Just the Bear Facts

To help you get your bearing in Grad School.

Month: September 2016

Talking to Bears, Alumni Edition: Erin Dixon

Talking with Bears is a series where we take a few minutes each week to talk to some of the current graduate students at Baylor and discuss their experience at the university and in Waco.

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Hometown: Houston, Texas

Undergraduate Degree:  B.S. in Nutritional Sciences

Undergraduate University:  Baylor University

Graduate Degree:  Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction

Graduate University: Baylor University

Year of Graduation:  August 2015

What was the biggest factor that persuaded you to attend Baylor for graduate school? And to come back to teach? 

I attended Baylor for my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees.  I did leave Waco for a few years after finishing my undergraduate degree; I moved to Oklahoma City to complete a dietetic internship and to work as a dietitian.  After working in a hospital as a clinical dietitian for about two years, I realized that wasn’t my “calling” or passion in life.  I had always thought I would enjoy teaching and education.  After much thought and prayer, I decided to move back to Waco to complete the Strickland Scholars program, a combined masters and teacher certification program in Baylor’s School of Education.  After completing that program, I taught high school science at West High School and then Rapoport Academy.  I decided to pursue a Ph.D. as a way to grow professionally as an educator.  I looked around at other programs, but I decided to stay in Waco and to attend Baylor’s program because this allowed me to continue teaching at West and then Rapoport.  (I taught high school at least part-time for the duration of my doctoral program.  The classes are all offered at night, and so this allowed me to teach during the day.)

I finished my doctoral degree in August 2015.  For the 2015-2016 school year, I continued teaching at Rapoport Academy and also taught a night class at Baylor as an adjunct instructor.  My plan was to continue teaching at Rapoport for another year or two, really taking my time in the search for a job in higher education.  However, that plan changed when Dr. Suzanne Nesmith (my mentor professor) contacted me in the Spring of 2016 to see if I might be interested in a position as a visiting lecturer in the School of Education.  My responsibilities in this position include supervising student teachers and teaching science methods courses.

What was one thing that surprised you about graduate school at Baylor?

I was surprised by how willing the professors were to work with and mentor graduate students.

If you had to describe your graduate school experience in three words, what would they be?

Rewarding, diligence, community.

What activities were you involved with outside of the classroom?

As I mentioned above, I taught high school science at least part-time for the duration of my doctoral program.  For the first two years, I taught full-time at West High School.  For the last three years, I taught part-time at Rapoport Academy.  When I was teaching part-time at Rapoport, I also had a graduate assistantship with Dr. Nesmith.  The combination of being a teacher, student, and GA took up most of my time; however, I do think that it is very important to try to maintain some type of balance.  For me, that meant working out regularly and being involved at my church.

What does your average Saturday look like now as compared to when you were a graduate student?

Saturdays are a lot more relaxed and low-key now.  During the work week, I focused most of my attention on preparing for my teaching responsibilities and completing GA tasks.  So the weekends were when I focused on my graduate course work.  I was up pretty early on Saturdays to get started on that.  I’m definitely enjoying sleeping in and relaxing on the weekends now.

How has the city of Waco impacted your time here?

With the exception of the three years that I lived in Oklahoma City, I’ve been in Waco since 1999 when I started my undergraduate years at Baylor.  It’s been so exciting to see the changes that have taken place in Waco during that time.  Growing up in Houston, Waco initially felt too small to me.  Waco has grown on me throughout the years though, and now I can’t imagine myself in a big city.

What is your go-to lunch spot in Waco?

Lula Jane’s or Alpha Omega

Lula Jane's WTX

If you could give one piece of advice to prospective graduate students that are interested in Baylor, what would it be?

Go for it!  You won’t regret it!  The combination of Baylor’s Christian environment, top-notch graduate programs, small classes, and excellent professors provides for a great graduate school experience.

Compiled by Matthew Doyen

Gradvice: Make the Move!

Growing up, Bruce Springsteen was always a favorite of many people in my hometown. Maybe it was because of his patriotic songs that continue to be anthems to generation after generation. Maybe it was because of his rock star persona that earned him one of the best nicknames ever. Maybe it was because of his local and musical ties to the City of Brotherly Love. I never quite understood the obsession until his song “My Hometown” came on the radio during my summer vacation road trip.

The last verse reads:

Last night me and Kate, we laid in bed,

Talking about getting out, packing up our bags and maybe heading south.

I’m thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now,

Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said,

“Son take a good look around, this is your hometown.”

Then, it finally hit me. Perhaps the reason why so many people in the area loved The Boss was because of the fact that they could easily identify with the lyrics of hometowns and glory days. Perhaps, like Bruce and Kate, they missed the opportunity to leave and have been stuck in the same city ever since. Perhaps they are now always finding themselves wondering and “talking about getting out.”

Attending Graduate School gives you the opportunity to avoid wondering all of the “what ifs” and “could have beens.” The best advice that I could ever give is: take it!

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I don’t say this because I think that people should be wanderlust travelers or because I think that never leaving the same place shows a lack of ambition or because I think that I have a poor relationship with my hometown. In fact, I plan on returning to eastern Pennsylvania because it is home and nothing ever beats home. I say this because when I do go back, I know I won’t ever wonder if I belong somewhere else.

I didn’t apply to a school in central Texas by accident. I was always decent at geography and knew what I was getting myself into moving a two-day car ride away. The truth is that I’m using my time in Graduate School as a trial period – a trial period for discovering if I can live away from my entire family and lifelong friends and everything that I have known for the first twenty-two years of my life. I did it now because I want to know where to look for employment after I graduate. I want to know if I can look in Texas or further away on the West Coast or if I need to look closer to home. I want to know this before I accept a job that I’ll have to leave in a few months because I’m too lonely or scared and send my career careening backwards.

Graduate School is not only a time for challenging ourselves inside the classrooms and research labs, but it is also a time for learning what environments we enjoy. Our time in school, despite some of our best efforts, has an expiration date. Our job is to be as prepared as possible when that time inevitably comes. It doesn’t matter if we end up where we started or halfway across the world. If we took the time to learn in Graduate School where we can make it, then we’ll know that it won’t matter.

Written by: Matthew Doyen

Dr. Chen’s Unlikely Journey to a Biostatistician

Wencong Chen grew up a world away from the low-hanging trees and sunny skies of Waco in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, China. Despite being one of the most affluent provinces in the country, his early life was littered with poverty and “battle-testing” moments. Still, he persevered and graduated top of his class from Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou. After graduation, he received a position at a test agency that dealt with Japanese and Korean languages, but his curiosity soon got the better of him. He would often wonder the difference between a passing and failing mark among the thousands of test records he was handling. As a result, he came to the United States and enrolled at New Mexico State (NMSU) in Las Cruces, where his wife was obtaining her PhD, to pursue a master’s degree in statistics.

While at NMSU, he discovered that his true calling was to be a statistician. He continued toward his dream when he joined the Baylor family in 2013 as a doctoral student. The decision to choose Baylor was admittedly a difficult one as other schools from around the area were also interested in the recent Aggie graduate. Ultimately, he was most impressed by our beautiful campus, small class size, recent awards (we were honored by the American Statistical Association with the Statistical Partnerships among Academe, industry, and Government Award in 2012), and cutting-edge Bayesian research.

As he was researching pharmaceutical companies to intern at over the summer, the doctoral student was also welcoming a baby to his family. Unfortunately, his newborn daughter could not be taken home and was keep in the NICU of the Baylor Scott and White Medical Center under the watchful eye of Dr. Patel. After some observation, the doctor strongly suggested that Wencong’s daughter had to take the Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) genetic test, which maps the genetic material in a person’s cells. It is usually used to visualize specific genes or portions of genes and to help spot abnormalities.

The new father was at a loss. He didn’t know if his newborn had a genetic disease that was still baffling the science community. He didn’t know how to tell his wife that their baby girl might not have a “normal” life. He didn’t know if he was ready for such heavy responsibilities. He didn’t know what to do. Then, a colleague reached out and encouraged him to share a picture of his daughter with their department. What came next can only be described by Wencong as a “happy blessing from our warm community.”

The next few weeks were some of the longest and hardest as they waited for the test to return from a genetics lab on the West Coast. While still searching for a summer internship, Wencong lived in the parking lot of the hospital during this period to “save small pieces of time” and to make sure that his daughter was never alone. He made it through the screening process at one of the only companies still recruiting, Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, which, according to their site, is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company committed to bringing to market novel products for the treatment of rare and ultra-rare diseases, with a focus on serious, debilitating genetic diseases.

After two more rounds of interviews, Wencong finally got the offer. He had to divert from his preferred topic of survival analysis and his dissertation work on time-to-event data, which was challenging since his entire time at Baylor had been devoted to the subject, to topic that is required for most genetic drug developments: longitudinal data analysis. Fortunately, he had an understanding mentor in Dr. James Stamey, a professor in the statistical science department, who lent his support the throughout the process. Wencong’s internship experience at Ultragenyx in Novato, California shocked him. The soon-to-be Baylor grad never realized the large amount of genetic diseases that lack the available drugs to cure. In fact, he said that there are over 7,000 types of rare diseases in the world and three million people in the United States who suffer from them. It’s no surprise that after graduation he returned to Novato to work at Ultragenyx as a biostatistician.

During our email conversations, Wencong shared a Washington Post article about Julianna, a four-year-old girl in Washougal, Washington. She was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease (CMT), which, according to the article and to the National Institutes of Health, is one of the world’s most common inherited neurological disorders. There are many mutations of CMT that have symptoms that range in severity. Unfortunately, Julianna had one of the worst cases and, after speaking with her parents about it for weeks, decided one day to forgo the painful treatment. She passed away soon after.

Wencong wanted to share his story, but, more importantly, wanted people to know that Baylor grads are fighting to find the cure for these rare genetic diseases. Baylor is also a leader in the research of cancer, which, according to the American Cancer Society, affects more than one million people in the country each year. As written in the spring edition of the university’s Arts and Sciences Magazine, “Arts and Sciences faculty have helped Baylor bring in more than $5 million in grants and other funding during the past six years to study cancer, and the University’s current strategic plan, Pro Futuris, provides a foundation for even more growth in the future.”

I love going to the football, basketball, and baseball games, but these stories and accomplishments make me more proud to be a Baylor Bear then anything that happens inside a stadium or arena. It shows that our university is trying to make a difference and I really couldn’t ask for anything more. As for the results of Wencong’s daughter’s FISH tests, they came back negative and she will enjoy a long, healthy, and happy life.

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By Matthew Doyen

Grads on the Water

As you transition into graduate school, you’ll start to notice how truly different it is from your time as an undergrad. One major difference that you might discover is the lack of diversity in your friend group. This deficiency will not necessarily be in age, race or sex, but rather in academic and career interests. In other words, your friends will probably all be from the same program, your program. It only makes sense. With the extended amount of time you stay on campus, you become close with the people that study, work, and research at the same time and in the same discipline as you. The fact is that there’s not the opportunity to casually meet people like there was in undergrad.

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Enter, the Graduate School Association (GSA). Throughout the year, GSA hosts events that give graduate students a chance to relax and to meet one another outside of the classroom, lab, or library. These events are extremely valuable, especially if you listen to the advice that most students and faculty will announce during your first weeks: meet people outside of your program (because we all need an outlet sometimes). The family-friendly activities include football tailgates, appreciation picnics, and discount days at the Farmer’s Market. However, one of the organization’s most popular events doesn’t even take place on land or include the ultimate marketing tactic of free food (although there was a $1 off Pokey-O’s perk that most certainly did not go unused).

Grads on the Water is an amazing event that brings Baylor’s graduate school population closer to the city of Waco. Partnering with Bicycle World, who merged with Outdoor Waco a few years ago, students have the opportunity to rent a kayak, paddle board, or canoe to freely explore the Brazos River. The rental fee, which is usually $20/hour, was completely covered by GSA for the entire three-hour event. Because of the beautiful (below 100˚) summer’s day, this year’s Grads on the Water was extremely successful. Over 100 graduate students, with their families and friends, paddled under the historic Suspension Bridge while the Alico Building towered in the background and kayaked past the columns of the university’s McLane Stadium and foul poles of the Turner Athletic Complex.

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Events such as Grads on the Water provide an opportunity not only to meet the other 2,000 Baylor graduate students, but to realize your similarities go far behind the classroom. We all go to Baylor. We all live in Waco. We all want the most out of this experience and out of our time here. Among many other things, GSA helps us realize those likenesses, which may be the group’s most important achievement.

You can follow GSA on Facebook and Twitter!

By Matthew Doyen

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