A Letter to My College Self


Dear College Me,

I am writing to you from the brand new 2017 to tell you that you survived! Take a moment to smile and relish in that knowledge. Now, I hope you are sitting down because, right now, you are still in college. Did your heart just skip a beat? I bet it did! Don’t worry. It’s not a bad thing. It just goes to show you, things don’t always turn out as planned and that’s ok, better even. You are about to finish your Ph.D.! Yes, this is really you. I am certain.

I wont spoil the story on how you get here because I think you need to experience it in order to appreciate it. What I will tell you is that college is a unique experience that you should take seriously, but also enjoy. Here are a few things that may help you do both.

Frosh Week friends are just that. Don’t feel bad if you don’t hang on to the people you meet during that first week full of parties and orientation That’s all they need to be. Think about it, do you even have anything in common? It’s everyone’s first week in a new place and they are all alone. Everyone, including you, is desperate for friends. Once you get into classes and join various societies and clubs, you meet people that you have things in common with. These people are the ones that you’ll be telling stories about until you’ll wrinkled and grey.

Coffee is like oxygen. Ok, well maybe that is a bit extreme. Between two and four cups a day can improve heart health, longevity and memory. Exams, hint hint! Coffee will help you stay awake in that physics lecture with the monotone professor. Hot chocolate has too much sugar to drink that often and trust me, physics is not one you want to nod off in. You should invest in a good thermos and either volunteer in a lab or make friends in grad school. Labs and grad students usually have a pot of coffee constantly on the go. You can join their coffee club and contribute $0.25 to the pot versus over $2.00 for every cup at the café. This will save you so much, you have no idea.

No one cares about your minor. Stop stressing about fulfilling all the requirements for your major and for a minor. Not once since you graduated has anyone ever cared, let alone asked about your minor in biotechnology. You were thinking a minor in biotechnology sounded impressive right? It’s not even printed on your diploma. Take classes that interest you. Learn what interests you. Don’t worry about sounding impressive on paper.

Take the fluff classes. Fluff classes are basically easy As. Take them. Having a minor and those impressive classes may not matter, but your GPA does if you want to go to grad school. Even employers care when you have very little work experience right out of college. Future employers and grad school supervisors wont blink if you have an A in “Basket Weaving” on your transcript, but a C in “Artificial Cellular Technology” might hurt you.

Standardized tests are not so scary. There are tons of books and websites about how to study for these tests. Don’t let it intimidate you. There is nothing on those tests you haven’t already learned. You should definitely prepare for them, but don’t stress. You spent the entire summer before senior year studying and stressing about writing the OAT and you walked out of the exam laughing. It’s not worth it.

Summer school is for the smart ones. To graduate in four years, you need 5 classes per semester. Being in sciences, you will likely have theory exams as well as lab exams. That could mean up to 10 exams at the end of the semester! Take summer classes so you can lighten the load during the year. Summer classes tend to be easier to digest too; daily classes and only one subject to focus on. Take that “Linear Algebra” everyone is saying is tough. You’ll ace it. Just don’t take English. Reading all those mandatory novels and deciphering poetry in the condensed amount of time…not so smart.

Get to know your professors. At a large school like yours, this is difficult, so volunteer in their labs or be a teaching assistant for the courses you like. The experience is always good, but once you graduate, you’ll need reference letters. You’re more likely to get good ones if the prof can remember you.

Class is not always essential. Go to all your classes when they start. This will allow you to get to know the professor and their teaching style. Some professors are great teachers but some are there for the research and only teach because they have to. If they basically recite the textbook, don’t bother. You can read from the textbook on your own schedule.

Take your own notes. Take them in lectures and make your own notes from the textbook. The act of taking notes helps you learn faster. You are hearing the information, seeing the information and actively writing it. These are three different methods of absorbing it, plus, you have something to study later. If you are good at it, you can even sell your notes as a guide to students who take the course after you.

Join Facebook. Stop being a stick in the mud and just do it. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. How is that for a reversal of a cliché? Facebook will let you stay in touch with so many more people than the old fashioned phone will. Having a network will come in handy when you start looking for jobs. Besides, Facebook is fun and brainless. Trust me, you’ll appreciate having something to do that doesn’t require your brain sometimes.

Apply. Apply. Apply. In terms of scholarships, apply for anything you qualify for. You will get rejected more often than you get something, but don’t get discouraged. If you don’t apply, you definitely wont get anything. Aim for scholarship competitions that have a restricted applicant pool. You are more likely to get something if you are competing against students in your region or with your major than versus the whole country.

Loan refinancing. Repaying loans isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. You’ll want to set up a payment plan that avoids interest as much as possible. Paying lump sums when you have the extra cash or paying the loan off early can have penalties. Your taxes will also be involved. You’ll want some advice on this in order to save as much as possible.

You will fail. I’m not trying to scare you or be overly negative. I’m not only referring to classes either. You have always gotten good grades, you’ve gotten awards and you got into all the schools you wanted. You’ve always sort of been the big fish in the small pond. You’ve never failed, not really. Now, you’re at college with all the big fish. You’re not going to be the best at everything anymore. You may fail classes, you will get your heart broken, you wont get that scholarship or loan you applied for, you may not get into grad school or you wont get call-backs for jobs and people will be mean to you. It will hurt, some of it may be devastating, but you will survive. You will learn that it is ok to fail. You will take what you learned from that failure and take the next step in life smarter than you were before.

Now, knowing what I was only privy to in hindsight, start college, be a sponge, learn all you can, but have some fun too. Most of all don’t be afraid to fall flat on your face because you will, and you’ll be just fine.

Love always,

Future Me

Easy Ways to Increase Happiness

I found an article circulating on Facebook that lists “easy” things to make you happier. Normally I’d skip it, thinking it’s a bunch of hooey, but it claimed this list was backed by science (plus I have no better post ideas). Being an uninspired scientist, I liked the sound of this. So here is a summary, if you want more details on the studies in the article, the original can be found here.

  1. Exercise. I know, I know, you’ve heard it before and hate having people tell you, I do too. What I didn’t know is that you could do it in 7 minutes. It’s a tough workout, but it’s over in only 7 minutes. Check it out here.
  2. Sleep. Apparently not sleeping enough makes you more prone to negative emotions and memories. Positive and negative memories are processed by different parts of the brain. The amygdala processes negative memories while the hippocampus processes the positive ones. Lack of sleep affects the hippocampus more than the amygdala making it more difficult for you to recall positive memories than negative ones.
  3. Live close to work. I don’t know about you but it can take me up to two hours to come home from work depending on the traffic. It’s pretty miserable, so I was glad to see someone actually did a study on it. Unlike other unpleasant tasks, one doesn’t acclimate to the commute. The commute is always different; volume of traffic, idiots on the road, accidents, etc.
  4. Stay in touch. Not staying in touch with friends or family is one of the top five regrets people have on their death bed. The longevity project found that those who have generous relationships live longer and happier.
  5. Go outside. Did you know happiness is maximized at 13.9 degrees centigrade? Really? I think I’d be happier at 20 degrees.
  6. Help others. Studies recommend spending 100 hours every year (or 2 hours per week) helping people. If you want more information, read my post on giving.
  7. Smile. Make yourself smile by remembering funny moments or thinking positive thoughts. Smiling can alleviate pain, improve attention and help us perform cognitive tasks. Don’t bother faking it. One study showed that those faking their smile through their work day had worse moods as the day progressed while those whose smiles were reinforced with positive thoughts had a better day.
  8. Plan a trip and don’t take it. Studies have show that people are happiest during the planning stage of a trip rather than during or after. I’m assuming the anticipation of vacation helps them feel happier. This actually works! I planned my 30th birthday trip to a snorkeling resort in Jamaica. I had a lot of fun and was generally in better mood while planning, despite knowing that we wont be able to do a 30th birthday trip. 😦
  9. Meditate. I had a feeling this would be on the list. I’m rubbish at it. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain activity is actually calmed after meditation. Regular meditation can even alter brain structure.
  10. Practice gratitude. Being thankful, even for just three little things a day can improve happiness and life satisfaction.

The article ended by saying that people get happier as they get older. Apparently, past middle age we grow happier naturally. I’m skeptical, but at least it takes the edge off getting older.

Since today was a bit of a fluffy post, here’s a fluffy drawing to go with 🙂

stardust girl


A is for Antidepressants

I am participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge (April 2014). For more information, click the link. Just to summarize, there are 26 letters in the alphabet and 26 days in April excluding Sundays. Each day gets a different letter (in alphabetical order) and you have to write about something that starts with that letter. Today is April 1st, so today’s letter is A. Since a lot of my posts are about my experiences with mental health, I’m going to stick to that theme.

A is for Antidepressants

Usually I post a doodle with my posts. Antidepressants were kind of boring to draw, so we’ll go with another “A”, Alice in Wonderland.


When I was prescribed antidepressant medication for the first time, I didn’t know much about depression, never mind the medications and what was right for me. I just went with whatever the doctor said because doctor knows best, right? Wrong! The doctor knows the medications, their interactions and the general biology of how they work, but only you know you best. To find the right antidepressant for you, you have to work together with your doctor. Here is what I wish I knew at the beginning of my antidepressant experience.

1. Do your research. Know the different types of medications, what they do and the associated side effects. Here is a cheat sheet for you:

  • Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These hit in the market in the 80s and are the most widely used class of antidepressants today. They are typically used to treat anxiety and depression. SSRIs increase the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin the brain. Serotonin has been linked to feelings of well-being and happiness. The function of serotonin is inhibitory, it tends to decrease, appetite, sexual behaviour, aggression and pain perception.
  • Serotonin and Norepinephrine Re-uptake Inhibitors (SNRIs). This is a newer class of anti-depressants, most often used for depression and mood disorders. They are less often used to treat anxiety and relieve symptoms of menopause. They work similarly to SSRIs in that they increase neurotransmitter activity in the brain, but they act on norepinephrine in addition to serotonin. Norepinephrine is associated with concentration and alertness.
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs). These were one of the earlier classes of antidepressants, developed in the 1950s. They have basically been replaced by the above two categories because those have more favourable side effects. There are different types of TCAs, some act on serotonin or on norepinephrine, or both.
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs). These were the first antidepressants developed. They work well, but are not often prescribed because of the adverse reactions they have with certain food and medications.
  • Atypical Antidepressants. These are all different and don’t fit into any of the previous categories. These are a few examples.
    Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Aplenzin) – Welbutrin acts on norepinephrin and dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward center. Side effects are usually mild.
    Mirtazapine (Remeron) – This one interacts with norepinephrine and serotonin. It is mostly used for depression and mood disorders, but is also used as an appetite stimulant. It is recommended to be taken at night.
    Trazodone (Desyrel) – This one interacts with serotonin. It is used for depression but also has anti-anxiety and sleep-inducing properties. It needs to be taken with food to decrease stomach side effects.
    Vortioxetine (Brintellix) – This one was approved only last year! It works on various neurotransmitters including serotonin, glutamate, GABA and histamine. The side effects are supposed to be minimal and it is supposed to help with the cognitive symptoms caused by depression.

2. Know your symptoms. Do you have trouble sleeping? Are you chronically low on energy? Do you have anxiety as well? If you aren’t sure about the answers to some of these questions, ask someone you see on a daily basis. They might have picked up on something you’re missing. Knowing the answers to these questions could help you and your doctor narrow down your options. You want to find a medication that will alleviate your symptoms and not exacerbate them.

3. Know your family history. If someone in your family is successful on an antidepressant, it is likely you will be too. Of course, the closer the relative, the better the chance you have. I tried three different medications before I found out my aunt had depression and was on Prozac (fluoxetine). Now I’m on it and my body tolerates it quite well. Something like this is often a good starting point.

4. Give the medication a chance to work (or not). Don’t worry if it doesn’t work right away. To notice a difference, it takes time for there to be a high enough concentration of the drug in your body. You may notice some changes right away too. They could be good or bad. This does not reflect how you will feel over the long term. Give these effects a chance to settle into something stable.

5. Watch for side effects. Some medications come with nasty side effects. These could outweigh the benefit the drug might give you. I have heard Remeron and Paxil are notorious for weight gain. Since I have body image issues, I’m not going near those. I’ve also had an interesting experience with Effexor (venlafaxin). It worked really well, but if my timing was off, I’d start to get crazy mood swing and brain zaps. It’s like the shock you sometimes get when you close a car door in the heat, except in your head. It’s not fun. Although Effexor helped me a great deal, it wasn’t worth the side effects.

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