Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My blog has been blogged about!

I checked Google Analytics today and noticed a new referring site. Someone else blogged about my blog! This is an exciting day in the history of Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist. Actually the post was on Saturday but I didn't notice until today. Still, I think this made my day today.

The blogger that noticed me is Kent author of Uncommon Ground. In his post he responded to my question from last week's post about having part of your thesis that has little to do with the rest of it. Thanks for your comments, Kent!

Research proposal development

Today I had another brief meeting with Herb to go over my NSF research proposal again.
He is incredibly good at pointing out conceptual or structural errors in a proposal and how questions should be framed. It's like once he mentions how something should be rearranged I think to myself, "Why didn't I see that? I knew that part was awkward." So now I'm finishing up version 4 of my proposal with the focus on the overarching research question instead of the system. He gave me some pointers about this last time, but I didn't quite get it. Now it seems so much clearer! I suppose he has the clarity of thought that comes with decades of writing grants and thinking about his area of expertise.

Only one week until this is due! I'm still struggling with the complete reorganization of my personal statement to explain why I want to study what I want to study and how and why I plan to do outreach to the community.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The West Wing is so bad for my homework

It's just so.... amazing! Jon and I started watching it on DVD before going to RFC just around the time the show was ending on TV. We're just now finishing the 7th (and final) season. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's a show about a fictitious Democratic president and his staff.
It makes me laugh, makes me cry, and it makes me hopeful about the future of this country. It also makes me want to not to any work and just sit on the couch all night and watch all 3 DVDs that came today on Netflix. But alas, I have to get some work done on this NSF GRF application.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


I sent another draft of my NSF GRFP research proposal to Herb and Leo today. I think I made some good progress but it's such slow going. I'm also afraid I'm proposing an impossible project. Anyways, my 'm' key started being very sensitive today. I barely have to touch it and it sends out a row of mmmmmmmmm's. It's really annoying when you're writing a lot about things with lots of m's. Mmaybe I should clean the keyboard.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Atlas of Creation

In July I mentioned this creationist book on my blog published by a Muslim from Turkey. Today I actually got to see a copy because someone in our department just received an unsolicited copy. It is even more enormous, glossy, and full of color photos than I imagined. It's much larger than textbook size. This book has a freaking holographic cover (actually, I just googled hologram and it's not a hologram, it one of those things where the image changes when you look at it from a different angle. What's that called?). I can think of some really great uses for it, like school projects and collages (with the strict condition that the text is cut out- photos only).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Would you like a publishable project?

Yesterday in Population Ecology I asked a question about evolution of mammalian body size on islands. Chip (my incredibly intelligent hyper Pop Ecol professor) said, "That's an excellent question, and no one has modeled it. If you want to do this, you'd have a publishable paper. It could be a chapter in your thesis!" Wow. Ok. Exciting, but also a bit intimidating. It would be really cool to do that. However, I don't see it as fitting in very well with the general trend/theme of my research interests at this point. How do you deal with that? Can you have a chapter in your thesis that has nothing (or little) to do with anything else you've done?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Most Expensive Transcript Ever

It is common practice for universities to refuse to release transcripts if you owe them money. This makes sense from the university's perspective for dealing with students who drop out of school with a balance and then want to transfer credits to another institution. In my case, they don't pay me enough (or frequently enough) as a TA to be able to pay several hundred dollars of fees in full at the beginning each semester. I just had to give half of my paycheck (for the fees) back to the university so that they will send a transcript to NSF for my GRFP application. Yikes!

Monday, October 22, 2007


I requested a 25 year old thesis from Scotland on interlibrary loan. It happens to contain heaps of information that would be really helpful for my NSF GRFP application and my research in general. I wasn't sure they were going to be able to find it at all, so I was thrilled to receive notification that it's at the library waiting to be picked up in less than a week.

My excitement withered when the guy at the library handed me a little box with a roll of microform. Today was the first time in my life I've ever used microform. Wow, what an outdated inferior technology. There are two main problems with microform:

1) I can't curl up in bed with it because I have to use a microform reader at the library to read it.
2) It's hard to read because the screen displays a negative image of the original text (black is white and white is black).

I do have the option of printing it- one page at a time, single sided- for 8 cents per page. At 200+ pages, that's about $16 and several hours of my time. Does anyone know of a company that specializes in printing things from microform?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I love Small Friendly College

I promise you this is not the last time you'll hear that if you're a regular reader of this blog. I was back at my Alma Mater this weekend and was reminded once again how grateful I am for my opportunity to spend four formative years in such a wonderful place.

Why do I love SFC? First and foremost, it was the environment I needed to develop into the person I always was but felt I couldn't be in high school. I positively flourished in the small, intentional, academic community at SFC. I met people who had completely unconventional childhoods and education compared to my suburban public school experience. My confidence blossomed in a community of collaborative instead of competitive learning. I was inspired by my classmates who had traveled the world to study abroad and it opened my eyes even further to the diversity of human experiences on our earth. SFC empowers students to work for change in this world. I studied Biology, but I learned at SFC that having a narrow, myopic view of issues my field is insufficient. If I want to see more equality, justice, peace, and sustainable practices then I need to be doing my part every day to make the change happen. I see myself as intimately connected to both the world's problems and solutions.

It's exciting to watch a new, younger student body continue to develop into fascinating, passionate, and articulate life-long learners and leaders. Watching the students makes me think of the song "It Happens Every Day" by Dar Williams. My cousin is a student there now and I hope that when she reaches the end of her time at SFC that she looks back on it with half as much love and gratitude as I do.

SFC is an intense experience of community. Now that I've been out for a few years I know only a handful of current students. The names and faces have changed but the sentiment hasn't. And most of my professors are still there. But I realized when I graduated that I had not only become attached to the people at SFC. I had become attached to the physical place. I loved the way it felt to walk back across campus in the middle of a spring night, the smell of each academic building, the autumn leaves falling on sidewalks, and the first dusting of snow. Never in my life had I been so aware of the changing of the seasons.

Going back this weekend was excellent. I got to enjoy the fall colors, talk to my professors, see friends, and feel the deep sense of peace and purpose that runs through SFC. It brings tears of happiness to my eyes to think about it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Last week my watch battery died and I haven't had a chance to replace it yet. As a result, Population Ecology classes have run extra late this week. The professor doesn't wear a watch and the only person in the class who had one today misinformed the prof about the amount of time he had left so we were really late to our next class. I need to get my watch working again.

In the past few weeks I've fallen behind on the Population Ecology homework. It got harder and I got busier. I'll catch up after I finish the NSF proposal.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Google Analytics detective work

Google Analytics is very cool. I have it on my blog and it lets me see where my visitors come from (country, state, city). It also shows where your blog traffic is coming from, which brings me to my concern.

On October 12, someone supposedly came to this blog (twice) from a Google search for "myreal name blog." This really shouldn't be happening, so I tried Googling "myreal name blog" and I didn't find this blog in the first 17 pages of hits. Whoever you are, could you please email me and explain if/how you got to this blog with that search?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Late night at school

Around 5 pm today when I still hadn't made much headway on a new research proposal topic between classes and teaching I decided that I wasn't going to leave school until I came up with a topic. I didn't have to start writing it, but I had to pick something. I left at 10:30 pm.

I think I might have something now. I hope I do. A few missing pieces came together tonight. Just this week I realized that a lot of literature from West Africa that I hadn't closely considered is highly relevant to my topic. Still, there are lots of things I want the literature or internet to tell me that just can't be answered yet by anything in print. I wrote a few emails to people who have worked in this system asking them some specific questions (I think this is what I would cite as "personal correspondence" in a paper). Mostly I'm asking basic natural history questions that you'd think someone somewhere would've answered. Perhaps they're all answered in that dissertation I'm trying to get from Scotland on interlibrary loan.

I've got to get a draft of this new idea done before I go away for the weekend. Tomorrow might be another late night.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Getting lost in Big Natural History Museum

That's what I did today. Again (did I write about that the first time? I can't remember). But that's not why I went there. I went to look up obscure reference materials in their library and talk to Leo about my project. I still didn't make much headway but I've done a heck of a lot of reading. I was there for 5 hours but I still didn't get to read everything I wanted to. They have lots of great books and literature that UBC lacks.

I had to get back to school for a meeting so I was leaving the museum in a bit of a hurry. I tried to pay attention to which stairwell I used when I went in today and I thought I used the same one going out until I found myself in the wrong exhibit. Normally it's kind of cool to get lost in a museum because you can discover new places but I was in a hurry. I ended up in the African mammals section, which is where I am conceptually but not where I wanted to be physically at that moment when I had to be leaving quickly. Thankfully I guessed correctly and made it out without any wrong turns.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Ok, it's actually Saturday morning now but you know what I mean. Today was busy. I picked up our first box of produce from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It was kind of like opening a present when I finally got to go through the box after work because we got all different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Anyways, I had to pick that up before going to school to supervise an exam. Oh and I also made scones for lab meeting before I picked up the produce box. I figured it would be nice for the people who took the trouble to read my essays if I made them something to eat. At least it couldn't hurt.

Today during lab meeting everyone gave me feedback on my NSF GRFP proposal. I had expected them to be much harsher. I clearly have a lot to improve in my essays but they gave useful criticism. Interestingly, they had a lot more to say than I thought they would about my previous research. They said I needed to be much more positive in the way I present everything that I've done, even the things that didn't work. This was a weakness in my essay I hadn't even noticed. Also, it became apparent to me that I need to completely rewrite my personal statement again. Right now it's an excellent statement of why I want to teach at the college level and do outreach, but it's a terrible statement of why I want to do the proposed research and how it will help society. It's a daunting task since I spent all of last Saturday coming up with this new version. Interestingly, they loved last year's introduction but thought this year's was terribly bland. This is why we have other people read our proposals.

Herb complimented my writing a few times during the discussion which was both flattering and encouraging. He said I write well but I need to be writing the right things (i.e. not a descriptive narrow-focus plan of research like I wrote last year). My goal for next Thursday is to have a new plan of research to review with Herb. Once I have my research plan in place, then I'll rewrite my research experience and personal statement to fit the plan. Last week I tried approaching it from the other way around. I'm meeting with Leo at Big Natural History Museum next week to talk about my proposal so I've got a lot of work to do this weekend. Time to call it a night.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It feels like progress

This week has been really busy for me. I felt like crap and had a headache all day yesterday. On Monday I was working and thinking like mad about my research proposal but I also had to finish an annotated bibliography that was due on Tuesday. I had some fruitful dialog over email with Leo about my project, and then finally today I was able to talk to Herb about my research. We didn't have a very long conversation, but it put me at ease about my preparation for the lab meeting this week where everyone will be commenting on my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Proposal from last year and my new one for this year. I don't have a new research proposal yet but Herb didn't seem to think that was a problem. Whew.

Herb does think that my goal to be primarily a teaching professor is a strike against me for NSF fellowships. I disagree. They put a lot of emphasis on addressing the "Broader Impacts"
of your research and career goals throughout the application. Herb says that that's relatively new for NSF and that old habits die hard. I think that is more likely to be true for NSF grants in general but I don't think this is the case for the GRFP. Certainly the research proposed has to be well thought out and compelling (which mine wasn't last year), but they really want to know what you're going to do with your research to benefit society and engage under represented groups in science. Even though we apparently disagree about how NSF reviewers will weight my career goals, Herb has a lot of experience finding the right way to frame things so they will be most attractive to reviewers so I know his feedback is going to be a boon to my application this year.

I got my hands on a couple of relatively obscure books via interlibrary loan that contain about 75% of what's known about the critters I want to study. I wish I'd gotten these a long time ago! It has been really exciting to read about them. One book also has awesome pencil drawings that inspire me to do more drawing. These books have been on my wishlist for months but I just haven't been able to justify buying them because they're relatively expensive. At least I have them now for a few months. I love books :-)

So, now that I've gotten my NSF drafts to everyone in Herb's lab, made some mental progress on my research ideas, and finished teaching for the week I feel some relief. I think there's some West Wing to be watched tonight...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Imagine that!

A biology class where you take students OUTSIDE? I really had to try hard to resist rolling my eyes at half of the intro bio TAs who seemed appalled and frightened when they were told to take their college students outside for 10 minutes this week during lab. All they have to do is show the students some leaves of different shapes (palmately compound, pinnately compound, simple, etc). I'm looking forward to it. All of my practice with K-5th graders at Mid-Atlantic Field Station should really come in handy.

Teaching here makes me so thankful that I went to a college where the people teaching my classes care about teaching and where biology classes go outside all the time.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Wild crows using tools

We humans have known for a long time now that Corvids (ravens, crows, jays) are smart. They can talk, mimic noises, count, and use tools. But just recently some scientists figured out how to capture their tool use in the wild on camera. Check it out- it's an interesting perspective.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Herb's lab meetings

We usually meet once a week to discuss and critique papers. So far all of the papers we've read have been draft manuscripts for people in the lab. I'm learning that I have to sharpen my critiquing skills. I haven't had nearly as much constructive criticism for the manuscripts as Herb or the other more experienced lab members. Things that I thought were pretty good needed "major work."

Next week is my turn, which is a little bit nerve racking. I'll be the first of Herb's new cohort to have something on the table. We'll be discussing my application for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program which is due in about a month. I was going to take my turn in two weeks but I'll actually be back at Small Friendly College so I got bumped up to next week. I'm glad that I'll be getting feedback but I have a LOT of work to do in the next few days to get ready for this. I applied last year so I'm not starting completely from scratch but I don't have much of a clue right now what this year's research proposal will be about (last year's obviously didn't cut it or I wouldn't be applying again). I'm planning to spend part of tonight and most of tomorrow working on it.

On Monday I need to talk to Herb about my research ideas. So far we've only talked about other things (politics, Jon's job, people we know, Small Friendly College because he went there too...). It's time to talk about my research.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

the agony of grading

Oh boy. In my last post I lamented the poor performance of some of my students. Well, for some reason, my second lab section of the week is even worse. I can't figure out why my first lab section does better on reports. They're my guinea pigs and I make mistakes with them. Then I go into my second section practiced and generally give better explanations and directions. Why are they doing worse? It's like my second section has a collective brain fart for three hours. I graded their labs last night and they were awful. So awful that I got completely stressed out by it. Trends are starting to appear and some people are consistently missing the big pictures, but the only people coming to me for help are the ones who are already doing ok.

This morning I lectured my second lab about how no one is going to hold their hand anymore and they need to see me if they have questions and need help. I laid the smackdown on the people who consistently come in late. I also had to talk to a few people about copying answers and turning in identical graphs. I hope what I said was effective. I think that in general my students respect me and can tell that I want to help them. I know that for some of these kids I'm the only shot at getting them to like biology and see how it relates to their lives. Maybe they'll even get their act together enough to pass the class.

Monday, October 1, 2007

My students

I like them. But in general they aren't doing as well in lab as I want them to. It pains me to grade some of their lab reports. Mostly they're just sloppy and careless in their answers and neglect to read and answer the questions thoroughly. But often it's obvious from their answers that they don't "get it." I feel like some of their not getting it is my responsibility, but I can only explain or say something so many times. I can't hold their hands. I've told them repeatedly to come see me during office hours or make an appointment with me if they have a question- but they have to know what they don't know.

It is really discouraging to me to listen to some of the other TAs and instructors talk about the students. Today I walked out of the room as someone said, "They just get dumber and dumber every year!" This kind of talk is going to get these kids nowhere fast. I don't think any of my students are dumb. Not one. Unfocused? Lacking study skills? Careless? Sloppy? Disinterested? Yes. But not lacking in intelligence to understand the concepts in this class. I see my responsibility as their TA to set up the framework for the concepts and to inspire them to care about this class (and biology in general). The deficiencies that students arrive with are a result of a poor educational system that fails to properly prepare students in math, science, and writing. They need to understand that just because they HAVEN'T learned it doesn't mean they CAN'T learn it.