Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Direction in life

This evening I had a long conversation with a friend about her direction in life. She's not someone I've known particularly long, but we really hit it off when we met so we've kept in touch. She is one of several twenty-something or early thirty-something female friends I have who work in some aspect of environmental education, like I did at Mid-Atlantic Field Station. I have met them all in different ways and at all different stages in my life (high school, college, working at the field station, traveling...). My friends in this field love their jobs, but struggle to get everything done, make ends meet financially, and to advance their careers (many jobs in this field are dead-ends so you often have to leave the organization to advance). Environmental education jobs tend to have some very cool fringe benefits (such as working outside in a spectacular place), but don't pay well.

The friend I talked to tonight is feeling particularly unhappy with her present situation. She feels overworked and poorly managed at her job, which interferes with her deep love for what she does. She also said, "I'm just tired of being poor!" She's stressed out about the fact that she's unhappy and doesn't know what to do next with her life. If she knew what she wanted, then she could start planning how to get there, but every time she thinks about what she really wants to do she becomes frustrated because she feels like she'll never be able to earn a decent living doing interpretation. The kind of work she does is really important to her and she won't be happy just earning a paycheck for the sake of surviving. Still, she's afraid of taking a big risk on a totally different job only to discover that she hates it and wants her old job back.

I think she has taken the first important step in this process of being happier about her lot in life by looking for other jobs. But, she's also the kind of person who won't leave her current job on short notice because several programs would grind to a halt without someone in her position (I can relate to this- I carefully timed my leave from Mid-Atlantic Field Station and gave 2 months notice).

I really feel for her and I wish I could just find her her dream job. I thought quite a bit while working at Mid-Atlantic Field Station about what I wanted to do and how to get there. I suppose I feel fortunate that I was able to identify and pursue (successfully, so far) my goals. I wish I could help my friend find her direction and vocation. I think she's incredibly good at what she does, and I wish that she could get paid more for it and have a lighter workload by the creation of a new position (the organization hasn't been able to secure funding for one). I always find it frustrating that jobs I think are so important (eg. teaching) aren't valued more in our economy, and I haven't heard a satisfactory explanation for why.

If you happen to hear of any great salaried interpretation/non-formal education/teacher training in environmental education type jobs for someone with several years of experience, please post a comment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Contingency planning

Now that I think I know where I'm going, I can start working on those grants whose deadlines are rapidly approaching. A bit too rapidly. In fact, I'm going to have to go into overdrive to make the deadlines I think, because Herb and Leo both need to be able to read my proposal before they can write (modify) a letter of recommendation for me. Eek. I feel bad that I didn't think about that further in advance.

This whole funding thing is very complicated. What if I get A and C funds but not B? Or only B? What should I put in the budget for D so I that I have enough money for basic supplies if I don't get A but don't request money for the same things from A and D so that I'm not double-requesting?

Honestly, I don't know what I'm going to do if I don't get the NSF GRF. That makes life even more complicated. I thought it was going to be cathartic to write about this stuff but I think it just stressed me out more.

Really I should have just written a post about what a domestically productive weekend I had. I did 6 loads of laundry, baked cookies, and made yogurt. I totally made yogurt! Now I need an academically productive week to go with my domestically productive weekend.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I think I have a field site!

Wow, I am so excited. I had a great meeting today with someone (who I will now name Sam) who has totally convinced me to do my fieldwork at their site. Let's call the site Nyota. Sam has tons of preliminary and unpublished data on my system that he said I can use to write proposals or possibly even analyze and write up as a co-author! He has far more data than he can realistically publish, and at this point it just needs to be out there. This is the best news I've received yet this year. Sam is a great naturalist who knows heaps about Nyota. From about 2 hours of conversation this afternoon I think I have enough ideas for about 15 Ph.D.s. This is a very exciting dilemma. So many options!

Nyota seems be better in almost every way than African Field Site. Basic natural history that I was barely able to scrape together for African Field Site is easily accessible for Nyota through Sam. Sam is sitting on a veritable gold mine of information. Now I'm just annoyed that I didn't get in touch with him sooner! I suppose if I'd talked to him at the beginning of the year I wouldn't have yet come up with a vision for my research and I might not have recognized the wealth of help Sam can offer.

Next I need to apply for more small grants that I've been holding off on until I figured out where I'll be going. Then I need to start the process for revising my approved animal research protocol since that can take a while. And I need to cross my fingers that I get more funding!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A small success

I received a small grant from my university! Now at the very least I have money for a plane ticket this summer. Let's hope this is a sign of more good things to come :-)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Work Timer

The course I'm TAing this semester has much more time-consuming grading than last semester's course. Last semester I kept careful track of my hours spent on teaching-related duties and it was never over 20, and usually under. I haven't been keeping track this semester, but the amount of grading I'm doing makes me want to start.

Since I like to break grading up into small pieces so I don't get totally sick of it, I was thinking I should get the computer equivalent of one of those clocks they use for speed chess. That way I can keep track of the cumulative time I spend grading even when it's in short segments. I just downloaded WorkTimer which will hopefully do the trick. I'll start using it next week (a non-grading week) so I can compare the light and heavy workload weeks.

P.S. Jon and I are finally feeling much better. We cleaned the apartment tonight which was desperately needed because we hadn't done dishes in over a week and the place was a disaster. We still have about 6 loads of laundry to do (with all the sheets and blankets we've been coughing on) but that will have to wait for the weekend (I think I have enough underwear to make it to the weekend, and I'm way past being out of warm socks but I think I can wear the ones that aren't crunchy a few more times...)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Just one of those days...I hope

A word of advice to prospective graduate students: Don't tell graduate students anything you really don't want their advisor to know. Today Herb was talking about a prospective student who visited recently. The student mentioned to me he applied to grad schools for two completely different things: N stuff (what Herb does) and X stuff. I was interested in hearing more about X stuff from him but we didn't get to talk much, so I asked Herb about it today in the context of, "He told me he had two interests- what exactly was X stuff?" Herb kind of chuckled and said, "He never told me about X stuff, we only talked about N!" This won't ruin the prospective student's chances here at all, but I felt a little bad about it. But not too bad. Diverse interests are not a bad thing as long as you also have depth, and I think the student should have mentioned that to Herb.

Overall, though, today was one of those days when I wished I could take back about half of what came out of my mouth. Class discussion was like that, talking with Herb was like that, random social interactions, introductions to new people, everything. It was all awkward and I think I almost always managed to say the wrong thing. I hope this is just a passing blip of blundering.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Coral-Friendlier Sunscreen

Recent research by a group of Italian scientists led by Roberto Danovaro suggests that many common sunscreen ingredients cause coral bleaching. To read my summary of how this happens as well as my criticism of the research, read my previous post.

Most news blurbs and blogs are reporting the culprit sunscreen chemicals as "a paraben preservative, cinnamate, benzophenone and a camphor derivative." If you go to check the list of ingredients on your sunscreen bottle, though, that list won't be much help unless you're an organic chemist. I want people to be able to make informed decisions about the kind of sunscreen they choose to slather up with, which is why I wrote this post.

While doing research about various sunscreen ingredients to write this post, I came across an excellent online database called Skin Deep created by the Environmental Working Group. They have rated hundreds of sunscreens by dozens of brands for their chemical safety and effectiveness in providing UVA and UVB protection. You can also read about specific ingredients and find products that contain the ingredients you specify.

These four common sunscreen ingredients were found to cause coral bleaching
(at potentially unnaturally high concentrations?) by Danovaro et al.:
Benzophenone-3 (Oxybenzone)
ethylhexylmethoxycinnamate (Octinoxate)
4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
Butylparaben (this is not an active ingredient but a common preservative in cosmetics)

These three ingredients did not cause significant coral bleaching:
Ethylhexyl salicylate
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (Avobenzone)

All of the active sunscreen ingredients tested by Danovaro et al. were chemical absorbers (molecules that absorb UV rays before they damage your skin). Sunscreens with physical blockers (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) rather than chemical absorbers are considered safer for you
and the environment. Skin Deep has a list of the 141 safest (for humans) sunscreen products, many of which lack the chemical absorbers listed above (although many of these products still contain ingredients listed above that caused coral bleaching, so read thoroughly).

Skin Deep also has product lists for active ingredients and ingredient combinations, such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide and titanium dioxide together. You can look up your sunscreens to learn about the ingredients, or you can use the database to search for a new, better, safer sunscreen.

Some coral reef parks such as Xel-Ha and Xcaret in Mexico have restrictions on what kind of sunscreen you can use in the park. The requirements range from "...it must have the legend 'Oil Free' and natural ingredients. You can also choose any brand if it is labeled 'Paba Free' or 'Bio-degradable' " (Xcaret) to "biodegradable tanning product" (Xel-Ha). Both of these guidelines are vague and there are plenty of oil free and Paba-free sunscreens with the compounds found to cause coral bleaching. Danovaro et al.'s results as well as future research on this topic will hopefully help coral reef managers develop sound guidelines for sunscreen restrictions based on scientific research.

Happy snorkeling!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Critical Look at Sunscreen and Coral Bleaching

National Geographic News Podcast reported last week that sunscreen has been implicated as a cause for coral bleaching. National Geographic News online also had a brief article about it. A group of Italian researchers studied the effects of some common sunscreen ingredients on corals from the Caribbean Sea (Atlantic Ocean), the Celebes Sea (Pacific Ocean), the Andaman Sea and the Red Sea (Indian Ocean). Their results were published in Environmental Health Perspectives on January 3, 2008 [1]. You can access the article here as a pdf. They found that sunscreen concentrations of 10 μl/L caused complete coral bleaching within 96 hours.

*Note: I edited this post at 10 PM, 2/18/08 to address a comment by ecogeofemme which resulted in a closer, more critical look at the paper on my part. As a result, I split the original post in two and changed the title of this one.*

Here's what you need to know to understand how it happened: Corals are animals in the same phylum as jellyfish, but they also have photosynthetic unicellular alage (zooxanthellae) that live inside the individual coral polyps. The zooxanthellae are what give coral color with their photosynthetic pigments. Corals provide protection and carbon dioxide for the zooxanthellae, and the corals get energy in the form of photosynthetic products (carbon compounds) from the zooxanthellae. Corals are mostly restricted to shallow waters because the symbiotic zooxanthellae require light for photosynthesis. Coral bleaching happens when the zooxanthellae are expelled from the coral polyps, usually due to stress such as rising sea temperatures. This can either kill the coral, or it may be able to recover by recolonizing polyps with a new or the same type of zooxanthellae.

Here's what the authors think happened with the sunscreen: Due to the presence of numerous VLPs (virus-like particles) in the water around the sunscreen-treated corals, they suggest that some of the sunscreen ingredients induced the lytic cycle in latent viral infections in the zooxanthellae. What does that mean? The unicellular zooxanthellae were burst open (lysed) by a virus that had been 'dormant' inside the cells until 'activated' by the sunscreen. Once lysis occurs, the virus can spread to infect new cells. With the zooxanthellae dead, the corals lose their color and a major energy source.

Considering the authors' estimates that 4,000-6,000 tons of sunscreen will be washed off in coral reefs each year, I think this research is unique and important. However, I have concerns about their methods and results.

1. They describe a reasonable procedure for estimating the amount of sunscreen that comes off the body after 20 minutes and say that "The percentage of sunscreen released into the seawater was estimated by HPLC analyses on the sunscreen and seawater samples" but do not report the results of this in their paper. It is not clear if the resulting concentrations were the ones used in the coral experiments.

2. The authors say, "We tested sunscreen (10 μL L-1) containing concentrations of UV filters higher than those reported in most natural environments." After looking through the literature cited, there appears to be only one paper that measured concentrations of UV filters in situ [2]. Poiger et al. (2004) found concentrations of UV filters in the range of 2-125 ng per liter in Swiss lakes. To spare you the math, 125 ng=.125 µg, which means that Danovaro et al. used concentrations ten times those reported in the (sparse) literature. We really need to know what the concentrations are at heavily visited coral reefs for perspective.

3. Based on their results, they conclude, "...the coral response to sunscreen exposure was not dose dependent, as the same effects were observed at low and high sunscreen concentrations. Therefore, we hypothesize that UV filters can have potentially negative impacts even at concentrations lower than those utilized in the present study." This may be true, but there must be some threshold of sunscreen expose that does not cause bleaching. I hope that further research will be able to determine what it is.

4. It was unnatural that the corals were exposed to constant concentrations of sunscreen or isolated ingredients for the duration of the study since the corals were in plastic bags, but this did allow the authors to control level of exposure which would otherwise fluctuate.

I have seen surprisingly little critical discussion of this research, so I'm hoping to start some here. I would really love to hear the authors' responses.

Personally, I do think that excessive amounts of parabens and chemical sunscreens in our ocean is detrimental. However, I'm not convinced by this one paper that sunscreen is a threat in the wild, although this new research certainly presents the distinct possibility. I wrote this post and the next one for people who are interested in making better choices for their environment when it comes to sunscreen.

[1] Danovaro R, Bongiorni L, Corinaldesi C, Giovannelli D, Damiani E, Astolfi P, Greci L, Pusceddu A. 2008. Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections. Environmental Health Perspectives doi:10.1289/ehp.10966
[2] Poiger T, Buser HR, Balmer ME, Bergqvist P-A, Muller MD. 2004. Occurrence of UV
filter compounds from sunscreens in surface waters: regional mass balance in two swiss lakes. Chemosphere 55(7):951-963; doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2004.01.012.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A terrible Valentine's Day

When I left for school this morning I had tons of plans for today, including some good blog posts. Unfortunately, I got a twinge in my back this morning sometime before I left for work. Thursday is my longest class day, and when I got out of my first class I coughed and had to stop walking because of the sudden pain in my back. I tried stretching and relaxing while I sat but it didn't work. I also woke up with post-nasal drip (gross) and during my second class of the day I felt myself getting sick as I sat there uncomfortably trying not to move the wrong way. By the end of my third class (and these are all long classes) I was miserable. I biked to school but was worried about getting home if I couldn't twist so I got a ride home with a classmate (who asked me which Wal-Mart I go to right after I told her we don't have a car?).

Jon has been sick since Tuesday, and I've definitely gotten what he has. Usually we don't get each others illnesses so I wasn't particularly concerned. He made dinner and we spent 3 hours on the couch being pathetic and now we are being pathetic in bed. I really hate being sick, and I know I'm really whiny about it too. We don't own a thermometer so I don't know what my temperature is but I feel like I have a fever. I'm going to drag myself to school tomorrow to teach and warn my students about my condition. Maybe it will make me feel better to do something as long as I'm careful about my back. I might take a cab tomorrow.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Too much work

After working pretty much all weekend and about 10 hours today I still haven't even come close to doing everything on my very long list. I hate days like this. I'm trying not to be hard on myself about it though, because I'm not sure Superman could have finished today's to-do list.

I think this whole week will be like this.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Working weekend

Jon is gone all weekend so I'm using my distraction-free weekend to do a lot of work. Once again I have tons of reading to do for next week. I think this is going to be true for the whole semester. I also have 60 lab reports to grade. I've been tackling them in small batches since last night so today's activities have looked something like this:

-grade a report while eating breakfast
-read email and blogs
-grade a report
-eat lunch
-grade 2 reports
-read for game theory
-talk on the phone
-grade a report
-surf the web for potential field sites
-fall asleep on the couch for an unknown period of time
-do dishes
-grade 2 reports

I think this method is working well because I haven't gotten burnt out on reading them for any stretch of time. I can also use finishing a report to give myself a little break or reward. My goal is to have at least half of the reports graded this weekend.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Reflections on design

UBC is mostly an example of how not to design buildings. Everything is ugly (inside and out) and only moderately functional. Architecture students and structural engineers should take field trips here to learn what their buildings should never look like.

Today I had to go to a big administrative building to turn in a form. I took the elevator up to the 6th floor and decided to take the stairs down. After passing the third floor, I started seeing signs taped to the wall saying, "Looking for the second floor? Go back downstairs and around to the other stairs." WTF?!?! Who builds a stairwell that doesn't access an entire floor? I didn't even know that was legal! Then when I get to the bottom, the door opens outside into the cold, with no access back inside once the door is closed. How in the world can you encourage people to take the stairs instead of an elevator when you make the stairs inaccessible? This means that even people who only work on the second floor will always take an elevator even though most able-bodied people are willing to walk up one flight of stairs.

Next I went to a classroom in a different building to lead discussion. I soon noticed there was water dripping from the ceiling through a light fixture. This seemed serious to me so I called the urgent number listed by the lightswitch (at least they do have a contact number posted in (nearly?) every room for such things). As soon as I mentioned which building I was in, the woman said, "Oh, we're aware of it. The whole third floor on that building is leaking. Would you like me to find a different classroom for you?" I declined, since the drip was small and wouldn't interfere with class. Still, the whole third floor is leaking? Again, WTF?

I could go on and on about how the buildings are ugly inside, hard to navigate, and have extremely noisy ventilation systems that result in people keeping their doors closed, but I think you get the idea.

I am also frustrated by poor system design and practice. Right now, I am trying very hard to make it easier for everyone in our department to print double-sided. I know that most people print everything single-sided simply because it is a pain in the ass to print double-sided. The options are a slow inkjet, printing odd and even separately and risking a misfeed that messes it all up, or walking to a lab in a different building.

Our department recently got a big, new photocopier. When I worked at Mid-Atlantic Field Station we got one like that and it was networked as a printer. I could print to it from another building and it would automatically print double-sided, staple, collate, and make you dinner (you get the idea). I contacted some people in the department about the possibility of hooking our printer up as a copier, but of course it's no simple task.

The current barriers to increased faculty, staff, and grad student productivity, immense paper savings, and reduced individual printer maintenance are:
1) The printer is leased through some long chain of middlemen, and we currently are not leasing the part that would allow us to network the machine.
2) It will cost more to lease that part, and will incur additional per-page printing costs with increased use as a printer.
3) There is only one ethernet port in the room with the copier, and it is currently used by an old laserjet that only prints one side.

I think I will draft a letter to the department head (who has final say on the decision) to argue convincingly that adding this capability to the printer will be worth the additional cost, even if it doesn't break even on the paper savings. We need to make it easy for people to use less resources in the way we design our policies, practices, systems, and buildings, and I'm desperately trying to make one small change happen in one department. I hope it works.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I hate forms but I use my time well

I messed up my class schedule this semester (only officially, it's fine in real life) so I have to submit the forms to correct it. I have to go around and get lots of signatures and then take them to some distant place on campus. It's just an annoying pain to have to do this.

As a side note, I feel like I've used my time really well this week. It was very busy, but I think I was productive and efficient while at school (read: I didn't read many blogs at work). My courses this semester seem to require so much regular reading that I really have to stay on top of it. This weekend I'll work on big things like my paper, grading (60+ lab reports- eek!), and grant writing. I have three grant applications due on/around March 1. This semester feels like it has the potential to really get away from me but at this point I think I still have things under control and can really keep it that way (for the most part).

Monday, February 4, 2008

Pre-application approved!

Great news appeared in my inbox today: my pre-application for the aforementioned grant was approved! So now I can submit a real, thorough application and wait several more months to see if it is funded :-)

The turnaround time on this one is quite long- you can't start research with their funds less than 8 months before you submit the application. So, this grant won't be for my first field season this summer, but rather my second one in 2009. You really have to start planning on a long timescale for these things.

This is a small success, but an exciting one.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Rewriting my review

I've been putting off working on the review paper I wrote last semester. After doing many other little things today, I finally re-read it with an eye for reorganizing it completely. Herb and I had a brief meeting to talk about it a few weeks ago, and he suggested the reorganization. I agree with his suggestions but I haven't yet figured out how to implement them.

Around the time I was born Herb wrote a very popular review. It is his most cited paper and he attributes its success to "giving people something to do." He structured the paper around essential questions in the field and to what extent they have been answered. Basically, he pointed out lots of opportunities for novel research. He thinks that my paper should be similarly structured for maximum impact.

In its current form, my paper is organized around topics. The difference between topics and questions is a subtle but important one. I need to rearrange my paper so that it focuses on answering the big questions in the field instead of just addressing different topics.

Herb also pointed out a major weakness in my writing: ending every paragraph with a citation. No one has ever told me this before, but when you end every paragraph with a citation it looks as though you aren't saying anything new because you are attributing the whole "thought" to someone else at the end. Most paragraphs should end with some original synthesis. So, when I rewrite my paper I will definitely pay attention to how I end my paragraphs.

I'm planning to send this paper to a smaller, relatively low-impact journal, but it's more widely read than Taxonomically Specific Journal where I originally intended to send it. This is also going to be my term paper for Herb's class so I've got to get it done by this semester (hopefully much sooner). I just hope I can get it published!

Friday, February 1, 2008

teaching me what I know and what I don't

There's nothing like standing in front of 30+ undergrads to make you realize what you really know and what you really don't.

I've never taught statistics before. I do not claim to be a statistician by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I have a working understanding. However, it became crystal-clear to me that I do not understand it well enough to teach it with confidence.

My students had to collect some data to test a weird hypothesis and do a Chi-square test of homogeneity. I gave my first lab the wrong instructions on what they had to sum, and in my second lab I got all flustered trying to explain how the Chi-square value and probability are related, and what that has to do with the hypothesis and null hypothesis... I totally confused myself standing up there so I'm sure they were even more clueless. I just couldn't form the words to explain what was going on in my head!

The lab instructor stepped in to save the day (and my students' comprehension) for the second Chi-square test, and I got to watch him explain it elegantly and succinctly. Definitely something to aspire to.

You never really learn something until you've had to teach it, right?