Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I think I'm confused

I'm getting a bit panicky about the lab reviewing my paper next week. Today the paper we read got pretty harsh criticism and I fear that mine will have similar issues.

I seem to be adept at thinking myself into a place where I no longer know what I'm trying to say in my writing. It goes something like this: I have an idea (like this review paper) and I want to answer a question. I start reading the literature. I write my ideas. I try to fill in references for the ideas I can't quite place. While looking in a particular vein of research, I come across something that challenges some major component of my topic. Then I revise my writing in light of the new discovery. I try to continue expanding on my original idea but now I have no idea what the point is anymore since I've read so many different things that seem to render my question irrelevant, and here I am all confused about what I want to say.

This morning I put BOTH contacts in my right eye and spent at least five minutes trying to figure out why my vision got worse when I put the contact in. I put my left contact into my right eye (on top of the actual right eye contact) and took it out TWICE before I realized what was going on. In 8 years of wearing contacts I have never done anything like that before! This is the state that I am in today.

Now that I have my contacts in the appropriate eyes, I think I need to step up to my dry erase board and take another look at the big picture of my review.

Monday, September 29, 2008

leaving after dark

Tonight was the first night in several months that I biked home from school in the dark. These shortening days really get to me in the fall. I was also at school later than usual because I'm got a writing deadline coming up.

This morning I realized as I was lying in bed that Herb's lab group is reading my review next week. OMG, I have a lot of work to do this week! I've got to send them a reasonable draft on Sunday night!

I'm really starting to doubt my ability to send this somewhere by my self-imposed November deadline. It just feels so... complex. Right now I'm at a "who cares about this?" point in my writing. This review is very closely related to my planned thesis research so how I feel about my research and my review are usually pretty similar.

Last week after I was discouraged about my project after presenting it for class Jon suggested that I rate how excited I am about my project every week and graph it on the blog. Maybe I'll find a way to do that so you can all track how enthusiastic I am about my research. Or is that the lamest thing you've ever heard?

Tomorrow will be another busy day of writing.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

you can probably just skip this one

This is just a random post about what I've been up to and will be up to (it's mainly for those of you who use the blog to follow what goes on in my life). We've had a friend from SFC staying with us for the past two weeks so almost every night when I got home we played Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Puerto Rico. Jon's job doesn't have homework so I have to be assertive when I have work to do and must decline a game! It also means that a lot of the things I do when I sit around in the evenings haven't been done (like reading blogs- current feedcount = 76 unread). We're also planning our wedding, or at least we're supposed to be!

I didn't do any work this weekend (not even writing), so I think I might be working longer days this week. Also, I really need a new computer. Everything is crapping out, even the adapters. We had 4 adapters for our 2 laptops and one lived at school for me. One died last spring, one two-prong plug died in Ukenzagapia, and one adapter went up in a frightening flame of glory last week. It had been on its way out for a long time. Now I have to remember to bring my adapter to work and home every day, and the other two-prong plug is starting to fail. Apple, please release your new Macbooks asap. I want a new laptop!

Our friend is leaving tomorrow (to return next week), and next weekend we'll have Jon's mom and two couchsurfers visit. These visits are all made much easier now that we have a bigger apartment and guest room.

Hopefully I'll get inspired to write some good posts this week. A few have been floating around in my head and I'll try to get them out soon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

the importance of fake data

Today I gave a presentation for Chip's statistics class about my research. Everyone in the class is taking turns presenting their research and teaching the class about the statistical methods they used and why. Since I don't have any real data, we made up data for the purpose of experimenting with different statistical methods. This exercise also forced me to think critically and carefully about my hypotheses and the assumptions I'm making.

I think the presentation itself went well. People were interested, asked questions, and seemed to understand the gist of my research. However, by the end of the presentation I felt discouraged about my project because I realized that the project as I defined it for this exercise would not be feasible, affordable, or interesting.

I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling a little down about my project.* But then I had to remind myself that I have put exactly ZERO dollars and ZERO hours of real field work and data collection into that specific hypothesis. The whole point of this exercise for me is to figure out what might work and what won't, and I've found something that won't. Sham data are cheap. I've got 7 months to continue making sham data to figure out how to appropriately approach my questions and use my resources most efficiently once I get in the field and collect REAL data.

I have to remind myself to tackle my project one piece at a time, because if I think about the whole thing I just get overwhelmed and stare off into space while scratching my head and wondering how in the world I'm ever going to finish my Ph.D. I think I've got a really interesting question, but I have trouble breaking the larger question down into appropriately designed testable components, let alone recognizing which of those are most important and meaningful. Maybe I need to approach it the way I've been writing my review and work on a little piece every day. Yeah, that's what I'll try to do. I'll let you know how it goes.

*I actually think part of the problem with getting discouraged about my project during the presentation was because I hadn't eaten lunch before class and it's during my normal lunch time so by the end of my presentation I really needed some food. Food makes me happier.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

framing my research experience

Today I think I had a breakthrough in how to organize my previous research experience essay for the NSF GRFP (I'm applying one more time). Last year Herb commented that my statement didn't show direction. I knew he was kind of right, but I didn't see another way to present it.

Today, a ray of bright light shone upon my head and I suddenly see how to tie together all of my seemingly disparate research experience. Well, almost. The only one I haven't figured out yet is also the only one I have publications from. Gotta work on that.

Last week I came up with a theme to build my personal statement around, too. I'm trying give myself plenty of time to reflect on this application because it really needs to shine for me to have slightest chance at the fellowship. At the same time I'm trying not to get so emotionally invested in it this year. I try to think of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship like a lottery- but you do have to buy a ticket to have any chance of winning so here I go again.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

being influential

I didn't blog about it at the time, but last spring I offered to take my students behind the scenes at Big Natural History Museum. About 6 or 7 of them took me up on the offer so I showed them around one afternoon and introduced them to a few other grad students who told them about the research they're doing.

On Wednesday I got an email from two of my students from last spring. They wanted to know if they could list me as a reference because they're interested in volunteering at BNHM! I'm so excited that they're thinking about museum work! I doubt they would've considered or pursued this possibility before the tour. I know that the first time I went behind the scenes at a big museum I was totally blown away and it definitely made me want to work in a place like that. I'm glad I was able to share of some of that excitement with my students.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

am I being paranoid?

I started reading a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day thanks to a recommendation from a friend. I'm not writing my dissertation exactly since I have no data, but I've been working on this review for a while and I really want to send it out by November. Anyways, the author emphasizes that the most important way to make progress in your writing to to really write every day. That's what I've been doing.

Over the summer I tried getting to work at 9 am and working until 5, but I didn't make much progress on the review. While I was writing my grad school applications when we were in RFC, I did almost all of my writing in bed. I would wake up, get out the laptop and write, sometimes for four or five hours before getting dressed. I think writing in bed as soon as I wake up has worked well for me in the past so I'm trying it again. Every day so far this week I've started writing before I do anything else, and I don't get up until I make some kind of progress.

Here's where I might be unreasonably paranoid: My preferred laptop position while I work in bed is not on my lap- it's right on top of my lower abdomen. I'm kind of concerned about damaging my reproductive potential from the electromagnetic radiation from putting a laptop right on top of my ovaries for hours on end, possibly 10-20 hours in a week. I know there's no evidence for laptop use damaging my reproductive system, but what I'm doing isn't exactly normal use and I do want to have kids (preferably the low-tech way).

What do you think? Can any of my readers assuage my fears with science? Or suggest a solution that doesn't involve me getting out of bed?

Friday, September 12, 2008

mentoring program participation

We have an organization for women in science-related fields here at UBC, and I try to keep up with their various events and programs, and I told my students about it when I was teaching. I even put a link to it on my web page and told them how to subscribe to the listserv. Over the summer I learned that they have a mentoring program where they match up mentors and mentees in similar fields. Most of the participants are undergrads but grad students are also welcome so I signed up, eager to encourage undergrads in biology.

This week I went to an event to meet my mentee, only to discover that she dropped out at the last minute and they haven't found me a new mentee yet. I hope they find a mentee for me. Most science-major undergrads at UBC are pre-health so people declaring an early interest in ecology and evolutionary biology are few and far between.

There was a grand total of 10 of us at this mentoring event. TEN. When you round to two decimal places that's 0% of the female student population participating in the program. Where are all the women in science? I'm guessing that 95% of them aren't aware the program exists. In previous years they've had 60+ women participate, so I'm not sure why they have such low numbers this year.

I ran into five of my former students on campus today, so maybe I'll start mentioning the program to the women that I run into. Is that too weird?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

academic gossip

Herb loves to gossip about other scientists. Never in a malicious way, but he tells stories about other scientists all the time, almost always with personal anecdotes. He especially likes to tell stories about other scientists in his classes to demystify scientists for undergrads who might not really know what it's like to be a scientist. Herb also loves to emphasize and talk about scientists with unconventional backgrounds because he thinks they have disproportionate effects on the field. He's been around long enough that he's spent lots of time chumming around with some big names in big places, too.

Herb tells stories about his grad students, many of whom are very well-established in their careers since Herb is getting up there in age. Like I said, it's not malicious at all, and it's obvious that he admires his students' eccentricities that he shares with others.

What's been bothering me recently is how much he's told me about his other current students. For example, in conversation about how his summer's field season went, he told me that he was worried that one of the grad students wasn't 'self correcting' on her research project when things weren't working. I just don't think I should know that.

One grad student who started with me last year is currently on a leave of absence for personal reasons. We didn't become close, partly because of the intralab conflict I've mentioned- though not explained- before, but also because she's an intensely private person in my experience (to the point that she didn't mention she got married last year even though I'd met her fiance and knew she was engaged). Well, yesterday Herb told me several things that are going on in her personal life that I'm almost positive she wouldn't want everyone to know. Herb is totally, completely supportive of her and is looking forward to her returning to the lab, but I still don't think he should've told me those things.

So I've got to find a way to tactfully tell Herb that I don't want to know what's going on the personal lives of the other grad students unless they tell me directly or it somehow becomes relevant to my role in the lab group. Have you ever dealt with a situation like this?

Huh. I wonder what he says about me.

Monday, September 8, 2008

layout changes

I've been wanting to switch to the 'stretch' template for a while now, and I finally did it. I had to redo all my background colors and everything, so I thought I'd make a few changes. Most of you probably RSS my blog now and won't even notice, but for those of you who do visit the actual blog, do you like the new lighter green background? I'm also thinking about changing the banner sometime in the next year or so.

schmoozing at the museum

This evening I went to an event at Big Natural History Museum where they invited major donors and a staff scientist talked about their research so the donors have some idea what their money is supporting. Since I got some financial support for my research from BNHM, I feel obligated to attend these functions when I can. Plus, they usually include dinner or at least good cheese.

Usually Leo is at these functions to introduce me to people, but he couldn't go tonight so I ended up talking to two new post docs and not talking to donors. Oops. Functions like that can be socially awkward if you don't know many people. Unfortunately, I'm rarely at the museum so I knew even fewer people. Next time I'll try to introduce myself to someone totally new without waiting for someone else to do it for me. I think it will be good for me.

I really love museums, and my goal this semester is to be at BNHM once a week, even if there's no particular reason I need to be doing my work there because I want to be more recognizable to the museum scientists and students. It will also make me feel more comfortable bringing everyone I know behind the scenes, and I'll actually get to know people in more areas of the building and be able to give my friends and family better tours. Museums are such amazing places, but few people ever get the opportunity to go behind the scenes at a museum. There are so many specimens that will never, ever be on display, and so much research that happens. Exhibits are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Recommended reading for applying to grad school

I took time off between my Bachelor's degree and applying to grad school, and I used that time to explore a) if I really truly wanted or needed to go, and b) what the heck I might want to study. This post is intended to help people with the first part more than the second. I read a lot about what to expect (or not expect) from grad school.

I'll start with the resources that are directed at graduate school in science as a whole.

A broadly applicable (for Ph.D. programs) piece of advice was written by Phil Agre, Advice for Undergraduates Considering Grad School. It walks you through generally what grad school is, research, and the application process. This guy seems to have written several interesting pieces of advice for a variety of fields.

Physicist Steven Weinburg wrote a piece published in Nature called Four Golden Lessons, and it can be found here with a response from John A. Duley.

Then there are books. In my first year of grad school I had to take an ethics class that required us to buy Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a M.A. or Ph.D. I was initially put off by the title, but I read most of this book and will keep it to refer back to occasionally. It gives a great overview of things to consider when deciding to apply, how to decide between Masters/Ph.D. and their differences, and financial issues. The introduction is admittedly pretty bleak, but you should read it. It will discourage you from going to grad school because you feel like the extra letters alone will get you a job (it won't) or because you don't know what else to do with your life.

I also read The Ph.D. Process: A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences before I decided to apply to know what to expect during the different stages of grad school. This book focuses only on Ph.D. programs unlike the first book which also addresses masters programs. There are quotes from grad students in different fields throughout the book. People who are unsure what grad student life is like may especially want to read the Life of a Graduate Student chapter.

I recommend checking out either or both of these books from a library if you're not sure at all what to expect from grad school and just beginning to explore your options. If you find them useful and you decide to go to grad school, try to get yourself a used copy.

Next there are resources aimed at biology students, such as On Graduate Studies in Biology by Kurt Reinhart (pdf). Page 6 has an especially useful "checklist for picking the right advisor" which has a list of questions you may want to ask. I have this file highlighted yellow in the Finder to remind me to revisit it occasionally, as it has advice applicable to the duration of graduate study.

The next two pieces should be read together as they both came out of the graduate program in Zoology at Berkeley. They are relatively general in their advice and would probably be of interest to people who don't have ecology/evolution/behavior aspirations. First read Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen Sterns, then read Reply to Sterns (both available as pdfs here).

Finally, there is a slim little volume called How to Do Ecology that is, as the title suggests, aimed at a specific audience. An even better title for it would be How to Become an Ecologist, since it talks you through the grad school process. If your idea of being an ecologist involves spending hours, days, or weeks on end alone with the wilderness, read the chapters on Working with Other People and Communicating What You Find to see how most ecologists have to deal with the social/communication aspects of their career. The three-page conclusion summarizes the most important unwritten rules of ecology as elucidated by the authors.

What resources would you recommend? If there's interest, I might write longer reviews of the books. Happy searching!

Friday, September 5, 2008


I had a meeting with Sam on the Friday before labor day to talk about the Nyota review I'll begin working on with him (not to be confused with the review about critters that I agonized over all summer). The review with Sam is a long-term project that will be supplemented by data I collect next summer and in later field seasons. It's what I call crumb picking. I'll be tediously combing literature for explicit citations of observations about Nyota's flora and fauna.

I haven't had a meeting with Sam since shortly after I returned from Ukenzagapia. I brought up my concern about accessing the critters and asked if he thinks I should learn to scuba dive **. I explained why I thought I needed to dive, and he immediately told me I was completely forgetting a method that he told me about months ago. For some reason, I associated that method in my head with a different type of project aimed at answering a different set of questions. But of course! I could use the same method to lure the critters where I want them with ways of quantifying their abundance. Clearly I wasn't thinking creatively enough.

He also told me a story about some BigNameInstitution scientists who spent days getting to a remote site lugging expensive scuba equipment, only to find that the local people were amazing divers who could get what they needed for a fraction of the cost. The moral of the story is that I can get Ukenzagapians to help me as long as I'm on good terms with the community, and they're probably way better at it than I could ever be.

Finally, he suggested that I get some scuba equipment and find someone around here to teach me the basics, which I could then teach to someone in Ukenzagapia if necessary.

I'm going to rewrite my whole protocol around the method Sam reminded me of. I can't imagine how I could possibly do this project in a timely manner without his insights and advice.

**Note: In case you missed the first post, scuba diving is an analogy for what I would actually be doing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

catching up

I feel like I'm still catching up from the holiday weekend! I'm totally behind on blogs (the only ones I'm reading are the comics and those of you whom I know personally). I currently have 178 feeds to read. Ack! I haven't let myself blog at work which has been good for my productivity. Class assignments are keeping me busy, and I'm going on a field trip all day tomorrow.

Tomorrow I'm going to try to finish a post that I started over the weekend before we were evacuated from the hotel and my computer had a stroke (it was temporarily paralyzed but doesn't appear to have damage). This weekend I'll catch up on the non-academic stuff in my life, and some of the miscellaneous academic stuff. Aren't short weeks great?

Monday, September 1, 2008

looooooooooooooong weekend

Jon and I went to visit my family this weekend, and we ended up getting back later today than we'd originally planned. I won't bore you with the details, but the major events of the weekend can be summarized:
  • Witnessed a huge fire near the hotel where we stayed.
  • Attended a baptism.
  • Evacuated aforementioned hotel because of toxic fumes from the fire
  • Laptop stopped working. I opened it from sleep mode, the screen flashed, and then nothing would happen. Tried not to worry about broken computer.
  • Picked corn and tomatoes.
  • Visited a big antique mall. We love looking at antiques.
  • Went to on several errands after getting home at 9 pm tonight.
  • Credit card got declined while in a hurry to leave Home Depot before the grocery store closed. Credit card declined twice more.
  • Computer restarted with Jon's help. I'm backing it up again now. It just needs to last a few more weeks!
  • Resolved credit card lockdown.
I forgot to bring my reading for tomorrow (and my computer wasn't working for most of the weekend) so tomorrow is going to be a full and busy day. Here's hoping my computer works ok tomorrow.

(I really did have a good weekend, but man am I exhausted).