Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why having a blog is kind of cool sometimes

Because sometimes you write something that results in your birthday being the #1 Google result when people search for "great things in history" (But without the quotes).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I done gradyeeated!

Saturday morning, up at the University, I put on my fancy PhD robes and walked across the stage at Kingsbury Hall, got hooded, picked up my diploma and then had to sit there for another hour while other people did the same. It was a good day. Definitely brings some closure to the whole experience. Much more so than had I just gotten a diploma in the mail. Also, now I have some fancy robes in case I ever need those. Like for Halloween, or graduation-themed parties.

Special thanks to my family for coming to support me and for taking me to lunch after at Cheesecake.

PhD Graduation 004

PhD Graduation 021

More photos here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Utah man sir, will be til I die! Ki-yi!

Just picked up the final printed/bound copies of my dissertation. I'm not 100% sure, but I think this means I'm all done. And by all done, I mean ALL done. All DONE. ALL DONE. After approximately 10 years of being a student at the University, I think I may have finally finished up with that.

I was up at the U last month for a concert and my friend asked me how long I'd been familiar with the U campus. I really had to think about that, because it's been a part of my life for so long -- well before I ever was a student there. When I was a kid my dad would take us to the Natural History museum to look at the dinosaur bones on a Saturday or a day we were out of school. A little later, we took some youth education courses there at the Museum, including one that my saintly mother had to lie about my age to get me into.

Anyway, aside from those classes (I remember taking one on animal intelligence, but don't remember if we went to others), I also remembering going to Utah football games as a very young child, and my dad making us walk what seemed like miles and miles (he parked at the old Armory on Guardsman Way), and then feeling like the games lasted for hours and hours. What I mostly remember was that we had candy, and eating too much of it. When I was a little older we went to a Utah football game for my birthday one year. I continued going to Utah football and basketball games off and on as I was growing up, and we always watched the teams on TV.

When I was in 7th grade, I participated in something called Utah Talent Search where they let middle school kids take the ACT, and I won a scholarship to a summer youth education program called the Youth Academy of Excellence, (nerd camp basically) at the University of Utah. My parents bought me a bus pass and for two weeks I would ride UTA in from Grantsville to downtown Salt Lake and then transfer up to the U. Our group would meet in the Union building and we often take field trips off campus or to labs on campus to learn about interesting stuff. I usually got to the Union a little before things were going to get started, and loved to watch college kids play NBA Jam and try to see what codes they used to unlock secret players or other upgrades. One time I even saw two guys open up a weird mode where they were driving polygon tanks and shooting at stuff. But I digress. I participated in the Youth Academy of Excellence the next summer as well, and I have to say I miss some of the fountains that used to be on campus. When I was up there today, I noticed that the fountain between Student Services and the Union, which hasn't had water in it for years is now gone. There also used to be one over by the old business loop, where the Museum of Fine Arts is located now.

As I moved on to high school, I think most of my interaction with the U surrounded coming to sporting events. I remember one year my friend's dad had a tailgate permit and we used to come up before the games in their van and eat KFC in the parking lot. One game it the weather was terrible, and I'm not ashamed to admit we stayed in the van listening to the game on the radio rather than go out and sit in the rain. Obviously I outgrew those days. :)

As I neared high school graduation, I received lots of mail from lots of colleges all over the country. Not sure how they find out about you, but somehow they do. I went to USU for Engineering State the summer after my Junior year and had a lot of fun at that, and went back the following December to test for their uber-top scholarships (didn't get one). My brother was already a student up there and I thought that might be a fun place to go. I even went on a recruiting weekend at BYU. The U never invited me up for anything as far as I can recall, but when it came to apply for admissions I only sent apps to Utah and USU. I was accepted at both with a marginally better scholarship offer from the U. I'm not 100% sure how I ended up deciding to go there, but I do recall my dad suggesting that quality of school might matter more in the long run than just having lots of fun.

Anyhow, I ended up choosing the U, and also getting into a summer high school research program where I "got to" live in the old dorms during the week. I had a room in Van Cott Hall and let's just say generations of student will forever underappreciate the quality of the new dorms/Olympic Village. I spend the summer working in a genetics lab up in the Eccles Human Genetics building, where among other things, I fed fruit flies and harvest larvae. Something about the experience led me to decide that I didn't want to be a geneticist. Which left me in a bit of a quandry about what I ought to study in my time at the U.

That fall I got an apartment with a couple of my high school friends who were also going to be going to the U (I think there were only 3 of 4 of us from my graduating class who came to Salt Lake, most college-bound folks went to USU, BYU, SUU, or elsewhere), and for about a month we were just chillin' in our super cheap bachelor pad (we were paying $500/month split 4 ways). I had a variety of one-time payment scholarships, so I didn't have to work that year and just got used to the college life of homework and tests and what not. I met one of my best friends, Shawn, in my biology and calculus class (taught by KG himself, Ken Golden) and we've been great friends since then. He just lived down the hill from campus and often after classes we'd hop in my silver shuttle (1987 Toyota Mini-van) and cruise down to his place, which was infinitely nicer than mine, and then he'd kick my butt at SFII. My high school friend roommates got into a fair amount of booze and a little bit of drugs, so I was glad to have an LDS friend to relate to. Two of the four moved out at the end of the first quarter and we found random roommates by posting openings up on campus.

I was a biology major for just one quarter (this was the last year the U was on quarters) and then decided Computer Science was the life for me. Unfortunately because we were now 1 quarter into a 3 quarter year and when I got back from my mission the U would be on semesters, I couldn't really get started on coursework for my pre-reqs, other than finishing up my Calc series and taking a bunch of generals, along with an Intro CS course, taught by one of my all time favorite CS profs, JZ (Joe Zachary). The Runnin' Utes advanced to the national title game that spring, nearly winning the title.

In the spring, I got my mission call to Argentina, and enjoyed what would be the last Mayfest (what with the changing of the schedule), where Everclear came and played on the Union lawn for free, and other bands were jamming all week long. In June, I headed back home to G-ville for a couple weeks and then hit the road for two years of awesome missionary life.

Upon returning to the U, School kept me busy as I finished pre-reqs and got into the CS program. I got a job as a receptionist at the College of Pharmacy, one of my all-time favorite jobs. If only $8.00 an hour were enough to live on. :) I worked there full-time in the summer and then part-time when school was back in, including walking up there from parking down at the old dorms during the Olympics when everything up by the village was fenced in. Every day, I would watch inspectors check cars with more access than mine for explosives while I walked past with my backpack unmolested. After two summers of working there, I applied for and got a job as a Teaching Assistant in the CS program and did that for the next year and a half or so. I worked a summer job as an intern for the LDS Church doing software development and testing in the Temple Department and made some great friends there, even some who were big (but rational) BYU fans.

I still found time to see my fair share of basketball, football, and volleyball games, and still remember the first pep rally that Urban Meyer came to and had his coming out party at. In my previous years I'd never seen a coach reach out to the student body like that and his enthusiasm and confidence that something special could happen at the U were contagious. His motto of "Why not us? Why not now?" set the tone for two amazing years, spanning my last year of undergrad and my first year of grad school.

That last summer before my last semester, I started thinking that maybe grad school was something I ought to do, since people kept asking me what I was going to do with my CS degree and I didn't really know other than "be a programmer". I just wasn't sold on doing more in-depth CS stuff. Another friend of mine was telling me about this Medical Informatics thing that was like a go-between for programmers and doctors and I ended up applying for that program and getting accepted. Now, my friend Jon just started his PhD in chemistry and he spend all spring flying out to visit various programs and getting wined and dined and recruited. I didn't even know if there were other schools that had a program called Medical Informatics and whether or not the U's progras was even a good one. Turns out it's perhaps the oldest or 2nd oldest program in the country. So, I guess I could have done a better job researching my options, but I really didn't even know what I was going to be studying to be honest, much less what kind of research I would be doing to get my degree. My initial plan was just to get a Master's degree (what would I do with a PhD?) but the department made me a funding offer that I couldn't refuse that was tied to my getting a PhD. So that's how I ended up doing 5 more years of school at the U.

During my time as a grad student, I spent a lot of time off-campus, working on my research project with Intermountain Healthcare. However, I also enjoyed being a member of the Muss, and seeing the Utah football team go to, and win, 2 BCS bowl games -- twice in my 5 years, can you believe it? I enjoyed going to see Yellowcard, Mos Def, Shiny Toy Guns, Girl Talk, and Lupe Fiasco live in concert, at free or low-low prices, on the Union lawn.

Long story short, I now have a great job working for Intermountain Healthcare, one of the worldwide leaders in Informatics and Electronic Medical Records, and I'll be getting hooded this weekend, bringing an end of sorts to my time at the U. However, as you can tell from this essay, I think it's pretty clear that the U will always have a special place in my heart and I'd be very surprised if I don't still make a habit of heading up to campus on a fairly regular basis, if for nothing else, to watch the football team kick some butt. Now if I could only find season tickets for less than $300/seat.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Career Path reflections

A few times in the last couple weeks I've had a chance to reflect on how blessed I feel that things have worked out with my career to this point. The other day I was thinking back to high school when everyone would ask "What do you want to be when you grow up?" or then in college, "What's your major?", and even when I had a major (Computer Science), people would ask "What do you want to do with that?", and I'm not sure that for any of these questions I always had good answers. A lot of times I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, or how it was going to connect to the next step of getting me into a career that I would enjoy that would also be sufficient for providing for a family. I always felt bad when I didn't have a good, solid answer for those questions, but I guess I still managed to come out alright, so far, especially considering the job I have in these lean economic times.

Given that I am finally finished with my PhD and started a job that I am (so far) very pleased with, I have no choice but to be grateful for the way that things have worked out. Of course, I didn't even know what Medical Informatics was until a few months before I finished my undergraduate program, so it would have been hard for me to have this as my goal back then. I feel like at each step along the way, when the time came to decide what the next step would be, I was able to figure that out, even if I didn't always see all the way down the road to where it would take me in the end. I'm happy I was able to have faith to take those steps along the way, trusting that in the end I'd be somewhere good.

Seeing some people who are back at the start of that road, wondering what they want to do with their lives, I'm happy to be much further down the road and feel like it's worked out for the most part. But also I would say to them to seek the guidance of the spirit, and have faith in that, and in themselves, and then move forward with faith.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Tonight, on a very special "Adventures of the Big Digital"...

This post has been several weeks in the making. While I'm sitting here today waiting for some queries to run (the data tubes appear to be pretty jammed up today), I figured I'd start writing it up.

This has certainly been a big year of changes for me already. I started my first "real" job in January, finally finished up everything for my PhD this semester (which reminds me I need to update the header on this blog, given that I'm no longer a student), moved to a new place after 2 years at my last one, and bought my first new car.

Along with all those great and exciting changes, I also had a big change that was kind of a bummer. I've been having some mysterious discomfort in my left side, about where the rib cage ends, and had a CT scan in January that didn't find anything noteworthy. Given that I was starting a new job and would be changing insurances with that change, I decided to wait to seek further answers until my new insurance kicked in. When that finally did in March, following some rough weeks, I was finally able to see a new doctor about the pain. He didn't have any real answers and ended up referring me to a GI specialist (a story for perhaps another day). However, what he did discover was that the sugar level in my urine sample was abnormally high, which made him ask if I was diabetic or if anyone in my family was. I answered that, no, no one in my family was diabetic. He said he wanted to draw some blood to have it tested for blood sugar levels. And I started to get really nervous. He asked if I was urinating frequently, and I said, not that I'm aware of. (But how often is frequently? I still don't know the answer to that one).

I got my test results back and my blood sugar levels were indeed high, which led to another blood draw, this time while fasting (basically just before eating breakfast) which was also high, which in turn led to another blood draw, this time to test my Hemoglobin A1c levels, which is basically a measure that gives an idea of what a person's average blood sugar levels have been over the last 2-3 months. Normal ranges are between 4 and 6. Mine was at 7.5. So, I guess at that point, I was officially diagnosed as diabetic.

So, there I was, an overweight 30-year old with Type II diabetes. Not something I ever expected to be. I started reading online about what in the world that meant, and what I was supposed to do about it. Lots of stuff about watching your diet (but with no real numbers of what I was supposed to eat or not eat), descriptions of things I'd need to watch, like my feet and my eyes. Larry H Miller, owner of the Jazz and famous Utahn had just recently passed away from diabetic complications that first resulted in the amputation of both his legs. Those first couple weeks were definitely a tough time. Not knowing what to do, and mostly feeling depressed, guilty, and maybe above all, for the first time, dealing with my own mortality. I definitely felt like at the time, and maybe rightfully so, that I'd been handed a death sentence. Not that I was going to die anytime soon. Just that I now had a pretty good guess of what might kill me. Definitely a weird thing to think about. Of course, I could still die in plenty of other ways, but if I live long enough, diabetic complications seem like a pretty likely "underlying cause" on my death certificate. (I'm currently working on a death certificate-related project at work, so that's probably another factor in the whole thing).

During this time, a good friend of mine asked me how I was feeling about things. (I still haven't told a lot of people about my diagnosis, in part, because I'm still not real sure how I feel about it, and how it affects me). Here's an excerpt from my email response:

And yes, of course the possibility of having diabetes bums me out. It
makes me feel guilty about not be more conscientious about my health
up til now. It makes me imagine which complication of diabetes will
end up killing me. It makes me wonder if I'll be eating crappy foods
the rest of my life to postpone those complications. It makes me
wonder if I'll have to be giving myself shots all the time, and poking
my fingers to check my blood sugar levels. So yeah, kind of a bummer
when I think about it. I guess I'm wondering if it will be such a big
deal that it'll be one of my defining characteristics. I hope that its
not something that takes over my life, but I suspect that once I get
used to managing it, that it won't be such a big deal. I just don't
know enough at this point to say how it will affect things. That's
part of why I'd like to get some follow-up. Now, any time I'm not
feeling 100% well, I start wondering if it's something diabetes
related, and if so, what I ought to do about it.

I'm glad that I wrote that out at the time, because it's interesting for me to look back on that. That was 6 weeks ago, and I still hadn't officially been diagnosed. Clearly, I was coping with a lot of uncertainty and emotions.

Since then, things have improved quite a bit. After being diagnosed, I was able to have a series of appointments with diabetes educators, who helped me to know what I ought to be eating (My carbohydrate intake is the main thing I have to watch, and I now have some solid numbers to stay within), how to check my blood sugar (Yes, I do poke myself in the finger twice a day to check my blood sugar levels, and yes, at first I would get really nervous about doing it, which I found only made me have to make multiple attempts. I feel like a pro now by comparison), I don't have to give myself insulin injections thankfully, although in my training courses they made it clear that some day I probably will (on average its 7-10 years after diagnosis), but that is part of the normal progression of the disease and not something that indicates that I screwed up or anything. Generally before people go on insulin they start taking medications that also help with the bodily processes related to diabetes. For now, I'm lucky enough to be managing my diabetes with diet changes, and with starting to exercise regularly. My doctor said that some people make those changes and are able to go 30 years without needing medication for their diabetes. My classes since then made me a little skeptical about those numbers, but definitely for now that seems to be working pretty well. He also said that some people aren't willing to make the changes and have to go on medication and eventually insulin. I feel lucky to have had the will power to make the changes for now.

The diet changes haven't been too bad. 45-60 carbs per meal is actually not that bad, I just have to avoid pigging out, or having too many starchy items, and being pretty careful with dessert. Hamburger = just fine. French fries = not so much. Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pie = yeah...maybe I'll never have another of those. (tear) Anyway, most of the effort on that front comes when I'm grocery shopping and reading food labels on everything, and I suspect that as I have more experience with this, I'll develop a good stable of choices that I enjoy and that are within my bounds. The website was very helpful in tracking what I was eating and for checking nutrition information.

On the exercise front, there's an exercise room right across the hall from my office at LDS Hospital, and for only $10 a month I can use it all I want. It has lockers and a shower and lots of towels and a fair amount of equipment and it's usually not too busy. I've been trying to get in 30 minutes of cardio after work most days and then follow that up with a little bit of weight lifting.

Between the exercise and diet changes, I've already lost at least 10 pounds, maybe more in the last 6 weeks, and lately people have been asking if I've lost weight and saying that I look good, so that's been a nice outcome.

Even with these changes, I really don't feel like much of a different person. I certainly don't feel like food defined me, and in days of yore, I was no stranger to physical activity, so none of those things make me feel like I've lost my identity. I just feel like I'm finally making some healthier choices that I've been wanting to make for a long time. Hopefully I can take advantage of the inherent motivation of this new condition to develop some long lasting good habits.

Kind of the last frontier for me has been knowing how to let people know about my diabetes. Definitely a part of me still feels guilty about it, and as a result I'm embarrassed to admit it to other people. Like it's at least partly my fault that by not taking care of my health for so long that I've developed diabetes. I've had two of my nurse educators specifically say that it's not my fault. Part of me still think that they're just saying that to be nice. On the other hand, there are plenty of people my age who are as overweight as I was who don't have diabetes, so it might not be ALL my fault. :) The health professionals I've met with seem to be genuinely surprised that to my knowledge, no one in my family is diabetic. At the education classes I just finished pretty much everyone else there was 50+. Not the best support group.

Not being comfortable telling people I'm diabetic occasionally leads to some awkward moments. Usually when someone is offering me treats and I don't want to have one, and don't want to explain why not. Or when I have to excuse myself to go check my blood sugar, or can't eat something until 2 hours after dinner because I'm waiting to check my blood sugar. Anyway, between being embarrassed about my diabetes, and still not being 100% sure how I feel about it and how it affects my definition of who I am, it still hasn't been the most comfortable thing for me to discuss with most people. For those of you who read my blog and didn't know already, don't take it personally. I do feel lucky to have good friends and family members to talk to about things who've been very supportive.