Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 in review

2007 was a big year because so many different things happened, all good. I started 2007 with Jon in Remote Foreign Country. While we were there I was accepted to University of Big City. We returned to the US in May, both excited to come home and reluctant to leave RFC where we had made so many new friends. There was a lot for me to look forward to in the US with my summer plans and beginning graduate school.

Jon and I spent some time geographically separated catching up with our families when we got back. I did a workshop in the southwest and then spent the rest of my summer at a field station going to EcoMath Camp. Since I took a few years off between undergrad and graduate school, this program did a great job of getting me back into school mode. Can you believe I showed up to class on the first day without a notebook?!?! It hadn't crossed my mind to bring a notebook! I didn't even pack one! Thankfully, the professors and other students in this program were excellent and I had a fantastic summer. I learned a tremendous amount about theoretical ecology and it gave me more confidence going into my graduate program.

Moving to Big City
was exciting. We looked at 16 or 17 apartments in 3 days and snagged a great one very close to University of Big City (thank you craigslist). In the midst of apartment hunting and moving we spent a weekend with several of our friends from Small Friendly College which is always awesome. I met Herb for the first time and reintroduced myself to Leo in person. I think my first impressions of graduate school have held true.

Overall I had a great first semester. Aside from Ethics class, I loved my classes (Population Ecology and a required class) and I had a good time teaching (a fair amount of frustration too). The hardest part about this semester was money. It took Jon a while to find a job and I only get paid once a month. The moving expenses were really the worst. Hopefully things will be easier in 2008.

I have no doubt I am in the right place at this point in my life. I felt the same way after my first semester at SFC even though things didn't work out immediately. This was the right time for me to go back to school and I feel well prepared by SFC, my experiences at Mid-Atlantic Field Station and RFC. I look forward to 2008 and I'll post soon about that.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Christmas time birthday

FemaleScienceProfessor inspired me to write about this since she also has a Christmas time birthday. Christmas and my birthday are so intertwined that I usually can't recall which gifts I received for my birthday and which I received for Christmas. When I was a kid, I loved having a Christmas time birthday because I got to celebrate with my extended family. We would have my birthday at lunch and Christmas at dinner, or vice versa. On my sixteenth birthday I sadly realized that my extended family did not gather to celebrate my birthday, as I had deluded myself into thinking for the first 16 years of my life. It really was all about Christmas. Everyone sang happy birthday to me, I blew out the candles on my angelfood cake (which I had nearly every year to accommodate my diabetic cousin), everyone threw my gifts at me, and then all my cousins got up and left the kids table and none of the adults noticed that I was sitting there with a cake and unopened presents. I wasn't as excited about celebrating with my extended family after that. Still, I think I have celebrated at least 20 of my birthdays with them.

On the positive side, I know I received more birthday gifts from my extended family because they couldn't forget about it. My family rarely sent birthday gifts to my cousins, but I received birthday gifts from each aunt and uncle on my dad's side of the family until just a few years ago.

As a kid the biggest drawback I saw was that I only received presents at one time of the year. My Christmas and birthday gifts were purchased at the same time so I didn't ever get to ask for something for my birthday that I didn't receive for Christmas. This wasn't such a big deal once I had a job and purchasing power, but as a kid without much money to buy things for myself I saw this once-a-year gift receiving as a major drawback. One year I had a half-birthday party so I got to celebrate in June instead of December. When I was in high school we started celebrating my birthday about a month after my real birthday so that it was separated from the Christmas hype.

At this point in my life it seems to be a wash. I think some of my friends remember my birthday precisely because it's so close to Christmas, whereas they might forget it if it weren't. Sometimes I receive combo gifts from friends but I don't mind since I might not otherwise receive anything. My family has always been good about not combining gifts and Jon has given me some awesome birthday gifts. I don't really mind my Christmas time birthday. It's a great topic of conversation for bonding with other Christmas time birthday babies.

still on the road

Jon and I are still in Midwestern City with my family. I've thought of about 1000 things to blog about so there will probably be several posts in January once we get home. Possible titles include:

My Christmas-time birthday
What exactly is an ecologist, anyways?
Why I want to be an ecologist
2007 in review
Looking ahead to 2008
Ecological Footprints

Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

is it finished yet?

After a somewhat overwhelming day I devoted the evening to finishing my National Geographic pre-application. I just need to read over it once more before sending it and I'm waiting for approval from a potential collaborator. I really should have contacted potential collaborators on this one ages ago but for some reason I kept putting it off. I guess it feels odd to me to contact someone you've never met to say, "Hi, I'm submitting a pre-application for a grant to fund a project that I'm not even sure will work. Any chance you want to collaborate with me on it?" I actually pitched it better than that but it feels awkward when this project is still in the conceptual stages.

Today we searched Jon's mom's basement for the missing Christmas tree ornaments without success. I'm really sad about this because it contained my stocking and my absolute favorite Christmas tree ornaments from childhood. The basement was our best hope so I think I'm resigned to accepting that I won't ever see them again :-(

We left Big City on Thursday last week and I was running/biking around campus getting signatures and turning in forms until 30 minutes before we left for Capital City where Jon's family lives. Next we're going to Midwestern City to see my family, and I will celebrate my birthday there :-) Sometime soon I'll do a post about having a Christmastime birthday (which has absolutely nothing to do with being a scientist, but that's ok since it's Christmas and I need to stop thinking about work for a while).

Thursday, December 20, 2007

how people find my blog

I have Google Analytics on my blog which collects data on where my readers come from and how they get here. I find this collection of data fascinating. I can look at a map of the world, a country, or a particular state to see where most of my visitors are from. Really it's not exactly where you're from, it's where your internet service provider is from which is often different from where you are. I can view my daily traffic over time and see which other sites have linked to my blog and how many people have come to my blog via theirs.

One of the most interesting things for me is the search terms that lead people to my blog and how much time people spend on my site. I can tell that some of you (but I have no idea who) consistently find my blog my Googling 'aspiring ecologist.' Many new visitors (=new IP addresses I think) have found my blog by Googling for various things related to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). Another common search category is related to my post about plastic trash in the ocean. Honestly I'm really surprised that so many people come to my blog because of that post. Some other search strings have something to do with ecology or ecologists.

My favorite search string that led someone to my blog is 'find field biologist boyfriend'. LOL! I dated another biologist (a cute bird nerd- aka ornithologist) in college for a minute but ended up with philosopher Jon instead. Good luck to my possible reader out there looking for a field biologist boyfriend!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I got my computer back!

My computer has a new brain stem but hopefully the problems have been fixed. Now I have to spend several hours getting everything back the way I like it (programs in the dock, desktop pictures, program preferences, all that jazz). Considering that it was brought in on Friday afternoon, I'm pleased with the turnaround time.

Population Ecology- DONE!

I'm finished! I had two homework problems to finish up today and Chip helped me through the road blocks. Then we started talking about Survivor and he went off on a tangent about how slime molds meeting to reproduce are playing their own game of genetic survivor. Chip's a fascinating person.

Wow, I'm so relieved to have all of my Population Ecology work done. I hope he doesn't return any of it for corrections (he said he would).

Monday, December 17, 2007

almost done

Today I finished the final for Population Ecology! I spent the weekend pondering how I was supposed to solve a particularly ugly quadratic equation and Chip cheerily informed me today that I didn't have to do that and I basically had the answer already.

I'm not finished with Pop Ecol yet though because I still have two homework assignments to complete. There are still a handful of us working on Pop Ecol homework or final, but the people who really understand it (including Chip) are gone for the day so it's a bit of the blind leading the blind over there. I'll have to wait until tomorrow for someone to answer my questions. So, no celebration yet but I made a lot of progress today.

Today I also gave authorization for my computer's hard drive to be erased. Eek! The important stuff is all backed up but it still makes me anxious.

It's pretty quiet around here since most people have left for break. Tomorrow I'm going to finish my Pop Ecol homework, submit a grant and a pre-application, and submit a bunch of paperwork to the university. Then everything else is much less time sensitive.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

done and to do

I'm very close to finishing my take home final for Population Ecology, but I'm stuck on a nasty quadratic equation. Surely it must simplify to something more beautiful. I'll have to get help from my classmates on this one. The messiness of it makes me think I made a mistake in an earlier step.

I submitted my first of two grants for this month late on Thursday night. On Friday, Jon took my computer to be repaired so I'm computerless for the next few days. Ok, obviously I'm not computerless if I'm blogging. Jon and I are sharing his computer. We shared his labtop for the whole time in RFC but we both use our computers a lot and really prefer to have our own. I felt sort of naked without my computer at school on Friday. Weird, huh? Thankfully I didn't need it much since mostly I was doing algebra by hand for Pop Ecol.

My goal was to finish the exam Friday afternoon, but I didn't quite get it done because I had to finish getting ready for the party we had last night. I had a great time and I think it was a success. Many of the guests didn't know each other but everyone talked to someone new. I was slightly worried at the beginning when the conversation was centered around Pop Ecol and someone said (in all seriousness), "If you thought that quadratic equation was fun, wait until you see the quartic equation I'm working on for my modeling project!" Thankfully the scope of conversation broadened (although at one point, if you didn't want to be in the room discussing politics you could go to the room discussing religion...). Last night probably wasn't the best time for a party considering everything I have going on but I had a blast.

Reflections on teaching at a big school

I think I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I do not envy my undergrads in intro biology. The lecturer leaves a lot to be desired- he has poor presentation skills, his lectures are hard to take notes on, and his exams are difficult to study for. All of the exams (which comprise about 4/5 of their grade) are multiple choice, and they are hard enough that I would have to study for several hours to get an A on the exams (other than the one about plants). They have to take the exams in a crowded lecture hall with uncomfortable seats and they have 50 minutes. There appear to be few if any concessions for students that require additional time for test taking.

I decided to go back and look at my exams from college to see if they were that difficult. I kept nearly all of my biology (and chemistry) exams and notes and they are now in my office. It was fun to look back at my old exams and see what I got wrong. But I have no idea how to decide if my exams were easier or harder, because they were completely different. I didn't take a single scantron exam in college so my exams were mostly short answer and drawing (compounds, structures, life cycles, etc). The advantage of something that isn't multiple choice is that you can get partial credit. There's no partial credit for C if the answer is A.

The grades for all of my students have been submitted. One of my lab sections did pretty well. The other lab section didn't. Disappointingly, many of my students in the second section got D's and F's. This is especially sad for me since I know that some of those students were trying (albeit not hard enough). I am sad for them because obviously they don't have effective study and/or time management skills. At least three of the students who ultimately got a D or F came to meet with me individually. Two of them hung around at the end of the last lab and told me how much they learned and how much they enjoyed having me as a TA. They did ok in lab but performed terribly on the exams (consistently 40-50%). Why? I don't know.

I find it interesting that my second lab of the week was the one with more underperforming students. I think this is just random. I was definitely a better teacher for my second lab of the week because I made my mistakes with the first lab. For this reason I don't think the poor performance of students in my second lab is my fault. Many of them started this class at a disadvantage (such no chemistry in high school, or ever) and I think I did the best I could with what I had to work with. I hope they are all able to find something they love and at which they excel, and at the very least I hope they now have a greater appreciation for how biology provides a framework for understanding our lives and the world around us.

During the last lab students filled out course evaluations for the lecturer and for me. I asked the lab instructor when we will get the results of our evaluations and he said, "oh, probably in February." What? That hardly helps at all for my teaching approach for the beginning of next semester. If a school really wants teachers to take evaluations seriously then they should get them back to them in a timely manner so they can use them to improve their teaching. Next semester I am DEFINITELY doing my own mid-semester evaluations with my students since the university feedback system seems useless.

I wish that big research universities rewarded professors for excellent teaching and mentoring. They like to give it lip service, but really publications and grants are much more important. The NY Times recently had an article about the decline in tenure-track jobs as universities put more teaching jobs in adjunct positions to save money because they can pay them less. I'm very disappointed by this trend and this is why I want to teach at an institution that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to undergraduate education.

It's a small academic world

When I was searching for grad schools, I was interested in studying critters in a particular area. I emailed A who had published on the topic and he told me to contact Leo. I contacted Leo who told me to contact Herb, which is how I ended up where I am now. This fall I contacted B because I thought she could be a potential collaborator. B told me she's working on a different project now but I should really contact A (not knowing I already had). Later I wrote to C, a colleague of Herb's, for advice and she said, "You should contact B- she is doing similar things." If you didn't follow all of the interactions, the gist is that I'm not getting many new contacts in this area because I've already talked to all 4 of them.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

hoops and red tape

Yikes, I severely underestimated the bureaucratic mess involved in submitting a $5000 grant to work with vertebrate animals. Thankfully these grants don't require official institutional approval at this stage or I'd be SOL since the deadlines are too soon to get it. I have to submit some form for each grant I apply for, and the number from that form has to be used on the forms I submit to the animal care committee. My animal care protocol must be pending to submit a grant and must be approved before I can receive or use a grant.

I think it is important that we have procedures and approval for animal use in research, but these protocols are mostly designed for people working with lab rats and mice. From what I gather the review panels are a bit baffled by field work proposals. I did speak to a very helpful woman from that office who gave me some pointers and told me to look at Herb's old proposals that are similar and use them as a template for my proposal.

I had no idea I would be spending so much time today filling out forms. The beginning of my break (when I finish everything- grants, homework, take home final, forms...) is steadily being pushed closer and closer to Christmas...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What (not) to write to potential graduate advisors

Female Science Professor did a great post today with generic samples of emails she receives from interested prospective graduate students. If you are interested in going to grad school, don't write emails that fall in the first two categories. It might take you a really long time to go through and read about someone's research and write them a thoughtful email, but that's really what they're looking for. If you are estimating how much time it will take you to research and make inquiries about grad school, you should double or triple that amount of time and it will be closer to accurate. It felt like a significant part-time job for me for about 2 months, and that was even before I really started doing the applications.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

take home final= insanely long final

The take home final Chip has given us for Population Ecology is insane. It has 10 problems and today I spent 5 hours working on one of them and I didn't even finish. I think this final will end up taking everyone at least 30-40 hours to complete. On top of this, I still have to finish 5 different homeworks which will take at least 1-2 hours each. Oh, did I mention I have this grant due on Friday when I have to part with my laptop and prepare for a party which I not-so-wisely decided to have on Friday? AHHHHHHHHHHH!!! There's no way I'm going to get everything done for Pop Ecol by Friday like I'd hoped.

eek! Conflicting advice from advisors

I must say that I really like my advisors but they are driving me a bit crazy right now. Herb is telling me to focus my grant proposal, and Leo is telling me to broaden it to include a whole different guild of critters! I'm going with Herb's advice on this one but I hope it doesn't offend Leo.

Monday, December 10, 2007

feeling unprepared

The end of this semester really wouldn't be too bad except for these two grant applications I have to finish by Friday when I must relinquish my iBook to AppleCare for a few days to fix some problems before my AppleCare expires. I am finished with teaching, grading, attending classes, papers, and presentations. I still have a TON of homework to do for Population Ecology but it's these grants I'm worried about. I'm agonizing over the budget and especially the experimental design. Tomorrow I'm having a meeting with Herb to discuss my project and I hope it will help. I feel like I'm not making quick progress because I don't have clarity about my project. There are so many things up in the air. I don't even know for sure where I'll be doing field work this summer. Ai!

On the bright side, I am going to send my review paper to Taxonomically Specific Journal after I get this other stuff finished.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Our Christmas Tree

We found a tree while we were out with our friends who have a car. Hooray! I only had to ask about 10 people if they knew where we could find a nearby Christmas tree lot.

We got the tree up without a problem, but we're having decorating issues. Somehow we have misplaced the one little box that must have contained all of our Christmas tree decorations. We are at a complete loss as to its whereabouts. It would have been almost 2 years since we packed them up so I don't even remember what the box should look like. Since then we've moved it twice, and I really don't think we ever had it in Big City. Our best hope is that we somehow left it in Jon's mom's basement where we stored our things while we were in RFC. Oh, the woes of a transient twenty-something.

We have a box full of Christmas misc including lights, boxes, and some ribbons so we were able to light the tree and decorate it in the minimalist style that Jon prefers anyways. We didn't have that many decorations in the other box, but it did contain all of my favorite ornaments from childhood and the ornaments I made for our tree two years ago from walnuts and pine cones. For the time being I made ornaments out of the pine cones that fell out of the tree.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Finding a Christmas tree in Big City

I had no idea it would be this difficult. We figured there would be plenty of Christmas tree lots popping up in the empty neighborhood blocks but we have yet to see one. Internet searches reveal surprisingly few Christmas tree lots, and absolutely none which are within walking distance. Our plan was to bike to a nearby lot and bungee the tree to one of our bikes and walk home with it. Without a car we are severely limited in our Christmas tree options (do we have ANY?). Can you take a Christmas tree on the bus? Do you have to pay a fare for it? Will the bus driver be mean to you about it and insist that large autotrophic passengers are not allowed?

Luckily, we have a plan. One of my friends from school has a car and we've convinced him and his girlfriend to go Christmas tree shopping with us tomorrow. Yay! Alas, I still can't find a Christmas tree lot on this side of the city. I imagine they are there but they aren't online so I won't know they exist until I drive past them. I just want to find an inexpensive tree that will hold its needles for the next two weeks.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Biofuels aren't a silver bullet

I've been reading a great blog called Low-Input, High-Diversity Biofuels and today there was a link to an article by a New Zealander about the imperative of understand what biofuels will and won't do at national, regional, and world-wide levels. Ecologists should really be paying attention to this. Check it out and make some noise. I'd rather put more money into energy efficient technology and wind and solar power than subsidize agribusiness and oil companies.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Is it only Wednesday?

It is only Wednesday but a lot has happened this week. My mom and sister came to visit on Sunday so we used their car to do a HUGE (>$200) grocery shopping trip and drop off recycling. The timing for their visit was perfect and we had a good (but short) visit.

I spent almost all of Monday agonizing over a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation for Tuesday. I realized it has been a long time since I have done a strictly timed PP presentation. I'd forgotten how long it takes to prepare for 10 stinkin' minutes! I was seriously freaking myself out about it on Monday night after I did a terrible runthrough for Jon where I couldn't could find the words concisely. Then I sat down and had a little mental chat for myself where I said to myself, Karina, every week you stand in front of 50 kids and talk about stuff you don't know nearly as much about for 40+ minutes. Have confidence that you will find the words and you will. Do not be intimidated by your audience! STOP FREAKING OUT! So I did. My presentation was fine. I'm glad to have that finished.

On Tuesday I talked to Herb about my schedule for next semester and I proposed Leo's idea of me going to Neotropical Field Site this summer with Herb instead of African Field Site. Herb seemed to think the idea was definitely worth considering but we'll have to play it by ear. His grant money will be really stretched to pay station fees and get people there so there won't be any money for stipends (I wasn't counting on it). Really there are still so many things up in the air, but it is good to know that I have options. It would make my life 1000 times easier if I get the NSF GRF. Herb also thinks I should try to publish my review paper in Taxonomically Specific Journal so I'll be pursuing that soon.

Tuesday night I graded about 90 lab reports. Ai! I had to grade two week's worth of labs for my students. I didn't write as many comments or read as closely as usual because most of the students won't even come to pick up their labs. Today one of my students asked me to write a letter of recommendation for a graduate program she's applying to. I suppose this will be the first of many reference letters I write. I still need to look at the information about this letter to make sure I really can write about this student. I'm somewhat flattered to have been asked since I'm just her TA, but then again there really isn't anyone else from this course who could write a letter for her.

Today I went to Big Natural History Museum to talk to Leo more and replace my access badge which they accidentally canceled a few weeks ago, thus prohibiting my access to the staff area.
I really enjoy talking to Leo because it is obvious that he loves his job. He loves doing fieldwork in Africa, loves leading trips for the museum, loves interacting with non-scientists in his work, and loves the collections. He's always showing me random photos, books, or specimens. We talk about a lot more than just my research. I was bit disorganized today because I usually come with a long list of questions for him but not today so I kept forgetting what I wanted to talk to him about.

While talking about my research with Leo, we uncovered a question about my system which prompted an email to a scientist who works at African Field Site. She replied right away with news I definitely didn't want to hear: in the 2+ decades she has been working there, she recalls the tree I want to study fruiting only two or three times. Eek! But as Leo pointed out, I haven't a single hour of fieldwork invested in this project so I shouldn't despair. There's no reason why I can't find another tree to work with. And all hope isn't lost on this one yet since this person isn't a tree expert.

Before the semester ends I have to do a LOT of homework for Chip's class (Pop Ecol), submit an university travel assistance application for summer fieldwork, submit a grant proposal, and submit a National Geographic Young Explorers grant proposal. I'm worried that these proposals won't be spectacular but I think I have to give them a shot because these particular opportunities come once a year or never again. On top of that I have to prepare to part with my computer for a while sometime in the next month because I have to send it away for a minor repair before my AppleCare expires. Never a dull moment.