Tuesday, May 31, 2005

time management skills

I need some. Despite the shortened workweek, it took me until after 2 pm today to really get down to research. I had to answer emails, backup data, read a journal article, go to lunch with a visitor....all genuinely work related activities, but none of them really furthering my research career. It's so easy to burn a large part of the day with things like that, and so frustrating to look back and realize that I haven't accomplished anything. However, doing miscellany is better than sitting in meetings, because they just cause the miscellany to pile up. Anyways, in today's case, it's good that I only put three hours of real work in, because now, at 5 pm, I am completely burnt out and frustrated with my day's project. I can't seem to get the data to agree with the way I think they should reflect reality. Argh...

Well, I am off to walk the dog, eat some dinner, update my other web site, and hopefully do some prep for Thursday's big meetings...You'd think that the fact I am bringing work home (and with the intent to do it, no less) would alleviate some of my aggravation, but it doesn't because I knew I was going to have to bring it home with me, no matter how good my time management. Blah.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

sucessful dinner

The dinner went fabulously - I spilled nothing, although there was a bit of awkwardness with the almost $500 bill. I let a couple of key people know that when the time is right I might be interested in post-doc opportunities and I got to hear some great stories. All told, Tuesday was a much better day than Monday. Details on my trip later (maybe), right now I've got to dig out of my email accumulation. S and I are goingto check out some field sites later this afternoon, and it's supposed to be ~90 degrees. Sounds more like May in Minnesota than in Oregon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Lesson learned in New Orleans

  1. I must get my speaking jitters under control. A 15-minute talk turned into a 10-minute version interrupted by spasms of coughing - not, as was kindly suggested by my advisor, the result of my current cold, but instead a return to my long-time mode of losing control of my vocal cords upon giving a "big deal" talk. This problem is/will become a professional liability very soon. Can you imagine giving a 50 minute job talk with 30 minutes of coughing? There's no way I'd be hired. To do: (a) find a voice coach (maybe in the speech/communications department) to overcome pyschological hurdles and/or learn coping techniques, and (b) start singing in public (suggested by a pedagogy professor) to build diaphram strength (and calm nerves).
  2. Now is not too early to start thinking about next steps. To whit, RFP for government post-docs starting in summer-fall 2006 is out now. To do: (a) think about what i want to do when I grow up - both in terms of research area and type of employment; (b) talk with my advisor about what, when, and who and my husband about where; and (c) informally express interest in post-doc opportunities as it arises in conversations with potential mentors
  3. There is a big bad "good ole boys club" in my field anchored by students of a particular professor (head honcho). I am on a different branch of the educational family tree, so I am definitely not in the club, although I am close enough to know who the players are and what perks they enjoy because of membership. But perhaps I can exploit a secondary "good ole boys club" based on my undergraduate school and the cadre of scientists who trained there (including my advisor). At least I have that, because I am becoming increasingly aware that I am already at a disadvantage by being a girl in a boy's world. Apparently, the head honcho of the dominant "good ole boys club" does not take kindly to children, so I suddenly less inclined to take kindly to him. To do: (a) re-establish connection with my undergrad advisor (progenitor of the secondary "good ole boys club"), and (b) be persistent in reintroducing myself to members of the clubs. Name and face recognition cannot hurt.
  4. I am capable of figuring out complicated, technical analyses. I shouldn't let equations scare me. This is a lifetime lesson I need to keep reminding myself.
  5. The fact that at every conference I end up in the sessions related to one particular sub-discipline, while forcing myself to attend a few nominal sessions related to my research, gives me a pretty strong indication of where my heart lies. If I am to make a lateral transition in fields either in getting a post-doc or in getting hired to do what i want to do (and not what I am trained in) I am going to need the aforementioned networks.
  6. Recognition of my true interest should not disparage my current research. Instead I need to sell myself (and remind myself) that my background gives me an advantage in knowing additional techniques (novel to my "true" field?) and unique perspective on problems.
  7. Be assertive or be invisible, take your choice. I need to learn to be assertive. Today I took the major step of asking my advisor (who usually disappears at conferences) whether I could join in his dinner plans. Now, I am set to have dinner with some of the big players. I hope I don't spill anything!
Yes, I've also learned some science in the past few days, but somehow the politics seem more important right now.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Working through a dense fog...

Yesterday, a dense fog descended on my brain and my throat ached unbelievably. Today, the brain fog remains but the throat ache has been replaced with a head full of snot. And here I am at my desk.

Next week is the big conference in New Orleans, and my first talk at a national professional meeting in ... ever? (That seems hard to believe given how long I've been giving science fair talks, but it does explain some of my nerves).

I'm presenting a whole bunch of new data that forms the nucleus for my first paper (I need three for my PhD). I am hoping that I get some good comments from the audience that will be helpful as I start to write up this research. So far I've gotten really good comments from S, my advisor, and two other grad students. S's comments were useful in a direct "rearrange these two slides" sort of manner, while my advisor's comments were wonderfully deep, but hard to figure how to implement. He's amazing at big picture stuff, but it's still really difficult for me to understand how to "talk to" the big picture when my data is just a little piece of the puzzle. Going through my talk for him was the first time he'd seen a lot of my results, and I think he's pretty excited about it. Now, I've just got to finish the last of the analyses and start writing...but I already know what my advisor will say to the first draft of my paper..."So what? How does this speak to the broader problem?" I've always thought of myself as a big picture kind of girl, but lately I find myself fascinated by the details....losing the forest for the trees. Maybe that's because I finally feel more competent to handle the details than the big picture...a reversal of my long-term predicament of being able to make sweeping statements without being to explain why.

On the personal front, I am having huge "babylust" issues again, coupled with angst at my inability to do anything about them. I haven't met the latest new arrival yet (don't want to give a newborn this cold), but she looks awfully cute from pictures. And her second blanket is just about done.

Anyways, sorry for the rambling post, just blame the fog. May not post again until late next week.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I'm an auntie! (almost)

My cousins had their baby Monday night. She's a healthy 7 lb 5 oz baby girl. I can't wait to meet her.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The joys (and perils) of having data

I'm working on a talk for the conference next week and right now I am in the midst of the horrible process of importing Excel graphs into Powerpoint and then making them look pretty again. (I don't understand how such horrible things can happen going between 2 office products).

As I think about which graphs to include and what I'll say about them, it's causing me to re-evaluate some of my data. For example, I spent 30 minutes in crisis mode over 4 points (of 26) on one graph. If I throw out those 4 points (and I have some justification for doing so), my regression r-squared improves and my slope changes fairly significantly. But what I really want the regression for is another level of interpretation, and the change in slope makes very little difference for that. So the points will stay for now, but I am sure they will be re-evaluated again when I put that figure into the paper I am eventually going to write. And then more time will be spent weighing my options.

I am reminded of my mom saying that in field work every decision you make has ethical consequences. Well, it doesn't stop when you get back to the lab (or spreadsheet) either. In talking with other people about this sort of decision making, it seems that the common practice is to document, document, document. But that documentation will end up buried in my thesis somewhere, not on display in the published article. Is that okay? What sorts of decisions are other researchers making about what data to include and not?

How much do all the little, seemingly insignificant decisions we make about where to sample, how long to measure things, which points to throw out, what curve to fit, etc. add up to effect our end interpretations and our understanding of the way the system or process works? These are questions that can't be answered by simple error propagation but they are usually missed in the rare ethics seminars that we take. So I am left to ponder the cosmic significance of my 4 points.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

weekend update

Yesterday was a wonderful day around town. The weather was sunny and warm and my dh decided that we should go biking around town. We biked over to the Ford dealership and feeling like enviro-nerds asked about the hybrid Ford Escape, found a locally owned sandwich place for a late lunch, went to the nursery for tomato plants, and grilled dinner.

Today, I needed to do field work and I made dh come with me. Even though it was raining, he was a good sport because I explained that I really needed to do it and since I hadn't been to these sites before I was uncomfortable doing it alone. So off we went to the mountains, got to the first site, and found out that the equipment was broken. It was really frustrating to have driven all that way and not be able to get any data. But in the end we made a bad situation into a good one by doing a neat hike past some waterfalls and hitting the REI sale.

So despite what I thought was going to be a productive work day in the field, once again I've managed to go a whole weekend with doing no work (except that chapter on strontium isotopes I read when I couldn't sleep). And once again I've had a fun weekend. There might be a lesson here about what weekends are meant for, but there's also the sobering thought of a busy week ahead and the eventual need to actually get the field work done. Oh well.

Friday, May 13, 2005

quick recap

Ology-Day 2005 is over. After 23 talks, an award ceremony, and food and coffee catering issues, I was quite brain-dead last night. Everything went smoothly, but I was on a post-performance adrenaline withdrawal. I am planning to go in the field tomorrow, but I couldn't seem to find the crucial piece of equipment. Hopefully, when I get into school today it will be right under my nose.

Am feeling very stressed out at the moment about the amount of research stuff that I feel like must be gotten done RIGHT NOW. I know that realistically I have plenty of stuff for a 15-minute talk in a week, and I should just put the powerpoint together, but somehow teaching in July feels like a looming brick wall and has pushed me over into panic mode where I try to do everything at once, with no regard for what actually should be prioritized. (Like posting to this blog, and writing run-on-sentences.)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Good impressions, they're harder than they look

Rory, a Yale sophmore and aspiring journalist, scores an internship at a local newspaper. Her task, shadowing the publisher and learning the ropes. After a rocky start, she seems to be getting along well with her coworkers, pleasing her boss, and figuring things out. Then the publisher offers to give her some feedback, sits her down, and tells her that he has a pretty good instinct about people, and he doesn't think she has what it takes to make it in journalism. He doesn't see her inserting herself into meetings and conversations, and therefore thinks that she doesn't have the gut to really go after a story. To make her feel better, he then tells her that he may have saved her a lot of trouble.
If that sounds like the plot of this week's Gilmore Girls episode, then we share similar tastes in TV. But I think there is something to be learned from the anecdote, because I think I've found myself in Rory's situation before. Even today, when my advisor and I hosted a visiting professor, I found myself being Rory, sitting on the sidelines and not fully engaged in the converstation. And this was a professor that I had specifically asked to meet with, one that I had been contemplating as a potential post-doc mentor.

So why did Rory fail at her internship? Maybe she didn't understand what was expected of her. Maybe she thought her role was to observe, not participate. Maybe she lacked the self-confidence to put herself out there in a public, professional situation. Maybe what the publisher was evaluating her on was her ability to be a business executive, not the ability to write a great article.

So why did I feel like Rory today? Sometimes the conversation was about things which I was not involved, sometimes it moved so quickly that by the time I thought of something to add, it had already moved on, and sometimes it was just so interesting to hear what the visitor and the prof had to say, that I was enjoying listening. But now I am left wondering whether I may have a left a less than stellar impression on our visitor. What will he think of me? Will he think that I am technically competent in my narrow field, but not able to tackle big picture problems or apply ideas to other places? Will he think that I am probably smart enough, but not out-going enough to succeed in a field where who you know can be almost as important as what you know? (yes, it's still a good ole boys club) Will he even remember me in a year?

To some extent, it doesn't matter what this guy thinks of me, I've decided that he's a bit too chemistry oriented for me. And you know how much I'm chemistry averse. But someday soon, I hope to be talking to potential post doc advisors or colleagues in departments where I hope to teach, and then it will be crucial to make a good impression. I don't want to end up like Rory.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Maybe I haven't been clear as to what I mean for this site to be.

My goals:
1. To engage in an on-line conversation with other women, scientists or not, about the joys, struggles, and confusions of being a woman and being a scientist.

2. To write about my personal challenges and insights as a young, married woman working on her Ph.D. in the sciences.

My methods:
I envision my role here as diarist and as provacateur. I figure my job is to start interesting conversations, by relating incidents and insights from my life, or by bringing in outside references that have caught my attention. Hopefully, if I say something controversial, thought-provoking, or stupid enough, you will write a comment and a dialog will begin. Or, maybe, you'll just read what I have to say, and learn something about me or yourself. But I'd love to know what it is you've learned.

Why this blog?
I have friends working on their Ph.D.s, friends that opted to stop after their bachelor's or master's and work in industry, and friends that decided to put aside their career and stay home to raise children. I have a friend who finished her M.S. almost a year ago and is still searching for permanent employment, and I have another friend who is trying to weigh a job and community she loves against a husband who's career needs to move away. I, personally, have been thinking a lot about when to have a child, and what sort of compromises I am willing to make in terms of career and family life.

And I know that my friends, and other people who stumble upon this site, can share their collective wisdom and experiences, their shared hopes and frustrations, so that we can each learn something about ourselves and what it means to be a woman in today's world.

My frame of reference is academic science. That is where I spend most of my days absorbed, and, hence, my perspective on women's issues is colored by the culture of science and of academe. I am coming to realize that I view my chosen career differently from my male counterparts. Maybe I, we, have something to say about science, as a profession or as a discipline. But if you're not a scientist, please, share your perspective, too. I know I can learn a lot from other disciplines and life paths.

So join me on this journey of a blog, of a career, of a life. And speak up.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Mother's Day (better late than never)

This is your brain on Motherhood (New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday)

The above article is just the latest press that Katherine Ellison has succeeded in getting for her new book "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter." Basically, her thesis seems to be that rather than the commonly perceived intellectual decline associated parenthood, having kids actually makes you smarter, by challenging your brain in new ways.

A few of my thoughts on the subject:
  1. I am distressed to learn that not only are women perceived to be less worthy of jobs because they might have priorities other than career (e.g. kids), they are also perceived to less mentally capable of doing the job because they have been (or are) pregnant. As if I didn't see enough roadblocks for women already.
  2. Some of Ms. Ellison's examples seem rather obvious. Motherhood makes rats better at doing mazes because they have better time management skills. Who doesn't know that mothers succeed in doing things faster and more efficiently her childless counterparts? They have too; they have a baby waiting to be nursed or child needing to picked up from school.
  3. I say Yay to us getting smarter as we have kids. I'm going to need all the smarts I can get to keep up with a demanding career and demanding kids.
  4. Big kudos to Ms. Ellison for all of the publicity her book is getting. The NY Times article is at least the third I've seen on her book. Besides, most men aren't going to read a book called the mommy brain, and most mothers don't have time. So at least this way her research is getting attention.
So does "pregnancy brain" exist? Does "mommy brain" exist? Is anyone reading the book?

finishing things (someday, maybe)

My mom asked me yesterday whether I thought I was going to be done with my Ph.D. in time to participate in commencement next June. She told me how she didn't manage to finish until August, immediately started teaching, and never went back for commencement the following year, and now, 30+ years later, she wishes she had finished up earlier so she could have done the whole pomp and circumstance.

It seems inconceivable to me that people could already be thinking about me finishing. I've barely give it any thought, because it seems like I still have so much left to do. And when I look ahead in my mental calendar I see a summer full of teaching my first class, doing other outreach activities, and of course, more field work. I see a fall looming with three conferences and all of the attendant poster and talk prep that goes with them. Somewhere in there, I've also got to do a bunch of work for a grant that I'm a PI on, but that probably won't be part of my dissertation. So even though it's only May 2005, I feel like I'm not going to be able to work on my second and third papers until January 2006. And then to finish in only a few months? And that means I'd seriously have to be looking at jobs and post-docs starting this fall, and I'm just not ready to do that.

Argh! I'm stressing myself out just writing this post. I'm going to go back to my helium systematics and keep working on my first paper (not to mention that conference talk I'm giving two weeks from today).

Friday, May 06, 2005

And this is what I have to look forward to?

Here's a real email to a real professor from a real student. Names are changed to protect the innocent. I know the prof, so I am not just recycling some academic urban legend here:
"Dear Prof,
I just signed up for your 101 class. This will be my third time around as I have gotten a d both times. If you could give me an idea on how you teach that would be great. To be completely honest right from the start I am basically asking if I will be able to show up for class and just take the exams. Nothing against you but I have sat through two semesters of this class already and I am not looking forward to it again. Very Lazy, Student"
I can't believe that someone would dare to write to a professor like that. I would be very tempted to respond something like this: "If you have gotten a D twice before from other profs, and you don't come to class this time, you will almost certainly get an F from me."

However, I'm guessing that such a reply would get me in big trouble with a dean or something. So the more diplomatic response, and the one taken in this case was:
"Do as you please, but why not take it from another instructor? I understand that some of them are not as difficult for many students as I am. I do not give extra credit under any circumstances. My lecture notes are on the web, but, of course, I talk about a lot more detail anduse examples. My exams are 50 questions multiple choice and I have a comprehensive final of 100 questions covering the entire semester. I do"news of the week" which is environmental news at least once a week, and this becomes 5-6 questions on every exam, which can make a full letter grade difference for those who skip class. "

Thursday, May 05, 2005

roller coaster day

It actually started last night when I slammed my finger in the door as I was leaving for dinner. Then the dog adorned herself with compost and had to have a bath at 10 pm. But in between, I had a lovely dinner with my cousins and presented the (almost-finished) blanket, and my cousin's wife, who is Japanese, was very touched. She told me how much she wished her family were here to share the baby excitement with her and how it was hard because her husband (my cousin) seemed more into the business he was starting than in getting things ready for the baby. I vowed to try to be a better family member for them.

This morning, with my finger still sore (actually still is, and is still bleeding a little) things were going pretty well, and I was making good progress with my research and people were being amazingly responsive to my emails.

But this afternoon, I had a meeting to organize a day-long event for our department. And the two geographers (damn them all) didn't bother to show up. So will there be food and coffee? How about somebody to provide technical support to the speakers? Don't ask me. And I was left feeling like I was stuck in another one of those dreadful group projects in school, where 3 of the 4 people do nothing, I do all the work, and we all get the same grade (oh wait, that's basically what's happening). My friend and colleague (we'll call her S) calls people like us "hole pluggers." We see the holes in things and we can't stand to watch them collapse, so we fix them. And then people discover that we're good at fixing things (or organizing them in the first place) and they give us more holes to plug. And, yes, I am good at organizing, but I don't really like doing it.

Anyways, so I was in kind of a crappy mood when I left school. I had a splitting headache and it was raining and I knew I had to walk the dog. But now a few hours, a Tylenol, some Amy's lasagna, a mug of tea, and some Jeopardy later, I'm starting to feel better. My tea bag, (Good Earth original, my all-time favorite) had the following Celtic proverb. "When God made time, he made enough of it." In other words, I should stop stressing out.

And as another reminder that my problems are minor compared to others, I found out today that my friend who is pregnant, buying a home, and about to move, had her mortgage broker try to kill herself 7 days before the closing with their check lost in the mail. Of course, my friend's problems are minor compared to her mortgage broker's. My thoughts are with you both.

I'm going to go rot my brain in front of the Apprentice. If Tana gets fired they should just stop the show, there'd be no one left that I'd hire. I think I'll eat some ice cream too, maybe it'll make my finger feel better.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

I am a nerd, yes, I am.

WooHoo. I just won a T-shirt in one of those mystery photo contests. In one of the professional magazines I subscribe to they put a photo and some clues each month. You have to figure out what the picture is of. So last month I figured it out, with some help from a friend. We started over coffee and made an educated guess, and then I confirmed it with a little help from Google. And now there's a T-shirt coming my way. I'm going to give it to the friend who helped me, because I already have one of those T-shirts for correctly identifying another mystery photo at a professional meeting a few years ago.

So I'm not just a nerd, I'm a double nerd. I wonder if they'll stop letting me win after a while.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Career goals (as of this afternoon)

So I just applied for a workshop for young (and future) faculty (particularly women) in the sciences. As part of the application, I had to outline my career goals and where I saw myself in 5 and 10 years. So this is what I wrote:

My career goals are to become a tenure-track faculty member at graduate-degree granting, research-oriented institution. I seek to combine a vibrant research career with quality undergraduate and graduate teaching and advising. I envision my research career crossing the boundaries of ...ology, ...ology, and ...ology. I believe active research invigorates teaching, and vice versa, by allowing me to introduce applied problems in the classroom and forcing me to stay up-to-date on my broader fields. I believe it is particularly important to involve undergraduates in engaging research.

In five years, I envision myself as having completed a post-doctoral research stint and obtained a tenure-track faculty position. I will probably be trying to balance teaching several classes on top of obtaining funding as an independent principal investigator. In ten years, I hope to achieved some level of mastery in teaching and research, as I will likely be up for tenure review.

Are these my true goals? Yes and no. In the ideal world (and that of workshop applications), yes. But don't ask me how I'd manage to be a mom and a sane adult if I did that. Maybe with a nanny and a housekeeper/cook. In the real world, I'll settle for some of the above. I figure that no matter what I end up doing, it'll be interesting. After all they don't hire Ph.D.'s to do data entry...do they?

The quest for wonder-woman status

Now on a completely different subject than previous posts. Last night I found myself fighting with the sewing machine, in an attempt to finish a baby blanket for my cousin who is due in 2 weeks. That I would find myself in this situation is remarkable because 1) It was my first solo attempt at sewing ever and 2) My mom doesn't sew either. So why, you ask, was I parked in front of the sewing machine? Because when I moved to this town and starting hanging out with my grad school friends, I discovered I was the only one of them who wasn't "crafty." It wasn't enough that they were graduate students, girlfriends/wives, runners and rafters. They also spent their evenings fashioning heirloom quality quilts and stained glass lamps. Most of the time at the end of the day, I collapsed in front of the TV. One night they invited me over for a crafting evening, and I suddenly needed to find a project. At this time, two of my friends were pregnant, so I figured I'd make them baby blankets. It seemed like a nice thoughtful, and finite, sort of craft to undertake. But my friends were the beginning of the dam burst, and now a flood of babies later, I find myself obsessed with baby blankets. The crafty friend who was helping me use her sewing machine got pregnant (I still haven't made her a blanket), and now that her life is even more complicated than before, I figured I needed my own machine to handle the two new arrivals this spring. So I added one to my Christmas list, and rather than getting the goodwill special I was aiming for, my MIL bought me a fancy $400 one (she bought my dh a chainsaw, how stereotypical, but that's what we asked for). So now I feel like I have to use the damn thing, plus those near and dear to me keep breeding, and I am currently working on four blankets. (!) And last night was the first night of actually sewing on my machine. It was not without drama, and the end result is certainly far from needlework perfection, but the fabric is cute, it should be able to handle being repeatedly washed, and babies don't care about the details anyways. Right?

So back to my subject line. The baby blanket thing just represents the latest craziness of modern womanhood. Apparently it is not enought to be professionals, wives, mothers, healthy eaters, and active exercisers. We must now walk around with knitting needles or whatnot, prepared to make the world a cuter, more comfortable place by crafting. And I have fallen victim. Perhaps I should have chosen something less cute than babies for which to make my crafts. If I were making toilet seat covers, say, it would be much easier to say no. But babies...