Author: Peter Apicella

Thank you, UConn Men’s Crew

The infamous dirty four cruising at sunrise
The infamous dirty four cruising at sunrise

I’m graduating a week from Saturday, so that means I’ll be seeing one of my last sunrises on Coventry Lake in the next few days. I have spent three out of my four years at UConn on the Men’s Crew team. Joining the ranks of this club sport was the best decision I made during my undergraduate career. After a rocky first semester in college, I decided that I wanted to be part of something bigger and worthwhile, so I decided to try rowing.

Over the years, crew has instilled in me discipline to strive for bigger goals, taught me how to be passionate about what I care about, believe in myself, and introduced me to the people who make me love my Alma Mater.

Crew is pretty intense. It’s a two-season sport, meaning that we have races in both the fall and the spring. To prepare for races, we practice every day at 5:00am. During the off-season, we also practice 3-4 days a week indoors in the wee hours of the morning as well.

Spring break training at Camp Bob Cooper
Spring break training at Camp Bob Cooper

Now, I am not a morning person, but, once you get hooked, crew is almost addicting. The people that stick with crew are athletes that are driven not only by winning medals, but by the kinship and comradery that comes with being part of the team. These athletes can also roll with the punches too because rowing does not come without making sacrifices. While balancing classes, work, and other activities, many athletes do not get the normal eight hours of sleep on a nightly basis that most people are used to. In addition, while some of your non-crew friends are going out two or three days a week, you won’t risk disappointing your teammates, and stay in on weeknights and nights before races. This is not to say we don’t have fun (or that we don’t go out), though.

As soon as we start warming up for practice, teammates are talking and laughing the whole way until we pick up the boat and carry it into the water. Coventry lake blesses UConn Crew with water that is typically calm and glassy; however, the windy, rainy, and snowy mornings are at some point inevitable. At the end of every practice, the team heads to Northwest or South dining halls for team breakfast. We apologize to all UConn students for being the most awake, loquacious people while you’re trying to ignore every single person ever at 7:30 in the morning. For new members of the team, this can be first point when you start to appreciate that being a part of this team is worth it. You realize that the day has hardly started already, and you’ve already accomplished so much.

First place at Fall Metropolitan races
First place at Fall Metropolitan races

As much as rowers compete against other crews, they also compete against themselves. This is very comparable to runners who are constantly trying to get their time down. What’s different about rowing is that each boat has a coxswain, the typically smaller person that steers the boat and motivates his or her teammates to row faster. Last fall, in the Metropolitan races, my boat immediately pulled ahead of four of our competitors right off the starting line. This was extremely exhilarating to me, someone who had never won a medal. Soon we’re more than halfway through the race and in second place. Our coxswain, Christine, bellows that we are inching up on the boat in first place and that only first place receives a medal. Previously oblivious of this fact, a switch turned on in my mind bringing me to a state in which I suddenly could not feel the burning sensation in my muscles. With several powerful strokes, we edged ahead of the boat, winning by a fraction of a second. Together we beat the odds, and I won my first race with most extraordinary group of oarsmen. In this regard, crew has helped me unleash potential in myself that I didn’t know I had. Through the sport and through my teammates, I have found courage in myself to achieve accolades I used to only dream about. This concept materializes not only in my success at rowing competitions, but in the classroom and the laboratory as well.

In this environment, I grew as a person and as a young professional as well. As a student and budding scientist, I know that this culture has been instilled into how I live. When it comes to academics and research, this means studying and getting lab work done late at night. Nonetheless, just like striving to get faster to earn those medals, I became more comfortable with working relentlessly towards academic and scientific goals. I will take this valuable wisdom with me beyond commencement into my next endeavor.

I get the impression that perspective of non-rowers about rowers is that they’re crazy considering the early mornings, the commitment to a club activity, and the intense workouts. Yet, when I see my teammates, my best friends, I see the most dedicated people that I’ve met at UConn. Rowers are people that have found a passion that drives them to want more from themselves and from others. Over time, the sport teaches you discipline and passion that translates to conducting yourself and approaching everything you do with determined conviction.

Impostor syndrome: Feeling like a fraud is common among students

Amtec StaffingIt wasn’t until a mentor mentioned to me, it sounds like you have impostor syndrome that I realized what I had been feeling about my work ethic is actually a common phenomenon shared by many people. It’s disorder that is actually documented in scientific literature. As an aspiring scientist, documentation in scientific journals tells me that this syndrome isn’t some rumor or fad, but is observed in many people, especially students. It reassured me to know that other people feel the same way I do about my work ethic. However, I did not really understand impostor’s syndrome until I was watching a Talks with Google presentation given by Frank Abgnale, current FBI agent and former fraudulent commercial air pilot, doctor, lawyer, and expert check counterfeiter. Anyone who’s ever seen Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio knows that Abgnale did not just feel like a fraud, he literally was one. It wasn’t Mr. Abgnale that was consoling me, but a computer engineer at Google that asked him for advice about her impostor syndrome. For me this was huge, Google is a world renowned, transformative company that must hire some of the most creative and intelligent people. Yet some still feel that they are not good enough at their jobs.

Dr. Valerie Young explains that there are five different types of impostor syndrome; you can read about all five types in this Fast Company article. The type that I find myself expressing is titled “the expert.” People with this type of impostor syndrome struggle with Continue reading

A Tale of Two Avocado Trees

Figure 1: Avoseed® is a buoyant tool that lets your avocado be  exposed to water and allows for easy visual of the germination and  growth of the seedling
Figure 1: Avoseed® is a buoyant tool that lets your avocado be
exposed to water and allows for easy visual of the germination and
growth of the seedling

Last year I decided I wanted to grow an avocado tree in the UConn Floriculture greenhouse. My friend, Aisha, gave me a seed from her home in southern California, where her family has about a dozen avocado trees in their backyard. I started Aisha’s avocado seed in water (Figures 1 and 2). People often do this because it is interesting to see how the seed germinates and puts out a stem and a leaf. I decided to grow a second avocado seed from an avocado that I got at the supermarket. I planted the supermarket seed in soil. So, it was a bit of an “experiment” to see which one grew better based on each different type of growing medium.

They’ve both been growing for almost a year now, and since then have successfully germinated, emerged, and grown into sizable plants. I have also since put Aisha’s avocado seedling in soil. Check out the photos of the avocado trees (Figure 3), and take a guess at which one you think is the healthier one. You may be surprised to find out that the shorter one is actually healthier. The health of the plants can be tracked back to the original growing conditions.

Figure 2
Figure 2

If you were to take a closer look at the leaves and the structures themselves, you’d see that the shorter one has much darker, more turgid leaves (Figures 4 and 5). The lighter green leaf color of the taller plant is a potential sign of nutrient deficiency. The turgidity of the leaves is also important. The taller tree’s curl up around the edges, and exhibit moderate wilting. This contrasts with the leaves of the shorter tree, which have the ability to remain firm. This is a result of the tissues of the shorter tree being filled with water.

Figure 3
Figure 3

These differences derive from their original growing conditions. The shorter tree started in a soil medium, and the taller tree began in a water medium. The oxygen concentrations in these two types of media are very different. The water would have had a much lower oxygen concentration than the soil, which has many pores filled with air. Plants, like us, need oxygen. In their case, it’s important for their root and root hair development. In the absence of oxygen, plants can experience poor development of these underground structures. As a result, plants with these characteristics will have a hard time taking up water and all of the nutrients dissolved in that water.

Figure 4: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)
Figure 4: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)

If you don’t care about any of this science stuff, I totally understand. You’re probably wondering ‘when can I make guac?’ Well, funny story. Neither of the avocado trees may ever produce fruit, and if they eventually do the fruits will probably be very oddly shaped. They probably will not be like the ones you see in the supermarket or even the ones you might find at Aisha’s house. This is a trait particular to avocado trees and some other tree species as well. Avocado trees cannot self-pollinate to produce fruit, so they must out-cross given the pollen of a complimentary avocado tree type. So, although, the avocadoes from which I obtained the seeds, in the first place, were normal-looking, the trees that they are developing into are unlikely to produce your typical looking avocadoes.

Figure 5: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)
Figure 5: Leaf of taller tree (left), leaf of shorter tree (right)

There is a way to evade this biological characteristic of avocado trees that farmers use all the time. It would be through of an ancient practice called grafting. You can think of grafting as a way of gluing the canopy part of one type of avocado tree, which produces desirable fruit, to the branch of another avocado tree variety that does not produce desirable fruit. The outcome, then, is a tree that produces desirable fruit.

That would be way too much work though. Unfortunately, I’m too broke and busy to do that. So, I’m hoping, however, that (without any sort of modification) if the trees do fruit, I hit the genetic lottery. Ideally for me that would mean a tree that produces seedless avocados. But the chances of that happening are probably around 1 in billions. Wish me luck!