Saturday, January 1, 2022

On a Wing and a Prayer


Happy New Year, dear readers!

I have been wanting to write this post for weeks, but I've been unsure about what to say. It's been a very hard two years of trying to survive and navigate a pandemic, with a virus that continues to mutate and spread. My city is currently experiencing another wave of hospitalizations. It's sad and frustrating.

And it's difficult to write about life during a pandemic with the grace and depth that is needed. But I want to try. I'll start by saying that if you or someone you love has suffered an unbearable loss, I'm so sorry. I am sorry if someone you loved passed away from covid or if you or a loved one is suffering from long-haul covid.

Truly, the amount of suffering that we have had to endure is staggering. Words are never enough, and yet, I think it's important to acknowledge the pain and loss.

Against the background of a pandemic, I wanted to talk about goals and achievement. How do we reflect on a year that has passed, a year that brought us vaccines and new variants? Freedom and setbacks? How do we think about life moving forward when so much feels uncertain?

Personally, I think the best way to approach these questions is a both/and approach.

* We can acknowledge our achievements, even if they were modest. Even if they were done under duress.

* We can address with compassion our failures and setbacks.

Frankly, I think if you accomplished any of your goals, it's worth celebrating. Here is my list.


☑ I was a consistent, supportive presence in my students' lives. Like many people, I have had my own emotional and mental health struggles during 2021. I was able to persevere and keep showing up for my students, which I think is the best thing I could have done for them. 

☑ We enrolled my son in preschool, and he loves it. It was very difficult for us to find a preschool that had any open spots for new students. We were able to find one in west Austin that was a good match for our family. Having Sammy in preschool benefited our family immensely. It gave him much-needed time with other children and with loving teachers. It gave me time to work out and tutor students; both of those activities helped me feel more like myself.

☑ We finally published an issue of Dook Dook Ferret Magazine. This one requires some backstory. One of my freelance gigs is writing and editing a ferret magazine. The magazine operates under a larger parent company called Ferret-World. I am the science writer for Dook Dook, writing articles about ferret medicine and health. This is one of my favorite gigs, and I've been with the Dook Dook team since 2017.

In 2021, Ferret-World was sold to a new owner. The transition from old to new owner was not a smooth one. The magazine's editorial team was in limbo for several months, but finally in late November, we got the go-ahead from the new owner to put together a new issue. On a wing and a prayer, and with a newly hired designer, we created a beautiful issue that went out on Christmas Day, December 25th. (Our magazine is digital.) I'll share with you the cover just so you can see what an amazing job our designer did:

☑ I learned some new techniques for my eye shadow! This goal may seem frivolous, but makeup is a hobby of mine and I love it. This year I learned how to do all-over-the-lid looks with matte eye shadows in my collection. I had been convinced that matte shadows don't look good on me except in the crease, but I learned how to wear them like a wash of color over the lid. What I realized is that because of the matte (non-light-reflecting) quality, mattes are great for really showing off a beautiful color, which I enjoy. 

2021 also contained real disappointments, which I'll share here as well.


☒ I had a number of tutoring sessions that I would call "fails." Failure to connect with the student, failure to work collaboratively on the student's goals, etc. It's not realistic to expect every tutoring session to be awesome, but some of these fails really stung. I think the frustration was mutual. 

☒ I had big plans for my "free time" when Sammy was in school. I wanted to read, journal, write, practice yoga, prep meals to help us eat more healthfully...most of that did not happen. 

☒ My health worsened in measurable ways. I gained a significant amount of weight, and my blood work indicated my health has decreased. I hesitate to share this information on my professional blog, but I am sharing it for the sake of honesty. Now, I want to be clear that I believe the relationship between weight and health is somewhat murky. I don't believe that thin always means healthy, nor do I believe that fat means unhealthy. But for me, it's clear that weight gain has correlated with not feeling great. It's collateral damage from the pandemic.

☒ I was not always kind and patient with my child. I continue to work on this goal and on forgiving myself for not always being the mother I want to be.

* * *

I encourage you to write your own list of achievements and setbacks. It might help you to put 2021 into perspective, even if you feel like it was a crappy year overall. If you are reading this post, then we can say you survived, even if you are in worse shape (as I am). It's okay if all you did was survive this year. It's okay.

I'm proud of you too.

2022 gives us a chance to start fresh. I wish you all a wonderful New Year and a happy, productive semester. Take care of yourselves!

Photos courtesy of Jackson Eaves (top photo) and Amanda Frank (bottom photo) via unsplash.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Be Patient


Times are tough, so I thought I would share a little poetry here to lighten the mood. One of my absolute favorite quotes about learning and love is from Rainer Maria Rilke, and it goes like this:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Live the questions now.

Farewell, 2021.

* * *

Source: The Marginalian

Photo: Michael Fenton via unsplash

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Memorization: My Best Tips and Tricks

High school and college students often need to memorize a lot of material. Personally, I would love it if every student could use a sheet of notes on every quiz or test. I believe American education tends to emphasize memorization a little too much; we could stand to shift our priorities a little more toward applying knowledge and critical thinking.

But in the absence of giving students that option, I have a toolbox of tips and tricks to make memorization a little less painful. Many of my tips focus on figuring out what you already have memorized and therefore don't need to spend extra time studying. Don't waste time "memorizing" things you already know!

In this post, I'll describe the strategies that help me memorize material, which is useful to me as a tutor. I'm also going to muse about the neuroscience that may explain the technique, drawing on my background as a PhD in neuroscience and my on-going studies in learning and education.

* Include Equations and Other Relevant Details when Doing Your Homework

This tip may seem very obvious, but many of my students skip this important step. Write down your equations when you are working practice problems. This will help you memorize the equations in the context in which they are used. You could also add details about which concepts or other information you are using in your work. Adding information will build a mental framework in which equations and concepts are woven together rather than being separate pieces of information. Part of how our memory works is with association: thinking about A reminds me of B and C. On a test, it will be useful if you remember A, B, and C as part of a cluster of information.

Write down your work. Include equations, units, and any algebra used to solve the equation. Do it even if your teacher lets you get away with showing little or no work.

* Mind Map

I've written about mind maps before. I still think they are a great study tool! Basically, you give yourself a big sheet of paper or a whiteboard to brainstorm ideas and connections for the material you are studying. You can include diagrams, equations, drawings, and text--anything, really, that you think is important or relevant.

After you've created your mind map, take a moment to think about what's missing. Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn't remember all the details? Those missing pieces of information tell you what you should deliberately study in order to memorize them.

* Prepare a "Cheatsheet"

You might not be able to use this cheatsheet on your quiz or exam, but it's still a great tool for exam review. The idea here is to write out the cheatsheet that you would want to have for the exam. The practice of writing things out will show you what you need to memorize and thus streamline the time you spend actively memorizing things.

For the cheatsheet, I'd recommend using your class notes and other resources. Then go through it and ask yourself: what information is here that I don't have memorized? What data would I struggle to reproduce from scratch?

* Do Extra Practice

When you prepare for an exam, do you ever seek out extra practice? Some teachers and professors will provide extra practice questions or even full-length practice exams. For some courses, there is a lot of practice material available online; I frequently recommend Khan Academy to my math students for extra practice.

Doing extra practice, even just a little bit, can strengthen your skills and boost your confidence before your exam. If you practice using only the resources that will be allowed on your exam, you'll discover what you need to have memorized. 

* Write Your Own Practice Problems

The beauty of this tip is that it asks you to spend time with this material in a new way. You aren't answering questions; you are asking them! In learning, it can be useful to look at things from a different perspective. The novelty of it will strengthen your understanding of the material. For extra practice, you can write out your own answers as well. (And quiz yourself: can you answer your own questions without looking at the course materials?)    

* Quiz a Friend or Have a Friend Quiz You

This tip is pretty self-explanatory. You and your friend can make the questions as easy or as hard as you want. You can make it timed so you can practice your speed. Hearing your friend's questions may help you identify areas of weakness in your own understanding of the material (and vice versa for them).

In general, I am a big fan of having study buddies as long as you know you can get some work done. But be honest with yourself about whether the time spent with a friend is for fun/pleasure or to get schoolwork done.

* On the Exam: Immediately Write Down Your Memorized Information

This is a tip I discovered in college when I was taking either organic chemistry or biochemistry. If you are nervous or anxious about remembering a lot of information for a test, you can start the test by writing down everything you have memorized. Do this before you start answering questions so you are less likely to lose any details. I think this is a great way to "download" your brain before you have to dig into a challenging exam. You'll free up your working memory to focus on the questions rather than trying to hold onto whatever you studied.


I wanted to add a few more tips that I think can be useful. They aren't my preferred strategies, but they might work well for you.

* Flashcards

Lots of people love flashcards to drill themselves on basic information for a class. They're convenient too, as you can review your flashcards several times a day to use repetition to build your memory.

* Rewrite Your Notes

This strategy is pretty self-explanatory. I think it can be useful to find ways of explaining the material in your own words or with your own edits (perhaps adding additional material like acronyms, new connections you have made, etc.). For me, the cheatsheet I described above is like a condensed version of my notes.

I've been getting into making new note sets for some of my core tutoring subjects, like chemistry and physics. It's fun for me because I enjoy learning. Over the long run, all the efforts I have put into studying have made me more effective at this work. My hope is that the same is true for you when it comes to your academic performance.

* * *

What are your favorite strategies for memorization? Did I miss any good ones?

Image courtesy of Green Chameleon via Unsplash.

Friday, October 8, 2021

How I Actually Study: My Best Tips and Tricks

I recently had the pleasure of working with a student on her preparation for the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 tests. As part of my own preparation for working with her, I spent many hours with two review books, my own notes, and the internet to polish my physics knowledge. I thought it might be helpful to share with other students what my study process looks like.

* Work the practice problems.

You probably have practice problems available to you, whether from your teacher or a test prep book. Do the practice problems, using all the resources that you have available. For some classes, you might be looking up information as you go. This is okay! Take note of what you are looking up. When I work with students, especially for online tutoring, I'll leave all the web pages open and then send my student the links afterward. That way, we both have a record of the resources we used during our session.

* Compile the topics and concepts on which you need more information and/or practice.

Sometimes it will become clear to me that I just don't know enough about a topic to explain it well to a student. I make lists of these topics so I can study them in depth later.

Work-wise, I tend to be in one of two modes: produce or learn. When I'm in my productive mode, my preference is to knock out as much of the task as I can. If I were a student, I would want to complete as much of the assignment as I could. Then (perhaps later) I would shift into learning mode to study and think about the things that I didn't understand. This strategy has a lot to do with how my brain and energy levels work. The important thing is to not lose track of the material that needs more attention, even if you can't get to it right away.

* Do a deep dive on the material you need to better understand.

I love nothing more than to do a deep dive to learn more information! My favorite resources for independent study are:

- trustworthy websites

- textbooks and test prep books

- Khan Academy

I use practice questions as my touchstone for the deep dive. If I can answer those questions confidently, with good information to justify my answer, then I have completed my task. If I'm having a good time while learning about something, I might go deeper just for fun. But I'm always keeping an eye toward being able to help my students. The deeper my knowledge is, the more I can offer them as a tutor.

What do I during my deep dive? Sometimes I'll just read and think. I might watch a video or several videos. I take notes. I ask myself questions. Since I enjoy learning so much, I don't mind if this process is a bit meandering. If I'm crunched for time, though, I'll just stay focused on trying to answer the practice questions. 

The more crunched for time you are, the more you'll have to take a triage approach to studying. You'll want to focus on getting as much done as you can, and you might have to limit how much time you spend on a deep dive. This is okay! Gradewise, it might mean you get a B instead of an A, or a C instead of a B. This is life--it's messy and imperfect. We all have seasons of life during which we have to triage our to-do list and know that we did the best we could. But even if you are taking a triage approach, I'd still recommend making notes about the material you didn't understand. You might be able to get the information you need directly from your professor, a tutor, or a review session.   

* Ask a trusted source for help.

I'm a former academic married to another STEM tutor. So I have a lot of people in my life who can answer questions for me. My own approach is to answer questions as best I can on my own, then enlist help from other people. I think this a great way to approach tutoring if you hire someone or get free tutoring from a trusted person. 

* Revisit challenging practice problems.

This one is self-explanatory. It's worth it to retest yourself to see if you have truly learned the material. Are there any parts you are still stumbling over? Is there anything new that you realize you need to know?

* Write up a study guide for yourself.

This is one of my absolute favorite study tips. It's so empowering to create this resource for yourself. If you could use a study guide on a test (maybe in an open-notes situation), what would you include? Which equations, concepts, and diagrams would you want to have available? Are there any pieces of information that you tend to forget or find confusing? Write it all down. I created a study guide for my AP physics student to summarize what I thought was the most important information from the topics that we reviewed together. I plan to expand that study guide to cover all the topics on the AP Physics 1 and 2 tests, mostly so I can continue to improve and refine my approach to physics tutoring.

* * *

Those are my study tips: practical, thorough, detail-oriented, with an eye toward the big picture. What are your favorite study tips?

Image courtesy of Avel Chuklanov via Unsplash.


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Wyzant Tutoring: Tips to Find the Best Tutor for You

I get asked by family and friends how to find a good tutor for specific classes. There are many tutoring platforms and tutoring businesses that are looking for students, and it can be overwhelming, trying to decide which one(s) to try. In this post, I want to offer my two cents about a platform with which I am very familiar, Wyzant Tutoring, along with my tips on how to find your best tutor.

This post is not sponsored by Wyzant! Everything I am sharing here comes from a desire to be helpful to my students.

PSA: "Wyzant" is pronounced "wise-ant." I think their logo used to include a cute little cartoon ant wearing glasses.

Why Wyzant Tutoring?

I have been a tutor on Wyzant's platform for seven years, and I've tutored hundreds of students through them. What I like about Wyzant is that it's an easy way to connect with a tutor. It's fairly low risk to try a new tutor and see if it's a good fit between tutor and student. Wyzant has allowed me to connect with students to form a variety of working relationships, from single sessions to tutoring students through multiple classes.

* Contacting tutors is totally free

To contact tutors, you just need to set up a free Wyzant account. There are no fees or charges to start talking to tutors.

* You enter payment information when you are ready to commit

Once you have found a tutor with whom you want to schedule a session, you enter payment information on Wyzant's system. This way, your tutor is reassured that he or she will get paid for the work.

In seven years with Wyzant, I've never had a client tell me that he or she had an issue with payment that could not be resolved. I believe that Wyzant's billing system is safe and secure to use.

* The good-fit guarantee

Wyzant wants you to try tutoring! To make it as pain-free as possible, they pay for the first hour of tutoring if you aren't happy with your session. I think this is a great policy.

For my business, if I feel the tutoring session was not very productive, I won't charge my student. I do this for two reasons. One is that I don't want the student to feel bad asking for a refund. The second is that I don't want a negative review on my Wyzant profile. At this point, I feel established enough on the platform that I don't worry about a negative review. But I still want my students to be happy, and I am sensitive about whether the session went smoothly and provided real value for money.

* You can meet online or in person with your tutor

This is useful, during a global pandemic and during normal times. You can prioritize whether it's more important to find the best local tutor or to find the best tutor from a bigger pool of tutors across the nation.

* Vet your tutor efficiently

This is the meat of the post, the part I want to discuss most. The items above are all reasons why Wyzant is a good platform. Here I want to share what I would recommend to streamline your search.

First, check out your tutor's educational background and subject proficiencies. Wyzant allows tutors to provide a lot of information about themselves, so be sure to look closely at what they say about their tutoring business. For example, I have what I consider to be primary subjects (biology and chemistry). These are my strongest tutoring subjects; they are the subjects I studied the most in school and for which I have booked the most tutoring hours. I also have secondary subjects (physics). These are subjects in which I'm not as strong; I might be working on my own proficiency. For physics, I work with students taking high school physics but not college-level physics. This is the approach I took with high school math as well. I started tutoring algebra 1 and geometry; after a few years, I added algebra 2. Now I'm working on my precalc skills with a few students.

Second, for the tutors who interest you, reach out and ask them about specific questions or topics. You can even send them a sample homework to give them an idea of where you need help. Don't send them more than two documents! It's better to send them a small sample and then make plans to meet for a session. Tutors don't get paid for this kind of client communication, and I don't think it's fair to ask them to spend a lot of time looking at your course materials. If you want a tutor to invest time in you, give them the chance to get paid for it. If it's not a good match, tell Wyzant and they'll refund your money.

When students have vetted me like this, and they've sent a sample of the work they are trying to do, I have been able to honestly assess whether my skill set is a good match for them. But for this to work, you have to be pretty specific and transparent about what you need. Sometimes that's really hard for a student to do.

Is it wrong to meet with a tutor and then figure things out? No, not at all! But I want you to understand that it takes time for a tutor to figure out how to help you. It's not a bad use of time, but it does take time, and that's time for which a tutor should be paid.

* * *

I hope these tips are helpful! Do you have any questions for me about Wyzant or finding a tutor? Ask them in the comments and I'm happy to answer them. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

An Update for 2020

Hello, dear reader!

After a long hiatus, I have returned to update and refresh this site. The year is now 2020, we are living through the covid-19 pandemic, and it feels like everything has changed.

I am still tutoring and writing. I had a baby in 2018, and I shifted my freelance commitments from full-time to part-time to be a (mostly) stay-at-home parent to our young son. Samuel is now almost 2.5 years old. He is wonderful--so smart and funny. I have been working on a personal essay about the decision to become a parent, and I look forward to publishing it on this site when it's finished.

Because of my scheduling constraints around childcare, I have a small number of tutoring students with whom I am working this year. Being able to work this semester (fall of 2020) has felt like a lifeline. I'm so glad to have this connection to the outside world during a time when it feels like we still live under the threat of a deadly virus. A few of my sessions are done in person, with both of us wearing masks and hand-sanitizing before and after sessions. It is a risk to be meeting in person, and we remain vigilant about our health and potential covid symptoms. For now, our risk seems to be okay. I've remained healthy, though the pandemic has turned me into a hypochondriac. Every sniffle, every cough, every sore throat makes me think I have covid.

I've been doing more writing and editing work, which I have loved. For four years, I've been a science writer for Dook Dook Ferret Magazine, a magazine for ferret owners which is published through Ferret-World. Austin Writing Shop, a small business I own and run with Courtney Stoker, has been helping clients with job-seeking and school applications. I am working on two books, one solo and one with my friend, Lewis Weil, the founder of Money Positive. (Full disclosure: my partner is a member of the Money Positive team.) And I have a bunch of ideas for essays that I want to write, some of which I plan to publish on this site.

In short, I am absolutely swimming in inspiration.

For now, I am not seeking new tutoring students, but because things can change rapidly, feel free to get in touch with me if you are looking for a math or science tutor. Even if I am unable to work with you or your student, I can give you resources to help you find a tutor.

I wish you all the best! Stay safe and stay healthy.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Five Ways We Should All Try to be Like Scientists

Be brave in front of the Universe, its grandeur and magnificence.  Paraphrased from Carl Sagan

My recent post for The Grad School Series got me thinking about the intellectual benefits of science PhD training.  I no longer work full-time in a lab, but I feel I’ll always be a scientist at heart.  My training shaped me as a person, and I know I’m a better human for having survived that experience.  Here are five ways in which I think we should all strive to be more like scientists.

* Be willing and able to admit when you are wrong.

THIS!  This.  My goodness, we could use more willingness to be wrong.  I’m not saying that you have to like being wrong, but the faster you can admit you are wrong, the faster you can get back on track.  Experiments do not move forward if you can’t admit your hypothesis was wrong or your methodology was flawed.  Life often follows the same rules.  (And it’s okay to make mistakes.  Really.  In my experience, people are far more forgiving of mistakes when you come forward and tell the truth.)

* Be open-minded and skeptical.

Many people underestimate how open-minded scientists have to be about their work.  Science is a strange profession, full of unexplained data and experimental backfires.  We become more effective at this work by embracing that possibility that we are wrong.  Being a scientist has made it easier for me to listen to criticism and to see things from another person’s perspective.  It has softened my hard edges.  I’ve learned that there is often more than one side to a story, so I am slower to judge. 

* Be meticulous when it counts most.

I have my flaky moments, as most of us do.  But science has honed my ability to focus when it really matters.  In an world filled with distractions, I think this skill is invaluable; it’s one that has pulled me through tough spots again and again.

What does being meticulous outside of the lab look like?  For me, it’s a way of defining short-term goals.  Some tasks require intense focus, like driving in bad weather.  Other tasks ask us for some grace, like supporting a friend who just needs some love, not advice.

I try to make sure that my meticulousness is balanced with the understanding that we all make mistakes.  I’m not a religious person, but I need grace in my life, for me and for those around me.  

 * Learn to live with doubt.

Who wants to live with doubt?  No one, that’s who.  And yet, that is what we have in this world.  There will always be uncertainties, and I think it behooves us spiritually to learn how to make peace with our doubts.  I am all about making plans for an uncertain future, but I recognize that life is what happens when you are busy making plans**.

Scientists who are working at the edge of our knowledge, as I did for ten years, are working on the cliff’s edge of doubt.  It provokes intense anxiety.  Paradoxically, I think that working for so many years under those conditions has made me less anxious.  Because I realized that in the face of the unknown, I would still find my way forward.  I believe the same is true for most of us.  But denying our doubt is not the answer: I say embrace it and move forward as best you can.

* Approach problems with a collaborative spirit.

Science taught me how to troubleshoot with the best of ‘em.  Shit would go wrong, and it was my job to figure out how to get things back on track.  Now I apply this strategy to my life outside the lab.  My general MO is to assume that there is a mutually agreeable solution.  I am more open to collaborative problem-solving and more willing to listen.  I’m able to prioritize problem-solving, and guess what?  That means it’s easier to solve problems.

Science is so much more than the scientific method.  It’s an approach to life that transcends lab work and scientific articles.  And because we do science in pursuit of the truth, a scientific worldview is a toolkit that we can employ whenever truth is the highest priority. 

** RIP, John Lennon.