My PhD Dissertation Journey

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A couple of weeks ago, I finished my PhD. Okay, well good morning everyone, it’s my
real pleasure to welcome you to the thesis defense of Alie Caldwell, one of the founding
members of my lab. I first met Alie a few years ago when she
was interviewing for graduate school, and I distinctly remember her from the interviews
and kind of thinking afterwards “I really hope she’s interested in astrocytes and wants
to join my lab.” It took six years of reading, thinking, researching,
and experimenting to get here, along with lots of sweat, tears, and sometimes literal
blood. It was a lot of hard work, but it was absolutely
worth it. So I’m not gonna tell you about Alie’s project,
because she’s going to tell you about that herself. I just want to point out to you something
that she won’t tell you is how much work this was. We’ve often joked and talked how all of her
findings are enough for multiple PhDs. She’s worked out a new cell culture system,
she’s worked out what astrocytes normally do for neurons, and she’s also worked out
how things are changing in different neurodevelopmental disorders – not just one change but multiple
changes. For the longest time, I couldn’t share my
data with anyone. But on August 21st, 2019, I had my dissertation
defense, where I finally got to present my findings to my mentors, peers, friends, family,
and, most importantly, my committee. Today, she’s gonna tell you all about her
work; moving forward, she’s not really going very far. She’s staying here at UCSD to do a science
communication fellowship, which really fits perfectly with her deep understanding of science
and also commitment to educating the public and getting the message out there. So with that, I’m just gonna hand it over
to Alie and she can tell you about her work. Thank you Nicola for that wonderful introduction,
I really appreciate it, and thank you to all of you for being here today. My talk today is titled Astrocytes: A New
Hope; Identifying astrocyte secreted protein factors linked to altered neuronal development
in neurodevelopmental disorders. If the champagne popping isn’t obvious enough…I
passed! So that’s /Doctor/ Astrocyte to you! But I didn’t start here. Oh no. Once all the research was done and the results
were in, I still had to write the dang dissertation. This is that journey. Let’s go check in. Hello. Hi. How’s the writing going? Good. First day of really writing. How far are you? How far am I? Not very. I’ve written seven pages. How long will it be when it’s done? Um, my labmate’s was about a hundred and fifty
pages. A hundred fifty? That’s a lot of pages. So do you think you’ll hit a hundred fifty
pages? I mean, at the rate I’m going, yeah. I’m still finishing up a couple of experiments
so I’m gonna be doing that for the next couple weeks while I start writing and then probably
beginning at the beginning of July, which is about a week and a half from now, I’ll
be writing basically full time, so. So you’re still doing some of these experiments
that are gonna end up in your dissertation in the end? Yeah…there’s actually so much to talk about,
like SO much that I could include and discuss, so I think the harder part will be like, how
do I make sure my focus is narrow and how do I get done what I need to get done? So how many days do you have to finish this? That’s a good question. My goal is to have a draft done by August
second, so one, two…so forty days. Forty days. Like Jesus. Yeah, hahaha. I’m not like Jesus. The Jesus of dissertations. Nooo. Well, better get working. I will. I’ll leave you alone. Thanks. All right so why are we toasting today? Because today, I finished analyzing my last
experiment. This was like the last…adding the last pair
of samples to an analysis I’ve been doing for the last few months and they supported
the results that I wanted so that’s exciting. Yeah, so, having a beer, celebrating a little
bit, and then tonight I’m gonna work on finishing a draft of the introduction for my dissertation. So you’re feeling good. Getting there – yeah, it’s weird, I mean this
week is probably gonna be my last week in the lab full time, so it’ll definitely be
an adjustment, I mean both that I’ll be working at home alone a lot of the time for the next
month and a half, um, but also that it’ll be the first time in my entire adult life
that I will not be doing science as my job anymore. That’ll be very weird. Are you excited about that? I am, to some degree. I mean, like, my dream job would be if I could
do like 20 hours a week of science and 20 hours a week of like science writing and media
producing, but they don’t really make jobs like that. Well congrats on finishing your experiments
for your dissertation. Thanks! Cheers! How’s the dissertating going? Going. How long is your introduction? Fifteen pages. Wow, that’s pretty long. That’s just the introduction to the whole
dissertation, doesn’t include introductions to the individual chapters, each chapter will
have its own introduction. Oh yikes. Most of the background work I did was focused
on astrocytes and synapse formation because that’s most of what my lab does, but actually
all of my experiments have been on astrocyte influence on neuronal outgrowth, not synapse
formation, so I’m just brushing up on the background there. Making sure that my dissertation makes it
clear that this is a good reason to ask this question. It’s actually really really important to contextualize
the questions I’m asking. It’s really important to justify why my approach
and the methods I’ve developed are not only like, valid for the experiments but also actually
better models for the experiments I’m conducting versus other protocols that are out there. So on a scale from one to ten where one is
the worst and ten is the best, how are you feeling about your dissertation right now? A ten is the best? Yeah. Probably like an…eight and a half. Like I feel pretty good about it but I also
know that there’s a lot of work to be done, so we’ll see…check in in a week and see
how I feel. I have a month. A month to figure out how it goes. Okay, cool. Bye. So, how’s it going? Um, pretty good. How far along are you now? Uh, I have written drafts of everything. My dissertation is a total of four data chapters,
an introduction, a conclusion, and a methods chapter. So seven chapters. So the last couple days I did edits on the
first through fourth chapters and I”m trying to finish the fifth chapter today. Tomorrow morning I will do the sixth chapter
which is the conclusions, which is the easy one, cause that’s the one where I…postulate,
bloviate for awhile on all the cool things that could be done with this work. And how many pages have you written? Two hundred and thirty seven. Whoaaa. That’s a lot of pages. That’s a whole book. A lot of those pages are references. So like I’ve written like 200 pages. That’s still a lot. I’m guessing this is the longest paper you’ve
ever written in school? Yeah. So how are you feeling about where you’re
at? Pretty good. I mean it’s a lot to be doing all at once
because in addition to doing this we’re also getting ready to move next week. The walls are so bare. It’ll be nice to have it done and to not be
worrying about it anymore. I also have to start putting together my presentation
for my defense, that’s a pretty big part of this whole thing. So that’s like a Powerpoint right? Yeah, it’s a slide deck. So it’s basically gonna be like, all the data
that’s in here but built into slides and then I’ll publicly present it. Yeah, and then packing! Well good work so far. Keep it up. All right, so, today is August 9th, and I’m
getting ready to send my dissertation to my committee. I’ve felt really good about the process, I’ve
felt really good about my writing. I think that it actually makes me feel better
about my work to have written everything up just because it made me realize how much I’ve
done. I’m just really excited to get to share it
with everybody and to present for my committee and my family in just a couple weeks. But I’m just gonna get this sent this morning,
and then um, gonna go to lab, do some work, and then tomorrow we move! So I’ll show you what I have and then I’ll
get it sent. I’ve been using Dropbox to store all my dissertation
files, just to make sure that nothing would ever be lost if anything were to happen to
my computer either here or in lab. It also has let me work on stuff in lab and
at home. Here’s my folder of what I am sending to my
committee today. So I have my full dissertation text, my preliminary
pages, title and copyright, as well as supplemental tables of my data. And the full dissertation…is pretty long. So, uh, here we go. There’s a lot of pages here, a lot of figures. Two hundred and twenty four was the final
number. Send one, send two, send three, and send four. And there we go. All sent to my committee, so. Guess we will see how they feel about it,
but now I’m gonna do some packing and go to lab and do some labwork. Guess we’ll see what they say. But unfortunately, my time here is done, I’ve
been here for six years and I need to go, so that will be someone else’s dissertation
project. And now I would just like to thank all of
you for being here and taking the time today. I need to thank my lab, particularly Nicola
for helping me develop a project that I have really loved working on. I also want to thank my biological family
as well as my husband’s wonderful family for their support during this time and before,
you have always supported all of my aspirations and really helped me get here today. I especially want to thank my grandfather,
who no longer with us but who is the reason I became a scientist. And I’d like to thank my husband, for being
an amazing person and an amazing partner, for always going on adventures with me, and
not batting an eye when I told him I wanted to move to San Diego two weeks after our wedding. And with that, I will take any questions. So there you have it. I made it through. I’m proud of my dissertation and graduate
school experience, and I loved the research I’ve worked on these last five years. I’m thankful to my friends and family for
supporting me and I’m thankful to all of you for being along for the journey as I grew
as a scientist, as a communicator, and most importantly, as a person. Cheers!

 

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