Month: July 2017

Halfway through the summer, but not halfway done

I’ve hit the 4 week mark. Somehow in 4 weeks I’ve managed to almost completely change my project outline. It feels surreal how much my project has evolved in the preliminary stage. Now, this change is not that drastic; I can still keep the title. I haven’t changed what my project is about, but rather how I am going about it.

Originally, I was going to mainly focus on the evolution of sustainability in nonprofits and see how their technical communications has enhanced their sustainability. I would talk about a large group of nonprofits, not going into too much depth.

Now, I am going to profile about three nonprofits (maybe only two if I don’t have enough time). I will case study these nonprofits in-depth to understand their technical communication skills. This involves studying their websites, rhetoric, figuring out their target audiences, looking at their financial reports, and social media pages like Facebook and Twitter. Their will now be an introductory like chapter (longer than most introductions, but not larger than the nonprofits section) on the evolution of sustainability and sustainable development. This will include a working definition, excerpts from the nonprofits being researched, as well as cultural aspects of sustainable development.

The outline of my project has evolved into the following: A preface of my time abroad, an introduction to sustainability/ sustainable development, aspects of technical communications, nonprofit case studies, and concluding remarks.

Even though I have much work ahead of me I am excited with how much research the fellowship has allowed me to accomplish.

Learn more about my project.

Editing My Methods

A week ago, I thought I had successfully finished building the MATLAB script that will automatically present my dot stimuli. I had sorted out the last few bugs that were messing with the subject response key presses and had figured out how to fuse the subject’s vision so that each eye appeared to be receiving the same stimuli although, of course, they were not. I had tested it multiple times on myself without a hitch and even run the whole experiment successfully on a friend without any complications. Then, a graduate student in the lab suggested I make the dot stimuli slightly larger to account for the larger computer monitors I was using as part of my stereoscope. While this was a simple enough fix, it got me thinking: How do you know when you have finished editing your methodology?

There are a massive number of research papers out in the world today. Sure, that number shrinks as you specialize more and more – in my case, focusing on neuroscience papers pertaining to the superior colliculus and its role in visual cognition – but there are still a large number of papers, and thus methodologies, to choose from. Without a way for researchers to go back and comment on the validity and feasibility of their varying approaches to the same problem, it can be difficult to pick and choose what parts of their methodologies you should adopt in your own experiment.

For now, I have been mainly avoiding this problem by deferring to the opinions of those senior to me – my advisor, the graduate students and post-doctoral students in her lab. However, there may come a time when I am in a more senior position, myself, and have to advise others on the experiments that they are running. While I hope that by that time I have enough experience to advise them well, I also hope that by then there is a more objective way of distinguishing the relevancy of papers than just experience for even the most knowledgeable can make mistakes.

I’m running out of time!

kyannaAs Monday rolled around it really hit me that summer is almost over. Naturally I started to freak out because there is so much work that I still want to do. There are some gaps in my research that I need to fill and I want to start writing my thesis. I just hope that I can accomplish all of this by the end of the summer.

Now you may be wondering why I am so worried about this when I still have two semesters left to complete my thesis. Well, at the beginning of this summer Geoff and I had set out a preliminary timeline for my project. Summer would be reserved for the more historical part of my thesis. I would gather as much data as I could about the presidency and the courts to understand how their powers have evolved over time. Since my last blog post, I have focused on different tools that the president can use to exert his will. Of the several different instruments that he can use, I mainly focused on executive orders since the second part of my project will center on the Muslim Travel Ban. This line of research led to the discovery of Executive Order 589 concerning the travel of Japanese and Korean labors. Even though I only have a limited understanding of this order so far, I feel as though it will become a crucial part of my project.

For the upcoming week, I will try to focus most of my attention into preparing for my presentation at the end of this month. Geoff and I have already developed an outline for the presentation that should help me create a draft for my talk. Now I need to go back over my notes, which may be the hardest part of the process since there is just so much information that I could talk about. Additionally, I will need to practice before the actual presentation. I am not the biggest fan of public speaking and tend to become very nervous whenever I have to do it. By having a few practice sessions, hopefully I will feel less anxious during the actual presentation.

Learn more about my project.



Continuing Work on the Novel

I’ve been working full-time on the novel for almost three weeks now, hoping to hit the 10,000 word mark by Friday. Patterns in my work ethic and “idea reception” are beginning to emerge. Keeping a day-to-day journal and using the Habits app since late May have both been particularly informative. Working toward a first draft is beginning to feel like I’m swimming toward shore in a lagoon. Each flurry of ideas and progress feels like a wave lifting me up and carrying me farther, and each period without ideas feels like I’m swimming, sometimes against a strong current.

My novel is set at a large tech company in Silicon Valley, where I went to high school. Over the weekend I drove over to Washington D.C. to spend some time with a couple friends who work at Facebook’s D.C. office. I learned a lot of details about life at Facebook that I could not have come up with on my own, many of which reaffirmed the axiom that the truth is stranger than fiction. Also visited Mt. Vernon while I was there. Definitely an interesting experience. Being there breathed some life into my conception of George Washington, particularly looking over the Potomac and seeing the view George Washington loved so much, as we know from his writings. Before I left I saw some Make America Great Again hats out in the wild for the first time since the election. Very spooky.

The greatest challenge I’ve faced so far writing this novel has been to allow myself write terribly and fix it later, instead of holding every sentence to a final-draft or even just a third-draft standard and not writing anything at all. Not only has relaxing the standards of my first-draft writing allowed me to write more, it has also allowed me to explore the world of the story in more ways than I would have had access to otherwise. This summer is shaping up to be the best I’ve ever had.

Found Footage

Recently, I’ve been working through some TV / Media coverage of Vulvodynia for my documentary. There’s a lot of work around utilizing found imagery in your work, like working out copyright agreements and finding out how to merge different aesthetics. Currently, I have watched and taken notes on MTV True Life, specifically the episode about painful sex. They focus Vulvodynia around sex instead of a lifestyle chronic pain condition, which increases the stigma against the condition. I’m interested in taking this found footage and critiquing it as part of a larger systemic problem that prevents many individuals with Vulvodynia from seeking medical help.

The other work I’m interested in watching includes Sex and the City where Carrie, a main character, has Vulvodynia and then takes antidepressants for her “depressed vagina,” which pokes fun at the condition. Another show, Private Practice, cures Vulvodynia overnight, which is also unrealistic. Last, I plan to watch the Dr. Oz episode on this condition and integrate facets of that into the documentary. Hopefully soon I will have a comprehensive collection of found footage to pull from and integrate into my systemic critique of how the media and television portray vulvar pain.

It’s a Lot Quieter Now

(This blog post was originally written on July 14.)

The four weeks of June passed by in a blur of sunscreen, pools, and Teddy Grahams. Now, I am sitting in the office of the Children’s School with my notes of the memory games that the children played with me, my laptop open to Google Docs, and my iPad channeled in to watch Wimbledon as I read more papers and cheer for Rafa Nadal (Update: since I started drafting this post he lost a valiant battle in the Round of 16). Summer camp has reached the end, and now I am working to determine the focus and methods of my research project with two weeks left in Pittsburgh; unfortunately, playtime is over.

Looking at all the notes I took about what the children said and did while playing the memory games, I became convinced that they could learn and start to use memory strategies in a shorter amount of time than I anticipated. The children had many choices of activities during their time outside, and even I found myself wishing I could make a wooden bee at the woodworking station. Having all these other fun activities available meant that their time spent playing games with me was sporadic, and some children only played once or twice throughout the weeks of camp. However, with the children who came to play with me every day, I saw some developments in their playing strategies in the few weeks I had with them.

Per Dr. Carver’s suggestion, I talked naturally to the children to see what sort of prompting phrases I would use to help them remember items during game play. I asked a lot of questions such as, “Have we seen this card before?” or ” What was on this card?”. Based on their response, on the next turn I might ask, “Where have we seen this card before?” to encourage them to think of the matching card to successfully get the pair. The purpose of everything I say during the games is to help the children rehearse the information they have been exposed to previously, and also to help them pick out the important pieces of information to remember in the future. Children were always coming and going in the middle of games, and because of all the excitement happening, I didn’t expect them to pay much attention to what I said. Instead, in the last week of camp, I saw that the children who spend the most time playing games with me started asking the same questions, whether it was to themselves or to others playing the game. It seems like they were picking up on what they should pay attention to in order to remember the cards better.

The children’s competitiveness also played a role in their performance. When there was a larger group of children, I sometimes emphasized that we had to work together to find all the matching pairs, trying to avoid conflicts or hurt feelings. They reminded other players of what they were supposed to be looking for, and often made suggestions about where they thought the matching card was. On the other hand, when there were only one or two children playing with me, I sometimes competed against them to slightly change the objective of the game. I would still ask them for advice on where to go, but now that there was a competition, many of them would actually point me to the wrong card, and would then proceed to make the correct match on their next turn, showing that they knew both where the correct card was, and also where it was not. It was also quite entertaining to see their smug faces when they successfully “tricked” me. I’d like to say that I always lost to them purposely, but a few extraordinary children, in their own words, “took a picture of the cards in their brain”, and promptly defeated me before I could put any strategies to good use.

I was surprised to see that both competition and cooperation helped focus attention on the game, improving memory of the cards and performance in the game. That may prove to be another interesting condition to explore, time permitting. As the end of my fellowship period draws nearer, my research project is slowly beginning to take shape. The focus will most likely be on introducing strategies to the children to use during the memory games. Expanding from matching games, the intervention games will cover the four ways that information is processed and stored in memory detailed in A Mind at a Time: pairs, procedures, categories, and rules and patterns. Such games will include a picture recall game, and a sequence of actions game, where children will have to remember and perform a series of different actions in order.

The next immediate step is forming a coherent proposal to send to the IRB for approval (as well as learning to navigate the IRB’s online form). Beyond that, I am working on organizing the literature review I have done so far into an introduction section, and also preparing some presentations for the coming weeks. While some Dietrich Honors Fellows are just getting started in Pittsburgh, I feel like I am in the home stretch for the summer. Seagull the hedgehog is getting ready to go to New Jersey for the first time, and pretty soon I will be preparing for the semester of a lifetime.

Learn more about my project.

Technical Communications meets Public Health: A Tale of Two Disciplines

(This post was originally written on July 3.)

Well I’m halfway through my first week! I’ve been reading tons of papers on Sustainability in the field of Public Health, Technical Communications, and how the two connect. So far I’ve been trying to set up a working definition of Sustainability and Technical Communications to make it easy for a general audience to understand. I have been fortunate to have found great research papers that have answered this question for me and then some. I plan to continue to look for more research papers to build upon the definitions and criteria of what I have.

I’ve realized the connection between the two are stronger than I originally thought. Website development and grant writing are very important parts of nonprofit organizations that communicate their work to others and how they communicate this information can be the difference between having funding and continuing their foundation or not. I will continue to look into this large network of communications and figure out a way technical writers can enhance the reach of nonprofits to make their cause sustainable.

I also will be incorporating a small narrative portion into my book. I have been abroad many times working in public health and I think others will be able to understand the importance of sustainability in under-served countries if they knew more about the people and way of life in these areas. I hope the addition of the narrative will make the book more lively and give a personal touch to something that seems so technical.

Learn more about my project.


Hamilton and Jay and Madison and Washington

(This blog post was originally written on June 30.)

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Since my last blog post, I have made considerable advances in my research. With the recommendation of my mentor, Geoff McGovern, the Barco Law Library at the University of Pittsburgh has become an invaluable resource for me. As you can probably guess, the library is a pretty empty place during the summer so I usually find myself among only the law professors and the librarians. At times this can be rather usefully since I have a quiet place to peruse different texts on constitutional law. I have even found some go-to texts that I have continuously consulted these past few weeks.

In that period of time, I have dedicated my research to the early days of the American presidency and the federal court system. I naturally began to look at how the framers defined the executive and judicial branches during the days of the Constitutional Convention. Unsurprisingly, there was many conflicting views on how much power should be reserved to an executive and how many people should comprise this branch. From there I began to familiarize myself with different presidencies. So far, I have gained a better sense how a single president can strengthen his power during his term(s) in office. My plan is to ultimately group the presidents by time period to easily show my audience how the executive branch has evolved over time.

Aside from the presidency, I have also looked at the powers of the judiciary. I began with the earliest and most noteworthy cases, such as Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland, to understand how powerful the judiciary was in its early days. I have also gotten into the more procedural aspects of the judiciary’s power and how it chooses the cases it hears. Of course, I delved a little too deeply into this topic and wandered into some areas that will not be relevant for my project as a whole. Now, per the suggestion of Geoff, I will devote more time to presidential powers. By the end of the summer I hope that I can begin writing parts of my thesis.

Learn more about my project.

Seeking Programming Help

(This post was originally written on Friday, June 23.)


I have now been working on my thesis for five weeks. While in the first few weeks I was just reading papers in order to compile the beginnings of a literature review, recently I started tackling the MATLAB script that I will use to test my subjects. I have a feeling that this script will be one of the most challenging obstacles that I have to overcome in order to successfully complete my thesis.

I do not have a strong background in programming. Besides some brief experimentation with the language in high school, the only time I have used MATLAB to present stimuli was two years ago. At that time, I was working on the project of a post doc in the same lab that I am now doing my thesis. I only had to make a few minor changes to a script but that still took me a long time as I had to look up the appropriate way to write each command and then try to understand the bugs that invariably showed up. Over the ensuing two years, whatever moderate understanding of the language that I developed during that time seems to have vanished. Initially, this made me worried; there was no way for me to tackle this thesis without a functioning script. Out of this problem, however, emerged both a potential solution and an invaluable life lesson: It is okay to ask for help – I do not need to do this alone.

Since programming is such an integral part of conducting human-based behavioral and cognitive research, everyone in my lab has a lot of experience constructing a script; between all of the post docs and graduate students, they have written thousands of lines of code and worked through innumerable bugs. Consequently, I turned to them for help hoping that they could teach me how to program a script myself. As a skill that I may need to draw upon again and again in the future, I wanted to actually learn the language and how it can best be applied.

I am now in the midst of this learning process. Apart from getting more acquainted with MATLAB, this experience has also reacquainted me with the other members of Dr. Behrmann’s lab. Their support and technical expertise form a solid foundation upon which I have begun developing my own skills. Thus, while the prospect of constructing a script in MATLAB is still daunting, I now find myself looking forward to the challenge as I am no longer facing it alone.

Learn more about my project.


The past three weeks I’ve been traveling in Los Angeles, meeting with individuals who have Vulvodynia (chronic pain of the vulva discussed in last blog post). I managed to spend the day with two different women, filming interviews, the spaces they live in, and self-treatment related to the condition. Above you will find five stills from some of the raw footage, which I’m still working through. The biggest question I’m thinking about so far is how to connect the stories of these individuals, working in unique facets of each narrative while still revealing aspects of the overall healthcare system and Vulvodynia treatment. Moving forward, I’ll be focusing on meeting with individuals in Pittsburgh and NYC to film parts of their experiences with Vulvodynia.

Learn more about my project.