A lush green forest with a trail and a tree growing out of a rock covered in moss

In the valley of the silent Potassium

When I get angry or sad, I shut up.

I shove it all deep inside me and I make myself small, watching the world from behind my eyes, the windows of my self-imposed prison.

We don’t really need to get into the why — maybe it’s that I tell myself that a person who looks like me is much more desirable if I am happy, smiley and agreeable, that it’s not socially acceptable for a person like me to express the rage that boils inside of me — or the how.

All I can say is that it’s been the case for my whole life, and that recently, it’s become the all-encompassing state that I live in. At first, it was just a happy, agreeable mask that I wore. But then it shifted. I stopped being able to talk around certain groups of people. Instead of being my gregarious, flappy self, I saw my brain consumed with a whirlwind of thoughts that left me powerless to speak as I sifted through all of them trying to figure out what they meant, what, if anything, was worth sharing, what to do with all of them.

Then, with the murder of George Floyd, COVID-19 and all of the drama, I just stopped talking all together. Instead I spent my weeks draining my energy trying to appear competent and thoughtful at work and on the ice rink and I spent my weekends falling into a severe depression because I had no more energy left to do anything else.

I tried so many things to help myself. I stayed off social media, especially on the weekends. I couldn’t handle the photos of people’s seemingly perfect lives, as if nothing was going on, as if they were unaffected by everything that has led to so much trauma for me. I couldn’t handle the rage other people were displaying, even though I agreed with most of it. I couldn’t handle what people were saying, and how they were saying it. It all just made me retreat further into my brain.

Working with my hands has always helped me not really forget how I’m feeling, but at least divert some of the energy stuck inside of me into something else.

  • I made stuffed whales — at first for a friend’s new baby, but now I have a growing pod on my desk.
  • I made up a pattern from scratch for stuffed sharks in the style of the whales, and now the best ones sit behind me in all of my Zoom/Teams calls every day.
  • I learned how to make matcha souffle pancakes, practicing the recipe each Saturday morning until I was happy with it.
  • I set to work perfecting the best buttermilk biscuit recipe, and once I did that, I started working on a variety of biscuit toppings. The newest one is a peach and rosemary concoction topped with homemade whipped cream.
  • I bought five pounds of clams and turned them into a decadent and creamy clam pasta sauce.
  • I took photos of things in the sky, both comets and birds.
  • I designed a figure skating step sequence that forces me to think about how the steps tie together, what it really means to be “on an edge” and what’s physically possible when you tie steps together.
  • The list goes on.
three stuffed sharks, two are blue with purple bellies and one is orange with a cat on its belly. The orange one is upside down on top of the other two, which are right side up.
A shiver of stuffed sharks posing for my iPhone camera.

It’s all great. The stuffed animals are soft and huggable, even the early shark attempts, which I have deemed “shark blobs.” The food is tasty. My photos are neat. The figure skating is challenging (in a good way) and I’m stronger than ever. But it all still feels like grasping at straws. At the end of the day, I don’t really feel any better. Still lost. Still afraid. Still lonely. Still broken-hearted. Still disappointed in everything. Still angry. Still silent, because I don’t know what to say about all of it, and to whom.

Yesterday, we went for a hike through part of what is called the Valley of the Silent Men. It was a trek to get there and suddenly we were on a tiny, twisty, easily lost trail in the middle of a huge forest. Everything was covered in a layer of moss. Trees somehow sprouted from the tops of giant rocks. And it was silent, hauntingly so. How could a place so obviously teaming with life be so quiet?

And I recognized myself in this forest, buzzing under the surface of nothing.

Please don’t use this post as an excuse to connect to me if we haven’t talked in a while or as a place to provide me with advice or cheering. This isn’t a cry for help, and it’s not even really for you. This is my attempt to break the silence, to free myself a little. Even though I know it won’t change the situation I’m in — that we’re all in whether we admit it or not — I want to be able to talk about it.

Step 1 – Establishing a sense of belonging

Fact – not all scientists are antisocial nerds who only care about science.

Here are some scientists in the lab on Halloween last year (Super Shark Girl and a Weeping Angel – would they be friends? :-/). They were dressed up this year too but I forgot to get a picture…. :(

Some scientists might only care about science but most have a lot of other things they are excited about. Scientists, like all other humans, have the capacity to be well rounded individuals. We seem to want to forget this idea right now and I don’t know why.

Einstein for example – what do you think of when I mention his name? Brilliant guy. Random equations like E=mc2. Do you know he was also an avid patron of the arts and very actively involved in the civil rights movement here in the US? Yay for well-rounded scientists!

I worry about this behavioral shift because it encourages the exclusivity of science. As humans, we all strongly feel the need to belong. If we don’t feel accepted in a situation, we are less likely to pursue it. In fact, it’s been shown that women and underrepresented minorities often quit studying science, math, and engineering because they worry that they don’t belong or are unwelcome in those fields. It’s really important to me that you feel like you do belong in this conversation about science that we are having so let’s take a moment and establish a sense of belonging by talking about something else that I believe all humans share – passions.

This is how it’s going to work.

Scientists – Why do you do your science? Is it your one and only passion or do you have others? Think about this next time you are talking to nonscientists and start by explaining to them what it is about science that you just love instead of just jumping straight into the meat of your research and why they should care about it. Also make sure you mention all that other stuff you love doing! I know a scientist who traveled to Nepal to help rebuild houses, scientists who volunteer at a local horse rescue, scientists who volunteer with their churches, and scientists who mentor underrepresented undergraduates/high school students to give them the skills they need to succeed in science/life.

Nonscientists – what are you passionate about? Next time you confront a scientist, ask them about their passions and then see if you can find some common ground. Maybe you love photography and the scientist loves microscopy. Microscopes are just fancy cameras for tiny things! Hurrah! Now you have something in common! Discuss!

Okay – my turn:
I am passionate about science because I think it is beautiful. It is so crazy to me that a bunch of random molecules can come together to form cells, which then work together to make humans! It’s even crazier to me that tiny single cells like bacteria can be so evil and trick our complicated bodies to do their bidding. I think that is fascinating.

I am also passionate about other things – I am really passionate about giving people the opportunity to be excited about science (or whatever their passions are), regardless of their race, gender, immigration status, or income. I also love photography and all animals, especially sharks and whales! Plus I am really obsessed with markers right now and I am trying to get all artsy and learn how to color/draw better. I love comics and I am super jealous at the drawing abilities of those artists. Finally I also really love food and trying out new crazy recipes.

Potassium is kind of obsessed with drawing whale sharks right now…

Enough about me – let’s hear from you. Please share in the comments section! And feel free to ask questions about any of my passions too.

In case you are interested in pursuing any of the things I mentioned up there further:
Einstein – you can just Google him and look at his Wikipedia page but there’s also a really interesting book called Einstein on Race and Racism that goes way more into detail about the non-scientist part of Einstein’s life.

Sense of Belonging – I found this Scientific American article particularly informative but if you want to try your luck with papers with fancy words, there are two articles that discuss the basic desire for a sense of belonging and how various groups need to feel like they belong to succeed in science. This topic is a huge area of study at CU Boulder, which I think is awesome!

Stay Tuned! The next “Let’s talk about science” post will probably be in January, though I might get too excited and post something sooner!

The one with the completed sewing projects

Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of Friends?

Hey all! We’re still in the backlog of what happened to Potassium for the past few months so I today we are talking about the few sewing projects I’ve managed to complete while being completely overwhelmed in school. Yay!

First up we have the rice whale. I got the idea for this guy back during winter break when I spent pretty much the entire time at my sis in law’s house curled up with a rice frog made from Harry Potter fabric. It was awesome. I just popped him in the microwave for a minute and voila! Warmthhhhhhh… So I decided to make myself a rice creature of sorts… I went shopping with my mom for the fabric when we were visiting my family for new years. Then I went back to lab and got swamped and didn’t think about rice creatures for a while. Fast forward to April, my sis in law found me a pattern for what could definitely become a rice whale and my excitement was reignited! The pattern was in Russian so I kind of just guestimated about sizing and such and I made one total fail rice whale and one okay but not amazing rice whale before the one pictured above but yay! Rice whale complete! And I think I’ve got the pattern mostly figured out now too which is awesome. I wish grad school would stop trying to drown me so I could make more for family and friends….

Second up we have the shark hoodie. So I originally bought this hoodie to be part of a Halloween bat costume last year. For those of you who don’t know, I have a similar hoodie (except it’s blue) that got turned into a super awesome raptor costume for my first year of grad school. It’s still all raptor-y and I love wearing it. Last year, as a grumpy 6th year, I just pinned wings to my bat hoodie and then after Halloween was over, it got converted back into a normal black hoodie. However, when Cobalt and I were romping around NYC last month, I noticed that one of the pockets was starting to detach from the hoodie. Thus the shark idea was born. I should fix the pocket, yes, but how much more awesome would it be if I embroidered a shark over the pocket instead of just using normal black thread to fix the problem?! Wahahaha… I am proud to say that I used three different stitches here for the shark – chain stitch for his gills, the split stitch for his outline, and the satin stitch for his eyes. I found sewing this shark amazingly relaxing and healing after all the craziness in lab. AND now my hoodie looks way more awesome! :)

Now I need more art projects. Ideas? I found some crochet patterns for tiny sushi… Might be fun…. ;)

Potassium and her projects

Anyway, I apologize for never writing in here and being really bad about posting pictures that people are actually excited about (like from graduation or weddings I’ve recently attended). I have been saying that it’s because I am too busy and that is definitely true (I now have an army of undergrads – okay… 2 undergrads – to train in addition to doing all of my stuff) but I think that it’s partly that I’ve been kind of depressed lately. I get the feeling that my pictures aren’t going to be good anyway so why do I even try? And then of course I take lame pictures and I get mad at myself and go hide in the corner and am all emo instead. Also, lab work is actually starting to feel like it is destroying my soul. I am kind of having a life crisis about it – here I have spent years of my life training to be a scientist and what do I have to show for myself? Rage?! I hate it so much right now! It breaks my heart to think about how much time and effort I have spent working on something that makes me frustrated and infuriated and stressed out, etc. Here I am so close to finishing this degree I have wanted all my life and instead of feeling relieved and excited about the future, all I can see is how much work I have left to do and how much I just don’t care anymore. :-/

Whoa… that got deep for a minute. Anyway, I thought I owed you guys the truth so there it is. Now it’s your turn – ideas for new projects? Potassium needs some distractions from science, which is eating her soul. Also, if you know this feeling I am talking about, care to share some insight?

This post is about pondering

I miss being able to ponder at the beach… I took this picture when my sis, Cobalt, and I headed to the beach on New Years Eve. It was a spectacular idea… :)

This month, I signed up to get e-mails from The January Cure, which is a challenge to get your house in order one day at a time. It was a lot of fun for the first few days until I headed back to lab after the holidays and then I had a sudden realization: I end up doing all the January cure assignments the weekend after they’re scheduled because I am never home. At first I thought that it’s just due to the fact that I’m in grad school and I have meetings at weird times and science that doesn’t understand what weekends are but I think that even when I am physically present in my home, I am not mentally present. I’m caught up in a mess of what do I need to do for tomorrow, what I should be doing right now, what I am going to eat for lunch tomorrow, what I am going to eat for dinner right now, how should I get to lab tomorrow (bus, bike, or driving?), how much do I hate grad school right this very instant, how many people are making me feel bad about myself, am I being grumpy to Cobalt, should I be getting ready for bed, is it going to snow, etc etc etc. I realized as I was cleaning the counters in the kitchen (this weekend’s activity) how much I am caught up in my head that I forget just to be alive and live. I have all these cool projects that I want to do and all these cool books that I want to read and all these delicious recipes that I want to use but I seem to be giving myself no time to do anything except be miserable. So then I took some time and curled up in my favorite bean bag chair in our office and read National Geographic. It was nice.

I’m learning that it’s important to think about the “intentions” we have behind our actions. For example, going for a bike ride with Cobalt is a lot more pleasant when the intention behind it is to be outside in the sun enjoying each other’s company even though it’s cold instead of OMG WE’RE FAT AND LAZY… MUST GO OUTSIDE. I think it’s going to be really useful to remind myself about intentions as I work on trying to finish my PhD this year. I have gotten really grumpy about science and my career in my “old” (grad school) age and I think it’s really crucial that I don’t let it ruin me.

In addition to pondering, cleaning my house and fighting tirelessly with science, I’ve been up to a lot of stuff lately! I went cross country skiing with some friends a few weeks ago, I made liquid nitrogen ice cream in lab last week, and Cobalt and I caught up with a bunch of friends this past weekend (including: friends from Albuquerque who were in town, friends who like eating hot pot with me and Cobalt, and married friends who like staying up late and laughing – seriously, we didn’t get home till 1 AM Monday morning…. :-/). What have you been up to? What are your New Years Resolutions? Tell me all the things!

I wanna talk about race

Time to get up close and personal with Potassium!

Last night after the weekly meeting with my summer students, a few of the graduate mentors and I stayed late and had a very open and honest conversation about what it’s like growing up disadvantaged in the US. Every one of us grew up disadvantaged somehow (whether it was monetarily, socially, racially or some combination of those) so it was interesting to hear so many different stories that I could still completely associate with.
That being said, the conversation was kind of hard for me because I have gotten pretty good at actively avoiding talking about the fact that I am half black and half white. I think it has to do with the fact that this difference is constantly exposed to everyone and is a topic of discussion pretty much every day of my life, whether I want it to or not. I mostly just go along with jokes and field other comments related to my race as appropriately as I see fit.
Anyway, back to last night: to be completely honest, I was terrified of the conversation, even though I was in a completely safe environment and everyone was interested in hearing about my story. As I opened up and shared/answered questions, I began to find a sense of empowerment about myself. I saw my life before me and how almost every major decision I made in my life was influenced by the fact that I was ashamed of being “two halves” instead of “one whole.” I spent years striving so hard to “fit in” by ignoring the black half of me and being angry at anyone who tried to remind me about it (made very easy because of my skin color). And now I am finally beginning to realize that it doesn’t matter – that I don’t have to choose one over the other – I can just be me, Potassium, who happens to have both African American and Caucasian heritage. Now I can finally stop running away from who I’m not and instead focus on who I am. Welcome home, me.

Bat Potassium

Anyone else want to share a story?

On Differences

I have always been something of a “freak.” Seriously. I named my car Remora (it’s the suckerfish that lives on sharks). I love sharks (and most sea creatures actually) with pretty much an undying passion – I want to throw a stuffed shark instead of a bouquet at our wedding. I don’t really care about the things I think a lot of people care about. In short, sometimes I feel like I am doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing.
So then it’s funny how much of my life I have spent trying to fit in. I don’t want to be put in someone’s “weird” category where they judge me for being different. I just want to be me, Potassium! But you know how it is, you categorize people: There’s that weird girl that I don’t quite get. There’s that guy who seems like he’s sooooo full of himself. There are those people who do (whatever) when I think they should be doing (this other thing). I think it’s natural in a way. But I also worry that sometimes it prevents us from really just embracing people as they are.

I think there’s a fine line between respecting people’s differences and using differences to isolate people. I’d rather use differences as a jumping off point for getting to know people instead of as a label and a reason to stay away. It’s hard but maybe it’s something good to strive for.

About the picture. It’s from a graphic novel called “Bayou Vol. 1” by Jeremy Love which has great art even though I don’t like the story. I thought the picture was fitting for today’s post though…

On Multitasking

When I was in high school, I worked at a vet clinic. It is more or less one of the reasons why I have awesome skills at things that are not super important to life (such as walking dogs and making surgery packs* – I haven’t made surgery packs in a long time but I’m sure if you gave me the necessary tools, I would still be awesome at it. For that matter, I haven’t walked a dog in a long time either but I’m sure if you gave me a dog and a leash, we would be walking pretty in no time…) and also why I have some odd quirks (such as I can’t handle the Smurfs theme song… a story for a different day…). Anyway, working at the vet was pretty much the perfect job for my high school self because I love animals and also because at the time, I wanted to go to vet school (why I am now in grad school is also a story for another day…). So as I was working at being awesome at making surgery packs, walking dogs, giving cats baths, etc, my boss would come up with tips for me for when I went to vet school. One of the best tips was that a vet needs to multitask so I should practice multitasking.

I was thinking about that the other day in lab when I was doing two experiments at the same time. They both had 1-4 hour breaks and so I would work on the other one during the first one’s breaks and vice versa. It had the potential to end terribly (both breaks are over at the same time so how do you choose which to work on first?!) but I think it worked out okay. What’s funny is that on top of it all, I was chatting with some of my friends on Gmail’s chat feature and looking up wedding stuff during the times when both experiments had breaks. I believe that is the ultimate multitasking experience right there. The only thing that could have topped it would have been also being on the phone I guess. My old boss would be proud of my multitasking skills.

I wonder though if it’s good to have your brain spread out to so many different activities at once. It might of course lead to mistakes (doing the next step for the wrong experiment, looking up wedding stuff in the chat window, etc) but it might also lead to extreme exhaustion and a need to constantly be doing too many things at once (I might start to feel lazy doing only one experiment at a time). It’s something to think about I think in our overworked society…

Anyway, your assignment: tell me about the craziest multitasking you have ever done and how it worked out for you. Complete failure, total success, or somewhere in between? Are you multitasking while reading this post?

About the picture: Another “cool” thing from working at a vet is that now I own a lot of scrub tops and pants. Pictured here is a younger Potassium (16 to be exact) and her best friend T (and T’s awesome dog) dressed up for Halloween in scrubs…

* for you non vet people out there, a surgery pack is the tools that you need for a specific surgery all folded into a neat little package and sterilized. I was very good at the organizing of all the tools to make it into the smallest package ever. I think it has to do with the perfectionist in me.