Thursday, December 30, 2010

(Science) PhD 101

ChemE stands for chemical engineering.  I have a bachelor's of science from MIT in chemical engineering, and in September 2008 started in the Chemical engineering PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin.  I chose to pursue a PhD because I really enjoy research, and the advanced degree is a necessity for all of the permanent jobs I have considered, both academic and industrial.  I realize that the majority of my posts center around running, but today I'd like to talk about being a PhD candidate.

One thing you may not know is that the majority of science PhD candidates are paid while working towards their degree.  They receive a stipend, health insurance and tuition is paid by the department or advisor.  In return, PhD candidates perform research and/or work as teaching assistants.  The stipend amount varies significantly and depends largely on the field of study and the school.  Engineering programs tend to offer better stipends than sciences, and theoreticians usually have stipends on the low end because that area of research isn't raking in the dough.  Highly ranked programs typically offer the most competitive packages.  In ChemE, UT Austin is ranked 6th by US News and World Report, and their stipend package is particularly generous amongst the top ranked programs.

A masters of chemical engineering is a rarity and unnecessary for a PhD program.  This really throws people off; usually when someone hears I am getting a PhD they assume I already have a masters.  That is absolutely not the case for ChemE, but tends to be true for other fields like mechanical engineering.  In chemical engineering, a masters degree is pretty much unmarketable and does not come with pay increases or a different job title.  Companies routinely hire chemical engineers with bachelors and masters degrees to do the same work.  A PhD however, comes with a significant pay increase, different job title and career path.  Furthermore, admissions into a graduate program for a masters is rare.  This is largely because the masters degree is awarded for course work (i.e. you take classes), which does not have the tangible benefit to the department that research does.  I had several friends from MIT interested in doing a masters in chemical engineering.  They submitted applications to top ranked schools, and their applications were automatically switched over to the PhD program, for which they were admitted.

One of the worst questions you can ask a PhD candidate like myself is how much longer they have.  Unfortunately, I get asked this question all the time, and it makes me feel bad because the answer is not so straightforward and inevitably, I have more time left than I would like to admit.  Many people assume that, like med school or law school or business school or veterinary school, a ChemE PhD program has a set length of time associated with it, and as long as you don't fail anything, you will finish in that time frame.

In reality, graduation hinges on the ability to set forth and accomplish unique research goals.  When I started my PhD, I selected an academic advisor whose lab I work in.  With the help of my advisor, I have crafted a thesis proposal that states my novel research goals.  I then selected a thesis committee and presented my proposed research to them for approval.  This committee is made up of 5 professors; my advisor, 2 additional UT ChemE professors, 1 professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at UT and 1 professor of Chemical Engineering from MIT.  This group of experts in my field are assembled to offer me guidance and suggestions, and evaluate the merit of my work.  When I have met my research goals, I will write a dissertation or thesis document, summarizing my work.  I will provide my committee members with a copy of the dissertation and give an oral presentation of the work.  This final presentation is called a thesis defense.  At that point, the committee will be asked to sign and approve my degree.  All members of the committee need to sign for the PhD to be awarded.  The College of Engineering will then review the degree, but this is usually a formality because they almost never go against the decision of the thesis committee.

The length of time required to achieve a PhD in the sciences is highly dependent on the specific project.  The whole idea behind research is to explore uncharted territory, and with that comes a lot of roadblocks, troubleshooting and failures.  Some people get lucky and have research projects that simply take off and work well from the start.  Others get very unlucky, and work for one or two years on something that completely fails and have to start over.  Most people fall somewhere in between.  The quicker things work and the less roadblocks along the way, the sooner you get your degree.

Two additional factors are the advisor and the department.  Advisors tend to graduate all of their students in the same time frame.  Some keep their students one to two years longer than the average, while others regularly graduate students a full year less than the average.  In my department, and chemical engineering in general, the average time is five or five and a half years.  I realize this is a long time, especially compared to something like an MBA, but the averages in the sciences is typically much more than that.  Biology PhDs at some of the top schools (including MIT) routinely take seven years to complete their degrees.

At the time I am writing this post, I am two and a half years into my PhD.  My advisor is new, with no track record (I joined his group in his first year), so there is no precedent for my group.  I am hoping to graduate in the average 5 years.  Some aspects of my project are working really well and moving along at an acceptable pace.  Unfortunately, some major aspects of my project are roadblocked and progress is stalled.  I also work with mammalian cells, which grow very slowly compared to the yeast and bacteria of my colleagues.  This makes my experiments slower and time consuming.  On the other hand, I have the pleasure of manipulating the genetic engineering of human cool is that?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Running

Yesterday: 9.5 hilly miles in 8:18 min/mile
Today: 7.1 easy miles on trail, 8:19 min/mile

We are amidst the holiday season, and what an excellent time it is for running!  The weather is cooler (in the Northern hemisphere), many of us have time off from work, and with lots of holiday food going around, the extra calorie burn is helpful.  Furthermore, if you are extra nice, maybe someone will gift you with some fun new running gear. 

On Wednesday, I put my run off until the evening because boyfriend needed a ride to the airport.  I had a fair amount of work to do and couldn't get out until 5:30pm, which is when it starts getting dark these days in Austin.  I decided that if I was going to run in the dark, I would make it festive.  I drove down to Townlake and combined a 4 mile hilly loop through a posh neighborhood with a 2.8 mile loop along the river.  This was my first time running the route at night and I was pleasantly surprised!  The neighborhood was beautifully lit up with lots of twinkly lights and decorations.  I usually don't enjoy evening running as much, but this run was particularly festive and enjoyable. 

This week I am house/dog sitting for a family that lives in west Austin.  Texans refer to this part of the state as "hill country," largely because the rest of the state is so flat by comparison.  And while there are no mountains, west Austin definitely has some extreme terrain including rolling hills, ledges and ridges.  I fancied myself a pretty strong hill runner, but running out here has definitely humbled me.  Very few of the roads out here are interconnected, so there is no direction for me to run that doesn't involve ups and downs.  While it makes planning my routes rather intimidating, I am confident that a week of Texas hill running will make me much stronger. 

Happy Holidays to all, and remember to get that run in!  It will make your Christmas day that much more enjoyable.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Running Neuroses

Today: 18.6 mile long run, 2:29:29 (8:02 pace)

Sometimes I wonder whether runners, in general are neurotic, or if I am simply a neurotic person that likes running.  In the 13 years I have been a running, I have developed a lot of habits around this hobby, and over time these habits have been so fixed in their practices that they can certainly be characterized as neurotic behavior.

In fifth grade, it was determined that I was nearsighted, which I wasn't really surprised about because both of my parents wear progressive lenses.  I got glasses, and dutifully wore them throughout the day.  When I started running, I used my glasses.  However, when I started high school, and it became clear to my parents that I would do cross country and track, they decided it was time for me to get contacts.  This was probably a good decision because the cross country courses were typically technical trails, and if my glasses moved around on my face it would make it hard for me to see.  I also skied a lot, and putting ski goggles over glasses is a real pain in the butt.  Anyways, I started wearing contacts roughly 10 years ago.  While I like my glasses and don't mind wearing them for almost any occasion, I never wear them to run.  In fact, in the past ten years, I have probably gone running in glasses less than ten times.  The idea of running without the contacts is so unthinkable to me that I have literally skipped or postponed runs because I did not have them with me.

The watch
I have previously discussed my love of the digital running watch.  I am pretty neurotic about knowing how long and how far I ran.  Frankly, I am willing to estimate the distance when necessary, but I don't like to estimate the time when I can just as easily use the handy chrono feature on my cheap-o watch and get it down to the seconds.  Fortunately, there is little risk of me forgetting my watch, because it almost never leaves my wrist (except when I need to dress up all fancy).  However, I am definitely that neurotic runner that is stopping the chrono timer at every red light, stop sign or cat that walks in front of me.  If I forget to restart the watch (which is a rarity, but has been known to happen), I agonize over how to estimate the now lost time.

The direction I run
This is by far my strongest running neurosis.  Let me explain.  I have a variety of running routes.  Many of them involve loops.  I have very strong opinions about the direction that those loops should be run.  There really isn't a standard, it isn't like its always clockwise or counter-clockwise.  Nonetheless, each loop must be run a certain way.  It's usually the same way I first run the loop, but sometimes it changes.  Further, the idea of reversing the direction on any running loop is downright atrocious to me.  For example, when I run around the golf course near me, I always go counter-clockwise.  But, when I run around Town Lake, I go clockwise.  Fortunately, I almost always run by myself, so I don't have to explain this neurotic and illogical thinking to a running partner.  Boyfriend is pretty new to running and just lets me lead, so I don't think he even notices how crazy I am about this.  Hopefully he won't read this post...

So those are the things I can think of thus far.  However, if I notice any other neurotic running behavior on my part, I'll do a part 2 post.  Finally, here is something interesting I saw this week:  I was running in the evening through a pretty ritzy neighborhood.  The streets were very residential, with big houses.  One of the houses was having a party, I assume for the holidays.  They had valet parking for their guests!!!  At their home.  Which they paid for.  So people didn't have to park their own cars.  Furthermore, parking was completely legal on the street.  It was very strange.  It always amazes me what some people do with their money.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Running and Eating

When it comes to running, I do best on an empty stomach.  A full or half-full stomach makes me feel sluggish and uncomfortable (at best), or gives me cramps and gastrointestinal distress (at worst).  This significantly complicates my running life, because after all food is fuel and fuel is important for endurance sports.  Running first thing in the morning before breakfast is definitely optimal for me and one of the major reasons that I am a morning runner.  Occasionally, though, I wake up feeling extra lazy and can't manage to do the morning running thing. I placate myself with the knowledge that after work and before dinner, I can sneak in a run.  And, of course this is definitely true, plenty of people run in the evening.  In these cases, I seem to operate well with at least 5 food-free hours before my run. Inevitably, though, I have a hard time cutting off my eating early enough to be comfortably digested.  I like snacking, and the afternoon is a perfect time for it.  I start getting mildly hungry and then I convince myself that it's fine to just have a small snack, a small snack won't hurt me, right?  Inevitably though, I head out for the run and the food is sitting in my stomach like a rock and I regret it as I mosey through my now uncomfortable run.

It wasn't always like this.  In high school, I ate lunch around 11:30am and sports practices started at 2:30pm.  Even though the time between the two was relatively short, I did just fine and I don't remember indigestion problems at all.  I would have to attribute that to two things; first, there was really no alternative option.  I had a very strict lunch break that was not adjustable, and I also had a predefined sports practice.  Further, I think my metabolism was different in my teen years.  Either way, my body adjusted and I did just fine.

Ten years later, my eating/running habits are completely different.  I have to be very careful about what I eat and when before runs.  As previously mentioned, I try to finish meals about 5 hours before a scheduled meal.  Sometimes, I do need a snack before I run (usually if the stomach is growling) or in the morning before a race.  In these cases, I have a few go-to foods.  Bananas sit pretty well for me, as do grapes.  I can also eat a few saltines or other plain crackers.  I've tried GU Chomps or GU gels with water, and those are pretty neutral on my stomach as well.  That's about as adventurous as I get.

A few days ago, I was unable to run before work and decided instead to go running in the evening.  Unfortunately, I hadn't packed a lunch that day because my advisor was buying my lab group pizza.  I had requested a vegetarian pizza, but forgot to ask for one without cheese.  I am vegetarian but not strictly vegan.  However, I have been making a conscientious effort to avoid dairy and eggs.  In the spirit of convenience, I decided to have some of the pizza.  Sadly, this turned out to be a mistake.  I hadn't had any significant amount of dairy in a while, and it definitely did not agree with me.  There was no immediate distress, but rather my stomach was generally uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon.  I knew that I wouldn't be running for at least 5 hours after I finished eating, and I figured everything would settle down by then.  At 5:30pm, my stomach felt better and I headed out for the run.  I think the turbulent motion of running flared up the discomfort again and my stomach was pretty miserable.  I pushed through the first 29 minutes of the run and then stopped to stretch out my abdomen.  I started back up feeling slightly better, but not great.  Finally, 35 minutes into my run I had a huge burp and experienced instant relief.  Its just amazing what a burp can do :)  I finished out the run much more comfortable.  I think the lesson here, for me, is to stay away from cheese.

In other Running/Food related news, last night I hosted a Runner's Round Table episode on Vegan Running.  I was joined by podcasters Megan, Gordon and Jake and blogger Margaret.  We talked all about how veganism (and vegetarianism) relates to running, advantages and disadvantages and we each discuss why we made our own dietary/lifestyle choices.  Definitely give it a listen and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Running in Florida

Yesterday:  9.1 miles at 8:20 pace
Today: 7.25 mile tempo run, avg 7:24 pace (3.75 miles of tempo at 6:50 pace)

I apologize for the gap in posts (not that I think there are that many people reading this).  I was out of town at the end of last week and through the weekend visiting my grandparents in Florida, south of Tampa Bay.  While I know that it is no longer the weekend, or even close to it, things were a little hectic when I got back to Austin.  See, here at the University of Texas, finals have already started.  While I am not taking any classes, this does mean that the entire university is preparing to shut down for a long winter break.  And its the first week of December.  Seems a little early to me.  This means that any lab supplies or other resources that I want, I have to order and coordinate now.  Hence the craziness.

Running has been going well.  The weather is reliably cooler now, high 30s and low 40s in the mornings, which is pretty ideal running weather for me.  I had to dig out my cold weather gear last night (hats, gloves, tights) just in case one of these mornings is especially brutal.  But, for now, I am still getting away with shorts and long sleeved shirts.

I did not allow my journey to Florida to impede regular running and managed to run every morning I was there.  Running in Florida (at least this particular region) is always a unique experience for me.  This is largely because my grandparents worry constantly for my safety.  Their front yard is the first place I ever puked after running.  That happened on a very hot and humid summer day when I was in high school and didn't understand that running in temperatures 15-20 degrees warmer than accustomed and 100% humidity would have ill effects on my body.  It simply doesn't get into the 90s at 7am in the summer in Boston.  After the puking, I had to spend nearly an hour convincing my grandparents that I was okay, would not pass out and did not need to visit the hospital.

The next time I visited them was in the middle of training for my first marathon.  I was hell bent on sticking to my exact training schedule, which included a 10 mile run for the weekend I was out of town.  My grandfather, in his patience and love for me, took his car and mapped out a route that would total 10 miles.  The night before my long run, he drove the course with me, so I would know exactly where to go and wouldn't get lost.  I did not get lost, but this run turned out to be the most boring and painful ten miles I have ever run.  I hated nearly every minute of it.  Now I am sure there are lots of lovely places to run in the state of Florida and even in the Tampa Bay area, but the neighborhood of my grandparents is exclusively private housing developments and major roads with shopping centers.  Because I couldn't run in the housing developments, my grandfather had instead picked a route that ran up and down a very busy 6 lane road dotted with shopping centers.

Last winter when I visited, I wasn't training for any particular race, but I did want to run in the mornings.  I figured I could handle the route on my own and decided to run for time.  I headed out of their development and took a left and ran the length of the road, the took another left.  When I reached 30 minutes, I turned around and retraced my steps.  The route wasn't particularly interesting but it got the job done.  When I got back, my grandfather asked me where I had gone for my run and I told him I took a left coming out of the development.  Unfortunately left was the wrong answer.  He was very concerned.  He knew that by going left, I was on a road that didn't have sidewalks.  The fact that it wasn't at all a busy road and it was complete daylight and I was 23 years old didn't phase him.  He was gravely concerned and urged me not to run that way the next day.  I agreed not to run on that road again, even though I thought he was being overly cautious, and have indeed kept my promise.  The next few days of running were rather boring, as I was forced to return to the 6 lane major road with sidewalks and go back and forth along that road until I fulfilled my allotted time.

So this past weekend, when I again visited my grandparents, I decided I needed to come prepared with a few more interesting routes.  I utilized the very awesome Google maps and searched the general vicinity of their home for a place that looked interesting to run to.  Sadly, I came up rather short-handed.  Once again, I'm sure there are lots of great places in the Tampa area to run, but my resources were limited.  I didn't have the use of a car and had to find a reasonable route that started and ended at my grandparents house.  This is further complicated by the lack of through streets.  Many of the developments can only be accessed from a single, major road.  Eventually I picked out two routes that were interesting enough, an 8.9 mile loop and a 7 mile out and back run.  Both runs were very enjoyable with sidewalks and very little traffic the entire way.  This time, when my grandfather asked me where I ran, I was intentionally vague.  I simply did not want him to worry about me.

So I guess in summary, running in Florida has provided some very unique experiences for me.  I am, however, most grateful to google maps, which are always a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world of travels.  Google maps, you always help me find great places to run when I am not in my home town...thank you.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Chafing Chronicles

This weekend a managed a 20-mile long run.  I finished it just under 2 hours and 49 minutes, giving me an average pace of 8:27/mile.  I was pretty pleased with the pace and overall time, especially given my 2 hour 55 minute finish for last weekend's 30km race.  Granted that race was on trail, and it was humid, but still...

These two long runs (the 30km trail race on 11/21 and the 20 mile training run on 11/28) were so very different. The weather varied; hot and humid on the 21st but cool and dry on the 28th.  The terrain varied; technical rocky trails on the 21st, familiar and even road and paths on the 28th.  The circumstances varied; a well supported race on the 21st and a solo training run on the 28th.  Despite all the differences between the two days, one element unified both events.  This aspect of running constantly makes its presence known for so many of us, on long run days: the chafing!

Over time, I have simply come to accept chafing as an unavoidable accessory to long distance running.  Don't get me wrong, I do make major efforts to avoid or at least minimize the chances of it occurring, unlike these naked bikers.  However, as the mileage creeps up, there are just some casualties that come along with it.

Side note: while I found this random picture of naked bikers on the internet, there does exist a (mostly) nude cyclist in Austin, TX.  I have seen him with my own eyes, twice, and boyfriend was with me on both occasions so he can corroborate my story.  Nude cyclist wears only an olive green man thong and rides all over town on his bike.  I'm sure he has had his own chafing issues.

Chafing afflicts so many of us runners, and each has his or her own weak spots.  While I have had incidents all over, most of my chafing can be blamed on sports bras and afflicts either my chest or armpits (where the bra seam rests).  I attempt to minimize chafing several ways.  First, I am careful to replace problematic clothing items.  This works for short to medium length runs, but pretty much everything with chafe if you sweat in it for three continuous hours.  Second, I make use of a wide range of lubrication.  Vaseline is always reliable and I have used it many times for toes and feet.  The goopy-ness, however, can be a deterrent for other body parts, especially because it picks up dirt.  For body parts such as the thighs and arms, body glide is usually a better option.

Last weekend, when I ran a 30km trail race, the weather was 65-70 degrees with over 80% humidity.  This weather, coupled with nearly 3 hours of continuous running, was the perfect combo for some extreme tank bra chafing.  While there were minor abrasions on the front, major damage was under the arms, and the most unexpected chafing occurred on my back.  That's right, I had back chafing!  When I got home to take a shower, I noticed large red marks about halfway down and towards the outside of my back.  Both spots stung horribly as warm water flowed over them and I contemplated just how I managed to accumulate friction in this area.  I have to conclude that the elastic band of the bra caused the chafing, even though it seemed too low to be the elastic band and at no point the elastic band had felt uncomfortable.  However, the stinging sensation of my back was proof that the chafing was indeed real, and not imagined.

This kind of chafing is Locker Room Chafing.  Locker Room Chafing is the most common form of chafing and affects private areas of the body, usually seen only by yourself but occasionally glanced by others including significant others, doctors and people in a locker room.  The problem with chafing marks is that to the untrained eye, they don't necessarily register as such.  Therefore, people may ask you questions about your home life, trying to figure out if you are in an abusive relationship or even hurting yourself.  Answering with "No, I just like to run a lot" may not make sense to an outsider, you may need to expound.

This weekend, I managed to escape any traces of Locker Room chafing.  With weather considerably cooler and dryer, and wearing a most seamless sports bra, my tenderest skin was well protected as I covered the 20 miles.  I had hoped to escape entirely chafe-free, but it was not to be.  Seeing as how it was a cooler day and a 20 mile run, I opted for a wicking, long sleeve shirt.  I had the exact shirt in mind, a comfy Reebok 1/2 zip pullover that fits me really well and is very comfortable.  I woke up on Sunday, pulled out my shorts, sports bra, socks...but I couldn't find the shirt!  I had left this shirt at boyfriend's, and thus was forced to chose another long sleeved tech shirt.  No problem, I have plenty.  And I do have plenty, but I only had one in my apartment, all the rest were in storage.  I silently debated driving over to boyfriend's to rescue the Reebok shirt, but it seemed excessive and time consuming.  I grabbed the one long-sleeved tech shirt (white Hot Chili's ski layer) and headed out the door.  I had previously used this shirt on long runs, so I knew what was coming.  This shirt is exceptionally comfortable, except the top, left seam around the neck.  This seam falls right on my clavicle, near my throat and for some reason chafes like nothing you can imagine.  With three miles left in the long run, I stripped off my shirt because I couldn't bear the rubbing any longer.  Three days later, I still have a raw, red mark on the left side of my throat.  Of course, there are no marks on the other side, further confusing me because the shirt appears pretty symmetrical to me.

I have designated this particular type of chafing to be PDA Chafing.  I'm pretty sure that any one who saw me after this run would have assumed the red mark just to the left of my throat was a hicky.  Why?  Because that's what it looks like.  PDA Chafing brings about a whole new level of embarrassment, because unlike Locker Room chafing, the whole wide world can observe it.  However, people aren't even going to ask you questions about why you have red marks on your neck, because they assume they already know and that you are getting hickies all time.  There is no solution to this problem, unless you like putting makeup on your neck.