Balancing the graduate school scale

I have found graduate school can be very challenging to balance. You are constantly bombarded by various deadlines between laboratory work, classes, and different criteria set by your program. Combine this with trying to make time to socialize with friends and loved ones and this can all become very overwhelming and tough to juggle. Mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, are rampant throughout graduate school populations as it can be easy to neglect taking care of yourself when trying to jump through all the hoops set out for you. While I think it is going to be challenging to find the perfect work/life balance during graduate school, I do think it is crucial to find activities you enjoy and look forward to that can take your mind off things (and in my case force me out of the lab).

For me, this has been getting involved with a few different intramural sports. This has been tremendous for me in a few different ways. First, it forces me to leave work at a specific time to get to my game and in some ways makes me more efficient with my day so I can get everything done. It is also one of my main social outlets on a day-to-day basis, seeing people that don’t work in science, and drawing my mind away from my usual stresses. Finally, I think the regular exercise is a great way to blow off some steam.

I also purchased a small, older house during my second year of graduate school that needs a good deal of work. While this isn’t a financial commitment that everyone is going to be able to make during school, I bring it up for a reason. I have really enjoyed the concrete (heheh) progress I can see while working on home improvement projects. So much of science is long months of troubleshooting experiments, where you can feel stuck in a rut and don’t feel like you’re making any progress, whereas, working with your hands can yield almost immediate results. You can spend an afternoon painting a wall or digging a ditch and have results at the end of the day, giving you a great sense of accomplishment when you walk in the door each evening.

These are just two examples of things I have found worked for me and I am not saying they are perfect for everyone. I do however encourage you to try and find ways to decompress and add a bit of happiness to your daily routine. Even small things, like quick 10-minute meditation sessions can really turn around a cruddy day around (Headspace is an awesome app for anyone interested in learning to practice meditation). Finally, If you ever do get that rare weekend where you don’t find yourself buried in work, embrace it and do what makes you happy. Whether that’s camping, going out drinking with friends, or just binging Netflix, don’t feel guilty about taking some time for yourself. You’ve certainly earned it.


One Cell, Two Cell, Red Cell, Blue Cell


People are 100 times more drawn to pictures and images over words.  Pictures easily evoke emotions, curiosity, and the need to dive right into an image and learn more about that exact moment in time.  Growing up, I have always enjoyed photography and art as a way to be connected to distant people and places.  Photography and painting (including other various forms of art) are beautiful in that they capture both the interpretations of the artist or photographer as well as the emotions and history of the scene that is being depicted.  Through images, the viewer is able to get a sense of what the artist is trying to portray within an image as well as allow the viewer to interpret the artwork through the lens of their own menagerie of experiences. 

Microscopy (the use of a microscope) is another form of art that involves taking pictures or images. Through a microscope, one can image microscopic structures such as a mouse brain, small fruit fly, and even single living cells. By adding in color-encoding protein tags (also known as fluorophores) that fluoresce upon being hit by different wavelengths of light, color and context can be added to microscopy images analogous to a painter using multiple shades of color for shadowing or depicting different objects within an image. 


So why am I telling you all this, right?  I’m telling you this because I am a photographer by hobby and a scientist by training, and this has led me down a specific path within science to some incredible experiences.  I bought my first real camera when I was an undergraduate living in Tampa, FL.  As a Marine Biology major at the University of Tampa, I took a course that led to a research opportunity, albeit unrelated to marine science.  The research opportunity was to observe a virus which infects mouse cells, specifically cells within the brain called oligodendrocytes (see image to right). 

This research involved using microscopy as a tool to understand how our own human cells work.  By spending hours in the microscope room taking vibrant, colorful images, I was hooked.  Obtaining unexpected results from a microscope image motivated me to try to understand those results.  The uncertainty of what I’d see on each new slide felt exciting, like the thrill of entering a new level within a game or traveling abroad.   

Like most undergrads that have caught the research bug, I knew I wanted to pursue some aspect of science but had difficulty picking a single field when it came time to apply to graduate school.  By taking my love for science, photography, and animals, I was able to combine all three of my passions into a direction that I wanted to head in: going to graduate school to study viruses that impact animal cells utilizing microscopy. 

Thus, not only do I consider myself a photographer of wildlife, but I am also a photographer of the microscopic processes that allow these organisms to exist.  It is through microscopes that I can capture a relativity unknown process within an image and publish it or display it to the public and allow the viewer to interpret and be inspired by it.  This is what I work towards accomplishing within science.  In the simplest of terms, with microscopy, I can look at one cell, or two cells, make a red cell or a blue cell and inspire new schools of thought within a field of science and excite our youth about science as well.  How cool is that?



Where passion meets purpose: Science, mentorship, teaching, and art.

I’ve been blessed to have many things that I am passionate about: conducting research, mentoring, creating comics, and teaching. But if you told me that I would spend every Saturday for 13 weeks devoting 12-15 hours with teenagers just for the chance to combine them all, I wouldn’t believe you. But alas, here we are.

This past spring semester I helped out with the Teen Research Internship Program (TRIP) Initiative, a program designed to teach high school students the basics of laboratory research. Specifically, using fruit flies as a model organism, students learn how to ask questions, design experiments, give presentations, and explore their curiosity. But what’s the most unique about TRIP is that every student creates her/his own independent project, where s/he address a question that’s specific to their own interests and doesn’t have a set outcome.

On top of all of this, I was given the opportunity to start a mini-course within the program where I guided students to create their own comics and graphical abstracts based on their unique independent projects. This was such an amazing opportunity but to be honest I was terrified. I developed and taught my own course for undergraduates before, but that was critical thinking skills – something I’ve been doing everyday as a scientist for the past decade. But here? I had no idea what to expect.


Would they balk at the idea of drawing? Will they be emo and brooding? How do I even talk to a teenager? Better yet, how do I teach someone else to create comics when I have no formal training in art, storytelling, or sequential art that combines the two?

But my students were open-minded, accepting, and exceeded every expectation; some continuing to make drafts between assignments to ensure the message was as clear as it could be.  Looking back now and reflecting, it was hard, it was tiring, but in the end incredibly worthwhile.

I’m glad that I feel that way because yesterday was the first day of the Summer TRIP session and I’m doing it all over again and then some. But I can’t wait to see what they create.




I'll have a double-double, animal style.


It is not commonplace for doctoral students to transfer graduate programs, but, occasionally it happens and I'm a rare instance of this occurrence. Today marks one year, five months and fifteen days since I moved to San Francisco from Madison. Yes, nearly a year and a half ago I condensed the entirety of my belongings into two suitcases, a keyboard case, and a backpack, to move across the country with a singular focus, a fresh start in science. 


My desire to leave my institution was motivated by a culmination of wanting new intellectual challenges, to pursue a new field, the lure of being in a big city, and a lingering curiosity about living in the Bay Area. I’d often asked myself, what would it be like to live at the heart of technological advancement and scientific breakthrough? My mind was always racing considering the possibilities. However, for some time timidity and fear got the best of me, and my desires remained illusory. 

Starting conversations about wanting to leave my program was perhaps the most difficult for me. The culture of academia can sometimes be intimidating. At times I’d feel indebted to my advisors and mentors, who invested so much into my professional development. I feared alienation by the department, and association with a slew of other nonsensical Ph.D. taboos, whether real or imagined. In addition, I was kind of reluctant to give up the time that I had already invested in the program, especially because there was no real guarantee that I’d be happier elsewhere. Spoiler alert, that was not the case. 

Since moving to SF, I have excitedly delved into a new field of study that I completely adore, seamlessly integrated myself into a fantastic community, and learned the joys of In - N - Out burgers. Pro-tip, double-double, animal style is always the way to go. But, delicious burgers aside, I can now confidently say, without hesitation that I love what I do! I have just finished my first year of graduate school at UCSF, and I couldn’t be happier to be pursuing science. I undeniably re-discovered my scientific enthusiasm in the Bay and this has been integral in keeping me grounded and motivated. So now, here I am, thankful to be establishing my footing in this scientific world and moving forward with genuine interest. 

Cheers to the next few years! 


And so Jaye told a story.

This all happened because a twitter post, and a whim. I didn’t know what applying meant. I didn’t know what to expect once I got there. But because of that I found myself waving to the crowd like a debutante in a parade.

I’m naturally extroverted – off the scale really – but I didn’t think that my wave would make me have to speak in front of everyone. At least not again. I already did that in the 1-minute impromptu pop talk where I called HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, “bad news bears”. But unbeknownst to me a microphone stand had spontaneously spawned into the middle of the room and I was suddenly surrounded by the unbridled cheers of >50 people I met just the day before.

These were voices that were previously engulfed in active discussion, exploring the importance of science advocacy, giving insightful critiques and ideas on pre-prepared pieces, sharing experiences that ripple through populations of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals in science, and repeatedly speaking to the importance of story telling within science communication. They were voices that passionately shared projects, initiated collaborations, and supported everyone around them. Most importantly, they were the voices of so many individuals that I am so happy to now call friends. At the time, however, their cheers didn’t stop my nerves from creating a newfound vibrato to my voice, echoing throughout the room as I spoke of a mystical magical beast named Ed and recanted the worst 4 hours of my graduate career – which was neither my prelim nor my doctoral defense, mind you. And I’m not sure if those cheers would stop them now one month after.

Nevertheless, I continued. Telling how my carpal tunneled hands, which relentlessly typed page after page about HIV’s specialized form of viral spread that allows the virus to continue to exist in HIV positive individuals despite medication, also fumbled my laptop to create the softest thud on the off-white carpet of my living room floor. This thud wouldn’t mean much under normal circumstances except that thud damaged the flashdrive containing the only finished copy of my doctoral dissertation. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to do that. And *yes* I knew that you weren’t suppose to do that before this even happened. What I didn’t know though, or even expect, was that I would be standing there in the middle of the room, telling this story and being cheered on by the organizers, invited speakers, and fellow participants of the 2017 ComSciCon National meeting where I had a 4.7% chance of being chosen. Especially not from a twitter post and a whim.

Hi all, I hope you enjoyed that story! There was no better way that I could think of summarizing my experience at ComSciCon17 than by putting what I learned into practice. This experience was very transformative and so worthwhile. What’s best is that this conference is created by graduated students for graduate students. I hope to be a part of this as an organizer in the future and encourage all students to apply!


And so we printed and resisted

Last Saturday we were fortunate enough to participate in Madison’s Print and Resist – a mini one day festival held in the downtown Madison Public Library dedicated to the independent artist.


I originally submitted the application for us on a whim after: 1) remembering that it existed on the application due date and 2) convincing myself that writing MORE was a great idea after tirelessly slaving away on a post-doctoral fellowship application for myself and a letter of recommendation for a student I taught 2.5 years ago. But boy am I glad that I did (good job past Jaye).

The day was filled with encountering old friends and making new ones, seeing amazing prints and zines in various styles, encouraging future collaborations, and witnessing the excitement, joy, and support for the work that we’re doing.

Being in such an environment is truly inspirational for someone like myself, who has just begun to attempt to create and enter this expansive field. And the constant questions and exclamations of, “What? This is free?!”, “You’re really not selling these?”, and “Can I take more to show others?” really helps validate that we’re doing good work that’s worth while. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier for $27 dollars; which we received in very kind donations.

Our participation in Print and Resist also culminated in the birth of a new baby comic bundle of joy – detailing the roles scientists have played in politics throughout history and why the March for Science is happening on April 22nd, 2017. (Which if you haven’t already, check it out! You’ll find it filed scientific stories from out home page .)



Doing so also demonstrated that we’re starting to get the hang of this creating comics biz, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. We have grown so much in this past year since making our first comic and I am excited to see where the road will take us as we continue to expand our comic inventory and spread science knowledge by printing and, in these times, resisting.

And so we honor black scientists.

Wow! It's already February 28. I can't believe that the month has gone by so quickly -- time sure does fly when you're making comics! If you have been following our Black History Month series, you've taken note of the outstanding black women and men in STEM who have made tremendous impacts in their respective fields. From the basic sciences to nuclear physics, black scholars have resiliently displayed their brilliance and ability, often when met with great opposition. Despite delayed or minimal recognition for their many contributions, black scholars remain a valuable asset to STEM fields and beyond, and we were honored to highlight those whose work has inspired us so deeply and has validated our positioning in the STEM community. 

Although today is the official "last day" of BHM we will continue to honor and acknowledge the wealth of knowledge and creation that has been birthed by the black community. Our series was a mere taste of what black scholars have contributed to STEM, so we encourage you to research more beyond this month and uncover more hidden and masked scientific figures. We're sure you'll be quite delighted with what you learn! (If you find something interesting that you’d like to share, please do comment below, we’d love to learn alongside you)

So here's to the outstanding figures who don't make it into our text but have gotten us to the moon and back and to those who weren't allowed a seat at the table. We value you!

Happy Black History Month, friends —  thank you for engaging with us!

Ps. March kicks off our women’s history month series! We will be honoring women who have taken STEM by storm, and highlighting quite a few #actuallivingscientist. Stay tuned to our social accounts for more!

-Kelly, Khoa and Jaye

And so we honor black scientists.

And so we honor black scientists.


With the beginning of black history month, we will be reflecting on current and past black scientists that have shaped the way we view and interact with the world (and beyond!). We were amazed by the incredible work of various black scientists and have selected ten to highlight. We will be honoring two scientists per week with more connect the dots and a brief description of their research. These scientist’s commitment and dedication have become an inspiration for the whole JKX team! Here’s to celebrating past, present, and future black scientists!

Khoa, Kelly, and Jaye

And so our comics meet the public...


This past year my friends and I created science comics to engage students and their families in STEM. We debated for some time about dissemination and access, as our goal was to make this resource widely accessible to all. This weekend we were invited to share our work, including two science comics, and a science-themed coloring book, at a monthly STEM-based outreach event, “Saturday Science”. Saturday Science is held in the Discovery building at UW-Madison and attracts children of all ages and their families to participate in interactive exploration stations centered around specific themes in STEM. 

Many children and their families engaged with us and our work, asked many insightful questions and hopefully left with a greater interest in science. With this being our first time broadly sharing our work with the public we were pleased that it was so well received! Some students meticulously read the content and completed the incorporated word searches with a friend; while others unleashed their creative sides and whimsically colored the coloring book pages, bringing the science to life. Parents even got in on the action, completing the crosswords and assisting their children with the content. It was incredibly rewarding to see that our contribution made an impact on the families that participated in this event. It was even more rewarding to see the students “seeing” themselves as scientist as they filled the “Meet the Scientist” page with beautifully diverse skin tones.

We are thrilled to continue to produce content and keep children engaged in STEM education. Our next projects are focused on the gut microbiota and microbes from the ocean. We are also doing a special issue for MLK day. Stay tuned for more!

-Kelly, Jaye, Khoa

And so another comic was born


It’s amazing how quickly we are capable of learning and growing. Our first comic took us nearly a year to complete and now here we are, not even two weeks later, with something new and amazing to share with you all.

On November 10th, 2016, my dear friend Christina Fitzsimmons gave a talk about the research she’s been doing for the past 5 years, fulfilling one of the final requirements to earn herself a Ph.D. from the University of California – San Francisco. Her school live streamed her talk, so although I wasn’t there, I was able to watch and support her with love from Wisconsin. Christina (or Fitzy, as everyone calls her) has a background in chemistry, often working with problems, equipment, and techniques that are very unfamiliar to me even though I also have a passion for and study science. But as she was talking, I couldn't help but see the cartoon pages unfold before my eyes. And so another comic was born.

With this new series, Scientist Spotlight, we hope to show you all of the wonderful questions that scientists are actively working on and expose you to the breadth of research that you may not have realized even existed. Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading and learning about these research endeavors as much as we’ll enjoy learning and creating them.

-Jaye, Khoa, & Kelly