Archive for the 'academia' category

What scientists inspire you?

I’m trying to make the difficult transition out of postdoc-dom into a more permanent position. It’s been hard, full of rejection and difficult personal and professional negotiations, and my future is still very uncertain. During this time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hard road that even some of the most famous scientists walked on the way to their world-changing discoveries. One scientist I’ve been thinking about frequently is Albert Einstein, because he went through an extended phase of failure and rejection. He spent nearly two years looking for work!

Over those two years, Albert Einstein was applying for jobs as a physics teacher. He was getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Does this sound familiar to any of you? (If not, you are probably not applying for jobs in the biological sciences—or you are either incredibly brilliant or incredibly lucky).  He became so depressed and desperate because of these unrelenting rejections that his father even wrote a pleading letter to a professor who was a distant acquaintance, begging for a job on Albert’s behalf—can you imagine the humiliation?

Unemployed and without any clear prospects, Einstein was unable to support his girlfriend or their daughter, Lieserl. It’s unclear to history what happened to this child, but she likely died as a baby of scarlet fever or was surrendered for adoption. Her parents did not speak publicly of her. Lieserl’s existence was only discovered from her parents’ letters after their deaths, letters in which her young parents did what most young parents do—decided on possible names, joked about their preferences for a girl or a boy, cherished her existence.

So, this is a portrait of Einstein when he finally was offered a job as a patent officer in Bern: he had just suffered countless professional and intellectual rejections, his parents were unable to continue to support him financially, he was in a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, and there was a baby and then, at some point, there wasn’t. No matter what happened to that baby, I find it impossible to believe that her parents suffered her loss easily.

In 1902, Einstein excitedly accepted the patent clerk job, which was decently paid but certainly not his passion. This job provided a degree of economic security that allowed Einstein to live decently, to marry, to have another child, to have time to think, and to make friends.

And then, 1905: the ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the miraculous year where he published the papers that irrevocably changed scientific thinking on Brownian motion, special relativity, mass-energy equivalence, and the photoelectric effect. The rest, of course, is history.

(Einstein, circa 1920, unknown photographer)

How did those ground-breaking papers happen? Is it simply the case that a scientist *will* do science, no matter their circumstances or professional opportunities, the same way that a writer will write, or an artist will create? I find this last thought really comforting: I can see the doors of academic scientific research closing to me, but I find it really difficult to imagine a life not doing science.

I don’t compare intellectually to the scientific luminary I’m writing about. Yet, I find it inspiring to think of amazing scientists as individuals, as humans who did not make easy decisions or live in easy times. Who found their own routes to discovery even when excluded from academic establishments. Whose flashes of inspiration and works of genius came through a sea of human emotions and human lives.

What scientists inspire you? Is it someone you’ve met or worked with? Someone whose current work is motivating to yours? Or is it someone you know only through history and textbooks?

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What do you miss about academia?

May 23 2018 Published by under academia, alternative career, leaving academia

Prior to and since the launch of this blog many of the contributors have left academia. Is there anything we miss about academia?  If so, what?

Torschlusspanik

This year marks the fifth year of my leaving academia, of being a stay-at-home-mom. For the most part I have no regrets of leaving.

Recently I had a circumstance that made me think of what I used to do in academia. I more or less played a role of “project manager” for a big project for my older daughter’s class. A team volunteering moms handmade traditional costumes for a performance at a big school event, 26 kid-size jackets with school logos.  For the project I organized, planned, coordinated, set budget and deadlines, trained team members, and executed the project. I made multiple spreadsheets and a Powerpoint presentation. The PP presentation was totally not necessary, but I could not help myself. My PP bug which was buried for 5 years itched, and I figured why not use the most effective way of communicating that I know and getting my points across. I thrived at it. I enjoyed it. I was reminded of my life when I managed multiple projects both intra- and inter- labs. I think my prior experience and enthusiasm did contribute to the success of the project. I decided that this is what I miss the most about academia: participating in a comradery of people with different expertise working together towards a noble goal. Although the project for the school was very simple and straightforward with obliging, eager, and easy-going participants, I very much enjoyed doing all of managing and strategizing.

Although I do enjoy being a SAHM, the experience peeled a large portion of my well buried feeling that my education, training, skills, and talent are being wasted on chauffeuring my kids. I have been very lucky to receive all those things, shouldn’t I be doing something more useful, beneficial, for science, for society as a whole, or even for a personal income.  Shouldn’t I be making something that remains after I’m gone…

 

saraswatiphd

In just about a month or so, the gap between me and academia is going to be 3 years long.  And honestly, I don’t miss much about academia. That just means, an academic track wasn’t right for me.  But, having been part of academia for 16 years (4 yrs undergrad + 5 yrs grad school + 7 yr postdoc) there are many things I appreciate.  All the things that got so ingrained in me, that they became innate, second nature. I can’t even imagine myself separate from these. Here are some of them:

Tenacity – being able to finish a task to completeness, not giving up, pushing forward, no matter how gloom the outcome may seem (and sometimes the outcomes do surprise you).

Confidence [in my learning abilities] – sure, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.  But what I do know is that I have a vast capacity to learn things. And that makes me feel good.

Thinking – synthesizing and connecting big concepts, connecting the dots, visualizing parts of a system, learning to speak the language – these are all the things for which academia gives you the foundation.  

Experimental design – almost effortless ability to come up with an experiment or challenge someone else’s to tailor the experiment just so to be able to answer a nuanced complex question.

 

Notarealteacher:

I miss the flexibility of academia and being in charge of my own time. As a teacher, nearly every moment of my day is scheduled. When I first started teaching, I found the rigid schedule motivating and refreshing. A few years out though (and in a much more hectic phase of life), I long for the mostly structure-less nature of graduate school. Now, I have a hard time finding time to make a phone call or go to a doctor’s appointment. Because of that, and the fact that my kids are going to be in elementary school in a blink and I want to be available to them and their needs, flexibility is something that is on my mind in my current job search.

That being said, when I was doing research, I was frustrated by the lack of structure; so I guess the grass is always greener!

 

peirama

A thing I knew I would miss, about which I was not wrong, is physical activity. My current job is 100% on the computer. That is great for being able to work at home and for not having to come in on the weekends, but it also has its downsides. If I wore a step tracker, I wouldn’t be surprised if it showed half as many steps since I started this job. I try to use the treadmill desk and make excuses to walk around, but I’m sure I don’t make up the steps.

Along the same lines, I miss having activities to break up the day. Things like, splitting my cells, or checking on my mice used to keep me moving around and would give me something to do when my brain would get fried from reading papers. Similarly, lab work almost always includes some mindless tasks, so I was able to listen to a fair number of podcasts. Now only very occasionally do I have a task I can do while listening to anything besides music and if I want to get up and move around I go to get coffee or wander around the office.

I also miss making figures for papers and presentations. I love playing around in Illustrator and Photoshop and I no longer have an excuse! I have done some recreational Adobe-ing (I made both my kids’ baby books in InDesign and I started working on a children’s picture book) but I don’t have enough free time to keep it up.

Those things are fairly superficial. They impact my life more than this next item on my list, but there are workarounds. There’s one more thing that I miss that is a little deeper. It doesn’t bother me a lot, but it is a thing that is always there, whether I’m aware of it or not. It is that intangible feeling that doing science is Good Work. In academia we tell ourselves, and many people tell us, that what we are doing is somehow noble. That trying to understand the world on a fundamental level is a distinguished and worthy career. I truly believe what I’m doing now is important and interesting, but it just doesn’t have the same shine to it.

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Motherhood has changed my perspective on my career

Motherhood has changed my perspective on my career. (gasp!)

During graduate school, everyone told me that this would be a bad thing. It would be a sign of failure if growing a family altered my career objectives. I have decided (embarrassingly late) that this is yet another very unfortunate stigma. On the contrary, the psychological adjustments that I have made are major improvements to my mental and physical health, and likely also my career path.

It has been – far and away — the hardest thing I have ever done to start a new postdoc in a new field as a new mom. But I have learned some things about myself:

  1. I am a badass. I have never been more proud of myself as a human than when I realized that I had figured out how to coordinate pumping, training fellowship meetings, learning the lay of the lab from my colleagues when THEY had free time, juggling my son’s 2-3 weekly medical appointments and actually getting to be his mother for an hour a day. And by the way, I made actual science happen during windows between these obligations. It has all failed so far because none of my projects are as developed as I was told they were, but I have been a badass investigator and problem solver.

 

  1. It is possible that I am mentally moving away from a career at the bench. Becoming a mother has made me an even more organized and punctual person than I was prior (which is really saying something!). This includes a diminished patience with the snail-paced progress, general inefficiency and overwhelming failure rate of scientific experiments. I adore trouble-shooting; it is where I shine as a scientist. But I do not enjoy trouble-shooting that is never-ending. I used to compensate for this onerous progress by working 60+ hour weeks (as many do), but right now I refuse to miss my son’s bedtime more than twice a week, so I’m working much closer to 40 hours. Admitting that may I no longer have the patience to be the operator at the bench has given me the peace of mind I need to continue figuring it out.

 

  1. My Science Careers IDP match has always listed “Principal investigator in a research-intensive institution” as my top career path*. This is because I enjoy all the components related to being a PI – asking questions, writing grants, managing projects, mentoring scientists, networking at conferences, giving seminars, teaching science, scientific outreach. However, I don’t necessarily want my job to require ALL of these activities together. I would likely be perfectly happy with a career focusing on 2-3 of these things! What I now know that I definitely do NOT want out of my career – at least for the next few years while my son in young – is a 60+ hour work week. And that is a major change for me. I think I like it.

 

So now what? What do I do with this new perspective? My current plan is to reassess my position and objectives at 6 months and 1 year into my postdoc**. I do not think that 3 months in is the right time to reassess or act on a job change. But it is absolutely on my mind. And so is getting to go home to my sweet happy baby.

 

*As an aside, the ImaginePhD IDP matches me best to a writing/editing/publishing career. Fascinating.

**A bigger subject for another post!

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When should details of misconduct be made public?

Amid the #metoo movement, we have seen extreme publicity of the Hollywood allegations of sexual misconduct, including the shocking and sensational details revealed by victims coming forward. We have seen some spread of this movement and publicity to other arenas as well, including research in STEM fields. Academic institutions should already be prepared to deal with allegations as they arise, but should also be able to respond to the growing attention paid, by both the media and people in the field or organization, to issues of misconduct.

A recent termination of a prominent scientist at a prominent research institution raised a lot of questions – with no answers apparently forthcoming. The particular scientist and institution are not essential for the message of this post, but you can read about him here. This institution, like many others, has a reputation for quelling accusations before they reach a level where action must be taken, and for not taking action when many deem it necessary. So, many people were happily surprised to find that someone (a prominent someone!) would and could be terminated for breaching institutional policies.

But what were those policies? What actually happened? The institution has not revealed this, except to say that it was not scientific misconduct, which leads one to believe that it must have been inappropriate interpersonal behavior. Indeed, even some employees in the researcher’s lab have no idea what happened, and reportedly have asked the institution to explain, with no further information obtained.

It is certainly important to consider that the institution may be acting in the interest of the individuals involved – both perpetrator and victims – to keep the details undisclosed. But is that the best course of action?

In a time where we – all of us, right? – are trying to rid our institutions of the sexual misconduct infestation that negatively impacts both individual and field-wide well-being and advancement, institutions should be doing everything in their power to make it known that this specific act will not be tolerated here. This would encourage others with allegations to come forward, and discourage potential perpetrators from initiating or continuing similar actions, and, all in the best long-term interest of the institution, enhance the overall image and attractiveness of this place as a safe environment where misconduct will be investigated and not tolerated, leaving the work to be the central feature.

Institutions should endeavor to be as brave as the many women who have come forward to share their stories – for the benefit of the people and the future.

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When should details of misconduct be made public?

Amid the #metoo movement, we have seen extreme publicity of the Hollywood allegations of sexual misconduct, including the shocking and sensational details revealed by victims coming forward. We have seen some spread of this movement and publicity to other arenas as well, including research in STEM fields. Academic institutions should already be prepared to deal with allegations as they arise, but should also be able to respond to the growing attention paid, by both the media and people in the field or organization, to issues of misconduct.

A recent termination of a prominent scientist at a prominent research institution raised a lot of questions – with no answers apparently forthcoming. The particular scientist and institution are not essential for the message of this post, but you can read about him here. This institution, like many others, has a reputation for quelling accusations before they reach a level where action must be taken, and for not taking action when many deem it necessary. So, many people were happily surprised to find that someone (a prominent someone!) would and could be terminated for breaching institutional policies.

But what were those policies? What actually happened? The institution has not revealed this, except to say that it was not scientific misconduct, which leads one to believe that it must have been inappropriate interpersonal behavior. Indeed, even some employees in the researcher’s lab have no idea what happened, and reportedly have asked the institution to explain, with no further information obtained.

It is certainly important to consider that the institution may be acting in the interest of the individuals involved – both perpetrator and victims – to keep the details undisclosed. But is that the best course of action?

In a time where we – all of us, right? – are trying to rid our institutions of the sexual misconduct infestation that negatively impacts both individual and field-wide well-being and advancement, institutions should be doing everything in their power to make it known that this specific act will not be tolerated here. This would encourage others with allegations to come forward, and discourage potential perpetrators from initiating or continuing similar actions, and, all in the best long-term interest of the institution, enhance the overall image and attractiveness of this place as a safe environment where misconduct will be investigated and not tolerated, leaving the work to be the central feature.

Institutions should endeavor to be as brave as the many women who have come forward to share their stories – for the benefit of the people and the future.

3 responses so far

Is this cheating or is it networking?

Mar 19 2018 Published by under academia, cheating, conflict, education

I’m a TA for a large undergraduate course that’s required for premed and bio majors. As I was grading the first exam of the course, I was scoring an open-ended question that was vaguely worded. So I was surprised when many of the students put together the exact cookie-cutter answer the professor was looking for.

“How on earth did they know what she was asking here?” I said to another TA. “Did you guys cover this explicitly in review sessions?”

The other TA answered, “No we really didn’t talk about that too much. But I think a similar question was on last semester’s exam? She refused to let them have a copy of that to study from, though. So I don’t know how they could have seen that.” She frowned at her pile of exams, “I’m having the same concerns with another question.”

A few minutes and a brief internet search later, we figured out that the exam from last semester was still posted online and although it was not available to current students, the exam and answer key were still accessible to last semester’s students. So, basically, any student who knew a former student would have had an answer key prior to the exam since the professor re-used the same exam from the preceding semester.

Upon review, it became clear from the lack of variety in responses to the open-ended questions that most of the students who had scored well on the exam had seen a copy of the answer key. For instance, one question asked students to draw and label the structures of the pituitary gland. The professor, on the answer key, drew the organ from an unusual angle. Many of the students did the same, although this was not how the pituitary gland was drawn in the text, in lectures, or in most online resources.

We, of course, immediately alerted the professor to the situation. She promised to make the next exam ‘harder’. In my mind, this was not a sufficient response to the inequities of the present exam, because the students clearly did not have access to the same study resources so I don’t think it was a very fair test.

Students who were able to get old exams and answer keys were simply using all resources at their disposal to study—although from a pedagogical perspective, if students simply reiterate answers they may not understand well, they’re clearly not getting much information out of the course. On the other hand, I sympathized with students who did not have access to the old exam through their social connections, studied hard, and did not score as well. I worry that they might be discouraged from putting in honest work in the future because of this experience.

What would you do in this situation? As a TA, I feel really frustrated and can imagine what the students who didn’t have the answer key feel. Of course, I think the professor should not have re-used last semester’s exam. I personally thought the professor should have done a mea culpa and not factored this exam into the final grade but she said that was not an option. I really hope she will create new exams in the future and I’ve even offered with the other TAs to write the next exam. But I just don’t have a lot of power in this situation.

Although I personally don’t think the students cheated in this case, since the answer key was so easily available, there’s a fine line between them and these guys, who, in my opinion, clearly cheated—although they seem to think their behavior was justified as ‘networking’.

Briefly, the link goes to a case where a professor re-used old exam questions although he took pains not to allow copies of his exams to fall into students’ hands. Some students managed to photograph their exams behind his back and passed them on to friends in the course. The thread was started by a student who did not have a copy of this exam, found out others did, and wasn’t sure what to do about it. Many responses posted on the thread were along the lines of this one: “Life isn’t fair, bruh, time to make some friends.”

Reading what those students wrote makes me wonder– what are the differences between cheating, slightly unethical behavior, and networking (especially in 2018 where such lines are completely blurred, even in the highest office in America)? Is cheating just networking to a greater extent?

The pre-med students who have been rewarded with high grades for ‘networking’ don’t seem motivated to outgrow this behavior either—CNN revealed radiology residents cheated on their board exams by basically the same means—which, frankly, could put our healthcare at risk.

I’m feeling naïve in my belief that students come to college to learn (as I did), or that they’re here for anything more than a grade on a transcript and a fat salary down the road. But, especially for pre-med and medical students, academia is set up to reward grades over knowledge, students learn to game this system by ‘networking’, and it’s difficult to know what, if anything, to do to change that.

4 responses so far

New Mom in a New Job

Jan 29 2018 Published by under academia, female scientist, motherhood, new job, postdoc

I had no idea what to expect during my first week back to work after maternity leave at a brand new job. Just before my son was born, I landed a new academic postdoc position after being ousted from my first*. The subject matter, though generally enthralling to me, is way outside the scope of my technical/intellectual expertise. And though I knew that I would be starting over and had been looking forward to it, I could not have known how that would feel once the time came.

The first few days, all of my willpower went toward the following:

— Getting my son to daycare intact

— Figuring out where/when/how to park on a campus that sells far more parking passes than it has spaces

— Figuring out where/when/how to pump in a place with no designated facilities, and in several different buildings across the campus

— Adjusting to having zero immediate colleagues who are moms**

— Relearning material that I had sort of let slip from my mind since high school

— Between a mother and son with chronic medical needs, juggling way too many medical appointments with my husband

— Learning the schedule of outside-of-lab obligations including lab-mandated seminars/dinners and fellowship-mandated meetings/workshops

— Getting home in time to feed and see my son for 5 minutes before putting him to bed

The first few days, I cried alone in the bathroom more than I expected. I absentmindedly missed turns on my way to daycare and work. I missed kissing my son goodnight twice***. I freaked out about my milk supply dropping. I put WAY too much pressure on myself to figure it all out and be productive too quickly.

Now, three weeks in, things have not calmed down much. However, I’m more familiar with my surroundings and the personalities of my colleagues. I am very slowly getting used to not seeing my baby all day every day. I am giving myself a little leeway, having kicked so much butt at everything so far (several glitches notwithstanding). It all still feels very messy and exhausting and hit-or-miss, but I’m not crying every day anymore.

 

*Though the timing felt awful, it could not have been better in the long run to leave my previous position ASAFP without burning bridges.

**Being able to talk to other moms versus dads DOES make a huge difference. Especially moms who have experienced pumping breast milk at work. This will improve as I meet people through my fellowship and in different labs.

***Since my sweet boy was sleeping through the night at that time, this absolutely broke me.

2 responses so far

Getting to know you

What I really wanted to know.

Image from: http://www.fallingfifth.com/comics/20070105

In my courses this semester I have over 100 neuroscience students, ranging from just-declared sophomores to early grad students, and I am trying to get to know each one! It’s a challenge but I know it’s important, especially for the early level students, to feel connected and comfortable talking with a professor in their field, and even if all I know is their name and face, that could improve the chances of their being comfortable with me. Throughout the first weeks of the semester I ask each student to tell me (verbally or in writing depending on the size of the class) what brought them to study neuroscience, what excites them, and what their goals are.

It is remarkable (but not surprising if you know or remember college students) the range, from  “I have no clue what I’m doing but this seems cool,” to “I was drawn to neuroscience by a specific event and am on a path to medicine/research with a specialty in this ultra-specific sub-field.” One thing that has struck me is how many students are drawn to the field because of a first-hand experience with a brain-related trauma or disease, especially given the young age of the majority of my students.

More than anything though, it is refreshing. I love to see things through their wide (but not naïve!) eyes, hear their personal stories, and especially to learn about things I’ve never heard of that sparked their interests!

And I have one piece of advice for them, and everyone at this stage – try everything! Anything you think you might be interested in, any opportunities you’re presented with you think might be even a little interesting or beneficial – do it! Even if what you learn is that you don’t like that experience, that is extremely valuable as you home in on your goals and personal path. In some ways, this is most valuable advice for people who are so set on their path they don’t try it, or anything else, so if they at some point come to the realization that their top and only choice won’t work, it is devastating and difficult to find a new path. And while it’s never too late to try a variety of experiences, it’s never so easy and so cost-free as this early stage in your career.

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New Year, New Job, New Working Mom: My First Week

Jan 15 2018 Published by under academia, female scientist, motherhood, new job, postdoc

Whose idea was it to start baby’s daycare and mom’s new job on the same day?

I have been a mom for 4 months. My son has been through two surgeries, chronic issues with cranial helmet therapy, gone from remarkably low to average growth percentile, and is the happiest smilin’est kid you will ever meet.

The fourth trimester was, for me, deeply harrowing. I have new-mom PTSD. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to forget how intensely off-putting some of the struggles of new motherhood have been. Only now have I begun to find my groove as a parent, and be able to thoroughly treasure every waking moment with my tiny human. This is the worst time to hand the love of my life off to a caretaker as I attempt to unearth my scientist brain and return to work.

While I was pregnant, I participated in a marathon of job interviews. I was grateful and humbled to find a new postdoctoral position, fellowship and mentor with whom I looked forward to starting fresh following maternity leave/unemployment.

My first few days have been crazy, emotional and messy. I was: late dropping off my son, later getting to work, proud to have found a place and method for pumping and storing milk (neither intuitive nor straightforward), only mildly uncomfortable around my new colleagues (none of whom have children), grateful for the kind and supportive welcome of my new mentor (who does have grown children), thrown off by already juggling my son’s and my medical appointments during the day, saved by text messages of support from a few working scientist-mom friends, exhausted and lovesick by the time I picked up my son from daycare.

My son’s first few days were long, hot and exhausting. He was: too warm in our caretaker’s home, totally happy in her arms, able to nap less than half of his usual amount (yikes), somewhat afraid of the two slightly older babies who wanted to play with him, disrupted by medical appointments on several days, and smiling sweetly when I came to pick him up. He was a champion.

I am thrilled to be once again in a laboratory environment (I think), read a few papers (with my newly altered brain) and even attend a couple seminars. In time, I hope to be able to do scientific research again. I have resolved to not let the overwhelm of my first few days determine how I feel about being a working mom. I will let myself figure that out in time.

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The hardest semester of my life

Don’t worry, this post isn’t a complaint. I had the hardest semester of my life but I got something great out of it.

I started a new job this fall – one of my top-choice careers, at one of my top-choice institutions! I am teaching undergraduate neuroscience students at a large university in a place I love, near family. But of course it couldn’t be that simple. Because of family-related issues, I couldn’t move there and get started full-time right away. So all fall I’ve been commuting between two different states to work part of the week at my new job and part of the week at my old postdoc research position. As you can imagine, it’s been a terrible to commute, and especially difficult to be away from my family, even part-time. Add to that health issues, deaths of family and friends, and more, and it’s been a nightmare overall, and a struggle to get through each day and week.

Despite all that, I found that I loved my new job and was excited about it throughout the semester, regardless of what else was going on. I looked forward to planning how to teach each lesson/topic, talking with students, and evaluating their performance. I love virtually every aspect of it! This was a stark contrast with my old job. Even though I couldn’t wait to return home to my family, I dreaded going back to my job in the lab. I did not want to do lab work, did not want to write or research, and, to my surprise, did not even look forward to helping my students with their research projects.

Realizing these thoughts and feelings about my work made me so happy that I could be confident about my choice in career paths. Up until I accepted this teaching position, I had been thinking that I would be equally happy doing that or teaching and running a small lab with undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college, where I could focus on the students more than cutting edge research. Now I realize that that would have been a mistake and I just can’t be excited (or do a good job) for research-related activities, outside of teaching students about research on an intellectual level.

So here I am on the home stretch of the hardest semester of my life (so far…), fully excited about my move to full-time lecturer, and for a fresh start for the new calendar year! It feels so good to be confident about my career choice and path forward.


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