Month: January 2018

Alexa Hinzman, PhD student, Earth and Climate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Adult coloring books meant for de-stressing, stress me out. My name is Alexa Hinzman, I am the artistically challenged twin of the owner of this blog. I have never been one for creative hobbies or had the talent to develop one, but I will tell you of a passion of mine and the balance between work and play in my life and how I developed it.alexa

This December (2017) I moved to Amsterdam as I accepted a position to start my PhD in hydrology. Between moving to a new country, and starting my program, my hobby has fallen to the wayside. However, in better days, I would read everything I could get my hands on. Right now, my Kindle has about 5000 books on it, with more than 17000 ebooks still on my computer. I am in two book clubs. I have joined 3 read-a-longs. I love books, I love the smell, the weight, the way they look. I have 5 sets of Harry Potter books, hardcover, softcover, audio, ebook and in Japanese. I can easily read a standard novel in a single day. My love of reading has always been with me since I first started to read. It is so easy to pick up a book and let it take you wherever it leads, especially if you do not want to be working or the alternative is a science paper that includes too many new definitions.

You don’t automatically start out as a killer graduate student. You are the small fish thrown into a big pond and all you can think is, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’. I had to battle with myself to not play when I had to work, and if I was to take a break, that it didn’t turn into a 1 or 2 or 3 hour interruption. Your projects look juvenile next to older graduate students, you do not really know how do your own research. But over time, it gets easier, and your projects start to look better. And you don’t spend the entire night before finishing a project that was supposed to have taken 2 months to create.

I have come to learn several bitter truths, just because you love to read words, does not mean you love to write them, and fiction writing is wholly different from science writing. How do you learn to write in science terms? Well first of all, no more contractions. If in doubt, define. All abbreviations require explanation, and never, never, never say: maybe, could or should.

There is nothing more I would like to do with my time then read, it’s an easy hobby that has been made easier with the invention of the ebook. No more do I have to lug around a large book, now I can use the same item that I use for writing emails on the go. Not only do I have one book, I can now carry my favorites, all while using my iPad for “work” It’s the perfect cover.

The thing about grad work is, it’s your own. If you work or not, that’s your choice. There is no stamped time when you come in and out. More often than not, what work you have done is a variation of something that is still not working because the stupid script which you have combed with a magnifying glass isn’t working. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying, and it leaves you with a headache.

alexa presentation

Balancing play and work has always been difficult for me. But equilibrium is what needed to happen, and so it did. I loved my time as a Master’s student. I learn more in 2 years than in my entire undergraduate, and it was not in classes. I learned to work. I learned to write, I learned to do my work even when I was not motivated, even when I wanted nothing more than to curl up and pick a book to read. Every page, ever paragraph in my thesis was a struggle, but I got through. These are skill not easily acquired, but they are worth their weight in gold.

I have also grown as an adult, during my Master’s I moved out of my parent home and into an apartment. Suddenly I could eat cake 4 times a day, I could watch whatever I wanted and do whatever I please. This increase in freedom was a shock to the system that convinced me that it was truly time to adult. My hobby and work had to make way for cooking, cleaning the apartment and shopping for groceries.

As my priorities change, so did the importance of my time, I had to start time management and schedule time for sleep, work and play. I had gone to the gym regularly while in undergraduate, and had stopped during my masters. The gym was picked up again in my final year of my Master’s. I have found mental health is tied to physical health. Taking an hour I thought I could not spare and instead sweating at the gym allowed me to more focused and productive in less time. I stopped bringing my iPad to work. I downloaded an app (SelfControl) that would block websites that I would consider to be a time suck (Looking at you Facebook) for blocks of time.

Creating a schedule helps I have found, just as long as you stick to it. Cooking at home and clean eating also helped me with focusing and making me feel great during the day. Preparing food has given me a new appreciation for spices and the many ways you can cook chicken. My boyfriend was also there to cheer me on and drag me to the gym on the more difficult days.

alexa and vito

Work and play is a simplification of life, there is work and there is play, but there is also sleep, family, friends, gym, date nights, dinners, chores, driving, emails, travelling, studying and much more. Every one of those things requires your attention, every person’s emphasis is different depending on what makes her or him happy.

Find what makes you happy, create a schedule, be kind to one another, spend less time on Facebook, forget about past transgressions and you are set for life.


From Megan: Attached is a link for Alexa’s science fair project she did on permafrost when we were around 10. I have included it because she looks so gosh darn adorable and she is currently studying permafrost so it feels destined.

alexa about to hit megan

Amelia Hesketh, PhD Candidate and amateur taxidermist, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia.

Crafting has been passed down through my family from generation to generation, making it only natural that I, too, use it as a creative outlet in my otherwise science-saturated life. While I identify as a knitter first and foremost in my crafting life, the craft that raises the most eyebrows and garners the interest from my peers is taxidermy. Just as my heritage lies in crafts, it also lies in hunting. My Mennonite family still subsistence hunts, but their home décor attests to their delight in having skins stuffed and mounted for proud display. When I was young, my mother always verbalized a desire to stuff animals herself, even going so far as to add a 1960’s book devoted to educating young avid male taxidermists to our library. Family friends donated avian window strike victims to our freezer for the impending taxidermy project, but no project ever came. After a family friend stuffed a grey squirrel for my mother as a Christmas present, it became clear to me that someone in my family was obligated to reciprocate. A few weeks later, a rabbit appeared in the ditch across from my house – killed by a car – and I claimed it for my inaugural project.


skinTaxidermy is a two-step process of deconstruction, then reconstruction. After pulling the viscera from the body, flaying the muscles from the bones with a scalpel, and painstakingly cleaning and Borax-ing the thin skin of the carcass, the delicate work of construction began. Using the 1960s book for instruction, I created a new skeleton of wire and salvaged bones inside the skin. To re-create a life like rabbit, I re-fitted the empty skull with eyes from a stuffed animal and filled the body with excelsior before stitching it back together (partial credit for these feats go also to my committed mother and father). I realized during the process that I was not constrained by biology in my re-creation of a rabbit, and mounted wings from a bird in the freezer to its back. Apparently there’s a whole genre, rogue taxidermy, dedicated to subverting the natural form of mounted animals.

The recipient, Liz, was delighted with the end product, almost to the point of tears, and I knew I would one day take up the scalpel once more for a new project. My return to taxidermy came when my mother, walking the dog, discovered a dead mink on the road. She packed it home in a bag to the freezer, and once I got up the determination to start a new project, I successfully transformed the mink into a Christmas tree topper, to the joy and confusion of my extended family.

ferret thing

Taxidermy is the ultimate craft for a biologist – dissection and art rolled into a single activity. Looking back, I am surprised I didn’t realize I was destined career in biology sooner, given my strange passion for this craft form. I began university as a chemist, switching to biology only in my final year. Now, I’m headed for a doctorate, though I study animals without backbones (oysters) that are unfortunately untaxidermizeable.

In my research, I focus on characterizing how climate change will affect our locally farmed species of oyster (Magallana gigas) in British Columbia. Here in BC, rising temperatures and increasing ocean acidity are expected to affect many marine species, though scientists don’t often know exactly how these changes will affect individual species. My current experiment uses the Strait of Georgia in southern British Columbia as a natural laboratory to determine how different gradients of oceanographic conditions such as temperature, salinity, and pH affect the growth, health, and persistence of oysters. From this field-based study, I hope to move into laboratory experiments to understand the mechanisms of any effects I observe. For example, perhaps low pH (high acidity) causes more oysters to die. This effect might be because low pH stresses oysters to the point of death or it might be because low pH makes oysters more susceptible to being killed by opportunistic diseases or predators. In the next three years, I hope to disentangle some of these causes and effects.

Next on the taxidermy agenda – a mobile of dead birds. I suggested to one expecting lab-mate that she could hang this above her child’s crib, but was told this was a rather morbid idea. I’m convinced a more willing recipient is out there.


Maggie Chan, PhD, University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

Throughout graduate school, progress seemed to happen at a glacial pace. Take my first chapter as an example. It took over a year of preparation to collect data (e.g., finalizing the sampling protocol, deciding where to sample, background research), 3 months (over the span of two years) of field work, 3 months to enter, process, and analyze the data, 4 months to write the manuscript, and 2 months going through revisions with the journal. Then. It’s published.

But for over two years, it was an Unfinished Thing, constantly on my mind. When I was playing with my nephews, I was thinking about it. When I was skiing with my dog, I was thinking about it. Everyone told me it was simply part of being in graduate school. The worst part was when I finally felt like Thing 1 was under control, there emerged 2 and 3.

The persistent feeling of never-ending projects in graduate school led me to spend my free time on activities I could finish in a reasonable time frame. I wanted to eat / feel / see the result of the time I was putting into my activities.


Graduate school years 1 – 2


Full disclosure, I’ve only made two things. But I truly loved making them. I was doing field work in a small community for a few weeks and I was told that there was a weekly get-together for women who wanted to bead together. After inquiring that it was indeed open to anyone and that they take newbies, off I went. Now, let me just say that these women were amazing beaders and they were very generous with their help. They started me off with a flower pattern. Later, I wanted to be more creative, so I decided that for my friend’s defense, I would bead her study organism.

Maggie Pic 1My first and last beaded sockeye salmon. I should have picked something easier. Photo courtesy of Natura Richardson.


Graduate school years 3 – 4


My dog has helped me immensely through graduate school. I don’t have anything to add that other folks on this blog haven’t already said about their dogs. They are amazing. The best part and worst part is that dogs force you to take a break from your work. You might not take yourself for a walk, but you will certainly take your dog for one.

Maggie_Pic 2-2A typical dog walk on a sunny day.


I don’t know what is better than seeing your vegetables grow throughout the summer and then getting to share the fruits of your labor with your loved ones.

Maggie_Pic 3-1 Our first year of gardening, we grew 50 pounds of potatoes.


Graduate school years 5 – 6


I was gifted a DSLR camera a few years ago and I never learned how to use it properly, so finally I asked a photographer friend to teach me. Many lessons and repeat explanations later, I now mostly use it to take pictures of Lucy and the captivating scenery in Alaska.

Maggie_Pic 4 Lucy in the winter.

Maggie_Pic 5-1The ferry coming to the Auke Bay ferry terminal in on a calm, sunny day.



My New Year’s resolution in 2016 was to run a half marathon. It didn’t happen. I took the liberty to roll that New Year’s resolution over to 2017. I’m proud to say that I ran my first half marathon on July 29th, 2017 (with three other graduate students!). The half marathon was fun, but even more fun was the several months of training before that. Thank you to our human and dog running partners and the wild spaces we have the privilege to run in. Next up, improving my swimming so I can complete a triathlon in 2019!

Maggie_Pic 6Before (top) and after (bottom) picture of our half marathon accomplishment. Top picture from left to right is Doug, Elizabeth, myself, and Valentina. Photo courtesy of Valentina Melica.

Maggie_Pic 7 On a run in Juneau, Alaska. You can see Herbert glacier in the background. From left to right is Lucy (the dog), myself, Valentina, and Elizabeth.

I defended my PhD dissertation three weeks ago. Most of the pictures in my presentation were ones I’d taken and I even got a few compliments (on the pictures)! Thank you photography hobby.

Maggie_Pic 8 Lucy on a typical winter dog walk. Hope this encourages you to embrace your activities with passion and delight. Lucy certainly does.