Thursday, October 30, 2008

All I needed to know I learned (not) in school

It occured to me today that I'm over six weeks into my "new" job now, and things have settled down into somewhat of a routine, or semblance of normality. But I'm not sure that I've really described the kinds of things that I'm doing here, which is cause for some reflection, and perhaps some story telling.

Let's see, on Monday I spent most of the day visiting a bunch of field sites and pouring seed/sand samples from tubs into plastic bags, collecting data for a grad student at a remote school who's doing a project on seed predation. A common aspect of my job is actually often designing/inventing the structures and devices we need to accomplish some of our experiments. This is a fun, and rather unexpected part of work... on any given day, it involves a lot of head scratching, tinkering with all kinds of hardware, pvc pipes, metal conduit, pipe fittings, plywood, 2x4's, plastic craft boxes, rope, steel cable, hog rings, rebar, lots of duct tape etc, etc, etc. Also playing with power tools: drills, drill presses, table saws, hand saws, hack saws, pipe cutters, crimpers, screwdrivers, wire strippers, hammers ("persuaders"), vice grips, wrenches, pliers, sledges (or as I like to call them "big persuaders"), and so on. Most of the things we make are driven by the need to accomplish a given task, without pre-existing plans, and (because this is ecology) the conflicting demands of the best/sturdiest/most easily opperated device and at the same time, using materials that are as cheap/easily obtainable/fast to construct as possible. Right now our project is significantly limited by budget and time constraints.

I like to pretend (not without some true similarities I think) that I'm one of the engineers in Houston that helped figure out how to save Apollo 13. This job is, I'll grant you, not quite so stressful, and no one's life rides on the success of our inventions.... (Thank goodness!)  But still.

How does a theoretical ecology dude end up with a job that involves such a significant amount of engineering, tool usage and common sense? I guess I'd have to indirectly blame (credit?) a good deal of it to my parents.  Ever since I can remember, the houses we've lived in have been in one state of renovation or another.  There are pictures of me as a baby in one of those walker things, in a room where all of the walls are sorta ripped out and you can see wiring and lathe n' plaster...  This started literally before I was born, when my parents bought a run down old house (now more than 200 years old!) and a lovely old piece of property.  18 years later, it was just about all fixed up and perfect, and we moved...  Repeat.  

We've always done a lot of the work on our houses ourselves, as my father is very handy (skills he learned from his dad), and my mother learned to be so as well.  Plumbing, electrical work, framing, deconstruction, roofing, painting, you name it, we've done it (probably more than once).  Once my younger sister and I were old enough to help, we chipped in, handing tools and nails and doing simple jobs at first.  As a result of all of this, I've ended up with a set of common sense/practical/handy-person skills that are serving me well right now.  I've told my dad (much to his amusement) that the knowledge I'm using right now for this job I had to have a bachelor's degree to apply for is actually everything that I learned from him long before I ever entered halls of higher learning...

What was the point of college again?  ;-)  Not really to get this job, but to carry me on to the next phase I guess, the ever closer, looming graduate school period.  On that front, I'm up to two solid/exciting possibilities, one safety, one maybe and one no-go.   With maybe 3-4 people left to contact.  I'm slowly making headway.  I think I'd be happy calling it a full set if I end up applying to 5 schools, +/- 1.  Whew.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

News + 5 random things + 1 lie= worth a post

Easy part first...  I wasn't going to do this because it is strongly reminiscent of email chain letters that I make it a rule to delete, but I am going to cave in to peer pressure.  Add in the fact that at this point every blog I read has already done this tagging business, such that by my participation I still represent a dead-end in the network tree and won't be contributing to the spread of this 'meme' thing, and I have no more defenses.

In honor of the Dawkins-esque declaration of this process as a 'meme' or slowly mutating piece of culture, I'm going to shake things up a bit and post six random things about myself, one of which is untrue.  Kudos if you can pick it out.

1)  I've personally met the presidents of Costa Rica and Panama.
2)  I was born in a blizzard under an unusual astronomical event, called a syzygy.
3)  One of my fond and vivid memories is having sea grape cytoplasm squirted all over my leg.
4)  I spent several years of my childhood wearing rainboots and a tri-corner.
5)  Before I came along, my parents were revolutionary war re-enactors; I, finding gunfire distasteful, and having a powerful set of lungs even as a baby, made short work of that past-time. 
6) I used to take ballet classes, and wanted to be the next Magical Mr. Mistofeles from the musical Cats.

Hope that was all y'all wished it could be :-)

News section:

- I turned in my absentee ballot today, and have now officially voted in my first presidential election (I missed the last one by being about 2 months too young, much to my annoyance, as at the time I was organizing and running a student group promoting voter registration....  I used to be quite the young activist before academia consumed my soul).  I ended up voting for a candidate I hadn't expected to vote for, with feelings of optimism and wanting to give him a chance to prove that he means what he says, rather than voting for the candidate I had intended to originally motivated by my young, idealistic, environmental perspectives.  Go figure.

- as for local elections, I hate it when there's only one candidate for an office, and refuse to vote in such cases.  Doesn't make a bit of difference, but it feeds my pique.

- I am the proud owner of a halloween costume for the first time in several years (last year i carried a hand mirror and pretended to be a mirror image of myself - the culmination of several years of increasingly lamer costume excuses).  Went shopping at a nearby Goodwill with one of the other research techs, and picked out an awesome outfit, which will interface nicely with those new dancing shoes I've mentioned before.  I'll put up a picture perhaps...  its wild.  And the fun thing is that parts of the get-up I'll probably happily wear again.

- Got my first paycheck from the new job today, almost six weeks after I started working here.  It seems to be rather a pattern that short term research jobs take a long time to catch on... good to know in the future.  Luckily I tend to be a pretty good saver, so it wasn't horrible to wait for the paperwork and checks to start catching up with me, but this could be a big problem for others...  if you know someone doing the whole take-a-year-off thing intending to work short term jobs, tell them to be persistent and timely in making sure the bureaucrats get their paperwork done, and to have a buffer of cash on hand...

- Sent out a difficult email to a potential grad advisor this evening... took forever to write it, as I knew from his website that he wasn't planning on taking new students this coming fall.  I wanted to check to see just how firm that statement is, but also didn't want to seem ignorant of his website info, or presupposing/arrogant.  Hopefully I got it right.  This guy does neat work, and as an added bonus, he teaches at the same big academic school that Eugenie visited last weekend with her pre-vet folks...  Finally, I got a response back from another email I'd sent, so now I'm up to 4 positive responses to inquiries, 2 of them at places I'm solidly interested in, one at a 'safety' school, and one that I don't know what to make of yet.

I'm like that rock you see in animations of potential versus kinetic energy - rolling down hill and picking up speed.  Look out...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thou mammering pottle-deep fustilarian!

This amuses me:

That is all.

A little southern culture

Yesterday was the big day - our first full scale attempt of our coordinated experiment.  Things went really smoothly, perhaps even surprisingly so.  A very long day though - I clocked in about 18 hours of work; exhausting business, and not something I want to do on a regular basis.  But, in the name of science...

Only had about an hour to grab dinner last night, so instead of driving all the way back to my apartment (~20 minutes), I stopped at a small town BBQ place.  "Catherine's" is only open three days a week, and consists of a buffet of various southern dishes, including pulled pork, BBQ sauce, fried okra, hushpuppies, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, rice, some sort of orange brown stuff to put on the rice (I think), swea' tay'  (sweet tea - supersaturated sugar water with some brown coloring), mac and cheese, potato salad, coleslaw, and dessert options: banana pudding (with real banana chunks!) and peach cobbler stuff.  Did I mention that it's a buffet, and you can come back for as many helpings as you want?  Pretty much a perfect situation for dinner on a long work day, preparing for a long cold night of work...  Cold air fights rather effectively with threatening food-comas.

It's an interesting place to eat solitarily too - lots of local character to watch.  There aren't really any small tables here, just long ones with lots of chairs, so it's rather communal.  It's fun to listen to the conversations and try to understand the "southern-ese" with varying success.  Usually I can only catch a few words here and there.   Highlights from last night:

"And someone baked that lil' child a cake, and he'd never seen one before, so he asked 'what'd you do to the corn bread?'"

"Say something soft and sweet",  response:  "banana pudding"

... from where I sit now, maybe those aren't quite so interesting as they were last night when I heard them.  Shrug.

Other notable objects of southern culture to be found around town include probably my favorite pawn shop ever - "We Buy:  Gold - Coins - Silver - Diamonds - Jesus Loves You"

Does it get much better than that?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On getting excited...

Hey all

So the graduate school search continues.  I've decided to shelve my efforts to throw together an application for the NSF graduate fellowships for the time being, and focus on getting to the graduate school and advisor that will be right for me.  Seems like this is a more important and immediately pressing goal.  If for some insane reason I find myself with enough time as the deadline for the NSF thing approaches, and am simultaneously struck by inspiration, I'll give it ago, but for now it's cooling its heels.  I've been discovering how hard it is to work on designing and thinking about science when you work 40+ hours a week, and aren't in an academic setting...  one more reason to get my butt in gear applying to schools.

Towards that end, my total count of potential advisors contacted is up to 4, of which 3 have responded, and 1 has conversed on the phone with me (soon to be 2)... I've also started contacting their graduate students to get some inside scoops.  I'm kind of starting to get excited about one place in particular, although that may just be because I've gotten the best response/most information from them to date.  So far everyone responding has been very helpful/friendly/informative, so that's nice.  It's cool to be on the up swing of a "feeling excited about science" cycle - sometimes I just get too overwhelmed to feel the excitement.  There are probably about 4 more people I want to e-mail, but definitely I'm making headway... whew.

In other news, we've got the first of 9 replicates of a very large experiment happening down here tomorrow - something we've been preparing for over the course of several weeks, and involving the coordinated efforts of 6 people and several radios.  Keep your fingers crossed that all goes well tomorrow, gulp.  If so, then I'll be working the next several nights collecting data (argle, also yeeeehaw!).  I'm working significantly more than 40 hours a week right now, which was something i was concerned about when deciding if i wanted this job - I'm trying to preserve the time I need for grad school apps, etc.  But I tend to be very stubborn, and want to work until a job is done, rather than cutting off at 8 hrs a day, so I'm well over 40 again.  Extra hours are saved up and count towards paid vacation apparently...  at this rate, I could be getting paid for a week or two of extra 'work' well after having finished physically working here.  Good deal.  I'm planning on burning some of that over Thanksgiving, when I'll be heading off to visit Eugenie and her family (more on that in the future I'm sure).

But for now, off to bed, as tomorrow could be a 16 hour day (eeeeek!)

Peace out...


- Jonas Salk

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The gates of the temple of science...

Currently engaged wracking my brain trying to come up with a research project to propose for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application.  I feel like there are so many things that I am very curious about (which is a good prerequisite for a research project), but that at least for now, the vast majority of them are things that quite a lot is already known about.  I just need to study the topics more, which is why I want to head back to academia.  But it doesn't make a great "original research proposal" to propose to learn about things that are already known.  Trying to come up with an original, meaningful project to advance the edge of scientific knowledge, when you still can't feel quite where that line lies, and if the stuff on the other side of the curtain is worth knowing, is, well, HARD.  Not sure what to do about this.  But it did remind me of a quote that I like, by "some physicist dude"...

"Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.

- Max Planck

I guess I'll keep reading and thinking and see where I end up.

PS, I think this is me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

And so it begins...

In the last several days I've begun at long last contacting potential grad school advisors.  I feel like I still haven't looked at everyone I should, or compiled the best list of people possible to write to, but it's starting to get late in the season, and I need to get going.  So last night I jumped off a cliff, send out a letter to a guy I met at ESA over the summer, and took a deep breath.  Now that I've begun, I feel like this means I'm definitely committed to beginning grad school next year.  Gulp.  Hopefully a lot of the nerves are out of the way now that I've begun, and the excitement of this whole thing will shine through.

This afternoon I got an e-mail back from the guy I wrote to - it was very, very positive, which makes me happy.   He wasn't planning on taking a student in 09 because of a sabbatical that he's taking, but he said he "can't pass up a chance to get you here".  WOW.  Very unexpected...  am I just being flattered?  Eeeek.   Now the pressure's on.  I realllly didn't think I'd get that good of a response from someone I'd only briefly met and conversed with.  

I'm pushing on, with the intent of getting out a letter a night minimum until I'm done (right now 7-8 people are on my hit list).  Before I get to that though, I'm paying rent, grabbing some thai food with the other research techs, and then back here to read through my paper manuscript (the lab group here is reading and discussing it at the meeting tomorrow am to give me feedback.)  I really hope it goes over well - this is a group of people with a much more applied focus than who I usually share this project with.  My co-author's comments on the current draft are in the mail too, so maybe this weekend I'll submit the sucker (who knows!).

Time for a shower...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pesky Plant

There's a plant from the genus Desmodium (Fabaceae) all over the place down here in our field sites.  It ranges everywhere from about 10 cm high all the way up to plants taller than I am.  When I first started a few weeks ago, mostly it was still flowering.  Since that time, it has gone to fruit, and it produces these special legumes called "loments" with an exterior that is very, very sticky (like microvelcro or something).  These "seeds" are now sticking to everything, and I mean absolutely everything.  All you have to do is brush against a loment and it sticks in pieces or as a whole section to your shoes, pants, shirt, skin, facial hair, you name it.  At the end of a day of field work, you can be covered in these suckers.  Our office back at the lab has them all over the carpet, and some people have been arranging the loments into little pictures and mosaics...

The most annoying this about this plant and its tenacious dispersal mechanism arrives (as I recently discovered) when you go to do laundry...  if you don't get all of the loments off your clothes beforehand, then end up in every bit of your clean clothes.  Alas, I just spent a half hour picking them out of my clean underwear, socks, shirts, etc, etc.  Sigh.

I kind of wonder where these seeds will end up if I toss them in the garbage?  Would they have a chance at some sort of long-distance dispersal event and establishment of a new population?  Or do they end up buried so deep that they are unable to germinate?  I usually try to pick the seeds off and leave them behind me as close to where I picked them up as possible, but sometimes I definitely miss some.  And I don't want to just chuck them outside my door.... Hmmm.  The conundrums of attempting to be a conscientious ecologist and understanding invasion biology...

(Images are from an archive of plant photos maintained by the University of Texas, Austin, check it out here)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Getting paid to wear assless chaps, or Why I love ecology

*Yep, I got paid to wear assless chaps today for work...*


*I know you're dying of curiosity... keep reading*

So the project I'm a part of down here in the southeast involves habitat restoration experiments.  For some of these systems, this means the periodic clearing of brush and small saplings and subsequent controlled forest fires.  Fire plays a really important role in the regeneration and maintenance of many traditional plant communities and habitats.  

*Wait for it...*

Being a lowly research tech, today I was assigned to help clear out these "small" saplings (trees can grow awful fast in a year!  Mostly oaks, cherry, sassafras, and various nut trees) from some of our experimental plots.  So I spent all day using one of these to clear brush.  Hot, tiring, sweaty, smelly, loud work involving quite a bit of physical exertion.  And, as part of my personal protective equipment (PPE as the red tape calls it around here), I had to wear these assless "chaps" made of a special fabric that stops saw blades (useful for if you slip with a chain saw and try to cut off your leg or something).  Usually the buckle right on over the top of everything, although mine was messed up today.  Oh ecology - runs the gamut of skills and talents needed in the pursuit of science, ranging from power tools to electrical knowledge, genetic analysis to mathematical modeling...  And involving so many fun toys (not talking just about DBH tapes here...)!

Also, the air conditioning in our apartment makes me think of the sound of the brush saw engines revving and cutting - that's how you know you did the same thing for too long a time period!

Another country heard from...