First Semester of Grad School


My first semester of graduate courses is in full force. I’m trying to figure out the best way to keep up with the demanding material in both physiology & biochemistry. There was a deceptive “slow pace” in the beginning when we reviewed content from undergrad. Soon I realized that one physiology lecture could take several days to digest in enough detail to write a thoughtful essay reply on a test. Our first exam consisted of two packets that felt so heavy in my hands I wanted to panic. I took a deep breath before starting, and began with questions on the last page. I like to do this when it is an option. Otherwise I feel like I’m “on pace” with the people next to me, and seeing them flip through their pages more quickly than me gives me anxiety. Skipping around allows me to answer the questions in the order I feel like answering them and disconnect from the people around me. This program will definitely help me develop stamina for future exams. My first exam was three hours of writing, and my hand needed recovery time afterward. We covered basic transport properties of cells, action potentials, muscle contraction, the endocrine system, blood, and immunology. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to spend time on the HPA axis (it wasn’t mentioned) or more time on mechanisms of cytokine signaling. Hoping to spend more time exploring them in other classes.

I’m still working as an emergency department scribe. Each shift, I work closely with a physician to document the discourse of their evaluation with patients. It helps me frame what I’m learning in my courses with a clinical setting. Even after a year, I still learn something new every shift. We had a patient that was symptomatic for high glucose the night before I learned about the receptor that regulates insulation secretion, a K(ATP) sensitive channel. The whole lecture was fascinating to me, because I knew the grave consequences of dysfunction in the patient I had met the night before. It helps me stay motivated & interested in our content.

Kevin Seventh Grade |
Fall in Ohio |

Never thought I’d say this, but I’m really glad that I spent the summer taking both organic chemistry and biochemistry. It was painful, but it is helping me keep up with biochemistry in a way that I didn’t think would be possible. I also think of a podcast episode I listened to recently about Dr. Richard Carmona, (session 299 of the Premed Years). He served as the 17th Surgeon General of the United States. He was a non-traditional medical student, and noted that his military experience helped him develop consistency with studying. I am not prior service, but my schedule revolves around Kevin’s school schedule. I am tethered to the pattern of dropping him off and picking him up each day. This means that sometimes I am limited in my availability, but often have extra hours to devote to studying persistently before and after lectures. Not having recitation or chemistry lab is also helping me have time to focus on lecture content. This is the first semester, in a long time, where I’ve been “allowed” to wear sandals almost any day (since I’m rarely in a lab). I feel delightfully rebellious.

Donuts with Dad |

Damian is getting adjusted to his new school in third grade and doing really well. He announced he was “top banana” this week (sort of like student of the month- but a cooler name?). Even though I knew he’d be adaptable, it’s a relief to see it playing out with my eyes. He recently told me about their Donuts with Dad breakfast, and asked me to come (since his dad lives too far away). The two of us were an anomaly in a sea of hundreds of dads. We saw two other moms, and one of them said she was glad she wasn’t the only one. Damian was excited as if it were the most normal thing in the world to have me there.

Because it is.

I try to keep thinking that this graduate program is a chance to pursue topics I love + need to work on before medical school. In the mean time, I also get to slip out to attend breakfasts, orchestra concerts, and enjoy a daily close connection with my sons. We can have quiet evenings playing DINO-opoly or riding bikes. People have asked me why I didn’t apply last cycle and try to get in medical school sooner, but part of my plan was to have this time with my sons before I commit to a more rigorous schedule. This is their only childhood and it’s important for me to be present for it. My gratitude for this privilege gets me through the pressure of playing dual parenting roles for my sons while working to become a physician.

Kevin has been messing with me for a long time for “only watching the Harry Potter movies and not finishing the books.” I’m on book four and slowly slowly making my way through them. I have to leave it at my desk at school when I know I need to focus on studying. Today is special because it’s a rare evening to bring The Goblet of Fire home & indulge in reading without guilt since we were just tested in all my classes. Crossing my fingers it will rain.

It is likely I will spend more time sleeping than reading.





Summer Course Menu

A TERM | First Six Weeks
Organic Chemistry I (Lecture)
Biochemistry (Online)

B TERM | Second Six Weeks
Organic Chemistry II (Lecture, Lab, & Recitation)

C TERM | All Twelve Weeks
Psychology of Health (Online)
Honors Research Paper : Maternal Influences on Neuroimmune Cytokines & Behaviors

Final Undergraduate Exams on July 26, 2018
- Graduation is finally within sight - | Fourth of July Bicycle Ride

This menu is so very appetizing, right!?
I will spare you the pricing figures for these savory courses.

Lately I've been seeing carbon molecules in my dreams, so I hope I am on the right track with studying "enough," for organic chemistry. The biggest challenge of this summer semester so far is time. My sons were still in school the last four weeks, and I have been attending class four nights a week. Damian had baseball games that I had to miss, and I have needed to carve out time for my online classes. Especially biochemistry. There are moments when it is beautiful poetry (learning about fetal hemoglobin oxygen affinity compared to the mother - what a beautiful system). Other times the details seem like they are written in another language (composed of many numbers) that I have to repeat over and over to understand and then memorize. So it is very much typical of my chemistry experience in that respect. I do like that having a background with physiology helps me not feel completely in the dark and there are a few things I know coming in to the course. When I first took general chemistry, I had no reference point and no foundation to build on since high school chemistry has been about sixteen years ago. It is also nice to spend time to understand the parts of organic chemistry that confused me last fall. In total, all three of these chemistry courses are covering a 14 week semester’s worth of information in 6 weeks. I’ve needed to dedicate significant time to study.

Even a Little |
My Achilles |

Knowing I only had a limited amount of time before my sons would leave for their annual trip to Florida to see their dad for two months, I tried to balance my obligation to my courses with special time for them. Before they left, we took bike rides, had plenty of ice cream, played baseball on the field and the backyard, and watched Netflix (to the best of my ability between school, ER shifts, and photographing weddings). We did finish season two of Series of Unfortunate Events, even if we were slightly disappointed that the plot is dragging at this point. I *might* have missed the ending to a few episodes and woke up on the couch drooling. Trying to balance wanting to hang onto my children before they leave and knowing I have looming exams is one of the worse parts of being a mother and student. Usually I have a schedule that doesn't dig into their time like the last four weeks of evening classes, but it was temporary and necessary to graduate. I try to give my sons my complete attention, and not being able to pick them up from school or go to baseball games made me feel like I was doing so much less than normal. On the bright side, most of my future courses will be during the day.

Bike Rides with My Sons |

Yesterday I dropped them off for their flight to Florida and I won’t see them for two months.

Usually when my boys leave for the summer, I find my sister and hang out at her house until the initial grief passes. This time she is in Colorado prepping to move there for a teaching job. Fortunately my schedule was busy, and I had to drive straight to a physiology tutoring session, then spoke at a panel for female middle school students interested in STEM, then grabbed something to eat, and went to organic chemistry lecture. I felt like I botched a lot of the questions at the panel for females in STEM, but I’ll try to use them as writing prompts to expand on my thoughts. Part of the dilemma was that I tried to avoid certain topics, like divorce, so it was hard to put into context what it means to me to get a degree after rebuilding from the devastation of three years of extreme stress & litigation. I didn’t think that sixth and seventh graders, one day away from summer break, who are excelling in their coding and engineering classes, wanted to hear those details. Just as I simplified the research that I do, I tried to simplify the process of rebuilding my life on the firm foundation of rock bottom (thank you J.K. Rowling). I hope that the females in the room don't go through what I did, but if there is ever a chance to speak to people who do, I want to do that. 

This morning I woke up at 5 AM to continue studying for my organic chemistry test. After I drove to campus, I started to “feel the grief.” I let myself cry in my car before I went in to keep studying. It can be a song, a memory, or even a familiar toy lying in my car that triggers the tears. I've learned not to suppress it for too long if I can help it, and to not be ashamed for reacting to the circumstance that I have no power to change. I have to address my emotional reactions, then choose what action I will take to move forward and invest in our future. Today it was studying.

When I finished my chemistry test this evening, I did post-op checks in my lab before heading home. Then I let myself cry again on the drive home. I don’t know that there is a certain "right" way to handle the feelings that go with this schedule of parenting we have, but I try to stay busy and connected to my lab and my classes. I try to make sure I can call or text people- so I don’t get too isolated. I remember the first time my boys left, it took me a few days to leave my house without them. I couldn’t wrap my head around my sudden “freedom” to get in the car without them. It was like my brain couldn’t figure out how to leave my house if they weren’t with me. My body seemed to be warning me that something bad was happening because the house was silent in their absence. I had been on my own with my sons for a long time before we started this visitation schedule. Once I slowly learned that it is ok to feel more than one thing at once, and push forward in spite of the contradictory feelings, I found that I was much more productive. For instance, I can experience the grief I feel about not seeing my boys with the action of doing what I need to do to do well in my class. I try to distribute appropriate time and energy to both circumstances. I commit to crying when I need to, then I clean my face and show up to the next thing on my calendar. | Even a little...

When there are lulls in my calendar, it can be difficult to get used to a new pattern. That's when the silence is strange. Tonight I was exhausted from studying chemistry and a brutal test. As I unloaded all my books and notes, I decided I did not want to run. Then I thought about how a book I'm reading for school talked about studies that demonstrate that even a little bit of exercise can help lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease and depression. I ignored the thought and kept scrolling on my phone.

Even a little...
Isn't that so tempting though? It seems so attainable.

Even a little...
And finally it seemed absolutely possible to go for a little walk.

So I changed and next thing I knew I had walked and ran (slowly) for over an hour. It had just rained and cooled off, so it was a perfect summer night to be outside. If I would have demanded to my body to exercise for an hour, that request would have probably been shut down in my post-test-post-kids-just-left haze. I'm always trying to learn how to plan and transition to better behaviors. I think this prompt to stay active even with little time or energy will be useful.

Speaking of transition, the next time my sons see me, I will have finished my bachelor's degree. It means so much to me to finish this.