Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Words of the Week

Thing 1 is getting quite tall. She is, in fact, only about 5 inches shorter than me, if that. She's been agitating to sit in the front seat of the car since this summer, when I let her sit in front just one time because we had three of her friends with us and she was the tallest and heaviest one of the bunch.*

Today, we picked up some supplies I needed to put up some shelves in my kitchen in my never ending battle against the household clutter and disorganization that will one day be the death of me. Our car has one of those nifty backseats that are designed so that part will fold down so that you can put larger things in the trunk. We were indeed transporting large items, so I folded down the part not taken up by Thing 2's car seat, and let Thing 1 sit in front for the very short ride home. She was very excited that she could put a CD in the player herself, and so she did. Then, she looked around the cockpit a bit. Which led to our words of the week:

  • odometer: an instrument that indicates the distance traveled by a vehicle; from the Greek hodometron, from hodos, road + metron, measure
    "That little button is to reset the trip odometer, which is the top number here. The bottom one can't be reset. It tells how far the car has been driven since it was made." (Response: "Wow! That's how far we've driven?!?")

  • tachometer: an instrument that indicates the speed of rotation of the engine shaft; from the Greek takhos, speed + metron, measure
    "The tachometer is more useful if you are driving a manual transmission where you have to shift gears yourself - it can help you figure out when to shift." (This was followed by some discussion of how to use a tachometer to gauge when to shift on a manual, and what use it might be as a diagnostic for an automatic.)

This whole discussion caused me to feel a bit queasy as I imagined my 10 year old driving a car someday.

*It is not illegal for me to do so in the state in which we live. But the backseat is still the safest place for all children!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Life, My Feminism

I just read that Dr. Isis is wrestling with her "feminist identity". Seems that the writings of a certain radical feminist have rubbed her the wrong way. Or maybe it's that she feels she is rubbing someone else the wrong way. Oh, hell, does it really matter? Because haven't we all felt like that - just a little out of sync with some sort of ideal that we think we are a part of?

Life is complicated. Nothing is ever only black or only white. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong. But many of us throw our ideas out into the world, and hope that they may land in some fertile place and create new ideas, which will go out into the world to continue the cycle ad infinitum.

I've written before about the idea that true reproductive choice is the choice to NOT have children. I didn't come up with that idea all on my own. Nor did I come up with the idea that it is not exactly productive to be tarring women who have children with the "anti-feminist" brush.

What is strange to me, and which was the inspiration for that post, is the idea that those two ideas cannot peacefully coexist. That somehow advocating for reproductive choice directly leads to advocating AGAINST motherhood and children in general. To me this is a case of taking a mostly good idea a bit too far. If women could truly choose not to have children, then ALL women would choose to remain childless, because kids are a pain in the ass. And therefore, all women who do have children are fools, or "tools of the patriarchy", and deserve to be banish-ed. Right?

Wrong. It is wrong because it is not completely right. There are some women who do not exercise the choice to not have children because they are being bent over by "the patriarchy". Actually, the Third World is full of women in this situation. There are plenty in America, too. But those of us who are trying to figure out how make a career in science (or any other deeply engrossing field) while having meaningful relationships with spouses we love and raising children that are the products of those unions are not victims that need to be saved from our reproductive follies. We are women who are trying to figure out how to have the life we want. There is no perfect recipe for a happy life. The key, though, is figuring out the right ingredients for YOUR happy life. And in what amounts they should be combined.

Of course, I can speak this way because of my extremely privileged position - what with living in America, and not having to be on welfare and all. It's most likely not going to kill me to have a child, even if I have complications, because I have access to the best health care imaginable. I have a husband who believes that it is my choice at the end of the day whether I want to have any more babies, whether he wants them or not. I also happen to not be in a family that does the whole pressuring for grandkids thing. Oh, yes. And I have access to birth control, and am not afraid, ashamed, or convinced that it is morally wrong to use it.

It is quite an effective technique to speak in absolutes if you want to force people to think about the things they take for granted. Like that women naturally just want to settle down and make babies with some guy, and any other endeavor they get involved in is just a way to kill the time until such time as that happy ending is achieved. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to get rid of that notion. I see no need to replace it with this, or any other extreme alternative. But, hey, it sure does get people talking and thinking, doesn't it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Words of the Week

I am trying to add a weekly feature to this blog. I expected that it would be easy to make happen every Tuesday, since we usually talk about the words over the weekend, when the concentration of family time is highest. But, surprise, surprise, it takes a fair amount of effort to make sure it happens each week. And with all the other stuff that has been going on behind the scenes, I have fallen behind. So, I have decided to permit myself a one-week lapse. Also, I am now going to avail myself of the post scheduling feature to get (and keep) myself on track. In addition, I am choosing Wednesday as my "Words of the Week" day. It has better alliteration than Tuesday, and will probably work out better in the long run.

So, without further ado, here are the Words of the Week:

  • Chip Butty: Fried slices of potatoes sandwiched between two slices of buttered bread. This is a compound word composed of the UK equivalent for the American term 'french fries', and 'butty' the British colloquialism for a slice of buttered bread. (See the Wikipedia entry if you don't believe me!)
    "There's nothing like finishing off dinner with a chip butty!"

  • Cavalier: A gentleman who is serving as an escort to a woman of high social status
    "Isn't the Sugar Plum Fairy lovely? And just look at her Cavalier!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

January Scientiae is coming up...

Don't close out this year without submitting something for the Scientiae Carnival! I'm so excited that I will be hosting this carnival for January, and I'd love to give you all something wonderful to read as you ring in the New Year (or recover from your wild night of revelry, whichever the case may be).

So be sure to send your posts in by midnight on December 28. The theme is:

As one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes.
Email the permalink to your submission to scientiaecarnival [a] gmail [dt] com. Complete instructions can be found here.

Thanks to those of you who have already sent in your submissions!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Manuscript Progress

I built up a bit of writing momentum by (semi) participating in InaDWriMo, and I'm pleased to say that I've managed to put it to good use! I have finished the draft of my first first-author manuscript. Since the Thanksgiving holiday, I have:

  • Finished the "Discussion" section of the paper. Including the oh-so-hard-to-write "speculation on the significance of these findings"
  • Written an introduction
  • Added more references
  • Created a new figure that shows the design of the experiment
  • Written a caption for that figure

That just leaves another round of revisions and getting feedback from a few people who are not directly involved. Hopefully we can get this submitted before the end of the year!

I have also continued to try to figure out how to get the nearly impossible experiment that would really improve the paper to work. I made some significant progress today. I'm now convinced that, although this experiment will be pushing the limits of our technique, it might be doable. Yay! Too bad I'm the one who must actually do it.

The new figure was also a challenge, but of a different sort. When I started writing this paper, I decided that I didn't want to have any color figures unless they were absolutely necessary. That's right I decided that. The journal we are submitting to does charge a fee for color, and I have heard of PIs insisting that there be no color to save the money, or at least making a point about the need to be judicious. But that is not the case for me. I just think that useless color figures are annoying and wasteful. When I first started reading primary literature, I liked for papers to have splashy, full-color figures. I thought it looked more "polished". But now, I think color is often used for no good reason, and does not enhance the "readability" of the figure at all. If anything, it makes things harder to understand when the colors are not easily distinguished. I once read a paper for a class and was so confused by one figure that during the discussion section I had to ask which feature was supposed to be the color "wheat" and which one was "mustard". They both just looked yellow in the printout from the crappy inkjet printer I had at home. Whatever happened to primary and secondary colors? And what a waste of ink!

For my poster, I had a version of this figure that was in color. It looked nice, but I wanted to change it around a bit for the paper. The poster version had started out as a diagram of a totally different experiment, and I had just relabeled things, added things, and moved things around so that it more or less accurately represented my experiments. In some parts there was too much detail, and in others not quite enough, and the color did not really add much information to the figure. It just made it look more colorful. So I decided to remove the color while I was fixing the other issues. I think it looks pretty good. I showed it around the lab, and everyone was surprised, but had to admit that it works really well without the color. Hooray for grey!

Words of the Week

Thing 1 brough home this week's words of the week from school. Therefore, I cannot provide an actual sentence in which they were used. But I can give you the definitions in her own words:

  • transparent: allowing light to pass through through undisturbed
    "Transparent is when all of the light goes through an object."

  • translucent: allowing light to pass through, but scattering it along the way
    "Translucent is when only some of the light get through."

  • opaque: permitting very little light to pass through
    "Opaque is when NO light gets through."

Her class has apparently begun the unit on optics. I asked Thing 1 the other night what she had learned in physics class that day. She asked me what was I talking about. I said, "Well, I had an email from your teacher, and he mentioned that you were going to start talking about reflection, soon..." To which she replied, "Mom, that's OPTICS!" And gave me a look as if to say, "How could you not know that, Mom. I thought you were a scientist!"

So I explained to her that optics is a branch of physics. She insisted that I should only ever call it optics, anyway. What the heck are they teaching these kids?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

January Scientiae - Call for Posts

December is the time that we prepare to close out one calendar year (or semester) and begin another. We stand on the threshold between the new and the old. As a way of honoring the transitional nature of this time of year, I’d like to challenge you to think about all the doors that you have opened and closed this year.

As one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes.

Sometimes you close a door by choice, knowing that the path it leads to is not the one you want to take. Some doors were closed before you got to them. What open doors did you find while searching for a new path to take? Perhaps you closed a door without intending to. Were you able to re-open that door? Or did you decide to leave what was done as done? Have you had to close one door in order to allow another one to open?

Feel free to write about a specific episode, or use this as an opportunity to look back on the entire year. Or write about something else entirely. Just send in your submissions for the Scientiae Carnival by midnight on December 28. Complete instructions can be found here. I'll be hosting right here on New Year's Day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Words of the Week

Well, I was planning on putting these up by Tuesday, but some unexpected exhaustion has kept me from posting this week.

Most evenings, I make dinner, and we eat together as a family. I try to spend time with the Things from dinner time until bedtime - sometimes we watch a little television, but I also get to enjoy listening to Thing 1 practice her cello while helping Thing 2 do a puzzle, having a laugh with the girls while they take a bath, reading a story and then snuggling with Thing 2 while she goes to sleep. I love our evening time together. Sometimes I feel as though I'd like to rush it when I have some work I want to get to after they are asleep, but they usually keep me focused on what's important. Occasionally, as I cuddle the warm fragrant body of my freshly bathed toddler, I find myself dozing off. But when I'm relatively well rested, I can usually manage to stay awake until Thing 1 has fallen asleep. Then I get up and go about my business for a couple hours before going to my own bed. This is prime time for blogging if I haven't brought home any work. But lately, I have found it really hard to resist the soporific snugglefest. I've just been too tired.

But it's Friday night, already. It's time to get on with it. And so, here are the words of the week for the week of December 1:

  • proboscis: an elongated appendage from the head of an animal
    "Watch the butterfly suck juice from the fruit through its proboscis."

  • segment: a separate piece of something
    "Look! I can break the orange into segments. Would you like one?

  • quagmire: a difficult, precarious, or entrapping position
    "You can call me 'trouble' if I can call you 'quagmire'."

Monday, December 1, 2008

White Hot Science

For this month's Scientiae Carnival, Isis the Scientist has asked us all to tell what makes our science "hotter than Dr. Isis's Naughty Monkeys". Well, here goes...

I'd like to start by discussing the meaning of the term 'hot'. Because we don't all mean the same thing when we say something is 'hot'. Sometimes we mean trendy - the 'hot' areas of science are the ones that are rapidly growing - it seems like 'everyone' is talking about and trying to get into this field. We could also say that a particular field is 'hot' because it is producing a lot of interesting or even unexpected results.

I've got both of these covered by my white hot science. I'm not going to come right out and tell you what that field is - it's so hot, that if I told you, the shock and awe might kill you. And if it didn't, I'd have to hunt you down and kill you myself.

I study things that people have been studying for a long time, but I look at these things in a fundamentally different way. Not a lot of labs are really set up to do the kind of work that is the bread and butter of the lab in which I am doing my thesis research. We have no shortage of potential collaborators - labs that have been studying a system for a long time who want to add a new approach, but aren't in a position to do what we do for themselves. Our approach is 'hot'. I hope it persists in its hotness (though perhaps mellowing a bit as the field ages) because I kind of like the fact that I am sometimes considered 'hot' by association.

I also think my science is 'hot' because I have gotten to see phenomena that were predicted and described in theoretical work in the 1970's and early 1980's, but were not observable until recently. In fact, I have not been able to find ten papers that report observing, in any system, the phenomena I characterize in the paper I am just now writing. I hadn't really thought about it, until someone mentioned how 'cool' they thought it was that I cited all these 'ancient' papers in my recent talk. I had thought of them as these wonderful old chestnuts, that everyone simply must read to understand the field. But then I realized that the authors of those papers have been waiting for decades for someone to figure out how to directly observe what they predicted - so they could find out if they were right! If that isn't 'hot', I don't know what is.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

InaDWriMo - Final Update

Well, I haven't really made any significant progress on writing since my last update. My writing time on Monday and Tuesday was taken up by incorporating the revisions my PI suggested, making some changes of my own, and cleaning up some missing citations. Then I took the day off on Wednesday. I spent the morning with Thing 2 - she hasn't been getting much mommy time lately. Then we picked up Thing 1 - she had an early dismissal. We had lunch, then stopped by the grocery store for a few last minute purchases.

Then I cooked. It was great! I actually enjoy cooking the Thanksgiving spread, so I do look forward to this time of year. The rest of the weekend, I spent enjoying my family, and taking Thing 1 to some extracurricular activities. I finished off the weekend by making turkey soup. Yum! But I digress. The best thing about this holiday weekend is that I don't feel like I'm "Not Serious" because I didn't work my ass off through the long weekend. I'm happy with the progress I have made on my writing, and I actually feel quite confident that I will have my manuscript finished very soon. I have a new appreciation for the fact that successful goal setting is one of the keys I need to achieve that elusive balance between work and the rest of my life.

Let me get more specific. I usually have several short term goals (things I can get done in a day) on my agenda and a couple of longer term goals (things that take several months of sustained effort to get done) sort of organizing and generating the short term goals. But I seem to keep having problems with the medium term goals - those things that take more than a day to finish, but yet are not on the same scale as the longer term goals. And it seems that I have more and more of those types of tasks as I progress in my training. I put them on my to-do list and then try to hack away at them each day. This leaves me feeling like I am flailing and makes it hard for me to see if I am making progress. Sometimes I try to break the medium length tasks into parts I can handle in one day. But that has varying degrees of success - I don't really have enough experience with some of these tasks to be accurate in my breakdown, so I get frustrated when one day I can easily finish what I plan and the next I don't even come close. I have also tried to estimate how long each chunk of the task will take and set deadlines for those. But it's so demoralizing to not meet those deadlines. So I need another option that fits the nature of these bigger tasks I will increasingly need to take on.

I suspect that many people in the training stages struggle with this issue, and I also suspect that it is one of the things that drives many people to work longer days that they'd like. Many days this month I have found myself approaching my scheduled leaving time wishing I didn't need to leave JUST THEN because I would have liked to finish what I was working on. And yet, I didn't really know how much longer it would take to finish what I was doing. Argh! Luckily, my sense of commitment to my kids won out every time, and I left work anyway.

But what can I do to give myself the feeling of progress that I need without also giving myself a lot of opportunities to feel like a failure? Well, though I resisted adding a progress bar for InaDWriMo to my blog, it looks like this may be a way to help myself break through the mid-size task blues. I didn't really use it as much as I could have, since I skipped several updates, but I had my own paper-based version on my desk, and it helped a lot. I also started using a sort of rolling to-do list, where I put what I thought I could do in a couple of days on a sticky, and didn't worry if I didn't complete everything in one day. But I didn't try to plan the whole week in one go. It sure felt good to crumple up the sticky every day or two and hang up a new one. I also started adding the little things I need to do for the family - phone calls, checks to mail, and forms to fill out. It turned out to be easier to fit those into my day if they were right there on my list. It's not a perfect system, yet, by far, but I am beginning to create a system for myself that actually works, and that I might be able to stick with. I think I am actually happier about my progress on this front than I am about the fact that I achieved 60% of the goals I set for myself this month.

So, I am wondering - have any of you readers struggled with scheduling and motivation for medium sized tasks? And do any of you have any suggestions for me?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Words of the Week

I love words. It seems that you can never have too many of them. Each new word allows you to add nuances to your communications with others (and yourself, if you are a journal-keeper). The more words you include in your daily vocabulary, the more fun you can have playing around with language instead of just talking. I don't take this to extremes in my everyday conversations, and I don't consider myself to have a vocabulary that I would brag about to, say, an English professor. But, I always hoped to pass along the enjoyment of language to my children. So I don't hold back with the big words when I talk to them. Of course, I explain myself more simply when necessary, but they quickly pick up the words I use a lot, like "cooperation", and "appropriate". I read them books that are way above their reading comprehension level, making sure to be very expressive, so they can get lots of context clues. I'm reading "Stuart Little" to Thing 2 just now, and she loves it (Thing 1 has been joining us, to listen to this old favorite again).

When Thing 1 was younger, I could get away with using lots of obscure words to encrypt certain comments to hubby, but that doesn't work very well anymore. Her not-so-little ears prick up when I use an unfamiliar word, and she ASKS WHAT IT MEANS! I almost can't believe it - my insidious plans are working, and she has actually developed a very healthy interest in expanding her own vocabulary! At her request, we now have one or two "Words of the Week", which are written on the whiteboard that hangs in our kitchen. They are nominated by any member of the family who hears someone else use an unfamiliar word. I've decided to share them with you*. In the tradition of elementary school English classes and spelling bees, a definition** of each word will be followed by its use in the sentence that led to its nomination.

This week's words are:

  • disparaging: tending or intending to belittle
    "I don't like it when you speak to your sister in such a disparaging tone."

  • detritus: miscellaneous remnants; debris
    "I just don't appreciate finding all this detritus on the kitchen counter."

Last week's words:
  • ziggurat: a temple in the form of a terraced pyramid, built in ancient Mesopotamia
    "We got to look at a model of a ziggurat in school today."

  • fiduciary: an individual, corporation, or association holding assets for another party, often with the legal authority and duty to make financial decisions on behalf of the other party
    "There is no fiduciary branch of the US government."

*Not because I think my readers need to bone up for the GRE, but because, since we've been doing this for a few weeks, now, I've noticed that they provide interesting little snapshots of life in our family.

**I am not writing a dictionary. I will post the definition that fits the sentence.

Monday, November 24, 2008

InaDWriMo - Update 2

I know this is late even for the fourth promised update, but, well, this is what I've got. It's not that I haven't been working on my writing, because I have. It's just been really hard lately to get a post finished and published at home lately. In fact I've got three unfinished drafts in my list of posts that are so dated they no longer make sense. I'm not going to go into all the ins and outs of why this is happening right now. I'm just going to play the "two kids" card and move on.

So, my progress:

  1. The "Methods" section has been revised to add the missing material. That's one goal done!
  2. I have written a "Discussion" section. It needs a final paragraph where I wax lyrical about what my findings might mean in terms of details I haven't actually looked at, but may do in the future.
  3. I have learned how to use EndNote, and have created a library of my references. I have used that library to create a reference list that is formatted correctly for the journal. I have added citations in 90% of the places they are required in the text I have written. I'm going to call that a second goal completed!
  4. I have revised my abstract. I have reduced it from nearly 300 words down to about 150. The limit for the journal is 175, so I could add another sentence if necessary. That makes three goals accomplished!
  5. I have given all of what I have to my PI, and have gotten back his revisions. It was mainly text editing, except for the request for a little speculation mentioned above. Woo-hoo!
  6. I have solicited feedback from one person from Dr. Prof. Genius' lab who works on something related to my project - that leaves just two more people to approach, and I'm on it!

So, that's six of my goals addressed in the past three weeks, and I'm calling it a total of six completed goals! Yay! And I've written 6120 words (about one third of which were already written before November). I've also been trying to get that last "wouldn't it be nice if..." experiment to work. After writing what I have up, it has become obvious that it would really improve the paper if I could get the data that this experiment would provide. Unfortunately, it's not really working, and it may very well be beyond the limitations of my technique, but I'm not ready to give up yet.

So, although I probably won't win the contest, I'll be going into December in pretty good shape.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

InaDWriMo - Update 1

I worked for most of the day today, thanks to my Mom, who insisted that she really wanted to spend the day with the kids, and that the only thing that would make her happier would be to see me get some work done. I think she is going to be one happy lady when I go home and tell her how much I got done! Here's where I stand today:

  1. I have completed all the figures that include my actual data. Although that was already done on Friday, I checked them out today, made a couple of corrections and finished the last two captions. The two remaining are the one that may get axed anyway (a diagram of the experiment) and a new one that was suggested to me by a co-author (re-make of a figure from one of my references that will just make it easier for readers to understand what the hell I'm talking about).
  2. I finally have a draft of the "Results" section! I cannot tell you how happy I am to have that monkey off my back.
  3. I have a list of items to add to the "Methods" section.

In all I wrote about 650 words today.

I have not addressed any of my other goals yet. I will re-read what I wrote today later on tonight, and send it to my PI, and the co-author.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

InaDWriMo Away!

Thanks to ScienceWoman's excellent suggestion in response to my last post, I am now looking forward to my first time participating in InaDWriMo. It's being hosted by Dr. Brazen Hussy this year. She explained it all so well, I think I'll just quote her:

First, a little background: International acaDemic Writing Month is the academic’s answer to NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. It was originally created by StyleyGeek as International Dissertation Writing Month, but because so many of us who had already finished our degrees were interested in a little challenge, the D was loosely interpreted as acaDemic. This means that you can write your dissertation, a book chapter, an article, a grant proposal – anything goes, as long as it is academic. I hosted InaDWriMo 2007, and it was great fun, and it seems that you crazy kids want to do it again. So here we go!

The rules:
  1. You decide how much you want to write, and how you will keep track of it. I encourage you to make this goal challenging but not so unobtainable that you depress yourself.
  2. You can decide if you want to include revisions in your word count.
  3. Keep track on your blog, maybe using a writing meter like this one or this one.
  4. I will ask you all report your progress here, every Saturday for the month of November.
  5. On November 30, we will see how we’ve all done.

First of all, I have chosen not to have a word count goal. Instead, I have a set of tasks I wish to complete:

  1. Finish putting together the figures and captions for the paper I'm working on.
  2. Finish the "Results" section of my paper.
  3. Revise the "Methods" section to include things that I have realized I left out while writing the "Results".
  4. Write the "Discussion" section of my paper.
  5. Write an introduction for my paper.
  6. Revise the abstract I already wrote to submit for a conference so that it is appropriate for the paper.
  7. Organize all the references for the paper.
  8. Revision, revision, revision.
  9. Solicit and incorporate feedback from at least three other readers.
  10. Return to work on the partially finished document that must be finished before I can jump through an important hoop on the way to someday graduating. More detailed goals will materialize when I get to the point that I am not so worried about my research paper.

I will keep track of my progress on this blog in a qualitative way, since I have no word count goal. And I will be a good girl (for once) and update my status over at Dr. Brazen Hussy's place.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Making it Work

So, I've been working on my paper. Or, I've been trying to work on my paper. There are a few problems that I've been dealing with:

  1. I have trouble working in the lab. We have a small lab space, and my desk is right in the middle of everything. People are constantly walking past my desk. I can hear everyone's conversations. The bench space of one of my labmates with whom I enjoy chatting is right next to my desk. No need to even raise our voices. I am very easily distracted.
  2. I have trouble working at home. I constantly feel like I am about ten items behind on the critical to-do list around the house. That's not even touching the long standing undone big jobs, like finishing up painting the living room.
  3. Even if I did want to bring my laptop with me to work every single day, I'm not convinced that working in the library is any better of an option, since I would also need to bring all my papers and files with me. Plus, when I sit in the comfy chairs in the nearest library, I just feel like falling asleep.
  4. It doesn't really matter where I work, I don't really do well when I have to sit for long periods of time. My brain kind of shuts down and I get cranky.
  5. Oh, I almost forgot, I don't know what the hell I am doing!
Well, I have found some solutions:
  1. I finally updated my iPod and put all of the music we have at home on it. So, I play really loud music really loud while I'm working. How loud? If you don't wave a hand in front of my face or tap my shoulder, you might as well not exist as far as I'm concerned.
  2. I still don't know what to do about working at home. Except to not.
  3. For now I am skipping the library. I used to hide out there when I was so sleep deprived I needed to catch a power nap. The association is too strong.
  4. I permit myself to get up and randomly walk around every half hour. Bathroom, coffee, water, down the hall and back again. Sometimes I just dance around by my desk. Anything to avoid turning my ass to stone. Thankfully my labmates are amused and not annoyed.
  5. Whoops! I got nothing for this one. I know what a good paper looks like. I have a plan for writing, too, but it just seems like, no matter what I do, everything takes at least three times longer than I think it will.
I am writing an article length paper. That's 55,000 characters maximum for the journal we plan to submit to. I think the limit is ten printed pages. I have decided on seven figures, although one may be axed. My PI has recommended that I write the sections in this order: Methods, Results, Discussion, Introduction, Abstract. He didn't really specify when he thought the figures should get done, but I found that I get stuck trying to write about imaginary figures.

So far, I have made really nice, prettyfied versions of 5.5 of the figures. Each one has taken at least half a day of solid work to get done. I have written the captions for all the completed figures. I wrote the "Methods" section a while ago, and I feel like I've been writing the Results section FOREVER! It seems like every time I write something, I end up realizing something that I forgot to include. I don't know when it's going to get done. And my PI is waiting for it. I thought I'd have it done a week ago. I think he thinks I'm not working on it. But I am. I just feel like I'm bumbling around like an idiot. I know I'll get there eventually, but right now, I'm spending a lot of time backtracking and I don't know how to take a more direct route.

All that said, I am really feeling cool for getting to write such a long paper MYSELF (though I fully realize that it will get ripped to shreds in the revision process). This is what I came to grad school for!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Six Random Things About ME

Abel Pharmboy has tagged me for another meme! At this rate, I’ll never have to decide what to write about again! Here are the rules:

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.

  2. Post the rules on your blog.

  3. Write six random things about yourself.

  4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.

  5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.

  6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

So, here are six random things about me. I don’t think these will blow my cover, unless one of you readers already knows me pretty well in real life.

  1. I rarely wear high heels, and sometimes I fall down when walking on uneven pavement. This is thanks to multiple, severe inversion ankle sprains complete with a partial lateral ligament tear from my ballet dancing days that was never surgically repaired. My foot literally just turns underneath me sometimes without warning. The last time this happened, I was walking along a gravel path across a large lawn on my campus, and I ripped the knee of my pants.

  2. I love Halloween. I plan to wear a costume into the lab this year.

  3. I hate the color pink. But my two little princesses have worn me down to the point that I can actually wear some shades of pink without wanting to puke.

  4. I have never touched a gun, and once kicked someone out of my house for showing off one, even though it wasn’t loaded.

  5. I really love to watch choreographed fight scenes in movies. It doesn’t matter what style of fighting, and it doesn’t matter what genre the movie is; I especially love the fantastical Hong Kong martial arts action movies, where people walk on water and fly from roof-top to roof-top. But I don’t enjoy horror movies or gratuitous violence in movies (though I accept that it be an effective device to make a point). And I feel physically ill when I see people hitting each other in real life.

  6. I get very nostalgic when I smell clove cigarettes.

I'm going to have to add my tags later today, since I'm hurriedly posting this in the (very busy) lab, and I'll need to do some research to find out who hasn't done this one yet. If any of you readers are game, let me know in the comments and consider yourselves tagged!

UPDATE: Okay, I think I've found six more victims excellent bloggers who haven't done this meme yet. I've really enjoyed reading all the other randomness all over the internet!

So now, I tag:
FlickaMawa at A Cat Nap
Jenny F. Scientist at A Natural Scientist
MissPrism at A Somewhat Old, but Capacious Handbag
Rebecca at Adventures in Applied Math
EcoGeoFemme at The Happy Scientist whoops, somebody tagged her already.
Academic at Journeys of an Academic
WomanScientist at Woman Scientist

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hallo-meme Fun

Thanks to BikeMonkey's tag, Thing 1, Thing 2 and I all carved pumkpins this evening. with some help from hubby. I usually put it off until the night before Halloween, or just as we are getting ready to roam the streets in search of candy (or the best spooky house, whichever comes first).

I don't have quite the mad skills that BikeMonkey displayed on his pumpkin, but I think Thing 1 has quite a way with the knife - she carved this one entirely on her own!

This one is mostly hubby's interpretation of the sketch Thing 2 laid down on her pumpkin. By the way, this is what I overheard behind my back as they opened up the pumpkin:
hubby: Look, inside! It's pumpkin goop!
Thing 2: Oh! Pumpkin goop!
hubby: I like pumpkin goop. [smacking of lips]
Thing 2: You like pumpkin goop? [smacking of smaller lips] I like pumpkin goop, too!

And now, I tag Julie R (and twins), ScienceMama (and Bean) and Fia (and her two little ones). Happy Halloween!!

Monday, October 20, 2008

I think this is jacked up

This weekend I ran into a former neighbor of mine here in New City. She's an academic, but not in science. When I first arrived, she was in the process of turning in her thesis and arranging her defense. It was a bit complicated because she was doing all this from home, with two young children, while her university and advisor were in another city a couple of hours away. In fact, I'll never forget one of the first times we talked for more than a minute - she was frantic because she had just tried to mail her thesis, and it had gotten stuck in the trap door of one of a mailbox. She was frantic because, well, it was her thesis, and, apparently, tampering with a mailbox is quite a serious crime, and so she was not sure how to solve the problem. She settled on calling the post office, and going to stand guard by the mailbox until someone came to free her thesis, so that it could get on its way to its destination.

Her thesis was eventually liberated, and she graduated, but she told me about a hundred and fifty times, "If you end up having to mail your thesis - go to the post office! Wait in line, even if it takes all day!"

She then went on to a non-tenure track position at a local school. Although the environment was nice, and it was not too far from home, she wasn't all that happy with it because of the lack of permanence. So, when another school offered her a position, thought not TT at the time, had the potential to be converted into a TT position, she took it. And she was all but promised that the conversion would happen after her first year - because they just loved her!

Well, that was two years ago. She's now on year three, still no TT conversion. So, she's back on the market because two new TT positions opened up in her field at two top tier universities (apparently, that's a lot). Neither one is local, but she's tired of being dicked around, so she applied. And, of course, now the school she's at now is upset. They want her to stay, but they still have not offered her what she wants - a tenure-track position.

I was nodding along in sympathy through her telling me this, until she got to this part: some administrator called her home to discuss the situation. Upon finding her not home, this jackass proceeded to talk to her husband about the issue, asking him if there was "anything they could do to make her stay". Meanwhile their two kids were running around in the background.

Can I just say, what the fuck?!?! Can you imagine the opposite situation - administrator calls the home of a male professor, his wife answers, and the administrator begins whining to her about the fact that her husband is applying for other positions, asking her if there is anything she thinks they could do to convince him not to throw out his net for bigger fish. I think we'd all agree - that situation would be ridiculous, and yet, when the genders are reversed, and it's the woman choosing to look for ways to further her career, somehow people get all confused.

Besides. She already told them what they can do to make her want to stay - give her a shot at tenure.

I said as much to her. As I see it, this situation is not about the money, or convenience. It's about her looking to have what she worked her butt off for - a genuine career in academia. She deserves to at least get chance to try. She's not working for pocket money. And she doesn't need her man to make the decision for her.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What the Hell

Even though I have been a very bad blogger lately, what with the not posting for weeks on end with no explanation, people keep reading this blog. And the number of people who subscribe to my feed has continued to increase. So, the people have spoken, and I am going to give you all something to read.

Where have I been? I've had my head up my own ass, that's where. One might say I've had a little confidence crisis in "meat space" (I love that expression). But some shit has been going my way, lately, so I'm on the mend. It's time to polish up the brass balls that I prominently display here in the virtual world, and hoist this blog out of the land of "largely inactive".

Don't laugh, but the thing that triggered my crisis is my PI's decision that my project has finally produced an LPU (least publishable unit). Every part of my rational brain was shouting "Yay! This is a good thing! You might actually manage to get out of here with a PhD, yet!" But every dark and twisted part of my psyche was vigorously reminding me that I am nothing but a fox in the hen house, and if I try to get out of here with an egg, I'm sure to get caught. Not following? I'll spell it out: I have a serious case of Impostor Syndrome (IS). And that shit is seriously toxic. I have called many of my friends on this - I try to always remind the people I know how smart, kind, and beautiful they are. Because all my friends are truly smart, kind, and beautiful. And I know that people can easily forget all the things that are good about themselves, and start to tear themselves down if left to their own devices. Unchecked IS can ravage a person, and keep them from doing the things they want and even need to do. I've been working on my own IS problem for some time, and really thought I had it under control. But I was so very wrong.

The minute I showed my PI the results of those experiments I hustled to get done by the end of the summer, and he said, "When you get back from vacation, you should start writing this up," I started to freak out. You see, I personally did every experiment that would go into the paper. And half of them were my own idea. So, they were all most likely completely fucked up and wrong. And the conclusions I had drawn on the results, such as they were, would likely be the most ridiculous thing any journal editor would ever crumple up and toss into the circular file.

Also, I had a LOT of re-analysis to do, because I had changed something fundamental about how I analyzed the data half-way through, and it wouldn't make sense to not have all of the data done the same way. Even though the change in the analysis was unlikely to change the results for the old data. And my data analysis is really, painfully boring. Just before I left for my vacation, I wasn't sure I would be ever able to force myself to finish the re-analysis.

The great thing about vacations is that they do replenish your resolve. When I came back, I did feel less like a petulant child when I sat down at the computer. But you can't take a vacation from your personal demons, so I still didn't feel at all ready to write a paper. Lucky for me, I had to go to my program's annual retreat, which includes a poster session. So I laid out a new poster, including most of the stuff that I thought should be in the paper. And it looked pretty good. My PI was really happy with it. Then, I mentioned to my program administrator that I was working on a paper, and she asked me to give a 45 minute talk for our student seminar series. My PI thought it was a "great idea". He explained to me that preparing and giving a talk when you are in the process of writing a paper can help you organize your thoughts and get valuable feedback. I was thinking two things: "Great - if I have to work on a talk, I won't have as much time to work on the paper" and, "OMFG - I am so going to screw this up because I have so not conquered Teh Nerves".

So, I had been nervously and ineffectually working on the paper, and worrying about the talk for a couple of days, when, at lunch, PI announces that I am invited to give my talk for the lab of Dr. Prof. Genius, with whom we have a collaboration. Most of the groundbreaking papers on the system I work with came out of Dr. Prof. Genius' (huge) lab. He has more than earned the moniker. Which makes him a great collaborator for the lab and my project, but makes him really intimidating to me. I knew he was getting reports on what I was doing, but I had never really spoken directly to him about science at all. I was absolutely certain that he was going to spot the fatal error in my work. In front of a bunch of post-docs and super-post-docs (he doesn't take students). In less than one week. My PI cheerily scheduled me to give a practice talk in two days. I nodded quietly, but I am sure that everyone in the room could hear the sound of screaming from inside my head.

I almost choked during my practice for the talk. Literally. I got stuck on the second or third slide, tears welled into my eyes, and I had to ask to leave the room for a minute, then start over. But I got through it after that, and jotted down notes on some suggested improvements. Then, afterwards, in private, my PI gave me an excellent pep talk. He told me that he thought I was doing a good job, but that he thought I was worrying too much about things being perfect. He told me that he thought the best way for me to overcome that was to just keep doing stuff, and not give myself the time to get all worked up. And then he said that that was why he "threw me in front of the bus".

Well, this is getting really long, and self-involved. So I'm going to just cut to the chase - I gave the talk for Dr. Prof. Genius without any waterworks, and got really great feedback from him and his lab. I also gave the student seminar, and for the first time, I actually enjoyed giving a talk. Halfway through, I looked out into the audience and saw people nodding along and really paying attention and, for once, I felt like I was right where I belong.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Very Late Birthday Party

Thing 1 has the great misfortune of having been born in the middle of the summer. When she was very little, I thought this was a blessing for her and only an easily forgettable hardship for me. The last month of any pregnancy is uncomfortable at best, but when it is spent in sweltering heat without an air conditioner, it's really miserable. Also, I don't recommend spending the first month of motherhood like that if you can help it - two bodies in contact for 30 minutes straight, sweating profusely, every two hours (nursing) can lead to pretty intense heat rashes, for both.

But summer birthday parties are fun, right? Thing 1 has had outdoor parties involving water balloons, carousels in the park, elaborate relay races, and kite building and flying. Yes, the options are limitless when the outdoors are available for a kid's birthday party. So what if you have a small apartment - you can still invite the whole class!

Just don't expect them all to come.

We've always had a few friends out of town when Thing 1 celebrated her special day. But when we moved to New City, it became a serious problem. The year after Thing 2 was born, we had our first indoor party, at a local kid hot spot, to save myself all the work of organizing it all. We had worked and reworked the guest list, since there was a limit to how many guests we could have. Less than half of the children we invited could attend, and I resorted to encouraging those that could make it to bring siblings along so the venue wouldn't feel empty.

I'm not sure if it is because parents of school aged children are more likely to plan their vacations/traveling to see family during the summer break, or the change in the crowd we roll with. Back in Old City, we lived in a neighborhood that was in the process of gentrification. When we moved in, the nearest laundromat had recently burned down, and I learned not to buy any fresh fruits or vegetables at the nearest supermarket, because they would be rotten by the next day. We moved there because the rent was cheap, and the apartments reasonably sized but it was still relatively close to the center of things. And though the next neighborhood over was often in the news for poverty induced violence, our neighborhood was quiet. After we had Thing 1, we quickly came to appreciate the many playgrounds and parks nearby, and the neighborhood got better every year. We met many other families that moved in and stayed there for the same reasons, so most of our friend were not taking all that many trips, because, like us, they just couldn't afford it.

When we moved to New City, I asked around about where to move so we could feel good about sending Thing 1 to public school. By the time I knew where I had been accepted to graduate school, it was already too late to apply for private school in New City, and I didn't want to sacrifice her education for my own. Lucky for us, we could just afford to move into an area with excellent public schools that is very close to the campus of my school. It would be no different from staying in our old neighborhood and scraping together enough money for private school tuition since the local school had not yet caught up with the property values. Maybe better, since my commute would be so easy. And the schools are great, and no application (or tuition) is required. Though we have met other families in a similar position, there are many who are much more well off than us, for whom a summer vacation is a month away at some summer house, possibly in another country, and there are other trips scattered throughout the year as well. So people are just not around during the summer.

This year Thing 1 wanted to have a sleep over, and we agreed that she could invite her three best friends, since our place is small and the Things share a room. So, of course, she wanted them all to be able to attend. This means that, even though her birthday is in late July, and we started trying to find a date in late June, we ended up waiting until this weekend for everyone to be in town all at the same time. And though we celebrated her birthday as a family on the official day, I don't think she really felt like it had happened until I carried the cake in tonight and we all sang "Happy Birthday".

I think we'd better start planning now for next year's party.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

First Day of School

Thing 1 started fifth grade today. She informed me yesterday afternoon that I would be permitted to walk her into the building this morning, but that for the rest of the school year, forget about it. Just keep on walking past the door, mama.

As we approached the school, she reached over and took my hand. I suppose it was the force of habit - I have always liked to hold the kids' hands when we walk around town rather than constantly turn around in circles checking that they are still with me. But after two steps, she brushed my hand away and picked up her pace to get a couple of steps ahead of me.

I got to meet her teacher and catch up with some of the other parents I hadn't seen all summer. She settled into things quickly, quite pleased that there were not assigned seats. She dubbed the cluster of desks she and a few friends occupied the "cool table" and I barely got a hug from her before I left.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

September Scientiae Carnival

is up over at Lab Cat's blog, and it's a great read. Check it out!

I know I'm a day late in announcing this, but I spent all day yesterday doing home improvement tasks I've been meaning to do all summer.

Isn't that why they called it "Labor Day"?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Help Comes to Those Who Seek It

I have often wished that I had started blogging about a year or two before I finally did. I really wonder what I would have written during the time just after Thing 2 was born, when everything was crushing me from every direction - so much so that I couldn't even fall down.

When I got pregnant with Thing 2, hubby had been looking for a job here in New City for some time, without luck. He'd had a couple of interviews, but somehow nothing had panned out. But we really wanted to have a second child, and I didn't want to wait any longer. My work load was never going to get any lighter, and I wasn't getting any younger, so we just went for it, thinking that conception to end of maternity leave is a year - of course something will come along in a year.

It didn't.

I found myself at the end of the leave I'd agreed upon with my PI and department, and I had only gotten childcare for the baby arranged by the skin of my teeth. After putting my name on every wait list of every childcare center I didn't hate that was not completely out of the way of my home or the lab, only one had called with a spot. I knew that I was going to be starting over on my thesis research from scratch when I returned because someone else had taken over and nearly completed the fledgling project I had gotten rolling just before I was hospitalized half-way through my pregnancy and ended up unable to work at the bench for the rest of it. Not only was hubby going to be forced to continue working in Old City, while Things 1 and 2 were living in New City, but also his boss was insisting that instead of working from our home one day a week, as he had been doing for some time, hubby really needed to be in the office five days a week from now on.

But after everything that had gone down in the past year, it was really like just another wave going across the bow. Sure, I worried about how we'd manage, but Thing 2 was here, and she was totally healthy and adorable, and Thing 1 had really grown to be a sweet and helpful young lady. So I thought we'd just hold out a little bit longer.

I went into extreme survival mode:

  • Almost every night I went to bed with the kids.
  • If Thing 2 fell asleep early, I was sometimes awakened by Thing 1 kissing my cheek on her way to bed and telling me that I shouldn't sleep on the couch.
  • I did 100% of the night-time duties every night, and still had to get up when the baby woke up for good in the morning.
  • Thing 2 is a morning person - she usually woke up at about 5:30 am, ready to go with a gigantic smile. (I've worn her down so that she now sleeps until 6:30, and occasionally sleeps late - until 7:30 or so.)
  • Thing 1 is not a morning person. And if I couldn't muster the joy of spring in my waking technique, well, let's just say things were not going to go well from then on.
  • I pumped milk for more than a year, and, as it turned out, found it very difficult to achieve let-down if I was preoccupied with other things. It also turned out that I was often preoccupied with other things, like timers that were about to go off, even though the milk wasn't coming yet.
  • Many days I had to pump three or even four times to get enough for the poor baby. Sometimes I tried to make up the difference by pumping while nursing at home. Anyone who has done this knows that it is no fun for any of the involved parties, especially when using a manual pump.
  • Nobody I worked with understood that I couldn't just pump whenever they didn't feel like talking to me.
  • Nobody I worked with understood that even though it was only 10 am, I really needed to know how long the protocol we were doing was going to take, because 5 pm rolls around really quickly. And the $1/min late pick up charge for each child can really add up.
  • I did 100% of the cooking during the week.
  • No dinner could take more than 30 minutes to prepare, or else all hell was likely to break loose. And we are not talking Rachel Ray style 30 minutes. I do not have a prep cook in residence.
  • The kitchen had to be cleaned every night after dinner, including the floor thoroughly swept and mopped. Otherwise, there was no way I'd ever manage to feed baby, coax Thing 1 to eat something, suck down some coffee and sustenance myself, pack the lunches and pumping supplies and not turn around to find the baby with something unidentifiable in her mouth in the middle of it all.
  • Thing 1 could not seem to grasp the concept of thoroughly sweeping and mopping, and therefore could not help with that. She wasn't much help with the cooking either. Something about being only eight years old, I think.
  • Every weekend was spent running all the errands I couldn't do during the week.
  • I had to actually go along for most of the errands because hubby didn't have a driver's license (only his Lerner's permit) and he wasn't the one who needed all the stuff anyway.

And so on.

We did what we had to do to make it work. I napped with the baby on the weekends. We used a grocery delivery service. I discovered a set of five nearly instant meals that didn't make me want to barf, and we had those every week. Hubby snuck out of the office as early as he could on Fridays and stayed over on Mondays whenever he could get away with it. But there was no end in sight. Nobody was looking to hire someone as talented and hardworking as my hubby. Sometimes I secretly worried that he wasn't looking hard enough, that he didn't want to move here anyway and that I'd have to finish grad school without him. And when I considered that option, I suspected that this was something that I could not do. I found the wall that I could not break through.

And one night on the phone, I broke down, and I told him that I could not live like this for much longer, and something was going to have to change. I had tried for so long not to let him know how close I was to drowning. I didn't want him to feel any worse than he already did, because I knew that he had his own version of extreme survival mode, and it included not seeing his children all week long. But that night, I was so tired, my head so muddled, and I felt like such a failure in every single area of my life, that I couldn't hold it in any longer, and it poured out of me like a river bursting a levee.

The next day, he talked with his boss, and they agreed that he would leave his job in three months, regardless of whether he had found other employment. He would receive a decent severance package, since the company was likely going to be sold, and the bottom line would look better without his position on the books. About a month later, a company hubby had interviewed for nearly a year previously offered him a job in New City.

And so, suddenly, there was a light, and the wall was gone.

Best wishes to ScienceWoman tonight. She made me want to share this.

Friday, August 29, 2008

My Summer Vacation or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Laptop

I haven't written a post specifically for a carnival for a while, though Bora was kind enough to include one of my posts in the first edition of Praxis. Actually, I haven't been writing many posts at all lately, and part of the reason is Summer. Which just happens to be the theme of this month's Scientiae Carnival hosted by Lab Cat.

Summer vacation is a bit of a paradox for those of us who have school aged children who have it, but jobs or training positions that don't. During the school year, things are nice and predictable. Thing 1 goes to (public) school each morning by 8 am, has actual classes until 2 pm, walks to another part of the school and attends an extended day program until 6 pm at which time some adult picks her up and brings her home for dinner and family time. Thing 2 goes to daycare on the same schedule. Rinse, sleep, and repeat, Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are for the soft restart. So, although everyone is kind of running on a hamster wheel all week, unless I have something unusually taxing to do, like a 36 hour long protocol to do, it's not too hard to be productive during the school year.

Everything changes when school closes for the summer. Thankfully, Thing 2 is in a daycare that stays open for all twelve months of the year, but I have to start planning (and paying for) stuff for Thing 1 to do starting in January if I even want to come close to covering all 10 weeks of her summer vacation. It takes a siginificant amount of research to find suitable day camps that don't cost twice as much per week as the extended day program costs per month. Even still, many of the those are so mind-numbingly boring that she begs me not to make her go each morning. The rest tend to have such short schedules that it is nearly impossible to get anything done between drop-off and pick-up. Previous summers I have been so strapped for time that I would have to pick Thing 1 up during some incubation, take her back to the lab with me, and install her at my computer playing games for a couple of hours, just so I could finish up my experiment for the day. Needless to say, the disjointed and compressed work schedule feels like anything but a vacation, so when people would ask me if I was looking forward to the summer, I'd usually force a smile and nod noncommitally, while inside I was screaming - what the hell do I have to look forward to, exactly? My thesis isn't going to write itself while I hang at the beach with the kids, now is it? And OMG, have I mentioned how broke I am? Whaaaaaa!

But I decided to make this summer different. The experiments I needed to run were not particulary long in terms of time at the bench, but required a lot of time for data analysis. So, I decided not to worry so much about how many hours I spent in the lab, since it doesn't really matter where I sit at a computer and pore over raw data and analysis scripts. I left quite early almost every day for a whole month and even took the time to shuttle Thing 1 to a dance class she wanted to take in the afternoon. I did a lot of work on my laptop at all different times of the day and in all kinds of different places. Sometimes I went in to the lab on the weekend. Then hubby took over the transportation of Thing 1 to a camp near where he works, so I had a few weeks of something similar to my normal schedule. My PI and I had set a goal for a certain set of experiments to be done by the end of all the summer camp I had lined up for Thing 1, and I did it. I'm not about to pretend that I was cool as a cucumber through it all, but it didn't totally suck.

Then we went on a real vacation, for the first time since before Thing 2 was born. Hubby and I both took almost two weeks off so we could go to an unnamed family vacation mecca for ten days. The longest vacation we have ever taken since our honeymoon. But the best part about it was that I didn't feel like I was so behind that I couldn't afford not to take work along with me. Though I did falter in my resolve a little at the last minute, I smacked myself and reminded myself that I'd been taking work all over town with me all summer. I took a couple of papers that I wanted to read, but in the end I didn't even look at them. Past years I would have been facing this last weekend of summer, feeling that I hadn't done enough of anything. Wishing I'd spent more time having fun with the kids, annoyed that I hadn't made enough progress in my research, frustrated by friends and family members who didn't understand that even though I'm a student I don't have the whole summer off to just chill and tired from trying to fit too much into too short a day for too many days straight. For once I feel like after this weekend, I will be ready to dig into everything with renewed energy rather than a sense of desperation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Support the People Who Do Animal Research

There's been some discussion on ScienceBlogs about the recent firebombings of the homes of two UC Santa Cruz researchers (For instance: Terra Sigillata, DrugMonkey, Adventures in Ethics and Science, Respectful Insolence, Discovering Biology in a Digital World, and Built on Facts). And probably elsewhere in the blogosphere that I haven't made it to, yet. But I feel compelled to add my two cents, now. I mean, people were almost killed! For doing science that somebody else didn't like. Not acceptable.

I don't work with animals. But I have done so in the past, and I can honestly say that it is not like what you see in the movies. There is training, protocols to be evaluated, logs, etc. A researcher doesn't just have cages and tanks with random animals hanging around for them to tinker with for no good reason than a whim. Everything is planned, regulated and overseen. See DrugMonkey's post for hard fact and links.

What motivated DM's post, however, was the complaint that researchers seem to be reluctant to talk about all this when approached by students. I can definitely put myself in that place, and I don't think it's wrong to expect the questioner to be sensitive about this, given the climate.

Here's what I see as a similar situation - female scientists get asked all the time about their marital/family status. Many choose to be evasive or flat out refuse to answer because of the overwhelmingly chilly climate in many fields. They are simply concerned that they will not be taken seriously if they let on that they have children or may want to have children someday. Or even think children are not gross and annoying. One response to that behavior is to get mad at the women who do this. Because they should not be so paranoid. They should realize that this particular person really meant no harm and could actually benefit from their candor. It's so annoying that they are shutting down discourse about a very important issue. They really should stand up and be who they are instead of caving to the dysfunctional environment. Another response is to come to grips with the sadness of the situation, and then work to change things so that women will feel more at ease about speaking openly about their families.

I think we really need to take the second approach here. We need to acknowledge that there is a major problem - public perception of animal research is really messed up and making it hard for scientists who work with animals to feel comfortable talking about their work. Does that mean the inquiring fresh-faced student is wrong? No. But it affects how the professor will answer. Because professors are people, too.

I, myself, have always been open to discussion about both my family and any animal research I have done. I lack the discretion gene. But I know that those who have one or even two functioning copies might not be as forthcoming, and though I might encourage them to open up, I can really understand why they might not. Women are telling stories about their careers being wrecked in all sorts of ways because they let the wrong person know they had a maternal side. And now scientists are having their homes fire-bombed because they let the wrong person know that their research involves animals.

I must admit that there is one conversation that I am looking back on and seeing in another light just now. Way back when I did work with animals for one summer, I had lunch with a couple of friends as well as the brother of one friend and his girlfriend. The brother was all right, but the girlfriend - she just drove me crazy! She was the epitome of hairy-fairy, and new-agey nonsense was gushing from every pore. And she just assumed that everyone else was on the same page. She blabbed for about half an hour about the gerbil or hamster she and the brother had as a pet. Now I have no problem with pets. I have several pets myself. But I really hate it when people either talk about their pets as if they were human children or do not care for their pets in the way that would be appropriate for the species it belongs to. She did both, simultaneously. She went into great detail about how she felt that it is not fair to keep the little rodent in a cage, so she let it run free in their apartment. Then she divulged that sometimes, when this small mammal disappeared into the nooks and crannies of their (food cabinets, underwear drawers - you fill in the blank) they couldn't cook because she was worried that her pet might be hiding in the oven. A problem which would easily be solved if she would just keep the thing in a damn cage!

I tried to get her to change topic, no go. Nothing could be as interesting as her precious little whatever-its-name-was. So I decided to shut her up. The next time there was a lull in her yammering, I announced to the room that I had gotten a really sweet summer lab placement. When my friends predictably asked what I'd be working on, I told them I'd most likely be working on a project using mice that required sacrifice by decapitation and immediate dissection of the brain. It worked. Not another word about the rodent she scheduled her cooking around.

At the time, I thought of it as a slightly nasty way of reminding someone that other people see the world in a different light. Now, though, I don't think I'd do the same thing again. And not because I'm afraid that she might turn out to be some Animal Liberation Front nut-job who might fire-bomb my home. But because I did not demonstrate to her my real feelings about working with animals. Instead, I acted like the smug, insensitive jerk-off that many people think of as the "type" to work with animals. In reality, I wasn't sure I wanted to do that project, and in the end I asked to be assigned to a different project that only required sacrifice if something went wrong (in which case the animal would die anyway, but only after suffering, so it would be for the best). I was really careful and did my best to ensure that nothing went wrong. I made that choice because I was concerned that my inexperience and nervousness would prevent me from doing the deed cleanly and without extra suffering or waste. Not because I didn't think the work was worth doing (it absolutely was).

So, while I agree with Sandra Porter's call for more scientists to speak out about the importance of animal research, let's give the people on the front lines a break if they find it difficult to open up. If you have questions, don't give up because the first person you asked was a little skittish. If you have made up your mind to support the people who do animal research, consider joining a group like Speaking of Research, or just talking truthfully with your friends and acquaintances. Don't be an asshat like I was. The only real solution here is to try to improve public perceptions of animal research.

And, hey, law enforcement types - put those thugs in jail!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Show Me the Test Scores

I am really getting sick of all the discussion about Janet Hyde's new data showing a lack of difference between the mean scores of males and females on math tests. Cool. But. I really don't give a flying fuck if the variance of the distribution of the males' scores is larger than that for women. And it pisses me off when people try to use that somewhat unreliable* statistic to explain why women are underrepresented in science and engineering.

The quote from Hyde's paper that some people seem to be having such an orgasm over:

If a particular specialty required mathematical skills at the 99th percentile, and the gender ratio is 2.0, we would expect 67% men in the occupation and 33% women.

Well whoop-dee-doo. However, I can't think of a particular specialty that actually does require that level of performance ON A STANDARDIZED TEST THAT YOU TOOK IN HIGH SCHOOL. Let's get real here. Anyway, the ratio is 1.2 at the most. And,

Yet today, for example, Ph.D. programs in engineering average only about 15% women.

They must be pulling from the EXTREME right tail.

Just to get anectdotal, I scored high on those tests, but not that high. Of course I did go on to get a degree in one of those fields that is supposed to require high levels of math abilities after spending years doing nothing more mathematical that learning polyrhythms. Somehow, after a few years of actually using teh maths every day, yes, I decimated the GRE quantitative section, which one would expect to be a reasonable analog for the types of tests that high school students take these days. Is that me trying to hint at an explanation for the increased variance in boys? No. Because I don't think it matters. You don't have to score on the extreme right tail in order to join the scientific community - it's not MENSA.

I would like to suggest that anyone who wants to make an argument suggesting that the reason that I was one of only four women in an entering class of fourteen, or that I work side-by-side with eight men and two women under a male PI is that, in order to walk the hallowed halls of the Academy, you have to have a score above the 99th percentile on a multiple choice test should be required to disclose the entire history of their standardized test results, and if any are found to have scores below the 99th percentile, they should be summarily kicked to the curb. Losers.

*For more substantive posts on this topic, see Janet's post on Adventures in Ethics and Science, and Jake Young's post at Pure Pedantry. The winner for the best headline goes to Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money.
h/t: Bitch PhD
Just don't read the comments unless you want to fume like me.
Edited to add: Also check out Academic's take on this.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Book Meme

I've been tagged by BikeMonkey for a book list meme. Yay! This is just what I need - a little divertissement before I start taking my work too seriously!

So, I'm putting the one's I've read in bold, the one's I've started but never finished in italics, the ones I love in another color, and the rest are left alone. Additional notations are at the Here goes:

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
- we have them all, in print and as audiobooks. As hubby says, they've been dripped into all of our skulls by Thing 1, who likes to listen to them at bedtime...
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
- I went to Catholic school for 12 years. 'Nuf said?
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman - I'm reading this with Thing 1
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
- and, yes, I actually own this, bound in red leather. Gotta love used book stores.
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams - I missed this somehow. Guess everyone else talking about it so much made me feel I had absorbed it by osmosis.
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis - I read some portion of these as a kid, don't remember where I stopped.
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis - read this one aloud, in entirety, to Thing 1. Then she lost interest.
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden - loved the movie, should get to the book someday
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne - I've got two kids, what do you expect?
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert - the trilogy, baby!
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - I actually cry at the end. Every. Time.
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac - Never felt the need to read this one. Too many boyfriends quoting it all the time...
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville - believe it, or not, I was in a dance piece inspired by this one...
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens - probably had to read this for school, but I'm not sure
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett - aloud to Thing 1
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce - I tried...
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens - ha! ha! In a most inspired case of ridiculous casting, I played the Ghost of Christmas Present in a theatrical adaptation in middle school. Note that I was probably smaller than the kid who played Tim Cratchit...
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro - must get to this one
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White - another one read aloud to Thing 1
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
- I read this in French. Someday I will have to read a translation to find out what the hell it was really about.
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
- along with almost everything else by that author, aloud to Thing 1
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Wow. Well, I must say, I feel like I should read to Thing 2 a lot more, now. Or else I really should have taken Thing 1 to the playground more often when she was little...

I tag Academic, FlickaMawa, Julie R, Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde and Brigindo

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hardware Failure of the Month Club

Whoever enrolled me in this club, thanks, but no thanks. It's not that the club is not everything and more than the name suggests. Really. The first month, they even did a two-for-one what with the camera AND the computer getting fried simultaneously. And it's not that it doesn't drive plenty of useful interaction with my labmates. Desperation could spur me to spark up a conversation with just about anybody if I think they might have half a fucking clue about why all the sudden I can't see anything through a very expensive microscope objective that has a six month lead time for new orders. And my back really did need that bit of exercise that only stretching out over an enclosed optical table to reach that component way in the back while simultaneously looking straight up and back can provide. Not to mention the learning experience of taking everything apart and putting it back together again while anyone who could provide guidance is on vacation offers.

I am grateful for all of that, and I'm sure your intentions were good. But what I really can't handle any more of is the heart palpitations and stress that accompany each month's installment. I'm not kidding. When I looked inside that objective and saw the oil trapped between the lenses, I think my heart skipped about ten beats. And when I had to go share this discovery with my PI, I think my heart rate was about 200 something. There are only so many times a person can be presented with strange and unusual equipment failure and respond by saying, "If nothing ever broke in the lab, I would suspect that you people were not really doing the science." One day, it's going to be, "What the fuck is wrong with you that you can't take better care of your equipment?!?"

So, though I know it is getting toward the end of the month of July, I really hope it's not too late to stop delivery on this installment. Maybe we can put my membership on hold for a few months, you know, like a gym membership? Or maybe we can move to a biannual plan? I'm not asking for outright cancellation. Because I do appreciate the gesture. It's just that it's too much. Seriously. You shouldn't have.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Camera Update

Thanks so much to everyone who left suggestions and expressions of empathy in response to my post about the broken camera. It looks like I can now put that frustrating episode behind me - we received the repaired camera back last week. It seems like everything but the housing was replaced, judging from the notes on the packing slip. And it works like a dream, too!

In fact, it almost works TOO well. The sensitivity is incredible! So incredible, in fact, that I've had to rewrite all my analysis codes because the parameters have changed so dramatically.

I also got a new computer that was pre-loaded with the right operating system. I think it's funny, though, that nobody seems to want the computer that three people slaved over for several days to wrest from the clutches of Vista. I thought it would be used for the new set-up, but they chose to order a new one as well. Then it looked like it would be used to run the fluorimeter, which used to be run by a Commodore 64 and was just upgraded. But it is still sitting next to the optical table, not attached to anything. I guess it's tainted with the scent of futility.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Finding Time for the Extras

Zuska's question for this month's Scientiae Carnival was:

How did you let the world know "I am HERE!"
The most obvious answer is that I (finally) started writing this blog. But, I've increased my visibility in other ways as well.

After going through the graduate school application process a few years ago, the program I felt was the best fit for me was in a city about five hours away from where my family and I were living. Since the program was highly respected, and at an Ivy League school, to boot, my husband and I decided that I should not pass up the opportunity to go, and decided to move the family. The plan was that I would move first, with Thing 1, and that hubby would keep his job in Old City and commute once a week until he found something suitable in New City, since we couldn't really all live off of my stipend. We thought it would take six months to a year.

It actually took almost four years. During that time, I finished my two years of coursework, did rotations, served as a teaching assistant, and joined a lab. Since there was only me to drop off and pick up Thing 1 from school and extended-day, all of those activities had to fit into a very rigidly defined window. There was not a minute of extra time on week days to do anything that couldn't be done at home or with Thing 1 in tow, and hey, the kid needed to sleep! So I made sure I was on time to pick her up every night, even if it meant leaving class early, missing review sessions, not hearing invited speakers, or skipping social events. I spent time with her until she went to sleep, then hit the books. Often I was too tired to work at night, so I would rise at the crack of dawn to finish up whatever was due that day before it was time to get her up and ready for school.

When Thing 2 was born, the window became narrower still, and it became nearly impossible to work at home. Instead of getting up early to work, I was getting up at all hours to nurse and otherwise tend to Thing 2. And in the evenings I bounced between the two kids - serving up the big kid dinner in between spoonfuls of the baby dinner, reading a story to Thing 1 while Thing 2 nursed. Multi-tasking became the norm, and I developed a habit of going to bed with the kids. Where I used to be able to occasionally arrange for Thing 1 to have dinner with one of her friends if I needed a little bit of wiggle room, I couldn't really see having someone else look after Thing 2 after she'd spent the whole day away from me. And I could not imagine traveling - I didn't even go to my program's yearly retreat that year.

So, I'm sure you can imagine the relief I felt when hubby finally took a job in New City last year. I had great expectations for how much easier it would be to handle everything when I was no longer outnumbered by my children. And things are much better. I don't feel so much like I'm running around in circles. Other changes are happening gradually. I've started to attend some of the evening talks. I've been able to travel to attend retreats and conferences. I've been able to present my research. And I've been able to participate more fully in student life. I volunteered to be the representative of my program on the board of a student group. This summer, I will be mentoring a participant of my institution's summer research program for undergraduates; I went to the kick-off dinner tonight, while hubby had quality time with the kids. And I know I'll be able to meet with him regularly without compromising too much research time.

Because I've been able to expand my available time, I've been able to do more stuff besides benchwork. I'm hoping this means I'm getting more out of graduate school, and preparing myself better for the job market. Plus, people see me around more, and I don't get that, "Wow, where have you been?" comment so often. And, you know, I feel like a more balanced human being.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What Every Female Grad Student Needs

You can get a pair here for under $20!

Monday, June 2, 2008

On Mentors

Over on Drugmonkey, PhysioProf wrote about the misconception that, in order to be a good mentor, a PI has to be at the bench, able to do every technique in the lab better than anyone else. He says,

Sitting at the bench or having good hands has nothing to do with being a good PI. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. There is no positive correlation.
I agree with him. I also agree with the commenters who note that the selection process for PI's really should reflect that fact. Not having gone on the job market, however, I don't know weather it does.

The debate of interest to me at this stage of the game, however, is over just how pervasive bad mentoring actually is. One commenter, Becca (no blog), suggested that bad mentoring is so common that,
The system is broken. If not because it doesn't work for so many, than because it wastes so much time for so many. Bad mentorship is a leading cause.
She goes on to cite up to 50% drop-out rates at her institution, and to say that she
think[s] that most of these individuals *deserved* to finish their degrees.
Personally, I think Becca is suffering from the all too common disconnect between the idealistic vision of grad school and academia in general and the reality of living in the adult world. Nobody DESERVES to graduate simply because they were admitted into graduate school. It's a long, hard road, and you don't get that hood if you don't walk to the end. Period.

And that road is filled with sharp curves, and is poorly lighted. Before entering graduate school, students are so focused on doing all the right things to get into graduate school - getting the grades, getting the research experience, getting the recommendation letters, taking the GRE. It's ticking off boxes. And most people have a fair amount of support in this endeavor. But once you have ticked off those boxes, sent out those applications and been accepted to a program, the nature of the game changes. It's no longer as simple as ticking off boxes; instead of performing well at pre-determined times that have been announced to you well in advance, you have to be on top of your game all the time. Then you join a lab, and it's not enough to be smart or to have potential. You are expected to produce. Produce data, produce insight, produce something publishable.

Different mentors have different approaches for getting you to achieve that last goal. Not all styles of mentoring will work well for all mentees. And there are some ineffectual, even damaging mentors out there, but grad students, as the adults they are, need to take some responsibility for their own education. A potential mentee has but two jobs - first, seek out the mentor, or mentors that fulfill the mentee's own needs, and second, be open and accepting of mentoring. Most graduate student expect their PI to be a good mentor to them. Sometimes this doesn't happen. What then? If your PI is a bad mentor, find another mentor. Find two or three, in fact, because no one mentor is ever going to fulfill all your needs. If you find yourself at an institution that does not as a whole provide good mentorship, go to another institution.

I spent a lot of time and effort researching schools to make sure I would be in the environment that was right for me. Then, once I got into grad school, I spent a lot more time and effort looking for a mentor who was right for me. I could have joined a lab headed by a big name PI who has his fingers in every pie in my field. Instead, I chose to join the lab of a junior PI who was doing the kind of work I wanted to to, and who showed that he respected me as a person and was comfortable with my "lifestyle". I am certain that there is no way I would have made it through my first year in a lab otherwise. I am often very frustrated when I have to listen to classmates who complain about their PI's, only to find out that either they had heard the stories about that person and thought that it wouldn't happen to them, or, they hadn't even bothered to ask around or do any research on the person for whom they were going to have to work for several years. That is a careless thing to do. As they say, you have to lie in the bed you make.

As for the counter-claim that some students are not mature enough to do that kind of legwork, well, maybe some people aren't ready for graduate school right out of college. Maybe they should go out into the world for a little while and see how it works before they dive into a PhD. program.

As for the second job of a mentee, fellow students, don't be so quick to paint your PI with the dumb-fuck brush. I have had both the humbling experience of having my PI point out something incredibly obvious that was screwing up my experiments and the exhilarating experience of having an idea that my PI pooh-poohed actually produce interesting results. It seems that grad students go through a sort of adolescence - where their PI is like the parent and they have to prove that they can function separately from them. Just like how adolescent children like to say their parents don't know anything, so too do grad students like to bitch about their PI who could never understand all the details of their experiments. A certain amount of this is totally normal - just blowing off steam. But if we get carried away with it, we may miss out on what our mentors have to offer. So what if your PI doesn't know how to use every piece of equipment in the lab with a level of skill and grace that would make angels weep. Does that mean they have nothing to offer? No. And is that really all you came to graduate school to learn? I hope not.