Friday, 31 March 2017


We were learning about stress the other day in class. To put it simply, "stress" is when our coping mechanisms are maladaptive or have failed altogether.

I seem to have hit a perfect storm when it comes to stress these last few weeks.

I have a final exam, a mock grant for a topic I have never worked on due, another assignment due, a presentation related to my dissertation, a revision for a paper we submitted a few months ago, a revision for a chapter that has come back from the editors, a student-friend who is visiting for a few days, and just about everything seems to need my attention yesterday.

But the thing that really stresses me out is not really that I have all this work to do. The hardest thing is that every time I think I can finally sleep, the kids who live upstairs are either playing very loudly (running circuits, rolling the cars and trucks, banging, screaming, pounding on the wooden floor above me that vibrates) or having a meltdown. I startle out of my sleep virtually every morning, especially on the weekends. I work late as those are my most productive hours, but sleeping late just doesn't happen because I will be startled awake when morning comes. 

"They will grow up," I tell myself.

"The parents must have it worse," I tell myself.

"Turn on the TV and let the white noise drown them out," I tell myself.

And then, I come to work, and hug the lab dog, and thank the stars that when I have a massive deadline, I have a couch in the lab I can crash on so I don't have to deal with the noise.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Non-traditional Students in Graduate School...

I co-presented a seminar with a professor on preparing for graduate school yesterday at Langara College, and about 25 people showed up. These were mostly made up of non-traditional students: mature students, first generation students attending college, students raising families, students who have gone out into the working world and then returned to school, students working while studying, and also first- and second- year students.
We chatted about what graduate admissions was like, scholarships available to students pursuing a masters/PhD, the kind of experiences needed to apply for graduate programs, and the typical components of a graduate application (e.g., reference letters, GRE).

I really enjoyed the conversations. I think I especially enjoyed that people were thinking how their life experiences were informing the choices they were making inside the classroom and within higher education. It reminded me again why I especially enjoy working with non-traditional students: there are such a myriad of experiences that they bring into the mixing bowl that make us just the better for having learned from them. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Academia in a World of Scarcity...

Academia is an increasingly stressful world to be in. The pressure to publish and to win grants often begins in the undergraduate days now, which is quite ridiculous. Students are expected to have great grades, a publication record, scholarships, presentations, leadership, and still maintain a work - life balance. 

When I look at the CVs of my (tenured) mentors and professor's, some of them didn't even start publishing until they were more senior doctorate students. So, why the shift in expectations? I feel, in part, this is due to the increasing number of people enrolled in PhDs and the very perilous job market my generation of peers are in. (Seriously, stop over-admitting so many PhD students just to boost enrollment, and offer better support to the ones you do take in)

But, it is a stupid way to maintain science and academia.

There has been so much research showing that when people live below the poverty line, something happens with their ability to make decisions involving their lives, especially in terms of long-term planning. Take the example many people who don’t live below the poverty line take for granted: going to the grocery store. If you are not poor, you probably waltz into the grocery store and buy things for the week or more. Things like milk, and eggs, and flour, and oil, and toilet paper. You probably also might buy yourself a treat, something you don't need but want anyway, like chocolate or cake or ice cream or organic fruit instead of "normal" fruit. You might buy something you don't need right away but it is on sale, like laundry detergent or your favourite brand of tea or an extra box of tampons.

But if you are poor, whatever money you have you think VERY carefully and you then go into survival mode: what can you buy to keep yourself full with the least amount of money for the longest length of time. Basically, you are so focused on the immediate future (i.e., survival), you really have no opportunity to do any strategic long-term planning (Oxford University report with the Rowntree Foundation, 2015).

I want to be clear this is *not* a post blaming the poor.  

I wonder why nobody can see that academics who live in that same position (i.e., constantly looking for funds for the immediately upcoming term) cannot possibly do any good science for the long-run. The body is tired, the mind is tired, the soul is tired; if everything is tired, the science, the arts, the humanities, the knowledge-translation, and discoveries…well, they cannot happen. 

How do we plan for the future in a sustainable way when we are so focused on the present?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Lab that Comes with a Lab(radoodle)...

So, my lab has a labradoodle that comes to work every day. This pup has been coming to work every day since she was 10 weeks old. It is definitely one of the best things about coming to work.

You walk in, and there is a pattering of paws flying out to say hello to you and to rub noses with you. It could be raining, snowing, or hailing outside, and old furry face would just be as happy to see you.

Being a graduate student and a researcher are both very stressful. There's always a grant or paper or person or experiment that needs your attention, and things always seem to be due right now. You can be completely on top of your workload, but that usually just means that another one will creep onto your pile of things-to-do.

More and more people in academia are finding themselves struggling with mental illness and/or stress. I wonder how different a culture academia would be if animals were a part of that culture? What if labs had the *option* to come with labs? (take this with a big pinch of salt--wet labs, for example, may not find this possible or feasible for safety issues)

Might productivity go up?

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Writing a Review Paper...

One of the research skills I have been learning in these last couple of years is the ability to synthesize other people's research into a review paper. In many ways, a review paper is like a very big term paper.

The Boss and I worked on a massive review paper for a couple of years. It was a monumental effort that required months and months of reading, synthesizing, corrections, and correspondence.

The effort paid off, though.

Here is the final product.

And here is a write up on it on ResearchFeatures.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

How much does a Calvin cost?

From here and here

I love Calvin and Hobbes. Love them so much it is disgustipating. (Ok, so I love Popeye, too)

The chart had me wide-eyed because I realized that if this was a real kid, we would be shaking our heads. Having children are expensive. Forget damage. Just diapering and feeding them cost money. Our lab spends a shameful amount of money buying Pepperidge Farm Fish because the children eat them by the handful; some kids even stuff them in their pockets, shoes, and bags. I see these fish in my nightmares. I see the crumbs and empty bags in my nightmares. And these are just goldfish. Just fish. Don't get me started on juice boxes.

You haven't seen the stuff that I have to explain to my PI (principal investigator, i.e., The Boss). Like when a kid decides our bookshelves are for doing gymnastics from, or that their kid brother is for bouncing things off and, of course, the thing ricochets off their brother and breaks something.

But I take Watterson's piece with a grain of salt. Children are expensive. They break things. They get dirty. But they're loads of fun. And they're worth it. Wouldn't trade my job!

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Managing a Research Lab...

I was watching this roundtable the other day of mostly senior faculty giving advice on managing a research lab when it hit me that I knew exactly what they were talking about.

I am pretty sure if I had watched this video in my undergraduate years, most of the contents of this video would have gone right over my head.

The video was enlightening for many reasons. For one, it reminded me that many of the skills I learned coming out to work were soft skills. It also reminded me that managing people is a skill we don't often think of as a skill. There are still days when I have to remind myself to take a step back and let people "do their thing" even when I want so desperately to say something, and other days, when I wake up and have to make the decision to step in.

The video also reminded me that people are all different. Some require hand-holding all the way, like the child who needs the parent to walk him/her right to the entrance of the school every day, even when s/he knows his/her way. Others...prefer that you pretend you didn't know they were struggling but wants the option to come to you if things come crashing down. Yet, others, need just a simple invite for a drink to spill all anxieties on the table and have a good cry.

At the end of the day, managing people is about realising that no matter how long you have done it, there is always something new to learn. And that's why it is important to have your own network of people to go to. And, sometimes, that means having a giant jar of chocolate on your table to dip into.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Back to English 101...

5 years after going out into the working world, I went back to a 101 level university class this summer. Specifically, I went back to take an English class that teaches undergraduates the expectations of university-level (science) writing.

The few people who knew thought I was quite silly, of course, but I wanted to take this class to help reacquaint myself to solid academic writing and also some good tips on just how to write from an English professor.

This class is giving me the opportunity to think about what I write, why I write something, how to get to my point using a structure, and to think about issues like audience and message when writing an academic paper.

Definitely refreshing. And, hopefully, helpful for when I get to grad school.

Interestingly, today, I saw this post: Why Most Academics Will Always be Bad Writers

I guess I am not alone. We could all use some help.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Ronald McDonald House BC and Yukon...

For the past 4 years, I have been volunteering at the BC Women's Hospital's Newborn ICU (BCWH NICU). Officially, my job at the NICU is to cuddle babies when their parents/caregivers are unavailable. Often, this also means that I get to meet family members and their friends, many of whom come from all over BC. Some of these families even come from outside Canada.

Several families I have worked with during these 4 years have stayed at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH), located a stone's throw away from the NICU.

The awesome slide at Ronald McDonald House...

Tonight, I got a chance to tour the award winning house and to cook dinner for the 70+ families who make Ronald McDonald House their home while their child seeks treatment at BC Children's Hospital.

The thing that struck home the most about the service that RMH provides is the community support while a child is sick. The community support not only comes from the staff at RMH, but also from the people of Vancouver who help in many ways. For example, 4 nights a week, people in the community (individuals or groups) come out and cook dinner for the families at RMH.

This struck home because that is the main reason why I volunteer at the NICU--to give parents a chance to step outside the NICU and take of themselves and the rest of their family and trust that someone from the community is there to help support their child who is living in the NICU.

For more info on RMH and how you can help, visit

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Model

Recently, a mother called Beth started talking about how mothers struggle the most when there isn't a village to support her bring baby up. I agree wholeheartedly. Beth, however, didn't mention that in the absence of the village and in the face of the mother's struggle, the one that ultimately suffers, is the child.

This is one of the reasons why I volunteer in the Newborn ICU. As volunteers, our role is to provide support to the baby (for example, by holding them) when their parents are unavailable or absent. Parents rest assure that they can go home and take a break, see to their other children, or just go for a walk.

Personally, I believe it is a little bit like creating a miniscule village within the NICU.

We can also look at this through a slightly different lens. Bronfenbrenner provides a nice model for us to look at this.

Modified Bronfenbrenner's model for illustration
There is so much we can do as members of society to create that village in whatever society and ecosystem we live and work in. If we think of children as the very heart of the model and do all we can to give them the best head start, I think that said child can grow up to be that adult who can then provide support the society they live in and the next generation of children.

I also think we can view Bronfenbrenner's model as rather bidirectional. Its influences are as inwards towards the child as it is outwards to the people in the immediate circles.

This is, of course, rather simplistic in nature. Questions we haven't seemed to figure out include how do we teach compassion, respect, responsibility, grit, self-control, and all the other values (or how to not grow up to be self-centred!) to that child...

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

You are not my servant...

I was at an Asian grocery store recently, and had a conversation with the lady at the till. I don't often get to have conversations at this particular grocery store because it is usually a hive of activity and the lines are often very long. But, this time, I was the only person waiting to pay.

The lady at the till was probably in her mid-forties.

Me: Hello. I have my own bags.
Lady (Chinese with thick Chinese accent): Hello. Can I pack for you? (holds out hand for my bags)
Me: Doesn't matter to me. You can pack. I can pack...
Lady: You are not from China. You are Canadian!
Me: *laughing* Why would you say that?
Lady: Chinese people from mainland China get angry at us if we don't pack for them. Packing is a servant's job. It is my job to pack for you. Canadian...they very use to pack on their own. I have to ask for bag.
Me, a little taken aback: Cashier-ing is considered a servant?
Lady: Yes. And if I pack for people from China, I must also pack for Canadian. Only good customer service. Treat everybody the same. Canadian or Chinese.
Me: You are not my servant.
Lady: Thank you. You have a good day.
Me: Thank you. You, too.

I am honestly not sure how I feel about that conversation. A lady older than me earning an honest living being told every day she is someone's servant just because she is a cashier.

I can't tell if I'm angry, or annoyed, or horrified, or just realizing I'm being naïve about this. Could this be a cultural response? After all, just because I am Chinese, and this lady is Chinese, it is quite clear we grew up in a very different geographical location with different cultural norms and what is acceptable.

Whatever it is, it has given me quite a bit to think about.

A teacher of mine once said, "always treat someone the way you would want your mother to be treated."

I would be horrified if people treated my mother that way.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Leadership for *Me* is Making a Difference, One Life at a Time...

I started actively volunteering when I was 17. At that time, I thought that to make a difference, one had to make a big splash. That you had to be visible.

Over the years though, I have come to appreciate that that's not always true. You can make as much difference in the world by quietly working in the background.

I guess I have come to appreciate that the kind of leader I am is the one who will go down to the ground and work her behind off for a cause she believes in, and work with the people. I will never be well-known and I will never be worshipped, but I'm okay with that.

Because, sometimes, the changes in the causes you care about don't come from a splash in the river. Sometimes, they come from a ripple.

Friday, 7 February 2014

You don't have to like everybody; and they don't have to like you....

I think one of the lessons I learned going to university was that you don't have to like everybody you meet, and they don't have to like you.

The harder lesson, though, was that even if you don't like the person (and they don't like you), it's actually possible to work with them AND treat them with respect and fairness.

One of the first difficult people I encountered in university was a lady I was assigned to work with. She was difficult in the sense that she was very controlling and also very uptight about many things, which was very hard for me because I could be the same in some aspects. I used to get into 'trouble' with her every week because she would get her knickers in a twist every week because she was not happy with the way I cut the strawberries: she was upset when I cut them into halves, upset when I cut them into eighths, upset when I cut them into quarters, and after a while, I gave up.

One day, maybe after some 10 weeks of going round the bush of cutting her upset because she was never happy with my strawberries, I finally had a conversation with my professor...

Me: I really don't like her; she's always picking on my strawberry-cutting. They're strawberries!
Professor: Finally! I was wondering when you would realize that.
Me: I don't have to like her. Right?
Prof: Right. You don't. She's difficult. You don't have to change that.

And ironically, once I accepted that and stopped fighting, we actually worked together much better. For one, if she had problem with my strawberry-cutting, I gave the strawberries to her and told her to cut them.

Good thing I learned that in university. There's many a difficult people out there.

I don't have to like them all, but that doesn't mean I can't work with them or respect them.

In fact, I would go as far as to say it's one of the more important lessons I learned.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Being a Research Assistant is Much More than JUST Research...

Whenever people ask me what I do, I always tell them I assist the professor in her research. Which is true, in many ways.

But I gotta say that I didn't quite appreciate that I would be using a lot more than just research skills when I took on this job (yep, naive!).

These past two years, I have done everything from playing counsellor (do you know how much heartache there is in academia?) to building bookshelves and sewing puppet clothes. 

Yes, that is me sewing puppet clothes...

And here all the puppets are now dressed!

It's quite funny in some ways, because when applying for research jobs, we go out of our way to show how skilled we are in doing all things research-related: understanding study-design, subject recruitment, data collection, statistic skills, data analysis, report-writing. And then, of course, there are the study- and research-specific skills, like MATLAB programming, experience with fMRI, qualitative coding, and the like. 

But we often forget that a big part of getting research done sometimes relies on softer skills, like talking to parents of young children to bring them to the lab, the ability to get a 3-year-old to cooperate with you and sit through the entire task, being able to problem-solve (they don't sell puppet clothes that fit your need? ok, so sew them!), and sometimes just getting down and dirty with whatever needs to be done.

So, yes, I assist the professor in her work. Sometimes that means ploughing through stacks of publications to find the information she wants, and sometimes, it means picking up a hammer and putting together bookcases for our lab's overflowing supply of books.

Therapeutic? You bet. 


Thursday, 29 November 2012

The BEST and WORST Supervisors...

I was reading this piece about choosing supervisors on U of T's website and had a good laugh.

I guess I'm lucky. Through the years, I've had supervisors who did everything listed on the "best" to "worst" scenarios. I think the supervisors described was an amalgamation of all my supervisors' good and bad traits.

U of T was probably writing it tongue-in-cheek, but hey, I've had supervisors who:


1) Visited me in the hospital (two supervisors, mind you)
2) Called the family practice to find me a doctor, and dug up numbers for a chiropractor when I injured my back
3) Dealt with all the bureaucracy for me and all I needed to do was get them signed
4) Tried to tell me who my "secret examiner" was since "everyone else knew theirs."


1) Supervisor who is never around!
2) Supervisor who always showed up late for any meeting, and then tried to rush me off!
3) "Makes you feel nervous, stupid, isolated or angry"
4) Supervisor who could never make up her mind and everything was "good." Or on the flip side, supervisor who could never make up her mind and everything was "NOT good."

Thankfully, I haven't had a supervisor turn on me...yet.

And I hope we don't go there...

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Why Do People Think it is Okay to Cut Queue?...

I think something is wrong with the education system when university students think it is perfectly fine to "place" a friend at the head of the line for the bus and later have the whole group saunter in and join that ONE friend who was place-holding for a group.

Why should a group of 5-6 people get ahead of the line simply because they had a friend arrive early? When buses are full, 5-6 people is sometimes enough to make you wait for the next, next bus!

And this seems to be very normal thing when university students are around. Another group of people who love to cut queue are the elderly. 

Now, I almost always let old people behind me get on the bus first. But it irks me that they think that their age gives them the right to walk to the front of the line. I am all for wheelchairs and strollers going first, but people who walk to the front of the line because they're old is another issue altogether...
We seem to be getting better at teaching our children how to count, read, and write...but we're not getting any better at teaching them respect, consideration, and manners.

And we also seem to teach people that when it comes to what is right, there is a double standard.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Enjoying the sunshine with my friend, Sheba...

Sheba and me enjoying the sunshine...

They say that animals help you relax, de-stress, and feel happy. They're absolutely right!

More sunshine with my furry poochy friend!

I have been so much happier since I made friends with my professor's dog, Sheba (who, incidentally, has the same name as one of my dogs back home). Sheba's such a lovely, loving, and lovable pooch. She's a 7-month labradoodle, and she makes my stresses just melt away...

Good morning!

Sheba's very good about giving me a little kiss to say good morning (that and a multitude of scratches!). The office is so much more cheerful with her around...

Getting a brush at home...

Sheba is quite a celebrity too. The professor's students love her as much as I do!

Together with Joanna, we spoil the poochy...

There's something about dogs and smiles here. I am very happy to approach people whom I don't know to say hello to their dogs, and most owners are perfectly happy to talk to you about their dogs and share a pet and lick. And compared to Malaysian dogs, the ones here are sometimes super humungous! Which I like! I've met dogs that weight almost a whole me and another half...

Sheba's been away for almost a month-and-a-half at "doggie camp", and I've missed her tremendously. I can't wait till she returns to work! :-)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

To Malaysia and Back!...

Durian feast by the roadside in Penang...

So after a long hiatus from the world of blogging, I return to say I just came back from Malaysia. It's been 2 years since I returned home, and my tummy was the one planning the vacation!

My one grumble...Malaysians only had one thing on their mind: To remind me how fat I've become since I last returned. Sheesh. They couldn't even let me enjoy my vacation without commenting about my weight...directly.

"Wah, so fat!"
"Wah, put on weight!"
"Your face very big already lar"...

Sheesh...I come back once in two years, let me eat in peace lar, ok?

Top on my list of must-eats was:

Durian (see pic)
Ipoh Kuey Teow
Char Koay Teow (with the cockles and Ipoh taugeh)
Nasi Lemak
White Coffee
Teh Tarik
Economy Rice
Mamak food!
And almost everything else Malaysian...

Oh well, the tummy was happy. The weighing scale was not...

And then when I returned to Vancouver, my classmates and I went to eat: Malaysian food! Haha...

Daphne's empty coconut at the Malaysian restaurant in Vancouver...

Returning to Vancouver did not earn me any weight-comments; the Vancouverites were more fascinated by my "gorgeous tan". I had a good laugh because I managed the tan even with all the hiding from the sun!

See for yourself! The durian picture was taken the first few days I was back in Malaysia, and the coconut picture was taken a few days after I returned to Vancouver...

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Is Shoe-Polishing an Evolutionary Skill?

There is bound to be one everywhere you go--the ubiquitous pengilap kasut (shoe-polisher) or a**-kisser as my new close friend in Vancouver calls them. Even after meeting many and having to work with them at some point or another, I still have not completely gotten used to them.

They make my skin crawl. 

I don't know how they do it. I am very patient, but pretend to like you and polish you up is something I just can't make myself do. If I don't like you, it's pretty obvious (thankfully, I don't dislike many people), although I've gotten better at being civil and not just avoiding you. 

I have to kind of work with one currently. The first time I met her, my skin crawled horribly. She started by telling me she needed to "teach you how to handle people." Now it's not arrogance that's making me not like her--I'm the same girl who let a fresh first-year undergraduate "teach" me how to read a journal article while everyone looked at me incredulously for a whole half hour. 

When the girl (nice thing!) was done and had left, people wanted to know why I hadn't just told her I know how to read journals. Well, she was beaming when she sat to teach me, and if it makes her day, why not? And it did make her day, although she was rather sheepish a while later when she found out I had graduated, but she thanked me profusely for not telling her off. I told her I was fine with it if she ever wanted to practice "teaching" anything, and she was even happier with that!

So what's with shoe-polishers? Is this an evolutionary skill of some sort? It can't be just culture, because they can be found across the world! 

Ergh, geram only. Guess that's the working world. 

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Three Months in Vancouver...and Counting...

Wahliau. I have ignored this blog for a very long time!

The good news is, I've survived 3 months of work! So what have I learned in this past 3 months?

1) I could work for Xerox some day...or the Manuals for Dummies book...

The time machine...

For some reason, my boss put me in charge of the new office printer. The CAN$20K printer (yes, it costs that much!) has been nicknamed "the time-machine" by the people in the lab, as it looks it is capable of it. I mused the first time I saw that the lab has its own personal printer (the rest of the department shares a printer which is smaller than it!), but judging by the amount of work we churn out, it's a good thing we have one.

My boss has also put me in charge of writing manuals for everything in the lab. Her reason was I have to learn from scratch anyway, so I might as well put it in writing so people that come after me can benefit.

So if academia fails (touch wood!), I might be able to work for Xerox...or the manual for dummies people.

2) You can take a Malaysian out of Malaysia, but not the stomach...

Nasi lemak! The whole works...

Malaysians naturally look for Malaysian food everywhere they go. And if they can't find it, they cook it themselves. The above was a product of 3 Malaysians coming together to satisfy our Malaysian taste buds, while introducing Malaysian food to a Persian family.

And lucky for me, there's a lot more Malaysian restaurants in Vancouver than Toronto. In fact, for our next lab outing, we're having Malaysian food at a quite-pricey joint! And the boss is paying :)

3) I want to learn how to ski...

At the Peak-to-Peak Gondola at Whistler-Blackcombe...

I went to famous ski-slopes Whistler for a visit with my cousin. Felt kind of silly at parts as we were a few of the only people who didn't know how to ski or snowboard. Really want to take it up, but heck, it's expensive! And there's the issue of me being quite injury-prone...

Which leads us to point 4:

4) I cannot avoid the injury-proneness...

The doctor at urgent care who saw me for my back injury took one look at my back and said: "Uh-oh, that doesn't look right." When I came back from getting treated (our lab is right next to urgent care, which is very convenient, teehee), my boss asked for an update. 

When she heard what the doctor said, she snorted and said "I can tell something is wrong just by looking at the front!"

5) I cannot resist animals...

Sleigh-ride at Whistler...

Horseys! Enough said...

6) A warm drink with whip-cream is the perfect thing for a cold winter day...

Hot peppermint chocolate...Yum...

Starbucks is making a profit from the cold, that I can tell you. I'm usually too cheap to pay for a drink as the cost really adds up, but in the winter, I make a beeline for hot chocolate and specialty drinks to warm up. It's nice people notice and I've been getting gift cards for Starbucks for Christmas (that and a co-worker gave me and another co-worker a gigantic Starbucks mug)...

It's amazing how popular this chain is in Vancouver. Torontonians drink a lot more Tim Hortons. But geez, I can barely find Timmies here for some reason. Walk into the lab any day, and you'd find practically all the regulars there holding a cup of java from Starbucks. Come to think of it, I might be the only one who doesn't...