Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 in review

2007 was a big year because so many different things happened, all good. I started 2007 with Jon in Remote Foreign Country. While we were there I was accepted to University of Big City. We returned to the US in May, both excited to come home and reluctant to leave RFC where we had made so many new friends. There was a lot for me to look forward to in the US with my summer plans and beginning graduate school.

Jon and I spent some time geographically separated catching up with our families when we got back. I did a workshop in the southwest and then spent the rest of my summer at a field station going to EcoMath Camp. Since I took a few years off between undergrad and graduate school, this program did a great job of getting me back into school mode. Can you believe I showed up to class on the first day without a notebook?!?! It hadn't crossed my mind to bring a notebook! I didn't even pack one! Thankfully, the professors and other students in this program were excellent and I had a fantastic summer. I learned a tremendous amount about theoretical ecology and it gave me more confidence going into my graduate program.

Moving to Big City
was exciting. We looked at 16 or 17 apartments in 3 days and snagged a great one very close to University of Big City (thank you craigslist). In the midst of apartment hunting and moving we spent a weekend with several of our friends from Small Friendly College which is always awesome. I met Herb for the first time and reintroduced myself to Leo in person. I think my first impressions of graduate school have held true.

Overall I had a great first semester. Aside from Ethics class, I loved my classes (Population Ecology and a required class) and I had a good time teaching (a fair amount of frustration too). The hardest part about this semester was money. It took Jon a while to find a job and I only get paid once a month. The moving expenses were really the worst. Hopefully things will be easier in 2008.

I have no doubt I am in the right place at this point in my life. I felt the same way after my first semester at SFC even though things didn't work out immediately. This was the right time for me to go back to school and I feel well prepared by SFC, my experiences at Mid-Atlantic Field Station and RFC. I look forward to 2008 and I'll post soon about that.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Christmas time birthday

FemaleScienceProfessor inspired me to write about this since she also has a Christmas time birthday. Christmas and my birthday are so intertwined that I usually can't recall which gifts I received for my birthday and which I received for Christmas. When I was a kid, I loved having a Christmas time birthday because I got to celebrate with my extended family. We would have my birthday at lunch and Christmas at dinner, or vice versa. On my sixteenth birthday I sadly realized that my extended family did not gather to celebrate my birthday, as I had deluded myself into thinking for the first 16 years of my life. It really was all about Christmas. Everyone sang happy birthday to me, I blew out the candles on my angelfood cake (which I had nearly every year to accommodate my diabetic cousin), everyone threw my gifts at me, and then all my cousins got up and left the kids table and none of the adults noticed that I was sitting there with a cake and unopened presents. I wasn't as excited about celebrating with my extended family after that. Still, I think I have celebrated at least 20 of my birthdays with them.

On the positive side, I know I received more birthday gifts from my extended family because they couldn't forget about it. My family rarely sent birthday gifts to my cousins, but I received birthday gifts from each aunt and uncle on my dad's side of the family until just a few years ago.

As a kid the biggest drawback I saw was that I only received presents at one time of the year. My Christmas and birthday gifts were purchased at the same time so I didn't ever get to ask for something for my birthday that I didn't receive for Christmas. This wasn't such a big deal once I had a job and purchasing power, but as a kid without much money to buy things for myself I saw this once-a-year gift receiving as a major drawback. One year I had a half-birthday party so I got to celebrate in June instead of December. When I was in high school we started celebrating my birthday about a month after my real birthday so that it was separated from the Christmas hype.

At this point in my life it seems to be a wash. I think some of my friends remember my birthday precisely because it's so close to Christmas, whereas they might forget it if it weren't. Sometimes I receive combo gifts from friends but I don't mind since I might not otherwise receive anything. My family has always been good about not combining gifts and Jon has given me some awesome birthday gifts. I don't really mind my Christmas time birthday. It's a great topic of conversation for bonding with other Christmas time birthday babies.

still on the road

Jon and I are still in Midwestern City with my family. I've thought of about 1000 things to blog about so there will probably be several posts in January once we get home. Possible titles include:

My Christmas-time birthday
What exactly is an ecologist, anyways?
Why I want to be an ecologist
2007 in review
Looking ahead to 2008
Ecological Footprints

Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

is it finished yet?

After a somewhat overwhelming day I devoted the evening to finishing my National Geographic pre-application. I just need to read over it once more before sending it and I'm waiting for approval from a potential collaborator. I really should have contacted potential collaborators on this one ages ago but for some reason I kept putting it off. I guess it feels odd to me to contact someone you've never met to say, "Hi, I'm submitting a pre-application for a grant to fund a project that I'm not even sure will work. Any chance you want to collaborate with me on it?" I actually pitched it better than that but it feels awkward when this project is still in the conceptual stages.

Today we searched Jon's mom's basement for the missing Christmas tree ornaments without success. I'm really sad about this because it contained my stocking and my absolute favorite Christmas tree ornaments from childhood. The basement was our best hope so I think I'm resigned to accepting that I won't ever see them again :-(

We left Big City on Thursday last week and I was running/biking around campus getting signatures and turning in forms until 30 minutes before we left for Capital City where Jon's family lives. Next we're going to Midwestern City to see my family, and I will celebrate my birthday there :-) Sometime soon I'll do a post about having a Christmastime birthday (which has absolutely nothing to do with being a scientist, but that's ok since it's Christmas and I need to stop thinking about work for a while).

Thursday, December 20, 2007

how people find my blog

I have Google Analytics on my blog which collects data on where my readers come from and how they get here. I find this collection of data fascinating. I can look at a map of the world, a country, or a particular state to see where most of my visitors are from. Really it's not exactly where you're from, it's where your internet service provider is from which is often different from where you are. I can view my daily traffic over time and see which other sites have linked to my blog and how many people have come to my blog via theirs.

One of the most interesting things for me is the search terms that lead people to my blog and how much time people spend on my site. I can tell that some of you (but I have no idea who) consistently find my blog my Googling 'aspiring ecologist.' Many new visitors (=new IP addresses I think) have found my blog by Googling for various things related to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). Another common search category is related to my post about plastic trash in the ocean. Honestly I'm really surprised that so many people come to my blog because of that post. Some other search strings have something to do with ecology or ecologists.

My favorite search string that led someone to my blog is 'find field biologist boyfriend'. LOL! I dated another biologist (a cute bird nerd- aka ornithologist) in college for a minute but ended up with philosopher Jon instead. Good luck to my possible reader out there looking for a field biologist boyfriend!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I got my computer back!

My computer has a new brain stem but hopefully the problems have been fixed. Now I have to spend several hours getting everything back the way I like it (programs in the dock, desktop pictures, program preferences, all that jazz). Considering that it was brought in on Friday afternoon, I'm pleased with the turnaround time.

Population Ecology- DONE!

I'm finished! I had two homework problems to finish up today and Chip helped me through the road blocks. Then we started talking about Survivor and he went off on a tangent about how slime molds meeting to reproduce are playing their own game of genetic survivor. Chip's a fascinating person.

Wow, I'm so relieved to have all of my Population Ecology work done. I hope he doesn't return any of it for corrections (he said he would).

Monday, December 17, 2007

almost done

Today I finished the final for Population Ecology! I spent the weekend pondering how I was supposed to solve a particularly ugly quadratic equation and Chip cheerily informed me today that I didn't have to do that and I basically had the answer already.

I'm not finished with Pop Ecol yet though because I still have two homework assignments to complete. There are still a handful of us working on Pop Ecol homework or final, but the people who really understand it (including Chip) are gone for the day so it's a bit of the blind leading the blind over there. I'll have to wait until tomorrow for someone to answer my questions. So, no celebration yet but I made a lot of progress today.

Today I also gave authorization for my computer's hard drive to be erased. Eek! The important stuff is all backed up but it still makes me anxious.

It's pretty quiet around here since most people have left for break. Tomorrow I'm going to finish my Pop Ecol homework, submit a grant and a pre-application, and submit a bunch of paperwork to the university. Then everything else is much less time sensitive.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

done and to do

I'm very close to finishing my take home final for Population Ecology, but I'm stuck on a nasty quadratic equation. Surely it must simplify to something more beautiful. I'll have to get help from my classmates on this one. The messiness of it makes me think I made a mistake in an earlier step.

I submitted my first of two grants for this month late on Thursday night. On Friday, Jon took my computer to be repaired so I'm computerless for the next few days. Ok, obviously I'm not computerless if I'm blogging. Jon and I are sharing his computer. We shared his labtop for the whole time in RFC but we both use our computers a lot and really prefer to have our own. I felt sort of naked without my computer at school on Friday. Weird, huh? Thankfully I didn't need it much since mostly I was doing algebra by hand for Pop Ecol.

My goal was to finish the exam Friday afternoon, but I didn't quite get it done because I had to finish getting ready for the party we had last night. I had a great time and I think it was a success. Many of the guests didn't know each other but everyone talked to someone new. I was slightly worried at the beginning when the conversation was centered around Pop Ecol and someone said (in all seriousness), "If you thought that quadratic equation was fun, wait until you see the quartic equation I'm working on for my modeling project!" Thankfully the scope of conversation broadened (although at one point, if you didn't want to be in the room discussing politics you could go to the room discussing religion...). Last night probably wasn't the best time for a party considering everything I have going on but I had a blast.

Reflections on teaching at a big school

I think I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I do not envy my undergrads in intro biology. The lecturer leaves a lot to be desired- he has poor presentation skills, his lectures are hard to take notes on, and his exams are difficult to study for. All of the exams (which comprise about 4/5 of their grade) are multiple choice, and they are hard enough that I would have to study for several hours to get an A on the exams (other than the one about plants). They have to take the exams in a crowded lecture hall with uncomfortable seats and they have 50 minutes. There appear to be few if any concessions for students that require additional time for test taking.

I decided to go back and look at my exams from college to see if they were that difficult. I kept nearly all of my biology (and chemistry) exams and notes and they are now in my office. It was fun to look back at my old exams and see what I got wrong. But I have no idea how to decide if my exams were easier or harder, because they were completely different. I didn't take a single scantron exam in college so my exams were mostly short answer and drawing (compounds, structures, life cycles, etc). The advantage of something that isn't multiple choice is that you can get partial credit. There's no partial credit for C if the answer is A.

The grades for all of my students have been submitted. One of my lab sections did pretty well. The other lab section didn't. Disappointingly, many of my students in the second section got D's and F's. This is especially sad for me since I know that some of those students were trying (albeit not hard enough). I am sad for them because obviously they don't have effective study and/or time management skills. At least three of the students who ultimately got a D or F came to meet with me individually. Two of them hung around at the end of the last lab and told me how much they learned and how much they enjoyed having me as a TA. They did ok in lab but performed terribly on the exams (consistently 40-50%). Why? I don't know.

I find it interesting that my second lab of the week was the one with more underperforming students. I think this is just random. I was definitely a better teacher for my second lab of the week because I made my mistakes with the first lab. For this reason I don't think the poor performance of students in my second lab is my fault. Many of them started this class at a disadvantage (such no chemistry in high school, or ever) and I think I did the best I could with what I had to work with. I hope they are all able to find something they love and at which they excel, and at the very least I hope they now have a greater appreciation for how biology provides a framework for understanding our lives and the world around us.

During the last lab students filled out course evaluations for the lecturer and for me. I asked the lab instructor when we will get the results of our evaluations and he said, "oh, probably in February." What? That hardly helps at all for my teaching approach for the beginning of next semester. If a school really wants teachers to take evaluations seriously then they should get them back to them in a timely manner so they can use them to improve their teaching. Next semester I am DEFINITELY doing my own mid-semester evaluations with my students since the university feedback system seems useless.

I wish that big research universities rewarded professors for excellent teaching and mentoring. They like to give it lip service, but really publications and grants are much more important. The NY Times recently had an article about the decline in tenure-track jobs as universities put more teaching jobs in adjunct positions to save money because they can pay them less. I'm very disappointed by this trend and this is why I want to teach at an institution that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to undergraduate education.

It's a small academic world

When I was searching for grad schools, I was interested in studying critters in a particular area. I emailed A who had published on the topic and he told me to contact Leo. I contacted Leo who told me to contact Herb, which is how I ended up where I am now. This fall I contacted B because I thought she could be a potential collaborator. B told me she's working on a different project now but I should really contact A (not knowing I already had). Later I wrote to C, a colleague of Herb's, for advice and she said, "You should contact B- she is doing similar things." If you didn't follow all of the interactions, the gist is that I'm not getting many new contacts in this area because I've already talked to all 4 of them.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

hoops and red tape

Yikes, I severely underestimated the bureaucratic mess involved in submitting a $5000 grant to work with vertebrate animals. Thankfully these grants don't require official institutional approval at this stage or I'd be SOL since the deadlines are too soon to get it. I have to submit some form for each grant I apply for, and the number from that form has to be used on the forms I submit to the animal care committee. My animal care protocol must be pending to submit a grant and must be approved before I can receive or use a grant.

I think it is important that we have procedures and approval for animal use in research, but these protocols are mostly designed for people working with lab rats and mice. From what I gather the review panels are a bit baffled by field work proposals. I did speak to a very helpful woman from that office who gave me some pointers and told me to look at Herb's old proposals that are similar and use them as a template for my proposal.

I had no idea I would be spending so much time today filling out forms. The beginning of my break (when I finish everything- grants, homework, take home final, forms...) is steadily being pushed closer and closer to Christmas...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What (not) to write to potential graduate advisors

Female Science Professor did a great post today with generic samples of emails she receives from interested prospective graduate students. If you are interested in going to grad school, don't write emails that fall in the first two categories. It might take you a really long time to go through and read about someone's research and write them a thoughtful email, but that's really what they're looking for. If you are estimating how much time it will take you to research and make inquiries about grad school, you should double or triple that amount of time and it will be closer to accurate. It felt like a significant part-time job for me for about 2 months, and that was even before I really started doing the applications.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

take home final= insanely long final

The take home final Chip has given us for Population Ecology is insane. It has 10 problems and today I spent 5 hours working on one of them and I didn't even finish. I think this final will end up taking everyone at least 30-40 hours to complete. On top of this, I still have to finish 5 different homeworks which will take at least 1-2 hours each. Oh, did I mention I have this grant due on Friday when I have to part with my laptop and prepare for a party which I not-so-wisely decided to have on Friday? AHHHHHHHHHHH!!! There's no way I'm going to get everything done for Pop Ecol by Friday like I'd hoped.

eek! Conflicting advice from advisors

I must say that I really like my advisors but they are driving me a bit crazy right now. Herb is telling me to focus my grant proposal, and Leo is telling me to broaden it to include a whole different guild of critters! I'm going with Herb's advice on this one but I hope it doesn't offend Leo.

Monday, December 10, 2007

feeling unprepared

The end of this semester really wouldn't be too bad except for these two grant applications I have to finish by Friday when I must relinquish my iBook to AppleCare for a few days to fix some problems before my AppleCare expires. I am finished with teaching, grading, attending classes, papers, and presentations. I still have a TON of homework to do for Population Ecology but it's these grants I'm worried about. I'm agonizing over the budget and especially the experimental design. Tomorrow I'm having a meeting with Herb to discuss my project and I hope it will help. I feel like I'm not making quick progress because I don't have clarity about my project. There are so many things up in the air. I don't even know for sure where I'll be doing field work this summer. Ai!

On the bright side, I am going to send my review paper to Taxonomically Specific Journal after I get this other stuff finished.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Our Christmas Tree

We found a tree while we were out with our friends who have a car. Hooray! I only had to ask about 10 people if they knew where we could find a nearby Christmas tree lot.

We got the tree up without a problem, but we're having decorating issues. Somehow we have misplaced the one little box that must have contained all of our Christmas tree decorations. We are at a complete loss as to its whereabouts. It would have been almost 2 years since we packed them up so I don't even remember what the box should look like. Since then we've moved it twice, and I really don't think we ever had it in Big City. Our best hope is that we somehow left it in Jon's mom's basement where we stored our things while we were in RFC. Oh, the woes of a transient twenty-something.

We have a box full of Christmas misc including lights, boxes, and some ribbons so we were able to light the tree and decorate it in the minimalist style that Jon prefers anyways. We didn't have that many decorations in the other box, but it did contain all of my favorite ornaments from childhood and the ornaments I made for our tree two years ago from walnuts and pine cones. For the time being I made ornaments out of the pine cones that fell out of the tree.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Finding a Christmas tree in Big City

I had no idea it would be this difficult. We figured there would be plenty of Christmas tree lots popping up in the empty neighborhood blocks but we have yet to see one. Internet searches reveal surprisingly few Christmas tree lots, and absolutely none which are within walking distance. Our plan was to bike to a nearby lot and bungee the tree to one of our bikes and walk home with it. Without a car we are severely limited in our Christmas tree options (do we have ANY?). Can you take a Christmas tree on the bus? Do you have to pay a fare for it? Will the bus driver be mean to you about it and insist that large autotrophic passengers are not allowed?

Luckily, we have a plan. One of my friends from school has a car and we've convinced him and his girlfriend to go Christmas tree shopping with us tomorrow. Yay! Alas, I still can't find a Christmas tree lot on this side of the city. I imagine they are there but they aren't online so I won't know they exist until I drive past them. I just want to find an inexpensive tree that will hold its needles for the next two weeks.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Biofuels aren't a silver bullet

I've been reading a great blog called Low-Input, High-Diversity Biofuels and today there was a link to an article by a New Zealander about the imperative of understand what biofuels will and won't do at national, regional, and world-wide levels. Ecologists should really be paying attention to this. Check it out and make some noise. I'd rather put more money into energy efficient technology and wind and solar power than subsidize agribusiness and oil companies.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Is it only Wednesday?

It is only Wednesday but a lot has happened this week. My mom and sister came to visit on Sunday so we used their car to do a HUGE (>$200) grocery shopping trip and drop off recycling. The timing for their visit was perfect and we had a good (but short) visit.

I spent almost all of Monday agonizing over a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation for Tuesday. I realized it has been a long time since I have done a strictly timed PP presentation. I'd forgotten how long it takes to prepare for 10 stinkin' minutes! I was seriously freaking myself out about it on Monday night after I did a terrible runthrough for Jon where I couldn't could find the words concisely. Then I sat down and had a little mental chat for myself where I said to myself, Karina, every week you stand in front of 50 kids and talk about stuff you don't know nearly as much about for 40+ minutes. Have confidence that you will find the words and you will. Do not be intimidated by your audience! STOP FREAKING OUT! So I did. My presentation was fine. I'm glad to have that finished.

On Tuesday I talked to Herb about my schedule for next semester and I proposed Leo's idea of me going to Neotropical Field Site this summer with Herb instead of African Field Site. Herb seemed to think the idea was definitely worth considering but we'll have to play it by ear. His grant money will be really stretched to pay station fees and get people there so there won't be any money for stipends (I wasn't counting on it). Really there are still so many things up in the air, but it is good to know that I have options. It would make my life 1000 times easier if I get the NSF GRF. Herb also thinks I should try to publish my review paper in Taxonomically Specific Journal so I'll be pursuing that soon.

Tuesday night I graded about 90 lab reports. Ai! I had to grade two week's worth of labs for my students. I didn't write as many comments or read as closely as usual because most of the students won't even come to pick up their labs. Today one of my students asked me to write a letter of recommendation for a graduate program she's applying to. I suppose this will be the first of many reference letters I write. I still need to look at the information about this letter to make sure I really can write about this student. I'm somewhat flattered to have been asked since I'm just her TA, but then again there really isn't anyone else from this course who could write a letter for her.

Today I went to Big Natural History Museum to talk to Leo more and replace my access badge which they accidentally canceled a few weeks ago, thus prohibiting my access to the staff area.
I really enjoy talking to Leo because it is obvious that he loves his job. He loves doing fieldwork in Africa, loves leading trips for the museum, loves interacting with non-scientists in his work, and loves the collections. He's always showing me random photos, books, or specimens. We talk about a lot more than just my research. I was bit disorganized today because I usually come with a long list of questions for him but not today so I kept forgetting what I wanted to talk to him about.

While talking about my research with Leo, we uncovered a question about my system which prompted an email to a scientist who works at African Field Site. She replied right away with news I definitely didn't want to hear: in the 2+ decades she has been working there, she recalls the tree I want to study fruiting only two or three times. Eek! But as Leo pointed out, I haven't a single hour of fieldwork invested in this project so I shouldn't despair. There's no reason why I can't find another tree to work with. And all hope isn't lost on this one yet since this person isn't a tree expert.

Before the semester ends I have to do a LOT of homework for Chip's class (Pop Ecol), submit an university travel assistance application for summer fieldwork, submit a grant proposal, and submit a National Geographic Young Explorers grant proposal. I'm worried that these proposals won't be spectacular but I think I have to give them a shot because these particular opportunities come once a year or never again. On top of that I have to prepare to part with my computer for a while sometime in the next month because I have to send it away for a minor repair before my AppleCare expires. Never a dull moment.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ethics by NIH mandate

All of the new biology graduate students are required to take an ethics class. I think, on principle, this is a good idea. Unfortunately, I feel like the class is a big waste of my time.

My gripes:
-We get lectured at for an hour late in the afternoon when all my body wants to do is fall asleep. It is not an interactive class. I wouldn't mind it if we broke up into small groups and spent part of the class discussing ethical dilemmas. Unfortunately, we've only done that once. He spent a whole hour talking at us about plagiarism. Surely he could've found a more effective teaching method.

-On the syllabus it said we were required to buy two books that we have NEVER used. One of them is on biomedical ethics so I plan to resell it asap.

-The guy doesn't speak loudly enough unless you're sitting in the first two rows (and it's not that big of a room).

-He doesn't know his audience (or at least not my demographic of it). There are many ethical issues that transcend disciplines but some are much more specific. During the last class he spent the whole time talking about lab notebook protocol and intellectual property rights for patents. Nothing I can possibly foresee doing with my field notebook will ever result in a patent. This is just one example of the fact that he has never acknowledged that there are some of us in science who don't work in a typical "lab" with "lab experiments" and "lab notebooks" and I think it's because he doesn't know because he has never once in the course asked what kind of science we do. My research has nothing to do with medicine or industry. I don't even know what other departments people in this class come from.

-If he knew his audience, it wouldn't take much modification of his lectures to pitch things to the field ecologists and the other unaddressed scientific disciplines in the room (if there are any).

I just feel like so many of the topics discussed in this class had absolutely nothing to do with my research (such as the ethics of dealing with human research subjects or lab rats), yet no one ever attempted to acknowledge this. It would not have taken much to include us in the conversation and convince me to care a little more about the ethics of lab notebook protocol. I am going to be sorely disappointed if I do not get to fill out an evaluation for this class.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

teaching and mentoring

This week I taught my last lab of the semester. It sure did go by quickly! I prepared a little 'thank you' to my students and told them to feel free to come talk to me and let me know what they're up to since I'll be here at least as long as they will be. A few people's eyes bugged out when I told them my Ph.D. program would take 5-7 years. For some reason though things felt awkward with my first lab of the week. It was still hard to get them to volunteer answers for my questions and things just felt weird. Not what I hoped for my last class with them! I am always a little less polished with them so perhaps they were feeling bad because they gave me less than glowing evaluations or something? One of my students from that lab (the one who wants to be my Facebook friend and invited me to a Halloween party where he was really drunk and tried to tell me that because he invited me to the party that I was supposed to give him 100's on his lab reports...) said as he left, "Well, it's been an interesting semester. I'll leave it at that." What does that mean? Oh well.

My second lab was much better. I'm usually better for the second lab because I've been through the topic already with my first lab and made my mistakes with them. Plus, this week we were studying plant reproduction. I actually got to talk about my research! I really knew this week's topic because, frankly, I taught quite a few classes on flower anatomy and seed parts to first and fifth graders at Mid-Atlantic Field Station. A couple of women in my class really lit up when they realized that when they eat seeds they are eating the "lunch for the baby plant in the box." We also talked about why peanuts "split in half like that" when you open them. I think they'll remember now what a dicot is. It's so rewarding to watch students "get it."

At the end of my second lab a few women, including some of my older students, thanked me and told me they'd be surprised if I got any bad evaluations. It made me really happy to hear them say that. I hope some of them do let me know what they're up to and come to me if they have internship or career questions. A few weeks ago one of my students interviewed me for an assignment for another class about careers in biology. It was so exciting to talk about the possibilities!

Another one of my students (from my first lab) came to talk to me about her interest in plants. She is a first year but really seems to have her act together and have good self confidence and communication skills. Her plan is to go to pharmacy school and so we talked about medicinal plants and how plants and pharmacy were a great combination of interests. While I was working at Mid-Atlantic Field Station I saw an awesome presentation by a professor of pharmacy who teaches herbal remedies to pharm students so I gave her his name. She also wants to study abroad! I really like this student and I hope she finds some great opportunities.

This week in my required grad course we talked about issues of gender and ethnic diversity in academia and ecology specifically. We had a visiting speaker who is one of a handful of African American ecologists. She said she thought the most important thing for increasing diversity in science is mentoring. I think everyone who is passionate about what they do can identify a mentor who encouraged them to pursue that interest and coached them through life's hurdles. I certainly have many, many mentors to thank for getting me this far in science. I hope that I can similarly assist students in navigating the road to a life in science, especially students who come from different backgrounds and possess unique insights and perspectives. I have to say that's something, among other things, that Herb appears to do quite well. He has definitely put his money where his mouth is when it comes to recruiting and advising students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

I have more thoughts on teaching as the semester wraps up but I'll save them for a later post.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Funny looking pumpkins and seed bombs

I should probably be working on my review paper, but I just got excited about an idea for next spring: Seed bombing the potential green spaces in my neighborhood. Let me explain.

Seed bombing is the practice of making balls of soil and seeds and tossing them into weedy, vacant areas for beautification (or food production). I heard about this on NPR last year, but was reacquainted with the idea at I mentioned in an earlier post that I'd love to find a local community garden to join next summer. However, even if I don't, I have a plan. I'm going to add some variety to the local weedlots.

In particular, I want to plant squash. Winter squash. I love winter squash. It's relatively easy to grow (in my experience) and keeps for months. I bought a calabaza squash (it looks like an odd-colored pie pumpkin) at a farmer's market in September. It had a growing brown spot, so I knew I need to deal with it this weekend. I sliced it up into wedges like cantalope and baked it with the skin on for about 50 minutes while I had a casserole in the oven. I couldn't believe what a beautiful, bright orange the flesh was when I took it out! It separated easily from the skin and wasn't stringy at all. It was also delicious all by itself! I pureed it and will freeze it for later use in a pumpkin pie recipe because I think it will have an excellent pie flavor.

Anyways, I initially saved just a few seeds in hopes of a community garden plot next year but after reading about seed bombing I salvaged the rest of them. There is quite a bit of weedy railroad right-of-way near our house that I think could grow some calabaza squash. I can do preliminary site scouting from Google Earth. If it doesn't take, oh well, no loss. If it does, I might have more calabaza next fall than I know what to do with. Or the neighbors might enjoy it. Or the rats.

I would also love to seed bomb some hardy, colorful annuals into the local fenced-in vacant lot. It is rocky, weedy, and trash-filled so I don't think it's really worth trying to grow squash there. Like I said in my earlier post, I usually tend towards being a native plant snob but I just can't be picky in Big City. Anything green and growing is an improvement for air quality and people's quality of life. That said, I don't want to spread any new invasive plants so they are out of the question. I'm thinking zinnias, marigolds, and native sunflowers-sunny things that won't grow in front of our north-facing apartment. I can't wait to plant some window boxes in front of our place. Ooh, I'm so excited for spring!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

so many fieldwork questions...

Today I ran my list of questions past Leo. After talking for a while, he offered an interesting idea. He suggested I go to Neotropical Field Site with Herb this summer to test out methods and design, then go to African Field Site next December and start my proposed research. Herb is unlikely to come to African Field Site, and Leo declares himself useless for the seed dispersal aspect of my project, so this would be a good way for me to get Herb's help in the field.

-Herb would be able to help me with experimental design and issues in his area of expertise
-I could collect useful data and do a small research project this summer, which I am less likely to get from African Field Site because it will be the wrong season for my organisms.
-Lots of similar research has already been done at Neotropical Field Site which means there is literature to build on and experienced people around.
-I would get to work with Neotropical critters

-Methods and design tried in the Neotropics might not work at African Field Site.
-I'll have less time to work out logistical problems, and less of an idea what those logistical problems might be.
-My 'focal organism' at African Field Site does what I want it to do in January according to the literature. If I arrive for the first time in December and find out that it is going to be impossible to work with, I'll have to find a new one and hope it is on the same schedule.

I've got to run this past Herb next week. He's really concerned about getting everyone to Neotropical Field Site even without me in the picture, but I think if I can get my own funding then he'd be amenable. Leo and I talked more about what I should apply for and what I should ask for from each source. If I apply for enough grants I'm bound to get some of them.

Leo asked what I was going to do with the review paper I wrote, and I told him I initially thought it might be publishable (when I came up with the topic, that is, before I wrote it), but I wasn't sure now. He said it would be perfect for Taxonomically Specific Journal (this is a made up name in case you couldn't tell) and would be a good way for me to make myself known in that community of researchers. I hadn't considered this at all so I'm glad he suggested it.

I think I've gotten better at talking about my research interests and not worrying that I don't have every aspect of my research project figured out yet. I suppose what I've learned to do is say, "I don't know" with enough confidence to acknowledge the question as relevant and something I will be able to find out the answer to even though I don't know now. Does that make sense? What it boils down to is me thinking to myself, "Yes, you can do this. Don't let anyone's well-meaning, inquiring questions intimidate or discourage you." I know it has taken me years to get to this point of academic confidence, especially among 'superiors,' but I'm really proud of myself.

I've got a lot of work to do over break, but Jon and I are planning to visit some museums this weekend. Neither of us is seeing family this Thanksgiving because it's a lot harder to get away from Big City without a car and we got a great offer to dog sit. Our friend from SFC invited us to have The Big Meal with her family so we're looking forward to that tomorrow. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

classes, questions, and CVs

I found it nearly impossible to keep my eyes open today in the required graduate class. I really was trying too, because next week I have to lead a discussion on papers in this professor's area of research. I pinched my hands and arms to no avail... I just gave myself little pink pinch marks and still looked like I was falling asleep. I felt like this yesterday too but I didn't have class. I wonder if it's my breakfast. Now that it's getting colder outside I switched from yogurt to oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe oatmeal doesn't have enough protein or fat to keep me going until lunch?

Good news from today: I got feedback on my review paper and it was pretty good. Most of the weaknesses I need to address were things I was already aware of. It shouldn't be as agonizing for me to revise it as it was for me to write it in the first place.

Less good news from today: I thought December was going to be primarily consumed by my two grant applications, but Chip reminded us in Population Ecology today that we have a take-home final exam equivalent to 10 normal homework assignments. Yikes! Slightly better news: We can work together like we do on homework. Still, my older and wiser office mate (who I haven't mentioned because she has kids and works mostly from home so I basically have a private office) took Pop Ecol and said the exam was killer. It will include things we haven't covered that require several desert-rodent-community-matrix-sized leaps from what we already know. I'm still behind on homework in the class so I'm going to attempt to catch up over Thanksgiving (I'll at least try them all so I will know what I don't know).

While working on my curriculum vitae this afternoon I was having trouble deciding how to fit in some slightly unconventional "professional experiences" that I think merit inclusion in my new, more standardized format. I Googled "ecology curriculum vitae" to look at other people's real CVs and get ideas, but they just had the usual stuff on them. I thought maybe I was looking at people who were too old (=well established in their careers) and had long since dropped the "summer nature daycamp leader" from their CV, so I tried Googling "ecology curriculum vitae 'graduate student' " hoping to get some younger folks. Well, the CV of one of my best friends turned up in that search, and she has some pretty unusual stuff on there, but I wanted a larger sample size. Suddenly it came to me- I Googled "ecology curriculum vitae 'small friendly college' ." Bingo. Lots of people who graduated years before of me but still had "specimen preparation for mammalogy collection" on their CV, as well as their undergraduate TA experience (I wasn't sure if I should include this). I'm still not entirely sure how to present my foreign study experience. I don't really see that on many CVs.

I had a short meeting with Herb today. I have SO many questions about starting research. For example [Herb's answer]:

How long should I plan to be at African Field Site this summer? [um... what's the summer course schedule? My students usually do fieldwork or return to their home countries.]

How am I going to get funds for a short trip that is definitely preliminary work? [Flesh out your GRF proposal with a caveat that your project is subject to modifications in the field to conform with reality. You should be able to get your plane ticket covered by a travel grant from UBC.]

Should I be a TA this summer if I don't get the NSF GRF? [I don't think you have any other options if you want to continue to pay rent.]

If African Field Site is a total bust for whatever reason (eg. permits, politics, parasites...), can I switch my project to work at your Neotropical Field Site next year? [Yeah, we can work in a project for you in as long as it's after this summer because hopefully we'll have more money then.]

Tomorrow I'm meeting with Leo to discuss these questions further. Maybe he'll offer to fly me to African Field Site with Earthwatch funds to help with one of his expeditions... I'll keep dreaming.

Sorry this post has been long and rambling. The only thing that ties these things together is that they were part of my life today.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Internships: advice for aspiring scientists

Last week in lab I told my students they should use some down time over Thanksgiving break and winter break to look for internships and summer jobs. I wish I had been encouraged earlier in my college career to consider things like Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs. I want my students to start thinking about what they can do this summer (or next summer, or the summer after) because this is the time of year to do it. REU applications are due in February or March and they've got to get it together. Plus, I hope some people will be inspired by all of the awesome opportunities out there in science, and especially in ecology since that's my particular passion.

I spent a long time composing an email to my students about internships (tacked onto some housekeeping about grades so hopefully they'll read it). I linked to the REU program finder site, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) site, and heaps of internship opportunities in Big City. I did an REU program after my junior year of college. I applied to several programs but was only accepted to one in Kansas, not my first choice. It ended up being an awesome summer; I had a great roommate, experienced life in a college town, and did some cool research with someone who was a great advisor. I learned that I wasn't particularly interested in his research paradigm or system, but I did learn a lot about the process of becoming a scientist and life in academia.

The typical REU stipend when I was in Kansas was $3000 for the 10 week program. They also provide housing, food, and travel reimbursement to get you there. As I was poking around REU programs for my students, I discovered the going rate for this summer is $4000 plus room and board and travel. A quick calculation tells me that this (if you assign more than $500 for the housing, food, and travel reimbursement) is more than I make as a TA in 10 weeks. I earn approximately $440 per week before taxes and have to pay rent, bills, and buy food with that. Kind of sad, really, but I'm glad the REU students can earn a decent wage for doing summer research. I think the biggest bummer about REU programs is that you can't participate the summer after you graduate. I'm an advocate of taking time off before going to grad school and an REU program would be a great thing to do during the first summer in the "real" world.

Today one of my students emailed me to say she's interested in plants and wants to talk about career options and grad school. I think she was interested in pharmacy school or something at the beginning of the semester so I'm thrilled to hear she wants to talk about plants. I can't wait to tell her about all of the cool things she can do and study.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

oh dear me... I just joined Facebook

I think I was the second-to-last twenty-something who went to college to not have a Facebook account (Jon still doesn't and is firmly resisting). A few weeks ago (after my younger cousin, some of my students, and several of my friends asked me if I'm on Facebook) I decided I would join after finishing the review paper draft and some other things. So, tonight, after choosing a new layout for my CV I decided it was time to join Facebook. Geeze, I hope I don't regret this. There are some people from high school who I really don't care to reacquaint myself with over the internet. I just spent the last hour choosing pictures from RFC to upload to an album. This could be a serious time waster. Maybe I should've waited until winter break? Obviously it is now late and I need to go to sleep.

updating my C.V.

Last week in the core course for new grad students we had to prepare CVs for our future selves post-Ph.D. and post-doc. It was kind of fun to make up publications and decide which journals I would publish in. We also had to look for jobs we thought we would want to apply for (and that we'd be qualified for!). I found several listings for assistant professorships at liberal arts colleges that sounded good.

Highlights from my CV from 2014:
-I finished my Ph.D. in 2012 (5 years, that's good)
-I published in Ecology
-I had five publications from my Ph.D.
-I co-led a study abroad program
-I got the NSF GRFP and several small (<$5,000) grants
-I did a two year post-doc teaching and coordinating a REU program at a small university

While we were discussing our CVs and job searches, the prof asked how many of us published in Science or Nature. Three men raised their hands and zero women. Women outnumber men in my program 2 to 1. What's up with that? I've got some thoughts on gender and science that will appear on the blog eventually.

From this exercise and discussion I decided that it is time to update the format of my CV. The format I've been using for the past several years has served me well, but I need to upgrade to a more standard format for academia. My goal is to get this done before Thanksgiving. Both of the grants I'm applying for in December need CVs so I want to get this done.

My art on the wall

This week we finally framed and hung some of my drawings! We ordered the frames online (it's hard to find square frames) and Jon matted them. We still need to print some of the awesome photographs we took during our travels last year and get those framed. Hopefully we can get some up before Christmas.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

ooh! I got meme tagged!

The meme of four

Anne-Marie from Pondering Pikaia tagged me for this meme. I'm very flattered.

4 Jobs I've Had

1. Nature day camp counselor
2. National Wildlife Federation catalog call center phone answerer (yes, I took your order for that tacky outfit and matching hummingbird covered comforter)
3. Horseback riding instructor
4. Microscopic ocean bottom sediment sorter for a molluscan biodiversity survey

4 Moves I Love to Watch Over & Over

1. Love Actually
2. Apollo 13
3. Shawshank Redemption
4. Moulin Rouge

4 Places I Have Lived

1. Reynoldsburg, Ohio
2. Lawrence, Kansas
3. Winchester, Virginia
4. Hickory Corners, Michigan

4 TV Shows I Like

1. The Amazing Race
2. Survivor
3. The West Wing
4. The Simpsons

4 Places I Have Been

1. Aruba
2. Galapagos Islands
3. Kenya
4. Russia

4 Websites I Visit Daily

1. cragislist
2. blogger
3. UBC webmail
4. UBC Blackboard

4 Favorite Foods

1. Chocolate
2. Fresh bread from my bread machine
3. Sushi with avocado
4. Guacamole

4 Places I'd Rather Be

1. New Zealand
2. Small Friendly College
3. Mid-Atlantic Field Station
4. A neighborhood with lots of trees

4 Blogs I Tag

1. what we don't know is A LOT
2. Uncommon Ground
3. and 4. Now that the list of bloggers that I think might read my blog, I'm tagging regular readers of my blog who I don't know. If you are from Kansas City or Toledo you are definitely tagged... hope you aren't too creeped out but Google Analytics tells me where my blog visitors are from and when they visit- I know nothing about you personally! (if you don't have a blog you can just post it in the comments section of mine if you want, or of course you can choose not to participate).

Plastic Trash

I've been meaning to blog about the enormous plastic trash collection floating in the North Pacific Gyre since I first heard about it last week. How could I have possibly not heard about it before last week??? Anywho, Paulina did a nice post about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

I turned in my review paper (10.5 double spaced pages) and only spent 9 hours at school today (although I still have at least an hour of grading to do). I should start keeping track of how many hours I spend on 'work.' I think lately it has been something disgusting like 70+ hours/week. Let's hope the trend doesn't continue.

Monday, November 12, 2007

my academic secret

I've had a really uneventful, boring weekend. Most of it has been spent agonizing over this review paper that I have to turn in on Tuesday. I've just been dreading it. I told myself I couldn't post to the blog until I really got some traction on it. I was looking forward to this assignment at the beginning of the semester, because writing a review paper on a topic of my choice should help me develop my own research focus as I discover what's been done and what hasn't. In spite of the fact that I chose this topic, I've been dragging my feet on it all weekend. Last night I wrote four pages and today I wrote another four but I didn't really get into it until after watching The Amazing Race this evening (TAR has nothing to do with my topic, unfortunately).

Part of the reason I've been unenthusiastic about this assignment is that I didn't think about it at all in the past month while I was working on my NSF GRFP application. The other reason is because... ok brace yourself for this one... I've never written a 10 page paper before (at least not that I can recall). I'm not even talking about 10 single-spaced pages- I haven't written 10 double-spaced pages. I know, right now you're thinking how could this girl have possibly gotten into grad school? What kind of deficient education did she have? I wrote review papers as an undergrad and the assignments were 8-10 pages but mine always came out on the shorter side. I never elaborate as much as I probably should. To graduate we didn't write theses but did comprehensive exams. I have done assignments with multiple parts that added up to well over 10 pages (such as my comprehensive exams and my GRFP application) but I've never written 10 cohesive pages. I blame the latent perfectionist in me that hates to do something if I can't do it perfectly right away. I've spent years accepting that I've got to make mistakes the first time around and sometimes you just need to do something even if it's crappy. So there you have it. I'm simply intimidated by the thought of writing a 10 page paper.

I'm feeling much better about it now that I have 8 pages (rough as they are). Actually, I only have 4. I like to type single-spaced and then double-space it all at the end. I think its easier to see what I've already written if it covers fewer pages and I find it really satisfying to double the length of my paper just before turning it in. It is really late right now so I need to try to go to sleep. I've gotten on a weird schedule this weekend with all this procrastination.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Primate's Memoir

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Robert Sapolsky, author of A Primate's Memoir, speak in Big City. Sapolsky is a Neurobiologist at Stanford and author of several books. I absolutely love A Primate's Memoir. It is hands-down one of my favorite books. It makes me laugh and makes me cry like no other book has. I love reading field biologist memoirs and this is one of the best.

I was SO excited when I heard Sapolsky was coming to speak. Most of his research has to do with stress and his lecture was about stress-related diseases which isn't a particular interest of mine but I knew that if his lectures were half as entertaining as his writing that it would be worthwhile. I wasn't disappointed. I brought my dog-eared copy of A Primate's Memoir for him to sign after the talk. Several people were standing around him afterwards but I managed to get him to sign my book before he had to leave. I think I rambled a little bit too much and was probably came off as a slightly over enthusiastic fan but he was very polite and took my gushing compliments of his book very humbly. Also, he still has big curly hair like the picture of him on the back cover (in case you have the book). Read his book and don't pass up a chance to see him speak.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

It's DONE!

What a relief! My NSF GRFP application is done. FastLane didn't have any problems so I was able to upload my (hopefully) perfected essays this afternoon. Now I just have to wait four and half months to hear the results. And start on that 10-15 page review paper due next week. And the grants I'm applying for in December... That's why they call it Piled Higher and Deeper, right?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

last bike to leave

My bike has been the last to leave the rack outside my building several nights in the past 10 days or so. I imagine I'll be last again tonight. I'm finally calling it a night after 13 hours at school. I've uploaded my essays to FastLane (NSF's site for applications) in case its overloaded tomorrow afternoon when things are due. I'm planning to do a final proofread tomorrow afternoon, but in the worst case scenario now I've got something on FastLane to submit. I'm feeling pretty good about my application. I think my plan of research and previous research essays are pretty much locked down but I still might work on the conclusion of my personal statement. I tried reworking it again this evening. Ai! I hope I get this thing.

Monday, November 5, 2007

trying not to panic

I was feeling pretty good about my NSF proposal today until I got some really unhelpful feedback from Herb about my previous research and personal statement a few hours ago. He wrote, "The research statement shows a lot of experience, but does not suggest a direction, much less the one you are taking." I think I need to sleep on it and come back to it tomorrow not freaked out. I don't have to take everyone's advice.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A totally awesome biology blog

I just discovered a new blog. Last week Pondering Pikaia was honored by Blogger as a "Blog of Note." It definitely deserves the recognition! Anne-Marie does a great job addressing science news and interesting critters. Check it out! She has a great series on Harry Potter although I haven't read much of it yet (her posts are really long! I easily spent over an hour on her blog).

I hope she keeps blogging in grad school. I look forward to reading this one for quite a while.

Is this the hidden essay?

The page limits on each essay for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program are strict and unambiguous: 2 pages (including references), 1" margins, 12 pt Times New Roman font. The only way left to fudge it that I can see might be to change the spacing to be slightly less than 1. A friend of mine applied for and got a GRF a few years ago and she wrote her plan of research in Arial Narrow. It makes a significant difference in length.

Given how strict they are about the essays, I find these instructions from the online application very odd:

List significant academic honors you have received relevant to your major field of study that are not listed above (less than 16000 characters).

Sixteen THOUSAND characters! My two page personal statement is about 1,200. That means you can fit more than 25 pages of text in the field for significant academic honors! I noticed this when I applied last year too. I'm beginning to think it's a secret way for people to include more text in their application.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


My closest friend so far in my cohort of grad students is Mariya. She's also in Herb's lab and we TA the same class. We just always seem to end up chatting and she has come over to hang out with us a few times. I absolutely love to listen to her talk. She's from Central America and has an awesome accent. She's also really funny and she thinks I'm pretty funny so we laugh a lot.

Mariya's worried about being cold in the winter since she's never really experienced one before so she wants to get warm boots, coats, sweaters, everything. People keep telling her to get long underwear but she wasn't even sure exactly what it was. I told her to buy some nylon stockings and some good warm socks. Today we went shopping at the thrift store near my house and found lots of sweaters for her for about $10.

Sometimes Mariya comes into my office looking for some kind of advice or ideas about her research or something. Usually she thinks out loud, I have no idea what she's talking about, then she comes to some kind of revelation and thanks me for my help. I guess sometimes we just need someone to listen to us think.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

How much should I tell?

Herb and I had another meeting today about my proposal, a longer one this time over dinner. Honestly I didn't expect this much attention from him about this but I think it's helping my proposal tremendously. We do have a disagreement about how NSF reviews the Graduate Research Fellowship proposals. I mentioned this in a post a few weeks ago. Herb thinks I will be disadvantaged if I tell them that I primarily want to teach when I finish my Ph.D. (preferably at a small liberal arts college, but we'll just see what happens). He's afraid that I'm unlikely to have a teaching-based reviewer and that a research-focused person reading my review won't understand why I want to teach. This is where I think Herb is out of touch. As far as I know he hasn't had any students get a NSF GRF (certainly not recently) but he has written and gotten many other NSF grants with his students. I think the GRF is a different ballgame. I'm going to post the criteria that applicants are supposed to meet in order to be competitive for this fellowship, and it includes strong emphasis on the broader impacts of your research.

Intellectual Merit
The intellectual merit criterion includes demonstrated intellectual ability and other accepted requisites for scholarly scientific study, such as the ability:
(1) to plan and conduct research;
(2) to work as a member of a team as well as independently;
(3) to interpret and communicate research findings.
Panelists will consider: the strength of the academic record, the proposed plan of research, the description of previous research experience, references, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General and Subject Tests scores, and the appropriateness of the choice of institution relative to the proposed plan for graduate education and research.

Broader Impacts
The broader impacts criterion includes contributions that
(1) effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience;
(2) encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens- women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities-in science and research;
(3) enhance scientific and technical understanding;
(4) benefit society.
Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion.

Each of the three application essays (personal statement, plan of research, and previous research) is supposed to address both the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria. I think they want people like me who want to integrate research and education with undergraduates and lead community outreach programs that strengthen science education. I also plan to do significant outreach at my field site for my Ph.D. research in cooperation with a grassroots environmental organization. I'm planning to tell them these things, but Herb doesn't want me to pigeon hole myself into the liberal arts college hole and leave things more open-ended instead.

I am extremely interested to hear from people who have gotten a GRF, not gotten a GRF, or been a reviewer for the GRF. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My blog has been blogged about!

I checked Google Analytics today and noticed a new referring site. Someone else blogged about my blog! This is an exciting day in the history of Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist. Actually the post was on Saturday but I didn't notice until today. Still, I think this made my day today.

The blogger that noticed me is Kent author of Uncommon Ground. In his post he responded to my question from last week's post about having part of your thesis that has little to do with the rest of it. Thanks for your comments, Kent!

Research proposal development

Today I had another brief meeting with Herb to go over my NSF research proposal again.
He is incredibly good at pointing out conceptual or structural errors in a proposal and how questions should be framed. It's like once he mentions how something should be rearranged I think to myself, "Why didn't I see that? I knew that part was awkward." So now I'm finishing up version 4 of my proposal with the focus on the overarching research question instead of the system. He gave me some pointers about this last time, but I didn't quite get it. Now it seems so much clearer! I suppose he has the clarity of thought that comes with decades of writing grants and thinking about his area of expertise.

Only one week until this is due! I'm still struggling with the complete reorganization of my personal statement to explain why I want to study what I want to study and how and why I plan to do outreach to the community.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The West Wing is so bad for my homework

It's just so.... amazing! Jon and I started watching it on DVD before going to RFC just around the time the show was ending on TV. We're just now finishing the 7th (and final) season. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's a show about a fictitious Democratic president and his staff.
It makes me laugh, makes me cry, and it makes me hopeful about the future of this country. It also makes me want to not to any work and just sit on the couch all night and watch all 3 DVDs that came today on Netflix. But alas, I have to get some work done on this NSF GRF application.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


I sent another draft of my NSF GRFP research proposal to Herb and Leo today. I think I made some good progress but it's such slow going. I'm also afraid I'm proposing an impossible project. Anyways, my 'm' key started being very sensitive today. I barely have to touch it and it sends out a row of mmmmmmmmm's. It's really annoying when you're writing a lot about things with lots of m's. Mmaybe I should clean the keyboard.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Atlas of Creation

In July I mentioned this creationist book on my blog published by a Muslim from Turkey. Today I actually got to see a copy because someone in our department just received an unsolicited copy. It is even more enormous, glossy, and full of color photos than I imagined. It's much larger than textbook size. This book has a freaking holographic cover (actually, I just googled hologram and it's not a hologram, it one of those things where the image changes when you look at it from a different angle. What's that called?). I can think of some really great uses for it, like school projects and collages (with the strict condition that the text is cut out- photos only).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Would you like a publishable project?

Yesterday in Population Ecology I asked a question about evolution of mammalian body size on islands. Chip (my incredibly intelligent hyper Pop Ecol professor) said, "That's an excellent question, and no one has modeled it. If you want to do this, you'd have a publishable paper. It could be a chapter in your thesis!" Wow. Ok. Exciting, but also a bit intimidating. It would be really cool to do that. However, I don't see it as fitting in very well with the general trend/theme of my research interests at this point. How do you deal with that? Can you have a chapter in your thesis that has nothing (or little) to do with anything else you've done?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Most Expensive Transcript Ever

It is common practice for universities to refuse to release transcripts if you owe them money. This makes sense from the university's perspective for dealing with students who drop out of school with a balance and then want to transfer credits to another institution. In my case, they don't pay me enough (or frequently enough) as a TA to be able to pay several hundred dollars of fees in full at the beginning each semester. I just had to give half of my paycheck (for the fees) back to the university so that they will send a transcript to NSF for my GRFP application. Yikes!

Monday, October 22, 2007


I requested a 25 year old thesis from Scotland on interlibrary loan. It happens to contain heaps of information that would be really helpful for my NSF GRFP application and my research in general. I wasn't sure they were going to be able to find it at all, so I was thrilled to receive notification that it's at the library waiting to be picked up in less than a week.

My excitement withered when the guy at the library handed me a little box with a roll of microform. Today was the first time in my life I've ever used microform. Wow, what an outdated inferior technology. There are two main problems with microform:

1) I can't curl up in bed with it because I have to use a microform reader at the library to read it.
2) It's hard to read because the screen displays a negative image of the original text (black is white and white is black).

I do have the option of printing it- one page at a time, single sided- for 8 cents per page. At 200+ pages, that's about $16 and several hours of my time. Does anyone know of a company that specializes in printing things from microform?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I love Small Friendly College

I promise you this is not the last time you'll hear that if you're a regular reader of this blog. I was back at my Alma Mater this weekend and was reminded once again how grateful I am for my opportunity to spend four formative years in such a wonderful place.

Why do I love SFC? First and foremost, it was the environment I needed to develop into the person I always was but felt I couldn't be in high school. I positively flourished in the small, intentional, academic community at SFC. I met people who had completely unconventional childhoods and education compared to my suburban public school experience. My confidence blossomed in a community of collaborative instead of competitive learning. I was inspired by my classmates who had traveled the world to study abroad and it opened my eyes even further to the diversity of human experiences on our earth. SFC empowers students to work for change in this world. I studied Biology, but I learned at SFC that having a narrow, myopic view of issues my field is insufficient. If I want to see more equality, justice, peace, and sustainable practices then I need to be doing my part every day to make the change happen. I see myself as intimately connected to both the world's problems and solutions.

It's exciting to watch a new, younger student body continue to develop into fascinating, passionate, and articulate life-long learners and leaders. Watching the students makes me think of the song "It Happens Every Day" by Dar Williams. My cousin is a student there now and I hope that when she reaches the end of her time at SFC that she looks back on it with half as much love and gratitude as I do.

SFC is an intense experience of community. Now that I've been out for a few years I know only a handful of current students. The names and faces have changed but the sentiment hasn't. And most of my professors are still there. But I realized when I graduated that I had not only become attached to the people at SFC. I had become attached to the physical place. I loved the way it felt to walk back across campus in the middle of a spring night, the smell of each academic building, the autumn leaves falling on sidewalks, and the first dusting of snow. Never in my life had I been so aware of the changing of the seasons.

Going back this weekend was excellent. I got to enjoy the fall colors, talk to my professors, see friends, and feel the deep sense of peace and purpose that runs through SFC. It brings tears of happiness to my eyes to think about it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Last week my watch battery died and I haven't had a chance to replace it yet. As a result, Population Ecology classes have run extra late this week. The professor doesn't wear a watch and the only person in the class who had one today misinformed the prof about the amount of time he had left so we were really late to our next class. I need to get my watch working again.

In the past few weeks I've fallen behind on the Population Ecology homework. It got harder and I got busier. I'll catch up after I finish the NSF proposal.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Google Analytics detective work

Google Analytics is very cool. I have it on my blog and it lets me see where my visitors come from (country, state, city). It also shows where your blog traffic is coming from, which brings me to my concern.

On October 12, someone supposedly came to this blog (twice) from a Google search for "myreal name blog." This really shouldn't be happening, so I tried Googling "myreal name blog" and I didn't find this blog in the first 17 pages of hits. Whoever you are, could you please email me and explain if/how you got to this blog with that search?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Late night at school

Around 5 pm today when I still hadn't made much headway on a new research proposal topic between classes and teaching I decided that I wasn't going to leave school until I came up with a topic. I didn't have to start writing it, but I had to pick something. I left at 10:30 pm.

I think I might have something now. I hope I do. A few missing pieces came together tonight. Just this week I realized that a lot of literature from West Africa that I hadn't closely considered is highly relevant to my topic. Still, there are lots of things I want the literature or internet to tell me that just can't be answered yet by anything in print. I wrote a few emails to people who have worked in this system asking them some specific questions (I think this is what I would cite as "personal correspondence" in a paper). Mostly I'm asking basic natural history questions that you'd think someone somewhere would've answered. Perhaps they're all answered in that dissertation I'm trying to get from Scotland on interlibrary loan.

I've got to get a draft of this new idea done before I go away for the weekend. Tomorrow might be another late night.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Getting lost in Big Natural History Museum

That's what I did today. Again (did I write about that the first time? I can't remember). But that's not why I went there. I went to look up obscure reference materials in their library and talk to Leo about my project. I still didn't make much headway but I've done a heck of a lot of reading. I was there for 5 hours but I still didn't get to read everything I wanted to. They have lots of great books and literature that UBC lacks.

I had to get back to school for a meeting so I was leaving the museum in a bit of a hurry. I tried to pay attention to which stairwell I used when I went in today and I thought I used the same one going out until I found myself in the wrong exhibit. Normally it's kind of cool to get lost in a museum because you can discover new places but I was in a hurry. I ended up in the African mammals section, which is where I am conceptually but not where I wanted to be physically at that moment when I had to be leaving quickly. Thankfully I guessed correctly and made it out without any wrong turns.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Ok, it's actually Saturday morning now but you know what I mean. Today was busy. I picked up our first box of produce from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It was kind of like opening a present when I finally got to go through the box after work because we got all different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Anyways, I had to pick that up before going to school to supervise an exam. Oh and I also made scones for lab meeting before I picked up the produce box. I figured it would be nice for the people who took the trouble to read my essays if I made them something to eat. At least it couldn't hurt.

Today during lab meeting everyone gave me feedback on my NSF GRFP proposal. I had expected them to be much harsher. I clearly have a lot to improve in my essays but they gave useful criticism. Interestingly, they had a lot more to say than I thought they would about my previous research. They said I needed to be much more positive in the way I present everything that I've done, even the things that didn't work. This was a weakness in my essay I hadn't even noticed. Also, it became apparent to me that I need to completely rewrite my personal statement again. Right now it's an excellent statement of why I want to teach at the college level and do outreach, but it's a terrible statement of why I want to do the proposed research and how it will help society. It's a daunting task since I spent all of last Saturday coming up with this new version. Interestingly, they loved last year's introduction but thought this year's was terribly bland. This is why we have other people read our proposals.

Herb complimented my writing a few times during the discussion which was both flattering and encouraging. He said I write well but I need to be writing the right things (i.e. not a descriptive narrow-focus plan of research like I wrote last year). My goal for next Thursday is to have a new plan of research to review with Herb. Once I have my research plan in place, then I'll rewrite my research experience and personal statement to fit the plan. Last week I tried approaching it from the other way around. I'm meeting with Leo at Big Natural History Museum next week to talk about my proposal so I've got a lot of work to do this weekend. Time to call it a night.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It feels like progress

This week has been really busy for me. I felt like crap and had a headache all day yesterday. On Monday I was working and thinking like mad about my research proposal but I also had to finish an annotated bibliography that was due on Tuesday. I had some fruitful dialog over email with Leo about my project, and then finally today I was able to talk to Herb about my research. We didn't have a very long conversation, but it put me at ease about my preparation for the lab meeting this week where everyone will be commenting on my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Proposal from last year and my new one for this year. I don't have a new research proposal yet but Herb didn't seem to think that was a problem. Whew.

Herb does think that my goal to be primarily a teaching professor is a strike against me for NSF fellowships. I disagree. They put a lot of emphasis on addressing the "Broader Impacts"
of your research and career goals throughout the application. Herb says that that's relatively new for NSF and that old habits die hard. I think that is more likely to be true for NSF grants in general but I don't think this is the case for the GRFP. Certainly the research proposed has to be well thought out and compelling (which mine wasn't last year), but they really want to know what you're going to do with your research to benefit society and engage under represented groups in science. Even though we apparently disagree about how NSF reviewers will weight my career goals, Herb has a lot of experience finding the right way to frame things so they will be most attractive to reviewers so I know his feedback is going to be a boon to my application this year.

I got my hands on a couple of relatively obscure books via interlibrary loan that contain about 75% of what's known about the critters I want to study. I wish I'd gotten these a long time ago! It has been really exciting to read about them. One book also has awesome pencil drawings that inspire me to do more drawing. These books have been on my wishlist for months but I just haven't been able to justify buying them because they're relatively expensive. At least I have them now for a few months. I love books :-)

So, now that I've gotten my NSF drafts to everyone in Herb's lab, made some mental progress on my research ideas, and finished teaching for the week I feel some relief. I think there's some West Wing to be watched tonight...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Imagine that!

A biology class where you take students OUTSIDE? I really had to try hard to resist rolling my eyes at half of the intro bio TAs who seemed appalled and frightened when they were told to take their college students outside for 10 minutes this week during lab. All they have to do is show the students some leaves of different shapes (palmately compound, pinnately compound, simple, etc). I'm looking forward to it. All of my practice with K-5th graders at Mid-Atlantic Field Station should really come in handy.

Teaching here makes me so thankful that I went to a college where the people teaching my classes care about teaching and where biology classes go outside all the time.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Wild crows using tools

We humans have known for a long time now that Corvids (ravens, crows, jays) are smart. They can talk, mimic noises, count, and use tools. But just recently some scientists figured out how to capture their tool use in the wild on camera. Check it out- it's an interesting perspective.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Herb's lab meetings

We usually meet once a week to discuss and critique papers. So far all of the papers we've read have been draft manuscripts for people in the lab. I'm learning that I have to sharpen my critiquing skills. I haven't had nearly as much constructive criticism for the manuscripts as Herb or the other more experienced lab members. Things that I thought were pretty good needed "major work."

Next week is my turn, which is a little bit nerve racking. I'll be the first of Herb's new cohort to have something on the table. We'll be discussing my application for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program which is due in about a month. I was going to take my turn in two weeks but I'll actually be back at Small Friendly College so I got bumped up to next week. I'm glad that I'll be getting feedback but I have a LOT of work to do in the next few days to get ready for this. I applied last year so I'm not starting completely from scratch but I don't have much of a clue right now what this year's research proposal will be about (last year's obviously didn't cut it or I wouldn't be applying again). I'm planning to spend part of tonight and most of tomorrow working on it.

On Monday I need to talk to Herb about my research ideas. So far we've only talked about other things (politics, Jon's job, people we know, Small Friendly College because he went there too...). It's time to talk about my research.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

the agony of grading

Oh boy. In my last post I lamented the poor performance of some of my students. Well, for some reason, my second lab section of the week is even worse. I can't figure out why my first lab section does better on reports. They're my guinea pigs and I make mistakes with them. Then I go into my second section practiced and generally give better explanations and directions. Why are they doing worse? It's like my second section has a collective brain fart for three hours. I graded their labs last night and they were awful. So awful that I got completely stressed out by it. Trends are starting to appear and some people are consistently missing the big pictures, but the only people coming to me for help are the ones who are already doing ok.

This morning I lectured my second lab about how no one is going to hold their hand anymore and they need to see me if they have questions and need help. I laid the smackdown on the people who consistently come in late. I also had to talk to a few people about copying answers and turning in identical graphs. I hope what I said was effective. I think that in general my students respect me and can tell that I want to help them. I know that for some of these kids I'm the only shot at getting them to like biology and see how it relates to their lives. Maybe they'll even get their act together enough to pass the class.

Monday, October 1, 2007

My students

I like them. But in general they aren't doing as well in lab as I want them to. It pains me to grade some of their lab reports. Mostly they're just sloppy and careless in their answers and neglect to read and answer the questions thoroughly. But often it's obvious from their answers that they don't "get it." I feel like some of their not getting it is my responsibility, but I can only explain or say something so many times. I can't hold their hands. I've told them repeatedly to come see me during office hours or make an appointment with me if they have a question- but they have to know what they don't know.

It is really discouraging to me to listen to some of the other TAs and instructors talk about the students. Today I walked out of the room as someone said, "They just get dumber and dumber every year!" This kind of talk is going to get these kids nowhere fast. I don't think any of my students are dumb. Not one. Unfocused? Lacking study skills? Careless? Sloppy? Disinterested? Yes. But not lacking in intelligence to understand the concepts in this class. I see my responsibility as their TA to set up the framework for the concepts and to inspire them to care about this class (and biology in general). The deficiencies that students arrive with are a result of a poor educational system that fails to properly prepare students in math, science, and writing. They need to understand that just because they HAVEN'T learned it doesn't mean they CAN'T learn it.

Friday, September 28, 2007

I can't hold onto a headlamp!

I don't know what it is about me and headlamps but I seem to go through them like they're disposable. I bought my first one about 5 years ago for the semester I spent in Africa. I was trying not to spend a lot of money so I bought the cheapest Petzl (i.e. one without LEDs). A couple years later I decided that one was too bulky and inefficient with batteries so I bought another headlamp, a tiny two-light LED thing. Once again I was trying not to spend a lot of money so it was probably the cheapest LED headlamp. After a year or two it was barely even good for reading and was completely useless for illuminating a path. Last year before going to Remote Foreign Country I decided I needed yet another new headlamp because we'd be doing some work in the forest at night. This time I was going to get a nice bright one. I bought a Petzl Tikka. A few weeks into our stint in the forest I LOST the headlamp. I think it fell out of the car. ACK! I needed a headlamp for the work we were doing but this time I really couldn't afford another $40 headlamp especially if I was just going to lose it again. I bought a $10 headlamp in town. I managed to keep using it for the rest of our trip, but the mechanism that kept it pointing ahead wore out and it would fall down and point at my nose. I used a safety pin and a friendship bracelet to keep it pointing forward. I didn't bother to bring it back to the U.S. Along the way we did acquire another decent headlamp for free (or $500 with a free car, depending on how you look at it).

When we got back to the U.S. I needed a really good headlamp for a workshop I was going to do so for the nth time I was shopping for a headlamp again. I really wanted this to be my headlamp to end all headlamps. I didn't want it to fail or disappoint me, and I didn't want to lose it. I bought a Petzl Tacktikka (it has a red filter built on that you just flip down). I've been using it on the flashing setting when I bike at night in Big City because I don't have real bike lights yet.

Last night I was biking to a friend's house with another friend and I had the headlamp wrapped around the seat facing backwards so people approaching me from behind would see me. About halfway there, I didn't see it flashing anymore and my friend said, "It's not even there!" AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH how can I lose ANOTHER headlamp?!?!?! We stopped on the side of the road, talked about where it might have fallen off, and I called Jon to ask him to go check for it at the end of our street. He met a slightly crazy woman carrying it down the street and for a couple bucks he got my headlamp back, much to my relief.

Five years, six headlamps. If I buy a cheap one it sucks and if I buy a nice one I lose it. Perhaps getting it back broke some kind of headlamp curse on me. I'd like to think so.

(obviously no one has come over to hang out with me because it's 9:30 on Friday night and I'm posting to my blog about something almost totally pointless that has little to do with me becoming an ecologist).

Why are bars the social default?

They're so expensive. Jon and I were barely able to pay off my credit card balance in full by the due date thanks to a little bit of Google stock that we sold but once we pay rent on Monday we have about $10 in the bank and $20 in cash (not counting our coins) until I get paid in two weeks (or until he gets paid, whichever is sooner). So, I'm not exactly inclined to throw my money away at a bar on Friday night when we have so precious little right now. I invited people over to our house to hang out and drink here instead since it's a lot cheaper to buy some beer at the store but I don't think they're coming :-( It's a bummer to have to decline a social invitation because you can't afford it. Oh well. We'll have more money soon and in the meantime we'll keep being frugal and declining invitations to bars.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jon has a job!

I am soooooooooooooooooooooooooo excited! We are really down to nothing right now so this comes at a good time (although 6 weeks ago would've been even better). Furthermore, it's not just a whatever job. He's working for a progressive grassroots organization so he'll be working on important issues. There's even potential for him to move up to a supervisory job in a few months. At this point it looks like he'll be earning about as much as I do :-)

Monday, September 24, 2007

birth control- not as cheap as it used to be

Until January 2007, universities could buy prescription birth control at a reduced cost but it is now expensive for pharmaceutical companies to offer the low prices due to changed federal law in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. What does this mean? It means that it used to cost about $7 per month for pills and now costs $25-40. This is a major blow for students and the data are already in that some are opting for cheaper and less effective contraceptive methods. Yikes. Check out this article in TIME.

Today I went to a meeting about this issue because I wanted to find out what I can do. I thought they were going to tell me who to write to, who to call, etc. Well, it turns out they organizing on this issue is still in the planning stages because I inadvertently joined a committee by going to this meeting. Oops. Well, here I am. So I'm going to be the one figuring out who students should contact about this and what they should tell them. I expect that learning how to navigate the administrative system of a large university is going to be helpful when I need to approach people about my other activism issue- recycling. I'll save that for another post.

I know many of my readers are at universities. What's the dialogue on your campus? Are students talking about the change in price? What plans are on the table for dealing with it? Are they appealing to the university to subsidize birth control for students? Is prescription birth control covered by your university health care?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Poison Ivy and Box Elder

I was looking for something to draw in my nature journal while camping this weekend and noticed some poison ivy growing under a box elder at our campsite. The leaves are remarkably similar in shape, but I've never had trouble telling the difference. I learned to identify poison ivy as a kid and have always been able to spot it in all its forms, even without leaves. Still, it's tricky to describe the difference between poison ivy and box elder to someone by leaves alone. I thought drawing them might help me notice some differences. Can you tell which is poison ivy and which is box elder? I'll post the answer in a few days.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A New Look

I should be reading for tomorrow but working on my blog is just so much fun. I've seen some really awesome header art on other Blogger blogs and I didn't want to stay plain forever. My science badges got moved to the bottom and I put a cool picture in the header. I thought this might help keep new readers coming back. Do you like it?

printing double sided

Academics use a lot of paper. I try to only print things that I think I'll read more than once, or things that need to be discussed at length (such as papers for Herb's lab meetings).
I also go to great lengths to print things on both sides of the paper. If I have paper used only on one side I save it to print on the other side.

The printer in my office is an older inkjet that does fine for a few pages at a time. If I have to print out more than 10 pages though it's a bit tedious. So, I've been on a mission this week to find out how I can print from my laptop in my office to a big printer that can automatically print things double sided. We had one of these great networked printer/copiers at Mid-Atlantic Field Station and it was super easy to use. I figured there must be one of these for my department. There is one, but it appears to be under utilized, as it's only set up for photocopying.

I meant to email a few administrative people in the department and in a moment of great stupidity I emailed ALL of the biology graduate students. Oops. I felt pretty stupid when I realized my mistake but so far the only help I've gotten was from other grad students. U of Big City has a somewhat complicated and poorly publicized printing network that allows students to print a certain number of pages per semester at computer labs. I printed several pdfs for the review paper I have to write this semester. I'm going to spread the word to the other grad students and show them how to set it up on their computers. I'd also like to get Herb set up with an easy way to print double sided because I'd seen the stacks he prints out. I just hate to see unnecessarily wasted paper.

I think it would be really satisfying to work for a company as their resource efficiency expert and reduce the amount of paper and electricity they use by coming up with policies and procedures that would be more environmentally friendly and save them money. Changing practices around resource use for a big company can have a much larger impact than just doing these things at home. But, I digress. I'm a grad student so this is neither here nor there but I've learned how to print to an automatically duplexing network printer.