It’s not finished, but it’s over

Well, it’s over. One week ago tomorrow my thesis was due. Did I make it? No. Was it anything having to do with me? No again. Let me tell you what has been going on:

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been massively, massively stressed since around June, when I realized that I needed to finish my thesis and graduate in December or I would lose a class. You see, San Jose State has a 7 year limit on classes–once a class is over 7 years old, you can no longer be used towards graduation units. I started SJSU in fall of 1999. You do the math. Anyhow, in order to graduate and keep this from happening, I needed to finish my thesis. For some beautiful insight on my state of mind these past few months, read my last blog. I’ve never been more stressed or more on edge that I was these last six weeks or so. So much so, that for the next several years at least I’ll be able to deal with any and all stressful situations by sighing and saying “Well, it’s bad, but it’s no Fall ’06.” That’s bad.

Now, some background. I started SJSU in Fall 1999 after meeting with my advisor (Dr. Jeff Honda–if you’ve read my previous blog, or if you know me even a little, then you’ve heard some version of my rant about Jeff. In short: he sucks). I felt very lucky–I was interested in forensic entomology, Jeff had just finished up a murder case and was all jazzed about forensic entomology, and he wanted graduate students who were self starters. Excellent! I’m not fond of being told what to do (once again, anyone who knows me, or who has had to deal with me after a particularly bad day knows this. Try it some time…I dare you) so this was going to be a perfect fit. Besides, I was finally going to be studying entomology exclusively! Yay! Jeff told me to take the first semester and get my bearings…take some classes, learn the ropes, that sort of thing, and then he and I would start working on my project. Neat! So I did. That first semester was a bit rough. I didn’t exactly have the best study skills (I’m a graduate student! I know this shit!) and while I did great in my larval taxonomy class, I completely failed microbiology. Failed failed failed! It was ugly. However, it got me in gear and while I was on probation for the next semester, which meant I couldn’t teach which was surprisingly upsetting, I got my ass in gear and figured shit out. Besides, now I can tell my microbiology students that I failed that class, and I know how they can pass. They never believe me, but it’s still nice.

Anyhow, I continue on in my credits and sit down with Jeff to figure out my project. It eventually gets going: a survey of forensically important flies in Santa Clara County. It was a neat concept–no one knew what fly species were common here, and since forensic entomology is gaining acceptance a survey would be a great thing. So I take the next most of the year figuring out how to get this field work going. Field work is unpredictable and hard–especially if you have to choose between going home and watching TV or hanging countless traps full of rotten liver water on steep mountain trails. So I procrastinated a bit, then got motivated, then procrastinated, then ran a variety of pilot studies, then procrastinated, then got my data. This whole time, Jeff vacillated between being annoyed that I wasn’t consulting him more and being annoyed that I was bothering him with stupid (his word, not mine) questions about silly things like project design and trapping methods. So I begin my project proper, which, at the time, involved one year (4 seasons) of weekly trapping in 3 areas, 4 traps in each area. I’d check the traps once a week, preserving any flies that were trapped during the week for later identification. In the beginning I was also going to put out dead chickens and compare the difference between the maggot masses developing on the chickens and the adult flies I caught in the traps, but that idea went out the window when I realized exactly how much time all this was going to take. That, and when I realized that Jeff forgot what my project was minutes after I talked to him. I actually went into the lab one day and had this conversation:

Me: “Well, the chickens are out, but I’m having trouble keeping the animals from eat them”
Jeff: “What?”
Me: “Oh, my project. I put out my liver traps last week, and this week I put out the chickens.”
Jeff: “I thought you were putting liver in the traps.”
Me: “Yes, I am, but we discussed putting out dead chickens to compare…
Jeff: “You should put liver in the traps”
Me: “I am. That’s all done. Just last time you said I should put out some sort of animal, and we decided on chickens…”
Jeff: “Yeah, just put liver in the traps. Don’t worry about putting chicken in them. I don’t think chicken will attract flies anyhow.”
Me: “Um, OK. I’ll do that.”

So I stuck to the 12 liver traps (STANKY!!) that I checked once a week. This process took hours! Hours and hours! I drove from trap to trap, cleaning it out, collecting the flies, putting the flies in alcohol, and putting new liver in the trap. On average, I was doing 5 hours of field work to get this done. It doesn’t sound like much, but let me tell you, when you’re taking a Sunday morning (OK, afternoon) to drive around and play with rotten meat, and you still have to go to work and do hours and hours of homework, it’s a lot. Needless to say, it wasn’t fun. I started pinning the flies, but found that it took even more time. I was collecting several thousand a week, and it could pin about 80 an hour. So I did a few (usually when we were watching a lot of sports or something) but I didn’t have the energy to embark on total curation of all flies yet. Anyhow, the trapping was going along swimmingly for several months; it was fine, that is, until Jeff started talking about extending the project. No! I don’t wanna! This is painful! So, in my oh so mature way, I started avoiding him. I figured that if I could make it through the year without him extending the project, I could terminate it and it would be OK. I made the mistake of going into the lab on a Saturday to get more vials, though. There he was, lying in wait as Dean and I wheeled our tandem into the building. “So” he says “I think you need to extend your project by another year.” Ever get that heart sinking feeling? Yeah, me too. Me: “But the year’s almost over, and since it’s going to take me so long to do the identification…” Jeff: “Nope. Extend it by another year or so. See you Monday.” Damn.

So this goes on for another year. Granted, it did make it a better project, but I’m of the mind that the project didn’t need to be perfect at the expense of years and years of my life. Maybe I’ll get the nobel prize for this thing. Here’s hoping!! I’m not good at arguing with authority figures, however, so I didn’t argue that much. Besides, I did like doing the project. Now I’m 3 years into the research, and the field work is finally, finally over. Next, I tackle the daunting task of pinning all these damn flies. There ended up being 40,404 blowflies, plus a bunch of of other types. I had some help for a while, but the undergraduate Jeff gave me kept losing buckets full of flies (“I’m not sure what happened! I think I left them outside, and today they’re just gone…”) or kept letting them sit so in water so long they would mold. I lost more data that way…and for the time I put into this, I decided it wasn’t worth it. I took on the curation of the flies myself. This entailed soaking the flies in a restorative liquid (the alcohol I had preserved them in causes them to shrink when they are dried out. If you soak the flies for an hour or so in Stoli, yes, the vodka, then they puff back up. Weird in an intoxicating sort of way) then pinning each one. I spent 9 months doing this. Hours and hours of sitting in the museum, listening to books on tape, eating Top Ramen and pinning flies. When my fingers got so pruney the skin started coming off, that’s when I’d go home. It took forever. However, it was enjoyable compared to what was coming next.

After all the pinning was done, I had to identify these little buggers. That’s much harder than it sounds. I’ve taken several entomology classes, I’m familiar with the dichotomous key used to identify insects, but I’ve never been taught the complex language of fly anatomy. I spent many, many months desperately trying to figure out what phrases like “Greater ampulla with stiff setae; dorsum of first and second abdominal tergites black, posterior margins of abdominal tergites 3 and 4 black” meant. And this was just to tell families apart–I still needed to figure out how to tell the different species apart. Why didn’t I consult my advisor, you ask? I did. Twice. Both times, I had very memorable, if very short, conversations with him. The first time, I wanted to know which key I should use to key the flies out to the species level. I had a couple of old ones, but I wasn’t sure if that is what I should be using. I saw him in the hallway and it went something like this:

Me:”Hey Jeff! I’ve found this key from 1940, but I’m not sure if it’s the most up to date, and I don’t know where to go…”
Jeff (in a disconcertingly loud voice):”GODDAMN IT ADRIENNE! THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE! FIGURE IT OUT!”
Me: “Um…*small sob* Ok.”

That was the end of that. Eventually he found me and said he hoped I wasn’t crying anymore. He also found a key he thought I should use, and all he had to do was search for it on the internet. He just didn’t understand why I couldn’t figure that out for myself. Neither could I, for that matter. I had seldom felt so stupid. You know what’s annoying? When you desperately want to please someone, and that someone is a bastard. I know he’s a bastard. I know it! Yet I still want to make him proud. I hate that.

The second time I tried asking him for help was several months later when I was staring at the key and trying to define some of the characters I was supposed to see. I knocked on his office door and:

Me: “Hey, what’s a transverse suture?”
Jeff:”God, you’re stupid. Figure it out.” (Slams door).
Me: blink

So I stopped asking him for help. Eventually I guessed that he really didn’t know what a transverse suture was, but that didn’t help me then. My saving grace came in the form of Dr. J. Gordon Edwards (the “J” doesn’t stand for anything…his parents just liked how it looked). He was the old retired entomologist who still ran the museum. He came in nights and took care of things. I could leave him notes with questions, like “What’s a transverse suture?” and the next morning I’d not only have a written answer (Transverse suture: the demarcation between the prothorax and hind thorax, often seen as a horizontal line or suture) but a photocopied packet of drawings with the area highlighted, a book or two explaining the origin and naming of the part, and several reference specimens set out with little notes. This was a fabulous man. He retired at 80 after teaching at SJSU for a million years. He died at 84 while rock climbing in Glacier National Park; he had a heart attack and died on the side of the mountain. I consider him my entomology mentor.

So, with Doc’s help, I slowly but surely figured out how to identify my flies with some sort of certainty. It took me over a year, but I got them all done. Then loomed the task of figuring out what this all meant, and that meant putting all the flies into a database in a variety of ways, and analyzing these data using the magic of statistics. At this point, Jeff tells me that I need two more professors on my committee–I have to have a committee of 3. Um…what? Dang it! I ask who he suggests, and he says I need one stats advisor, then someone else. I talk to Dr. Shannon Bros, the go-to person for stats in the department, and she says she’ll be happy to be on my committee! One down, one to go! I have no idea who else I can have read my thesis, so Jeff talks to some of the other professors and suggests Dr. Mike Sneary. Great! One task down. I talk to Dr. Sneary, and he wants to take a look at my thesis proposal to see if he approves. Wait, what’s a thesis proposal? I ask Jeff, and he says, “you know, the thing you write up to propose your thesis.” I say “I didn’t do one of those….” Jeff says “Oh.” The end. I eventually ask him what it entails and he says “Oh, just write up a proposal.” By this time, I’ve been yelled at enough to not want to try and clarify things he’s not giving up willingly, so I drop it. I spend the rest of the summer wading through books in the library trying to write up a thesis proposal. Granted, once the proposal was written, it did help me organize my thesis. It actually would have been smart to write one before I even started the project, but I had no idea. Live and learn.

I gave my proposal to Dr. Sneary who had lots of suggestions about project design and whatnot, so I had to tell him I had already finished the project (he hadn’t realized that) and I was just starting the writing phase. He told me to send him a polished copy of my thesis once Jeff signed off on it. Ok, check. That takes care of that. I then start my materials and methods. I spend many, many, many, many hours researching and writing and rewriting, and having people read, and rewriting this section. You see, one of my friends in the lab had just graduated, and he said that if you didn’t give Jeff a very polished version of your writing, he got awfully mad and wouldn’t help you fix it. He just made you go back and redo everything. So, wanting to avoid that horror, I worked very, very hard and made this section of my thesis the best I could. Good news: when I finally got up the guts to give it to Jeff I got this note: “Adrienne: looks VERY good. See me about some changes. Jeff.” AAAAAAHHHHHHH! That was one of the best feelings ever. Yay! I was literally walking on air for weeks after that note, and I didn’t want the feeling to end, so I put off any more work on my writing until after Christmas. I was gonna enjoy the praise, damnit!

During this time, I also started working on my stats. of course, right before my first meeting with my stats advisor Dr. Bros, Jeff tells me I should have a different professor do my stats. I say OK, contact the other professor, who says she’ll be happy to help me, and cancel my appointment with Dr. Bros. Jeff then changes his mind (or forgets…I haven’t decided yet) and tells me to go with Dr. Bros. Whatever! Just get me done! So I go and see Dr. Bros during her office hours.

Let me tell you about Dr. Shannon Bros: she’s a transsexual woman…she used to be Dr. Bill Bros until she had the snip and took the hormones. An interesting thing about these hormones–they make you go through puberty again, with all the angst, and confusion, and flakiness that plagues every puberty anyone has ever experienced. So Dr. Bros tends to be a bit flighty. Really, really nice and helpful (when you can catch her) but flakey and an awful lot like a teenager. That’s annoying. She also has a million students and one office hour a week. So I go to her office hour and wait in a line of 9 other students. When she finally gets to me, she only has a minute to talk. I give her a brief overview of my thesis, and she says I need to do some magical stats on it, and have I ever taken the class? No, I say. Should I? No, she assures me. She’ll walk me through everything, but since she has to go and teach she’ll give me some labs to read through and then I should call and make an appointment. She hands me a print out of something called ANOVA and then rushes off. I read the printout in total bewilderment (I haven’t taken any stats since my first year in undergraduate school) and then I wander to the library to try and figure things out.

This pattern goes on for many, many months. I read some confusing lab about some complex statistical test, I make an appointment with Dr. Bros who goes over it with me, then she gives more print outs to read. Eventually she starts sending me to the computer lab to play with fake data and learn to use a variety of computer programs. A semester and a half passes, and I still haven’t even STARTED looking at my own data yet. And I still don’t really understand how to set anything up–the labs she keeps sending me are all using data that is already set up in the program. I finally tell her I want to set my own data up. She says great, and she’ll email me a document that walks me through setting things up. She does this while I’m sitting there then sends me on my way. I immediately run to my office to print the thing out, and find she forgot to attach the document. No problem, right? I email her and ask her about it. No response. I call her. No response. I call again. No answer. I go to her office. Notice on the door: Dr. Bros will be out of town for the next 3 weeks. Please leave a message with the front office. DAMNIT!!

I wait. And wait. Eventually she comes back. She doesn’t have time in her schedule to see me, though, so I have to make an appointment for a few weeks later. I see her. She doesn’t remember my project, what we had talked about, or anything about any document she was supposed to send me. I explain my project again. She says I need to run a test called a PCA. Then she gives me another lab. What?!? What happened to ANOVA and MANOVA?!? She launches into some gibberish about the test and how it will be perfect for me and if I just run this lab with this fake data I’ll understand the meaning of the universe. I nod dumbly and leave in a daze. I spend the next two months searching out all the info I can on ANOVA/MANOVA and trying to set up my data. I finally just do my best, run some stats (which don’t seem to work at all) and email the results to her, asking if they are correct. Three weeks later (while I’m at a conference in Seattle) she sends me an email. No, the stats weren’t right, but she looked over my raw data and since I was on the right track she just fixed the problems and ran the stats for me. Holy CRAP! AWSOME! Now I have this printout of stats that Dr. Bros ran for me, with a short explanation about what they mean. I almost rented a safe deposit box just to house them, but I settled instead on printing several thousand copies and keeping the email in a hundred different places, just in case. So I begin to write my results. They are long and boring and confusing, and I really still don’t understand what is going on with the stats, so it’s very hard to write about. Can you guess what happens? Lots of standing in line waiting for a minute of time with Dr. Bros, lots of canceled appointments because she forgot she was washing her hair or something, and lots of late nights trying to figure out what these stupid math-type words mean.

This brings us to June, when I get a notice from the department that one of my classes is expiring in Fall; I have to graduate or I lose it. I take up the writing speed, once again spending most of the summer in the library trying to get things done. I exchange many, many emails with Dr. Bros, and eventually feel like I have a handle on what is going on. By the time my 30th birthday rolls around, I have a fully finished first draft of my thesis. That, my friends, is a great feeling. I send the draft out to family and friends to proof, and Dean and I go off to my cabin to celebrate for a week. When we get back, I start the endless process of revision. Jeff calls and says he wants to see a version of the thesis by mid August. I comply; he sends it back with suggestions. Well, suggestions may be too strong a word: vague notions might be better. He asks for another draft by September 8th. This is where my last blog started…and where my stress level really began to rise to unheard of levels.

Jumping ahead to this last week. I had been going back and forth with Jeff about a variety of things, the least of which was he wanted a different person on my committee–I’m not sure if he forgot about Dr. Sneary or just started to hate him, but the end result was Dr. Sneary was off and some new guy was on. Whatever. By this time I had neither the energy nor the desire to argue about anything. I just wanted a signature. I give Jeff my thesis, he gives it back, I change things and give it to him again. I even spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon at his house going over my results section, which he had called “unreadable” and “impossibly horrible.” At the end of this meeting, he tells me I need to go to Dr. Bros who should sign off on the results section before he will.

I send my thesis to Dr. Bros that night (two weeks until my thesis is due, by the way) and ask her to read the results section, and remind her that my deadline is fast approaching. I hear nothing, NOTHING, for a full week, despite my many, many emails, phone calls, psychic messages, and attempts to corner her. Finally she sends me an email saying that there are some significant changes that need to be made and I should come and see her in her office. I get this email on the Tuesday before my deadline. Her next office hour is Thursday at 8 am. I get to her office at 7:30, and join the line of 4 people that has already formed. What did these people do…camp here? Hmmmm…I should totally try that. So, in the last two minutes of her office hours I stick my head in, and she tells me to come back that evening at 5 to go over everything. I remind her that my deadline is Monday. She says “you should get it done by then. Even if it’s not perfect, get it done by then.” I leave, and wait in my office ALL DAY because I want to make sure she doesn’t leave the building without talking to me. At 4:30 I set up camp outside her office and wait for her arrival. She shows up 15 minutes late, but dutifully sits down and goes over the sections with me. Yay! Actual progress! And we make really good revisions. She gives me really good advice. She tells me how to fix some figures that were giving me problems. I’m so very, very happy! The end is near, I can just taste it! Then she picks up her phone, dials a number and leaves a message: “Hi, you’ve reached Dr. Shannon Bros. I’ll be out of town until November 17th. If you need to reach me, please leave a message.”

Wait. My deadline is on the 13th. Dr. Bros just gave me a bunch of revisions to make before she’ll sign my thesis, and she’s going out of town. OUT OF TOWN?!? I quell the quiet panic in my stomach (have I mentioned the intensity of the migraine/stomach ache combo that I’ve been sporting for the better part of six weeks at this point? No? It sucked) and say nonchalantly “So, when you leaving?” She replies “My plane leaves at 5:30 tomorrow morning.” Ah. It’s 7 pm now, at least 12 hours worth of revisions to make, and her plane leaves in 10 hours. Well then.

She blathers on for awhile about her trip, I timidly ask about getting my thesis signed, and she says that once it’s all ready she needs to sign the first page. With that, she flits out of her office and asks me to lock up when I leave. I sit there for a moment, mildly stunned, and slowly realize that one of my advisors went out of town and there is no way, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much sleep I lose, no matter how much I pray, there is absolutely no way I will get my thesis signed off in time.

But it’s not my fault (and eventually I..ll believe this). I did everything I possibly could to get this thing done. I worked my ass off. I put off seeing friends and family, put of doing things I like, doing things I needed to do, stopped playing my harp, stopped playing video games, stopped reading books. I did everything physically possible to get this done, and it all came down to my advisor leaving town. At that moment, my migraine went away. I was suddenly not at all nauseous. I walked home happy for the first time that semester. I stopped at a computer on the way home and found that I could get my advisor to sign a paper that renewed the class I was gonna lose, so that wouldn’t be a problem.

So, the point of this long, long, long story is that it’s over. I am no longer trapped behind a computer writing for my life. I am no longer throwing up breakfast or downing shots of vodka to go to sleep at night. I get to go out again (and I have–I’ve been spending the weekends drunk off my ass lately. It’s like I’m in college again!!) and I get to enjoy Christmas. Thanks for reading, and email me! I can email back now!

Leave a Reply