To-do lists can plague graduate students. Experiments to complete, forms to fill out, papers to read, papers to write – these lists are filled with tasks that drag on (or are put off) for years. For one graduate student, the list literally goes on and on, but not in the way you’d expect. Joel Basken, a 6th year PhD candidate in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), is famous in his home department and beyond for many things, but his incomparable lists make him a grad student hero.

At first glance, Joel seems like an ordinary grad student. A recent rendezvous with Joel started in a familiar way: searching the halls of our department for free food. Though on most days, Joel has no problem multitasking making cost-effective, home-made lunches while balancing a busy meeting and seminar schedule and long hours in the lab. This is largely because Joel is an unsuspecting yet legendary list-maker. His passion for lists dates back to Joel’s elementary school days but has truly flourished the past 5 years as he tries to pursue a more balanced life.

Joel entered grad school eager to pursue his scientific passions. He quickly settled into Natalie Ahn’s lab in the Biochemistry department to study targeted therapies for melanoma treatment. Joel recalls, “I knew going into grad school I’d need to be happy outside of work to do well in lab.” As he laid out his scientific plans to tackle his targeted therapeutics project, other lists began to emerge. Joel soon realized that thinking about the myriad of ways to enjoy the beautiful state of Colorado could be a source of balance and motivation for the difficult work he was undertaking in the lab.

Joel sees his list-making as complementary to any type of deep research a graduate student might do. He does lengthy literature reviews to identify places worth visiting, restaurants worth sampling, or mountains worth climbing. He compiles the results of his searches in spreadsheets with dozens of categories, columns, and tabs, and keeps careful records of which items have been completed, when, and any other impressions. Much like his lab notebooks, the level of detail is extraordinary.

But Joel doesn’t view his list-making as nearly as impressive as his peers see it, “Grad students tend to be experts in their fields, and I thought what about outside of them?”

While an expert in documenting and perusing the options available to him, Joel admits he is less of a pro’ when it comes to execution. His list categories run the gamut, from trails to run to rivers to raft. And although Joel has more-than-dabbled in activities like mono-skiing, climbing, tubing, and butterfly viewing (to name just a few), he wouldn’t consider himself exceptionally talented at any one activity. Like many non-Coloradans, Joel is humbled by the level of expertise across recreational disciplines among Boulder athletes and is thrilled to simply partake in most activities.

Multitasking gives Joel a special thrill. Whether it’s getting in a quick bike ride while his experiment incubates or phoning one of his friends as he skis off a cliff, Joel is making the most of his days in Colorado.

Joel’s cardinal rule: Never go any place twice. Although not applicable to the rigorous validation methods used in his melanoma studies, Joel feeds his insatiable appetite for Colorado adventure and exploration with this simple directive.

An added bonus for Joel: CU Boulder is full of like-minded students who are eager to lend expertise in their particular niche; scientific or otherwise. And CU Boulder has no shortage of experts – experts in biochemistry and cell biology, or skiing, cycling and beer-drinking. Joel’s attitude inside and outside of the lab agrees well with several of his colleagues who are willing to try new things at work or whilst exploring the mountains and cities of Colorado. “I always want to do random sh!t, and grad school has given me the opportunity to do all kinds of it,” Joel says.

Although Joel spends a fair amount of time compiling epic lists, it hasn’t distracted him from checking items off those lists. Joel’s hiked hundreds of miles of Colorado’s trails, summited dozens of mountains, and sampled most of Denver and Boulder’s culinary fare and beverages. And every year around Halloween, he makes a little extra time to get back to his roots, by reviewing local haunted houses. Joel’s top Denver picks: 1. 13th Floor  2. Frightmare 3. (tie) Terror in the Corn, Field of Corpses, Haunted Field of Screams. Joel Basken: cancer biologist by day, haunted house reviewer by night.

Joel says his options across his lists make any one commitment “easier said than done,” but with the right attitude, balance is achievable and the possibilities are as endless as one of Joel’s lists. Up next for Joel: exploring Fulford cave and quantifying proteins in melanoma cells.

Need an idea for a study break this weekend? What’s the best restaurant to take your OKCupid date? What’s the scariest Zombie movie? Joel’s got a list for that:

By Emily Pugach

Posted by Science Buffs

A CU Boulder STEM Blog

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