Toxicity Translations

My Graduate School Year End Review
by Abigail McEwen -- December 30th, 2014

One of my favorite December traditions is the “year end review” retrospective. These start to pop up across the internet at the beginning of the month, and by the time the New Year hits there is a list for everything from favorite movies and songs to top environmental articles. Even Big Duke has gotten into the spirit, posting a retrospective of the most eye-catching and inspiring research of 2014, which happens to feature work from several Nicholas School bloggers.

The past year was my first full calendar year as a graduate student. When the year started, I was a second semester, first year struggling to develop my Master’s Project (MP) and find an internship. Now, I am (almost) a second semester, second year struggling to complete my MP and find a job. It sounds cliche, but the time in between really feels like it passed in the blink of an eye.

Here are some highlights from my 2014 as a graduate student.

Spring Semester, 2014 was a semester of crazy weather and big changes around the Nicholas School, as we moved into our new building in April. While our snowstorms were nothing compared to those found in the Northeast or Midwest, they were enough to immobilize the town and cancel more than a few classes.

As students, we all immediately rejoiced, until we realized that this meant a backlog of makeup work in all of our classes.


Although the snow was light by many standards, a lack of plows and salt resulted in trapped vehicles!

During this semester I finished many of the required courses for my degree concentration in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Health (EEH). Highlights from these courses including learning about drinking water disinfection byproducts in my chemical transformation course and completing a full human health risk assessment of sulfur dioxide emissions from a coal-fired power plant in my risk assessment course.

The courtyard where old and new Nicholas School buildings meet

The courtyard where old and new Nic School buildings meet.

During the Summer, I worked as an intern with the US EPA at Research Triangle Park and the Hsu-Kim lab at Duke. While I was working at two different organizations, both aspects were related to my MP.

At the EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA), I began to collect information on human health effects and regulatory screening values for toxic metals of interest to my project.

At Duke, I was conducting some additional laboratory experiments. I started the summer thinking that this would be a simple and quick experiment and I would have no problems with my data collection. Flash forward a few months, and I was still working out issues with the experimental design and protocol. Over the years, I have learned that this is the nature of lab work. If you think it will take a few weeks, then it will probably take a few months!

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my summer in Durham and my break from homework and classes. It was great to experience working life at the EPA and get started on my MP.


Summer in the South brings intense heat, but beautiful magnolia tree blossoms.

Fall semester 2014 was the semester in which I was incredibly busy.  While the first year of graduate school is challenging for many reasons, it is nothing compared to the whirlwind of second year. Much of this is due to the ever-growing responsibilities of the MP, but also demanding coursework and the looming pressure of graduation and securing future employment.


A beautiful November fall in the LSRC courtyard.

I spent much of this semester finishing up my lab work from the summer. The most challenging aspect of this was finding large blocks of time in which to run my experiment, which took about four hours from start to finish.

I also took a small break from my environmental chemistry studies with an environmental law course. While I am used to problem sets and regular exams, 50+ pages of dense, legal reading each week was a challenge. Not to mention the 3.5 hour-long final exam. Despite these challenges, I found myself really enjoying this course, and I really value the knowledge I have gained about various environmental statutes.


Despite all the stress, I managed to make it to my first football game… EVER! Sadly, we did not win.

Now, I am content to enjoy the remains of my winter break before returning to Duke for my final semester. I plan to squeeze in as many classes as possible, as well as finish my MP, and find a job. Oh, and get back to regular blogging of course!

Happy New Year!


Chicago: my home for winter break

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