Sunday, July 29, 2007

Farewell EcoMath Camp

Wow, what an awesome summer. My understanding of theoretical ecology and mathematical modeling increased 100-fold. I am incredibly grateful that I was given the opportunity to participate in this program and would recommend it to anyone interested in math and ecology. I think this is really the sort of program that NSF should be funding like it funds REU programs. The scientific community would be better for it.

The whole experience was just the right level of intensity for me. I thought hard and worked hard but still had time to enjoy all the field station had to offer for recreation and entertainment. It was a great setting in which to discuss some of the personal issues surrounding grad school and academia with people who are older and wiser than me. I know you can never be 100% prepared for what life will throw at you, but I’m doing my best to plan a path for my graduate career.

This last week was especially busy because were doing small group projects with presentations on Wednesday and papers due on Friday. For my group project I spent a lot of time counting seeds among poison ivy in the forest. I think I escaped with only a small patch of itchy spots on the back of my leg.

I attempted science under the influence of hard cider (in search of inspiration for my paper) on Thursday night but all I did was fall asleep so I don’t think I deserve a new science badge for that one yet.

In the end the people really made this program excellent. I knew I’d be something of a small fish in a big pond but thankfully none of the big fish tried to eat me. I really don’t thrive in competitive environments that lack cooperation.

I also met a really great new friend this summer. While I enjoy meeting people who lead dramatically different lives than my own, it is comforting to find someone with whom you have an astonishing lot in common. I think my closest friends are people who inspire me to be a better person through the way they live their lives.

"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What!
You too? I thought I was the only one." -C.S. Lewis

So, after a summer of fun, friendship, and a return to academic life I'm moving on to grad school! This week I'm apartment hunting in Big City with my partner and we're moving our stuff here in 2 weeks. I have a month until classes start. These are exciting times ahead. :-)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Teaching Assistantship Assignment

The other day I received a most welcome email describing my teaching assignment and outlining the expectations. I really have been unsure what to expect. I thought I'd be assigned to the intro bio class for majors, but instead I'll be TAing a 200-level vertebrate anatomy class. I'm pretty excited about this because I think anatomy is cool and I think I'll be learning along with (or one step ahead of) my students. Someone pointed out to me that it might be full of "whiny pre-meds" but hopefully I'll have some ecologically inclined students.

Here are some of the expectations outlined in the letter:
-Devote an average of 20 hours per week
-Help set up and lead labs
-Be able to answer student questions
-Grade labs, projects, and papers (in a timely manner)
-Proctor exams & quizzes
-Attend lab meetings

Most importantly, they also told me my salary will be $1857.66 per month (before taxes) for 4.5 months. This is about $50 more than they told me when they offered me a TAship in February so that's exciting. This is will be the highest paying job I've had yet, but the cost of living in Big City will pretty much negate the extra income. The grad students I corresponded with last year described the TA stipends as "no luxury but not even starving." I already know how to live frugally so I'm not too worried about it. And it will help that my student loans are back in deferment.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Google it

Yay! My blog is now the first hit when you Google "aspiring ecologist." This feels like some kind of milestone. I've been checking every once in a while since I created it and this is the first time it has come up at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Islamic creationists?

In my persual of (where I hope this blog will be one day when my readership is greater than 10) I found mention of a huge, glossy, intelligent design textbook by a man from Turkey who has sent copies of the Atlas of Creation to universities all over the U.S. Here's a link to the New York Times article about it : Islamic Creationist and a Book Sent Round the World

The author, Harun Yahya, has an admittedly impressive website (in its vastness, not content) where you can download the book for free. This book is full of the same crap I've seen in other creationist or intelligent design literature. There is an obvious lack of understanding of the mechanisms for evolution. Just read Chapter 2: A brief history of the theory for a complete butchering of the history of evolution.

In addition to all of the other errors, there are a few things that come up again and again in anti-evolution literature that really annoy me:

1. Calling those who accept evolution as the fact that it is "Darwinists." Charles Darwin simply got the ball rolling (Alfred Russell Wallace deserves some credit too). So much of our current understanding of evolution happened far after Darwin. I feel like calling it "Darwinism" instead of "evolution" makes it sound reducible to one man's idea without 150 years of additional evidence. It gives the impression that if you read Origin of Species and don't understand it then obviously this "Darwinism" stuff is bunk. I suppose "neo-Darwinist" sounds less credible than the proper "evolutionary biologist."

2. Saying that evolution is "random" or "coincidence," as Yahya prefers to say. Obviously the first turtle didn't just appear randomly or coincidentally from the dust! Evolution, on the contrary, is the NON-random process of selection for characteristics that allow an organism to reproduce more successfully. The mutations that lead to emergence of new characteristics are random, but what happens to the organism with the mutation is not.

Now that I've already written this blog, part of me wonders if I should even be acknowledging this total piece of crap book. By being written about in the NY Times it already has more attention than it deserves. But perhaps now that it's out there it is our scientific responsibility to make sure that people are properly informed and not led astray by the glossy plagarized color photos. Well, you can go check it out for yourself.

Harry Potter and the Decreasing Productivity of Ecologists

In the last week few mealtimes have passed without some discussion of Harry Potter. Almost everyone from this math/ecology program saw the new movie on the release date (some even saw it twice). People are scheduling Harry Potter reading into their days and squeezing it into breaks. Several of us are going to the midnight release party at the local bookstore. I personally am not planning anything else for Saturday, July 21 because I want to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before someone else spoils it for me.

This is an exciting time and place to be a book lover. Like I said, this is nerd camp for adults. We can all speculate about the fate of Hogwarts, Snape, Harry & Ginny's relationship, Voldemort, Dumbledore, and the rest of the wizarding world over dinner. In a week, we'll know (most of us) and then life will go back to normal (until the next movie comes out) and we'll continue studying ecology.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Science Badges

These badges are from The Science Creative Quarterly, Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique.

Here's an explanation of my badges, from left to right. You can read lengthier descriptions of them by clicking on the link above.

The “talking science” badge.

The “I blog about science” badge.

The “MacGyver” badge.
It says that display of this badge must be accompanied by an explanation. Honestly I think I've applied my scientific prowess so many times that I can't think of a good example. At the very least I've saved a few people from disastrous encounters with poison ivy.

The “arts and crafts” badge.

The “inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication” badge.

The “destroyer of quackery” badge.

The “sexing up science” badge.
I've selectively bred a lot of mice.

The “will glady kick sexual harasser’s ass” badge.

The “has frozen stuff just to see what happens” badge (LEVEL I)
Who hasn't done this?

The “inordinately fond of invertebrate” badge.

The “I know what a tadpole is” badge.

The “statistical linear regression” badge.

The “I’ve set fire to stuff” badge (LEVEL I).

During graduate school my goal is to be able to add:
The “respect me - I’ve published at an upper tier publication for popular science readership” badge.
The “worship me - I’ve published in Nature or Science” badge.
The “world’s foremost expert on an obscure subject” badge.

And for what I want to study I'll have to add:
The “works with feces” badge.

In case anyone is wondering, I had to copy/paste the individual badges together in Photoshop. It was a bit tedious but you can use my badge image as a size template to get it right if you're trying to add badges to your own blogger blog.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

This summer

While I was in RFC a friend of mine told me about a summer program for ecologists who want to learn more about mathematical modeling and other applications of mathematics to ecology. It's for upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students so I'm still eligible. Math is one of my weaker areas, but I know that it is important for being a well-rounded and versatile ecologist so this program sounded like a great opportunity for me. I also thought it would be a good way for me to get back into school mode since I've been out for a few years. Best of all, they cover my food, housing, and tuition and provide a small stipend. This is great because I came back from RFC with very little money and aside from selling things on ebay my next paycheck won't be until I start TAing.

I'm really enjoying this program. I've learned heaps about modeling population, community, and ecosystem dynamics. It makes me wish I'd taken a lot more calculus! All of the other students are fun, interesting people. It's a really intense program, so I'm glad they aren't lame or pompous. We have class together for 8 hours each day and then spend our mealtimes and evenings hanging out so we've bonded quite well. I call this the summer camp effect. When you spend almost every waking hour with the same people you get to know them well and quickly.

This program really is like nerd camp for adults. We spend all day in classrooms in front of computers challenging our brains with partial differential equations, linear algebra, Lotka-Volterra equations, Mathematica code, functional responses, R errors in maximum likelihood analysis, and food chain modeling. We work hard and play hard. After class we play volleyball, soccer or ultimate frisbee, go canoeing, running, or just read books and watch movies. This is summer camp without the counselors.

My goal for this summer is to improve my comprehension of theoretical ecology papers and not descend into mathphobia when I see equations.

Now that I feel like I'm pretty well caught up on the things I've wanted to post to the blog I'll try to post more often.

My Application Experience: Phase 3

The Waiting

Ideally I'd refer to this phase as Visiting, but unfortunately I couldn't do that. I was still in Remote Foreign Country and I didn't have enough money to fly myself back to the U.S. to visit. Most unfortunately, neither did the schools I applied to. I spent quite a while online searching for airfares and planning possible itineraries that would allow me to visit 6 schools all over the U.S. in the span of 3 weeks and return to RFC. Amazingly (I think), it could have been done for under $2000. If I'd been able to get $300-400 for travel expenses from each school I could have visited.

Based on whatever numerical parameters they use to rank applicants, I didn't make it high enough to the top of the lists to get invited with financial assistance. Unrealistic though it was, I really held out hope that somehow I'd be able to visit the schools. I started getting desperate and wrote to a pizza company and told them I'd endorse their food if they flew me back to Big City. That was really a shot in the dark.

I had some phone interviews but I really got the feeling that my application was not as strongly considered because I couldn't visit. I started preparing myself for the possibility that I might not be accepted to grad school.

My first notification came in late February during an otherwise awful week of traveling. I was accepted with TA support to U of Big City. What a relief to be accepted somewhere!

All of the letters that followed came with worse news. Some of them sent emails, some sent paper letters which my parents received and had to break the bad news to me over the phone. I wasn't surprised when I didn't get into UC Someplace since I knew it was a long shot, but I was pretty upset when I wasn't accepted at U of Midwestern State. I wrote to the professors from both places and received encouraging emails that said in short, "Your application was really good but I had so many applicants to my lab this year and I could only take one. The student I've accepted is one I've known for 3 years OR has a perfect academic record." I think a bit was lost in the paraphrasing but they seemed sincere and wished me luck. The professor at U of Someplace South told me he probably wasn't accepting anyone new in his lab next year when I inquired about the status of my application.

U of East Coast State professor told me I wasn't on the "must-admit" list so I shouldn't count on it. I didn't get an official letter of rejection from them until late MAY. Why bother at that point? Students have to make their decisions by mid-April. U of New England State professor was the worst correspondent. I hadn't heard yea or nay from him or the school and April 15 was near. Finally he said the department was only taking 4 students as TAs that year and I wasn't at the top of the list so I should just accept at U of Big City.

I wish that early in the application process someone had emphasized to me that I really might not be accepted anywhere. Applying to grad school seems to involve a bit of chance (like not applying to the same lab in the same year as Ms./Mr. Perfect Scores on Everything). Thankfully, U of Big City was my first choice since it seems like I'll have the best chance of pursuing my specific research interests there. I think I was accepted there because I had exceptionally lengthy correspondence with my future advisor and co-advisor. They both seemed to like writing emails a lot more than many of the other professors with whom I corresponded.

I guess the reason I'm writing this, and this blog in general, is to give others insight into applying to graduate school in ecology through my personal experience. And speaking from experience, try to apply while you're in U.S. or at least get back in time to visit. But if you can't do that, you might still get accepted and hopefully things will work out and you won't have a nightmare advior.

I suppose now I should come up with pseudonyms for my advisors. Hmmm...