Saturday, February 28, 2009

Updates - fun + graduate school

It's been a while. Two main goals for this post: 1) fun things that have been happening. 2) the obligatory update on the grad school process.

Fun things first:

Earlier today I made a special watering can for my lovely baby bonsai tree. It needs quite frequent watering because the pot is pretty small, I keep it in a fairly sunny window, and the air in our house is dry. It doesn't deal well with pouring water on it - the H2O either runs right off, or causes a lot of erosion. I've been sprinkling with my fingers, but today I decided to make a special watering can for it. Requisite materials: 1 minute-maid orange juice bottle (plastic), a sturdy push pin, and a pair of hands. basically I push the push pin through the top cap of the OJ bottle a bunch of times in a whorl pattern, making little tiny holes. Now I can fill the bottle, and gently apply water to my tree without disturbing it! The wholes are just the right size too - small enough that barely any water comes out simply by turning the bottle upside down, due to adhesion/cohesion. But with a gentle squeeze, you can control how fast the water comes out, in a beautiful little shower.

My apologies if you're not into trees/plants, I'll move on now... ;-) Today was the first day in almost a month that I haven't be away at grad school interviews. I took full advantage of this fact (maybe even too much so) - I slept in, lounged in bed reading in the morning, talked with Eugenie on the phone for a good long while, made a delectable breakfast (herbed egg toast, with tomato and Canadian bacon), and then proceeded to spend pretty much the entire rest of the day reading. The sun was out, a not too frequent occurrence this time of year here, so all day long I switched around between chairs, following patches of sunlight around the house. It was lovvvely. Also, my housemate has been gone all day, so other than Eugenie, and a brief chat with my sister, I didn't have to see or talk to anyone all day. Sweat pants and my favorite old T-shirt allll the way. It was the perfect medicine for recovering from interview trips, which are very social, anti-sweat pants, and draining.

Other highlights of the preceding week - got to play soccer again (because of interviews I've missed games the last two weeks), crepes at a small Mardi Gras party, seminar Friday, submitting my abstract for ESA (and being told I might actually get funding for attending, something I hadn't planned on), and day-dreaming about a cross-country national park visiting bicycle trip (wistful sigh).

Grad school update:

I'm going to keep this brief; after I get back from my last interview (taking place over the next 3 days), I intend to sit down and lay all this out in detail to organize my thoughts.

Last weekend's visit was quite lovely. The school I interviewed at is the closest to home, Eugenie, and my old stomping grounds, of all the places I've applied to. And I could feel it - the terrain, the people, the countryside, even the grocery stores, were similar. This is very appealing to me, as I am really quite a bit of a home-body. I liked it much better than the private school in big city, for any number of reasons. Pretty campus. Friendly people. Close to farms with cows (not that I'm planning to interact with cows... that's Eugenie's department). The school/program is much bigger that private U, and all of the people I talked to were very excited about their science, and fun to converse with. Funding isn't as good. Advisor is much more laid back, has an established lab/tenure, and was interesting to talk with. The overall research focus of the lab is not what I'm interested in, but there are strong overlaps between the theory behind the work they do, and the technical skills, and the kinds of questions I want to study in Ecology, so it could probably work quite smoothly. Also, one of my potential labmates also enjoys swing dancing, and took me one of the nights I was there... fun! We'll see.

In brief, right now I have two explicit offers (detailing funding, etc) from schools, and a third in the mail apparently from the place I visited last weekend. Nothing from private U (i won't be surprised if I don't get an offer from them though - I think I'm not rabid enough for their program). That leaves only the school I'm visiting between tomorrow and Wednesday. Which by all accounts, and my background research, should be quite a lot of fun, and probably a good fit for me (similar in a lot of ways to where I was last weekend).

I'm sort of anticipating ending up with a 3-way tie for my preferred place to go, which is frightening. Private U is pretty much out. Southern state school could be cool, but their funding sounds pretty shakey compared to my other offers, and it'd be more of a gamble. That leaves 3 big state schools, one of which I work at now and like, one of which reminds me a lot of home, and one of which I'm anticipating will be the best academic/research fit for me. Gulp

More to come when I'm back from my last trip!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Something got me thinking of one of my favorite E. Dickinson poems:

I dwell in Possibility --
A fairer House than Prose --
More numerous of Windows --
Superior -- for Doors --

Of Chambers as the Cedars --
Impregnable of Eye --
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky --

Of Visitors -- the fairest --
For Occupation -- This --
The spreading wide of narrow Hands
To gather Paradise --

Things are going better. I hacked out 4 diffuse ideas of PhD research project for overachieving potential graduate adviser, and jotted down a very frank, cut to the chase sort of email. Haven't sent it yet (i'm going to sleep on it), but I think I might tomorrow. It's sort of refreshing and liberating to name the game and the positions of the players, instead of pretending we're not playing it. This whole thing reminds me of the phrase "How do porcupines mate? Very carefully". Maybe I'm being a little cocky, but I think I'm in a position where I can afford it, and it might make things simpler for everyone. If he doesn't want to take a gamble on me, because he's new, with a small lab and I'm not a sure bet and I have some unusual skill sets and interests, then I'm not going to hold it against him, and if I send him this email, he'll know it. And, there are plenty of other places very interested in me (I got my first official offer of admissions today!)

Time to go to sleep, so I can get up in the morning, pack and head to my next interview. Wheeeeee!!!

Leave me alone - I just want to do science!!!

Woke up this am early, pumped to tackle some new approaches to one of my problems, and fired up with energy from yesterday's excursion into mathematics.

Got to work, checked my email (mistake number 1).  Several emails came in from prospective grad school advisers, one of which is stressing me out.  He's asked me to give him a list of 5-7 projects I envision I would work on with him at that school, with descriptions.  By the end of the weekend.  A weekend that I'm going to be spending away at another interview, although one that sounds like it might be more low-key.  *fingers crossed*

Also in the email, I've been asked where his institution ranks on my list of places I want to go.  This is just an awful question to ask a prospective student.  I mean, I can understand why he has (young faculty member, needs good students, on a time crunch, lots of competition).  But still.  I'm obviously not sold on this place, but I don't know that so far I like anywhere else any better.  Responding is going to be quite unpleasant, trying to be diplomatic/honest/but not completely.  All of the programs I've applied to are pretty different, so it's not like I can just take all of these, put them in a list based on prestige or monetary support and have an obvious choice.  Argle.  I think in his case, his persistence is probably not going to be helpful to him if he wants me as a student, but maybe he doesn't care.

Either way, all of this stuff, plus additional emails from other potential advisers, means that instead of being able to clear my mind and think about my research, which is taking some interesting branchings, I keep going in circles in my head thinking about other things, and staring at the computer screen, or my notebook, or papers.  None of which is helping to get anything actually done.  I realllly wish I could just skip all this BS and be able to spend time doing MY work and learning what is interesting to ME.  I'm tired of it already - stand back and let me do science!!!

Time to try again, sigh.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A good afternoon

So today, I randomly and spur of the moment decided to accompany my adviser/boss to a nearby small liberal artsy type college, where he was presenting guest lectures in two classes. I had a blast. The last time I sat through a class was in May of 2008. I realized that I very much miss math courses. It's soooo strange to spend 6+ years of your life getting really good at something (ie, sitting in courses and studying and such), and then to have all of that disappear pretty much overnight. So it was like a bit of a nostalgic thing to do, even if it was in a totally different place and with different people.

Besides, it was a realllly cool lecture topic - essentially using random walk concepts to derive the PDE (partial differential equation) representing diffusion of particles in space and time. Sexy equation, check it out: wiki

We even talked about some tricks for studying PDE's - mainly converting them to ODEs. And solved Fisher's equation, studying invasion fronts (the examples were even biological!). And all of this is the foundation for sweeet things like Turing structures, and Zhabotinsky soup. I wish I could have taken a class like this when I was in undergrad, alas.

The driving today gave me a good chance to spend some time talking with my adviser dude. I quite like him. We have surprisingly similar backgrounds, although he has come down much more strongly and unapologetically on the side of doing all theory and little experimental work. Who knows, maybe I'll end up like that too. One amusing (and all too true) comment that came up during a random conversation was that I'm a really good deal for him. If we get a solid paper out of my project, which I expect to do, then he'll have gotten a paper for the price of supporting a lab tech w/out benefits. In comparison to funding a graduate student (stipend, plus tuition, plus benefits/health insurance) or a post-doc (larger stipend, benefits, etc). Apparently I'm cheap! I decided to take that as a compliment.

I think I realllly really need to make sure that I land in a spot for graduate school where I can reliably get my math fix. I want to take courses in numerical analysis, statistics (esp. multivariate), nonlinear dynamics, and PDEs. For starters. And, while this admittedly vacillates, right now I'm of the opinion that maybe I should have studied even more math, or looked for a Master's degree in applied mathematics/statistics before heading to a PhD. Ooops. I'm also sort of temporarily at least wishing that I had applied for one or two of the more prestigious/rigorous math/ecology programs that I shied away from... Sigh.

But tomorrow I could swing the other way again, who knows.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Interview #2

So I was away from work interviewing for graduate school from Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening. Not going to record the whole experience here, but I do want to mention some of the salient features, for general interest and to help myself remember.

1) This interview was at a private school. They are (very) well funded in a region where the cost of living is low. Students and faculty alike, pretty much everyone I talked to, made sure to mention this fact. Funding is high, TA responsibilities are light. While I'm ok with being provided this information, it started to annoy me very quickly how often it was brought up. Maybe this is normal, I don't know. But being very much of public school stock, I'm not afraid of the idea of getting by on what is necessary, working hard, etc. Just like I didn't want to apply to work with a renowned adviser because I want to be known for my own work, I sort of feel turned off at the thought of too much funding and too low work requirements because I feel like things shouldn't be too easy. That graduate school shouldn't feel like a posh, relaxed experience. Then again, I may just be crazy. It also made me a tad nervous that some of the people (though certainly not all) that were there were doing science because of the good funding, above and beyond their love for the science that they are engaged in. Bizarre. I much prefer people that <3 science, because let's face it, science is awesome.

2) The department is small, but pretty high powered. I enjoyed all of the faculty members I met with, some of them quite a lot. Even enjoyed talking with the dude that likes to come across as very gruff/iritable/unlikeable. I think it's all a show.

3) There isn't much interaction with the math department, although the math people are pretty solid. This is a big con to this particular school - whereas in other places I could pick up a masters in Stats. enroute to my PhD, this place didn't even require a single stats class to get a degree! I think this is paramount to blasphemy in this day and age.

4) Talking with people and being social is exhausting. I love talking and hanging out, don't get me wrong, but I think even in the last year or so, I've gotten a bit more solitary of necessity. My social circles are smaller than they were in college, and I'm used to spending a lot of quiet time thinking and working, flavored by quality visits with friends. This weekend was highly social, and for me to maintain such a friendly outgoing facade in the face of large groups of people, most of them new to me, for extended periods of time, is realllly exhausting. A little strange to think that this is probably more the case now than it would have been a year or two ago.

5) Considering the pros and cons of interviewing with a group of other prospective students. Someone pointed out that this can be both good and bad for a school potentially... if one of the interviewees is really obnoxious/unlikeable, it increases the chances that the rest of the prospectives won't choose to attend, on the off chance that they'd get stuck with having to deal with the obnoxious person for 5+ years. On the other hand, if it's an awesome group of people, it's in the school's favor. I was glad to get to meet everyone, even if it was awkward to know that there were two other people interviewing for the same position as me (not that I think I couldn't take them, mwahahaha). No one was totally obnoxious, but other than my good friend who was also interviewing, only one other student out of a group of ~10 of us really connected. It would be awesome to work the same place as my good friend though.

6) As part of the weekend, we were shown a bunch of graduate student apartments. It seems like a verrry grown up thing to me to rent such classy places (right now I live in one room with sparse - ie nonexistent - furniture). Also to know that some of the grad students I was talking to were married. And buying houses. Most of me still feels like I'm maybe a sophomore. All this serious heavy-duty real life business is kinda frightening.

All in all, I'm not sure I want to go to this place, although learning more about it definitely improved its chances. The next two weekends I'll be visiting my two top-choice schools, and I'm realllly hoping that I'll fall in love with one of them (making my life/choice much easier). If I really don't like them though, I know I could make this place work, especially if my friend were to choose to go there. We'll see how things go!


I wish I were a much better mathematician.

One of the useful things that mathematicians often do is figure out whether or not a problem is actually solveable.  Some people spend several years of a PhD in mathematics and discover that the problem they're working on isn't solveable - but that's a result!  Some find solveable problems.  Others, well, who even knows what they do? ;-)

But one thing that's really frustrating is being a pseudo-mathematician, and being able to define problems that you want to solve, but not knowing enough to know whether or not the problem you've written down falls into the class of "solveable" problems.  And not having a real, bonafide math whiz around to ask.  Then you end up spending forrrever on something that probably isn't solveable.  And then you're like, damn.  What a frustrating waste of time.

Also, I think I'm really losing my math edge... things that I used to know and do without a second thought aren't coming to me as easily as they did.  I realllly need to get back in school.  And maybe hire me a mathematician.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I'm most of the way done w/ my first weekend grad school interview/recruitment.

I'm tired, my voice is dying, I'm feeling really antisocial and I'm dying to get out of this city. I think I like the school and the program ok, but I've just about hit my limit. Ugh. If one more person asks me if I have any questions I'm going to flip.

Life is coming on fast, egads.

Now I'm gonna try to pull myself together for this last night.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Meet tree (or, Why my girlfriend is the best ever)

So, on Monday I was stressing out in a significant way, in preparation for my first set of interviews. I was overwhelmed trying to get ready, while responding to information requests from the next two places I'm visiting, and trying to actually work on the research project that I get paid to do.

Guess what arrived and made everything 10 times better???? Check this out:

It's a baby bonsai tree!!!!!! How cute is that?!?!? I've wanted to try bonsai trees for years, and never quite got to it or chanced giving it a try. Eugenie sent me one in the mail as a surprise! Now that I'm on the other side of my first interview (more to follow on that), I've finally had a chance to try repotting the tree, a juniper. But just knowing it was waiting for me at home kept me thinking positive, happy thoughts so it was easier to relax. When i get too stressed out from being around people, hanging out quietly around plants is the best cure. I only wish I could have carried it with me alllll day!

So far I've just been referring to the newest member of my family (it has lots of plant brothers and sisters, if not in a phylogenetic sense) as "tree", but it really needs a name. Any suggestions? Ideas I've had already include

- Ernie
- Juno
- Jenny
- Steve
- Glenn
- Bassie

Isn't Eugenie the best???? :-D

Monday, February 9, 2009

Aaaand I'm off

First batch of interviews is tonight and tomorrow.   I'm stressed, fidgety, worried, and excited.  I want to do well.  Probably once it starts it will be ok.

Time to go get in the car and drive, and blare some tunes.  I'm gonna prep like this is a soccer tourney.

Peace out!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The calm before the storm...

... hasn't actually been so calm.

Thursday afternoon I helped a grad student with some outdoor winter sampling, involving skis, snow, cold wind, many layers, and significant adventure.  I felt like a hard core ecologist.  Took a couple of pictures, so maybe I'll take them with me on interviews, in case anyone doubts my abilities as a theorist to understand or perform fieldwork... That evening we had an indoor soccer game; tough game, but we managed to scrape out a tie when one of my team makes scored a brilliant goal off of a free kick in the closing minute of the game.  

That was pretty much the high point of the evening, after which a lot of stuff went downhill.  We stopped at a grocery store on the way back home, and I discovered when I went to pay for my groceries, with my debit card as per usual, that my bank had recalled my debit card.  In other words, the cashier was instructed to take my card and not return it (as usually when a bank recalls a card it's because the card is suspected to be stolen).  Talk about confusing/disturbing/embarrassing, I didn't know quite how to deal with it, even though I knew it was my card.  I must have looked like a pretty suspicious character, since I had just played soccer and my hair was going in all directions, i was wearing sweats, and looked pretty grungy.  Aaaand, since I usually pay for everything with my debit card, don't carry much cash, and have been unable to get approved for a credit card despite numerous attempts, I had no other way to pay for my things.  Ucky ucky ucky.  One of my friends/teammates was kind enough to help me out, but I haaaate asking for favors like that, and it was just all around an unpleasant deal.

Finally made it back home, flipped on my computer to check my account, and found out that all of my banks' debit cards had been recalled, because hackers had cracked in to some big company's database and stolen names and numbers.  So I guess it's good because my account and savings were all just fine.  But it also is really bad timing, since interviews start next week, and I have to get gas in my car, and traveling without access to some sort of resources is a bad idea.  I think a friend is going to help me cash a check, but this is all more than I wanted to put up with.

All of that is nothing, however, to what one of my friends is dealing with right now.  I got some very very sad news from her in a brief email that same night, and by comparison, this financial hullabaloo is trivial at best.  I'm hoping and praying for her and her family, so suddenly faced with something very hard to come to terms with.  Remember always to love life people, and share love with the people in your life.  

Friday was nuts too.  Started off sleep deprived and tired from the game the night before, plus staying up late helping edit a letter, and getting up early to finish reading a journal article for our lab meeting.  Our lab was hosting this week's seminar speaker, so he was at our lab meeting as we discussed a recent paper of his.  Interesting to have such discussions with the author present - quite enlightening.  Nice guy, although very confident that what he has found is the answer.  Seminar follows meeting, lunch follows seminar, and then I was meeting on and off with my advisor for most of the rest of the afternoon, trying to catch him up on the things I've discovered during the last two weeks that he was away.  I also spent half an hour talking one on one with the seminar speaker, which was fun.  I'm getting better at it - fewer nerves getting in the way i think, maybe because they've all become desensitized to repeated stress shock.

We had a second soccer game Friday night, the last of this session.  I was really tired before the game, and pretty fed up with being around people (I can really only handle so much social interaction in one day before I get overwhelmed and stressed/cranky, especially in the presence of group indecision/inefficiency; when I get tired, this effect intensifies.  Eugenie is realllly good at buffering for me when I get like this.)  Once we got playing though, I perked up quite a bit.  It was a really good game.  I had two good goals, no lucky/cheap shots this time.  The whole team played really well, and we carried the game, finishing the session with the best record in our league.  Yay!

Fortunately, today I've been able to slow down a bit and recuperate.  The weather has been stunningly spring-like, which I have very mixed feelings about.  But I guess it's nice to be walking around in sweats as supposed to experiencing negative temperatures!  I've installed my new RAM, quadrupling my former capacity on my laptop, and I'm backing my files up to my new shiny external hard-drive.  When that's done, the project for the rest of the weekend is to reformat my laptop hard drive and try to see if I can get everything running smoothly again.  Also laundry, and trying to organize my thoughts in preparation for 4 interviews in as many weeks.  I'll be sure to try to keep you all up to date on how things go!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A day in the life of TT.

Just in case you've ever wondered what a day in the working life of this transient theorist might entail,  here's a choice snippet from a paper I'm trying to digest  (note, this really is English, I promise, no fooling):

"The impact function I maps the unit cube into the L-dimensional parallelepiped spanned by the impact niche vectors Ci while the sensitivity function S maps the unit cube into a parallelepiped spanned by the sensitivity niche vectors Si."

I remain undecided as to whether it's more frightening that such a sentence exists, or that I think I've mostly figured out what it means.  And it's sweeeeeet!!!