Friday, April 29, 2005

Good advice

My advisor gave me a good piece of advice yesterday: Don't be limited to place-based research. He said that the trend in our field is moving away from place-based studies (not that specific places aren't where you really learn things). I'm not sure where this means our field is moving, though. Are we going towards more modelling (conceptual or analytical) or are we moving towards a focus on instrumentation? Or is it just another way of saying what I'd figured out long ago; we need to be problem-driven, not method (or place?) driven in our science. Just because I'm good at stable isotopes doesn't mean I should select my research based on where I can use them. Instead I should seek out interesting problems and if I can use stable isotopes, great. If not I can learn a new technique (or find a collaborator who knows it). I think taking this concept and applying it to places (i.e. I work in the Northwest) is probably what my advisor meant. But maybe not...I guess I'll have to think about it some more. Any thoughts?

On the subject of advisors, a few more general thoughts...Most of the time I see my advisor less than once a week and it's usually brief. When I first started my PhD I was frustrated by this, because there were so many questions I wanted him to answer for me, especially about how to do things. Now, I occasionally get frustrated because he can't answer my specific questions (my research has moved away from his expertise), but I am also to the point where I just want to work uninterrupted and get things done and find the answers for myself. At the lab last week, my mentor there would check in on me several times a day, and while it was helpful during my problem-filled lab work, I realized how frustrating it would be for me to have an advisor like that now. So I guess that after years of wanting a mentor in my field who could answer my questions, I've hit the point in my career where I don't need one as badly any more. My cello teacher in high school told me once that her goal was for me not to need a teacher any more. I think goal has been acheived, just in a slightly different field.

This is not to say that I've outgrown any need for a mentor. There are still plenty of things that I could use advice on: how to publish, how to write a publication-quality manuscript; how to find a job when I get done, etc...Maybe just scientifically then, my need for a mentor has grown into a need for colleagues.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Getting science education right

There's an article in the New York Times today on an exclusive LA all-girls prep school and their phenomenal science program. Most of the students at the school take more than 2 years of lab-based science classes, and advanced physics is popular. "Honors Research" pairs seniors with researchers in a lab, etc to work on graduate (or nearly so) quality research. While I love to hear about good science education programs, particularly ones aimed at girls, it's too bad that too often they are limited to places like this school. I feel really lucky to have come from a (public) school that had a "honors research" type program, but our regular curriculum was horrible. Why can't every public high school have a great science curriculum, one that's challenging, lab (or field) based, and attractive to students? Is it lack of good teachers, adequate administrative support, facilities limitations, or just stereotypes about what type of people do science? Why can't more places get science education right?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Home coming

I've been gone a week (a frustrating, but ultimately productive week) and yesterday I drove 10 hours to get home. And now I am facing that perpetual internal conflict I feel upon returning from a "work" trip. I am reinvigorated about my research, anxious to analyze the new data, excited to investigate some provocative new threads. But I am also happy to be at home in my own bed, walking my dog, doing the laundry and grocery shopping, and otherwise just enjoying a return to normalcy. But if I enjoy the normalcy for too long (and I don't know how long that is), I lose the reinvigorating effect of the trip. You might think that one day off after working 9 days straight would not be such a bad thing, but maybe it is...and I feel like it's a microcosm for my bigger struggle to figure out how to be a cutting-edge productive scientist (like I know I want to be) but also a good wife, mom, and happy person (like I know I want to be). So what do I do? Well, right now the sky is blue, the dog is happy to see me, and being a person outside walking their dog in the middle of the afternoon beats sitting in front of the computer and analyzing data. So out I go...

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Notes from the lab

I've spent this week in the lab, which is a rare occurrence for me, and I've been reminded why it's good that it's a rare occurrence. I neither enjoy lab work nor am I any good at it. Oh, if everything is humming along smoothly and I'm getting good data off the machine, then lab work is fine every once in a while. But I spent the first few days fighting the extraction line, where I was reminded that I have no " body sense", making it extremely difficuly for me to do the precise work required. Finally on Thursday afternoon, after yet another tutorial on how to do things, we figured out what my problem was and I've been able to do the extractions reasonably well since then. Now, of course, I am fighting a cold which is making me even more distracted and accident prone than usual. Speaking of distracted, I think that's one of the things that bothers me the most about lab work, if you want to get the job done right you can't think about anything except what you are doing, and the moment your mind wanders...bam, you've screwed up. As my mom says: "I don't like having to be a robot for the machines." I'm with you, Mom. Obviously not all measurements can be made in the field, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be here getting really useful data, but I am more grateful for the people who not only are good at lab work, but like doing it as well. As for me, I'm anxious to go home and see what my field sites look like after a few weeks absence.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The first step

As most blogs begin, so do I...testing, testing, 1, 2, 3...

I propose to write about being a scientist from a woman's perspective. This may include thoughts on lab work vs. field work, interesting discoveries that I hope to make, musings on balancing work life with real life, and whatever else seems appropriate. This year I've been thinking a lot about how and when to have children and how that meshes (or doesn't) with my career. So I'm sure there will be some mention of that later on...

Right now though, I'll just see how this looks.