Monday, February 9, 2015

No-Buy January

As a bit of a personal challenge, I decided to go the month of January "without buying anything."  I put that in quotes because there were obvious exceptions.  Case in point, groceries.  Beer counts as a grocery, if bought at a grocery store.

I guess it would be better to say I went the month without buying anything frivolous.  The main thing I wanted to focus on was clothing, because I've been doing a mini wardrobe overhaul for the past few months (still ongoing), and it was starting to add up.  Additionally, I've been spending more at restaurants than I would like to lately, so I wanted to limit that as well.

It was interesting.  For one thing, it wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be.  Since I knew I wasn't going to be buying anything, I spent a lot less time browsing, both online and in stores, than I have in past months.  This proved challenging when I went to Nordstrom Rack to help Joe exchange a shirt.  I found this cape, at an amazing price of only $60 or so, marked down from well over $200.  I love the color, it felt very nice/soft, and I've wanted a cape for months now.  But I told myself, "Self, you already have a nice coat and you don't actually need a cape.  If you're going to spend money, it would be best spent on something else."

I'll be honest, I spent about an hour that day in a funk.  But I got over it.  Besides, I'm secretly hoping Nordstrom Rack will have a "Clear the Rack" sale so I can go see if they still have it, for an additional 25% off...

Beyond that, I never found myself upset that I couldn't buy something.  And it's not like I went on a major shopping spree once February came.  After spending a month of not really looking for things to buy, I don't feel the urge to compulsively browse online stores as much anymore.  Doesn't mean I'm done buying things forever, of course.  I still have some serious issues with my wardrobe and I'm looking for new pieces to replace the ones I don't like, or that just don't go with anything else I own.  But taking a month off gave me a chance to actually think about what I have and what I want, and where I have major gaps in my wardrobe.  So now I can focus on filling the gaps, rather than just buying things because I think I might need it.

I will admit, the month wasn't perfect.  I've been on a massive Sims 2 kick lately, so I decided to buy the remaining expansions that I didn't already have.  It probably could have waited, but I was also buying the games used, so there was a chance that if I waited longer, the cheap ones would be sold and I'd have to buy a more expensive one.  That's the defense (excuse) I'm giving, but I will say I don't regret it because I've had a lot of fun messing around with the new games.

Additionally, Joe and I went out for dinner twice.  The first was before I even decided to do this challenge, and it was something we had been planning since December anyway.  I had a $10 gift card from my birthday, as well as a second, stackable coupon for a free appetizer.  I like almost $20 of free food.  The second time, we went out with a bunch of our friends to watch a football game.  I think it's important to have a balance between saving money and being social.  Even if I go out to eat on occasion, I can still put aside a decent amount of money each month.  I'm not trying to be cheap; just frugal.

So overall, I would say the challenge was a success.  No, I wasn't perfect.  But I was able to cut down on absentminded browsing of online stores, which will undoubtably cut down on future spending if I keep it up.  I was able to think more critically about what it is specifically that I don't like about my current wardrobe.  As an added bonus, I received a nice boost to my net worth.  And that, to me, is a lot more satisfying than buying a cape.  (Though I still really, really hope it's not sold out at my Nordstrom Rack...)

Friday, December 12, 2014

My New Year's Resolution, Made Public for Your Amusement

While I've never put much thought into New Year's resolutions, I did make a resolution last year.  As I've said before, I'm on a constant mission to better myself in a variety of ways.  My resolution was to start running, because I know how important cardiovascular activity is to your overall health.  I started the year with the Couch to 5K program and I highly recommend it if you're trying to get into running.  I did every workout exactly as I was supposed to, and I was able to run three miles in a couple months.  It was pretty exciting to me.

Now it's the end of the year, and well, I haven't ran in two weeks.  I actually do have a reason for this - I injured my knee about two weeks ago (completely unrelated to running) and I don't want to run on it to avoid hurting it more.  It's starting to feel normal again now, so I'll start running again next week.

But this isn't the only time I've taken off from running lately.  I'll skip runs because I'm stuck in lab late, and don't want to get home late.  I'll skip runs becaues I'm not feeling well.  But both of those are lies I tell myself - if I'm skipping a run, it's because I'm being lazy and making excuses.

As a result, after making it up to three miles, the furthest I've run is four miles.  I've done four mile runs a few times, but I have some sort of mental block where I tell myself I can't go further than that.  Even as I'm running, I'm being lazy and thinking, "maybe I should only run two miles today..."

I think part of the problem is that I have no goal in mind.  In January, I was doing the C25K program.  I had specific runs to do, three days a week.  After that, I was on my own.  I did good for most of the summer, but started slacking off in the fall when I went back to running indoors.  And it was ok, I told myself, because I was still running, even if it was only two miles.

But honestly, I'm really disappointed in how little progress I've made in the past year.  Time to step up my game for next year.  No more slacking, no more excuses.  I'm putting it here in writing, so you can all make fun of me when I fail miserably next year.  My goal for next year, call it a New Year's resolution if you will, is to run a half marathon by the end of next year.

For me, this would be huge.  I've always been a poor runner.  I'm slow, I don't know how to breathe properly, and I have no endurance.  But I've proven that even I can improve my distance.  Running two miles was a feat for me in undergrad.  Now a two mile run is the shortest I'll do.  Every time I've run four miles, I've felt like I could run at least another mile.  I don't, because I know you can hurt yourself if you increase your mileage too fast, but maybe that's what's contributing to my mental block.

The point is, I have a goal.  It's very achievable even if I only add a mile to my run each month.  But it sure sounds impressive, doesn't it?

Making changes to your lifestyle is hard.  Whether it's eating better, exercising more, or even something as simple as flossing every day, it's hard.  I want to be lazy and just skip it.  Tell myself, "I'll start tomorrow."  But if it's a change you really want, you have to be honest with yourself and just do it.  No excuses, no slacking.  It'll be worth it in the end, right?

Friday, November 7, 2014

No, Not All Women

Feminism seems to be the new hot topic, what with Beyonce and #YesAllWomen and all.  As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, this is super exciting.  Except, well, I feel like opinions are being forced upon me.  No, not all women.  We want to stop negative stereotypes against women, or having people assume things about us because of the way we act/dress/etc, right?  Then stop putting words in my mouth and stop assuming all women have the same experiences.

When I was a teenager, I figured I must be ugly or something because girls would always talk about being catcalled or having guys whistle at them as they walked places.  I walked all over the place, and I think I had someone whistle at me from their car twice in as far back as I can remember.  Hell, in the past year I've gone running outside in my sports bra, and I've only had somebody yell from their car once.  Oh wait, and they were yelling at Joe that he had a "nice fro."  It had nothing to do with me.  I don't get hit on in bars.  I have never once had a man (or anyone, besides a photographer) tell me to smile.  Sometimes I'm still concinved that I'm just too unattractive to warrant any attention.  Either that or I have "resting bitch face."

I guess there's the fact that I don't like walking alone at night.  But I'm more concerned about getting mugged than being raped.  And I'm not even that concerned, because when I police alerts about muggings, it generally tends to be male victims.  Besides, Ann Arbor is actually a pretty safe town so as long as you're not stupid (man or woman), there isn't much to worry about.  I just tend to be paranoid about stupid things.  For example, I won't flip off a driver (man or woman) no matter how much they suck at driving/piss me off, because I'm irrationally convinced that they'll rear end me or whip out a shotgun.

BTW, I don't think it's blaming the victim for rape when you warn women to not drink too much or to walk in groups or to carry pepper spray or whatever.  It's being safe, and I think they should be warning men of the same things.  It's different when you're saying "well with that outfit, you were asking for it," but that's a very, very different story.

Even without the unwanted attention or the constant fear of being raped, I should still be discriminated against every day as a female chemist, right?  Except I'm not.  I get paid the same as any male grad student in my program, and I've been given a ton of really cool projects to work on.  My gender has come up in conversation only twice.  Once, when my boss mentioned most of his female students have a female professor on their committee.  My committee is all male professors.  I said, "eh, doesn't matter to me."  I picked my committee based on who would be the most useful to my work.  The other time was when I mentioned that I couldn't work with certain chemicals (ie testosterone) because it's not safe for women.  Sorry, I'm not risking my reproductive health for the sake of science.  But that's not something I'd consider "discrimination."  It's just a fundamental physiological difference between men and women.

Ok, so maybe I'm just lucky.  Maybe I've only lived in towns where there isn't much gender discrimination.  Maybe I'm just blissfully ignorant and I've actually been discriminated against a ton without realizing it.  I mean, I get it.  There's a lot of stuff out there happening to women that shouldn't be.  As a society, we have made a ton of progress from where we were before, and yet we still "can't" have a female president because she'd be "too emotional" to make sound decisions.  Especially during that time of the month!  So yes, I agree that feminism is important.  Yes, I agree we still have a lot of room for improvements.

But here's a thought.  Why is it ok to tell our young daughters they can choose whether or not they want to shave, but nobody thinks to tell our young sons that they have that choice too?  There's so much fighting to make it ok for women to like/do non-traditionally "girly" things, but what about the men who like/do nontraditionally "manly" things?  I know women are the ones who have been discriminated against historically, but that doesn't mean life is perfect for men either.  That's why it angers me so much to see "feminists" trying to bring down men.  To me, it should be about bringing women up.  Treat man and woman as equals, and make life better for everyone as a whole. 

Though it should be noted, as I said before, there are fundamental differences between man and woman.  Men do tend to be stronger, for example.  So in a job where strength is required to do your job adequately, I'd rather have strict requirements that end up disqualifying most women than lowering the cutoff so women who can't actually perform the required tasks can still be hired...

I don't know if I'm making any sense at this point.  I just don't want people to assume I'm a "kill all men" crazy feminist just because I rarely shave my legs.  Nope, I just don't shave much because I'm lazy.  And I wear pants all the time as a chemist.  Same with the time I cut my hair mega short.  Not trying to make a political statement, just doing what I do.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What Should I Do With My Savings?

Well, it's been a while since my last post.  I'm going to blame things like lab, vacation, and general laziness.  But my absence isn't interesting to talk about. Let's talk about money.  That's interesting, right?

So I find myself in a pickle.  As a grad student, I don't make a lot of money.  But, I also try not to spend a lot of money, so I end up having some money left over at the end of each month. Now, what should I do with that money?

Some might say, "Stick it in a savings account!"  And at one point in my life, that's what I would have done.  I was so proud of myself as a cute little undergrad going to the bank to open my very own savings account.  Where I got a couple cents of interest a month.  Exciting, right?  I've stepped up my savings game since then, and now have an online savings account with Barclays.  Here I make over $1 a month, with much less in the account than I ever had in my old savings account.

Good for me for opening a savings account that actually gets me some cash, but chances are I probably shouldn't even have that account right now.  You see, even though I manage to put away a decent chunk of money each month, I still find myself with a negative net worth because I have student loans that need to be paid off.  As a grad student, I don't need to make payments on these till after I graduate.  And that sounds great because inflation means they'll be worth less then than they are now.  It might not be much of a difference, but it does help.  So I would almost say it's in my best interest to not pay off my loans yet, but that would be forgetting to account for interest.

There's two general types of student loans:  subsidized and unsubsidized.  Subsidized don't accure interest while you're in school.  Unsubsidized do.  I have some of both, which means my student loan value is going up daily.  The interest rate on these loans is higher than the average rate of inflation, so I want to get the unsubsidized loan paid off as soon as I can.  The subsidized loans, currently accruing 0% interest, won't be touched until after I graduate.  They'll also have lower interest rates than the unsubsidized loan, which is nice.

So I should just take what cash I have saved up and dump it into my loans, right?  Maybe.  The other option I have is to throw the cash into my IRA.  I have a Roth IRA, which means that I put money in after taxes, but I don't need to pay taxes when I take the money out.  The money in my IRA is invested in index funds, which means it's distributed proportionally across all companies in the stock market.  On average, the stock market goes up over time.  By investing in index funds, you get that average.  Now, there are a lot of finer points on Roth vs. traditional IRAs, index funds, etc.  I'm no financial expert, but there are a lot of resources where you can get more information if you care.

Looking at my IRA, the value has been tanking for a month or so.  I haven't yet dipped below my original investment, but it's getting pretty close.  Some people would look at that, freak out, and take all that money and put it in a nice, safe savings account instead.  Or maybe a CD, which would make a little more interest than the savings account.  Me, I'm just going to leave the money there.  As fun as it can be to try to "buy low and sell high," I'm sticking with the tried and true "leave it be" method.  Sure, it's having a bad month.  But this is a retirement account.  I don't need the money till I retire, and that's not for a long time yet.  Again, the stock market averages upward, so while I work towards my retirement, this month will eventually become just a little meaningless blip.

So again, two general options.  I can pay off my student loans and stop them from accruing interest.  Or I can work on maxing my 2014 IRA, where I'll be the one profiting from the interest.  I don't like being in debt, so I'm tempted to throw the money into my loans.  But you can only contribute specific amounts into your IRA each year, and you can't go back and invest in past years, so not putting money into my IRA would be missing out on a portion of my retirement fund.  Currently, because I'm bad at making decisions, I have the money sitting split between my checking and savings accounts.  Having money in my checking account where it's not even making interest, is probably the worst thing I could be doing with my money (besides spending it needlessly), so I really should make a decision, and soon.

Overall, try to be at least a little bit knowledgeable about investing your money.  And don't let it sit around in a checking account gathering dust like mine is!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unprepared for the "Real World" - Food

As I've mentioned before, I think schools need to step up their game, especially when it comes to educating students about food and money.  I've touched on the money aspect before, so now it's time to discuss why food education is so important.  I think it's easiest to break this into three sections - cooking classes, nutrition, and school meals.

For me, home ec was a requirement for everybody in middle school, and I took an optional cooking class in high school.  All of these classes focused mainly on baking cookies, cakes, and other desserts and sweets.  Sure, it was fun (and delicious!) but I can guarantee you that if I didn't already know how to cook, these classes wouldn't have helped at all.  I understand it's hard to cook a meal from scratch in a short period of time, but I don't see why you can't find recipes that you can spread over a couple days.  Spend one day chopping up veggies and meat, store in the fridge overnight.  Next day, fry it up into a stir fry.  Explore veggies and different ways to cook them.  And not just potatoes.  This was huge for me.  I thought I hated brussels sprouts because I don't like how they taste (or smell) steamed.  Roasted brussels sprouts, however, have become one of my favorite veggies.

I was lucky to have parents who valued home cooked meals.  That isn't the case for everyone.  Some kids' parents don't know how to cook, or just don't want to take the time to.  While this is a separate problem, it makes it much harder for the kids to learn to cook and eat properly on their own.  You end up with generation after generation of people eating out for every meal who consider making a boxed meal "cooking."  While it's possible to make smart choices at restaurants, not everyone does.  It ends up being bad for you health and bad for your wallets.  With better planned cooking classes, schools could do their part to help break this cycle.

Then, nutrition.  There are people out there who think that the giant frappuccino they get daily at Starbucks has no calories "because it's coffee."  People get mad because they do a quick fad diet and lose weight, but then gain the weight back as soon as they quit the diet and go back to their usual eating habits.  Now, I can understand having trouble determining what's "healthy" and what isn't.  Human nutrition just isn't well understood, as evidenced by the constant flip-flops:  Eggs are bad!  No, eggs are good!  Saturated fat is bad!  No, trans fats are bad!  So on and so forth.

To be honest, I couldn't even tell you where I've learned the bit I know about nutrition.  Some of it was from health and science classes.  We learned about the food pyramid back in elementary school, but I don't know if anyone recommends that anymore.  Again, the lack of knowledge about nutrition is tough to fix because there's still so much we just don't know.  But we should at least be teaching our kids to make smarter choices.  Less processed food is better than super processed scary mush food.  Vegetables are good.  Whether you eat a high fat or low fat diet, fats are higher in calories than carbs and protein.  Just because something is lower in calories doesn't mean it's the healthier choice.  On that line, just because it's home cooked doesn't mean it's healthy.  I once counted the calories in a buffalo chicken calzone I made and almost cried.  Then I ate it.  It was delicious.

Teach kids about BMR and TDEE.  To gain weight, eat above your TDEE.  To lose weight, eat below your TDEE.  When you're at a weight you like, eat at your TDEE.  If your weight and/or activity level changes, so will your TDEE.  This doesn't seem like much, but when you feel like so much of your life is out of your control, just knowing you can control something as small as your weight can make a huge difference.

Last but not least, school lunches.  This is a hotly debated issue, at least according to some TED talks I've seen.  See the problem is, almost anyone can tell you that the stereotypical school lunch isn't that healthy.  Lots of prepackaged, overly processed, fried foods.  Schools will argue that it's all they can afford, and parents aren't willing to give schools more money, even if it's to feed their kids healthier food.  But again, what do we consider healthy?  Childhood obesity is skyrocketing, so we should make the lunches lower in calories, right?  Sounds good, until you consider kids below the poverty line, where a school lunch is often the only meal they are guaranteed.  Pump those school lunches full of nutrient dense, high calorie foods!

You can't just break kids into different lunch lines and say "you're too fat, here's a tiny lunch" and "you're too skinny/poor, here's a big lunch."  A compromise hurts both extremes, but works out fine for the average student.  But we want to help everyone, right?  I don't know how to handle the school lunch situation, but one obvious solution is to just pack your own lunch.  But this is also where nutrition education comes into play.  Kids will trade their lunch for lunch money.  Or just buy lunch as well and eat both lunches.  When you get to high school and can go off campus for lunch, it doesn't matter how healthy the school lunch is when there's a McDonald's across the street...

Ultimately, it all comes down to choice.  Teach kids to make smart choices.  Not everyone will, and there's only so much you can do about that.  It's hard to start cooking healthy meals from scratch when you grew up eating frozen meals everyday and that's all you know.  But given a solid foundation in cooking and nutrition in school, it'll be a lot easier.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Science I Do and The Crazy Thoughts I Have

It's been a while since my last post!  I was on vacation with my family for a week, and lab has been keeping my busy since I got back.  This is my 9th consecutive day in lab now, and it's only Tuesday.  I think.  Turns out that, even though I only worked half days on Saturday and Sunday, not having any full days off makes it quite easy to lose track of time.

When I'm in lab for too long, I start thinking about weird stuff.  Let me start by explaining a little about what I actually do in lab.  I more or less do "metabolomics" which means I measure metabolites.  Metabolites are small molecules that pretty much do everything in your body.  They include things like sugars, amino acids, vitamins, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc.  There are literally thousands of them.

I measure these molecules with mass spectrometry.  You may be familiar with the term from a chemistry class or your favorite forensic-type tv show.  The mass spec ionizes everything in your sample, and separates things based on their mass/charge ratio (m/z).  How the ions are separated depends entirely on the type of mass spec you're using, and it's not really relevant.  The end result is a spectrum which tells you how much stuff there is in your sample at each m/z.  Oh but wait, remember how there's thousands of chemicals floating around in your body?  Turns out that the spectrum is too complex to get any useful information out of.  Especially since lots of the metabolites can have the same m/z.

How do we solve this?  By adding in an additional separation step.  In this case, liquid chromatography.  Have you ever taken a coffee filter, dotted some markers on it, and then stuck it in some water?  As the water is drawn up the filter (capillary action), the colors in the marker separate and smear out, like so.  That happens because the different chemicals that make up the marker inks have different levels of attraction to the water and the coffee filter.  Chemicals that are more attracted to the paper don't want to move because they're happy on the paper, so they don't move very far.  Chemicals that are more attracted to the water will just hang out with the water and they travel up the paper faster.

Take that same principle, but make it much more expensive, and you get liquid chromatography.  You have a column packed with your stationary phase (i.e. the paper) and you flow your sample through with the mobile phase (i.e. the water).  Compounds that is more attracted to the mobile phase travel through the column faster than the compounds which are more attracted to the stationary phase.  After they finish going through the column, they enter the mass spec.  So now you get a mass spectrum at many many time points, and each spectrum will have fewer compounds on it so it's easier to figure out what you have in your sample.

But wait!  Given how many metabolites there are, it's still pretty likely that you can have multiple compounds with the same m/z that will elute from the column at the same time.  How do we deal with this?  After all, if I say that this is dopamine I'm measuring, it better actually be dopamine!

Answer here is to smash stuff up.  Again, there are a few different ways to do this, but the point is that molecules will break up in specific ways, giving new ions with new m/z's.  So if this thing that you think is dopamine elutes at the same time as dopamine, has the same initial mass as dopamine, and the same mass after smashing it up as dopamine, well now you can be pretty certain it actually is dopamine.

Ok, so a lot of the chemicals I specifically measure are neurotransmitters.  People in my lab do work with cerebrospinal fluid, but most of my work has been with blood plasma or more recently, smashed up fruit flies.  But the same methods I use can be applied to urine and saliva as well.  Sometimes I get bored and think, hmm I could just spit in a tube and see what's actually going on in my saliva.  If  I did this every day, would I see a decrease in serotonin on the days when I'm sad?  What if I don't get "runner's high" because I have low levels of epinephine (adrenaline)?  I don't actually do this ever because I think there's some ethical issues somewhere in it.  But it's crossed my mind more times than I can count.

Or when I'm making up solutions of these compounds.  Would ingesting ATP give me more energy?  Is the sucrose we have really identical to table sugar?  Would amines taste like fish just because they smell fishy?  What would HPLC grade (super pure) water taste like?

Maybe I need to get a hobby to get my mind off science all the time.  I had a dream once that a labmate attacked me with histamine so I'd get allergy symptoms.  That is not normal.  But alas, I have more smashed up fruit flies to attend to.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Trying is One Thing; Doing is Another

Lest my last post make you think I'm some crazy person with insane willpower, etc, I should admit that it was just as much a reminder for me as it was for you.

I've been on a huge self improvement kick lately.  I like me fine just how I am, but I see no reason to be complacent about it.  Living isn't on a fixed scale - you can always strive to improve.  Problem is, it's easy to say you're making changes, but a lot harder to actually follow through.  And I'm no exception.

For example, since I started college, I've been "trying to lose 5-10 lbs."  Nothing drastic, but it still requires effort.  I would say that, and then go take huge servings of everything from the dining halls.  Dessert nearly every day, for both lunch and dinner.  Getting an apartment helped with that, at least a little, because I've always liked cooking.  So I wasn't eating breaded chicken and pizza every day anymore.  But I started going out to eat a lot more.  In the dorms, the dining halls were already paid for, so it made no sense to spend extra money eating out.  In an apartment, I'm paying for food either way so...

I apparently have at least some self control because I graduated weighing the same as when I started college.  But despite saying I was "trying" to lose weight for four years, I hadn't dropped a pound.  Clearly, I wasn't really trying.

So I've been trying harder lately.  I'm eating more fruits and veggies.  Eating out less.  Avoiding drinking on weekdays.  More protein, less simple carbs.  Weighing food to accurately count calories.

And it works!  At my lowest weight recently, I'm 5 lbs down.  Woo hoo!

Of course, it's not that simple.  What really happens is, I weigh myself on Monday and am shocked by the scale.  I eat well throughout the week, sometimes, and I'm happier with my weight on Friday.  Then I binge eat all weekend, and repeat.

It's amazing how I can continue to sabotage my efforts, week after week.  I can't even call it "effort" this week.  I skipped the gym Wednesday to go to Joe's company dinner.  I ate tons of pizza, drank tons of sangria, and we topped it off with a stop at Ben & Jerry's on the way home.  Yet, when I actually stick to my "diet," the weight drops off so easily.

My high weight these days is about 2 lbs less than my average weight when I graduated.  This is a start, but it makes me sad that it's all I've achieved.  It's embarrassing, but I have to admit that I'm still not trying as hard as I say I am.  So like I told you all last week, it's time for me to quit making excuses too.  I've been good at sticking with some of my goals, but I need to really make a habit of all of them.  I need to cut back on weekend binges.  Most importantly, I need to actually do these things, not just say I'm going to.