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Just another day in STEM

You know. I just want to write. I want to write a presentation for my committee. I want to tell them what I’ve done and get feedback on what I plan to do next. I want to write a manuscript about the reproductive biology of sour cherries. I want to fiddle with R and teach myself to understand multivariate statistics. I want to read the ecology textbook that I borrowed and actually learn to speak the language of ecology. I want to read the stats textbook that I have and get to know my way around that most important tool of my field. I want to start planning my next field season, and finish processing the samples I collected during my first. I want so badly to do what I came here to do. What I’m PAYING for the opportunity to do. I want to use this tremendous privilege to my advantage and advance my career.

But I am stymied by this unresolved issue surrounding my taxes. How banal.

The *short* of it is this.

My stipend was reported as “Fees for services” for the 2015 tax year rather than “Scholarships, fellowships, bursaries, study grants, and artists' project grants (awards)” as it should have been.
I began the process of getting it amended in July 2016.
I have spoken with both of my advisors, the HR department of my university, the graduate student faculty in which I am a student, the head of my department, and on numerous occasions, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).
The payer refuses to change their practice, which 4 out of the 6 groups above agree is not appropriate.

The cost to me if my T4A is not changed: $392.84
The cost to my payer if they change or do not change my T4A: $0.00

The *long* of it is this.

In 2015, when I started my Masters, I caught wind that our payer (“our” as in me and other graduate students) does not produce tax slips for us to claim our stipend income. Advisor #2, who sits on the board of directors of said payer, kindly asked them on my behalf if they would produce tax slips. They did, for the first time since they started training graduate students (< 2013). However, they reported our stipend as “Fees for Services,” a designation that the CRA codes as income from self-employment.

My payer has been quite clear that the contract that I signed at the beginning of my Masters, which Advisor #1 said was “just like any other contract a graduate student would sign,” means that I am a “contractor.” It says it right there in the contract. It means in the eyes of the government, I am an entrepreneur, not a graduate student, and as such I must contribute 100% of my CPP contributions, 9.9% of my income. Please note that I never agreed to be a contractor, nor was I ever alerted to this fact beforehand, and signed the contract as a graduate student, expecting that I would be treated like one.

I now owe the CRA $392.84 in CPP contributions for 2015.

Other graduate students at my same institution have their stipend reported as bursaries. Other graduate students across the country have their stipends reported this way. I am perplexed as to why my funder does not.

To try to remedy this, I have
1) attempted to discuss this matter with the payer through Advisor #1, which yielded nothing,
2) tried to reach out to them through Advisor #2, which yielded a not-so-kindly trite suggestion that I be sweeter, in order to “attract more flies”, and the story that my request for grad student T4As to be reissued and amended is illegal,
3) tried several times to speak to the payer directly only to have the payer respond to Advisor #1, who would forward me their reply,
4) spoken with my faculty (college), who agreed this was wrong, but who cautioned me that I may suffer repercussions by pursuing this issue,
5) requested a letter from HR describing how the university reports income for graduate students to use as a precident to which they initially agreed, but finally denied because they didn’t want to do anything that might trigger an audit for themselves,
6) contacted the CRA several times to find out that  
    a. it is not only legal to amend T4A slips, but required by law to ensure that they are filed correctly
    b. the cost of reissuing T4A slips is $0.00 and it can be done online
    c. I can file a form asking for a ruling on whether I should be contributing to CPP
    d. I can file a complaint against my payer because they refuse to report my income correctly

I have never been granted an audience with the payer and in fact, they have been shielded from me by my advisors and the advisors of another student fighting this SAME FIGHT, which hey started in 2013. We are terrified to pursue “c” or “d,” even though they are the most likely ways to finally get the outcome we deserve, because of the “repercussions” that we might face from advisors who can impact our trajectory in science.

I am smart. I work hard. I am successful. I am a good entomologist and botanist. I love what I study and I love teaching. I want to be a professor in a university. And yet I am utterly unmotivated to write my science. I am not being treated as a colleague. I am not being taken seriously. No one is listening to the words I’m saying. I don’t sleep well. I cry a lot. I feel hopeless a lot. I resent those around me for not standing up for me. The financial cost of this problem is being treated as if it were trivial and it is crushing me. I just want to do what I came here to do, and instead I’m questioning why I’m fighting to stay in a department that doesn’t want me.


I was chatting with a member of the HR department yesterday (as a representative of my union) and when I said that I was doing a Master of Science, she said, “Oh, non-traditional.” I didn’t understand her comment at first, like, was she asking me if I was doing a non-traditional project? Was she commenting on the rarity that science students get involved in unions? No. She clarified that she was commenting on the rarity of women in science.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since. Yes, I am a graduate student in a department where 82% of the faculty, including adjuncts, are perceived (by me) to be men. But I am also a graduate student in a department where 64% of graduate students are perceived (by me) to be women; we are far from rare in the early stages of biology. None of this is “non-traditional.” >>Insert “leaky-pipe” analogy here<< I can only guess at the reasons why from my own (white/cis/able-bodied) experiences and those of graduate students close to me (ignoring for a moment the many articles that have been written on this topic).

Considering my career in science thus far:
Have I encountered sexist behaviour from faculty? Absolutely.
Have I been bullied by faculty? You betcha.
Have I been accused of being “aggressive” when standing up for myself and fellow students. Yep.
Have I been threatened with repercussions for standing up for myself? Yessiree.
Am I afraid of these repercussions? How could I not be?
Am I the only one experiencing these interactions? Definitely not.

I would argue that every bit of what I’ve described here is very “traditional.”

If these are the experiences of a white, cis-gender, able-bodied woman in STEM, what might be the experience of less-privileged graduate students in STEM? My being a women starting a career as a biologist is NOT “non-traditional,” but becoming faculty myself, remaining stalwart in this environment so that I can assume a position of influence in a system I want so desperately to change, that is “non-traditional,” and some days seems “downright unlikely.”

Have I ever heard of faculty who proactively assert that they will not derail graduate programs because of differences of opinion? No.
Have I ever heard of faculty who proactively take a stance on protecting their students, arguably the most vulnerable members of the academy, from exploitation? No.

I want faculty in my field to do more than say that they "welcome diversity," I want them to proactively and loudly reject the covert, but disturbingly common, practices that push women out of our field. It is not enough to say that you welcome diversity, you must expose and condemn these practices if you truly want to be an advocate for the underrepresented bodies in science.

Let's talk podcasts

I walk to work every day, it's just under thirty minutes or just over thirty minutes depending on whether I'm going to school or the museum, and it's a really beautiful walk. I have thus far not made time to introduce myself to the uni gym/pool complex, so this is the extent of my exercise regime at the moment.

For me, listening to podcasts while I walk is one of the main motivations for walking, as opposed to taking the much quicker bus ride. I chill and either get ready for the day, or unwind after staring at my computer screen for hours and listen to some awesome-assed ladies (and gents) entertain and tell me how to be my best person. Here's what I'm listening to these days:

Another Round with Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton
Transistor, a science podcast hosted by many a fine host including: Genevieve Sponsler, Dr. Christina Agapakis, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, and Dr. Michelle Thaller.
Call Your Girlfriend with Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Good Job, Brain with Karen Chu, Colin Felton, Dana Nelson, Chris Kohler
Welcome to Nightvale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, narrated by Cecil Baldwin
Dear Hank & John with John and Hank Green

Take a listen, you won't regret. Let me know if you agree.

I forgot Caustic Soda Podcast! with Joe, Torin and Kevin! I've probably been listening to this podcast the longest. Dark humour and sciencey stuff, and Canadian!

Oh gosh, grad school

I dropped the class. I talked to my supervisor. I survived. I feel pretty ridiculous for how "big" this all felt. But really, I only feel ridiculous because I think other people think I'm ridiculous. When in reality, no one knows how much I thought about this but me.

Time to move on.

I'm making a collage based on a couple of the things I heard at a "How to make it in Science" talk a couple of weeks back. It's pretty rad. I think I need to remind myself of how confident I am and how confident I want to be and project to the world. If I'm going to be worried about what people think about me, why not make it pretty fucking obvious to them that I am a strong woman with her head on her shoulders?

Oct. 9th, 2015

I had a plan this morning and I was ready to execute it. I'm registered in a class I don't want to take and the reason I registered in it in the first place is solely because my supervisor wanted me to. I am not learning anything new (not really)> Sure it's good to practise and get feedback on different ways to communicate science, but I would much rather spend my time and money on courses that are going to help me do the work I came here to do.

The plan was good, the email draft to my supervisor about my decision was written and waiting to be sent, all I had to do was make sure that I could actually drop the class and replace it with research credits this late in the game.

Here is where it falls apart.

I did not read the date correctly on the deadline to withdraw with 50% tuition rebate. It said 6-oct-15, which I read as October 15th. Obviously, that is not what that date means, and since today is October 9, I have missed the deadline. The only way that I can drop that class and possibly have it replaced with research credits is to submit a special form, which requires the help and support of my advisor.

I feel like the mountain just got a whole lot higher to climb. I'm visibly upset about this now (my face is wet) and I feel like I would rather stay in this stupid fucking class than even attempt to bring this up with my advisor.

I am not one to back away from difficult things though, so I will still try.


Email sent.

Giving it another go

So this all started with thanksgiving this year, Canadian thanksgiving (we're talking mid-October). My boyfriend and I made took a time lapse video of us cooking a Julia Child themed supper. Virtually all the recipes came from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, with the exception, of course, of the stuffing and the turkey. French people just don't DO that. The supper was delicious, we and our guests had a great evening. Upon reviewing the video however, I was struck with my own image; "Holy shit! I look like that?"

Mirrors are a funny thing, they show you your reflection from your own point of view. I like how I look and I'm often caught in front of the mirror admiring my body (I know, I am so vain and yes, this song is about me). Seeing it from the aimless abiotic view of the camera however, my body did not look anything like I thought it did. It was weird, and off-putting (depressing, to be honest).

I have oft touted or at least been complemented on my healthy body image. I like many aspects of my body, I like to wear fun colours etc and I don't really give a rats arse if I don't follow the latest trends or have the coolest brand names in clothes. The thing is, when I would see myself in my mind's eye, I was 'seeing' a body that I don't have. It certainly jives with my hatred for clothes shopping. Wherever I go to buy clothes for a special function, I will admit, I'm not dressing for myself as I do on a regular basis, I'm dressing for other people, or at least the expectations that I think they have. Anyway, when I try on THOSE kinds of clothes, they NEVER look good of me. The body I projected that I had would probably have looked good in those clothes, but not my actual body. It's weird, I know.

I've made excuses in the past that have kept me from changing how I look. "Why should I change, I'm fine the way I am." (Ok that's not an excuse, I still feel that way) "Curvy is in, so I'm in." "I'm only a little overweight and psh what does the BMI know anyway?" Etc, etc. The truth is I'm lazy, I don't want to embark on a body-morphing endeavour because I know it's a lot of work.

Presto-chango, I'm doing it. I've opened (again) a myfitnesspal account and I'm actually sticking to it. Either it's less clunky or I'm more motivated, but either way, it's fun and I like measuring things (I am a scientist after all). I have a fitness tracker as well, which gently reminds me to move when I've been sedentary for an hour. It's pretty nice actually. For me, if I've been sitting for an hour somewhere, I've probably been staring at a computer trying to fill it with words, or losing myself down the rabbit hole of scientific databases and a walk to get away from the computer screen would be good for my brain as well as my body.

The underlying premises of both the myfitnesspal and Garmin Connect (the fitness tracker) websites are questionable. They both tout their own view of how many calories and how much activity you need to do in a day. It's a lot of hand waving when I enter calories from the database, but I'm tracking my activity with one source, and that consistency is enough for me. I can see where I go off track and when I stay on.

So there ya go. It's going really well 2 weeks in. I haven't even begun to lose interest (a pitfall of mine) and it's still fun. There is a forum where I share my weigh-ins once a week and now I think there will be this as well. I'm hijacking my never-used blog for weight loss purposes, muahahaha. Hope I don't lose too many followers. Oh wait, I don't have any! Wish me luck!

On dreams

Oh gosh I'm floundering. And in a bid for productive procrastination, I'm going to write about it. Things could be worse (a great way to start): I was totally caught up in my online course two weekends ago, this weekend I have three sections to do and I will be caught up again. My systematics class is going well and is my favourite class. We just had a midterm and I got an 'A'. Math is going so much better than two years ago, I don't know what mark I got on my midterm yet but I answered every question and finished in time. It feels a whole lot better than the practise exams did. My independent project, oh my independent project…

Today is a collection day. Today is a MODIFIED collection day because last week I just didn't want to go so I convinced myself (and my advisor) that it would be better if I went this week instead. Today, it turns out, was not a good day to go after all. Thursday afternoons are now reserved for identification of my plant collection, so I have to get out to the field early Thursday morning to get the four hours of collecting done by noon. It's October, so, and somehow this fact slipped my mind until this morning, the sun doesn't come up until 7:30, and unless I want to collect in the dark (which I don't) I can't start much before 8:00. This week I'm collecting samples Friday afternoon and I'll have to shift the rest of the collection dates to Friday afternoons as well.

Ok yay, problem solved right? Well, in the short term, the 'problem' of collecting is sort of sorted out. I still have to do it, and I still have to figure out a way to process these little guys, write my literature review, blitz through the processing, then analyze the results and write a final paper. This is what I wanted, the opportunity to do research, to design an experiment and to contribute something to the worldly body of scientific knowledge. And I still do want it, I guess I just wish that I didn't have to do all this other stuff at the same time. The independent project is my baby, and somehow that means that it's the easiest to drop. The expectations set for it are my own, so there's no one to impress but myself. I do have an advisor, but he is very hands-off and doesn't check in on me, so it's easy to forget that he has expectations at all. He's hard to read too, so even when we do talk about this project, I can't get a handle on whether he thinks I'm doing a good job or that I'm totally slacking off (which I feel that I am, so I might be projecting that onto him).

Blergh. I envy my partner's situation. His field site is thousands of miles away, so field work is compartmentalized into a blitz in the summer. It's intense, but it's all done at once and the rest of the year can be spent processing and analyzing the samples and data. I just want to have these galls collected so that I can move onto the next problem solving task: the clearing.

I'm happy that I chose a project that allows me to collect my own data rather than piggy-backing on the data of someone else's project. I just wish that there was more support from my lab. I think that's what it comes down to. No one talks to me, checks in to see how things are going, checks in to see that I'm actually doing things right, that their aren't giant holes in my design. No one has been out to my field site, there isn't room in the freezer for my samples so I've been storing them at home (next to the frozen pizza and chicken breasts), there isn't a lab or department vehicle so I use my own, and I don't know, it all seems kind of…podunk. I've said it all along that I like the autonomy that I've had to make decisions in this project, but I never envisioned being ignored.

That really is the crux of the matter, and in the end, it's great a experience to have. My expectations SHOULD be the ones that matter the most. Just because other people aren't as interested in my work as I am, the value of the work is not diminished. I am likely ALWAYS going to care about my research more than my peers so I have to find a way to stay committed to it despite their lack of interest and the lack of accolades when I achieve some relatively small milestone. If this is to be my career, and it will be, then I need to rethink what motivates me to succeed. There aren't tests and assignments and other grade-generating steps to independent work. In the end, the issue is about transitioning away from being merely a student and into being a scientist, a researcher, an independent thinker.

How do I shift my focus away from the instant gratification of short term goals like tests and assignments, and toward the long term, delayed gratification of my career aspirations?


I can’t breathe. I feel the sensation to take a deep breath or to yawn and today, about one time out of 10, I actually fill my lungs. This started yesterday afternoon. Today my throat is starting to feel sore, like I’m shoving more air down it than it can handle. Getting to sleep was difficult last night. I get frustrated by this not-full feeling, it pisses me off, which makes my throat feel tighter, which makes it worse. Usually when I try to empty my brain, I concentrate on my breathing. With that option gone I thought I could just think about other things like what I’m going to do this week at work, what my favorite part of the weekend was, puppies, etc. It’s hard to trick the brain NOT to think about the thing upon which it wants to fixate. A movie and good company did the trick in the end. Well, exhaustion did the trick in the end, really.

I googled the feeling I had, and of course found numerous forums about “not being able to yawn” or “not being able to get in a full breath.” These wanderings are never very helpful. The possibilities posited by people on the internet always range from useless: “oh yeah, that happens to me too, does anyone know the reason?” to alarmist: “my aunt felt like that before she DIED OF HORRIBLE DISEASE.” Mostly they hover around half a dozen or so nebulous causes like anxiety or dietary conditions or hormones. Nobody actually goes to see a doctor and reports back, so you just have the musings of a bunch of confirmation-bias-y knuckleheads.

You become one as well, a confirmation-bias-y knucklehead. “Hmm, maybe the acid reflux argument is a good one; I drank a lot of coffee yesterday; maybe that’s it. (Even though there are other days when you’ve had the same if not more coffee AND more egregiously acidic foods and never had trouble breathing). “Ooo, anxiety, I’ve danced around that before. And I feel anxious about not being able to breathe. (Even though, DUH, who wouldn’t feel anxious about not being able to breathe???) “What about hormones, where am I at in my cycle? (Even though you’ve never experienced respiratory distress-like PMS. Although you have felt bat-shit crazy at consistent parts of your cycle.)

I did the grown up thing and went to the doctor. Tests were taken, other tests requisitioned. The doctor had excellent bedside manner. She looked concerned, but not alarmed. And now we wait.

There is a lot to be said for control in this situation. Losing control of my ability to breathe satisfactorily is an obvious one. But I feel a great impatience and lack of control for not being able to figure this out for myself, and for not being able to find the answer from my peers, and from having to wait for professional assessment. The perfectionist in me wants to tie this little mystery up and move on. Not being able to do that is a great source of stress for me. I WANT TO FIX THE PROBLEM AND I CAN’T.

The rational side of me keeps coaxing me to just be patient and wait and see. It reminds me that people have felt bad and gotten better without ever knowing what made them feel bad in the first place; they got over it. But the other side of me, I don’t know what to call her, she can only see this. This one thing that will not kill me, that will likely not even be thought of again once it passes, and that happens to hundreds of other people. She will focus on it until it goes away or she finds another similar thing to fixate on. “I can’t breathe” will become “I think she doesn’t like me” or “I’m not working hard enough” or “Why did I say that?” or “I’m so cruel” or “I think he’s mad at me” or “I think he’s mad at me” or “I think he’s mad at me.” Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
It's Sunday, I have coffee at hand, it's a lovely day outside, the birds are at the feeder. Ah, weekend life. My plan is to spend the majority of the day reading a book, The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, which is due back at the library soon. Later I'll go searching for the pine cone galls of Rabdophaga strombiloides, more on that in a bit.

The book is a magnificent read, not only because it deals with botany and in particular that discipline of science concerned most with the observation and study of species in their environment: natural history, but because it is beautifully written, and handily so. I fell in love with Gilbert's writing in Eat, Pray Love and Committed, and had been looking forward to her first foray into fiction; she does not disappoint. I appreciate the research that she must have done in preparing for this work, and being a botanist myself, it's lovely to see species that I know and adore mentioned in the book. I love, absolutely love getting to know the protagonist, Alma, who was encouraged from a very young age to cultivate a scientific mind. Even though I wouldn't want a Henry or Beatrix Whitaker as a dad or mom (in many ways, I already do), I envy the freedom and encouragement they grant Alma to discover the natural world. Something about her curiosity and hunger for answers bolsters and perhaps justifies my own inquisitiveness and lust for the same. She's a hero, from the past, who never existed, and aren't they the best role models?

Once I pick up the book, I read it for an hour at least, and today I plan to make some major headway. That said, here I am writing instead of reading! It's four in the afternoon, I had a nice sleep in and a lovely breakfast with M, and fuck it, it's Sunday, I guess. If I don't get out to search for galls so be it, although it would certainly be nice. For my independent project I'm looking into the relationship, if any, between gall size and larva size and the presence or absence of parasitoids within the gall former. This means a lot of poking around willow shrubs, the host plant, looking for cabbage or pine cone shaped deformities. These deformities are caused by the feeding of the midge larva within, and frick, they are hard to find!

From what I've read in the literature, they should be full size or very nearly so by this time in the season, however I have only found one, moderately-sized live gall, and 5 very small ones. It's possible that this year, in this region, galls are just growing slowly, but the main problem is the number. I need more! From the number of galls from previous seasons that are left on the plants, I feel like there should be more around for this season. It's possible that whatever factors induce an infestation of galls one year, may also affect the species of Salix favoured and maybe I just haven't found this year's preferred host. Alma would keep searching, so I will too. Alma probably would get off her ass and stop wasting time on the internet, so with that, I bid you adieu!

Lent Chronicle - Epilogue

I think overall this Lent went well. I didn't post much about it towards the end, mostly because I was studying and getting ready for Austria, then I was IN Austria, which was fantastic.

Despite not always following through with "being mindful" I have been thinking about it a lot. It's hard to keep on track when I get worked up about things though. For example, there was a bit of a schmozzle with my baggage on the trip home and I feel like I got more upset about it then I needed to. I feel ok now, but I couldn't stop focusing on the loss of my stuff. I can't tell where the worthy feelings end and where my own criticism of my reactions begins. I know that I make things worse by dwelling on the fact that I can't control my emotions, and how that makes me weak and how people will not want to be around me anymore if I can't get better, and it just goes on and on.

I listened to a TED talk by one of my favorite authors this morning and it's had me thinking about it all day. She talked about how to come back after a failure, or a great success. The way she expressed it, her failures and her successes take her away from where she is most comfortable or fulfilled, where she is doing what she loves. She said it was like her brain couldn't tell the difference between success and failure, it only felt the absolute value of how far it was from center, and that success can end up having a lot of the same feelings as failure. Her advise, was to come back to the thing that you love to do, the thing that you love more than yourself. I don't know what that is for me.

I feel like there are a lot of things that I do that make me feel comfortable, but that are definitely not things that I love to do. They are compulsive things, which is how this whole Lent thing started and really, I have been trying to be more cognizant of my actions for a long time now. It feels like the ever-present perfectionism under a different name.

Before I had a computer, I listened to the radio. I sewed my own clothing and I made stuff. I wrote in journals; often. And those things gave me energy and made me feel good. I want to go back to doing that, but I just can't seem to give up the mind-numbing internet-surfing, or movie-watching. It's like as I kept moving and pruning down the things that I had been carrying around, I also stopped making room for vital creative space. I have been making excuses for a long time that school takes precedence, or before that, I worked a job that I let drain every once of me until there was nothing left to create with. I just keep telling myself that in a "while" my circumstances will change and I'll have more time for that "later."

At present I am really happy with my life. I am going to school and learning (Learning is a thing that I love. The first time that I felt calm since I landed this weekend was when I was studying and writing my final exam this morning. I felt really good, I love learning.) I am in love and I am loved. I live in a beautiful city. I am successful and overall, my life has been on an upward trend for a few years now. I just can't seem to let go of the old me, the victim-me. I don't know what a new me looks like and the old me is always holding on for dear life. I just want to kill her so that she's gone altogether and I'm a new person without any of those faults. I know this is not realistic, or necessarily even wise.

That's all for now.