Category Archives: Student Life

Finding my way Back to School

By TJ Pinto, OTD ’24

When I was in high school, I was known as the dental guy. I attended a vocational-technical high school where I took the typical courses that are offered at most high schools, like math, science, history, and English, however, I also had the opportunity to take dental assisting courses, even becoming certified in dental radiology when I was 16. Throughout high school, I had competed at the national level in Dental Science competitions through an organization called HOSA Future Health Professionals, even medaling in the top 3 in the nation two times. A fire had ignited deep within me. I was going to be a dentist, and no one could tell me otherwise.

TJ practicing clinical skills on his friend in his high school dental assisting course.

Fast forward a few years and I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at the University of Delaware with a concentration in pre-dentistry. Among other prerequisite courses, I remember sitting in my Organic Chemistry class and constantly thinking, “This is not for me,” though I kept moving forward, nonetheless. At this point, I had convinced myself that I would be better off suffering through numerous dental school prerequisites that I was not passionate about rather than giving up on the career that I had been interested in since I was in the sixth grade. The idea of having to start over and find a new career path was just too daunting for me to even fathom, yet I couldn’t help but notice that the fire within me was slowly dimming.

In the Fall of 2017, this fear suddenly felt insignificant, after a tragic event occurred back at home, feeling like my world had stopped completely while the rest of the world continued to fly past me. As a result of this tragedy, my mom was critically injured, ultimately having to receive intense physical and occupational therapy. I watched her go from being intubated in the ICU to using a walker around the house to now being fully independent and working as a nurse again. My mom’s strength was truly undeniable. Her resilience inspired me and the work that her therapists did to help her to heal both physically and mentally opened my eyes to a new field of careers. By the winter of 2019, just months before graduating from undergrad, I decided to shift my focus to a career in the rehabilitation sciences.

When considering this new field of careers, I initially decided to pursue physical therapy. I had a general idea of what the role of a physical therapist was from accompanying my mom to physical therapy appointments when I was home from college. When I was younger, I even went to a PT myself for a rotator cuff injury. During my final semester of undergrad, I started volunteering for a few hours a week at the University of Delaware Physical Therapy clinic—a clinic run by clinicians and student PTs from the university. Being able to see patients on a weekly basis and ask questions about their treatment excited me. I ended up even attending a career fair held by my university for students to find jobs and summer internships specifically focused on PT. At this fair, I met numerous representatives from different companies and the small, welcoming family feel that I received from the Premier Physical Therapy & Sports Performance team pushed me to hand over my resume. Just around a week or two later, I had landed a job working with them as an exercise technician beginning a few days after my graduation in May of 2019.

TJ and his sister at his graduation from the University of Delaware.

Working at Premier was such an incredible opportunity for me. I was able to receive hands-on experience working with patients, observe treatments being performed by PTs, and ask as many questions as my heart desired. Though, I slowly found myself gravitating toward the back corner of the clinic, an area where people were constantly talking and laughing, even being referred to as the “fun corner” by my clinic director on a few occasions. I began speaking with the clinician working in this area, an occupational therapist working in hand therapy as a Certified Hand Therapist (CHT). At this point, I knew almost nothing about what an occupational therapist was, but I was interested in learning more.

In August of 2019, I began shadowing Katie, an occupational therapist working in both an outpatient setting and an acute care setting. I remember the very first patient that I had observed her working with, an individual who had experienced a stroke and was having difficulty performing several of their activities of daily living (ADLs) independently. On this day in particular, Katie was working with them to straighten their pointer finger, which was tightly flexed as a result of a trigger finger. Katie set up a Jenga tower and played with them, encouraging them to focus on straightening and using that one pointer finger specifically. On a different day, this same patient came in and stated that they were unable to buckle their seatbelt without assistance from their partner. Katie then brought us all outside, had the patient get into the passenger seat like they normally would, and then observed them attempting to buckle themselves. She quickly noticed that the center console was what was getting in the way and that once it was flipped up, the patient could fully extend their pointer finger, reach down, and buckle themselves on their own. Katie made treatment fun, but it still had purpose. She listened to the specific concerns and goals that mattered to her patients and did everything she could to support them so that they could live their lives to the fullest. After a few sessions of shadowing Katie, the fire within me that had almost completely extinguished a few years earlier was now ignited all over again—fueled by the idea of one day becoming an occupational therapist, providing holistic care and helping people to do the things that matter most to them.

Once I had officially decided that I wanted to become an OT, it was time to start preparing. I decided that I would take a full year to finish up my remaining prerequisites, gain hours shadowing in multiple settings, and continue to work as an exercise technician. In the fall of 2019, I was shadowing in a school-based setting, an outpatient setting, and a hospital while taking two classes at a local community college and working throughout the week. While things were overwhelming at times, I loved everything that I was doing and grew to appreciate how my schedule was structured despite having so much going on. In each setting that I was shadowing, I was learning more and more about how the role of the OT is similar over-all, but still noticing specific differences. For example, one morning I could be in a school-based setting observing an OT that was working on pre-writing strokes with younger children and the next morning I could be observing an OT helping a post-operative hip replacement patient to learn how to use adaptive equipment before being discharged from the hospital. I sometimes envied my friends who had done their observations over the summer during undergrad, not having to worry about schoolwork, work, and other responsibilities that I had at this time. Though simultaneously, I felt like this experience was incredibly valuable, allowing me to have time to really research a field that was new to me, giving me the opportunity to broaden my personal scope of what I understand OT to be.

The chaotic schedule that I had come to love was promptly interrupted in March of 2020, when the whole world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was suddenly furloughed from my job, being promised that I would be brought back as soon as possible, though we all had no idea how long this pandemic would last. Suddenly, my busy days of work, school, and shadowing experiences had turned into monotony. I woke up at 9 or 10 AM each day, sitting on the couch and doing all my homework within the first two days of the week. For the rest of the week, I mainly just sat around the house, only leaving for daily bike rides around the neighborhood in an attempt to keep myself sane. One afternoon, as I was looking up information about different graduate schools, I decided to sign up for as many virtual information sessions as possible. I had attended almost 10 in a one-month period, eventually even having a pre-Zoom routine that I would follow. I would go upstairs about 15 minutes early, wash my face and brush my hair, put on a polo or a button-down shirt (though I was almost always wearing shorts or joggers from the waist-down), adjust the lighting in my room, and then pull up a master document that I had created with information about every single school I was interested in. On May 6th, 2020, I attended the Tufts OTD information session, knowing almost nothing about the program but knowing that it was a strong school overall. I still remember how friendly and passionate Jill Rocca was, an Admissions Coordinator for the OT department who had attended Tufts for her Post-Professional Masters and her Post-Professional Doctorate in OT. When listening to the current students in the program speak about their experiences, they seemed so happy with their decision to attend Tufts and seemed to have a lot of support from their classmates and faculty. At the end of this Zoom call, Tufts had risen to the top of my list and I was going to do everything in my power to try to be in their next cohort.

The Premier Physical Therapy and Sports Performance team dressed up for the holidays.

In June of 2020 I was finally called back into work, where I gradually went from working one or two days a week to working five days a week once I had completed my last prerequisite courses. I was the only exercise technician at the clinic and felt a bit overwhelmed. However, this helped me to work on my time management skills, prioritizing tasks, and working on my overall self-care before, during, and after work. In July, I began to apply to schools. I was only able to focus on applications in the evenings and on the weekends due to my busy work schedule. Nonetheless, I was diligent and submitted all my applications by mid-August since I completed my personal statement back in May and reached out to my references in advance.

Once I started to receive interviews, things began to feel so much more real and my Zoom meeting routine had now turned into a Zoom interview routine, requiring me to leave work early or come in late. In November, I had received my acceptance letter from Tufts and genuinely could not believe it—quite literally falling to the floor in disbelief when I had received the email. The conversations that I was having with patients at work began to shift from, “I’m preparing to apply to graduate school” to “I will be attending graduate school,” which was such a surreal feeling. As my last day of work approached and the reality of moving away for school truly began to sink in, I felt overwhelmed about finding roommates, buying furniture, making sure my financial aid was in place, and so much more—something that I had forgotten about after being out of school for a few years.

Something that I struggled with more than I was expecting was the overall adjustment to being a full-time student again. The first 6-week summer session of the OTD program consisted of an OT Foundations course and Gross Anatomy for the first half of the summer, then Neuroanatomy for the second half of the summer. While I had taken prerequisite courses a full year prior to this, I could hear the comments of people I had talked to in the past echoing through my head, telling me how hard it would be to get back into school after taking time off. Once the semester began, those voices progressively got louder. I felt lost navigating Gross Anatomy, as this course was so densely compacted with challenging material. I realized that my study strategies from undergrad weren’t holding up very well in graduate school and that I would need to adjust quickly. Though it took some trial and error, I eventually decided to make Quizlet flashcards, creating one study set for each lecture and one specific study set with all the muscles and their attachments, actions, and nerve innervations. I wrote most of my flashcards as questions, creating a practice exam that I could randomize and add images to if I wanted. I also carried around a small whiteboard and markers in my backpack, drawing the brachial plexus, arteries of the upper and lower extremity, and whatever else I needed to see visually over and over. While it was frightening to make these big changes so early in the semester, I feel like it was helpful to realize that I am not the exact same student that I was in undergrad. Similarly, the program I am in is very different from my undergrad program, which means that changes are to be expected.

Another challenge I faced when beginning grad school was my struggle with the overall transition. In undergrad I experienced homesickness in my first semester, though, after that I began to love college, the people I had met, and the freedom I had. When I started at Tufts, I assumed that it wouldn’t be so bad since I had already lived away from home before. Nevertheless, after just a few weeks, I quickly began to miss my family and my dogs. I was extremely nervous about having to meet so many new people in a graduate-level program. I had an overwhelming feeling of imposter syndrome, like everyone around me was so intelligent and had such remarkable life experiences, and I was constantly comparing myself to others. The times where I really struggled to get out of my own head or had trouble grasping concepts, I turned to the OT faculty. I appreciated their willingness to listen to me and to help me.

Some of these meetings were more personal and would range from talking about things I was struggling with in a specific lesson to delving deeper into what is important to me as a student and what I want out of my education. Fortunately, as time passed, these negative thoughts began to diminish, and I began pushing myself out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in the many great opportunities that are available at Tufts.

TJ and classmates from his cohort

In the summer, I mustered up the courage to run for a position within Tufts’ Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA), and I was elected to the Student-Faculty Representative position for my cohort. I was so excited to have the opportunity to bridge the gap between my cohort and the OT faculty, working to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. In the Fall, when the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) was coming for an on-site visit with our program, I was one of the students that was selected to help represent the students of our program, which meant a lot to me. Though the most meaningful experiences for me, outside of my education, have been the close relationships I have formed over the months that I have been here. From the casual summer get-togethers with my cohort, to the Annual Fall BBQ and apple picking events hosted by the Graduate Student Council, to the tight-knit relationships I have made with individual classmate’s one-on-one. I genuinely feel like I have become a valued member of the Jumbo community, making Tufts feel like home for me.

TJ and 3 of his friends from his cohort apple picking together.

Seeing all my hard work pay off, the loud voices of negativity within my head gradually silencing, and the support I have felt from classmates and faculty have proven that I genuinely deserve to be here. I now view the time that spent out of school as a positive. I had time to work out in the real world, make connections, and grow in a way that I may not have been able to do if I had come straight to graduate school from undergrad. Since starting at Tufts, the fire within me continues to roar as my passion for this profession only increases as I learn. I’m seeing myself grow into the clinician that I had hoped to become.

Reflections on Covid: What I Learned From Going to School and Working Virtually

By Lindsey Schaffer, Museum Education M.A. Candidate

Just like everyone else, my lifestyle has changed drastically during the pandemic. This time has taught me what I need to feel at my best. Balancing work and school has been challenging, but I learned a few lessons that have allowed me to achieve a better work life balance. Below are some of my biggest takeaways from quarantine.

The Necessity of Routine

Before the pandemic it was easy to jump out of bed and decide what I wanted to do that day. Now, I need structure so that I don’t get restless. I have found that my planner is a useful tool. I have always used a planner, but now it isn’t just for school and work-related dates, but also Zoom events, grocery runs, and workout classes. Scheduling these things ahead of time gives me something to look forward to and keeps me feeling productive and healthy. I have also gotten into the habit of scheduling Sunday as a ‘reset day.’ I use this time to clean around the house, meal prep, outline the next week in my planner, and do laundry. This helps me start the next week off with a blank slate.

Your Environment Matters

I have always loved decorating my room, but I never realized how important creating a space I loved was before I started spending all of my time there. Over quarantine I started considering how I could make my space as restorative and comfortable as possible. The book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo helped me do this. In the book, she has you examine each item that you own to see if it sparks joy. If not, it is unnecessary clutter that should be donated or re-gifted. The things that spark joy should be taken good care of and stored properly. This book allowed me to examine what objects I owned and how they reflected me personally. Was I partaking in retail therapy over quarantine or acquiring things that I actually needed? In addition to this, I filled my room with things full of life. Plants are an easy way to spruce up your room. Niche in Davis Square has a beautiful array of plants and pots (although they can be on the pricier side). Another way I livened up my space was by adding a vision board next to my bed. I filled this with pictures of what inspired me, whether it was professionals in my field, quotes, the lifestyle that I aspired for, and more.

Work/Life Separation is Hard but Important

I worked from home in the beginning of COVID and found that it was immensely difficult to separate my life from work when I was off the clock. I slept a few feet away from the desk where I spent my workday, and my email inbox was always looming. I learned that I needed to set boundaries with myself at the end of the workday so that I made time to do the things I wanted to do. It was hard to find time for myself working full time, but I found that utilizing my mornings before work was the most effective strategy. Every day before work I tried to have coffee outside and read or write for fun. This allowed me to pursue my creative passions as well as calm my mind. During my workday, I found it important to leave my room during breaks. Going on walks was a healthy and easy alternative to scrolling on social media during my free time.

In Conclusion

The pandemic has been a life altering event. Not everything needs a silver lining, but the quarantine allowed me to look inward and reassess my lifestyle. Ultimately, it taught me to hold my friends and family close while I can. It is great to be back on campus again. I forgot how much I missed it.

Asking for Letters of Recommendation

By Jennifer Khirallah, Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. candidate

Letters of recommendations are a key component in building your professional portfolio. They can make or break any application and leave lasting impressions. These letters unfortunately, need to be thought of months before you need them, so that you have the time to build connections with professors or professionals you wish to ask. Once you have chosen a list of professors to ask for recommendations you begin the daunting task of asking them to do this for you.

The key thing to remember is that you are asking a big favor of someone when you ask them to write you a letter of recommendation. Professors are busy and not all professors have the extra time to curate a special letter. It’s best to do everything you can to make their job as easy as possible.

When you email your professors asking for recommendations you should first explain to them why you want them specifically to write your letter. This includes what unique perspective they can offer. It is good to touch on some key points of your work with them and remind them of your relationship. Also, you want to tell them what aspects of yourself you want them to talk about (your independence, quick thinking, decision making, attitude, technical skills, etc.) so that each of your letters of recommendation touches on a different aspect of what makes you a great candidate.

An additional beneficial item to add in your email is an attachment of your resume or anything they could review when writing your letter. Another good thing to include is a small description of what you are applying for and a little information about the position so they can tailor their letter to your application.

Furthermore, when asking them to write this letter, make sure to give them more than enough time, at least one month, and make sure to tell them the due date is a week before it actually is in case there are major issues with what they wrote, or they are running behind. And do not forget to follow up with them a week before you tell them it’s due!

Finally, keep in mind that some professors may ask you to write your own letter that they will sign or to make them an outline. This is completely normally since professors are so busy. Take your time to curate a letter/outline saying specifically what you want to say about yourself and if you need help just ask a friend. Also, if professors say “no” to writing your letter is it okay, they are likely only saying no to you it because they don’t feel they would write a good enough one that would actually help you due to either lack of time or memory of your relationship with them. One final thing to keep in mind is if you know your professors are not always timely, it may be beneficial to ask one extra professor, so you have an extra to choose from or enough if one doesn’t follow through.

Below is an example of an email sent to a professor asking for a letter of recommendation for a graduate school application.

Example:

Dear Professor Happy,

I hope you had a great weekend. I am writing to ask you if you would write me a letter of recommendation for my graduate school applications. I am applying for a PhD program in Biomedical Engineering at Tufts University. I would like you to write a letter as I worked in your lab for one year working on various projects including X, Y, and Z. You would be able to offer a unique perspective on my skills in a laboratory setting. I am hoping you would touch on how I have played a key role in the progress of projects A and B, how I work well independently, and how I have shown success in designing my own experiments.

The due date for this letter of recommendation is X/(X-7)/X. I am attaching my resume for your reference. Please let me know if this is something you are willing to do and if so if you have any questions for me. Thank you!

Best,
Jenn

Welcome to the SMFA Community

By Lennon Wolcott PB’15 MFA’17

I’ve spent the last 4 years in graduate art admissions, after completing my MFA (’17) and Post-Bac (’15), I hear a similar story from prospective Master of Fine Arts students every year. Artists coming to grad school are looking to expand their voice, hone their practice, as well as find and develop a connection with a network of other artists. 

The goal of a grad program in interdisciplinary contemporary art is to expand and refine who we already are as artists, and much of that can’t happen in a bubble, without our peers. The connections we make in graduate school, are more than colleagues in the classroom; our graduate cohorts become our support systems, our curators, our collaborators, our gallerists, our teachers, our recommenders, and (if we’re lucky) our good friends.

Nearby Gallery, 101 Union Street, Newton Centre – Opening Reception of “In Mid Air”

Last month, I stopped into the newly opened Nearby Gallery in Newton Center, for the exhibition opening of “In Mid Air”. Nearby Gallery was founded by Cal Rice (MFA ’18) and Sam Belisle (MFA ’18). The show was a fabulous and experimental collection of work, from 3 recently graduated SMFA at Tufts undergraduate students, Lightbringer, Calla King-Clements, Daria Bobrova. In the crowd of the reception, there were families, community members, and an assortment of SMFA alumni. At one point as a group of alumni discussed the show and gallery, I realized I was in conversation with MFA graduates from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and a current MFA candidate, set to graduate in 2022. There is excitement in watching people meet, reminisce, and connect; artists sharing their work, talking about their galleries or studios, planning to collaborate, and celebrating the work of both the artists and their expanded cohort success.

Sally Lee (MFA ’20), Sam Belisle (MFA ’18), Cal Rice (MFA ’18)

What I love is that this group support is not an isolated incident. Each month artists of Boston flock to First Friday events in SOWA to see our peers in juried or solo shows. We work with SMFA alumni like Alexandra Photopoulos (MFA ‘10), Allison Gray (MFA’17),and Doug Breault (MFA’17) who run exciting galleries in Cambridge, like Gallery 263; spaces that offer opportunities to submit proposals or join group shows and residencies. We leave our studios and solitude to attend each other’s events, and to celebrate our work and community, creating lasting connections. 

450 Harrison Ave, SOWA Galleries

Each year, as I work to recruit and admit classes to the MFA and Post-Bac programs, I feel a little bit selfish (in the best way) to be able to invite in future members of our extended SMFA graduate cohort. I am excited this year to welcome to campus, the next class of MFA and Post-Bac students who will join our conversations, shows, and the greater community. We’re thrilled to have you. 

Comic Relief

By Khushbu Kshirsagar, M.S. 2021 in Education

This comic was born out of the pandemic-induced stress (of course). I am an international student from India, dealing with the crazy COVID situation there, topped off with imposter syndrome of a student who’s about to graduate. The comic signifies inner strength and the need for self-care, but in a rather wacky way. It is also one of my first attempts of turning my journal writing into a comic strip with personalized illustrations.

Take Day Trip to the Blackstone River Valley

Photo by Abigail Epplett

Written by Abigail Epplett, M.A. 2021 in Museum Education

Need to get away from campus for the day? There are plenty of things to do away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. If you love to spend time outdoors or learn about history, check out the region where I am from: the Blackstone River Valley. Extending from Worcester in south-central Massachusetts to Pawtucket in northern Rhode Island, this National Historical Park offers a wide variety of activities and destinations, from zoos and museums to hiking trails and bikeways. You might even check out the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at the Tufts University campus in Grafton, MA. As I continue to shamelessly plug my home region, here are some suggestions for what to do on your day in the Valley.

Visit Worcester

Worcester is the second largest city in Massachusetts, edging out Springfield by about 30,000 residents. While diminutive in comparison to Boston, the city offers art, culture, and history without the high price of parking or traffic. See fine art from around the world at the Worcester Art Museum, whose exhibits range from an enormous Greek floor mosaic and a medieval armor collection to special exhibits highlighting baseball-inspired fashion and early American folk art. Explore local history at the Worcester Historical Museum & Salisbury Mansion, where an entire exhibit is dedicated to Harvey Ball, the Worcester native who created the smiley face. If you’re traveling with children, or you’re young at heart, visit the eclectic Ecotarium, part children’s museum and part zoo. Be sure to say hello to my favorite residents, Salton and Freyja, the mountain lion siblings who live at the museum’s Wild Cat Station. If indoor adventures aren’t your style, swing by the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Visitor Center in Worcester to check out the exhibits and grab maps of local trails before heading south for a day of biking & hiking. If you miss this venue, don’t worry! Similar visitor centers are located in Whitinsville, MA and Pawtucket, RI.

Biking & Hiking

The Blackstone Valley Greenway is a project to connect Worcester to Providence through a series of bike trails. Currently, three sections of off-road, paved trails make up seventeen miles of the bikeway, with further expansion in progress. The path crosses through many of the towns in the Valley and is a great way to get some exercise while touring the area, with plenty of signage along the way. Visit the Captain Wilbur Kelly House Transportation Museum beside the path in Lincoln, RI to learn more about the Blackstone Canal and the Industrial Revolution.

Photo by Abigail Epplett

Follow the remains of the canal by biking or hiking on the historic towpath from Plummer’s Landing in Northbridge to Stanley Woolen Mill in Uxbridge. Take note that some areas of this path are badly eroded. If you want a less arduous trip, stick to the walking tour near the Canal Heritage State Park portion of the trail. The visitors’ center at River Bend Farm also provides parking and restrooms, along with areas to picnic, fish, and canoe or kayak. Just down the street is West Hill Dam Reserve, which is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The reserve permits dog walking and horseback riding on the trails, and swimming is permitted on the beach.

For more easy biking and walking, head south to Lincoln, Rhode Island for two different outdoor experiences. First, you can roam the fields of Chase Farm, located between the Hearthside House Museum & Hannaway Blacksmith Shop and Historic New England’s Eleazer Arnold House. The blacksmith shop holds classes for smiths at any level on most Sundays, while both houses offer led tours. If you would rather stick to a path, visit Lincoln Woods, part of the Rhode Island State Parks. This slightly hilly three mile loop takes walkers and bikers around a pond suitable for swimming, fishing, and boating. When looking for more extreme outdoor adventures, check out Purgatory Chasm State Reservation in Sutton, managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Hike the trail through the chasm, or bring your own rock climbing gear to scale the walls. Make sure to wear closed-toe shoes and carry plenty of water. The hike back is longer than you think! If you enjoy long walks without a climb, try Douglas State Forest, also managed by DCR. This trail system connects to the Southern New England Trunkline Trail, which runs near the Massachusetts – Rhode Island border for twenty-two miles.

Even More History!

If you’re a tinkerer or inventor, you’ll love the Willard House & Clock Museum in North Grafton, MA. The small museum showcases over 80 clocks made by the Willard family during the 18th and 19th centuries. The building itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and retains its original character. The spacious lawn of the museum makes it an ideal place for plein air painting and photography. Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket, RI houses multiple exhibits on the lives of mill workers in the Blackstone River Valley, focusing on the experience of French-Canadian immigrants to the region. Life-sized reproductions of houses, a church, a parochial school classroom, and a union hall combine with video presentations and sound effects to create an immersive experience.

To see the mill that started the Industrial Revolution in the United States, visit Old Slater Mill National Historic Landmark in Pawtucket, RI. The building is currently closed as its programs undergo a transformation after its purchase by the National Park Service. Current signage around the building tells the story of the mill, although it’s unclear when tours will begin again.

Nature within Your Grasp

Animal lovers might hesitate to travel abroad to see their favorite species, but here in the Blackstone River Valley, exotic animals are never more than a few minutes away. You can see over 850 species from around the world by visiting family-owned Southwick Zoo in Sutton, MA. My favorite exhibit is the Deer Forest, where visitors can pet and feed tame fallow deer. While you can’t take a deer back to campus, you can bring home fresh fruits and vegetables from nearby farms. Visit Wojcik Farm in Blackstone, MA; Foppema’s Farm in Northbridge, MA; and Douglas Orchard in Douglas, MA to buy locally grown produce, jams, and baked goods from an old fashioned farm store. If you would rather get your fruit directly from the field, Sunburst Blueberry Farm in Uxbridge, MA offers pick-your-own blueberries in July. Be sure to come early! Between the efforts of long-time local pickers and the birds, there aren’t many ripe blueberries left by the afternoon.

So Much to Do, and So Close By!

When you need a day away but don’t want a long commute, the Blackstone River Valley is the perfect place to take a break. Whether it’s learning the history of the region, exploring on a trail, eating fresh food, or simply relaxing at one of the many parks, you can be sure to find something that interests you. I hope you enjoy your next trip to the Valley! Be sure to tell them that I sent you.

I spoke in GS3! Here’s what to expect.

By Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

If you’ve read one of my previous blogs on completing a practicum, you already know that I created an exhibit called “Abby Kelley Foster: Freedom, Faith, and Family” for the National Park Service. I decided to share this information with the Tufts community and signed up to participate in GS3.

What is GS3?

GS3 stands for “Graduate Student Speaker Series”. It’s open to any graduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences who wants to share their research with a general audience. I chose a topic in American history, but talks can be given in any area of study.

How to Prepare

Like any presentation, you will need to prepare ahead of time. Don’t try to “wing it”! I found the three most important steps to preparing for my GS3 talk were having a script, designing beautiful slides, and practicing my talk.

Have a Script

I had previously written a script for a short video documentary on the life of Abby Kelley Foster, which I created for the Abby’s House women’s shelter earlier this year. The runtime on the video was about 21 minutes, so I did not have to add much to the script. Because the talks are held over Zoom in their current format, I wasn’t worried about reading off the script; the attendees would watch my slides instead of my face. However, I wasn’t “married” to my script. Although I sometimes read verbatim what I had written, I also elaborated on different points depending on how much time I had left in the talk. Plus, having a script allows me to easily lengthen or shorten the talk depending on time constraints. I was able to give a longer version of the talk to volunteers at the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor using a lengthened script.

Slide Design

I had previously designed many of the slides as part of an online exhibit I created for the National Park Service in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote in local, state, and national elections. I had designed additional slides to use in the documentary for Abby’s House, a women’s shelter in Worcester, MA named after Abby Kelley Foster.

While my background in graphic design definitely helps me to create beautiful slides, anyone can create engaging slides by following a few basic rules.

  1. Use pictures. Your audience members already are hearing the information. Why not give them some interesting visuals as well? Good pictures are large enough to be easily recognizable but not so large that they overpower the entire slide.
  2. Use fewer words. Although I am definitely guilty of breaking this rule, using fewer words makes the slide more effective. A text-heavy slide can make your audience members to feel like they are reading a book instead of listening to a presentation.
  3. Keep the slides short. My rule of thumb is 60 to 90 seconds per slide. A 25-minute talk like GS3 should have 20 to 25 slides. Longer talks should have more slides. When I led a study group on the life of Abby Kelley Foster for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts, I averaged 100 to 125 slides per class.

Practice!

Between presenting the pop-up poster exhibit, leading a study group, and creating a documentary, I had plenty of practice giving my talk on the life of Abby Kelley Foster. Even so, I still went over my slides a few times in the days leading up to the talk. This also allowed me to practice a component of the talk that you might not initially consider; be sure to drink enough water! Make sure to have water on hand during your talk, and practice drinking the water between slides. You will be talking almost non-stop for half an hour, and your throat will get dry.

The Moment of Truth

My presentation went great! I was not nervous at all, because I knew I was prepared. Several of my classmates from the Museum Studies program came to support me. Questions from knowledgeable audience members are a lot of fun to answer! As an added bonus, the video was recorded and will appear on the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences YouTube channel. It’s a great way to share your work with friends and relatives around the world.

You Can Do It, Too!

If you still have doubts about giving a talk with GS3, don’t forget these benefits:

  • The talk gives you a chance to present your newly acquired research knowledge to your peers, along with faculty and staff at Tufts.
  • Giving a talk at Tufts looks great on your resume and CV.
  • You will even receive an honorarium, a $50 gift card to Amazon.

If you are interested in participating in GS3, be sure to contact Angela Foss in the GSAS Dean’s Office. You won’t regret having this experience!

The Underrated Joy of Science Outreach

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

As graduate students, we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue what we are passionate about on a daily basis. The training we get at Tufts is beyond excellent. We learn to become independent and curious researchers. Our work is meaningful and intellectually challenging. The notion of seeking solutions for today’s global challenges is priceless, and many more questions arise from every single step we take. But in order to have the greatest impact on society, we must make our work accessible to general audiences. I think it is crucial to find ways to break down our findings, clearly communicate who we are, how scientific processes work, and how our research benefits the public. But why take these extra steps when we already have so much on our plates?

From a very selfish point of view, I believe scientists need that type of outreach as much as society does, if not more. Pursuing scientific research is a very isolated profession and limits non-scientist human interaction. Scientific outreach not only enlightens the society we live in, but also helps us see our work from a new set of eyes. We get to understand different perspectives and expand our horizons. But most importantly, we might receive deep appreciation from a wider community. Think about that way; the only place we share the details of our work is probably our research group meetings, where everybody is pretty much an expert in the field. Our labmates will not be as impressed by our results as a non-expert would be. We all need a reminder about how awesome we are doing, and science outreach is an excellent way to feel appreciated.  

Communicating our work in a research group meeting is easy; because those people often already understand the technical details, challenges, and findings. But in reality, breaking down and disseminating science is a muscle that we need to work on, especially when our audience is not familiar with us. Note to self: probably 99.9% of people do not care about the ring cleavage reaction of naringenin; but they would love to hear about why eating an orange is good for them. I find that scientific outreach significantly improved my communication and teaching skills. As I forced myself to look at my work from other perspectives in order to simplify, I gain a better understanding of all my findings, methods, goals, and next steps.

Another attractive aspect of science outreach is the feeling of accomplishment. It is an easy way to put a tick next to one of your tasks on your to-do list. It does not even feel like a chore. In fact, I would say it is actually pretty fun. This entire science communication thing is very rewarding and let’s be honest; our research is not ALWAYS rewarding. We have mastered celebrating micro-achievements among many failures in the lab, so we might as well benefit from feeling fully accomplished once in a while.

Now let’s get back to why science outreach is good for the society, aka the less selfish reasons to volunteer for science communication. As scientific work becomes more global and collaborative, it is important to build healthy relationships among scientists and general public. The ivory tower of academia creates an unnecessary gap between scientist and non-scientist communities. For our science to be well understood and accepted, first we need to find ways to demonstrate that scientists are also part of society. They should be approachable and represent someone with whom anyone would like to grab a drink with.

Think about what mesmerized you so much in the past, and inspired you to deep dive into a scientific career. It might be a combination of many different occasions, but I bet some experts and/or passionate people were involved in your decision-making process. Science outreach is your chance to do the same for the youth by being their inspiration. Communicating your work passionately and explaining where you came from is a great way to show that pursuing science is accessible to anyone and it is definitely something to love. You are the BEST person to explain what YOU are doing in the entire world. So do not let anyone else to do it for you.

So where do you start? Being located in the center of  a university is a fantastic opportunity when it comes to finding science outreach opportunities, even in the middle of a pandemic. Tufts is doing an excellent job in letting us know about possible outreach opportunities, so keep an eye on weekly newsletters or be proactive and try something on you own! There are so many local museums and schools that you can reach out to and offer help, even remotely. Currently, I am a part of the Science Coaches program, a joint American Chemical Society (ACS) and American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT) science outreach initiative, which pairs science students with chemistry teachers over the course of a school year. Despite the social distancing requirements, we have managed to use virtual tools to make it work for both sides. Massachusetts also hosts many science and engineering fairs, and they are always in search for experts to volunteer as judges. Tufts usually hosts or contributes to the Massachusetts Region IV Science Fair, so if you are looking to participate, watch out for an email about call for judges! There is also “Skype a Scientist,” a virtual science outreach initiative, which connects scientists with educators and students from all around the world. You can host Q&A sessions and find a remarkable audience to discuss your work with. Maybe you could start a science blog or join us at Tufts Graduate Blogs and let your voice be heard!

Science outreach is truly a gift for both the giver and receiver. It is a privilege and a responsibility to connect with society through our work, and we all should take the time to participate in scientific outreach as much as we can!

Life as a TA

By Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

As an undergraduate, you likely had classes that were taught in part by a teaching assistant or TA. They were most likely a graduate student who took courses at your university or from a nearby program. Maybe you thought you’d like to have that job someday. Now that you’re a grad student, you have the opportunity to fulfill that dream! I’m going to talk about my TA experience in the Civics Special Topics course, “Tweets, TikTok, and Talking Points: Modern Political Communications and Message Development.” I’ll also give you some tips on how to be a great TA, and to inspire undergrad students in the same way you were inspired years ago.

Getting the Job

Typically, TA jobs are referred to graduate students by their department to assist with undergraduate classes in that department. However, some departments and programs do not have undergraduate equivalents, as is the case for my branch of Museum Studies, Museum Education. Likewise, some interdisciplinary programs or departments do not have graduate programs. This is the case for Civics Studies classes at Tufts, as they are often cross-listed with courses in political science, philosophy, or history. Although I do have a wide breadth of knowledge on American civics and public policy due to my background in studying American history, my experience with Canvas, Zoom, and other online platforms makes me an ideal person for the job.

TAs may also be required to attend a TA orientation at the beginning of their job, typically at the beginning of the Fall semester. Because I was a last-minute hire in the Spring, I did not attend an orientation. However, I did attend a weeklong workshop called, “The Graduate Institute for Online Course Design.” This was an excellent bootcamp for learning how to lead a class and design lessons in a virtual environment. I highly recommend this type of workshop for any TA and anticipate that it will be offered again.

What does a TA do?

This brings us to the next important thing to note about being a TA. The job requirements vary widely depending on the class where you are assisting. However, many positions have the same characteristics. Here is a short list of things I do as a TA for the civics course:

  • Send emails to the professors, students, and guest speakers
  • Host and record classes via Zoom
  • Set up, organize, and maintain the Canvas website
  • Upload files, such as documents and videos, onto Canvas
  • Meet individually with students who need assistance on projects
  • Assist Civic Studies staff members as needed

TA Tips

Unless you were an education major or minor as an undergrad, you might not have any experience leading a class. Don’t worry about this! The professor or professors teaching the class have already shown confidence in your abilities by hiring you, and you will learn a lot as you work. Here are some tips to aid in your learning.

Communication is Key

You’ve heard this and you know this, but it is worth saying again that communication is extremely important. You need to make sure you stay in contact with the professors, students, and staff members. If you cannot be contacted for an extended period of time — you have the right to take the weekend off! — make sure to set this expectation ahead of time. My rule of thumb is to respond to emails, Canvas mail, calls, or any other method of communication within 24 hours to any email sent during the business week. Even if you cannot fully answer a question or complete an assignment within that time period, you are still acknowledging contact and reassuring the initial sender that you are working on the issue. Not every person that you work with will maintain this standard, but this level of prompt response will set you apart and lead to positive recommendations. If communication is not your strong suit, GSAS offers workshops throughout the year that will help you to improve these skills, along with aiding in personal development and leadership, among many other topics.

Canvas as an Instructor

Canvas is the platform Tufts uses to hold course information. Students can use Canvas to connect to Zoom classes, read the syllabus, post to discussions, download weekly readings, upload assignments, email classmates and professors, and complete a seemingly endless number of other tasks. Despite its many positive attributes, a Canvas course page can appear chaotic, with countless links and modules to explore. This chaos is exponentially increased on the instructor side of the program, and the system can be overwhelming.

However, Canvas does have an extensive online manual that explains how to use the many features and add-ons in the program as an instructor. Use this manual to better understand the function of different parts of Canvas. You should also consider “disabling” unused features to hide them from the student view. The large number of links on the left side of the page can be distracting and confusing for undergrads. Minimizing the number of options will allow them to have a more straightforward and relaxing experience.

Be Flexible and Willing to Help

The tasks of teaching and learning during a “regular year” are hard enough, but teaching and learning during social distancing restrictions are even harder. Changes to schedules, cancelled Zoom meetings, lost internet connections, and assignment extensions are all part of the new normal. As a TA and graduate student,, you’re in a great place to understand what both professors and students are going through. Make sure that the people associated with your class know when you are available to help, whether a professor needs assistance with grading, a student wants to go over an assignment, or department staff members have additional projects outside of class needs. If you are paid hourly as a TA, you are eligible for up to ten hours of work each week. If you have the time to help your department, you will also be able to maximize your payment.

Perks of Being a TA

Payment

As I mentioned before, TAs are paid for their time, whether they are assisting with a class or helping the department. You will need to complete paperwork and an online onboarding questionnaire before you can get paid. You will also need to submit your hours every week to a supervisor.

Audit a Class for Free!

While this may not be as exciting if you have already taken the class, I find the civics course to be a fun way to learn about modern political communication without the stress of assignments and grades.

Meeting Guest Speakers

Not all classes have guest speakers, but some have a weekly lineup. In the case of the civics course, I get to communicate with many guest speakers and their assistants in the weeks prior to the class, along with watching their presentation during the class. It’s exciting to meet people in a field that holds my interest.

Conclusion

Having a TA position is a great experience for a grad student. You’ll learn how to manage a class, help out your department, learn new things, meet amazing people, and get paid while doing it. As long as you remember to stay open to changes, maintain communication, and view the opportunity as an experience to grow, this job will have a positive impact on both your grad school experience and your career path.

Vacation in the Times of Corona

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, and spent over 20 years there before moving to the states and becoming your favorite Mediterranean in the midst of lovely New England weather. My family owns a summer house, as many Istanbullu families do, in a small coastal town right by the Aegean Sea. The town is called Geyikli, which literally means “the place with deers,” yet no one has ever seen a single deer so far. We used to go there every summer since I was 5. It is a place where locals make their own olive oil and wine. Everybody knows each other. People grow their own food in their backyards, share their highest quality produce with their neighbors, make canned tomatoes and pickles for the upcoming winter. My family and I enjoy taking the ferry to Bozcaada (Tenedos in Greek), a charming little beautiful island with its old rustic homes and colorful windowpanes, spending the days in deserted sandy beaches; and nights in local vineyards and traditional meyhanes or tavernas.

Bozcaada, photo by Ebru Ece Gulsan

The older I became, the less time I spent in Geyikli. While I used to stay there for the duration of an entire summer in early 2000s, as I grew up, I had to prioritize summer internships and jobs over beach time. But I made sure to spend at least a few weeks to soak up the sun and reset my body before the next academic year, until 2020.

Due to some obvious reasons, I failed to visit home in the summer of 2020, the year when avoiding a visit to your family means love and respect, rather than hugging them. I missed out on not only connecting with my family members, but also the opportunity to reset myself and start fresh for the upcoming fall term. It would have been a much-needed break during this extra stressful academic year; writing my thesis proposal, battling with quals, cancelled conferences and meetings, then rewriting my thesis proposal, all peppered with the flavor of a global pandemic felt like they would never end.

I was desperate to have a beach vacation. I ended up dragging my poor boyfriend to the local beaches every single weekend, but it was not enough. It did not feel like a vacation with all the planning, remembering our masks, hand sanitizers, packing our food, and answering emails from my Principal Investigator and students.

I realized over time that what I needed was not the beach itself, but the “forced restfulness” that came from lying down under a beach umbrella with my loved ones, where my biggest concern is what to eat for my next meal, all day and every day. I needed to disconnect – whether it was on a Mediterranean beach or at my own porch in Medford.

It is especially difficult now to plan a trip to another city or get together with friends to blow off some steam. The places we can go and the people we can see are very limited, which is not what most of us expect when we need a break; so, I had to re-learn the idea of vacation and construct myself a 2020 version of it sponsored by COVID-19. Instead of thinking “what I can do in a very limited radius,” I switched my focus to the questions of “what would make me feel good about myself at this very moment” and “how I can do these things.”

Bozcaada, photo by Ebru Ece Gulsan

I started with planning a break. I know it sounds counterintuitive; you are seeking for ways to escape from this planned work/study life of yours in the first place. But planning your breaks helps you complete your tasks in a more timely manner. Once you have a set deadline, you are more likely to get things done and feel accomplished, which helps you perceive this upcoming break as well-deserved rather than feel guilty for taking some time off.

Then I took some time to structure my break and made sure it is purposeful and enriching. Think about what kind of a break you need. Are you sleep deprived or physically exhausted? You might need some extra days to sleep in and rest your body. If you are mentally tired, it might be a better idea to choose another fun activity that suits and benefits you. For example, you can attend online events of Tufts Art Galleries or follow virtual concerts organized by the Music Department. If being outdoors energizes you, plan a hike to a less traveled mountain to disconnect from your daily life. Watch the movies you have always wanted to binge on. Schedule virtual meetings with your friend who studies abroad. Check out AirBnB live experiences. Your favorite chef might be hosting an online cooking class. The point is that scrolling through social media does not count as a break. Choose something that is entertaining yet valuable and put that on your calendar as motivation.

I added some new activities to my routine to make that break count. As graduate students, we constantly deal with projects that do not even have a set end date, and sometimes (OK, maybe most of the time) they do not go as expected. That ambiguity can be frustrating and demotivating. Hence, it is important to have some other tiny achievements in our lives. Choose some minor activities that are different from your work, such as taking a dance class, volunteering for a cause you care about, learning another language or getting into painting to remind yourself the feeling of accomplishment. Share this idea with your friends and suggest starting together. It always increases your motivation to have a buddy right next to you, even though they are connecting with you via Zoom.

Taking a vacation (even now) is so crucial for our physical and mental health, but it is so easy to overlook. It is one of those things that we know it is good for us, but we fail to actually commit to it, just like eating celery (or collard greens, or okra, you name it). We all need to relax and it is not as hard as we thought. Taking that well-deserved break will make you more efficient and productive at whatever you are doing, so go ahead and plan your next vacation in the times of Corona!