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Thursday, January 26, 2012


Warning: looooooooooong post ahead!  I started this back in September and just now finished it.  I wanted to have a complete record of the experience of preparation, execution, and celebration (such as it was). Most students will tell you that they don't remember most (or any) of the questions asked during their exam. Maybe the were so overwhelmed that they couldn't remember or maybe they chose not to remember because it was a bad experience. Mine was a good experience and I know that in the future I'll want to remember what exactly happened.

Ah, the qualifying exam.  I'm glad it is behind me, but it still doesn't seem like it is behind me. Not that I'm still dreading it or anything, but it wasn't a painful or traumatizing experience like I thought it would be. For so many years I was used to saying, "I still haven't taken my exam." And now I won't have to say that anymore.  Woo!
My workspace in the office I share with three other students.
Here are some pictures of my big ass QE binder, into which I filed all my notes according to subject and sub-subject area:
I should have weighed this thing, it was heavy.
The key for me was organization (and lots of tabbed dividers).
And here are examples of my notes. And yes, these are very basic concepts--if you hammer those down solidly, then understanding bigger concepts is a cinch.
A week before the exam I wrote myself a little note (in purple chalk) on the back patio while I was playing out there with Eddie. I answered it in pink the morning after the exam when I checked on the chickens.
Two days before the exam I made a batch of flashcards for each of the "major" things I figured I'd need to know: extraction schemes, plots of isotope trends, enthalpy equations, types of chemical bonding, etc.

The night before the exam we went to Costco for some shopping and to eat pizza for dinner. Later, I had Dave quiz me using my flashcards. Remarkably, he was able to decipher what I'd written on the cards and correct me when I was wrong. For someone who hasn't take chemistry since high school, that's pretty amazing!

After that, we watched something on Netflix. I checked my phone for emails before hopping into bed. I had one from a family friend of the Bowers, wishing me luck the next day. The email ended with, "if you're reading this tonight, STOP, and go to bed! It is late!" Indeed, it was nearly 12am.

The morning of the exam was leisurely. I took a shower, made omelets for Dave and I (he'd dropped Eddie off at preschool earlier), did the dishes, then got dressed. I got to my office, dressed in the only pair of black slacks and sleeved non-t-shirt that I own.
I texted Jennifer a picture of myself a few days before to see if she approved of my outfit.
I handed the sack of snacks and bottles of water to my friend, Yumi, so she could set them out for me--in some departments it is the norm for a student to provide refreshments for the faculty members during the exam; in my department, however, it is considered "bribery" so a friend usually pretends to provide them instead.

My labmate, Garrett, whisked me away to coffee once I was sure I had my laptop, charger, projector, laser pointer, etc. all organized in my backpack. He promised we "wouldn't talk science" so I wouldn't get nervous. HA. We started talking about our home renovation projects, our adorable kids, stay-at-home mothering versus working parents with daycare, etc. But then some of his colleagues from one of his research projects walked by...and when he introduced me to them, he mentioned my imminent exam (like an hour away at this point). So of course I had to explain what I was studying, blah blah blah. Sigh. It was only then that I really became nervous about the exam. Logically, I was fine. But my nauseous stomach felt otherwise.

I'd packed a small, calorie-rich lunch to eat an hour before the exam. I knew from my three-hour long practice session a few week prior that I would get HUNGRY and tired by the end. But of course, I was too nauseous to eat much.

All too soon it was 12:40pm so I went into the room I had reserved to set up my laptop and projector, get out my laser pointer, and arrange the set of new dry erase markers I'd brought from home (how embarrassing would it be to realize all of the markers already in the room didn't work?!).

At 12:55pm people started arriving and chatting with me and with each other. Once everyone was there, it all began.

My committee chair, Randy, asked me if I had a preference for the order in which each professor questioned me. I said I didn't--but what else was I supposed to say?  "Please have that professor go last and that one go first." It'd have shown my nerves and my expectations about the difficulty of each person's questions. Anyway, next he asked me to step out of the room while they discussed a few things. So I sat in the hall for a few short minutes, and then he invited me back inside. He asked me to begin by telling them all a bit about me: who I am, how I came to be at Davis, etc.

I knew he'd ask this, so I had written something out the night before and saved the document as "Who I am.doc." Isn't that hilarious?

I am a CA native, raised in the Bay Area. After high school, I received my bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from Saint Mary’s College.

After graduation, I worked as a “field chemist” at an environmental consulting firm where I managed hazardous waste and chemical inventories for public school districts. While working there, it became clear that I needed to extend my education in order to do something more—I needed more intellectual stimulation and to be in a situation where I could always be learning new things.

For graduate school, I was interested in applied chemistry programs. I’ve always been interested in tangible processes. The Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry graduate group here at Davis fit the bill perfectly.

I entered UCD as a PhD student in the fall of 2006. During my first year I joined the Claassen lab, which sparked my interest in thermal analysis and soils and regenerated my life-long love affair with compost.

After a series of economic and family related issues, I decided to change to the Horwath lab between my third and fourth years where I have continued to study compost and thermal analysis.

The interdisciplinary aspect of this graduate group suits be well—I enjoy taking classes from many departments and learning about other fields of science from my classmates. As you know, UCD is a land grant university, whose mission is to spread new information to the general population and there are programs on campus that help researchers do that. One example is the John Muir Institute for the Environment’s “environmental leaders” program, which I joined a few years ago and have learned about translating scientific results to laypeople.

I’m still not sure what I’d like to do when I grow up—but it will need to be a position where I am constantly learning new things. (Teach, cooperative extension, etc.)

Everyone was smiling and nodding the whole time. At the end, my first major professor, Vic, asked a clarifying question: "So Julie, you said you entered UCD as a Ph.D. student, right? Were you always a Ph.D. student?" Knowing Vic's supportive, fatherly nature toward me, I knew being completely honest was okay. I explained that I had switched to the masters track at one point due to "the economy, my pregnancy, and family medical issues" but that after I returned from maternity leave I realized that completing my doctorate was something I really wanted (and that it was a now or never situation).  I got bigger smiles and a silly "ta da!" type hand wave motion from my committee chair that I could begin my presentation.

So I stepped through the presentation, answering questions as they arose.  Of the five committee members present, three knew every last detail of my project by heart and the other two just didn't care.  They were there to moderate and test me on my general soil science/compost chemistry/thermodynamics knowledge.  I think it took me about an hour to get through the presentation.  My last, "thank you" slide also included two personal pictures and I explained why I included each of them.  It made everyone giggle a little.

Me in 1985, quite dirty after a day of sifting compost with my dad, asleep on the grass.
Eddie in 2010, wearing a cute shirt given to me by a friend. Hopefully he will also love compost someday as much as I do!
The chair asked me if I'd like a bathroom break, which I gladly accepted.  In the hall I saw a specialist from my lab, who gave me a thumbs up on my way to the drinking fountain.  I went back to the room and opened the door to find the committee have a gab-fest and laughing their heads off.  One of them shooed me out the door and said they'd let me know when I could come back inside.  Oops!  I didn't get the impression that they were chuckling about me, but just blowing off steam and hanging out.  My impression was actually that they weren't taking the exam as seriously as I was...which, I suppose, is perfect.

Once I was back in the room, the chair told me that he would have Professor V start (a biological engineer who works on composting projects; I'd never taken a class with her so I wasn't sure how "deep" or hard her questions would be). I admit that I was nervous and that I was worried that I'd embarrass myself in front of everyone.  (I think my biggest fear during the whole exam prep and actual exam was that I'd turn out to be an idiot.)

As it turns out, the questions Professor V asked me during our pre-exam meetings were much, much more difficult for me to answer.  She asked, "Why is doing PLFA analysis better than doing some other type of microbial biomass nucleic acids?"  I answered by saying that I wasn't familiar with nucleic acid analysis/extraction, but that the benefit of PLFA is that these membrane-bound compounds are rapidly destroyed when microbial cells die so when extracted, they represent only the living biomass.  She was nodding like crazy and then answered the rest of the question for me: "Right, things like nucleic acids remain in the system even after the living cells die so you end up over estimating the size of the biomass."  I thought to myself, "Jeez, that was easy.  I hope she asks me a harder question." Her next (and last!) question was equally easy and I was honestly quite disappointed.  She just wanted me to list each of the compound types I expect to be combusting during each of the two exotherms on my plots (which I had laid out a few times during my presentation and in my proposal).  I figured she'd contest some of my explanation and make me realize I was totally wrong.  Instead, she wanted to know why cellulose would have a higher estimated combustion temperature than simple sugars.  At first I just said it was because the cellulose is more complex so there are more intramolecular bonds that needed to break.  She wanted a little more than that, like what bonds and why.  So I drew glucose (as simple a sugar as they come) and then realized she wanted me to talk about all the hydrogen bonds between all the glucoses (which make up cellulose). 

Next up was Vic.  Ah, Vic.  I knew he'd be fun.  At this point I can only remember one of his questions (but I saw that he had a list of about 5 at the time).  He pulled out a paper with one of my thermograms on it (the heat flow through a compost sample that had been heated from room temperature up to 1000C).  He said, "Okay, so let's pretend I'm a scientist who "does chemistry" a little different than you. Let's pretend I decide that you've done YOUR work wrong and your plot really should look like this." And he shows everyone how he's redrawn the middle of my plot so the whole thing is one giant exothermic reaction, instead of two. I laughed a little because I knew where this was going (we'd had this conversation many, many times).  He wanted me to explain why his answer was wrong and why my plot was right (two exos instead of one). That was easy since I could use the mass loss to prove that there were at least two (and possibly three) classes of compounds reaction in that temperature range that each seem to produce their own thermal response to the applied heat.

He did ask one more question, but now I can't remember what it was...but while answering it he cut me off and said, "That's enough. You know your stuff.  I have no more questions." And he pushed his list away from him.

Then Randy, my committee chair had his turn to ask me some questions.  I had taken an awesome class called Biogeochemistry from him my first year.  It was a catch-all course about soil and water and the atmosphere and all their interactions with each other.  He pulled out a map of the USA's soil organic matter content. He had me explain why about 10 different locations have a given soil organic matter content (and the answers had to do with vegetation type, rain or snow fall, certain organic compounds (like terpenes), mean annual temperature, etc.).  It was a super fun question (because I knew the answers) and I wished it had been longer!  Then he asked a few soil physics questions like, "Which has a higher field capacity--sand or silt--and why?" (Answer: porosity due to particle size.)

Next was Will, my current major professor.  Ah, Will.  Whether in an exam, at a lab meeting, or having a personal meeting in his office, his questions always confuse me.  Not necessarily because they are difficult but rather because he's not good at phrasing his questions.  Often they sound more like statements instead of questions so you don't know whether he's asking something or just setting up to ask something later.  First he asked me to list each of the major plant compound types (cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose, sugars, proteins, lipids) and then asked me to estimate the percent of total mass for each one. That wasn't so hard but I went slow to make SURE that my numbers added up to 100.  Then he wanted to know which would have the most heavy carbon in them (C-13, as opposed to the much more common C-12).  So I sketched out a diagram from my notes that very roughly outlined the biochemical pathway of these compounds and then added an axis for C-13 enrichment. He was fine with that.

Earlier, in my presentation, I had shown some "very, very preliminary" isotope data.  He wanted to know why each of the exothermic regions had certain values, given the biochemical pathway thing I'd drawn previously.  Some of the numbers (well, the order of the values) didn't make sense.  I reminded him that the analytical method doesn't capture individual compound types, but rather compound classes, so there was sure to be some overlap and that the blending of real (but unmeasurable) values could lead to the measured values that we see in my novel method. 

Next he wanted me to explain something about nitrogen availability to microbes versus plants (based on something I'd said during my presentation).  I can't remember exactly, but as I started to answer I decided to draw out the nitrogen cycle so I could step through my answer.  I guess he didn't want me to take the time to draw it out so he told me to stop!  I asked him if I could keep drawing it because it would help me to see the cycle, so he finally let me.  And thank goodness he did, because I recall not really knowing what he was actually asking until I had finished the diagram--and then it clicked.  Whatever the question, I realized that my statement in the presentation had been backward so he accepted my corrected explanation. 

And then he said "You know the Maillard and Browning reactions..." and his voice trailed off.  I thought, "Crap, is that a statement or a question?"  I didn't say anything so he said it again and I realized it was a question.  I admitted that I know of those reactions and that I did learn them in organic chemistry and again in his soil carbon class years ago but that I couldn't remember them.  "Not even the gist?" he asked.  I think I said that I know they have something to do with protein and sugar and that they occur in soil and are what makes toast taste caramelized and delicious compared to untoasted bread (now how's that for fumbling?)  He asked me to draw the reactions.  "I don't remember them at all and I can't draw them for you," I said probably a little too firmly. After an awkward silence he shook his head and said, "Yeah, okay. I'm done asking questions."

I know that sounds awful, but that's a totally normal conversation between us.  Him not being clear, me not understanding what he wants, and one of us eventually realizing we need to look something up (or that it isn't important to the issue at hand anyway).

Last to question me was Joy, the administrator of my fellowship at the time.  She immediately said, "All right. I want to go back to something Will asked you."  I glanced at the whiteboard where I'd draw out those diagrams during Will's turn. And I hear her say, "Now just back up."  So what did I do?  Yes...I'm embarrassed to say that I did actually back up.  As in, I took a big step backward.  I was so ready to do whatever they wanted me to do that I took her literally.  I can laugh about it now, but it was embarrassing.  She wanted me to give another explanation for my "very, very preliminary" isotope values (around -30 ‰). I didn't know exactly, but she egged me on until I realized it was because my reference gas value was, in her words, "plucked from the sky."  

Next she wanted me to discuss whether my compost system was open or closed from an isotope perspective (answer: open since the respired CO2 is able to leave the system through holes in the jars during decomposition). She wanted to know what effect that would have on the residual substrate delta values (the compost material left to decompose in the jar).  So I explained about how delta values are calculated as a ratio of ratios and that there is a linear relationship between delta values and % C-13 within a certain enrichment level.  I also drew a graphical comparison of open versus closed systems' product versus residual substrate delta values.  While explaining all this, she eggs me on to realize that the region in which using open versus closed equations matters is not within the scope of my experiment (I'm not using materials that are that enriched).  After that she said she was done asking questions.

At that point, Randy told me that they'd like to have a few minutes to talk while I waited outside.  So I grabbed my water bottle and sat on the couch in the hall.  After about 5 minutes Joy asked me to join them inside.  I walked in and Randy said, "Congratulations, Julie.  You have passed."  He explained that I should "work with Joy to brush up on my isotope knowledge" and that Professor V wanted me to take a decomposition course with a particular professor.  Everyone shook my hand and then Randy gave me "the" form with his signature, proving to the Office of Graduate Studies that I was "qualified."  Woo!  He told me I'd have to pay a $90 fee to the accounting office (seriously?!) and then submit the forms to Grad Studies to make it all official. I looked at the clock and it was only 2:20pm. I finished 40 minutes early!

Once everyone left I gathered up the juice, water bottles, cheeses, and berries I'd brought (I mean my friend brought...) and then returned the projector to the main office.  Then I texted my brother with "Woo!!!!!!"  I went back to my office and got a reply text of "Does that mean you passed?"  (Duh.)  I walked into my office just as Will was walking out.  Garrett jumped up from his desk and said, "So...did you pass???"  I looked at Will, who shrugged and smiled and left.  Garrett said that Will told him to ask me if I'd passed.  As soon as I said, "Yes!" Garrett and I walked downtown to get a much needed drink (and food...I was starving since I'd not had lunch due to nerves).  I called Dave and Edward to meet us at a Thai bar and restaurant.  It was hot on the walk so I took off my sweater blouse thing and just wore my camisole.  Trashy, but I did NOT care at that point.

We got to the bar and Yumi was already there waiting with tables.  She took my driver's license and went inside to order us some drinks.  About a minute later she came back out with a disappointed look on her face.  The bar tender realized that my license was expired (back in March!) and therefore couldn't give me a drink.  Phooey.  So I said I just wanted a coke and some food, I was starving.  Since it wasn't 5 yet they weren't serving food.  Ahhhhhhhhhh, agony!  About that time Dave showed up and then Edward and Jennifer, too.

My hunger disappeared for a few moments when I suddenly saw my DADDY walk into the bar!  It was awesome, he came up as a surprise.  Edward and Dave were working all afternoon on hiding it from me and figuring out a way of getting him to the bar without me knowing about it.  Having my dad in a bar is one thing, but having him there when HE got to have a beer while I did not was just plain weird. I was literally counting down the minutes until 5pm, when I promptly ordered some appetizer plates.  Later on, the Schwinds came by with their was nice but also sad since they were moving the very next day.  

I'd rather not post these pictures here because they are terrible, but I want my future self and kids to see a picture from this day.  I was so tired and hungry and mentally worn out from the exam that I look awful (and sleezy in that camisole!).
Eddie spent that night with Cassie so we could go out to celebrate.  Normally your major professor will take you out to dinner, but Will had to take care of some family business instead.  He told me he had to go pick up his mother's ashes (!!). It had been a year since she passed away and the funeral home needed him to finally come pick them up. Later I checked my email archives and saw that my exam was exactly one year after her death.  Gah, I felt bad that I didn't realize earlier--I would have scheduled my exam differently if I had known.

So Dave, Edward, Jennifer, my dad, and I went to see The Help that night.  It  had just come out so the theater was packed full and we had to sit in the front row, meaning we had to lean our heads way back to view the screen.  The movie was great, even in that crappy position, so I imagine it'd be even better seen from a normal vantage point.  After that we decided to get some food, but since it was late our only option was Applebee's.

It wasn't until two months later, a full month after Dave had taken his water distribution exam that we got to have a celebratory drink.  We went on a date during one of Cassie's "parents' night out" events to an Asian noodle bar and got some amazing ginger cocktails. 
Overall, the exam was a good experience.  The fear and anxiety was highest before I ever set the exam date, and then it steadily dwindled down to nothing as I studied and got myself and my notes organized.  If you're about to take your exam and are worried, trust me: childbirth is way, way, way more work. And you can opt for an epidural when in labor. Unfortunately, you don't get one during your exam.  But trust me, you won't need it.  =)

1 comment:

steph.kelley said...

What a great record of an intense and momentous experience. Your outfit was nice — great shoes. :) I took my iPod with me to my exam for the two times the committee asked me to step outside; listening to Earth Wind and Fire, I just couldn't be nervous!! Bravo to you, Julie. What an achievement.