Sunday, February 28, 2010

Charismatic tortoises

My friend has several tortoises that live in her yard. Yesterday I looked out the window and saw this:
He's a real charmer, huh?

They come begging for food when they are hungry, and they can move quickly! I thought this one was going to eat my toes!

I'm getting all of my photos posted before I leave the fast, unlimited internet access behind.

The Earth From Above

I love looking out the window on the plane. I had window seats for both of my flights this time and managed to get a few interesting photos of the sights below.
The Alps from above

Water meets desert

Circles in the desert

Saturday, February 27, 2010


This month's theme for the Scientiae Carnival is continuity. This theme feels relevant to me because I am at the beginning of my third trip to Ukenzagapia. Overall, I expect it will be much smoother than my first two. This time I can build on the relationships I already have here rather than focusing on making new ones. I just arrived the other day, but already I feel more comfortable about my time here.

The first time I came, I had no one to meet me at the airport and just took a cab. The second time, my Ukenzagapian mentor arranged for another student to meet me. This time, my friend the taxi driver picked me up and brought me to my American friend's house. Her house feels very American (I've eaten half a dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies, for example) and I just spent 2 hours tonight listening to kids singing broadway show tunes. Kind of surreal, but it eases me into the reality of being in Ukenzagapia. It's interesting to see the continuity of American culture here, especially in their kids. But I digress. More importantly, I'm not starting over from scratch here- I've got relationships to build on both in the city and at my field site.

I'm also not starting over in my research. This trip's project builds on what I did last summer, and I've got a clear plan and timeline for how I expect it to unfold. It feels good to know what I'm doing based on 2 months of experience running around my field site last year. I know generally where things are and how far apart my study areas are (this might sound silly, but I didn't have a sense of that at all last year). I have a better idea of how to get things done and what the obstacles are. In short, I am thankful that I have a foundation to build upon for my time in Ukenzagapia because it will make the whole process easier.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On my way...

Total weight of baggage: ~200 pounds
Number of bags checked: 4
Excess baggage fees paid: $200
Number of books carried: too many

Weather in Big City: hats and gloves
Weather in destination city: tank tops, sandals, and sunscreen

Monday, February 22, 2010

Favorite podcasts?

I'm getting ready to leave on Wednesday, which means I'm doing as much bandwidth-intensive stuff as I can now. I'm downloading software updates and stocking up on podcasts. What do you listen to? What should I listen to on the long bus rides?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Best wishes for ScienceGirl

ScienceGirl from Curiosity Killed the Cat is expecting her first baby any day now. EcoGeoFemme is hosting a blogsphere baby shower for her.

For ScienceGirl, I would like to offer up a virtual copy of Free Range Kids. There's a book, a blog, and a whole lot of people talking about how to raise independent, confident children. I love stories like this one. I guess this isn't exactly a baby gift, but I hope that it will be helpful and inspiring as her child grows up.

Best wishes, ScienceGirl!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Third year attrition

Many people in my program are thinking about leaving. Some already left. Some are switching from a Ph.D. to Masters. After two or three years, maybe they still haven't found something they are excited about, or maybe they found something they are excited about outside of grad school that doesn't require them having a Ph.D. Some of them are good friends. They all need to do what is best for them, and right now that's not staying in grad school, at least not here. Still, I'm sad that they will be leaving Big City.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Jumping ship?

I went to an interesting conference last October where a group of attendees (including me) decided to collectively write a paper based on discussions we had during the conference. We had a conference call on Skype, set up a wiki, and created a group library in Zotero. One person decided to take a leadership role (and first authorship) for the paper, and two other people stepped up to create a leadership trio. They created an outline based on our conference conversations and others. The rest of us chose pieces to develop within the framework defined by the outline. This paper will be on a topic that find interesting, but does not directly relate to the rest of my research and I generally feel out of my element. I am mostly just curious, and I signed up thinking that I would stick with this project as long as it seemed to make sense for me to do so. I teamed up with another person whom I like a lot, but we haven't done much writing yet. We were just starting to get our act together when disaster struck.

The leader is leaving academia for a different job. I didn't see that coming. Now we have no leader for our paper. Neither of the vice-leaders wants to be numero uno. I already felt out of my element, so I felt like a leader's vision for how this should develop was critical to my involvement in the paper. Now I am very hesitant to put any time or effort into working on this project because it seems doomed unless a new leader steps up. It has been more than two weeks now and no one has budged. We had another conference call and someone has agreed to "herd the cats" but not lead the project intellectually. A couple of people will work together to do that but both are in the throes of finishing their dissertations this year and can't commit to much. I am hesitantly continuing my (up-to-now) minimal involvement in the project, but I just don't know if it's worth it. I guess I'll see how the next few months go.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lab resident

A few months ago I posted a survey asking readers if they ever sleep in their office. I have heard rumors of people living in their offices before (not just grad students, but professors who shall remain pseudonymless). Now I've seen it. Someone is living in our lab.

Ne is a grad student in our lab who was away for a long time doing field research and things back in nir home country. Now ne is back for the term to try and finish up. Ne didn't find a place to stay before ne got here, so ne just moved into the lab for the time being. I should probably mention that no one does real lab work in our lab- it basically serves as a kitchen, storage unit, and computer graveyard. Ne isn't in anyone's way, and the lab has never been so clean the whole time I've been here.

I asked nir where ne sleeps (nir office doesn't have a good couch) and ne said ne just lays out nir sleeping bag on the lab bench! Sure enough, I nearly busted out laughing when I saw nir bedroll stored neatly on the bench for the day. Ne said ne might buy a tent to set up in the lab and have some privacy! LOL! The rumors you heard are true.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Not funded

I found out that my big proposal from last year is not going to be funded. I was expecting this, but it's  still kind of a bummer. This does mean that now I have much greater motivation to apply for a different grant that is due next week. This also means that I will have to think about what, when, and how to resubmit for the big money. I only heard unofficially so I haven't seen reviews yet, but regardless I know I will be submitting an entirely new proposal next time.

Honestly, though, I know that writing proposals really helps me get my ideas together in a clear way, so it's not that much of a loss. Since I knew I wouldn't be doing exactly that project even if they funded it, I can use this as an opportunity to develop another stronger proposal for a different (and more feasible) project. My only concern in the timing of it all. I probably won't submit again until May, then have to wait 6 months to hear back, and by that time I need to be back in the field. Ai. I'd better get to work on this backup proposal for next week...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Karina the International Courier

I am bringing so. much. stuff to Ukenzagapia on this trip. I weighted my bags- 39 and 37 pounds already and I don't even have close to everything. I just threw in what was already sitting around. I can check two bags (50 lbs each). I might have to check a third, and I imagine I'll be taking a heavy carryon.

Last year I had Jon to help me bring supplies, but this year it's all me. Even though I left a lot there, there is a ton of stuff to bring, especially because of gifts and favors. Oh my gosh. Here's a short list of what I'm bringing for other people.

-2 or 3 laptops
-4 digital cameras
-3 USB modems
-4 battery chargers
-2 small solar panels
-2 mp3 players
-16 rechargable batteries
-6+ books

That's all stuff for other people- you can assume I will carry at least one of each of the following for my own use, too!

Many of those items are for my field assistants, but some are for Dr. K. and colleagues of Sam. Some is for friends that I will visit on this trip. They asked if I could bring a desktop computer tower (sadly no). I hope they just ask me to bring a netbook or Mac Mini instead. Electronics tend to be much more expensive there so it is much cheaper for someone to get it here and bring it if they're already going.

Customs is going to be a blast. While I'm at it, anyone else have anything they want to send to Ukenzagapia?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The meeting

My meeting today was fine. Chip was late, Sam left early, and everyone present signed the form saying that I'm making good progress towards my degree. Yay!

I got some very useful suggestions and feedback about some of the projects. They suggested combining two of them, and gave me a lot of food for thought on another. I got weird vibes from Sam, but Jon tells me not to worry about it. I'll catch up with him more on Friday and I'm sure he'll tell me his take on the meeting then.

But the thing nagging me after this meeting is the plan for my upcoming field season. Because... I don't really have one. Not in detail. Not in the kind of nitty gritty detail that I need to be confident going in. There are many things that I am good at, but complex experimental design is not one of them. It's not something that comes easily to me. I am easily overwhelmed by it and need to talk things through to break it down and think it through. Unfortunately, Herb is not that kind of advisor. He's not the "brainstorming session" type. So, I have to find other ways to make that happen. Usually I end up talking about it with Jon, since he has a logical, methodical way of thinking. I'm also going to talk about it next week at lab meeting.

The meeting was ok, but I just have this slightly funky aftertaste that I haven't been able to get rid of, mostly from feeling like Sam thinks I'm kinda clueless (which I am compared to him, but that's hardly a fair comparison). I don't know. I need to sleep on it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Changing focus

I have mentioned a few times that I am changing some parts of my project (or really just changing a few projects in particular that collectively add up to my dissertation). I developed one large piece of it for my prelim proposal and submitted it for funding, but preliminary fieldwork convinced me that it is not worth the risk so I'm doing something else instead. With the shift in project focus, I have mostly eliminated much of Melody's area of research. I just realized this the other day while looking over my prelim presentation. I am really interested in her type of work but somehow the projects I am planning to work on now don't have that element. It makes me a little bit sad that my prelim project isn't going to work out, because it was going to be beautiful. Like, really really awesome. If only the critters would cooperate and the equipment were inexpensive! Anyways, I'll meet with Melody to discuss how to incorporate her area of expertise into my revised projects.

Speaking of shifting interests, I'm a little worried that Leo will remove himself from my committee since my project is now largely outside his realm of interest. But, after all of my adventures scheduling this committee meeting, Leo can't attend due to a family emergency. I'll have to catch up with him next week by myself and see what happens then. My meeting is tomorrow morning. I think I'm ready. I went over it with Herb this morning and he seemed to think it was fine. It's only an hour, and it can't run over

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dissertation progress

In preparation for my committee meeting this week I have really had to sit down and make decisions about which projects I want to do (or don't want to do). In December last year I was struck by the realization that there are so many projects that I could do at my field site based on my interests. This was liberating to me because I spent part of last semester struggling to find what I was excited about doing in the field. Then I just had to lay them all out (using FreeMind helped me conceptually organize my ideas) and decide which ones to pursue.

This week I will present my committee with a draft table of contents for my dissertation including chapter titles and a brief synopsis. Putting this together has really made me see how far I have come. I spent much of last year feeling like I was 'behind' because I didn't have any data yet. Now when I look at my table of contents I see that I have collected data for one chapter, one chapter will be a review, and one will be based on other forthcoming data that I don't have to collect. I already have what I need to write two of my five dissertation chapters. It was like I woke up one day and POOF! there is was. Ok, not really (since I spent 3 months in the field for some of that)- but that's how the realization felt. I have to collect data for just two more chapters and some side projects (in case one or more of the projects fail). Holy crap! That makes it seem like I'm making serious headway on this Ph.D. thing, which I didn't realize until about 2 weeks ago.

I actually have too many projects outlined at this point to fit in my dissertation. I sent Herb a rough draft of my table of contents with 9 chapters and he said I needed to relegate 3-4 of them to appendixes. But... you mean I can't keep them all? I can see how grad students can delay their completion by thinking they haven't done enough yet and that they need to collect more data. I can see myself falling into that trap. But as far as I'm concerned, this is an exciting problem to have. After all, too much is always enough. I'll have enough for a dissertation.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


One of the things I need to do in preparation for my committee meeting next week is present a general timeline of how I expect my different projects (=chapters) of my dissertation will proceed. Uncertainty about this timeline has been giving me some grief. For example, I have been unsure when I will return to Ukenzagapia after this next field season, and also unsure how many trips I have left. Most of this uncertainty has come from not knowing which of the many possible projects I will pursue.

At this point I have settled on four projects that require fieldwork, plus a review paper and a project based on existing data. That's six chapters and I only need four or five, but it's likely that one of those won't work out for some reason or another. I will also pursue some side projects in the field if/when I have time.

I laid out a rough timeline for each project. Sometimes I worked forwards from from the present, and sometimes I worked backwards from my goal of defending my dissertation in summer 2013. In some ways that seems like a long time away, but then when I started laying down project timelines it feels much, much closer. I also worked backwards from the goal of being totally done with fieldwork by early 2012 (preferably by November 2011 if I can do it). This is a serious goal for me because we really can't don't really want to start trying to have kids until I finish my fieldwork. It doesn't seem like a good idea for me to pregnant during my fieldwork in Africa, though I would be curious to hear if any readers have had adventurous pregnancies (in that sense, not the medical sense). I also put some other personal events on the timeline just for reference.

It feels great to have this timeline done because now I feel like I can begin to make decisions about these projects knowing generally how they should proceed in a timely manner. I can also present the timeline to my committee (minus the personal stuff) so that they are also thinking under the appropriate timeframe.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Lack of concentration

I just couldn't concentrate on anything. I had a few meetings that were good, but this afternoon I was either falling asleep or procrastinating. I just couldn't focus on preparing for my committee meeting (tons of work left to do) or finishing revisions to the note that needs to be resubmitted. Finally I did something productive and bought my travel health insurance. There wasn't even a Happy Hour today, which, it turns out, actually motivates me to keep working until 5. My office mate and I skipped out at 4:15 and went to the grocery. Blah. I've got some work to do this weekend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A year ago

My sister died a year ago today. I spent the day writing to her, talking with family, watching old home movies, and reflecting. A year ago from right now there was nothing that I could have done to prevent her death. A year has passed. She has passed. I am not past the guilt, regret, and pain. Will it come to pass?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Even more of my life in comics: writing to professors

This comic neatly conveys my experience today where I spent several hours composing one particular email. I started to reply, did some internet research, re-read earlier emails, read the entire thread to Jon, and finally sent the damn thing off several hours later (after eating dinner and watching The Wire). I'm sure it will take the recipients about 2 minutes to read and respond. Ai!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Done, done, and done!

Today I...
...bought tickets for my next trip
...ordered cameras for my field assistants
...gave a great presentation

Not a bad day. I'm very happy with how my presentation went. I was on. It might have helped that I had about half a beer before I started talking. There were some fantastic questions from the audience and I met some interesting people, including some children's authors. All in all a productive day.

I've still got a lot to do before I leave in 3 weeks. Just 3 weeks! The big things-
-send the short note someplace else after finishing revisions
-complete a general timeline for the rest of my fieldwork
-meet with my committe
-present at lab meeting
-nail down my methods for this project
-I think there is something else that I'm forgetting.

I'm excited about this next trip. I'll be gone for about 9 weeks, which isn't too long but long enough- I'm missing Jon's birthday and our first anniversary :-(  I'll return just in time for my cousin's graduation from SFC. Yay!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Timescales in graduate school

I've been meaning to write this post for well over a year now and I want to get it out there while I'm still getting used to the mental transition*. Since beginning grad school, I've had to adjust the timescale on which I think about my life. Of course I have set and achieved some long-term goals before this**, such as applying to grad school or traveling with Jon. Both of those things happened well over a year after deciding to do them. But this feels different in a way that I can't put my finger on. I felt this adjustment most acutely at the beginning of my second year. I was starting to think about prelims, field seasons, and how these things fit into my personal life.

When I graduated from college, I spent a few transient years living in different places and traveling before I started grad school. In any given year I didn't know where I'd be the following year. That kind of uncertainty makes it difficult to make plans for one year later let alone many years.

Graduate school has filled some unknowns with knowns. Next year we'll still be living in Big City. Two years from now we'll still be living in Big City. Probably even 3 years from now unless I finish in lightning speed. Now I'm in a position where I can and must take a long view of my decisions. In fall 2008 I was beginning my prelim proposal. I was writing a proposal that I knew I wouldn't really be able to begin collecting data for until probably late 2010- two years in the future at that time. Two years. It felt like forever. I didn't submit that proposal for funding until last summer and I still haven't heard back yet. I'm getting used to the fact that many things take at least a year. Sam and Herb have said things like, "Well, your mistakes in the field might add several months or a year to your Ph.D., but that's normal." The first time I heard that I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. You mean I might make a mistake that costs a year and no one blinks an eye? A year used to feel like forever!

I'm still getting used to this idea of setting concrete goals years in the future. For example, in two years (by January 2012) I would like to be completely finished with my fieldwork in Ukenzagapia. My goal is to finish my Ph.D. in summer 2013. That will give me a year and half to analyze and write after I finish data collection. That means I've got at least 3.5 years left, since things are likely to take longer than I expect. Part of what I need to do for my next committee meeting is present them with a likely timeline for different projects, especially those with field work. I've been putting off this task for weeks because it feels daunting.

It has been helpful for me to hear professors talk about the timelines for their projects. For example, in the database project I'm working on with Sam, he expects that it will take 8-10 years from the time he conceived of the idea to the time it is fully functional. I've got to develop my ability to take a long view of projects and commit to them. Before grad school I couldn't have conceived of choosing such a long commitment to a project because there were so many uncertainties about how my interests or career would develop. Now that I have a direction, I can take out my spotting scope and see distant but real possibilities instead of just looking at my immediate surroundings and wondering which way to go. Now I just need to start putting timelines on those landmarks.

*Part of me wants to hold onto this post and continue to polish and revise it but I think I just need to get it out there. Please comment if you can articulate your own experience with this phenomenon (or lack thereof). I think it might help me eventually write more clearly on this topic.
**Clearly, completing a four-year degree is a long timescale by this standard, but it feels much different. Perhaps because as an undergrad the structure of the timescale is defined for you by terms and your options are defined by courses. This kind of long-term planning in grad school is a different kind of animal.