Monday, September 28, 2009

Visitors & traveling

October is going to be a busy month. Here's my laundry list of things keeping me on the go:

We've got a student from Neotropical Country staying with us until early November. She works with Herb at Neotropical Field Site.

Tomorrow Jon and I are going to Canada with my parents. It's a vacation, but I'm planning to get a few highly productive hours of work in each day. I've identified two reasonable projects that I can accomplish while I'm gone (small grant proposal and draft of a short note).

When we return, I have 24 hours before I leave for a conference.

The weekend after the conference, my best friend is getting married and a bunch of our college friends are coming into town. Three are staying with us, in addition to the visiting student.

Oh yeah, somewhere in there we're getting two cats for a year from our friends who are taking off on a big year-long travel adventure.

Then we're going to Small Friendly College for the weekend. It's my cousin's senior year there and I can't wait to see her.

And then October will be over before I know it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I finally got off the waiting list at the counseling center. Last week I met with a therapist who I really like. She is still a graduate student herself, but it seems like a much better match than my previous therapist. She explained her approach to counseling, which the previous woman never did and whether or not she had one wasn't apparent to me. I'm looking forward to seeing this new counselor on a regular basis while I work through the dozen or so separate but interconnected issues that I need to deal with.

I'm so glad that I'm able to get free or inexpensive counseling through the university (even though I had to wait).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Just showing up

Janus Professor wrote a post about the importance of just showing up. That's my strategy for this year at BNHM- I'm just showing up. I'm coming every Friday, even if it's just for a little while, so that I can make my presence known to the museum-types.

Good things seem to come from just showing up. Nearly every time I come I meet some interesting visitor who has insight or wisdom to offer. Today I met another researcher who worked at Nyota and was just passing through Big City. It spawned an interesting discussion about some different types of data that could be useful for my analysis.

Today I also had a long talk with another scientist who works in Ukenzagapia about my research. He's worked with critters, so I was hoping to get some ideas from him about a more feasible project. We talked about my "ideal project" and why I don't think it's going to work, or at least why it's not worth the risk (in terms of time, money, and data). Unfortunately, we mostly talked about the possibilities with other critters instead because he agrees with my assessment of the time/effort/expense issues with critters.

I feel like I'm at a point in my Ph.D. where I need to reassess not only what I can realistically do, but also think long and hard about what I want to do. There is no shortage of possibilies for projects in Nyota, but I've got to do something and I'd prefer if I enjoyed it. I have to think about what I want short-term (during my Ph.D.) and long-term (my career) because it may change some of the decisions I make in terms of what I choose to focus on. For example, I don't think I actually want to travel as much now as I did when I decided to apply to grad school. I'm not sure I'll want to continue doing a lot of field work abroad after my Ph.D.

At another level, I need to think about what I enjoy doing in the field (costs aside, for a moment). To use my scuba diving analogy, I don't want to commit to a project that requires scuba diving every day if I much prefer snorkeling. Or do I actually like sitting on a boat and counting whales? Or recording their songs? Or sampling the krill that they eat? I think I could be happy doing any of those things, as long as I felt like I was actually doing something that would result in useful data in a reasonable timeframe.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sleeping in the office: A poll

My office has a particularly comfortable couch. It might be as old as I am, but comfortable nonetheless. Great for napping. I've spent the night in my office two or three times and woke up surprisingly well-rested.

So, I'm curious. Have you never slept in your office? Not just naps, but overnight? Let me know in the poll below.

Have you slept in your office overnight?
Yes! All the time (I basically live there, or I did)
Rarely (I can count the number of times on one hand).
Nope, never.
Free polls from
Why or why not?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Advice for handling money when doing fieldwork abroad

I encountered a number of difficulties related to money during my first field season. I've traveled abroad before, but have never had to personally handle that much money in foreign currency. I hope that my mistakes can help prevent some of my readers from doing the same. Please add your tips, too!

Cash in USD
Traveling with thousands of dollars in cash is not a very safe way to go, but it often makes sense to bring a few hundred dollars in cash to get you through the first few days (though you might need an ATM card if you arrive on a weekend or holiday when the foreign exchanges are closed). Cash also might make sense if you have to pay large fees as soon as you arrive at the airport, especially if they are denominated in USD.

-In my experience, you get a better exchange rate for cash than for ATM withdrawals, and definitely better than traveler's checks.
-Who doesn't take cold, hard, USD?

-If it's lost or stolen, it's gone for good.

-In my experience, $100 and $50 bills get the best exchange rates.
-Be sure that your bills are NEW. Make sure they don't just look new. I had crisp notes from 1996 and every ForEx offered to change them at terrible rates simply because they were pre-2000. Ask the bank to give you the absolute newest bills they have.
-When you withdraw cash from your bank at home, do it at a teller so that you can get large bills and ask for notes that were printed within the last 2 or 3 years.
-If you don't follow the advice above and end up with older notes, you may be able to change your older bills into newer bills at a bank (for a fee) and then take them to a ForEx and get the better rate on the new bills. I did this and it was totally worth it.

Travelers' Checks
I haven't used travelers' checks since about 2004, so I honestly can't give much advice. Find out what recent travelers to your destination say. Many places don't want to change them, or give terrible rates if they do.

-If you lose them, all is not lost. You can recover your money.

-The number of places where you can turn travelers' checks into cash may be limited, especially in remote areas (though you shouldn't count on changing anything in remote areas).
-The exchange rate will probably be worse than cash.

If you are planning to use ATMs as your primary or sole source of funds while you are abroad, I highly recommend that you bring TWO DIFFERENT CARDS for TWO DIFFERENT ACCOUNTS. This is crucial if you are a victim of fraud (see below for elaboration).

You should notify both of your banks that you will be traveling so that your account is not immediately flagged for suspicious activity on your first withdrawal. You really don't want your primary source of cash shut down if you can prevent it.

-You don't have to carry as much cash with you while you travel.
-If it's stolen you should have little (if any) liability for fraudulent use.

-The exchange rate tends to be worse than cash, especially once you consider additional fees that most banks charge.
-ATM fraud is becoming very sophisticated and they may be able to steal your pin and use your card without a camera taping you or your card ever leaving your possession. Be aware.

-Know your PINs before you go. This is super important. Duh.
-Know your daily withdrawal limit. This is important if you need to get out large amounts of cash in a short period of time. You'll have to plan accordingly because it may mean spending more time in a city to get enough money before you head for a remote area. You may want to check with your bank that the limit will be the equivalent in foreign currency (and not a lower limit for some reason).
-Know what your bank charges for foreign transaction fees and other ATM fees. These can add up.
-It may be useful to have one VISA and one Mastercard account. VISA has been more widely accepted in the places I've traveled, though I've always been able to find a Mastercard ATM eventually. Find out the specifics for your destination.

Credit cards (especially in case all else fails)
I think it is a good idea to bring a credit card even if you don't think you'll use it. Be sure to notify them that you're traveling abroad, too. Credit cards are good for cash withdrawals in a pinch if your main source of cash is lost, stolen, or compromised.

-Probably cheaper than getting money wired to you if you're in a bind.

-Few places in developing countries will take credit cards. The places that do likely cater to upmarket tourists.
-The places that will take credit cards may charge an additional fee (for me they added 5% to the amount they billed to my credit card).
-Your bank will most likely charge you foreign transaction fees (but check out Capital One).
-If you do a cash advance, you'll probably start accruing interest immediately rather than getting a grace period like you do with normal charges. This sucks, but is still probably cheaper than wiring money.

Dealing with Fraud
I was a victim of ATM fraud in spite of taking normal precautions to safeguard my card and pin. My card information and pin were lifted from a hacked ATM and used to make over $2000 of withdrawals from another country (not the one I was traveling in). My card never left my possession, and no one was looking over my shoulder. I had to borrow money from several people, sent a $40 fax, and lost my bank account.

My advisor Leo ended up with fraudulent charges on his credit card on another continent and spent hours with a borrowed phone and a taxi driver going all over to city to find an ATM to make an emergency withdrawal from his account before they completely shut it down due to the fraud.

My point is that ATM fraud is widespread, it could happen to you, and it sucks. You really, really don't want it. But if it does happen, here are some things I have learned.

-Even if you have to borrow money or a phone to do it, call your bank yourself to report the fraud. Do it yourself even if it costs you $40. (Unless you have a co-signer on the account who can do it). Don't ask someone else from home to call in as you, even if that would be 1000 times easier.
-If there is someone who will be at home while you're abroad who you can add to the account as a co-signer, this may make it easier to report fraud if you are telecommunicably challenged when you realize your account was compromised.
-If one of your accounts is compromised, be prepared to fall back on your other ATM card or your credit card. Don't count on getting a replacement card until you get home.

Miscellaneous money advice:
Receipt Books
The best suggestion I got before my first scouting trip was to buy a receipt book (something simple like this). If you've got an advance on a grant and need to keep track of all kinds of expenses in a place where receipts aren't common, this is a godsend. The accounting people will accept these receipts as much more legit than scribbles on ripped sheets of paper. This is also highly recommended for keeping track of what you have paid field assistants.

Date book
I bought a daily planner for keeping track of my expenses. On the lines for each day where you normally write assignments or appointments, I wrote items and how much they cost. If I withdrew or exchanged money, I wrote that at the top of the day. I also noted if I didn't have a receipt (NR) or if I had a partial receipt (PR). I marked personal expenses with an asterisk. This simple record keeping made the process of reporting my expenses much easier.

Plan Ahead and Avoid Transaction Fees
Finally, I'd like to point out that Capital One offers ATM cards and credit cards with 0% foreign transaction fees. You can open a High-Yield Money Market account with just $1 and get a fee-free ATM card with a $500 daily limit. If you get a Capital One credit card, you have the option to personalize with your own photo. It was really easy and I put a photo from my field site on it.

If you're thinking about getting a new account or two for handling your money while you're abroad, open it now, even if you aren't leaving for months. You don't want to be worrying whether or not you'll have your pin in time when you're trying to pack. Better do it now rather than later.

Whew. This was a looong post. Please add your suggestions and comments!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Small victories

I'm designing a database to sort out my incredibly messy data from this summer. I've been teaching myself FileMaker Pro, with some general database structure advice from another student working with Access, and it's generally been slow going. I can't even begin to analyze my data until I get it into a reasonable format (NOT the insane spreadsheets I currently have), and I'm supposed to present some kind of preliminary data analysis at lab meeting on Tuesday.

With that in mind, I just about danced down the hallway today when I conquered a particular problem that's had me stuck for over a week now. Woo hoo! Now I've got to run some queries on my test data, and then I can enter the rest of the data.

Then I can export it to R, and then I can begin some analyses. I've got to rejoyce in these small victories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Yesterday morning I had a meeting with Herb. We talked for almost two hours, and I think I did an ok job of articulating my insecurities. I told Herb that I know he's a hands-off advisor but that I think I'm going to need more advice this year than in years past. The most helpful thing he said was that I need to find something I'm interested in doing and forget about what anyone else thinks I should be doing. Overall, the conversation was somewhat unfulfilling but I'm glad I talked to him.

Then I went to an event at Big Natural History Museum. It was one of those events with free food and alcohol where they try to woo donors for specific museum initiatives. Anyways, I'm really glad that I went because it reminded me of some of the reasons that I wanted to do research in Africa in the first place. Sometimes I need to feel all warm and fuzzy about my 'mission.'

Next month I'm going to an interdisciplinary conference and I expect to be energized by all of the ideas I'll encounter there. I hope I'll be able to channel that excitement into figuring out what I'm most motivated to do in Ukenzagapia.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Communication skills

Sam told me I need to improve my communication skills with my field assistants and with Dr. K. (my Ukenzagapian external committee member/in-country advisor). Sam acts as my sort of liason for sorting these things out because he is Ukenzagapian but also totally assimilated into American culture. The problem was two-fold.

1. The way in which I was communicating with Dr. K. over email was potentially disrespectful because I was asking him to do things more like a colleague rather than an advisor. I think this was a misunderstanding because I thought that he wanted me to go through him for communicating with my field assistants while I'm back in Big City to reduce the possibilty of mis-translation.

2. The field assistant-to- Dr. K. -to- Sam grapevine reports that my field assistants often didn't understand what I was trying to do until we did it, but if I'd explained what I wanted to do more clearly then they could've helped me figure it out. Basically, my instructions are unclear. Dr. K. also said this about the directions I tried to give over email for a project my field assistants are setting up this month.

This second point worries me because it confirms my fear that I came across just as clueless in the field as I sometimes felt.

This fear was also confirmed when Sam told me that Dr. K. expected me to have more things figured out already because I'm getting a Ph.D. in the U.S. and Sam is having to remind him that grad students come in with a variety of experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. In short, I didn't really know what I was doing and it showed.

I know I need to harden the f#$@ up and be able to take some constructive criticism. I'm still learning. A lot. I shouldn't be so hard on myself. But still...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Imposter syndrome?

I have to admit that for most of my graduate career so far I've felt like I really had my shit together. I've gotten some grants, a fellowship, advanced to candidacy, and generally not been completely overwhelmed by everything (in spite of several good reasons to be). But over the past few months I've been feeling increasingly anxious about the road ahead and emotionally fragile about my work.

I might be coming down with Imposter Syndrome.

Now that I've got some data and two years behind me, I've got to start getting results and really publishing. And with "NSF" all over my cv, I definitely feel a lot of pressure to meet the high expectations that come will all of the "accomplishments."

My Imposter Syndrome fears are specific. I know that I can write proposals and grants. I'm pretty comfortable with my writing. I know that I am self-motivated and organized about deadlines. I'm a pretty good teacher. I think I'm a good mentor. My fear is that I'm actually not good at doing science, you know the whole experiment thing that actually gets to the root of what in the world is going on out there in ecology. There. I said it. That's what I'm afraid of.

I know that I just finished my first field season and that everyone expects me to make mistakes and it's not uncommon at all for people to add several months or a year to their Ph.D. because of mistakes they made in the field. That is how we learn, I know. But I'm worried that I need more guidance on the ground than I'm going to get. I'm also worried that I'm going to disappoint people because they have higher expectations of me than I can actually meet.* I'm worried that I'm not enough of a badass to do what needs to be done.

On Friday I was reduced to tears by my fears and frustrations. I need to get a handle on this. I have a meeting with Herb tomorrow morning. I'm asking my advisor to advise me.

*This isn't an unfounded fear, and I might write about that soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The never-ending money chase

Last week I finally reconciled all of my accounting from the summer. I brought about $2500 in grant money to Ukenzagapia for fees, supplies, labor, some transportation, etc. I went over that amount by about $550 (expense incurred by me). In addition, I paid about $1250 of my money for my living expenses (this does not include touristy stuff I did with Jon when he was there). Also, I owe Sam about $2000 to be repaid in equipment that I will purchase for him someday.

In short, I need more grant money for my next field season. I've got a few hundred dollars from my interdisciplinary fellowship that I can use for supplies, but I don't even have enough to cover my plane ticket let alone pay my field assistants or the required research fees.

This fall there seem to be only two hopeful prospects on the horizon. One is a UBC award. I emailed Herb to ask him if he'll write a letter for me. He said yes, but if other people from the lab apply, he will favor whomever has the least amount of funding (if he's asked to choose among his students, which he has had to do before). In the past, this has been me since his other students were funded by his grant for Neotropical Field Site. However, they've had some huge unbudgeted expenses that will make it impossible to pay for students next summer. So, I guess we're all in the same boat except that I've already been successful at getting my own money to support my research.

I understand his logic, but it had really dashed my hopes for that grant.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Side effects

I've been taking mefloquine (aka lariam), an antimalarial drug, since May. I took it for about 5 months in college when I studied abroad, and I took it for about 2 months last year. This drug is known to have severe psychological side effects in some people. I've never noticed any problems so it has been my antimalarial drug of choice because it's cheapest and you only have to take it once per week.

Because you're supposed to take it for a month after you leave malarial areas, I have two pills left. However, I don't think I'm going to take them.

On Saturday night Jon and I got into a discussion about my recent emotional fragility and tried to figure out when it started. He is concerned because he says I have recently been more prone to self-doubt and less confident. There are many stressors that have contributed to my emotional roller coaster over the past few months (culture shock, troubleshooting my first field season, communication barriers, still processing personal losses), but I think that mefloquine might be playing a role as well. I don't want to just blame the drug, but stopping my mefloquine is something that I can control, and my risk of developing malaria now is very low. I'm going to see if I can get an appointment with my doctor this week.

Maybe stopping the mefloquine will just trick me into feeling better, but I'm ok with that too.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I don't think I really blogged about it, but I saw a counselor once a week last spring before I left for Ukenzagapia to work through some of the issues surrounding my sister's death. I didn't feel like I was making any progress though, so I'm going to again with a new counselor. Several people have told me that I shouldn't hesitate to try someone new. Counseling is available through the university which means it is inexpensive or free, but it can take a while to actually see someone. I got on the waiting list right after I got back from Ukenzagapia so that I can start to see someone as soon as possible, but I'm still waiting to actually get an appointment.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spambots and ECOLOG

I think I know why I get so much spam.

I'm one of several thousand subscribers to ECOLOG-L, the listserv for the Ecological Society of America. When I Google myreal name, posts that I have made to ECOLOG come up in the hits, along with my email address in full. I have been very careful to prevent the listing of my email address on the internet on other sites, but didn't realize that posting to ECOLOG would open my address to spambots in the public archives.

Gmail does do an excellent job of filtering my spam, but it occasionally lets some through and sometimes I have to dig through hundreds of messages to check for a couple of messages that aren't spam. If you're thinking about posting to ECOLOG or anything else that archives publically, consider using a different email address. I wonder if they can change the archives.