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Day in the Life of a Neuroscience Graduate Student (and New Dad)

Hello my name is Chris Valdez. I am a 4th year Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate here at the University of Michigan. My hometown is San Antonio, Texas and I am very happy to have moved up here to be part of this excellent university. At first the move was difficult for my wife and I but as you read my blog, you will see we made a happy little family here in Ann Arbor. First-things-first, the research! Currently my thesis work focuses on adult neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity. Essentially, I am interested how newborn cells are regulated in the adult brain. This is an interesting field of neuroscience because the role of these newborn cells in the adult brain has not fully been characterized. Several lines of evidence suggest newborn cells play a role in certain types of memory formations or possibly are highly compromised by post-traumatic stress disorder. The theme of my work is to focus on how neurological systems work at baseline conditions, and then discover how they are altered when a gene is removed or the synthesis of a protein is blocked. Sometimes the changes are similar to what we see in mental disorders. In which case we pursue the mechanism of these molecules to determine if it has a role in a particularly known disease.

The image depicts a dendritic segment with spiny bulbed protrusions.

The image depicts a dendritic segment with spiny bulbed protrusions called dendritic spines. At these protrusions distinct connections called synapses are made from two neuronal cells in the brain.

In the next two years I see myself having completed my Ph.D. here at Michigan. My career goal is to seek a position with the Department of Defense or Army Research Laboratories. The reason is that I want to focus my work and talents on helping those who have served in the military by researching neurological factors and disorders that affect the active-duty solider or the veteran whom may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A coronal segment of the adult mouse hippocampus the yellow puncta mark newborn neurons.

A coronal segment of the adult mouse hippocampus the yellow puncta mark newborn neurons.

As for now, I am a graduate student. I’m always trying to balance life and lab, looking for new ways to make myself more efficient as a student, and trying to make the most out of my weekends. One thing that I have not yet mentioned is that while I am a student and husband I just became something else that is both amazing and extremely terrifying…I’m now a dad as well! My wife and I had our daughter, Nora Beth on August 13, 2013. She has just been an amazing precious treasure to have in our lives. Now being a graduate student with a newborn is obviously challenging; however, I hope to share with you a day in my life, and show you that while there can be potential chaos, there can also be these beautiful Zen moments that make it all worth it.

Monday - Friday
6:30-7:15am
I start off my morning with the remembrance of bottles past. Usually we have a little pile of bottles from the night so I knock these out real quick, and prepare a short breakfast for Yvonne and I after Nora is all prepped for daycare. We are off and Yvonne drops off Nora on her way to work and I set out for lab, on my scooter of course.

7:30am-6:30pm
Eleven hours, this is how much time a day I give myself to get my tasks done for the day, go to seminars and write sections of my thesis. As a fourth year student in the lab, I’ve become more efficient at techniques I use in the lab and realistic about what I can accomplish from day-to-day. However I have to say that in my first and second year, I really didn’t have the keen eye. Often times it would take me a while to get an experiment going or I would lose track of time and start an experiment too late in the day. For the most part, I have a grasp on these variables and can accomplish lot more in the same amount of time as a fourth year versus my first or second year former self. Now, depending on what experiments I am completing that day I may go back to lab later in the evening, but this is usually to change cell media or to do something real quick.

Me busy in the lab.

Me busy in the lab.

6:45-8:30pm-ish
During the first couple of hours at home it is mostly all business. Yvonne will typically be getting Nora settled in from daycare. There is dinner to be made, potential laundry to tend, grocery runs to make, bills to be paid, the list can go on and on but most important, there is a baby who needs a bath. Yvonne always handles this and I play a support role by getting the lotion, towel, pjs, and a warm bottle ready.

9:00-11:00pm
By this time we have already put Nora to sleep and we finally have some time to ourselves. At this point, we watch a couple of shows we like while we have the laptops open and casually plan for the next day. This time is usually really peaceful because there is usually a mixture of music playing in the background or laughs from watching our weekly t.v. shows.

11:30pm Good night!

Weekends. On Saturday and Sunday my time is a lot more flexible, thank goodness! You’ll see that I only set aside time slots for work and play.

Saturday
8:00-11:00am
If I have to do any work on the weekend then this is the time I do it; otherwise we have a family breakfast and take a small stroll at a local park just 5 minutes away.

11:30am
The rest of my day is usually free and it's always fun to do a little weekend adventure.

Yvonne and I enjoying a Michigan football game during Homecoming Weekend!

Yvonne and I enjoying a Michigan football game during Homecoming Weekend!

Nora and I taking a mid-day weekend nap. I love these moments.

Nora and I taking a mid-day weekend nap. I love these moments.

Sunday
9:30-11:00am
Morning bike ride.

11:30am
I’ll go back to lab if I need to finish something up but usually by Sunday it is only a culture to maintain or something to complete in preparation for Monday. Like Saturday we usually have something fun planned.

Me busy at the lab again.

Me busy at the lab again.

Sunday evening. The evening time usually consist of preparation tasks. We get Nora prepped for daycare. I go over my schedule for the week, and get an early night’s sleep.