Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blogroll suggestions

I read a zillion blogs but don't have a blogroll. I think it's about time I make one. If you read my blog and would like to suggest your blog for my blogroll, please post a comment.

Angry Word

The other day I was working with a Word document that was chock-a-block full of scientific names. Suddenly I got the following message:

Has anyone else ever gotten this message? Now it doesn't put squiggly lines under the names anymore. I'm ok with that.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My favorite halloween costume of the year (so far)

My 8 year old niece (this one) is a tree trunk covered in fungus for halloween. I know it was her idea. I love that girl.

Cameras and photography

When I return to Ukenzagapia I am planning to bring a digital camera for each of my field assistants and spend a few days teaching them the basics of how to use their cameras and how to take good photos. One of them used to have a film camera so he's got some experience with photography and one has a simple camera phone. I think it will benefit them as individuals, the other scientists they work with, and my research if they know how to take good photographs and have the equipment to do so.

There are several considerations involved in getting cameras for them.
  1. Durability. If it breaks, they aren't going to bring it somewhere to get it repaired. If they can do it themselves, great. If not, they might as well not have a camera.
  2. Batteries. I'm leaning towards one that uses AAs, even though I don't prefer that myself. If they use AAs, I can also give them some rechargables and hopefully a solar charger. The AAs can be used for other things if needed. One assistant doesn't have electricity at home. Giving them a camera that eats alkaline batteries will not help them because batteries are expensive.
  3. Screen size. Bigger is better. It would be wonderful to get them newer cameras with larger screens so they can more easily assess the quality of their photographs and share them with someone else without downloading them.
  4. Memory card size. They need as much memory as I can get them because neither one has a computer and they also have very limited computer access. They're primarily going to be looking at photos on the camera. I'll probably need to print photos for them occasionally.
  5. Quality. I don't mean megapixels. 4 megapixels would be more than enough. I just want it to take good pictures under low light conditions with at least one macro setting and some optical zoom.
My original plan was to try to find used cameras, but now I'm leaning more towards buying each of them a new/refurbished but inexpensive camera if it meets the above considerations. Then they could have the same camera, which would help them teach each other to use the different features.

Do any of my readers have a suggestion for a camera that meets most or all of these criteria? An older digital camera model that you loved, perhaps?

I'd also like to give them each a book about displaying (more than explaining) basic concepts of good composition and techniques in photography. A lot of text will be useless to them, but illustrations priceless. Does anyone have any recommendations? It can be tiny, like 12 pages or something. Perhaps I could even print out some pages from the internet. Ideally I'd just like to avoid reinventing the wheel and create my own photography teaching materials.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Regular meetings

I had a meeting with Herb this morning to talk about all sort of things (the conference I went to, my conference idea, the chance to lead a program in Ukenzagapia, etc). He said that organizing a conference or symposium can be a great way to make connections and get your name out there. It's great networking and doesn't necessarily have to be a thankless job. I'm encouraged that he thinks it could be a good idea.

BUT... He pointed out that it can't interfere with my field work. He said that when you've got a difficult dissertation, it can be tempting to work on easier side projects but ultimately you'd got to do the diss. I need to be careful that I don't do that. As Jon reminded me, I've got a lot of irons in the fire and I can't ignore the biggest one of all.

I asked Herb if we can have regular meetings from now until the end of the semester. He said yes. Every Thursday morning. I think this will be a good thing for me.

Kind of annoying

Every once in awhile I google myself. Most of the hits are actually me. Sometimes I find new ones. Sometimes they contain inaccurate information. There are pages that refer to me (not just someone else with my name) but list the wrong college, department, and even an inaccurate budget for our wedding. It kind of annoys me that these things are incorrect but out there under my real name for anyone with a search engine to find. Oh well.

I should really stop googling myself or blogging and go get some work done.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Donors Choose!

I just donated to three different projects supporting science and environmental education in high-need classrooms.

Sometimes You've just Gotta Draw and Color to Learn Science

Help Us Reduce Waste And Feed Our Plants!

Plastic Free Waikiki

Several bloggers have challenges going and will enter you into drawings if you donate just $5 to a project of your choice.
-Dr. Isis
-Others I'm too tired to link to right now

Last year I donated to one project and won the Sciencewomen drawing and got a free YellowIbis tshirt! Go pick a project and give them $5. You have $5, don't you?

Monday, October 26, 2009

A job outside of academia

Today I stumbled upon The Hollywood Ecologist. Brilliant! This ecologist serves as a consultant for movies! Now that's a job outside of academia.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A dream

As I was waking up this morning had a dream about packing. In my dream I was in an odd combination of Ukenzagapia and SFC. I'd been happily hanging out with friends and thinking about leaving when I realized that most people were alreadly packed and waiting to get on a bus to the airport. I ran upstairs to my apartment (which in my dream was kind of like our apartment in Big City) and started packing. I had so much stuff! I had no idea how I was going to fit it in my luggage. I started going through drawers and cupboards and sorting out the things that I really neededt to take, things that came with the apartment, and things I didn't need. I was stressed out about missing my flight. I looked out the window and realized that most of my friends were gone because the bus had come. A few people like me were hastily trying to get everything together.

I looked at the new shoes I'd acquired since I arrived, shoes that belonged to my friend, shoes that I had no idea where they came from, and had to decide what to bring. I looked at bedding. And books. And I wondered where they all came from and how I was ever going to pack my bags under the airline limit or even make it to the airport in time.

Meanwhile, I was also running up and down stairs from the apartment to pay my bills for the lunch I'd just had and for rent. I thought to call a taxi to take me to the airport so that I could finsih packing and sorting on the way there, but my Ukenzagapia taxi driver Violet was out of the country because in my dream she got an opportunity to work in the UK. Scratch that plan.

I've written before about the kind of packer I am. I like to have things generally organized and carefully chosen. It is not my nature to just throw things in a box or bag and worry about it on the other end unless I'm packing stuff for less than a week. I am a slow packer.

Having to hastily sort through my things in my dream made me anxious, but it also forced me to make some hard choices about some things to leave. I decided not to panic about it and pack as quickly as I could but also not stress about missing the plane. I decided I'd figure it out if I missed it and that I'd get on the next plane. I needed to hurry, but not to panic.

At about that point I don't remember more because I sort of woke myself up when I realized it was just a dream.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Would you like your dream job?

I came to grad school with the goal of teaching and leading foreign study programs at a liberal arts school like the one I attended. I'm visiting Small Friendly College this weekend and just had a meeting with one of my professors. She suggested I co-lead a program to Ukenzagapia in 2011! This is so exciting! It sounds like they'll open applications for the position sometime in the next few months.

I also talked to her about meeting up with her students when she's there next year. If the timing works out, she wants to bring the students to Nyota for some kind of field project. What could I do with them that would provide useful data for my project? Or any project? What would I do with a whole semester of students in Ukenzagapia?

Is this what I want to do when I finish my Ph.D.? Doing it before I finish might be a great way to find out. How would this affect my research? How does it fit with my goals? Wait, what are my goals?

I've got a lot to think about.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Organizing a conference

I'm throwing around the idea of organizing a small conference at UBC. I'm not married to the idea, but I'm talking to different people about it (classmates, professors, etc) to get their ideas and find out whether or not they think it's realistic. Themes and logistics aside, is this a good idea?

I know it would take a year to plan a conference, but I'm not sure that I should. What do you think?

I'm particularly interested in hearing from anyone who organized a conference as a grad student, or knows a grad student who organized a conference. Was it useful for them? Was it a huge timesuck? Did it help them get a job? Did anyone actually care other than the people that went to the conference?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Challenges of managing a long-distance project

One of the most difficult aspects of doing fieldwork in Ukenzagapia for me has been communicating with my field assistants. They both have cell phones, but if they are out of range because they are on the wrong side of a hill or something then I have to send them a text message because they don't have voicemail. Also, it is too expensive for them to call me so I have to call them back and hope that they're in range.

The time change is also very inconvenient. I have to call them first thing in the morning so that I don't call them too late in the evening. If I forget or have something else planned, I have to wait until the next day unless I stay up late to call them.

It's also expensive. I use Skype to call their cell phones (they definitely do not have Skype since they don't have computers) and it's 25-30 cents per minute. I can waste a lot of money if we get disconnected repeatedly because their signal isn't great. I'm going to look for cheaper options.

Then of course there's language. Sometimes I worry that if I ask yes or no questions they'll always say yes. We speak in a mix of English and Ukenzagapese, and I choose my English words carefully. The mental translation from one language to another also slows down conversation.

All of these things make it difficult to manage a project that my field assistants have started while I'm gone. If all goes well, things will be all set to start an experiment when I return to Ukenzagapia in a few months. I'm not counting on it, but it sure would be nice.

This morning I was able to get a good update from one of my field assistants on the status of the project, and it actually sounds like things are going pretty well. We got disconnected twice but if we're understanding each other correctly then they've completed one part of the experiment preparation. I've been concerned that we had only a narrow window in which to complete the prep but it turns out we might have a much larger window of opportunity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Warning: bad poetry ahead.

Tonight I danced
wearing my favorite pants.

At the lower end of my normal weight spectrum,
the pants hang a bit loose
but I'd never reject 'em.

The pants fit just right
when I've gained a few pounds
but tonight I fear that I've trodden new ground.

I looked down and noticed a hole in the seam
Lo and behold my thigh I did see!

This as a sign - to the gym I must go!
so that I can dance without a peep show.

Time to lose a few pounds so my clothes still fit...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Post-conference recollection

I got back from the interdisciplinary conference around 10:30 last night. I met some awesome people, including another grad student who's working on stuff that is conceptually very similar to what I'm doing. I also met another student working in Ukenzagapia. I didn't get any revelations about my place in the inter/trans/multi-disciplinary world, but I had a lot of great conversations. It sounds like a group of us are going to pursue a conceptual publication (quite outside ecology). That's cool. It's possible that 2010 will be a big publication year for me since there are several things in the works but we'll see.

I've also got an idea for a smaller conference that was born out of this one. I'm going to see if any of the other students in my interdisciplinary program are interested.

Now I'm trying to catch up on what I missed and figure out what my priorities are for this week and next. We're getting two cats from our friends who are about to go traveling for a year. Starting on Wednesday, we're going to have at least 3 guests sleeping at our house every night for a week. I'm looking forward to it, but it also means I need to be really efficient with my time at school.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Eureka! for the wrong project

Gigirose's comment on this post made me think about insights gleaned in down time. I'm not sure that I get many ideas when I'm baking bread, but I have gotten at least one. I just wish the project idea was actually for my project!

The other day I woke up extremely excited about a project idea that I originally thought of while I was in Ukenzagapia. It came to me in an "ah ha!" moment. I thought about it a little bit at the time, but not too much. For some reason, the other night I must have been dreaming about it, or thinking in my sleep or something.* I should say, though, that this project has absolutely, totally, nothing to do with any of the research pies I've got my fingers in. It's a different system, needs a different field site, and would be a complete change of direction. I'm not going to do it, or at least not anytime soon. I think I'll file it away for a later time. It might be a good one to do with undergrads if I end up at a teaching institution.

Anyways, I talked about it quite a bit with Jon on our way back from Canada. What I like about the idea I came up with is that I think it could provide impetus for more environmentally-friendly behavior change in people. I'm struggling a bit with my current research to tie it into change, or policy, or education. Of course it's important to understand more about the basics of ecology, but sometimes I get discouraged when I can't seem to make clear and pertinent connections. I'm trying to revisit my Ph.D. plan to see what is feasible, affordable, applicable, and exciting for me. This conversation with Jon about the relevance of this Eureka! project got me thinking and talking about what aspects of my real research I find exciting. I'm hoping to get some good ideas from this interdisciplinary conference about ways that my research can relate to broader issues and impacts.

*I did once do some calendar math in my sleep and suddenly woke up with a sudden realization about a birthday. It wouldn't be noteworthy except that I definitely did not know it when I went to sleep, figured it out in my sleep, and woke up knowing it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Too much travel

We got back from Canada yesterday afternoon and I went straight to school, where I stayed until 10:30 pm. I watered my plants and packed when I got home, and went back to school at 9:30 this morning. I left straight after class for this conference. Now I'm here. I'm pooped and my body doesn't know what time it is.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Baking bread

I have a hypothesis that people who do work where progress is difficult to measure are more likely to procrastinate by doing very tangible things rather than doing something passive like watching TV. I know many other bloggers have written about how they'd rather clean their kitchen, organize their closet, or weed their garden than work on whatever pressing but seemingly endless project is on their plate. For example, Jon says he knew when his mom had a big writing deadline or presentation coming up because they'd have a dozen loaves of bread in the kitchen. Baking, cooking, cleaning, and organizing are tasks where progress and product are clearly identifiable. They're immediately satisfying.

I know I use housework (and blogging) to procrastinate on whatever slowly progressing research task I need to tackle. I think I'm going to start referring to this type of procrastination as "baking bread," and I hope Jon and others will call me out on it and remind me to get back to work on the less immediately satisfying stuff with the bigger payoff.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Science communication and policy

Kent from Uncommon Ground just wrote a great post about the importance of science communication and the role of science in policy. He has been writing for months now about the distinction between science informing policy and science dictating policy. I think he's right on.

He's been reading and writing about Don't Be Such A Scientist by Randy Olson. I've really got to read that book.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The road I'm taking

When I applied to grad school, my goal was to find an advisor with whom I could do research in Africa. I ended up with a co-advisor situation with one advisor who worked in Africa and one advisor who asked the kinds of questions I was interested in answering. Now I have a committee member who is immensely helpful in the logistics of my research (and in some ways feels more like my advisor). Still, I have no expectations that any of them will visit my field site during my research. I also know that none of them have any funding to support my research, so it's up to me to get grants.

My main advisor, Herb, has had many highly independent Ph.D. students who have done projects in distant locations. In that respect I am like them. However, he pointed out to me that in every other case, the distant locations were actually "home" to those students. They were pursuing their own projects in challenging and remote locations, but they were always somewhat familiar with the language, culture, and area. I certainly didn't choose an easy path, and I probably underestimated just how hard it would be.

I have chosen a muddy road riddled with potholes and I've got to navigate it mostly by myself with a map written in a different language. It will probably take me 6 years or more to navigate this road. Some sections will be painfully slow, I'll have to pass by some places more than once, I'll make some decisions when the road forks, and maybe I'll find a few smooth sections. I have no idea where I'll end up at the end of my Ph.D., but the decisions I make along the way will lead me there. I just hope I'll be better and more confident at navigating my research road.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Whale of a Tale

Which is the whale of a tale (or two)?

  1. I'm getting tons of work done this week on vacation. In fact, I think I'll be able to submit my review* on Wednesday before I leave for that conference.
  2. I saw that whale today.

*You know, the one I've been working on for two years.