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.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My Goals for 2017

This was an assignment for all of the new graduate students to start thinking about who and what they want to be, and how they're going to get there. We were asked to address our career aspirations, the coursework and experiences required to get there, sources of funding for our research, and how our career and personal life will jive. Here's what I wrote.

After completing my Ph.D. at the University of Big City, I aspire to teach undergraduates at a small college or university. My ideal position would be teaching biology at a small liberal arts college where I can also do research with undergraduates, lead foreign study programs, and be involved in community outreach related to science education and environmental issues. Conducting research that involves students is widespread at liberal arts colleges, but the other two activities are less conventional.

Off-campus study is an integral part of the student experience at Small Friendly College where I did my undergraduate studies. More than half of SFC students study abroad, and others attend domestic off-campus programs. I participated in three different international programs during college, including two that were led by professors from SFC. These experiences opened my eyes to the amazing diversity of our world and broadened my worldview. I want to lead foreign study programs so that other students will have the outstanding opportunities that I did to see the world from a different perspective. From watching my own professors and group leaders in this role, I know that it is a demanding, 24/7 job. It not only requires expertise in a subject area (ecology in my case); I will also have to coordinate travel, logistics, manage money, facilitate group dynamics, and plan meals. I think this is a job that I could do well based on my attention to detail, passion for teaching, travel experience, experience facilitating group decisions made by consensus, and my own experiences as a participant in such programs.

Although I love to travel, my experiences have taught me that I also need a place to call home. Teaching at a liberal arts college where professors lead off-campus study programs would allow me to travel every few years while having a place to return to. While on campus, I would like to work with college students to do tutoring and outreach programs with K-12 students in the local schools. Developing an outreach program may take a few years if a similar program does not exist at the institution so it may not be achievable by 2017 but it is something I would eventually like to do.

Admittedly, my career aspirations are modeled around my own experiences with the relatively unusual Small Friendly College model of undergraduate education. I could incorporate many of my ideas and goals by working with an organization that specializes in undergraduate international experiences such as the School for Field Studies. A long-term position with the School for Field Studies would require me to live abroad for most of the time, so this is not an ideal end-goal but a potentially useful job to have for a few years. Another way for me to get my travel and outreach fix might be to lead Earthwatch expeditions. This could allow me to maintain a more lively research program while meeting some of my non-research goals.

There are few formal course requirements that relate directly to these goals. I would like to take more math or applied math courses because I think that this is one of my weaknesses and I aspire to be a well-rounded ecologist. It might also be a good idea for me to take more courses in Spanish or another language, depending on where I do my field work.

There are many informal learning experiences that will be important for me to reach my career goals. The first set of experiences surround research. Since I aspire to lead students in international programs it is important for me to do my research abroad so that I can become familiar with the challenges of coordinating logistics in another country. I will need to publish my research and establish myself in my field. Finally, I need to develop a research paradigm that will be accessible to undergraduates so that I can continue to do research in my field as a professor in the U.S. For example, the focus of my research can’t involve modeling using such high level math that few if any of my students can understand it.

I believe it is crucial for scientists to communicate their findings in ways accessible to people who don’t read their painstakingly peer-reviewed publications. As part of the field work for my research I plan to develop an outreach program to communicate my project and its findings to the people living in the area. This will give me experience communicating my paradigm to non-scientists and will hopefully garner interest, support, and possibly even participation in my research.

Since I aspire to a position that is focused on teaching, it is important that I develop my skills as a teacher. Incorporating the feedback received from the students in the courses for which I am a TA will help me become a better teacher. UBC also has the Graduate Teaching Program which will help me create a portfolio of my teaching abilities.

I have found several options for financial support for my research during graduate school. First of all, I will definitely reapply for NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program this November. If I can find the appropriate pitch, I will also apply for the EPA STAR Fellowship. Organizations such as Sigma Xi, National Geographic Young Explorers Club, Association of Women in Science, and Graduate Women in Science offer small grants to help cover expenses. Wildlife Conservation Society, and Sea World Busch Gardens Conservation Fund all offer larger grants that could fund a large portion of my research. Later in my graduate studies I will be able to apply for a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant.

I do plan to start a family by 2017. I am not sure exactly how children will fit into the picture, nor can I realistically expect things to go as planned. But if I could choose, I’d like to have two children relatively close together to minimize the pre-school time period. When in my career I try to have children will depend on my research plans and post doc opportunities. Perhaps I will try to have kids between finishing field work and defending. I do plan to travel abroad with my children and would seek advice about this both from parents who have traveled extensively with their children and people I know who grew up in traveling families.

I plan to seek advice about my career goals from several Small Friendly College professors with whom I keep in touch, including a young pair of professors who are about to lead a semester-long program abroad with their two small children. Of course, I also plan to talk to faculty members at other liberal arts colleges so that I can develop a broader sense of the types of positions available.

At this point in time my ideal job is quite specific, and I’m not even sure it exists. However, the breadth of what I want to do to is great enough that I would be happy to pursue other careers that fulfill some, if not all, of my interests in other ways. I will remain open to other options that I can’t even imagine yet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I can't get the funk off of my Chacos

This might not seem like a relevant topic for my blog, but these sandals have carried me all over the world in the past five years and I wear them almost every day. They get really stinky and then I wash them. Sometimes I wash them in a pillowcase in a washing machine, sometimes I scrub them by hand in the sink, and sometimes I take them in the shower with me. Recently I've been unable to remove a spot on the outside edge of each sandal. At first I thought I just wasn't trying hard enough. So last night I took them in the shower and really scrubbed them. As they started to dry these spots (labeled as "funk" in the picture) started to appear again even though I cleaned them as best I could. I tried putting hydrogen peroxide on them in case it was a very persistent colony of bacteria or something.

Have you ever tried putting hydrogen peroxide on your sandals? My sandals fizzed EVERYWHERE! I hope it was destroying my dead skin cells and the bacteria persisting in the cracks rather than the footbeds. But I still can't scrub those spots off! I'm not sure what's going on. I guess it doesn't really matter as long as my feet aren't terribly offensive or infected with some kind of nastiness. Still, I'm intrigued and annoyed by the spots that won't go away.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Backup Plan

After hearing horror stories about grad students losing years of work when their laptop is stolen, I've decided it would be prudent to come up with a plan for backing up my data and stick to it. I don't have much to back up at this point so it will all fit on my 1 GB flash drive.

Every Friday when I come home I will copy my folder labeled "Grad School" onto my flash drive, replacing the previous version from the week before. The flash drive will stay at home in a place where I don't think a thief would look. I should only need the flash drive if something awful happens to my computer.

The obvious problem with this plan is that everything is lost if the apartment burns down with my computer and flash drive in it. Maybe later I'll get a second flash drive to keep at school.

I can also back up documents more regularly if I choose, but at minimum I'll do it once a week. I'll probably also come up with a system for backing things up online later.

Do you have a system for backing up your data? What is it?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Presentation Skills

Today I attended a public Master's thesis seminar. It just so happens that I had personally talked to this person for some time at a poster presentation, so I knew a bit about his research and I was looking forward to this seminar. Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. He obviously knew his stuff, but he simply didn't do a good job telling us about it. He used the same tone throughout his presentation and didn't seem excited about his topic. He seemed a bit nervous and hardly smiled at all. He didn't use the common name for his focal species (at least not that I noticed) until the very end of the presentation. These problems made his presentation difficult to follow even though I already knew a bit about his research. I felt bad for this scholar who clearly did good research but couldn't engage others in his presentation style.

While talking to Leo on Friday he mentioned how important it is for grad students to teach, even if they come in with fellowships or whatnot. As a TA you end up talking in front of students under all sorts of conditions: fully prepared and well rested, flying by the seat of your pants with a hangover, and everything in between. Leo said this hones your ability to captivate and instruct an audience like nothing else. You've simply got to be able to communicate your research to other people without them falling asleep in your presentation.

So far I've been impressed by the presentation skills of only one of the four U of Big City professors I've heard speak, and that's my Pop Ecol professor. The others weren't terrible, but they didn't shine with that inner enthusiasm for their topic. Perhaps they don't put on their best show for grad students? This is a bit of a change for me as someone who did their undergraduate education at Small Friendly College where teaching, not research, is the emphasis. I'm planning to do some of both. Time will tell where my balance lies.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Talk about a life-changing experience!

I was just listening to a podcast of Living On Earth by Public Radio International and heard this story about a swimmer who accompanied a gray whale calf that had been separated from his mother. Click on the link above to read the script or download the segment as an mp3. This is incredibly cool.


I haven't yet introduced my advisors to my faithful blog readers. I think now is a good time.

First of all, I am jointly advised. One of my advisors is from U of Big City and the other is from Big Natural History Museum. I like them both and my interests are a good marriage of theirs. They are both older and well-established in their fields.

Herb is from U of Big City. He's interested in factors that effect community composition. My office on campus is right next to him and I'm a member of his lab. He has four new graduate students this fall so it's quite a cohort for him. Herb's research is based in Central America.

Leo is a -ologist from Big Natural History Museum. He works with all kinds of critters all over the world but I'm interested in working with him because he's very well connected where I want to do my research in Africa.

Herb is my primary advisor. The extent to which I work with Leo will depend on how my interests develop and possibly how I am funded in future years (i.e. grants or TAship).

However, the coolest thing about having Leo as my co-advisor is that I get to work in Big Natural History Museum. For those of you who have never been behind-the-scenes at a natural history museum, I highly recommend it. The objects on display are just the tip of the iceberg of their collections. I'm excited to be working with Leo simply because of the WOW factor involved in going to visit him at the museum.

On Friday I went to see Leo at Big Natural History Museum so that I could get my student pass and talk about stuff. This pass is super exciting because not only does it get me behind the scenes at the natural history museum, it gets me and my family into all of the other museums in Big City.

While I was talking to Leo about my plans for the semester, I said I'd like to try to be at the museum at least once a week even if it were just for part of the day. I imagined myself going there as often as I could just because I feel like there's information practically oozing from the walls from all the volumes and specimens in the building. So Leo caught me off guard when he said, "And what would you do here?"

I actually wanted to say, "Because this place is just so cool! Who wouldn't want to work here?" But I decided that I should articulate a better reason than that so I said something like, "Well, I think it would be good for me to check in with you frequently as I develop idea for my research and keep you informed- not that I want to take up all of your time or anything since I know you're a busy person- and I also thought it would be good for me to use the library here for access to the rare literature that the university won't have." I suppose this was an acceptable answer because he didn't press it. Whew!

As illustrated in the exchange above, one of my greatest fears at this point is embarrassing myself in front of advisors and other professors. For this reason I'm really nervous about talking to people about my research interests. I'm afraid of them asking lots of questions I can't answer and just generally appearing clueless. I know that I just need to speak with confidence and everything else will fall into place but talking about my research ideas is currently my greatest fear.

First week of grad school in review

I think my first week went well. I can do this grad school thing.

Classes: My professor for Population Ecology is great. From the amount of energy he puts out first thing in the morning I suspect he drinks a whole pot of coffee before class. Population Ecology requires a fair amount of math, so in addition to class there's an optional "Calculus Club" (say this while pushing your very large imaginary (or not?) glasses up on your face with your index finger). Even in the first two classes I've found my summer math/ecology program (aka Nerd Camp) incredibly useful. It feels good to be applying what I learned this summer so soon to my graduate education.

My other class is required for all new ecology & evolution grad students. The main assignment in this class is to write a review paper on a topic related to the research I intend to do for my thesis. This means that I'll be able to make progress on class and research at the same time.

Teaching: I was really nervous going into my first class. I walked into a room with 20 students staring at me with blank, disinterested faces. I didn't go to the first lecture, but I heard from another TA that did that it was pretty bad. With that in mind, I tried to be engaging and supportive. I took my time explaining things, paused when I need to, and watched their faces transform over the course of lab. My second lab of the week (with entirely new students) went well too. I encouraged them to ask other student for help and get to know each other and I think this really made a difference in their engagement. I seem to have had an easier time my first week than the other TAs I talked to and I think encouraging the students to work together might have been part of it.

Miscellaneous: I locked myself out of my office (keys, phone, and everything inside) but I was thankfully able to find one of the department secretaries to open the door for me. My student health insurance is now in effect so I canceled my crappier policy that I've had for the past few years. Next week I have an appointment FOR FREE at the student health center. No copay, no deductible. My student insurance is less than $100 per month.

Students get into the recreation center for free and they even have free group fitness classes! I went to a few last week and plan to go to them regularly. I can't believe they don't fill up completely. The recreation center is new and awesome. I'm loving the fringe benefits of being a student again.

Jon still doesn't have a job and I'm getting nervous about our financial situation but we'll figure it out. I think we're going to be even stricter on our spending until he gets his first paycheck. I'll write a different post about my advising situation.

I've had a few moments of stupidity and nervousness but overall I'm feeling really good about starting grad school.