favorite was probably the orchid collection in the conservatory, although the endangered plants and sensitive plant in the “Plant Adaptations” section were also pretty cool. See the pictures below!

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After the botanic garden, we went back to the National Gallery, since we didn’t see nearly everything on our first run through. We found a few Vermeer paintings and visited the da Vinci and Dali paintings again. After that, we went to NHD night at the Smithsonian American history museum, which is a great place if you ever go to D.C. They have lots of cool stuff, like the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, the hat Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was shot, and lots of first ladies’ inaugural gowns. They also had some NHD exhibits on display that day, so we visited a couple of those as well.

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Thursday and Friday were much quieter. On Thursday, we attended the NHD awards ceremony, then went back to our hotel and hung out. On Friday, we visited the Phillips Collection, which is apparently America’s first modern art museum, mainly to see The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a famous Impressionist painter. It was a beautiful painting, and very absorbing; I sat in front of it for a while. They also had other interesting works by modern and contemporary artists, and a lovely little courtyard.

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That wraps up my trip to D.C., and since this is becoming a monster post, I will be brief about the rest of my month. I have continued doing research, spending most of my days in a lab happily analyzing seaweed DNA and growing seaweed spores in a little culture room. I’ve learned a lot of new lab techniques this month, such as the polymerase chain reaction (hugely important in molecular biology). I have also been plugging away at my editing, although I recently made a list of the scenes I have left to edit and realized I am going to have a huge time crunch later next month. (I set a goal of finishing my macro edit by July 31st. We’ll see if that actually happens.) But all in all, it’s been a good month, even the three weeks I wasn’t on vacation.

How was your June? Did you go on vacation this month? If so, where? Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.? (If you live outside the U.S., have you ever been to your nation’s capital, and if so, what was it like?) Have you been to any of the places I visited? If so, what did you think of them? Have you ever done National History Day? (If so, kudos to you! I could never get through all the yearlong work, haha.) If not, does it sound interesting? And lastly, have you been writing or editing this month, and if so, how has it gone? Share in the comments!





My Life This May: In Which I Finish My First Year of College,Win a Free Book, and Climb Over Rocks in Search of Seaweed

Hello, and welcome to today’s (celebratory) “My Life This Month” post! I am going to deal with the things in the title in chronological order, so finishing my first year of college will have to wait a couple paragraphs, but that is mostly what I’m celebrating this month.

I actually won the free book at the very end of last month. I was surprised and pleased, since despite entering various giveaways whenever I get the chance (nothing better than free books, right?), I have never won one before! I reviewed the said book, Edge of Oblivion by Joshua A. Johnston, last week, so you can click here to see what I thought of it.

Now on to the main event! Halfway through this month, I finished my first year of college, which is a little crazy. It seems like I just started. I was thinking about it, and I’ve learned so much since then, and not all about academics:

  • Having a good teacher makes a class that much better.
  • Gas prices fluctuate constantly. Try not to fuss too much.
  • Don’t discount anything before you’ve looked into it. Your last option might become your first.
  • Backups happen, and there may not be a way around them. Leave the house early enough that you can sit in traffic and still be early to class.
  • An empty lecture hall is a rare and beautiful thing.
  • Chemistry is a hard subject. Grade scaling is necessary and good for your GPA.
  • Calculus is easy. (Stranger things have happened.)
  • It is possible to eat applesauce with a fork. (Seriously.)
  • Commuting can be frustrating because it makes it harder to make friends.
  • Commuting is great because your only roommate is your cat and you get to see your family every day. Plus, when your residential classmates are complaining about packing, you can smile to yourself and think, “I don’t have to do that. . . .”
  • That first semester is rough. Give it time, and college will become one of the best experiences of your life.

I have finished a variety of classes this year:

  • General Chemistry I and II
  • Introductory Biology I and II
  • First-Year Writing
  • Professional Perspectives in Biology
  • Calculus for Life Sciences
  • Global Public Health Issues
  • Myths and Misconceptions about Nuclear Science

And here’s what I hope to tackle next year:

  • Principles of Genetics
  • Genetics Lab
  • Organic Chemistry I and II
  • Applied Biostatistics
  • Introductory Physics I and II
  • Biotechnology and Society

Hopefully, the scheduling will work out for half of those in the spring.

Even though I’ve officially finished my classes for the year, I’m still at UNH for the summer. I mentioned last month that I got a research fellowship to study seaweed, and this week, it started. On Monday, I found myself slipping and sliding over rocks trying to get under a bridge and find a very specific kind of seaweed.

Porphyra umbilicalis, a type of nori, or sushi seaweed. (Image not mine)

The goal is eventually to domesticate this seaweed, P. umbilicalis, but first we have to find out what species it is. On Thursday, I and the grad student in the lab got some samples from Dover Point, under another bridge (I’m fairly sure the people walking by thought I was crazy when I started shouting to the grad student that “I found some!”). I extracted the DNA from those on Friday, and next week, hopefully, we can use the DNA to identify what species we got (as long as I, ahem, actually got DNA out of the extraction).

As far as writing goes, I made some progress on my book this month, even with finals week smack in the middle. I rewrote most of the beginning, which made it a good bit shorter (it was proportionally too long for the book), and started putting in a new scene. Editing goes slowly, but it does go on. I also gave in and started outlining another idea that has been nagging at my brain for months. I’m not sure how far I’ll go through with it, so I won’t give you any tidbits just yet, but I hope (right now) to have it outlined fully by the end of the year, so that by the time I send Windsong off to beta readers, I’ll have something else to start writing.

And that’s my life this month!

What was your life like this month? Did you get much writing done? Have you ever won a free book? Did you also finish a year of high school or college? If so, post in the comments, and we can celebrate!