Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Being a badass

When I look in the mirror, I'm proud of who I have become. I know I've
come a long way from the child who was afraid to make a mistake, the
high schooler who was intimidated by her classmates, and the undergrad
who couldn't hold an audience. I'm confident in my ability to
synthesize literature, write, and give presentations. I'm generally
pretty confident about my path in life and career trajectory, but
there are some things I'd like to change about myself with respect to
my work.

I wish I were more of a badass.

During my weekly freakout about what in the world I'm doing here, I
admitted to Jon that I'm really not as much of a badass as I'd like to
think that I am. It takes a certain level of badass-ness just to get
here, but I think I need to step it up a notch if I'm really going to
thrive. It can be a pain in the ass to work in Ukenzagapia, so I've
gotta be tough too, mentally and physically. Not only that, I've got
to love the toughness of it. I think that's what makes a badass. I've
got to love living with a cold shower, intermittent running water and
electricity, the same foods for weeks on end, long days in the field
with my thoughts and observations, unpaved roads, and lest us not
forget glacially slow and expensive internet.

Yet so often I find myself thinking, "Why didn't I just choose a nice
field site within a day's drive of Big City?" Life at home is a lot
easier. I ride my bike to school every day, work at my computer, heat
up some leftovers in the microwave for lunch, talk with my advisors
and classmates, bike home at the end of the day and enjoy hanging out
with Jon in our awesome apartment. Not a bad life.

I mean, here I am in Africa without any advisors nearby wandering
through the wilderness full of poison tree trying to tease apart a
small piece of a big puzzle in an ecologically unfamiliar area with a
foreign culture and a difficult language. Mentally I've got to be more
bold. I need to stop second-guessing myself on all of my decisions in
the field. I need to be confident in my logic and my ability to do
this project, but I also need to be patient with myself and remember
that I'm still learning how to be a scientist, and I'll be learning
for my entire career.

Here's to being more of a badass in the field, more bold in my
decisions, and more patient with myself.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Submit now or wait?

I've been waiting for months for a few small things needed to submit
the grant that my prelim proposal was written for. These pieces were
completely beyond my control. I finally got them, so I have everything
I need to submit.

However, the original plan was to submit this grant in March or early
April. It has no preliminary data. I would hear back in about 6
months, and expect to re-submit in October with preliminary data
collected from this summer. Now it's nearly July. If I submit now
without preliminary data, I won't hear back until January. I'll
probably still have to resubmit, in which case I won't hear until next

Now my options are:
1. Go ahead and submit now while I've got it all together.
2. Wait until I finish collecting and analyzing preliminary data from
this summer and incorporate it into my proposal.

I asked Herb what I should do, but the jury is out. What do you think?
I'll post Herb's advice in the comments after I get some advice from

The Omnipresent Committee Member

It's kind of weird, but in some ways I feel like Sam is more my
advisor than Herb is. Sam has projects all over the place, and every
single one of my projects is directly connected to at least one of
his. This is in contrast to my advisor, with whom I discuss my ideas
but with whom I have no direct projects. Sam in involved in all of my
research in Ukenzagapia, the database project, the project with Marcie
(the undergrad) at BNHM, and even my interdisciplinary project.

Sam's name is everywhere at Nyota. Not only does everyone know him,
every day I seem to meet another person who works with him. Both of
the Ukenzagapians who work with Rena (my American housemate) also work
for Sam. He has trained so many people in the field and is an amazing
naturalist. He seems to be single-handedly responsible for 75% of the
research going on here. It's pretty amazing to see what a profoundly
positive effect one person can have, not only by advancing science but
by improving livelihoods.

But I'm both inspired and intimidated by Sam at the same time.

Every single idea I'm putting into action this summer comes directly
from Sam. Testing crazy new methods? Sam's idea. Sure-bet data
collection concept? Sam's papers. I'm working with field assistants
that he trained during his Ph.D., and he's had to call twice now to
help mediate salary negotiations. He knows this area incredibly well
and there's no way I could ever have as much insight into the natural
history of Nyota short of moving here for several years. I rely
heavily on Sam's knowledge and opinions of what's important and how to
approach things. I feel ill-prepared in comparison to him. How could I
possibly do anything half as good as what he did?

Thankfully, Sam seems to have faith in me to do something useful here.
I should have more confidence in myself to do the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lookin' up

We took a day to improve our living situation and things are
definitely looking up. We've got sheets, pillows, a well-hung mosquito
net, clean walls, passable curtains, and so far only one unwanted
animal in the bed (a lizard). The power was out for 24 hours but
miraculously came back on this evening as my wish for electricity was
left unfinished mid-sentence.

Today we started to figure out some of the new experimental methods,
and so far things are going pretty well. The crazy ideas might
actually be doable. We'll see. I'm so glad Jon is here to help me
figure things out.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Back at Nyota

After two days of travel, Jon and I are back at Nyota. We forgot the
new pillows we bought on the bus, and a lost another water bottle.
Crap. It's really stressful to be traveling with so much stuff. Then
we got to the house I'm sharing with Rena and found that none of the
mattresses (there are 3) fit the bed I bought right before I left. We
have inadequate sheets and we had to creatively hang the mosquito net.
My room still didn't have a light bulb and the place is dirty but
we're going to spend tomorrow making it more like home. I'm going to
pay someone to scrub my room clean. It smells kind of musty.

My inclination was to jump right back into field work tomorrow, but
after talking with Jon I think it's important that we straighten out
things at the house first. I'll meet with my field assistants tomorrow
morning, hopefully send them off to continue collecting data, and
spend the rest of the day arranging things to make life reasonably
comfortable. Then I can get down to doing some serious science.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

While I'm annoyed...

Let's talk about the fantastic disparity in internet connections
between Africa and the rest of the world.

My max download rate here is about 7 KB/sec. At bad times I get less
than 1 KB/sec.

I paid approximately $50 for 500 MB of bandwidth. This is MUCH better
than paying 30 cents per MB, which would be about $150 for 500 MB. I'm
hoping to stretch this 500 MB for two months.

To put this in perspective: the most recent Mac software update is
398.3 MB.

If there are 1000 KB per MB (it's actually something weird but I'm not
going to use the bandwidth to look it up right now), then assuming I
get about 5 KB/sec it takes me 3 minutes and 20 seconds to download 1

At this rate, it would take me approximately TWENTY-TWO HOURS to
download all of the software updates, assuming my connect isn't
terminated somewhere along the line.

How the heck do people get software updates here? I expect they don't.
I won't.

Gah. I'm going to sleep now. I think I need it.


This is just a rant about taxes.

After trying for months to figure out what I'm supposed to pay taxes
on and what I'm not for my fellowship, I was relieved to finally
submit my taxes online. So relieved, in fact, that I paid the $10 for
FreeTaxUSA to submit my state return online instead of printing it out
and mailing it in myself. Because I didn't have taxes taken out of my
fellowship, I owed state and federal taxes. What I did not realize in
my haste was that FreeTaxUSA did not automatically pay my STATE taxes
with the bank account information I gave them, only my FEDERAL taxes.
I should've noticed we had some extra money, but for several reasons
that are too boring and complex to explain, I didn't.

Just before Jon left for Ukenzagapia last week I received a letter
saying I owe $36 in penalties and interest on my unpaid taxes, in
addition to the taxes I should've paid in April. I'm trying to pay
online from here but it's always more complicated than it first
appears. If I'd just mailed the damn thing in myself I wouldn't be
dealing with this now.

I'm so annoyed that I spend so much time thinking about our money and
trying to manage it and still miss shit like this. #@!$!*#%*#!@ $36.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Still dealing with a rash

It's been two and a half weeks since I started breaking out in a rash from poison tree. The original spots are now healed (the skin is closed but it's a different color there), but I've been getting new spots: new ones on my arm, hands, knees, thighs, ankles... mostly extremities.

Then yesterday morning I woke up and discovered in horror that I had spots on my face, lips, belly button, butt, neck, back, chest, behind my ears, on my feet, and several new spots on my arms and legs. Holy crap. I looked like I had chicken pox with leprosy or something.

Prior to this I had been fighting my allergic reaction to urushiols with oral benadryl tablets and hydrocortisone cream. This prompted me to start the prednisone prescription that Jon brought with him (thanks Mom & Dad). After a bit of internet research, I think the new spots were mostly hives. My face cleared up within about 4 hours of taking the first dose of prednisone and my arms were cleared up in about 12. Thank god. Still, I worry about this because I've still got 8 weeks of field work to endure in an area full of poison tree with abundant mangos and cashews.

The sudden overnight appearance of so many new spots freaked Jon out because he's highly allergic to poison ivy too and I'd spent forever convincing him that I'd washed everything and I wasn't going to give it to him. As best I can tell, there are two main expanations for my sudden outburst of new spots :

-They were areas that were lightly exposed to oils from my backpack, clothes, or equipment that I spread to other places on my body by scratching my skin or while dressing.
-It was something I ate.

Both of these are possible, but I'm thinking it was probably something I ate. But what? Who knows. There are several possibilities.

-The spots on my lips could be from either the mango I ate on Sunday (I didn't touch the peel though) or the cashews I ate on Monday. I don't think they would cause the hives 3 or 4 days later, though.
-On Thursday night we ate dinner at an outdoor market. I've been 99.9% vegetarian for almost 8 years now, but on very rare occasions I eat meat. I decided that night to have a little bit of fish. I've never in my life eaten much fish. Perhaps that gave me hives?
-At the market I also ate some soup and I have no idea what was in it. Maybe the secret ingredient was mango peel?

Perhaps my body freaked out with hives because it's also covered in this rash. Maybe if the hives were from some kind of food, I wouldn't react to it under normal circumstances. I just really, really don't want to be fighting a rash for the next two months, and I know it's not a good idea to be on prednisone for that long.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Jon arrives tomorrow!

Jon is probably somewhere over Europe or northern Africa right now. I'm back in the city staying with my American friend from last year. I can't wait to see him! I should go to sleep now.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Make hay while the sun shines

Nyota was without power for two and a half days. It just came back on
tonight. Unfortunately, my phone was low when the power went out.
Things like this remind me that I need to "make hay while the sun
shines"- I need to be sure that I always have enough batteries charged
and charge things when I can instead of waiting until later- because
there might not be power later! Or water. When the power is out, so is
the water to the field station. However, the field station does have a
generator that runs occasionally. It doesn't power my room but powers
more essential things like the water pump. I was able to charge my
computer and phone for a while yesterday evening, and also filled a
bucket of water in my room. That got me through, but I'm glad the
power is back on. I'm charging everything I can while I can.

In other news:
-Jon arrives on Tuesday! I can't wait.
-He's bringing tons of stuff for me. He was even able to get all of
the insane things on my list, including a set of crochet hooks, at the
last minute. He's the best.
-I made some big mistakes with my field assistants, Sam, and my
Ukenzagapian advisor. I started to write a whole blog post about it
before the power went out but now I'm not sure I'll finish it. I hope
I was able to smooth things over with everyone. Eek.
-I'm moving in with the other American (Rena) tomorrow. After looking
at the other houses for rent I think my best option is to live with
Rena and bargain with the house managers to make improvements to her
house. I think showing them my rash helped convince them that I need a
shower. Rena and I are going to make a list tomorrow of what they
should fix. I'm pretty sure that we can get most of the 'cons' off of
the list.
-I lost my (only) compass in the field yesterday and spent an hour and
a half searching for it in vain with my field assistants. Argh. Just
when we were finally starting to collect data it began to rain. I was
totally soaked on top. I need a new rain jacket. This one isn't coming
home with me.
-I'm taking Benadryl now for my poison tree rash. I've decided to call
it poison tree. After repeatedly mis-identifying a vine for poison
tree seedlings, I suspect that it is another plant in the same family.
Something else to avoid. The Benadryl seems to be keeping my rash
under control, but I'm still getting new spots. Most disconcerting is
the appearance of spots in places that did NOT directly touch it,
which means I'm transferring it myself to other places when I'm
changing clothes or something. My arm looks pretty gross. If I don't
have my arm covered people ask me about it right away.
-Nyota is so beautiful. I wonder what this place will be like in 100

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New developments

I think I had a breakthrough in the field yesterday. I think I have an
idea of how to improve my project and I'm going to start collecting
data for it tomorrow. I'm excited about it and my project again in
general. Though now I'm worried about something that Leo thought I was
going to do, but wasn't planning to do, and now I think maybe I should
do that too?

I'm developing more spots of this rash. The ones I'm most concerned
about are on my leg. I don't know how they got there because I wear
pants in the field. Ai! I'm developing blisters, too. I walked about
16 km (10 miles) yesterday and about 16 km again today.

Yesterday I met another American who will also be here this summer
doing research. She's living in a rented house by herself, and offered
for me to stay there with her. The rent is already covered, so I could
stay there for free. This is definitely awesome, but the house isn't
as nice as the field station where I'm currently staying. We'd have to
hire someone to cook for us (and preferably clean too), but the cost
is still far less than staying where I am now, especially when Jon
will be here. Some of the cons are pretty big though. Let's weigh them.

Pros of moving to the house:
-Dramatically cheaper (1/5 the cost of staying here)
-More control over the kind of food I eat (I think)
-Plenty of space (it's huge really)
-Would have someone to discuss my research with

Cons of moving to the house:
-Inconsistently running tap water. Basically I should assume no tap
water and collect rain water off of the roof.
-Probably less secure from theft (has some broken windows)
-Bucket baths only (no shower) with water I heat myself (this is one
of my biggest concerns since I'm having this rash problem)
-A few kms further from most of my field sites
-It's kind of dirty and unfriendly looking right now, especially the
kitchen and bathroom. It's a once-nice house that hasn't been well
kept for a while now.
-All of the electric outlets in the house are different so I'll need
an adapter.
-There's no bed frame for me right now, only a foam mattress. I said I
wouldn't move in until there's a bed. I'd really like to have a bed
and I think it makes it easier to deal with a mosquito net.

What do you think? Should I move in with her? Should I try to find a
nicer house to rent and see if I can get her to move there with me?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

More money madness

I devote far more time and energy than I would like to thinking about
money, both personal finances and grant money. Thankfully Jon is
taking over our finances while I'm here so that's a big part of the
burden lifted. The best news all week is that we FINALLY found a
subletter for while Jon is with me in Ukenzagapia! They're not
covering a full month's rent or any of the utilities but we were
getting pretty desperate and something is better than nothing at this
point. These people have already sent a check so if nothing else we
have the money. This is especially good since the last person we
thought was going to rent backed out the day she said she'd arrive.

I wrote enough successful small grant applications that I should be
able to finish this summer within my budget. Still, managing my grant
money is, frankly, a huge pain in the ass. It's in 4 different
accounts in three different institutions. Some of it can be used for
certain things more easily than others, so I've bought most of my
supplies from A but am paying field assistants from C. Three of these
four have been or will be transferred to my checking account to be
reconciled with the institutions when I return at the end of the
summer. Then there's my personal money. I am using my fellowship
stipend to cover my living expenses here this summer but it also needs
to cover rent and some bills in Big City. It's hard to keep it all
straight. Plus I have to deal with fluctuating currency conversion for
almost everything here.

Also, I'm in debt. Grant money debt. Sam purchased some supplies for
my research using his funds and when I get more grant money at a later
date I'll purchase equipment of the same value for him as repayment.
It's great that he was able to do this for me so that I could use the
equipment this summer. I know of at least 2 other students in my
department who are in debt to their lab or advisor for research
expenses. One of them may be able to work off the debt if grant money
doesn't come through, and it all seems pretty informal (it certainly
is for me and Sam, who isn't even my advisor). Is it common for grad
students in science to accrue some kind of debt directly related to
research expenses? How formal are the arrangements?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Hazards in the field

Long time readers may remember that last year in Ukenzagapia I
discovered that I'm allergic to mangos. The urushiols in the skin give
me a poison ivy-like rash and make my lips feel chapped.

I also discovered last year that there is a plant in the same family
(Anacardiaceae) as mangos and poison ivy at my field site. After my
guide explained to me that it was "like mango" and handed me some
crushed leaves to smell, I explained to him that I get a rash around
my lips if I eat mango. I gestured around my lips as I explained. As
soon as I did that I realized how stupid that was- I touched the
leaves and then touched my lips! I didn't get a rash really but my
lips did get chapped.

On my very first day in the field this year I was digging my fingers
into a fruit I found in attempts to identify it when my field
assistants told me it's "related to mango." Whoops. I promptly dropped
the fruit and explained my allergy to them.

Two days ago I started to get a rash on my arm near the bend in my
elbow. Now i have about two quarter-sized spots and some straggler
bumps. From the pattern it appears that I scratched my arm against the
plant. I can identify poison ivy without leaves and from the highway
at 60 mph, but not this plant yet. I've got to learn to identify it

Also, I should note that I managed to pull myself together this
morning and stop panicking. I had a great day. I don't know what was
going on yesterday. I was a terrible mess.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Overwhelmed and discouraged

The field station has been having a brownout all evening. I ate dinner
by candlelight as two kittens played around my feet and I pondered my
project. Today is one of those days when I feel totally overwhelmed by
my project. This certainly isn't the first time.

I looked through my notebook from my first year of grad school for
inspiration. I've been kicking around these same ideas the whole time,
but I feel like I'm missing something. It's too complex and messy. I'm
trying to figure out which of a bazillion possible influences is most
important in explaining an observed phenomenon. My experiments, so
neat and tidy on paper, in reality have to account for a hundred
additional variables.

Surely there must be a more elegant way of reaching my goal to
accomplish useful, relevant, and publishable research this summer.

I have no idea what I'm doing. Tomorrow I need to talk with my field
assistants about "the plan" and I don't know what to tell them. I'm
doing a terrible job of trying not to panic. I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bits of news

Things are going pretty well. I'm so lucky to be working in such a
beautiful place! Today I enjoyed the views from the back of my field
assistant's motorbike. I enjoyed it more before I realized how much
petrol costs out here (~$1.50 per liter) and how much it will take to
get to most of my field sites. Yikes. I'll definitely bike when I can.

The past two days in the field have been productive. My field
assistants are great, though sometimes we have miscommunication
problems. Soon I'll arrange language tutoring for me out here. I
haven't made time for studying yet on my own due to several pressing

In the evenings I've been trying hard to crank out some time-sensitive
documents for to the project I'm involved in back home. We have to
submit a protocol to the IRB for research involving human subjects.
Given how long such reviews can take and the fact that we want to
start asap, the paperwork should've been done weeks ago. Ai!

I also still need to submit the bits and pieces for the grant proposal
from months ago. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get much uploaded to
fastlane when I had a cheaper, more reliable internet connection.

My goal is to use only 3 MB per day until Jon gets here in just two
weeks. My computer started to download a software update when I wasn't
paying attention which blew today's quota. I won't be reading any
blogs for a while.