Channel the Grief


Grief can be helpful. It drowns out a lot of other things, like muscle soreness from really solid exercising, or boredom from monotonous forms of work. Go organize all the receipts for your taxes. Run. Take the cat to the vet. Do 500 calf raises. Make flashcards of French verb conjugations. Grief will numb you to the little trials and boredoms that bog down happy people.

Just do really productive, somewhat-boring things repetitively and stoically in order to improve your life, so that when you feel better, you’ll look around and say, ‘Holy sh$t, the sun is shining again and my job is amazing and I can do six pull ups in a row and I speak French?’

Jennifer Dziura |

I read this quote a couple years ago. It resonated with me as I was in the thick of an uncertain custody battle and beginning my second semester back at Wright State to finish my bachelor's degree. I wasn't courageous enough to call myself a "pre-med," and I was really nervous about retaking anatomy. It was useful for me to think of all my (secret) big dreams in small baby steps that consisted of:

Looking up new words and noting how to pronounce them, like acetylcholine.
Reading paragraphs in the book from behavioral neuroscience again and again to understand the simple components of an action potential and the confusing cellular anatomy of a neuron.
Figuring out what the heck an orbital is that my chemistry teachers kept talking about.
Waking up early to do statistics homework & wrapping my head around the meaning of a P value.

Using the long commute to listen physiology lectures.

Returning to college at 32 years old, I had major deficits in math and science. The last couple years have shown me that winter months are perfect for building on my knowledge base. It’s a good time to memorize neuroanatomy & practice physics. In fact, I enjoy it or else I do not think that I could tolerate the work. I like the stimulation. It is a nice change from the life I left.

The slower pace of this semester has created a space to take inventory of how I can practice gratitude for the progress we've made. After navigating morning rush hour and dropping my sons off, I walk to my lab and try to remember the incredible opportunities presented to me. I'm still tethered to this place, but it's become the greatest honor of my life to be a student-mother-scientist. I have an enormous responsibility to recognize that I am privileged to be here.

Wright State University in the Snow |

I’m thankful I can finish my degree. I’m thankful my car is filled with boys who bring richness to my life that I would never relinquish for any price. The mornings start early & the days end late, but I get learn about the concepts that fascinate me. Difficult decisions, like prolonging my graduation a semester, led to a place that allows me to grow stronger.

It’s been two years since our divorce decree. Several legal documents & multiple hearings followed. My “grief” was the legal cloud that would not go away. Almost a month ago, I had my last post-divorce hearing. Since that day, I've suffered from quite severe side effects of spontaneously smiling, increased energy from improved sleep, and enhanced focus (secondary to a significant decrease in custody-related anxiety).

It was pure elation to close the gate for good and look toward the future.*

Winter 2018 | Tapetum Lucidum of Cow Eyes |
Winter 2018 | NEC

I say, "future," but the sun is already shining and I am waking up to realize I already built a new life that looks nothing like the one I left. In 2015, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a neutron or an electron. But while I lived in the hazy cloud of divorce & post-divorce proceedings, I created new habits and was happy for the distractions. I came close to finishing my degree, started becoming a neuroscientist, and inched closer to applying to medical school. When the stress from my case was almost unbearable, I had very careful conversations with advisors about taking time off. After looking at a lot of factors, (financial aid, how close I was to finishing, when classes would be offered, etc), they encouraged me to push forward. They reminded me that I do belong here.

Monday I'm finishing up my data collection for my undergraduate research thesis on cytokine activity in the brain in response to stress & inflammation. Cytokines are tiny tiny proteins that are involved in many cell signaling processes in the body, but we are interested in their role in the central inflammatory response. We are curious about their role in behaviors that appear to be associated with anxiety & depression. Oh I have so much to learn! I embrace it because I love the learning process and I believe in neuroplasticity. We aren't tied to our past or who we have always been. I believe that we can get up and make small decisions that impact our future very effectively. The synapses in our brains are incredibly malleable- don’t think for a minute that I am an exception. Channel the “grief” into fuel, even when you don't feel like it's of any use. You will be surprised how far it takes you. 🙌🏼


*Yes, Stranger Things, final episode, season II, seemed to be the perfect metaphor for ending the chapter on court.

** As a photographer, I'm impressed by the tapetum lucidum of a cow eye. The first time I saw it, at an anatomy club dissection from my second semester back, I was in awe of the iridescent color & significance of its function. Animals with these structures have mini soft boxes to amplify light to see better in the dark. We learned from these structures again in a course I'm taking this semester (pictured in blue & white, above). I spoke with my sons about how neat it is to know that even simple species, like fish, have elegant physiological systems that compare to our most innovative technical advances in cameras & lighting systems.



Trust the Process


Today should have been “my first day of my last semester of undergrad.” It is not.

Last fall I made the decision to push my graduation another semester to summer of 2018 instead of spring 2018.

It broke my heart a little (a lot) to “give up” the moment of graduating with my little sister (my best friend + early childhood education major) this spring. It seemed the stars had aligned to give both of our journeys a landmark achievement together as we wrapped up our degrees at Wright State. I had April 28 marked on my calendar and anticipated so much joy at that ceremony. When I wanted to sleep instead of type organic chemistry lab reports, I used a screenshot of this date on my calendar to motivate me to finish them.

It stings a little, but I'm getting used to saying, "this is my second to last semester, again" with a laugh and a smile. I have to understand the connection to the larger picture. We'll still graduate the same year, and I'm so excited to see my sister accomplish one of her big dreams. Last summer she taught in Chile, and her enthusiasm and passion for teaching is palpable. I'm so happy that her last student teaching assignment is at my son's elementary school. Ms. Bell teaches his math class and Damian loves having his aunt as his teacher!

She's a mommy to my "nephew" Stridor.

Ms. Bell |
Strider |

It is interesting now to look back at all my preliminary assumptions about the path to medical school. Although there have been disappointments, each obstacle has a lesson or an advantage that I didn't see initially. If I had never struggled with general chemistry (prolonging graduation a couple years ago), I wouldn't have had the opportunity to examine the effects of cytokine activity in neurons in response to stress. I enjoy my research and am thankful for the relationships I've been able to develop in my lab. I had no idea that coming back to school would open the door for so many close friendships and support from mentors who care about helping me reach my goals. If I had scooted quickly out of my undergrad, I wouldn't have been able to allow myself to participate in as many opportunities that strengthen my desire to become a physician (like scribing in the ER and tutoring physiology). I've been able to make connections with people who are in graduate school and medical school. Asking questions and getting feedback from them helps me map how I can approach these programs with the challenge of raising my sons to be happy, confident, smart, kind people.

I was taking this pic of just the chalkboard + Hermione, but Damian found his way into the frame playing with her feet. Knowing I have two boys watching every step I take is very motivating.

Trust the Process| Future Doctor |

So... after SIXTEEN years from when I started my undergraduate journey... I'll finish my last organic chemistry exam this summer and quietly go home as a college graduate. There is not a graduation ceremony in the summer and I'll jump into my graduate degree of physiology and neuroscience this fall. I've had to bury this picture of participating in spring graduation, because I have other dreams that mean a great deal more to me. They grew and grew. They were nurtured by the support of the people who love me, and the fascination that developed in me as I discovered that I am obsessed with how we are wired. It intrigues me and I can not get enough of the physiology of our existence.

The lesson here might simply be the common sense that I am a better human & mother if I can distribute some of the burden. Sometimes it is humbling to slow down, but there really isn't a lot of good I can do in the world if my hands are always too full and my mind is stressed (this happens to be my field of research after all!).

In order to embrace the future, I need to empty my hands to have room to touch the dreams that mean the most to me.


Winter is here.


My boys had an extended holiday break due to the return of very cold temperatures. A few cancellations + two-hour delays were a nice way to ease into the pattern of school mornings again.

Snow Day |
Snow Day |
Snow Day |
Snow Day |

I did love the break. I needed it so much. We did a puzzle (my dad mostly), enjoyed an extended visit from my Grandma Bell (who is adorable when she wins bingo), binged on Netflix (finally watched Stranger Things), ate lots of Christmas cookies & pizzelles (I’m not sorry), built a gingerbread house for dinosaurs (why not?), and played in the snow (of course).

I also slept again, which was a favorable achievement. 

Christmas Puzzle |
Christmas Grandma Bell |
House Dinosaur |
Dinsosaur Gingerbread House |

Oh my, and I attended my favorite five minutes of an orchestra performance to watch my favorite cello player.

Christmas Puzzle |
Christmas Concert |

Winter is here... and I don’t even mind.


August 2017


 All summer I had been looking forward to the end of my classes, because I knew it would mean that my sons were coming home from visiting Florida for two months. A few hours after I finished my statistical programming final, I got to pick up Kevin and Damian from the airport. We had exactly two precious weeks before their first day of school, so I tried to direct my attention to them. It was good to disconnect while we reconnected. Kevin (grew an inch or two?!) loves his sixth grade teacher, (he thinks he got the nice one), and Damian is in second grade next to the classroom where my little sister, Abby, is student teaching again. We still think we are pretty lucky that out of all the school districts in all the cities that surround us, she is in OUR school. I'm packing lunches again with sleepy eyes and thankfully filling our their stacks of back to school paperwork. I'm probably an anomaly, but I love school and try to model that enthusiasm for the boys. It seems to be working.

Before school started, my boys joined me for a couple mornings in my behavioral neuroscience research lab. They aren't able to see exactly what we do, but there is wifi, a whiteboard, and comfy chairs to keep them occupied. It's not Disney World, but I hope my little scientists remember these trips to mom's little lab.

Photo Aug 18, 7 19 43 PM.jpg

I had to do some work in our wet lab, and Damian waited for me out in the hallway and got to watch through the window. I *think* we also go the green light that the the experiment I've been running this summer will be my undergraduate honor's project!

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Photo Aug 20, 9 07 29 PM.jpg

August has been very gently stacked on my calendar- I check my calendar often to make sure I'm in the right city at the right time. I've been working more in my research lab, shooting weddings & commercial projects, and finishing my training for ER scribing. Sometimes I feel a little bit like a chameleon, because each of my roles is very different.

Photo Aug 23, 8 57 55 PM.jpg
Photo Aug 15, 7 28 03 PM.jpg
Photo Aug 18, 3 33 44 PM.jpg

Even though I predominately photograph special events, there are times when my commercial work is a little more "heavy duty." Last week I was at Coca-Cola Consolidated in Cincinnati to photograph their factory and to keep working on a project for them with "message in a bottle" notes tucked in Coke bottles for local troops. We had glamorous orange coats + hair caps for photographing the Coke factory! I was lucky to work with my friends at Knack that were shooting video.

Photo Aug 20, 9 05 45 PM.jpg
Photo Aug 18, 3 31 01 PM.jpg
Photo Aug 18, 3 32 31 PM.jpg

I'm wrapping up August with a trip to Binghamton, NY to visit a neuroscience lab that my mentor has been collaborating with for over fifteen years.  I plan to post more about that when I finish up my week here!


Stuck Still No Turning Back


I started this blog as I began to accept my divorce in summer of 2014. That summer I took some trips for work and started to see my world with new eyes. I had started to really embrace the excitement of starting over and felt that the brunt of the pain of our divorce was over.

Stuck Still No Turning Back | in Brooklyn | Brooklyn NY
Stuck Still No Turning Back | in Brooklyn
Stuck Still No Turning Back | in Brooklyn
Stuck Still No Turning Back | in Brooklyn

Then our custody battle started later that summer, unexpectedly.

Even though I was granted temporary custody until a final order was given, the future was always uncertain. The legal process took about two years, and it affected me in a different way than the breakup of the marriage. Hands down, the most stressful time of my life came from the two years of dealing with a sudden influx of negativity & pressure, going through a three day trial, and waiting five months for a ruling. I returned to college during that final year of the proceedings. In many ways it helped me by giving me something else to think about. While I enjoy my courses and professors, being a 33 year old premed has stirred up plenty of additional stress on its own. My body physically started to show signs of how this process was affecting me. As I learned more about how our bodies digest food and interpret stress, I wanted to do more to take care of mine. The majority of the changes I've made fall into two categories: sleep and exercise.

Since I was a teenager, I always described myself as a "night owl." In my senior year of high school, I was voted Biggest Procrastinator and Most Likely to Fall Asleep in Class. My legacy is rich, and clearly I had all the qualities of a future physician. I let the bad habit continue into adulthood, and being a work from home photographer facilitated the toxic cycle. Editing photographs at night while the boys were in bed got me through many of the weddings I photographed while my ex was deployed or later, when we were separated. It wasn't good for me and now I know better. So I started with a small goal to get more sleep, and I really stuck with it. I do not model this perfectly, and there are semesters when it is impossible to keep up with my classes without staying up late or waking up very early. I've found that waking up early is the best way for me to read research papers. I think it's partially because of being more alert after sleeping (the morning spike in cortisol levels?) + quiet house with no other distractions. I actually enjoyed the ritual of reading papers before my sons woke up and I look forward to having another capstone class in the fall. I've become an early riser by intention, and my body does not mind. If I lose sleep, I make it a priority to catch up. Now I know that my body makes hormones that help repair my cells and I want to give it the chance to do that. I need all the help I can get.

Holding two phones so my deployed ex could Skype with my son during his birthday party. I was trying to hold so much together- I do not miss or wish to go back to that lifestyle.

Holding two phones so my deployed ex could Skype with my son during his birthday party. I was trying to hold so much together- I do not miss or wish to go back to that lifestyle.

My next priority was my weight. My marriage had quickly deteriorated after Damian was born, and I never lost the baby weight. In fact, I was heavier after he turned six than I was a month after he was born. Damian was born at 9 lbs and 7 oz, so my 5' 2.5" frame had to stretch to accommodate him. As a result of adding weight on top of that, I had a perpetual "pregnant" abdomen. It used to make me cry when someone mistook me for being pregnant, but then it happened often enough to stop surprising me. It seemed like something I would never be able to change, so losing weight sunk to the bottom of my priorities. After everything I had been through, I didn't have a high regard for my ability to tackle new obstacles. For the most part, I was just trying to cope with the ones I already had.

2014 | In Brooklyn. Note the intentional posing to hide my least favorite parts.

2014 | In Brooklyn. Note the intentional posing to hide my least favorite parts.

This might be the first story ever about how (adult) kickball changed a life.

Last summer I was playing on a kickball team, and realized very quickly that running to first base did not feel like it did when I played softball in high school. It was embarrassing to be short of breath and that moment revealed the condition of my body. I knew I was overweight, but I didn't realize how out of shape I was. So after finishing two semesters back at college, I decided to become a runner. This is also in contradiction with the person I thought I was in my former life. My older brother, Samuel, is "a runner." He won a division I state championship in cross country & ran all through college. At 40, his marathon PR is 2:36:38. I had never raced competitively like he did, but I was ready to start taking care of my body.

The first time I went to the gym at my university I could hardly get through fifteen seconds of a slow jog. The beads of sweat tickling my back weren't from exertion, it was embarrassment. I remember the distress of my navy shirt awkwardly sliding up my stomach and how I kept quickly pulling it down in frustration. I couldn't make eye contact with anyone else, because I felt like an outsider. I forgot to bring headphones and couldn't "tune out" the rest of the gym. I asked myself a hundred times what I thought I was doing. My negative thoughts were strong, but somehow my feet kept moving in spite of them. The kickball field had brought something important to my attention, and I wanted to address it.

A few weeks after I started going to the gym, my sister, an early childhood education major, joined me for the remaining summer workouts. Even though we both attend Wright State, we don't see each other often on campus unless it is on purpose. I really think it helped me to have her with me and create a routine that worked for us. I remember that she was telling me a story when I ran my first mile without stopping. I interrupted her to breathlessly share with her what I had just done! Being consistent for those weeks helped me realize that running is just as hard as I remember, but that my body can get used to it. We also lifted weights and I started to feel sort of normal in the gym. Sort of.

I don't have a wild update. I've been running off and on for a year and I am not ready for a marathon. I have not changed my diet drastically, but have tried to pay more attention to what, how much, and when I am eating. This part is important part to me. I had lost weight after Kevin by daily walking miles on a bike path while pushing his stroller. I drank a lot of coffee and barely ate. I know better now, and try to eat more green food and drink less milkshakes. I only permit myself one cup of coffee and seek out more protein. I started drinking plenty of water.

Wireless headphones + my fanny pack are always in my gym bag. Sometimes I study for tests by reading notes on my phone while I'm on the elliptical.

Wireless headphones + my fanny pack are always in my gym bag. Sometimes I study for tests by reading notes on my phone while I'm on the elliptical.

The shoes in this pic are my lab shoes because I like to wear sandals if I'm not in lab. They are so easy to slip in when I work in my lab for quick post-ops! Target, $10 on sale!

The shoes in this pic are my lab shoes because I like to wear sandals if I'm not in lab. They are so easy to slip in when I work in my lab for quick post-ops! Target, $10 on sale!

While I check my weight from time to time, it has not changed enough to encourage me to keep running. If it were just about weight, I would have felt like I had wasted my time. I lost ten pounds pretty quickly, but it seems like my body is slowing transitioning and building baby muscles while the scale remains fixed (for now). The changes are incremental, and I've had to learn to accept slow but persistent results. My inspiration comes in other places, like how my clothes are starting to fit my body differently. I started to feel muscles I didn't expect to find when I'm shaving my legs. Working out seems to help me sleep better, because I used to experience a lot of insomnia. I know it helps me work through my stress, which is a large part of why I have committed to keep running. I love how I feel after a workout. I live in an old house and notice how much easier it is to quickly skip up the stairs compared to how I used to slowly take my time. I feel stronger.

I'm so proud that for the first time in my life, I have running shoes that actually
have holes from RUNNING. Really, it never seemed likely for me.

My endurance is still not ideal, but it's so much better than it used to be. There are moments while I am running that I feel like I've been a runner all my life. After a few weeks, I was able to run the kickball field like I was fifteen years younger. It feels fantastic to know that I will be able to tell my patients that the rumors are true. The simple phrases we've heard throughout our lives, really can impact our health tremendously. The low cost of most lifestyle changes & absence of prescriptions shouldn't discourage us from acknowledging their value. My advice is to pick one area of weakness, even if it seems like a very simple goal, and commit to focusing on it until it is part of who you are. For me, it was realizing how much my poor sleep habits were affecting other decisions. It truly created space and energy to redesign other areas of my life.


Invest in your fascination


Today I had happy tears as I sent a special text to my mom. It felt so nice to share GOOD news with her. She has listened to me worry during the two years of uncertainty about getting custody of my sons. She has been supportive when school overwhelms me. And today, it was such a gift to tell her first that I have a full scholarship to finish the last two semesters of my undergrad.

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This scholarship makes me feel like all the early mornings + late nights of studying or doing homework, while trying to provide for my sons, meant something. I want to show my sons that our sacrifices are valuable & will lead us to a moment in time when we achieve our goals.

I had no idea that the effort I was putting into my classes & research would already help us so much. My mindset has been that everything I am working toward will take years to bring results... earning this scholarship was such a big surprise. A few months ago, I was notified that my financial aid had been stopped due to being over hours (maximum time frame). I went through the long process of submitting the paperwork to petition to get aid. My request was approved, but this scholarship covers all of my school expenses. It's hard to believe that a few months ago I was wondering if I could afford to finish my bachelor's degree, and now I can breathe because I can.

I made this graphic (with the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Andreas Versalius- my two inspirations) before re-taking anatomy & physiology.  

I made this graphic (with the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Andreas Versalius- my two inspirations) before re-taking anatomy & physiology.

In 2015, before I re-took anatomy I wrote, "Invest in your fascination & work persistently until you weep with pride." I made it my iPhone background & my mantra.
Then I made it my life.

As a nontraditional premed, I feel like I have decided to move in this direction without knowing for sure how it will all work out. Believe me, I realize that my experiences aren't typical. I was willing to accept that I might have to take a few classes at a time or consider other routes to practicing medicine. I often feel like I take steps without knowing for sure that there will be ground under my feet. I do have to give credit to the supportive people (my mentors, advisors, professors, and family) who have helped by believing in my journey and giving me opportunities that they know will help me reach my goals. I am so thankful for all of you!


Achilles and his gold


My sons visit their dad every June + July in Florida, and it's always hard to say goodbye.
This was our last day.

It was also Damian's last baseball game, and I wanted to remember what he looked like in his jersey. This was his first year in coach pitch and it's so fun to watch them play. His season is always especially quick, so we try to enjoy every practice & every game.

I love how big his hat fits him.

Achilles and his gold |
Achilles and his gold |

Damian loves that there is a song with his name. I play it often and think of both of them.
It reminds me of dancing in the car while we all sing with the windows down.
There is enough magic in their smiles to endure the summer without them.

Achilles and his gold |
Achilles and his gold |
Achilles and his gold |
Achilles and his gold |

After dinner & ice cream at the diner around the corner, it was time to drop them off. We sat on our front steps and had a family group hug. There's comfort in knowing they are always a pair and have each other in every change of scenery. I hope they will always be close friends.

Before I let go, I held Damian and sang Happy Birthday. It's a little tradition we have before he leaves. He turns seven tomorrow.

Achilles and his gold |

I'm taking a full load of classes, working in my lab, and squeezing in photography assignments. Once I get past Damian's birthday, it gets easier to count down the days until they come home.

When I took these pictures I thought about years ago when I took these images of the boys.


Seven Years Has Gone So Fast


Waiting for Damian to get here, seven years ago.

Autonomously Earned |

After an evening of fireworks, I finally went into labor. The same thing happened with Kevin, I went into labor at night. But this time, instead of pacing the floor, I went to sleep. I knew I would need the energy!

Damian Achilles arrived at 12:55 the next day, July 5, 2010. He was 9 lbs 7 oz and I was in love at first sight.

Damian Achilles |
Damian Ocean |
Damian Achilles |
Damian Achilles |

In 2010, I wrote:

Adding another son to our family is like being taken back to the best time of your life and someone replaying the lovely memories all over again like a beautiful song… and this time it’s even better because you have more partners to dance with.

Damian Ocean |

Inside the Rabbit Hole


When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
-Max Planck

Both of my sons had strep this week. Speaking with our social worker from base about getting them treatment in the midst of a changing healthcare plan and the transition of our divorce helped bring clarity to our options. Hearing her sassy voice echo through the speaker of my cell phone took me back to when I first met her almost three years ago. I needed help bringing our sons home. My oldest was attending his first week of school in Florida, because their dad decided to keep them after a summer visit. Armed with documents from my lawyer, (that he secured from our judge), I stumbled into her office and told her my story. She nodded and said, I know exactly what to do. She towered over me, and I felt safe under her wing as we walked to her office.

Down the Rabbit Hole | It's not John B McLemore's maze, but it's where my story started. I got married here.

Her confidence, her strength, and her grit supported me as we worked to negotiate how the boys would come home safely. She was a source of practical information as I attended to the challenges of working through all of our emotional hurdles of this situation. She came to my home and checked on me, helped me get groceries through a food bank, brought us school supplies for use home here in Ohio, and restored my faith in the military as she saw us through the beginning of a custody storm I wasn't aware had been brewing. Their father had moved away on amicable terms almost a year prior, and gave no hints he was going to permanently keep our sons with him. He had deployed twice in two years and spent almost a year living in Florida. When he asked if they could visit over the summer when he returned from his latest deployment, I sent them with blind kindness. I believed they should have time with him and didn't want to obstruct their relationship. Our divorce wasn't final, but I didn't have any hint that he would betray my trust (about bringing them home). However, the summer visit was part of a secret & methodical plan to relocate the boys to live with them. He finally disclosed his actions once he thought it would be too late for me to do anything about them.

Maybe he was right, because I was paralyzed by this nightmare.

But I wasn't alone.

I've only spoken about Miss J. to my close friends. I describe her and the other women from family advocacy as guardian angels that fought for me as I slumped in a corner seat and cried from exhaustion and gratitude. In all, it was fourteen days of tortured sleep, unimaginable stress, and being overcome with helplessness as I wrestled with the dark intentions of this twisted plan. My family, friends, and even photography clients, were constantly near me and supporting me. My lawyer fought for us and insisted that we patiently trust the system. I never knew I would come to depend on white sheets of paper to grant me the ability to continue raising the sons I had grown in my body. I didn't know I would have to be so adamant in my fight, just to continue the life we had already been living. I have replaced the original orders each time they are updated, and tuck them in my backpack. Sometimes when I'm digging for chemistry or calculus homework, I see familiar blue and red stamps from the court and am glad to have them. I want to be prepared to use them, or fear would affect me more than it does. For almost three years, this has been normal for me.

It is easy to talk about my classes, behavioral neuroscience research, or plans for medical school. I often omit the years I spent working to get custody of my sons. It's a significant part of our story, but it's embarrassing. It's not tidy. It's not like commenting about weather, discussing my favorite podcasts, or sharing funny stories about my kids. It also doesn't seem to have an end. Even after the final decision was made in my favor, there always seems to be something else that flares up. Like news of the submission of an appeal on the heels of our final divorce decree. It feels less dignified to admit that this week was one arduous legal event after another. Those papers in my backpack were summoned again. Another hearing. Another lawyer. Another week as a human filing cabinet weighed down by the pull of another world's gravity that detracts from the freedom of living my life.

I work to keep my mind occupied on other goals. I have to make a conscious decision to move forward or I would have drowned in this rabbit hole a long time ago. When I returned to college, I was desperate for something new to think about. Math and memorization help to keep my focus on something productive, but it can still be isolating to endure the battles that aren't mentioned in polite conversation. Some feelings don't seem appropriate for social media, even though they are all encompassing. It's hard to find a way to make a sensitive family circumstance a caption. Typically it isn't done, even though there is much comfort in knowing that other people have similar experiences. If you've ever felt like your body is exploding from the inside, time and time again,  I understand. Even though the situation is no longer acute, I'm still impacted daily by the trauma. I shy away from talking about it, because I still have to process the anxiety it gave me. Sometimes I wonder if that means it's a good time to get started? Maybe it doesn't all need to be neatly packaged to be useful to help someone else feel less alone. I am curious to know if there is a way to own our scars as part of the larger narrative that highlights the strength we attain from fighting back.

It always seemed like there would be a distinct line I would cross that would signal when this is over. Maybe the terrain would feel different under my feet? Maybe the air more clear? Maybe sunlight itself would reach my eyes without the diffusion of the cavern walls? That doesn't seem likely.

Instead, I carry the burden with me as I build our new life and acknowledge it is part of me. I try not to let it get in my way. On good days I use it as fuel. On other days I'm not so strong, and it locks my feet in place like cement. Sometimes other people help me carry it, like Miss J, my family, my friends, or other professionals. I try to make myself notice the people in my life who support me. Their kindness, strength, and humor help me continue to move forward.

When I was exposed to darkness I could never have imagined, I also experienced a cascade of love that held me together.

When I felt like my body was exploding from the inside, time and time again, they patiently wove me back together with threads of hope.

While I heal, I choose to bathe my thoughts in the memories of the love I witnessed. My sons need this from me and I want it for our future.


It's been a few days (well, more than ten), since I began writing this. My sons finished their antibiotics and feel much better. I listened to S*Town and need to talk about it to SOMEONE. Also, I think the rain is procrastinating. My hydrangeas could use it.




April Snow


Our Wright State Neuroscience Club took a little trip to the Kent State Neuroscience Symposium last week.

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Photo Apr 14, 11 36 31 AM.jpg

Their little town is adorable and we realized they were not kidding when they called for snow. It was nice to hang out with some of my friends and listen to some insightful lectures about research behind sex differences in the brain.

Sue Carter, of the Kinsey Institute, spoke about her research in Oxytocin and pair bonding. I enjoyed her ability to share freely about her experiences as a mother and scientist. Sometimes I feel like I turn off expressing "the mother switch" to be as professional as possible (i.e. blend in), but she didn't do that. And I liked her for that.

The lecture that will alter my approach to research and interactions with my (future) patients, was given by Larry Cahill, of UC, Irvine. He expressed concern about the lack of motivation to consider sex differences in neurophysiology as a component to setting up research models, especially in drug trials. He was also cautious about identifying where these differences are, and of course, where they are not found. He was funny & humble about his own previous assumptions, and I appreciated his passion about this. He was also careful to specify that sex differences are not another form of female oppression. Understanding these biological differences can help women's health (women tend to have more side effects after drugs are tested exclusively on men), and men's health too (some drugs can not get FDA approval that are effective in men but not women). Wrapping my mind about all of this, while also continuing my own capstone review on the microbiome's influence on stress behavior was really intriguing. Probably something I'll think about for life.




Last week was a blur of three midterms, a term paper rough draft (on how our gut microbiomes might affect stress responses- my favorite), and a chemistry paper (on kinetics and rate laws- not my favorite). Just as I thought I was going to quietly crawl through the finish line for the week, Damian reminded me that we had VIP breakfast at his school.

My first thought was that I would lose a precious half hour of sleep that I really needed. But Damian's eyes were bright with excitement.. and... he's my Achilles.*

One look at his excited face and exhaustion was quickly replaced with gratitude. He reminded me that it's a dream come true to be able to go to breakfast with him. Even though it seems like a lifetime ago, I fought hard for this privilege.

I made sure to have fresh hot coffee and took my frizzy paper typing hair to our breakfast.

It was magnificent.

*His full name is Damian Achilles, and I like to refer to him and his brother, Kevin, as my "sweet Achilles (heel)."

**Can you believe we named Damian, "Patron Saint of Physicians" and "Achilles," years before I even considered finishing my degree and adding pre-med courses? Life is interesting.


Flowers on her skull.



Leftover flowers from photographing Skin Foodie products are a bright spot in my kitchen. Someday I'll have to post the "studio" set up in my sons' room that I use intermittently for product photography when I'm not working at Knack. You would certainly laugh.



I can tell that we are gonna be friends.


My fifth semester started this month.

I wasn't prepared for what it would feel like to hear my maiden name during the first morning's roll call. I've heard "Andrea Bell" spoken by teachers since 1989. This time it was an unexpected rush of triumph and pride. By speaking my name, she opened a gate and let me go free. It was permission to take off the burden of his identity and return joyfully into the familiar refuge of my own skin.  It was a song of reclaimed dignity and a thunder of confidence that the unbearable years pushed me into where I am. I like it here very much.

I can tell that we are going to be friends |

Recognizing that I am past my halfway mark until the end of my undergrad has been more encouraging than I had realized it would be. For a long time I was focused on how much extra time adding pre-med courses would take, but now I wish I had room to take even more courses before I will finish. There is so much I want to learn.

I gave a presentation in my Psychobiology of Stress Captstone on the effects of an interesting study with evidence suggesting that the algae, chlorella vulgaris, can reduce stress on the HPA axis. I (embarrassingly) butchered speaking so many words that I do have a new resolution to speak out loud more often about the content of my classes. It showed me that I tend to ingest the material by reading silently, but need to practice the words I'm learning. On another note, it was my first time designing a slideshow about neuroscience. It made me so excited to pair design + neuroscience together in a visual format! I want to do more of this.


My Slice of Bedford Falls


Growing up I always identified with George Bailey from "It's A Wonderful Life," because I wanted to go somewhere bigger than my hometown. Even in the happy ending, I always felt a little sting for him not being able to go to college & travel like he once aimed to do.

Years ago, when I first became a single mom, I felt like I was stuck in Dayton. Then my parents moved back. My family & friends have been patient & kind. My sons' schools & friends have been what they needed. We found a rhythm for ourselves.

Then I went back to Wright State and I started to really understand how fortunate I am to be here. Touring my new behavioral neuroscience lab in the Neuroscience Engineering Collaboration, (a gorgeous building at Wright State), I felt humbled at the opportunities for research & hands on training we can get as undergrads to prepare us for studying medicine. More than once, I have wanted to pinch myself while I assist with an undergrad Anatomy lab in our medical school. My professors & advisors have been genuine and encouraging. This is exactly where I want to be, I really can not imagine a more perfect fit.

In my own way, I understand why George stayed. | Traditional Snowball Picture

Merry Christmas!



Re: Anatomy


When someone told me, "A year from now, you'll wish you had started today," I nodded enthusiastically in response. But I had always been numb to action if it meant wavering from my guarded routine. I didn't picture myself as someone who would finish my degree. I saw myself as someone who would think about it often but never actually follow through. It's still a wonder that my feet touched campus last August.

My anatomy muse. My sons & I affectionately call her Hermione Granger.

My anatomy muse. My sons & I affectionately call her Hermione Granger.

Tomorrow my fourth semester begins at Wright State. I can say semester, because the first time I attended Wright State we were scheduled by quarters. A long time ago (2004), I briefly entertained the idea of being a psychiatrist or a nurse, so I decided to take anatomy. I've debated between two nail polish colors longer than the time I spent researching or preparing for this class. I was in for a surprise when I found out we'd be learning about bones from human donors.

It seemed that being in the course made it clear to me that I wouldn't be working in the medical field. I received an "X" in anatomy. The foreign language of anatomical terms overwhelmed me- it all sounded the same. It's embarrassing to recall that on one test I wrote clavicle or sternum for every fill in the blank answer. I didn't study enough because I had written anatomy off as an impossible subject. Another factor was my sensitivity to anything painful & strong smells. At the time I was terrified about having babies, and I'd leave the room if anyone even started to talk about their delivery stories. My discomfort in the lab seemed to serve as a confirmation that I was not cut out for medicine. It never occurred to me to reach out for help from my professor. I also didn't schedule appointments with my advisors to have open discussions and listen to their advice on how to work through my obstacles.

My failure in anatomy was the binding on that chapter of experimentation with science. The next quarter I transferred to Sinclair and went on (after a baby Kevin) to earn a Visual Communications Associate Degree and soon after became a photographer (then had a baby Damian). It seemed that this direction was much more in line with my personality, my talents, and generally an easier alternative.

I didn't know that Art is not confined to pixels and wavelengths of light captured in a camera.

I didn't know that Science is so finely embedded in our world that I couldn't outrun its pull or avoid its influence.

Every movement away from it was part of the ordered sequence that brought me closer to the place where I would return.

The bridge between where I was and where I am is a story for another post. The girl who left anatomy lab to go draw with charcoal pencils is someone I wouldn't recognize. I'm pretty sure I could pass that version of myself on the sidewalk and compliment her shoes but forget that we once shared a name. She's from a life that is distant to me, but not a life that I regret. I’m grateful I pulled away when I did and waited until I knew why I wanted to finish my degree.

Andrea Bell of | Nontraditional Pre-Med

Anatomy revisited last spring was a success. Actually, it's interesting that after (cough) twelve years (cough) they have also added physiology to the course. When I first read it on my schedule I thought the abbreviation "PHY" was possibly a reference to physics? I didn't know an ion from a proton, but I studied really hard and loved the physiology portion (the function of our bodies) even more than the anatomy (the structure of our bodies). Which says a lot, because I fell head over heels with the design of our existence- I'm especially interested in the way our brains are constructed and the way our movements + thoughts are wired. I tried to learn from my other mistakes to soak up all I could from the class- especially reaching out to my professors when I needed help. Twelve years ago I never stepped foot in an office hour appointment, but this time I brought my sons weekly to the (free!) supplemental instruction sessions on Fridays. Being in anatomy/physiology served as a special confirmation that I am capable and excited to learn the intricacies of what we know and the mystery of what we can not yet articulate.

Returning to Wright State at a different point in my life, with intentional focus, has given me a perspective I didn't have at 20 years old. I've enjoyed my freelance photography career, but I also look forward to the opportunity to work in an area that makes an impact on the way we treat diseases and the way my patients will receive care. Logistically, it's a handful to be a single parent and a full time student. With that said, I feel lucky that I have these two really good reasons to concentrate on my goals. My sons require my focus and energy, but they also inspire me to make this opportunity count. No longer taking my education for granted, I can understand it is a gift to be able to study what interests me. I've always been intrigued by the mechanisms of our minds. To be able to learn more about them in this context is a destination in itself. Before each lecture, I try to remember to be thankful for the chance to be in college again.

I am not ashamed of my enthusiasm.
Or my Lisa Frank folders and rainbow highlighters.

I start tomorrow as a undergraduate teaching assistant in anatomy lab.



Re: General Chemistry

re: general chemistry by @TetherAndFly

I remember the way my fingers felt heavy as I weighed whether to withdraw from general chemistry last spring. I only understood fragments of the chapters, and was far from being competent. As optimistic as I tried to be, I knew that deep in my temporal lobes, my hippocampus was not encoding the chemistry concepts the way I would need them. By a miracle of a curve, I could possibly pass the class. "Passing the class" is not sufficient for what the future will require from me. This is the first class in a series of chemistry courses, and some of the content will be on the MCAT. I needed to have a very solid understanding of chemistry principles or moving forward would be a futile endeavor.

Coming back to Wright State in fall of 2015 after an eleven year hiatus had felt empowering. As I carefully researched my course options and sought guidance from my advisors, I started to believe that I had the determination to harness any class. It felt like I had resurrected an inner confidence that had been stifled in the shuffle of morphing into a young wife & mother. I was reclaiming an essential tenet of my identity that felt familiar, but updated. Evolved.

Just as I was getting the courage to say (out loud) that I was pre-med, I was facing the "failure," of jumping ship of a sinking academic boat. I started to wonder all over again if I could be deemed suited for the rigor of medical school. If I couldn't patch the leaks here, could I be trusted to be responsible for more difficult courses?  As a 32 year old single mom of two boys, the deck was already slightly, no, significantly stacked against me. To lose the work I had put into the first half of the semester's chemistry class was highly discouraging. My professors had recommended that we had taken previous chemistry classes, but I was too arrogant to admit that my high school chemistry class was close to fifteen years ago. I also did not admit that I hadn't really cared for it, and did not go to any length to retain any facts from it. Interesting how confidence and arrogance are probably the same- labeled differently only after we look back and assess the result of their influence.

My mindset has always been that persevering is synonymous with success, but it is more nuanced than I used to understand. Perseverance is imaginative, flexible, humble, and often has a timeline that exceeds my own patience. Perseverance also requests that we calibrate frequently in order to stay on course.

After hours of deliberation, I submitted the form to drop my chemistry class. Touching "enter" felt like I was detonating a nuclear explosion. I was wracked with guilt and fear about what I had done. I was ashamed about the money I was wasting and felt the humiliation of surrender.

Until I breathed.

Upon exhale, I felt a surge of relief.

The sensation was probably the effect of GABA and dopamine, among other neurotransmitters responding to my decision. I imagined freshly released ions crossing synaptic junctions and receptors carefully setting updated biochemical reactions in motion. I pictured my microscopic cell assembly line in slow motion, as a beautiful kaleidoscope of fireworks responding in a synced cascade to the new chemical messages. That is when I knew I had to quit feeding the neuronal circuit that relied on my insecurities. It grew strong from the repetition & frequency of my worries. Either I would move forward or I would choose another career- constantly questioning myself was costing my neurons a precious supply of limited energy. I couldn't keep wrestling with my fears because I needed every spare atom to rally around building up my strength. I also needed to stop looking at my age and single parenting like a deficit. I could make excuses or I could make a plan. There would be a rematch, and I would take time to change my approach. I couldn't walk into the classroom as the same student. What was I going to do to prepare for fall semester?

Plan A: I could watch Khan Academy videos this summer. Yes that would be wise. I'd revisit chemistry in the fall and feel ready after a summer of self tutoring. Except that I knew myself and I knew I needed structure. There was a high probability that I would not watch the videos and would most likely cram a few in just before classes started. My intentions don't always serve me well without structured responsibility.

Plan B: I could take an online intro to chemistry class from Sinclair Community College. It would keep me motivated and I could still have flexibility to take other classes at Wright State. Except that I needed to take a lab in person, and online classes usually get slumped into one day a week. I remember the art history class I took online years ago at Sinclair (for my Visual Communications degree). Sundays were the days tests were due. They were always a scramble of speed reading + a sloppy search for keywords so I could finish all my work in one sitting. It was doable but don't ask me anything about art history. This is not the outcome I wanted for general chemistry.

Plan C: I could take an in person chemistry class from Sinclair. I went with Plan C.

It had been eight years since I graduated from Sinclair and funny how I had never taken classes at Building 12 in the chemistry department. As I made my way from the parking garage to class I saw construction under my feet. I stopped to watch below the walkway as workers dug the first layer of a new building. I felt consoled by the parallel that much of my academic work would serve me in a similar fashion. This semester at community college would support the weight of my future classes, so I determined to benefit from this opportunity.

It was a perfect fit for me. It kept me accountable to go to class and gave me the opportunity to ask questions. I was in lecture three times a week in a very small class. My professor had a bench to create demonstrations while he lectured & was fantastic about tailoring his time to revisit concepts we struggled with. We did group assignments daily after lecture and were frequently quizzed so we knew whether we really understood the chapters. Labs were basic and informative.

Chemistry at Community College @TetherAndFly
Chemistry at Community College

Very soon into the semester, the foreign language of atomic theory started to make sense. Lewis Dot Structures became relaxing to draw instead of a futile mess of pencil lead erased over and over in frustrated strokes. After class I would review definitions and draw my own notes, because I knew a major weakness was my lack of fluency in science vocabulary. There are many concepts & names that sound the same, but have important differences. This time around, I wanted to carefully examine them until I could pick them apart by memory. In lab, I loved building molecular models and imagined showing my sons how to play this "game." I learned that the once intimidating algebra behind many of the formulas is reliable and I liked the consistency of its application. We scratched the surface of organic chemistry and I was excited to see snippets of physiology referenced. My professor said we could skip reading the medical references in the book, but for me, the integration of chemistry with my neuroscience and physiology classes is essential:

The molecular model drawing of L-DOPA is on my book cover? What?!
This realization several chapters into the semester felt like meeting a celebrity. I took pictures of it and tried not to act too excited.

Hey look, there's a paragraph about osteoid!
My spring anatomy/physiology course taught me to instantly recite, "Osteoblasts turn into osteocytes, which are broken down by osteoclasts..."
This basic premise of bone histology hummed in my head like a nursery rhyme as I read the page about bone matrix. I'm not too embarrassed to admit that I often channel Phil Dunphy's enthusiasm- I am delighted that life offers ripe plums & fanny packs.

As I started to understand what chemistry can teach me, it was stimulating to begin to see the connections between these disciplines. It gave me an appreciation for why I have dedicated my mind to working through a subject that felt impossible. Earning an A over the same type of content that used to make me frustrated felt immensely gratifying, and working through the obstacles reinforced my determination to become a doctor. My chemistry impediment became an opportunity to invent my own sequence of reactions. It became a chance to measure the transformation in myself.

I was always careful, of course, to use sig figs. 



Chemistry Calibration

Student Success Center at Wright State |

This winter I took on too many courses. It's been a blur as I tried to find a rhythm that would work for me to balance everything on my plate. It's a lesson I'm slow to learn & only grudgingly accept, but balance usually requires a reduction of what I believe I can handle.

I've enjoyed Anatomy/Physiology, Statistics, and Behavioral Neuroscience. However, I wasn't prepared for what effort and time commitment it would take to add Chemistry to the lineup. It's been more than a decade (maybe 15 years?) since I took Chemistry and I can honestly tell you that I remember almost nothing from having it in high school (oops). I finally had to withdraw and give myself some time to refresh & practice before I tackle it again.

Now that I have postponed Chemistry for another semester, I've been reflecting on what went well this semester and what I need to design differently. I'd like to think that the choices I make will always create the results I want if I work hard enough. In some ways, I will always believe that. I'm simply learning to reevaluate my original time constrictions on these goals.

To be clear, "timing" feels abrasive. I have to daily resist the temptation to imagine what could have been different in my life if I had been able to begin this leg of my journey sooner. Taking longer than I already have feels like a tremendous defeat, but lingering on the sting of this frustration would be an incredible waste of my limited energy.

It helps to believe that approaching Chemistry as a future neuroscientist will play to my advantage. As someone who believes in the power of repetition for improved long term potentiation, I am consoled that the rematch will feel more familiar. Until then, I can focus on what fascinates me about the anatomy & wiring under our skin. Like the meninges that so eloquently swaddle our brains, the beautifully designed cauda equina, and all the unfathomable little bundles of neurons that mysteriously grant us both our existence & our adaptability.


It amazes me that a difference between college in 2002 and 2016 is there are so many resources online. I try to remember that help will come to those who search persistently on YouTube. :)


The Mirror of Erised


The Mirror of Erised shows nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts. However, it will give neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

-Albus Dumbledore

When we were putting the boys' desks together, Kev caught my attention by holding one of the frames in front of himself and Damian like a large picture frame. He announced that they were in the Mirror of Erised. Then he remarked that if I were in the Room of Requirement, my deepest desire would be to see them reflected in the magical mirror. He smiled proudly because he knew it would affect me, but I don't think he knew the magnitude of his words. I excused myself to take care of the itch that suddenly developed on my nose (tears).

Yes. Yes. A thousand synchronous yeses.

This thankful mama would sit in front of the ancient glass and see the three of us, exactly as we are.

Happy 10th Birthday to my Kevin.




The Patterns


Before plunging into work this morning, I took a moment to have my coffee and look through my camera roll. The last thirty days have brought warmer evenings for my boys & I (baseball!), opportunities to meet new people (hello!), & many new spring projects (thank you!).

The Patterns by

All of these frames create a beautiful mosaic of memories, but can be camouflaged by their "sameness" as a collection. The pace of this ever expanding pattern gives no indication of intending to slow down. I realize I need to pause and celebrate all of these moments more often.

Even if it's just by myself, over hot coffee... one small tile at a time.