Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in review

I've always enjoyed sitting down at the end of a calendar year and reflecting on what the passing year brought and what the new year may bring. This has been an unforgettable year.

The trend of events in 2009 was very similar to 2008- the beginning of the year brought tragedies but then many wonderful things happened. I am thankful that there have been many uplifting events this year to thwart despair. If I had to pick a theme for 2009, it would be self-context. I didn't go into 2009 expecting to find new revelations about my work habits and hurdles in the field, nor could I have possibly imagined the tremendous losses in my family and my personal struggles accompanying their deaths. I have been seeing a great therapist this fall to help me unravel the interconnected themes of sisterhood, family, death, regret, religion, self-esteem, loss, health, and communication. I have come to see my strengths and weaknesses in a much deeper context of past experiences and family dynamics, and I think these realizations (and so many others) will help me overcome personal and professional challenges.

Here's a brief recap of 2009:
January- Jon and I went to Obama's inauguration and I prepared for prelims.
February- My grandmother passed away after a difficult surgery, followed immediately, independently, and unexpectedly by my younger sister's death the next day due to pulmonary thrombosis resulting from misdiagnosed blood clots. That pretty much says it all. February was the worst month of my life.
March- I passed my prelims!
April- I received the graduate research fellowship, and Jon and I got married!
May- I went to Ukenzagapia for my first real field season.
June- Jon came to visit me in Ukenzagapia.
August- I returned from Ukenzagapia.
October- I went to a conference, we visited family in Canada, saw tons of friends who came into town for my best friend's wedding, and went back to Small Friendly College.
November & December- Pretty uneventful but traveled a lot and saw lots of family at the holidays.

Since self-context wasn't exactly on my list of goals for 2009, I'd like to address some of the ones that were.

Academic goals:
1) Prelims!  DONE!
2) Finally publish the damn review paper. NOPE. Maybe 2010...
3) Collect and analyze data from my first field season. I got the 'collect' part done but not the analysis.

4) Get the friggin' NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. DONE! Thank God!
5) Continue to seek opportunities to communicate my research to non-scientists. Not really. I did a poor job of this in 2009. I need to think strategically about how to do this in 2010.

Even though I wasn't able to get that review sent out for publication or analyze my data, I am feeling pretty good about my progress. I didn't teach at all this year but did write letters of recommendation for a fantastic former student and it has been a joy to see her interest in research develop, even though it is an entirely different field of biology. I have a project underway in Ukenzagapia and several possibilities for doable projects in the field over the next two years. I submitted a big grant (still waiting to hear) and got a fellowship and two other small grants to fund my research. I am about one day of work away from submitting a short note based on observations from my first field season, which will be my first publication from grad school. I'm finished with all of the classes I have to take, and mostly finished with my interdisciplinary group project. Soon I'll return to Ukenzagapia for my next field season. Not bad.

Personal goals:
1) Exercise regularly and frequently. Could've been worse. I did well in the spring, burned a lot of calories in the field, but not this past fall. I can do better.

2) Contribute to my IRA. Pretty good. Not as much as I'd like, but we do contribute a fixed percent of Jon's income now now which I like.
3) Make monthly contributions to Small Friendly College and small monthly donations to public radio. DONE! This makes me happy.
4) Get some of the kids in our lives (cousins, nieces, nephews) to visit us in Big City. DONE! Hopefully we'll have more kid visitors in 2010.
5) Go dancing at least once per month. NOPE. Not even close.
6) Foster more discussion on this blog. Not really, but my readership has grown steadily (if slowly).

So much has happened in my personal life this year! Since I already mentioned the difficult things above, I'm not going to talk more about those here. 2009 was a fantastic year for seeing friends and family. According to our guest book, we had 51 different people stay at our apartment on at least 125 different nights (a month of that was while Jon was in Ukenzagapia), including two different grad students and a family of three who were subletters at different times. Not only did we get friends and family to come see us in Big City, we traveled a lot this year (especially for weddings- including our own). Married life for us has so far been very much like our unmarried life, which is to say that it's great :-)

I'm thankful that we didn't move this year. For the first time in 10 years, neither of us moved a significant portion of our belongings! That does mean that we have acquired a fair amount of stuff we don't need that we need to creatively rid ourselves of in January. When I'm actually in Big City, I have greatly enjoyed taking care of my houseplants, container gardening outside on our balcony, working in the community garden, cooking the fruits of my labor, entertaining friends and family, and deciding how to incorporate new art (like our marriage certificate) and furniture that Jon builds into our apartment. We love where we live and hope that we don't have to move again until we leave Big City when I finish my Ph.D.

I love blogging, and have found the blog to be a great way for me to process and share my life experiences. Thank you to all of my readers for sharing in it.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Oh Christmastime

Like FSP, I also have a Christmastime birthday. For years I loved this because the timing was such that I always got to celebrate my birthday with my cousins. However, on my 16th birthday I finally realized that they were really all there just for Christmas, not my birthday. Since then I've been ambivalent. Anyways.

In the past 10 days we have:
-Had a big party
-Went to another big party
-Narrowly avoid major weather-related travel delays
-Had our teeth cleaned by Jon's dentist brother
-Drove all over Jon's Hometown region with his mom's car (thanks!)
-Celebrated with Jon's family
-Flew to see my family
-Celebrated my birthday
-Celebrated Christmas and my birthday with my extended family
-Celebrated again with other extended family

And we're not home yet. Christmastime has always meant a lot of traveling for me, but this year it really feels like a lot. I was able to get some work done in Jon's hometown but I'm currently intimidated by my inbox filled with emails from Sam about the paper I desperately want to send out by Dec. 31, and many more emails from my committee about scheduling my meeting for January. I guess I need to start thinking about that again if it's going to happen. We're so close, it's just small changes, but still...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just buy the nicer one

My interdisciplinary cohort has been plagued this semester by trying to save money. First we tried to buy tweezers. Someone with considerable experience told us to buy reverse-action tweezers that were about $50 each. We decided to find cheaper alternative reverse-action tweezers and buy a few nicer (~$10) fine tweezers. Somehow the nice normal tweezers never got ordered (I think I was the only one who thought they were important to have) and we went through THREE DIFFERENT KINDS of CRAPPY reverse-action tweezers. Some of you who know me in real life may know that I'm a bit of a penny pincher, but in the case of the tweezers I advocated spending a little more to get some good ones because I know that working with crappy tweezers is, well, crappy. For as much as we spent on all of those crappy tweezers (not to mention the time we wasted returning them), we should've just bought a couple of $50 pairs and some of the $10 ones I wanted.

This week we had a similar ordeal. Way back at the beginning of our project several months ago, we ordered a piece of electronic equipment that will make our data entry go much more quickly. This week we finally sat down to figure out how to use it. Guess what? We bought the cheapest one* out there and isn't sophisticated enough to work with the system we're using. It isn't worth it to return the one we have (15% restocking fee), and the least expensive ones that do what we need are $150-200. Even worse, we can't get it this week so that delays part of our data entry until 2010.

This unfortunate mistake means that we won't completely finish our part of the raw data processing in 2009 like I hoped. However, we should be able to do everything except the part that requires the thing we don't have, which is quite a lot. I guess I can handle that.

These events have reminded me that for my own fieldwork it is worthwhile to get at least two of each of the best equipment I can afford so that it is less likely to fail me where I can't possibly replace it and in the event it does break or I lose it, I'll have a backup.

*I had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to buy the high-tech piece of crap because I was in Ukenzagapia when they ordered that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A short list of why I love [working in] museums

When I visit BNHM for a change of working scene about once a week, good things nearly always come of it. I'm going to sum up these good things with a list of bullets of why I love working in museums.
  •  Meeting other scientists. They're always coming to see the collections. Last week I met a former grad student from my department who now teaches at a small liberal arts college (aka SLAC). I'd heard about her from Herb and Leo since that is my aspiration as well, and it was great to finally meet her. Bonus: she also studies critters so we talked about that too.
  • Weird shit. Even relatively normal natural history museums have all kinds of weird things in their collections. Sometimes I get to see them.
  • Books. Boy do they have a lot of books- old literature especially. Very useful stuff. Sometimes amusing. Today I stumbled across this funny* little excerpt from a note entitled Don Rosevear- polymath in the journal Nigerian Field, 1978, vol. 43(2): 49.  
 "...At the British Museum, Rosevear introduced a new technique, which deserves to carry his name for all time, to mammalian taxonomy that involved the use of soap, sponge, and water. By the judicious application of this technique many species and subspecies of the hedgehogs of West Africa were reduced to synonymy by the removal of coloured soils in which they had habitually burrowed."
  • Seriously, though. It's been incredibly useful for me to have access to the library to find older literature that just isn't online. It's essential for this note I'm writing with Sam.
  • I feel smarter just from sitting in an office surrounded by so many natural historians, collections, and books. Yep, that's right, I went and did what I normally do in my office at UBC, but today I did it in a windowless cavern at Big Natural History Museum. But I was next to a whale skull.

 *Maybe I'm the only person that thinks this is funny, but I hope not.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Gift recommendation help?

My brother in law is looking for a "marine biology kit" for a ten year old. My go-to place for all nature-related book/kits/supplies is Acorn Naturalists. I love Acorn Naturalists. It's like someone took everything that I think is awesome and put it all in one place.

Anywho, a marine biology kit is a tough one. I couldn't find one from AN that wasn't designed for a classroom, which makes me think it might not exist. Readers (I'm especially asking working through the blue and my friend whose grad student office looks at the ocean), do you have any suggestions?

I'm wondering if maybe the child would like a good book about oceans (maybe this one?) along with some magnets, rubbings plates, or a thematic card game.

Ok, upon browsing their kit section, I did just find three different tidepool kits from Acorn Naturalists, but they're all somewhat location specific (all to the west coast) and I'm not sure where the child lives.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Farewell ScienceWomen!

Yesterday Alice and SciWo announced the retirement of the ScienceWomen blog. The archives will still be around, but I'm sad to lose such influential women from my feed reader. I wish them both the very best in their non-bloggy lives.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Today I finished my group project for the term. Hooray! It feels great to not have that hanging over my head anymore. My group crafted an interesting proposal for a project that we don't intend to do, but I really like the idea and I plan to keep it around in case I end up in a position where I need to pull an interdisciplinary urban ecology proposal out of my hat. Seriously though, I'd like to do this project someday (just not for my dissertation).

This may very well be the last course I take in graduate school. I don't think I need any more. That's a liberating thought. Now it's all about finishing the project with my interdisciplinary cohort and (more importantly) my dissertation! I am looking forward to using the rest of the time before the holidays to do some serious thinking about where my dissertation is headed. Oh my.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

So my readers can catch up on their blog backlog

I haven't posted much since Thanksgiving. I've just now caught up on blog reading for the first time in about a month. I think this post is just going to be a random bullets.
  • After a highly productive Thursday, I didn't finish anything on my to-do list on Friday.
  • Jon's father and his wife visited us for the first time. It was fun to have them here but I'm glad it was just 2 days. I took them to the museum and showed them behind-the-scenes (this is part of the reason I didn't finish anything on Friday). They loved it. Who don't?
  • Jon has been sick to varying degrees for the past week. I have had the light version of whatever he has.
  • We are really, really close to having our marriage certificate framed and hanging on our wall. It's about time.
  • I think I'm falling in love with kale.
  • I'm having lunch with my friend Cora on Monday :-)
  • I'm trying to think about what to write for December Scientiae Carnival:
The days have really been getting shorter, and sometimes winter makes it hard to stay cheerful. In that light, I’d really like to hear what other people like about being in STEM. If you aren’t sure, maybe you could also think about the positive things that get you through the day or week. What makes you happy or makes you laugh? Even a funny story about an experience would be great.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Productive day

I'm awesome. Today I finished everything on my to-do list that can be done today at school. I met with Herb, sent a draft of the short note to Sam, finished my second notebook of data re-entry, and some other miscellaneous tasks. It feels great to have set out a long but manageable list of things to accomplish today and have done it! Everything else that I get done today is bonus, and tomorrow is another day.

Soon I'm going rock climbing, and in a few hours my father-in-law will arrive with his wife. They haven't visited us in Big City yet so we spent a while last night reclaiming our apartment from the disaster zone. Why can't I just stop time for just a little while? I can't believe it's December.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Final report

I forgot to include something on my list of things to get done before the end of the year: a final report for a funding agency. I've got to finish it tonight. I've been working hard on it all day, but I'm still going to be here for several hours. I've got to tell them all about my results, how they relate to their particular focus, and send them some nice photos. The results part is a bit difficult since I haven't even finished entering my data from the summer yet, but I don't think that's really what they're interested in anyways so I'm focusing on the stuff that is going in my short note with Sam even though it's nothing very impressive. It's all about the angle.

Now back to work.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Blogs I am thankful for

I am thankful for all of the bloggers out there from whom I have received insight, entertainment, wisdom, and food for thought.  The least I can do is thank all of you and hopefully send some new readers your way. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Blogs by scientists of one sort or another
Uncommon Ground*^
Professor Chaos*
On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess
Janus Professor, My Travels in a Two-Body Life
Wondering Albatross*
The Happy Scientist*
Liberal Arts Lady
Bug Girl's Blog*
What we don't know is A LOT
Muddy Misadventures*
Working Through the Blue*
Postcards from an intellectual odyssey
Pondering Pikaia*
More Than A Permanent Student*
A Lady Scientist
Gravity's Rainbow *
Transient Theorist*^
There's a War Under the Bed*
49 Percent
Academia and Me
Journeys of an Academic
Mistress of Science
Ph.D. To Be
All of My Faults Are Stress Related
A Natural Scientist
Grad Ovaries
Academic Ecology
Towards a Ph.D.
The EBB and Flow *^

Other awesome blogs by people who may or may not consider themselves scientists
Bitch, Ph.D.
The Clutter Museum
Professing Mama
Pretty Hard, Dammit
Free-Range Kids

I'll post this in my sidebar in a few days. If you're not on this list and you want to be, comment on this thread.

*= blogger that does some kind of research/education/blogging related to ecology or evolutionary biology (to the best of my knowledge)

^= dude (at least one if the blog has multiple authors- apparently most of my favorite bloggers are women)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Negotiating a non-faculty position for a spouse?

Do you know anyone who has negotiated a staff job (non-faculty) for their spouse? Does this happen? Universities employ plenty of people who aren't professors, lecturers, or technicians. Can staff jobs be negotiated if the other partner is offered a tenure-track position?

My husband isn't an academic, in fact not even close. However, it is possible that a university may have a position that he's ideally suited for. Jon and I were talking over dinner the other night about his dream job. He is a cabinetmaker, and he would love to teach woodworking. High schools have mostly eliminated shop as a class, which unfortunately makes that job more difficult to find. Recently he met someone who manages a university woodshop for design students to make prototypes and such. He would love to do this- discuss projects with students, teach them how to use the tools for whatever project they're working on, keep the shop organized, and work on side projects in his downtime.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pre-New Year's Resolutions

Janus Professor just posted a list of the things she wants to accomplish before the end of the year, and I've been thinking about this too (I feel accountable because of this post).

Academic goals:
  1. Send a short note out for publication. It's nothing big. I'm working on it with Sam. We should be able to send it somewhere in the next few weeks.
  2. Submit my review paper. OMG I need to send this somewhere, for my own sake. Herb just warned everyone in the lab he's spending the entire month of December writing his next big grant proposal so he won't look at anything else until that's done. I planned to submit this paper with him as second author (I think people will be more likely to read and find it that way), but since he's busy I'm just going to pull my shit together and send it someplace that it's almost certain to get rejected from, but my goal for this paper is submission by Dec. 31. If/when it gets rejected I'll send it to Herb and he can work his magic and we'll try someplace else.
  3. Enter all of my freaking data from the summer (again). I can do this. When I finish this task I will get a massage.
  4. Schedule my next committee meeting. Better yet, have a committee meeting. That might not happen until January though.
  5. Finish processing raw data for my interdisciplinary group project.
Personal goals:
  1. Go rock climbing at least 6 more times.
  2. Go dancing at least once (reasonable goals here).
I can't really think of any super high priority personal goals before the end of the year. The academic ones are plenty.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Presentation report

I think our presentation went well. I was seated next to the promient scientist giving the keynote. The talk was awesome. We talked right after. Of course ours wasn't as awesome (few decades less experience I think), but we did get people interested.

Where did this weekend go? It hardly felt like a weekend. At least this is a short week. I sure do have a lot to get done though!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Co-presenter anxiety

This weekend I'm giving a presentation with another person in my interdisciplinary cohort about the project we've been working on. It's going to be a large, mixed audience- some prominent scientists but mostly non-scientists who are enthusiasts about what we studied in our project. We're slated to present between two senior scientists, to an audience of about 100 people. It's a little intimidating.

Getting this presentation ready has taken more of my week than I expected it to, and my co-presenter is making me kinda anxious. I'm pretty sure we'll be great and people will love us, but he keeps bringing up all of the unknowns (What will the room be like? How big will our screen be? What if they mistake us for experts? What if someone asks us a question we can't answer?). I'm just trying to go with the flow. Our presentation is nearly final now, and we're practicing tomorrow evening. He's bringing his girlfriend over tonight and so we'll practice the presentation after dinner. I just want to have fun with this presentation and convince all these laypeople of the greatness of our project.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Money for a plane ticket!

I got another small grant to cover my next plane ticket!!! This email was sitting in my university account since yesterday afternoon but I just checked it. I'm all smiles. Yay!

It sounds like I can't actually get the money until I've completed the proposed work, which means fronting the money for a few months. That's definitely better than not getting reimbursed at all, but once again that makes our money more complicated.

I guess now I've really got to figure out exactly what I'm going to do now that I know I'll be able to get there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking out for each other

I think it's important for grad students to look out for other grad students and share what they know about how things work (or don't) within the department, university, discipline, and academia in general. I certainly make an effort to do this and I've been grateful for useful knowledge gleaned from more experienced graduate students. This morning something happened that reminded me of the importance of this sort of informal transfer of knowledge.

One of my classmates mentioned that her advisor still hasn't commented on a grant proposal that she has to submit in two days. Certainly a bummer, since his name is on the application and, as Dr. Isis says, she can't submit without his approval. Last year I submitted a proposal with a similar application process. There's a whole bunch of administrative stuff that the university has to do, most of which takes a long time. Herb warned me about this. I asked if she'd talked to Mr. X, the accountant who actually needs to press the button to submit her application. She said, "Who's Mr. X?" (alarm sirens go off in my head at this point). I told her to go to his office straight away because she would need to promise homemade brownies and probably her firstborn child (to several different people, nonetheless) to get everything set up for her to submit the grant in just two days. It might not even be possible.

There were two major ways that this last-minute scramble should've been prevented:
1. Obviously, my classmate should have thoroughly and clearly read all of the instructions for submitting the grant and asked for clarification if she didn't understand. However, this process is different than most applications that grad students in our department go through, so I'm not surprised that she didn't know and I don't fault her entirely.
2. Her advisor should've given her a heads up weeks or even months ago that she would need to do some additional legwork within the university system to submit this grant. Ideally this should've happened early in the process of drafting the proposal.

If someone else in her lab or office had gone through a similar process, I hope that the students would alert each other to such potential obstactles. I feel bad that she didn't know about the complicated submission process before today, but not as bad as I'd feel if she wasn't able to submit it at all. At least now she might have a chance. What if she hadn't mentioned it to me in passing? I guess she probably learned a tough lesson about grants.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Those with whom you disagree

Earlier this semester we had an invited speaker who holds many opinions contrary to what most people in the department think. This is precisely the reason he was invited.

I furiously scribbled notes during his talk in an attempt to understand his worldview and how his arguments were constructed. I was also trying to figure out what the heck he was saying. It seemed to me that he mostly said disputatious things to get a rise out of people rather than clearly developing his position in a logical manner. He said some crazy things, such as, "Nothing useful has come from theoretical ecology." When people asked questions using clear examples beyond those he had given, he went off on tangents and didn't really answer their questions. I wonder if he could get away with saying the things he did if he weren't an old white dude with a long CV. I should perhaps note that he isn't a scientist, though he sure does write a lot about science.

Although I think a lot of garbage came out of his mouth, listening to him did force me to think more carefully about my own perspectives regarding approaches to research and its applications.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Elements of a good proposal

I recently heard someone describe the elements of good research proposal. It made such perfect sense that I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before. So, I'm sharing it here.

Proposal= background/context + research plan + effective communication

Without all three things, your proposal probably won't fare well.

The same person also outlined steps for developing a research plan.
  1. Start with a compelling question.
  2. Generate testable hypotheses.
  3. Define your data needs to test the hypotheses.
  4. Identify methods of collecting and analyzing those data.
Of course, it's not nearly as simple as that. In my limited experience, a lot of revisiting #1 and #2 happens when data will be too difficult to obtain. Back to the drawing board!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Economical Academic

The Economical Academic was on sabbatical for a while, but it's back. Last week I wrote about deciding to be car-free. You should go over and check it out. Guest bloggers and suggestions welcome!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Data envy

I'm involved in a project that uses human research subjects (not the norm for ecologists). Another grad student is doing a similar but separate project.

We have 47 participants.

He has 1700.

I've got data envy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Everything I do will be incomplete

The concept of incompleteness in my work is something that has come up a few times now in my weekly meetings with Herb. Basically, everything I do as an ecologist will be incomplete. I am never, ever, ever going to be able to measure or control everything that I would like to in order to get nice, clean results. The challenge is to figure out what data I can collect to answer a meaningful question. It doesn't have to be a big question. There will always be related questions that I would like to answer but won't be able to. I am limited by time but also by accessibility. There are things I really want to know about critters that I just can't because of their behavior and life history. There are even things I want to know about plants that I can't figure out, and they don't even move! No matter what project I've come up with so far, I've struggled with the limitations in the kind of data I am able to collect. In this way my work as an ecologist is and always will be incomplete.

This is a limitation that I need to accept and embrace. I feel like I only see holes when I look at my project ideas. How could reviewers possibly accept EFG if we don't understand ABCD? I've put so much pressure on myself to come up with a complete picture that I'm paralyzed. Is it even worth it for me to catch critters if I can't find out what they're doing? Instead of feeling discouraged by the limitations, I need to find a way to be liberated by the concept that adding one little twig or bud to the tree of knowledge is a contribution. No one expects me to do it all. I need to find something that I can do, and do it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Interdisciplinary day

I'm going on nearly 11 hours of non-stop interdisciplinarity. Today I've worked on three different group projects with three different groups!

One of the projects I worked on today involved a conference call with people from the interdisciplinary conference I went to in October. We're trying to write a synthesis paper. It's pretty far outside my comfort zone/realm of professional experience, but I find the exercise interesting. I'm not sure yet how I fit into the project, and there's a possibility that ultimately I won't be an author. But, it's about a timely and widely relevant topic that is at least worth thinking about in much more depth than I have to date.

One of the things I've enjoyed so far about the project is suggesting ways to make the collaborative process easier. I set up a wiki for the group, which my interdisciplinary cohort at UBC has found to be very helpful in the writing and editing process. We're also using a shared Zotero library. I think we should be using Mendeley, but so far I think I'm the only person who has heard of it so we're using Zotero because most people are already somewhat familiar and comforatable with it. I really hope that everyone will use the wiki because I think it's a great way to keep up on what other people in the group are writing and thinking without having to ask them for their most recent writing. I'm a little worried that people will hesitate to put their first drafts on the wiki, especially after FSP wrote about this phenomenon.

Good group dynamics seem to be a critical component of a successful long-distance writing project. So far, it seems to be going well. There are a few leaders spearheading the project, one of whom will almost certainly be first author, and we're all amicably working out who will do what. The thing that I worry about most is that the project won't be grounded enough in concrete applications of the concepts and ideas we're writing about. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blah day

For most of today I was in a crappy, crappy mood. I was tired, sad, unmotivated, and overwhelmed. I talked with my therapist about my work-related anxieties instead of my sister's death. I nearly fell asleep in lab meeting. I took a nap in my office. I tried to be produtive.

At the end of the day I went to check my department mailbox. What did I find? A HUGE chocolate bar with a thank you note from the classmate for whom I reviewed numerous NSF GRF application drafts. A huge bar of chocolate was exactly what I needed. That made my day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Weird spam?

Today I got an email titled "Award Acknowledgment for sharing great CHEMISTRY information to the public" for this blog. Have I ever blogged about chemistry? The weirdness goes on (emphasis theirs).

Dear Blog Owner,

Our website is a informational databases and online news publication for anything and everything related to science and technology. We recently ran a poll asking our website users regarding what online informational resources they use to keep up to date or even to simply find great information. It seems many of our users have labeled your blog as an excellent source of Space information. We have reviewed your blog and must say, we absolutely love the information you have made available to the public and would love to make your blog a part of our top science blogs. After browsing your blog, our research team has decided to award you a Top science Blogs award banner.

It is a distinction we offer to the blogs that our team feels is ahead of the curve in terms of content.

Thanks again for the great information and we look forward to the great responses your blog will receive from our site. Your blog presence will be very effective for our users (top science blogs).

We have put great efforts in making this decision to give deserving with award acknowledgment. For listing please reply to request banner.

William Lee
Research team
1 international blvd
Mahwah NJ USA - 07430
201 247 8553

SPACE information? I'm quite sure that, while fascinating, I've never blogged about space (you should check out Mrs. Comet Hunter for astronomical interests). Upon visiting the aforementioned it looks ok at a quick glance. Then, none of the links worked. None that I tried at least. What's the deal? I deleted all of the cookies from the site and blocked them. Has anyone else gotten this weird "award"? Any ideas?

Oh! Ambivalent Academic got the same message, "space information" and all. I'm not alone. Who else?

Business cards

This morning I ordered 100 business cards for myself. My university is printing them and billing my student account. One of my peers just told me about this service. It makes the whole process a lot easier because there are fewer decisions for me to make.

I never think about having business cards until I'm at a conference or something, and then it occurs to me that they might be useful. So, soon I'll have some. Do any of my grad student readers have business cards, or did you when you were a student?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thoughts on presentations

I'm really slow at putting together presentations. I have to give a 15-20 minute powerpoint presentation tomorrow in class about an article. I think I've spent 5-6 hours on this presentation, and it's not even a big deal!

Things like this make me worry that I'd be a terrible lecturer, or that if I were a good one that I'd have to work 80 hours a week to do good lectures and I'd be totally stressed out and dissatisfied with my lack of a life. I hope I get better at this presentation thing.

Monday, November 2, 2009


This is the first year that I've been back to Small Friendly College and realized that I look older than the students. They looked obviously younger than me.

This suspicion was confirmed when a SFC student called me ma'am. It's one thing for a high schooler bagging your groceries to call you ma'am, but it's an entirely different thing for a SFC student to call you ma'am. I was one of them! Obviously I've moved from the "student" category to the "ma'am" category. It makes me feel old.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Queries for an ecologist

I mean queries of the Quaker kind, not the programming or database kind. I feel the need for some directed self-reflection at this stage in my graduate career, so I decided to write some queries for myself. These are open-ended questions; hopefully the process of answering them will help me determine what my priorities are.

What satisfies and sustains me in my work?
What do I find most rewarding in my fieldwork?
What types of problems do I want to solve?
How can my research be applied to solve a problem?
What are the linkages between my research and conservation?
What type of ecologist do I aspire to be?
What are my fears related to my Ph.D.?
What things overwhelm me and why?
Am I getting tired of traveling? Or of doing research abroad? If so, why?

Specifically related to leading foreign study programs:
What are my strengths and weaknesses as a leader?
How will leading a program change the course of my Ph.D.?
How will I manage my research as a program leader?
What skills will I need to develop to be successful in that endeavor?

To the extent that I can do so anonymously, I will answer them on this blog. I think it's a good way for me to force myself to explore the answers to these questions.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blogroll suggestions

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

Angry Word

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

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

Friday, October 30, 2009

My favorite halloween costume of the year (so far)

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

Cameras and photography

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Regular meetings

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

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

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

Kind of annoying

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Donors Choose!

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

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

Help Us Reduce Waste And Feed Our Plants!

Plastic Free Waikiki

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

A job outside of academia

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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

Would you like your dream job?

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

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

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

I've got a lot to think about.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Organizing a conference

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Challenges of managing a long-distance project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Warning: bad poetry ahead.

Tonight I danced
wearing my favorite pants.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Post-conference recollection

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Eureka! for the wrong project

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Too much travel

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Baking bread

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

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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Science communication and policy

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

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

Friday, October 2, 2009

The road I'm taking

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Whale of a Tale

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Visitors & traveling

October is going to be a busy month. Here's my laundry list of things keeping me on the go:

We've got a student from Neotropical Country staying with us until early November. She works with Herb at Neotropical Field Site.

Tomorrow Jon and I are going to Canada with my parents. It's a vacation, but I'm planning to get a few highly productive hours of work in each day. I've identified two reasonable projects that I can accomplish while I'm gone (small grant proposal and draft of a short note).

When we return, I have 24 hours before I leave for a conference.

The weekend after the conference, my best friend is getting married and a bunch of our college friends are coming into town. Three are staying with us, in addition to the visiting student.

Oh yeah, somewhere in there we're getting two cats for a year from our friends who are taking off on a big year-long travel adventure.

Then we're going to Small Friendly College for the weekend. It's my cousin's senior year there and I can't wait to see her.

And then October will be over before I know it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I finally got off the waiting list at the counseling center. Last week I met with a therapist who I really like. She is still a graduate student herself, but it seems like a much better match than my previous therapist. She explained her approach to counseling, which the previous woman never did and whether or not she had one wasn't apparent to me. I'm looking forward to seeing this new counselor on a regular basis while I work through the dozen or so separate but interconnected issues that I need to deal with.

I'm so glad that I'm able to get free or inexpensive counseling through the university (even though I had to wait).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Just showing up

Janus Professor wrote a post about the importance of just showing up. That's my strategy for this year at BNHM- I'm just showing up. I'm coming every Friday, even if it's just for a little while, so that I can make my presence known to the museum-types.

Good things seem to come from just showing up. Nearly every time I come I meet some interesting visitor who has insight or wisdom to offer. Today I met another researcher who worked at Nyota and was just passing through Big City. It spawned an interesting discussion about some different types of data that could be useful for my analysis.

Today I also had a long talk with another scientist who works in Ukenzagapia about my research. He's worked with critters, so I was hoping to get some ideas from him about a more feasible project. We talked about my "ideal project" and why I don't think it's going to work, or at least why it's not worth the risk (in terms of time, money, and data). Unfortunately, we mostly talked about the possibilities with other critters instead because he agrees with my assessment of the time/effort/expense issues with critters.

I feel like I'm at a point in my Ph.D. where I need to reassess not only what I can realistically do, but also think long and hard about what I want to do. There is no shortage of possibilies for projects in Nyota, but I've got to do something and I'd prefer if I enjoyed it. I have to think about what I want short-term (during my Ph.D.) and long-term (my career) because it may change some of the decisions I make in terms of what I choose to focus on. For example, I don't think I actually want to travel as much now as I did when I decided to apply to grad school. I'm not sure I'll want to continue doing a lot of field work abroad after my Ph.D.

At another level, I need to think about what I enjoy doing in the field (costs aside, for a moment). To use my scuba diving analogy, I don't want to commit to a project that requires scuba diving every day if I much prefer snorkeling. Or do I actually like sitting on a boat and counting whales? Or recording their songs? Or sampling the krill that they eat? I think I could be happy doing any of those things, as long as I felt like I was actually doing something that would result in useful data in a reasonable timeframe.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sleeping in the office: A poll

My office has a particularly comfortable couch. It might be as old as I am, but comfortable nonetheless. Great for napping. I've spent the night in my office two or three times and woke up surprisingly well-rested.

So, I'm curious. Have you never slept in your office? Not just naps, but overnight? Let me know in the poll below.

Have you slept in your office overnight?
Yes! All the time (I basically live there, or I did)
Rarely (I can count the number of times on one hand).
Nope, never.
Free polls from
Why or why not?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Advice for handling money when doing fieldwork abroad

I encountered a number of difficulties related to money during my first field season. I've traveled abroad before, but have never had to personally handle that much money in foreign currency. I hope that my mistakes can help prevent some of my readers from doing the same. Please add your tips, too!

Cash in USD
Traveling with thousands of dollars in cash is not a very safe way to go, but it often makes sense to bring a few hundred dollars in cash to get you through the first few days (though you might need an ATM card if you arrive on a weekend or holiday when the foreign exchanges are closed). Cash also might make sense if you have to pay large fees as soon as you arrive at the airport, especially if they are denominated in USD.

-In my experience, you get a better exchange rate for cash than for ATM withdrawals, and definitely better than traveler's checks.
-Who doesn't take cold, hard, USD?

-If it's lost or stolen, it's gone for good.

-In my experience, $100 and $50 bills get the best exchange rates.
-Be sure that your bills are NEW. Make sure they don't just look new. I had crisp notes from 1996 and every ForEx offered to change them at terrible rates simply because they were pre-2000. Ask the bank to give you the absolute newest bills they have.
-When you withdraw cash from your bank at home, do it at a teller so that you can get large bills and ask for notes that were printed within the last 2 or 3 years.
-If you don't follow the advice above and end up with older notes, you may be able to change your older bills into newer bills at a bank (for a fee) and then take them to a ForEx and get the better rate on the new bills. I did this and it was totally worth it.

Travelers' Checks
I haven't used travelers' checks since about 2004, so I honestly can't give much advice. Find out what recent travelers to your destination say. Many places don't want to change them, or give terrible rates if they do.

-If you lose them, all is not lost. You can recover your money.

-The number of places where you can turn travelers' checks into cash may be limited, especially in remote areas (though you shouldn't count on changing anything in remote areas).
-The exchange rate will probably be worse than cash.

If you are planning to use ATMs as your primary or sole source of funds while you are abroad, I highly recommend that you bring TWO DIFFERENT CARDS for TWO DIFFERENT ACCOUNTS. This is crucial if you are a victim of fraud (see below for elaboration).

You should notify both of your banks that you will be traveling so that your account is not immediately flagged for suspicious activity on your first withdrawal. You really don't want your primary source of cash shut down if you can prevent it.

-You don't have to carry as much cash with you while you travel.
-If it's stolen you should have little (if any) liability for fraudulent use.

-The exchange rate tends to be worse than cash, especially once you consider additional fees that most banks charge.
-ATM fraud is becoming very sophisticated and they may be able to steal your pin and use your card without a camera taping you or your card ever leaving your possession. Be aware.

-Know your PINs before you go. This is super important. Duh.
-Know your daily withdrawal limit. This is important if you need to get out large amounts of cash in a short period of time. You'll have to plan accordingly because it may mean spending more time in a city to get enough money before you head for a remote area. You may want to check with your bank that the limit will be the equivalent in foreign currency (and not a lower limit for some reason).
-Know what your bank charges for foreign transaction fees and other ATM fees. These can add up.
-It may be useful to have one VISA and one Mastercard account. VISA has been more widely accepted in the places I've traveled, though I've always been able to find a Mastercard ATM eventually. Find out the specifics for your destination.

Credit cards (especially in case all else fails)
I think it is a good idea to bring a credit card even if you don't think you'll use it. Be sure to notify them that you're traveling abroad, too. Credit cards are good for cash withdrawals in a pinch if your main source of cash is lost, stolen, or compromised.

-Probably cheaper than getting money wired to you if you're in a bind.

-Few places in developing countries will take credit cards. The places that do likely cater to upmarket tourists.
-The places that will take credit cards may charge an additional fee (for me they added 5% to the amount they billed to my credit card).
-Your bank will most likely charge you foreign transaction fees (but check out Capital One).
-If you do a cash advance, you'll probably start accruing interest immediately rather than getting a grace period like you do with normal charges. This sucks, but is still probably cheaper than wiring money.

Dealing with Fraud
I was a victim of ATM fraud in spite of taking normal precautions to safeguard my card and pin. My card information and pin were lifted from a hacked ATM and used to make over $2000 of withdrawals from another country (not the one I was traveling in). My card never left my possession, and no one was looking over my shoulder. I had to borrow money from several people, sent a $40 fax, and lost my bank account.

My advisor Leo ended up with fraudulent charges on his credit card on another continent and spent hours with a borrowed phone and a taxi driver going all over to city to find an ATM to make an emergency withdrawal from his account before they completely shut it down due to the fraud.

My point is that ATM fraud is widespread, it could happen to you, and it sucks. You really, really don't want it. But if it does happen, here are some things I have learned.

-Even if you have to borrow money or a phone to do it, call your bank yourself to report the fraud. Do it yourself even if it costs you $40. (Unless you have a co-signer on the account who can do it). Don't ask someone else from home to call in as you, even if that would be 1000 times easier.
-If there is someone who will be at home while you're abroad who you can add to the account as a co-signer, this may make it easier to report fraud if you are telecommunicably challenged when you realize your account was compromised.
-If one of your accounts is compromised, be prepared to fall back on your other ATM card or your credit card. Don't count on getting a replacement card until you get home.

Miscellaneous money advice:
Receipt Books
The best suggestion I got before my first scouting trip was to buy a receipt book (something simple like this). If you've got an advance on a grant and need to keep track of all kinds of expenses in a place where receipts aren't common, this is a godsend. The accounting people will accept these receipts as much more legit than scribbles on ripped sheets of paper. This is also highly recommended for keeping track of what you have paid field assistants.

Date book
I bought a daily planner for keeping track of my expenses. On the lines for each day where you normally write assignments or appointments, I wrote items and how much they cost. If I withdrew or exchanged money, I wrote that at the top of the day. I also noted if I didn't have a receipt (NR) or if I had a partial receipt (PR). I marked personal expenses with an asterisk. This simple record keeping made the process of reporting my expenses much easier.

Plan Ahead and Avoid Transaction Fees
Finally, I'd like to point out that Capital One offers ATM cards and credit cards with 0% foreign transaction fees. You can open a High-Yield Money Market account with just $1 and get a fee-free ATM card with a $500 daily limit. If you get a Capital One credit card, you have the option to personalize with your own photo. It was really easy and I put a photo from my field site on it.

If you're thinking about getting a new account or two for handling your money while you're abroad, open it now, even if you aren't leaving for months. You don't want to be worrying whether or not you'll have your pin in time when you're trying to pack. Better do it now rather than later.

Whew. This was a looong post. Please add your suggestions and comments!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Small victories

I'm designing a database to sort out my incredibly messy data from this summer. I've been teaching myself FileMaker Pro, with some general database structure advice from another student working with Access, and it's generally been slow going. I can't even begin to analyze my data until I get it into a reasonable format (NOT the insane spreadsheets I currently have), and I'm supposed to present some kind of preliminary data analysis at lab meeting on Tuesday.

With that in mind, I just about danced down the hallway today when I conquered a particular problem that's had me stuck for over a week now. Woo hoo! Now I've got to run some queries on my test data, and then I can enter the rest of the data.

Then I can export it to R, and then I can begin some analyses. I've got to rejoyce in these small victories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Yesterday morning I had a meeting with Herb. We talked for almost two hours, and I think I did an ok job of articulating my insecurities. I told Herb that I know he's a hands-off advisor but that I think I'm going to need more advice this year than in years past. The most helpful thing he said was that I need to find something I'm interested in doing and forget about what anyone else thinks I should be doing. Overall, the conversation was somewhat unfulfilling but I'm glad I talked to him.

Then I went to an event at Big Natural History Museum. It was one of those events with free food and alcohol where they try to woo donors for specific museum initiatives. Anyways, I'm really glad that I went because it reminded me of some of the reasons that I wanted to do research in Africa in the first place. Sometimes I need to feel all warm and fuzzy about my 'mission.'

Next month I'm going to an interdisciplinary conference and I expect to be energized by all of the ideas I'll encounter there. I hope I'll be able to channel that excitement into figuring out what I'm most motivated to do in Ukenzagapia.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Communication skills

Sam told me I need to improve my communication skills with my field assistants and with Dr. K. (my Ukenzagapian external committee member/in-country advisor). Sam acts as my sort of liason for sorting these things out because he is Ukenzagapian but also totally assimilated into American culture. The problem was two-fold.

1. The way in which I was communicating with Dr. K. over email was potentially disrespectful because I was asking him to do things more like a colleague rather than an advisor. I think this was a misunderstanding because I thought that he wanted me to go through him for communicating with my field assistants while I'm back in Big City to reduce the possibilty of mis-translation.

2. The field assistant-to- Dr. K. -to- Sam grapevine reports that my field assistants often didn't understand what I was trying to do until we did it, but if I'd explained what I wanted to do more clearly then they could've helped me figure it out. Basically, my instructions are unclear. Dr. K. also said this about the directions I tried to give over email for a project my field assistants are setting up this month.

This second point worries me because it confirms my fear that I came across just as clueless in the field as I sometimes felt.

This fear was also confirmed when Sam told me that Dr. K. expected me to have more things figured out already because I'm getting a Ph.D. in the U.S. and Sam is having to remind him that grad students come in with a variety of experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. In short, I didn't really know what I was doing and it showed.

I know I need to harden the f#$@ up and be able to take some constructive criticism. I'm still learning. A lot. I shouldn't be so hard on myself. But still...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Imposter syndrome?

I have to admit that for most of my graduate career so far I've felt like I really had my shit together. I've gotten some grants, a fellowship, advanced to candidacy, and generally not been completely overwhelmed by everything (in spite of several good reasons to be). But over the past few months I've been feeling increasingly anxious about the road ahead and emotionally fragile about my work.

I might be coming down with Imposter Syndrome.

Now that I've got some data and two years behind me, I've got to start getting results and really publishing. And with "NSF" all over my cv, I definitely feel a lot of pressure to meet the high expectations that come will all of the "accomplishments."

My Imposter Syndrome fears are specific. I know that I can write proposals and grants. I'm pretty comfortable with my writing. I know that I am self-motivated and organized about deadlines. I'm a pretty good teacher. I think I'm a good mentor. My fear is that I'm actually not good at doing science, you know the whole experiment thing that actually gets to the root of what in the world is going on out there in ecology. There. I said it. That's what I'm afraid of.

I know that I just finished my first field season and that everyone expects me to make mistakes and it's not uncommon at all for people to add several months or a year to their Ph.D. because of mistakes they made in the field. That is how we learn, I know. But I'm worried that I need more guidance on the ground than I'm going to get. I'm also worried that I'm going to disappoint people because they have higher expectations of me than I can actually meet.* I'm worried that I'm not enough of a badass to do what needs to be done.

On Friday I was reduced to tears by my fears and frustrations. I need to get a handle on this. I have a meeting with Herb tomorrow morning. I'm asking my advisor to advise me.

*This isn't an unfounded fear, and I might write about that soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The never-ending money chase

Last week I finally reconciled all of my accounting from the summer. I brought about $2500 in grant money to Ukenzagapia for fees, supplies, labor, some transportation, etc. I went over that amount by about $550 (expense incurred by me). In addition, I paid about $1250 of my money for my living expenses (this does not include touristy stuff I did with Jon when he was there). Also, I owe Sam about $2000 to be repaid in equipment that I will purchase for him someday.

In short, I need more grant money for my next field season. I've got a few hundred dollars from my interdisciplinary fellowship that I can use for supplies, but I don't even have enough to cover my plane ticket let alone pay my field assistants or the required research fees.

This fall there seem to be only two hopeful prospects on the horizon. One is a UBC award. I emailed Herb to ask him if he'll write a letter for me. He said yes, but if other people from the lab apply, he will favor whomever has the least amount of funding (if he's asked to choose among his students, which he has had to do before). In the past, this has been me since his other students were funded by his grant for Neotropical Field Site. However, they've had some huge unbudgeted expenses that will make it impossible to pay for students next summer. So, I guess we're all in the same boat except that I've already been successful at getting my own money to support my research.

I understand his logic, but it had really dashed my hopes for that grant.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Side effects

I've been taking mefloquine (aka lariam), an antimalarial drug, since May. I took it for about 5 months in college when I studied abroad, and I took it for about 2 months last year. This drug is known to have severe psychological side effects in some people. I've never noticed any problems so it has been my antimalarial drug of choice because it's cheapest and you only have to take it once per week.

Because you're supposed to take it for a month after you leave malarial areas, I have two pills left. However, I don't think I'm going to take them.

On Saturday night Jon and I got into a discussion about my recent emotional fragility and tried to figure out when it started. He is concerned because he says I have recently been more prone to self-doubt and less confident. There are many stressors that have contributed to my emotional roller coaster over the past few months (culture shock, troubleshooting my first field season, communication barriers, still processing personal losses), but I think that mefloquine might be playing a role as well. I don't want to just blame the drug, but stopping my mefloquine is something that I can control, and my risk of developing malaria now is very low. I'm going to see if I can get an appointment with my doctor this week.

Maybe stopping the mefloquine will just trick me into feeling better, but I'm ok with that too.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I don't think I really blogged about it, but I saw a counselor once a week last spring before I left for Ukenzagapia to work through some of the issues surrounding my sister's death. I didn't feel like I was making any progress though, so I'm going to again with a new counselor. Several people have told me that I shouldn't hesitate to try someone new. Counseling is available through the university which means it is inexpensive or free, but it can take a while to actually see someone. I got on the waiting list right after I got back from Ukenzagapia so that I can start to see someone as soon as possible, but I'm still waiting to actually get an appointment.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spambots and ECOLOG

I think I know why I get so much spam.

I'm one of several thousand subscribers to ECOLOG-L, the listserv for the Ecological Society of America. When I Google myreal name, posts that I have made to ECOLOG come up in the hits, along with my email address in full. I have been very careful to prevent the listing of my email address on the internet on other sites, but didn't realize that posting to ECOLOG would open my address to spambots in the public archives.

Gmail does do an excellent job of filtering my spam, but it occasionally lets some through and sometimes I have to dig through hundreds of messages to check for a couple of messages that aren't spam. If you're thinking about posting to ECOLOG or anything else that archives publically, consider using a different email address. I wonder if they can change the archives.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Organizing myself

Ever since I got back from Ukenzagapia I feel like I've been spinning my wheels while I try to figure out everything that has to happen this fall and then how I'm going to make it happen. Tonight I stayed at school much later than I'd planned (it was completely dark when I left) but I did manage to identify goals and deadlines for:

-preliminary data analysis
-poster for a conference
-small grant proposal (did I mention yet that I'm out of money?)
-short note
-review paper (the same one I've been talking about for months)
-getting a database online

I've scheduled all sorts of deadlines for myself for these projects amidst the numerous exciting things happening before the end of October (my best friend's wedding, a trip with my parents, 4+ visitors at our place for several days, visiting SFC, a camping trip, hosting a bridal shower, and attending a conference).

Tomorrow I think I'll start to schedule these things more specifically into the rest of the week, and maybe my weekly schedule in general. I've now identified what it is that I need to do instead of feeling overwhelmed by it all and thus procrastinating because I don't want to deal with it. Organizing myself in this way has really helped me feel like I can get down to work.

Tangentially, Herb told all the new students in the department that I'm "the most organized person on the planet." This is hardly true (Jon can confirm this), but once Herb forms an idea about someone, everything they do thereafter fits into that mold. I'm glad Herb has such a flattering and apparently unshakable impression of me. The planning I did today actually fits that impression of organization.

How ignorant am I

I just invited my fantastic awesome student to lunch to talk about her summer research experience. I invited her to lunch. During Ramadan. When I know she's Muslim. *rolls eyes at self*

So much for a bloggy week last week. More posts coming, really. There's lots of partially finished ones floating around.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Or not...

I was all mentally prepared to talk with Herb for like 2 hours on Monday morning, but apparently he had other plans. About 10 minutes into our conversation, he abruptly left to go meet with some other students. I thought he would return so we could resume our conversation, so I only half-invested myself in other tasks. Several hours later, my labmates confirmed my suspicion that Herb had actually left for the day. Damn.

Sometimes you have to be more pro-active about meeting with your advisor.

Today during lab meeting I asked when we could talk more, so we're meeting tomorrow morning. I hope I can get at least an hour of his attention because I have like 1000 things to talk about with him, such as:

-what I did all summer
-how to analyze
-what to do with it
-what I didn't do
-what Leo thought I was going to do
-what's happening in Ukenzagapia while I'm here
-when I'm going back to Ukenzagapia
-how I'm going to pay for it (I'm out of money)
-my should've-been-finished-months-ago review

I want to talk about everything with Herb before I talk about it with Sam and Leo. Gotta keep my ducks in a row. And committee members.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Gearing up

It's going to be a busy semester. I've spent the last week mentally preparing myself for it but not doing much actual work. Tomorrow I have a meeting with Herb to talk about what I did and didn't do this summer. I'm looking forward to it.

I'm hoping to get more blogging in this week.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Long payback chain

Our money is a total mess right now. I was supposed to get an advance from one of my small grants in the form of a check. It takes them forever to write checks so it wasn't cut until June 1 and was supposed to arrive before Jon left for Ukenzagapia. It didn't.

We borrowed the money from our tax account (since UBC doesn't withhold taxes from my paycheck).

Then I was a victim of ATM fraud and all of that money and more was stolen. My bank returned the stolen money after a few weeks, but then they closed all of my accounts with them. So, my nicely sorted savings all ended up in one messy heap.

In the meantime, I borrowed $1100 from my Ukenzagapian contact Dr. K. for my last month of fieldwork.

I wanted to pay him back before leaving Ukenzagapia but didn't have enough money in my remaining debit account (it was all tied up in other unlinked accounts or undeposited checks), and even if I did daily limits would've prevented me from getting out all of the money in cash. If I didn't pay him back then I'd have to work something out with Sam or wire they money (very expensive). On top of what I borrowed, I owed him a few hundred dollars for other things.

My American friend in Ukenzagapia generously offered to lend me over $1000 in local currency and I could pay them back with a check sent to their sister in the U.S. to whom they owed money. I used their money to repay Dr. K.

Yesterday I finally deposited the check for the grant balance.

Today I repaid my American friend via her sister.

Now I only owe money to myself.

Someday I'll get all of our money back in order. Soon, I hope.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

If I could do my first field season over... are some of the things that I would change.

1) Maps. I came with terrible maps. I really, really should've sat down with Sam with a better map and talked with him about which sites to use, how to get there, and how long it would take. I probably spent two weeks just getting my bearings, mostly on foot. Also, the slow internet meant that using Google Earth was virtually impossible, though I realized after finally seeing my sites in GE that I could've cached images and that would've been very useful.

2) Data. I would've entered data as soon as possible after collecting it. If I'd done this, then I would not have had to go back and collect data that went missing for 2 months in the bottom of my backpack. Once I caught up on data entry (with Jon's help) it wasn't too difficult to keep up on it.

3) Equipment. I should've tested all of my important equipment before leaving. Of course I knew this, but instead relied on "hope" (which as I said earlier is about as effective in the field as it is a method of birth control) because the weeks leading up to my departure were so chaotic. Some equipment that I was using on a pilot-testing basis needs further adjustments, so I've hauled it back even though it's heavy and cumbersome and I really would've preferred to leave it in Ukenzagapia.

4) Language. I really, really need to find a way to make myself continue independent language study when I'm in the field. I just kind of got stuck with my level of proficiency. For a while I was meeting in the evenings with someone, but I wasn't impressed with him as a teacher and I'm not sure how to find a good one. I have two different language instruction books that I could easily work on by myself, but it's hard to get the motivation to do that after a long day in the field.

5) Advice and advisors. When I encountered problems I think I should've contacted them sooner, especially Sam. Sam knows so much but he doesn't always offer it unless prompted.

All in all, I'm satisfied with my first field season. I wish I'd been able to do more, but I can't beat myself up over and there's still more field seasons to come. I'm looking forward to having time back in Big City to mull things over and plan for next time.