Sunday, December 26, 2010

Woh.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_a7jkcMVp5Vg/TRTxLD9TzgI/AAAAAAAANww/Wybyf9uTtX0/s1600/DataWorm.jpg


Merry Christmas.

(It's not my secret, FWIW)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Science Policy

In case I wasn't already considering enough career options, I have decided to throw another one in the pile... science policy!

I was recently informed (by someone in science policy) that it is SO not what I thought it was. When I heard the phrase "science policy," I had always imagined people with science degrees that were pushing to have particular laws changed and having strong partisan affiliations  and possibly screaming SAVE THE WHALES. But in a professional way. It turns out that "science policy" is acting as a liaison between the scientists with their data and their public unfriendly p-values, and the politicians that don't understand the data and the p-values. You become a science translator for government officials. That sounds... kind of awesome. (Assuming that I've understood correctly... it's possible that I now have a totally NEW incorrect perception of science policy.)
There are a few things that I know that I'm good at and know that I'm interested in; the difficult part in deciding on a career path is what is best suited to those talents and interests. I, having no real-world job experience and a sub-human level of foresight, find this challenging. But I know I can teach, which is largely tied to my ability to communicate information effectively. Given a little expertise and time, I can distill the important bits of information out of a mess. I know I'm interested in how to communicate effectively and how those methods change with our culture. I'm interested in increasing the general public's awareness and understanding of natural sciences.

So does science policy belong in my pile?

#and for your daily dose of hilarity, I present to you:
http://regretfulmorning.com/2010/11/27-reasons-why-we-love-the-buzz-kill-meme/

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Good Enough

... yeah yeah yeah-yeah yeah yeah! Cyndi Lauper? Goonies? Come on, people.

I've been trying to come to terms lately with my own limitations as a scientist. Good transition, right? Inconsistent posting has definitely decreased my writing skillz... anyway. So I'm not as good at this scientist thing as I always thought I'd be. I am constantly plagued with the feeling that I'm not reading all the literature, I'm not controlling for all the confounding variables, I'm not asking new questions... and I find that difficult to accept and stay motivated.

It's obvious that we all haveto accept our limitations, that we all have to find "good enough" and do our best to get there. Right?

If that's so, what happens if I teach my daughter not to strive for perfection but to do her very best? Am I setting her up to be lazy and settle for a "good enough" that's not her best?

How do you cope with knowing you could be better, especially when you've made family a priority?
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Friday, October 22, 2010

Paternal Prenatal Care

Phlogging again. (That's phone... plus blogging... equals phlogging... nevermind.)

If you were walking down the sidewalk and saw a visibly pregnant woman leaning against a building with some friends chain smoking, you would be concerned. Depending on what kind of person you are, you might even say something to her. But if a (male) buddy of yours did the same, you wouldn't feel the same way. When a woman is pregnant, she's expected to eat healthy and exercise for the health of herself, but most notably for the baby. Should men do the same, for the baby?

A recent report in Nature suggests that he should, especcially if he plans on having daughters. Because I'm phlogging, I don't know how to link to things, but trust me! Or check Nature. So they fed male rats a high-fat diet, let them breed, and looked at the metabolic profiles of their offspring. They found that in the fat rats' daughters, they should diabetes-related symptoms, such as insulin insensitivity and reduced pancreatic cell function. Because of their fat dads.

I recently read another study discussing the effect on sperm of men smoking cigarettes. Because there is one. Ah, the terrifying field of epigenetics. I'm just now discovering this Dad Effect. I think I'm representative of the majority when I say I had never thought about this before. Why is that? I don't expect all the details of paternal epigenetic effects to be common knowledge, but at least the idea that they EXIST should be.
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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Cranky Scientist

Blogging from my phone for the first time. Dont judge my lack of proper grammar\spelling\punctuation\direction.

So science has made me kind of a jerk. Sometimes it is more convenient to not think critically. I find that more and more, I am feeling irritated and increasingly intolerable toward people when they say things that I "should" be doing, for my health, for my kid's development, etc., without giving me any real reason why.

I recently attended a promotional function for my friend's Pilates class. She started it by having everyone drink a warm cup of water and urging us to drink a very specific amount each day before meals. She listed myriad ailments it would help with - arthritis, weight gain, flexibility, nutrient absorption, kidney problems... with the accompanying testimonies of her own experiences and those of her family. Okay. Maybe it's true. Maybe it does help... do something. I don't know. I haven't looked it up. But the way to convince me is not by throwing out a bunch of complicated, serious health problems and personal anecdotes and claiming you have the next cure-all. I felt so cynical, so jaded, regardless of how reasonable my attitude may seem to any fellow scientists. The issue, really, is how unable I am to hide my contempt. (This is a general flaw of mine.) I certainly can't expect every well-intentioned, advice-toting person out there to carry a reference list around, can I? Or be able to cite some specific studies off the top of their head?

I feel like although thinking critically is good, we cannot expect the research to be handed to us. We have to accept that most people probably do not investigate most things to our standards (although maybe my friend is totally right. I don't know.), and that maybe they really shouldn't be expected to? i think this is a similar plight to that of the science journalist. Scientists get angry because the writers get this or that detail wrong, but can they be expected not to? The writer's job is to bring the science to the public in a digestible, timely, accurate manner; their job doesn't allow them to dedicate the time to learn as much as every scientist would want them to before reporting on their life's work. My Pilates friend is doing what she thinks is best and her job to the best of her ability and knowledge. And that's really as much as we can ask, right?
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Monday, October 11, 2010

Anonymous Forever?

I'm feeling a bit torn about being in the blog closet.

I started this blog anonymously and with no intention of having it otherwise. As careful as I may be about what I put into my posts, I felt like I might say something damning at some point, or that I might not be as truthful or forthright if it was not anonymous, which undermined the point for me. My intention was to talk about the difficulties and joys of being a graduate student, a wife, and a mother (although that's not actually been the focus of a lot of my posts!), and I wanted to be honest about those things. I had worries about my committee seeing something I had written, or a future employer finding a post about how I would NEVER consider doing the xyz job they had just interviewed me for... or that I struggled with time management, attention span, and long-range planning (which I do). What employer wants to see that?

In the past few months, though, I've been following big-wigs like Boraz and Ed Yong on Twitter, inadvertently also reading re-tweets (I can't say that without feeling embarrassed) and replies to and from other followers of theirs. I started having out-of-the-closet jealousy! These people reply and tweet to their favorite science writers with abandon! My Twitter account is personal; its updates also go straight to my Facebook profile so they have become inseparable (Facebook and Twitter, BFF). I would like to be This Scientist on Twitter so that I can unite all of my Internet presences, comment on people's tweets, be linked to my blog, be linked to the actual work I do, talk freely about location-specific issues, etc. I wish I could either get a new Twitter profile as This Scientist or just bite the bullet and unveil myself. I know it may not seem like a big deal because I am a humble, infrequently updating, wet behind the ears blogger, but it has the possibility of dramatically changing how I see my blog and what it represents to me.

On the other hand, if I admitted to being This Scientist, that would open up my readership to people who know me in real life (I can't bring myself to use "IRL" quite yet), which could be beneficial. Any traffic is good traffic, right? But would anything productive come of that? Another one of my goals with blogging was to get used to putting together prose, possibly even about science, and maybe getting my (pseudo)name out there as a *raise eyebrows* science writer. Would it get me any closer to that goal if my friends were reading my stuff?

How do you feel? Are you in the blog closet? Do you have separate accounts for everything, living a dual e-life?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Any Day But Today

I cannot blog today. I am much too busy drafting articles that I'm really interested in and simultaneously convincing myself not to write them. It's exhausting.

There were two articles in the September issue of Science that made me jot down notes for articles in which I discuss THEIR articles. Then I realized that to be taken seriously, I would probably have to read all the stuff they read to write their article, and one of them is about the recent STEM proposals to the Obama administration. Those proposals are long (I assume, I haven't actually read them) and there are lots of other articles written about those proposals, some of which I have read when I attempted half-heartedly to find the original proposals. In doing this, I remembered how politically uneducated I am and that everything the government does is accompanied with an overwhelming amount of coverage, coverage of that coverage, and opinions from people who feel more strongly than I have about anything, ever, in my life.

And then I decide that no one really wants to read my article anyway. That everyone will know I didn't read the original proposals or they will see inconsistencies in my arguments and expose me for the pretend-writer that I am, a poser who just decided what her stance was as she was typing it and doesn't know the journalist rules for properly researching.

And my Trash grows fat with my insecurities and my half-drafts as I talk myself out of yet another opportunity to get published, get noticed, get heard.

So I cannot blog today. I am quite busy, thank you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hardly Conscious

As I was riding the bus home Monday evening, I was not paying any attention at all to where I was going. My least favorite bus driver was on shift, the driver that plays uncomfortable pop music as loudly as possible then sings at the top of his lungs, so I had my headphones in tightly, with my Regina Spektor turned way up. I was also on the last leg of a book I had been engrossed in, so I was sprinting towards the finish line. I was not paying attention... or so I thought.

Around the 15-minute mark, I knew the video shop was on our right, then that bicycle that's been tethered to that stop sign for years, then that eyelash extension place on the left... and I looked up and saw exactly what I expected. How did I know where we were? I had been looking down the entire time, sound blocked out, in my own little world, yet I knew exactly what was around me.

As I prepared to write this, I thought of driving home when I was a kid. I grew up in a small Texas town, about an hour and a half from the nearest big city, a sprawling metropolitan area where most of my relatives lived. Over the course of my childhood, we took a lot of weekend day-trips to the city to see family and would return late in the evening. My sister and I would usually fall asleep, but I would always start to wake up a few blocks from our house. Before I opened my eyes, I knew exactly where we were. This stop sign, that bump in the road, turn right, another bump, a stoplight... these kinetic cues told me where we were on the familiar route and I could sleep right up until we pulled into the driveway, when the slow, long turn into the driveway told me we were home.

Isn't it fascinating how our brains pay attention when we think we're not paying attention? Some mix of stops and gos, bumps and curves, and peripheral vision is being constantly monitored and interpreted. Once the route is familiar enough, you know where you are without thinking about it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dilettante Fo Life

This recent post at Ed Yong's blog, "Not Exactly Rocket Science," (as if you didn't know. psh.) is about one of the scads of scientific discoveries that I find fascinating, that I would love to work on... but probably wouldn't really love to work on.

In the post, Ed talks about a gene therapy treatment for thalassemia that uses the patient's stem cells and a lentivirus modified to contain the working gene for the patient's faulty haemoglobin subunit. The virus infects the patient's stem cells, some of the cells get the right gene in the right place, the cells are put back in the person, and hopefully the patient starts making their very own functional haemoglobin.

How. Cool. Is That. I originally went to graduate school wanting to work on viral-mediated gene therapy. This is what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I didn't really look around much for graduate schools. This was partly due to my atrocious long-range planning skills and partly due to the fact that I was single-parenting a two-month-old and didn't want to move too far from my family. So I ended up at a research institution that is large and well-regarded, but did not have anyone doing what I wanted to do. The closest thing I could find was a bacteriophage lab, so I joined it.

It did not go well.

I blinded myself to a lot of things, most importantly that A) it had nothing to do with what I was interested in and B) the PI and I did not get along at all.


So I transferred to another lab, the lab I am currently in and will receive my Ph.D. from. I like my lab. I think very highly of my PI, I get along with my labmates more than it seems like most people do, I have a good balance of autonomy and guidance, we have at least some money... but the last five years have made it abundantly clear that this is not what I'm going to do for much longer. After I get my degree, I will not stay in academia. This decision was originally precipitated by the realization that no matter how many interesting questions I came up with, I got tired of them after a couple of papers. I have no scientific follow-through. I am, if I may steal the label from a friend of mine, a dilettante. I REALLY LIKE SCIENCE. I just don't want to do it. I want to learn about it and hear about it and talk about it... but I don't want to DO IT. 

So. What to do? This brought me to science writing (albeit through a long, painful path). What do you think, Internet? If I really like science but don't want to do it, can appreciate the minutiae but only for about two days, am smart, have been trained in assimilating and obtaining information fairly quickly, have an extensive understanding of some fields but am interested in almost all of them, can write, like to be busy, work best under deadlines... could science writing be for me?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Good Wifey

Apologies for the radio silence. I was preparing to give a talk at a conference, giving a talk, and getting my act together for the beginning of the semester, in that order. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Why are household duties split up within marriages the way that they are? Is one sex actually better at some chores than the other? Do female brains find, for example, folding laundry more rewarding than male brains? Or, alternately, just less "punishing"? 

Obviously there is a strong social component that determines which chores are done by which spouse, but if we were somehow free of this influence, would we naturally end up with the same distribution of responsibilities after a few months of trial and error?

A friend of mine, a fellow (female) graduate student, recently got married. She is a fiercely intelligent, independent scientist and it would not be inaccurate to describe her as slightly more Vulcan than the general population. (And I don't think she would be insulted by such a description.) She is extremely logical and this logic largely trumps tradition, emotion, and general opinion when they conflict. In other words, she does not conjure up images of June Cleaver. That being said, she has found herself deriving a surprising satisfaction from cooking dinner for her new husband and folding his boxers while he lays down new flooring and takes out the trash.

Why does she find this satisfying? Is it because she is a better cook and he is a better floor-layer (I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but.. whatever)? Is it because they enjoy their respective duties more than the alternatives? My husband and I have also come to a pretty stereotypical delegation of household chores after a few years. I cook, clean, get the offspring ready for school, do the laundry and grocery shopping; he takes out the trash, minds the car maintenance, fixes electronic things... We do these things because we are both better at them AND we find them less infuriating (probably because we're better at them). Our inherent abilities and the satisfaction we derive are inseparable. We've tried doing each others' jobs and we end up with dirty dishes, broken machines, and bad attitudes. But is this a true sexual dimorphism that is generally applicable to humans? Or are these gender stereotypes just so deeply ingrained that no amount of education and "enlightenment" is likely to change our marital expectations? If I do enjoy getting my Swiffer on, is it because I'm naturally better at it/inherently appreciate a clean floor more, or is it because I've been taught to think that I'm a bad wife if I don't do it?


Once again, I find myself on the Fence of Feminism, probably saying things women have fought against for years. But maybe we really are better at doing dishes. Maybe he really doesn't see the dirty socks under the coffee table. We know our brains are sexually dimorphic; is it unreasonable that this could translate to a division of household labor talent?

I am in no way suggesting that we should not raise our little girls to change flat tires or our boys to scrub pots. Every adult should be prepared to take on all of the household duties and it is our job as parents to train them. However, is it so wrong for me to enjoy tying my apron on and baking an apple pie*?

*I make really good apple pie.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Snip

My kid just got gum stuck in the very front of her hair. Today, the day before she starts kindergarten. I, being hasty to fix the problem as usual, assumed we would not be able to extract the gum and deftly snipped it off. I also assumed I would be able to "blend" it with the rest of her hair.

I failed miserably.

Of course, all of the salons in town are booked with responsible mothers and their children and their back-to-school hair cuts. My kid will just have to start school with her half-mullet pinned up.

I was planning on blogging about how I feel about my kid starting kindergarten... I guess this counts. I feel inept.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I Fold.

I'm no good at card games. We have some friends that taught us to play mah jongg - I'm not any good at that, either. I'm horribly average at chess.

I find this very frustrating and kind of embarrassing. In fact, I'm probably more defensive than I realize. If someone asks to deal me in for a round of poker, I will probably oblige, but I'll preface my disappointing performance with disclaimers so no one gets their expectations up. I always feel guilty in partner games and can't help but believe I'm ruining my partner's fun, no matter how much everyone reassures me that it's no big deal. I know the truth! Having a partner that sucks... sucks.

Why am I so bad at games? There has to be some games I'm good at... Scrabble... Scattergories... I'm really good at that game where you read the words on the card and they're all disjointed and everyone else has to guess what it's supposed to say. I guess I'm good at word games.

The truth is, in card games at least, I feel like I never really get it. I get the rules, but I don't get the system. I can't remember what's been played, I can't count cards, I have no intuition regarding the probability of one hand working out over the other. I always feel like I'm playing for the first time, blindly throwing out cards and eliciting immediate groans from everyone else at the table. As soon as I play, every other person seems to get it. They get that that was the last trump, or they get that I must be trying to catch that trick; whatever it is, everyone seems to get in an instant what I couldn't get from staring at my cards for four minutes.

I think people expect me to be good at games. As a "smart person," I'm supposed to be able to work the system. Didn't you see A Beautiful Mind? Or 21? Smart people are good at these things. It may also be possible that this conception that I've disappointed everyone is my own insecurity...

What do you think? Do you expect yourself to be good at card games because you're smart? Are you good at card games? What do you think makes you better at some games than others?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NOM NOM NOM

I'm really REALLY hungry so I'm going to blog about food. FOOOOOOOD.

Several of the blogs I read have been posting recipes lately (Girl's Gone Child, Cloud), which makes me wonder if their readers are requesting ways to improve the health and/or speed of their dinners. There's always room for improvement, but I feel fairly confident about both the speed and health of our family's diet, with the glaring exception of my meat'n potatoes husband. The lack of processed and non-home-cooked food in our diet is largely accomplished by a) leaving the lab earlier than most graduate students probably do at the end of each day and b) having enough money to buy (almost exclusively) local, organic meat and produce. I realize not everyone can do either or both of those things. We all make the best of what we have.


I leave the lab (almost) every day at 4:45 so I can meet my husband at our daughter's daycare and go home. Most days, we go straight home, spend 30 minutes or so settling in and/or arguing about what I want to make for dinner (because it's not typically meat'n potatoes), and then I start cooking around 5:30 or 6:00. As a family, we have to make dinner, eat dinner, clean up, and bathe the kiddo before bedtime around 8:00, so if everything goes like normal, this is actually fairly reasonable. In other words, I don't think it's crazy that I usually cook dinner from scratch 6 nights a week (we usually go out or eat with friends at least once a week), although a lot of people respond as if it is. "Cooking from scratch" does not have to mean a 4-course gourmet meal that took you all day to prepare and $200 worth of groceries. For what it's worth, I budget $100/week for groceries, which includes non-food items like paper towels, soap, etc. 

Although I wish our meals were less meat-centric and more ethnically diverse, my husband is a creature of habit and I can only push him so far before he turns into a Grumble. There are few things worse than spending an hour dutifully preparing dinner only to have your husband wince every time he chokes down all of five bites before making microwave nachos. So. We compromise. I can make "weird things" for dinner (curry, risotto, enchiladas) about every other night, as long as I have something familiar (spaghetti, pork chops) on the other nights. Typically, I try to include a meat source, a carb source, and 1-2 vegetable sources, so even if we have fried chicken, I can at least make homemade mac'n cheese and roasted beets. The other compromise I make is that in the event that I make a meal where each component is not separate, there is usually a with-meat, without-vegetables option. For example, I made my Hapa version of pork fried rice last night and I served his before I added all of the vegetables. This also means that I have a huge stack of non-separable, non-meat recipes I've wanted to try, but have not been able to. If you'd like to come over for creamy butternut squash soup or fruit couscous, please let me know. To my husband's credit, he did not eat ANY vegetables (besides potatoes and popcorn; yes, these totally count) before we married and now he will eat a few. He will also eat Thai and Korean food with gusto, as long as he can pick out the vegetables and it's not too spicy. This is light years ahead of his childhood diet, which is also his parents' diet and consists mostly of Easy Mac, Lean Cuisine and Sonic. I put up with his obnoxious pickiness and in return, he puts up with the seven brands of Crazy I unleash without warning. MARRIAGE! If we both had our way, he would eat chicken fried steak all day and I would eat avocadoes. I doubt either of those diets would fulfill all of our nutritional requirements. We need each other.

In addition to making our dinners largely from scratch, I also bake all of our bread. This commitment is usually only a once-a-week necessity and can be largely owed to Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto". I highly recommend it (the book and baking your own bread) and it made me feel very differently about my purchase and consumption of food, but that is a blog post in itself. I make all of our bread because I put 6 things in it: flour, yeast, water, olive oil, sugar, and salt. Sara Lee fits in 24, and that's if you don't count the ingredients of the ingredients as separate. (Note that this is for their "Soft & Smooth Whole-Grain White Bread" and that the link is in favor of this miracle of food science. I am not.) I do not think I'm a Food Nazi and I will totally eat some of the grossest, artificial quasi-food you can possibly imagine.
Something I totally ate. Not pictured: ranch dressing

In fact, the quasi-food I like is just about as bad as you can get. I love me some stadium nachos and fried Milky Ways. I just try to not eat them very often and mostly eat "whole" food. Besides the not wanting to die of a heart attack at 25 thing, I also have trouble limiting my quantities. I love food. A lot. So I know that because it's difficult for me to stop eating something particularly delicious when I'm full, it's extra important for me to not habitually eat things that would kill me if I ate them in reasonable quantities.

I'm really hungry. I could use an avocado.   

Sunday, August 8, 2010

PHAT LEWT

My husband plays MMORPGs*. Passionately. When I started dating him in 2005, he was coming off of a year of hermitage in which he played EverQuest, ate McDonalds, and avoided sunlight and human touch. In fact, he quit EverQuest when we got serious because he came to the realization that he could not sustain both relationships simultaneously (I had no part in this decision. I am a cool wife that is okay with her gaming husband). 

Since we've been married and have established an acceptable work-life-play balance, he has taken up Vanguard. (He says after EverQuest, WoW was a joke and intolerable. For whatever reason, he finds Vanguard acceptable.) I, honestly, don't know the difference. I am equally unversed in his other nerdery - D&D; his Stars, both Wars and Trek; DragonballZ...
I simply do not understand his passion for these things, because.. you see...


We are different brands of nerd.


I am a science nerd. As a child, my greatest desires were glasses, braces, and a microscope, and I got them all. I read. A lot. My childhood was filled with logic puzzle books, quadratic equations, headgear, band camp, and being obsessively organized. Although a lot of this was fostered by my parents and I can be as bitter as I want about it now (could have really used some social skills in high school. Thanks a lot), I was not unhappy. Crazy people don't know they're crazy! Obviously, not all science nerds were like this, but I was a walking, talking, socks-with-sandals stereotype. 

All that to say, my gamer husband is reciprocally inexperienced in my brands of nerdery. Despite his current fleshy nerd exterior, he was a late bloomer and lived the life of a meathead football jock through high school. We would have hated each other in high school. It was not until college, when a friend of his opened a comic book store, that he gave in to his secret nerd desires and he has never turned back.


Thankfully, we're both readers, which I think is the only overlap between our nerd subsets. I don't think I could have married someone who didn't read voraciously. However, this lack of overlap is not because I haven't tried. Because my nerd craving is mostly satisfied at work during the day and his pursuits are more "leisurely", it's inevitable that I'm exposed to his nerdery more than he is mine. As I type, he's playing Vanguard beside me, as he does most evenings after the kiddo's in bed and we've had some quality time. I know about raids and guilds and halfling bards, but I'm still a little fuzzy on the point of aggro. I even tried to play an RPG once... I think I was a superhero of some sort? And I was running through the ruined streets of a city trying to kill monsters? Mostly, what I remember is the eleventy billion things around the edge of my screen that I was supposed to keep up with. It is equally incomprehensible to me how he keeps up with all of those things as it is how he can enjoy DragonballZ. I DON'T GET IT.


And I'm not sure I can be trained to get it, at this point. What kind of people are attracted to playing MMORPGs, and what kind of people stick around? Obviously, there are millions of people who invest a lot of time and thought into these games (both the makers and players); what do they have in common and what am I lacking? I literally felt mentally incapable of keeping up with all the blinking panels and meters around my screen. Practice would certainly improve my skills, but I doubt I could ever get through a session without feeling terribly overwhelmed and inefficient, which would overshadow any enjoyment I would derive from playing. Maybe this is just a fault of my particular personality, as I tend to get overstimulated easily, but I wonder if it's a trait I'm missing as opposed to an inhibitory trait I possess.


Of course, there's the stereotype of the lonely, overweight 40-something white male sitting in his mother's basement drinking Bawls as he lives out his fantasies of grandeur and masculine prowess through his character. But there are plenty of people I know that play who do not fit this stereotype, my husband being one of them (for the most part). And even so, I'm not really wondering what it is that attracts people, I'm wondering if there's some kind of neural prerequisite for feeling capable of playing these games. Are our kids growing up better at paying attention to many things simultaneously? Are we becoming more visual? Are our attention spans becoming shorter and more superficial? Am I just retarded because I don't have the multi-tasking skills of a 14-year-old boy? Don't answer that last one.


*That's Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, you n00b.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Following

Riddle me this, o reader of mine:

Why do I go to other people's blogs and see my blog in their blogroll, but they don't show up as "Following" on my sidebar widget? If this is because they're using a different blog feeder than Blogger or whatever that widget uses, is there a way to conveniently view a list of the blogs that follow my blog?
Blog blog blog blog? Bob Loblaw's Law Blog? What?

No, really.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

MOOOOOOO

Hey, grad student moms! Good news! The compassionate undergrads at The University of Texas are sympathetic to the difficulties of TAing their class during your pregnancy. They're concerned they will get worse grades on their papers after that stupid kid pops out and ruins their GPA!

This is the gist of a recent article in UT's campus paper, The Daily Texan, entitled "[University Health Services] to offer discounted baby goods on campus". When I initially saw this, I thought diapers, wipes, snot suckers, maybe a nice ear thermometer. As it turns out, "baby goods" actually means breast pumps! They are offering breast pumps at a discount to UT students, staff, and faculty. While this seems a little weird to me, I guess it's nice. Breast pumps can be expensive, and if a woman chooses to go back to work while she's nursing, I guess it's also nice that they support that choice. How nice of them, to support lactation.

And they say they're trying to make it financially easier for women at UT, especially students, to juggle being a new mom and being in school. But why breast pumps?

"By having the pumps available at a discounted rate, female graduate students can get back to work sooner because they will be able to pump breast milk and store it for a later time, which will enable them to be away from their infants... The move is part of an effort to make maternity items more affordable and to reduce the amount of time graduate students in particular spend away from their jobs after becoming pregnant."

Oh. Thank goodness I'm not being encouraged to take a little time off to heal my mangled lady parts or bond with my newborn child, because that would be ridiculous! Because, really, the hard part about being a new mother and a graduate student is NOT being unable to sit on anything but a donut for two weeks or not sleeping for more than 45 minutes at a time or trying to pay hospital bills or coping with a tiny person that does nothing but screams at me and craps on me but still wants nothing but me. The hard part is definitely finding a way to get the milk from my boob to the kid in a manner that doesn't disrupt my studies. Thank you for caring so much about my research! It is rather important, and that is what you're concerned about, right?

"...Student Government Vice President Muneezeh Kabir said. 'When you’re talking graduate students, this is like our school’s rankings — these are the people that we as undergrads have grade our papers.'" 

Oh. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I just brought a PERSON into the world and you're concerned about me grading your term paper? Pardon me if I don't faint from gratitude that you're offering me discounted breast pumps. WHERE WOULD I BE without the kindness and understanding of people like you? Milking my boob into a styrofoam cup in the office bathroom, that's where I'd be! Or worse, at home with that horrible creature I spawned! So thank you, Student Government of UT. I can only hope other universities follow suit by not actually supporting motherhood, but by making it easier to "squeeze it in". 

The latter part of the article talks about a student-parent initiative that has been started on campus, which is interested in ACTUALLY providing support for parents, including having stops for the campus shuttle buses that go by the daycare on campus (because apparently it doesn't, currently), and other things that sound rather reasonable. It seems there's been a disconnect somewhere between the student-parent initiative, whose intentions sound honorable, and the people carrying it out/representing the changes. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wherein my brain asplodes

As I'm traveling internationally this month, I had to figure out how I was going to contact my family. We decided our cheapest option would be for me to find a land line I can use in Switzerland, make a 30-second phone call to my husband to give him the number, and have him call me back on his mobile. To do this, we had to enable international calling on his device.

Generally, I hate taking care of this kind of thing - the minutiae necessary for living an adult life. This includes resolving unfair fines, renewing driver's licenses, getting new tags for the car, and setting up doctor's appointments. I usually end up going through some terrible automated phone system that either doesn't have my option listed or dead ends at an irrelevant recording. OR I hit the wrong key (well, spot on my touch screen, which is a whole other source of frustration) and I have to start all over again. Which is why I'm so happy to see the Live Chat option becoming more popular! I'm at my computer anyway, and I don't have to listen to anyone's voice, be it automated or in person! Win.

So I Live Chatted it up with the Sprint lady, who was very nice, but the first thing she said was "Please provide your PIN number or Security question." This is a reasonable request; I'm glad she doesn't want Joe Blow being able to edit my phone plan. However... off the top of my head, I can think of a few other username/password/PIN/security question combos I'm also supposed to keep up with:
electric, gas, bank, ATM card, phone, tollway tag, student loan account, e-mail, university e-mail, university online system, computer network, lab server, BLOG, Amazon, ebay, Skype, anywhere I've ever bought anything online ever, anywhere I've ever ordered pizza online, Etsy, Facebook, Netflix, Steam... 



Does anyone remember all of these? How am I supposed to remember all of these? And you're not supposed to use any words found in the dictionary, names of people related to you, words spelled backwards, repeated characters, or words with letters replaced by symbols? And it should be 8-10 characters long, including letters, numbers, and at least one symbol? And THEY ALL HAVE TO BE UNIQUE? You're kidding me.


I often find myself wondering if the memory is a finite storage space, and if so, what got kicked out so I can remember my Papa John's password. And what didn't make the cut in the first place, in favor of remembering all the words to the Punky Brewster theme song (Maybe the worrrld is blind...). We know that we lose skills that we had in infancy, that babies can, for instance, tell monkey faces apart better and learn languages faster than we can as adults. And we know that our brains are certainly changing in response to the shifting demands of our world compared to our world thirty (or five) years ago. The remarkable plasticity of our brain is undeniable - but what about memory? Does HOW I remember change, since I have to remember ridiculous strings of numbers and symbols for all my accounts instead of how to drive to my aunt's house now that I have GPS? Does how MUCH I can remember limit WHAT I remember?


Can I please forget every line to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids so that I can remember the Krebs cycle?

We will never forget.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

ANTS IN MAH PANTS

I'm supposed to be finishing a manuscript right now. Yesterday, I somehow hit the magic formula for a productive writing day. For me, a good writing day is an act of voodoo. I think it was a combination of the following:
- coffeehouse lighting (almost dim enough to ignore my neighbors)
- coffeehouse music (detectable but forgettable)
- coffeehouse traffic (low)
- chair (metal and fairly uncomfortable)
- table height
- diet
- duration and quality of preceding night's sleep
- type of writing I had to get done (all prose, no data)
- motivation
- getting everything done before the guy with terrible B.O. sat beside me


Today has not been so productive. Today was Results day and I have had too much coffee. I think my 7 hours of focused writing yesterday exhausted my attention span, which was not reset by 5 hours of sleep. I have judgment calls to make regarding sample size, a part of science I am terrible at. I have also chosen the wrong coffeehouse.


I think when I get restless, it may help to do something unstructured that allows my mind to wander for a few minutes. Unfortunately, all I can think of is reading blogs or playing Text Twist. Any suggestions?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review 3 to Publish 1?

I recently got a departmental e-mail soliciting feedback on an interesting issue: privatizing the peer-review system. In the April 2010 issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, J. Fox and O.L. Petchey published a contribution entitled "Pubcreds: Fixing the Peer Review Process by “Privatizing” the Reviewer Commons".

They explain something we are all, at some level, aware of: that everyone wants to publish, but few (if any) really want to review. This leads to what they call the "tragedy of the commons," or that the people willing to review manuscripts are few and being taken advantage of because there is no incentive to review, only to publish. If this is an issue that affects you (it probably does), I strongly encourage you to give the original article a read. It's not something I think much about, but it brought up several point I had not previously considered, and brings into question how much of a "community" you really think scientists belong to.

They discuss several possible solutions to this "tragedy of the research commons" and ultimately propose to set up an online "PubCred Bank". All journals would ideally use this system, in which you earn 1 PubCred for each manuscript you review, and must pay 3 PubCreds for each manuscript you submit. The authors believe that one should review three times as many manuscripts as you submit; hence, the difference between credit and debit. Note that this is not something I am endorsing or agreeing with, but certainly find interesting... and possibly a whole lot of messy.

First of all, what defines a "submission"? Does each re-submission of the same manuscript count as a submission? Certainly one is not expected to review three papers every time you have to revise and re-submit. Or am I the only one that doesn't get accepted the first time? *shifty eyes*

What about when your manuscript is not properly formatted and you have to re-submit? (Again, not that THIS has ever happened to me. Erm.) In any case in which a manuscript is rejected without being reviewed, their suggestion is that you are refunded most of your payment, only paying 0.5 out of 3 PubCreds. As it proposes that editors are paid 0.5 PubCreds for each manuscript handled, this fee basically goes to the editor. I guess we can consider that the other 2.5 PubCreds go into the account out of which he pays his reviewers.

When there are multiple authors (when are there not?), who uses their PubCreds? The article states:

"Any author on multiauthored manuscripts should be permitted to pay part or all of the submission fee, so long as the authors collectively pay the entire fee. All that matters is that, collectively, the author(s) of each submission do enough reviewing to cover the cost that they, as a group, create in the reviewer commons.

This sounds like trouble to me. Maybe this will be the ultimate decider of all first author/last author fights between collaborating PIs... I'll give you first author if you'll pay the PubCreds!


If the field is in a slow season (I don't know if these exist, but it sounds reasonable), and you don't get many opportunities for reviews, should your own publication record be penalized for that? And if your lab is in an extremely prolific season, churning out data left and right, should you be penalized for not being able to review papers to keep up with your burst of publication needs?


Will we run into issues of editor favoritism, where only his or her BFFs get reviews, so only those people get to publish science? The article addresses a similar issue, that of reviewers that have been historically poor and have been "blacklisted" by editors. The suggested solution is to choose co-authors whose PubCreds you can use. That. Does Not. I don't think- What? This seems like 7 kinds of bad idea. (Technically, it says "...blacklisted individuals would have to rely on PubCreds earned by co-authors." Potato Potahto.)


Will this lead to harried, crappy reviews that people pump out just so they can get their own publications out? There are already plenty of bad reviewers out there... I don't think the system needs any more incentive to decrease quality, even if it is in favor of quantity. Unfortunately, a devil of the system is that if an incompetent reviewer is also a slow reviewer, the editor feels obligated to get a response back to the authors quickly (instead of possibly soliciting a better reviewer), which I think leads to good papers being rejected for want of better reviews. The article addresses this by saying:


Reviewers providing late, superficial, sloppy, or inappropriate reviews should receive no PubCreds for doing so. The handling editor would decide whether a review was too late, superficial, or sloppy to be useful, and therefore to earn a PubCred. We believe that most handling editors are sufficiently frustrated by the frequent provision of extremely brief, cursory reviews that they would have no hesitation in refusing credit for such reviews.

That is, if they make it to the review stage in the first place, which it seems many good papers do not; editor overload is a main issue the PubCred system seeks to address. But again, the power of the editor in the previous excerpt makes me leery.

They also discuss the proposition of re-using reviews when you've been rejected from a journal, and are submitting to a second journal. This would keep "costs" down, as you would not have to "pay" to get the same manuscript reviewed a second time. How practical is it for journals to share reviews? I see two potential problems with this: 1) Do you want journals knowing that your article was already rejected by another journal? Do you want them to know which journal it was, especially if it was a lower-tier journal? Or that their journal was not your first pick? How is this going to influence editors when making final decisions? and 2) Some reviews are written in light of the journal's specific audience, or the type of papers it has historically accepted. I'm not sure how helpful a journal-specific review would be to a different journal, possibly with a very different audience and expectations. In that same vein, who submits exactly the same manuscript to two different journals without at least trying to give it an angle more palatable to the second journal?


Is it practical to expect all journals, from Nature to Copeia, to subscribe to the same system?


As was made painfully clear to me by my commenters on The Scoop and the re-posting at DrugMonkey, science is competitive. It seems like the drive to conceive science, do science, write science, and publish science should feel more like one long push for each project than four little ones. Is it unfair to put a roadblock in between the writing and publishing stages? How does it affect our use of publication record as a metric of academic success if reviewing other people's work (three times as much) is a prerequisite? Because reviewing is a vital contribution to the field, should this even be a problem?

Most importantly, do PubCreds also work at PUBS? Oh I hope so.

The authors have openly solicited feedback, so feel free to contact them if you are so inclined. If you are interested, the authors have also set up an online petition. I find both the problems and solutions worthy of our time, and I'm sure there is no perfect solution. But is there a better one than this? 

Updated 07/26/2010 to include a couple of links I forgot the first time.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef

This is one of those super-cool things that made me want to start writing about science-y things in the first place. I can't believe I neglected it for so long!

The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is a world-wide collaboration that combines aesthetics, environmentalism, and mathematics. It is exactly what it sounds like: a coral reef made out of crochet. And it is awesome. It is one of those ideas you will wish you had.
The Reef consists mostly of corals and anemones crocheted out of multi-colored yarn of various textures, but has also grown to incorporate a variety of elements, including sea slugs, jellyfish, bits of garbage, and bleached corals of delicate lace. It is owned by the Institute for Figuring, but is contributed to by crocheters from all over and travels to museums and universities across the globe to spread awareness of our dying reefs.

The website for the Institute for Figuring attributes the crochet pattern to Daina Taimina, an adjunct associate professor of mathematics at Cornell University and oft professor of various geometries that sound terribly impressive. The story goes that in 1997, while on a camping trip with her husband, she was pondering how to model hyperbolic space (as one does). During this ponderance, she recalled the paper models created by the topologist and Fields Medalist William Thurston. (According to Wikipedia, Dr. Thurston is quite the topological superstar.) For whatever reason, it occurred to her that she could mimic these models, and possibly expand on them, using crochet. Which she did.

I'm not sure how this discovery ended up in New Scientist, but it did, and the sisters at the Institute for Figuring ran with it. I love this project because it seems like a fresh, truly unique way of bringing science education to the public without being preachy or obnoxious. It allows non-science people and scientists alike to contribute. There's a likeness in form such that you know what you're looking at, but no one's entry is going to be rejected because a coral expert says it's inaccurate. 

With the barrage of mainstream nature documentaries that have been released the past few years (Planet Earth, Life), it is obvious that there is a market for these kinds of creations. And of course, as a scientist and generally responsible human, I am thankful for these efforts. I don't want species to go extinct, I don't want rain forests to be destroyed, I want evolution to be universally accepted, etc. Not to mention that some of the footage in these documentaries is unbelievably striking and total science porn. However, after seeing Dolphins and Whales at the IMAX this weekend, I'm starting to grow a bit annoyed. And I imagine the public is as well.

I don't think it's unreasonable or counterproductive or ignorant to ask the environmentalism angle to be toned down. If I had a nickel for every time Daryl Hannah told me a species was decreasing in numbers and we can save them if we really want to, I'd have ELEVENTY NICKELS. Sometimes I just want to watch the damn dolphins make clicky noises, okay? I get that animals are dying. I get that a lot of it is our fault. I GET IT. Maybe "toned down" isn't the right request. Re-directed? Re-phrased? Is all the enviro-preaching during animal documentaries doing any good? Should it be more about practical measures we can take as individuals instead of the elusive "if we don't do something soon" warning? Should they pass out Pocket Guides that tell you which fish are ethically raised so you don't contribute to overfishing? I don't know. I just know that about two-thirds of the way through Dolphins and Whales, I turned to my husband and whispered, "What does she know? She's a mermaid!"

Man, legs are so awesome.

As beautiful as some of Discovery Channel's productions are, and as honorable as their cause is, I would like to see more projects like the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. Another example of science education that is cool, entertaining, and doesn't make me roll my eyes and groan is Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno series that she did with the Sundance Channel. Love.

A Tale of Adoption and Woe

Adoptions are difficult. Things that make adoptions difficult: the possibility of birth parents getting their act together, ex-spouses that are angry, not speaking English very well, being deemed unsuitable, being poor.
I generally consider that we are in the last category, but a quick look at poverty statistics and last year's 1040 says otherwise. So I do not think we are any of those things. And YET. Here we are.
The easiest kind of adoption is an uncontested step-parent adoption, based on my current knowledge, which is somewhere between the knowledge of a hobo on the street and a family law attorney that specializes in adoptions. There are no angry ex-spouses, the child has resided with the adopter for some time, the step-parent and birth parent have been married for a few years, no one does crack or tries to kill each other... and yet.
My husband has always intended on adopting my our daughter. Her biological father died before she was born and, due to an extremely tempestuous relationship with both him and his family at the time, was never even on the birth certificate. My husband and I have been married for 4 out of her 5 years and she has never known a life without him. She currently has my maiden name, which we wanted to get changed before she started public school. Four years ago, it seemed like we had plenty of time to get the money together, plenty of time to deal with the paperwork... and now it's 2010 and she's starting school in a month. 
But, come on, how hard can it be? It seems like this should be pretty straightforward and possibly the simplest adoption EVER. So I found my initial forms online (Petition for Termination and Adoption, Affidavit and Interstate Compact), filled them out, got them notarized, and went to the Family Law office in our local courthouse on Friday. So far so good. Based on several adoption forums, I expected to pay $150-200 to do this. It was $273. My wallet's empty, but at least I was finally getting it done. Person #1, a nice lady who helped me file the papers, said I should go downstairs to the law library, get a copy of the Order for Termination and Adoption and fill it out. It was pretty self-explanatory, but there was a reference attorney there who could help me for free if I needed it. I should get a copy of the death certificate from Vital Statistics just in case, and show up at Family Law court at 1:30 with Order, Certificate of Adoption (which I had already printed and filled out), and death certificate in hand, and I could have my kid adopted by the end of the day. YES! Wildest dreams come true. Amazing.
So I went to the law library. Person #2, the lovely law librarian, helped me make copies of the Order (all 30 pages of it). She informed me that I should go through it with a pen and fill in the appropriate blanks and scratch out the remarks that did not apply to my situation. Then she would e-mail a copy to me and I could transcribe my changes, then print it out. This seemed a little more difficult than Person #1 had suggested, but surely I could manage. Then we discovered that there were no options for having one biological parent alive on the Order. And that there was no "Termination" with my Adoption, so maybe I paid $273 to file the wrong petition? And, by the way, the reference attorney doesn't do child adoptions, so he can't help you. At this point, Person #2 turns to Person #3, an attorney looking up something on a computer in the law library, and asks if she's ever heard of a case like mine. She looks puzzled and shakes her head. Awesome. Person #2 hands me a flier for Lawyer Referral Services and suggests I ask for "Limited Scope Representation" (i.e., I don't need an attorney to represent me, I just need some advice). She informs me they don't require a retainer (which I eventually figured out was a non-refundable deposit. I know grown-up words!). And that just "showing up at court" with my papers didn't sound quite right to her. Clearly, this was not a one-day event.
So I called Lawyer Referral Services. Great news, Person #4 tells me, the first 20 minutes is only $20! And it's $200/hour after that, which.. we might.. be able to handle.. and they all require a $2000 retainer. So much for that. But Person #4 says maybe I can get some help at the free legal aid clinics held around town twice a week. 
At this point, I'm in tears, so I call my husband and barrage him with the usual (emotions and garbled jargon). He reminds me that my school offers free Legal Services for Students! I check their website and they don't offer representation for Family Law! EXTREMELY SURPRISING. But I schedule an appointment online anyway, explaining that I don't want representation, I want advice. So this morning I went to my appointment with Person #5. He was a very nice attorney, but a very nice attorney that doesn't do Family Law. He does inform me, though, that I may consider filing an amended Petition that doesn't mention Termination, or even the birth father, at all. He mentions this is probably free. I decide that "free" is the dumbest word ever invented, EVER. "Free" is the spoken incarnation of a relaxing vacation with your kids, or making your own donuts. It will not be as good as you are imagining. He also suggests that I should not even mention that I filed the wrong Petition if the judge looks particularly sleepy. This inspires great confidence in the integrity of the legal system. Person #5 also is not sure which Order it would be safer to file, as an Adoption Order is more correct, but would not match my Petition, unless I amend it, in which case it might just get confusing and the judge would say FAIL on account of being obnoxious. Person #5 also gives me a phone number and name for an attorney that may not require a retainer, but he's waiting to hear back from him as to whether or not he does adoptions. Outlook is not good.
When I get back to work, I have a message waiting from Domestic Relations. They have received my petition and would like to speak with me about the next step. Person #6 says he will be e-mailing me a list of social workers that can perform my Home Study. Their fees vary, from around, oh $500-800. This is when my brain shorts out and Person #6 wonders what that BZZT noise was. I ask him my questions regarding the amended petition (apparently it is not free to file an amendment, SURPRISINGLY, but does not cost much) and the possible petition-order mismatch. He sees the latter as a potential problem and informs me that I can schedule a "pre-trial" with the judge, in which I get to ask questions before my real court date, and I should call the District Clerk to set this up. I learn new meanings for words like "docket" and "calling" and stare at my schedule, hoping a pre-trial on a Tuesday at 1:30 will work for me because THAT IS THE ONLY TIME THEY MEET. As an aside, Person #6, person of vast adoption and family court knowledge, mentions that he went through an adoption and HE got an attorney because pro se (without an attorney) was such a pain. He said this as sympathetically as possible, and not douchey at all, but OMGZ why is this so HARD?
I decide my next best step, while my husband and I are listing our organs on Craigslist, is to schedule the pre-trial. I call the District Clerk (not the right office), whose secretary (Person #7) transfers me to the Civil Court Administrative Office, whose automaton voice prompts me for my Case #, which I have of course left at home. I quit for the day. 
I do not think this is happening before the kid starts school. I ask my husband if he can just stick a flag in her head and claim her.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oh, Books...

I love books.

Until fairly recently, when the subject of books and reading came up in conversation, I felt a need to impress upon the other person my true and pure love affair with books. Most of my friends do read, and even enjoy reading, but in our discussions about books and reading, I rarely felt that they understood or shared the intensity of my infatuation. I suppose I felt compelled to disambiguate the mere enjoyment of books from my personal relationship with them in the hope that I would find someone who understood. And, as elitist as it may seem, I don't want people who "like to read" to think they have what I have (although I acknowledge the possibility they are feeling the same way about me as I am about them). I don't like to read. I love books. In all my searching, I have found two comrades, and I married one of them.

I have books that are best friends, books that are enemies, books for winter, books for summer, books for rainy days, books for each mood, books for when I'm busy, and books for when I'm bored. Authors have invented characters that are closer to me than any of my friends, and it is not because I have disloyal or uninteresting friends. Sometimes these characters come from "classics", but I don't discriminate. I read what speaks to me, and when I was a child, that certainly wasn't Tolstoy or Dickens, and I have no misgivings about admitting that. Lois Lowry and Ann M. Martin were powerful figures in my adolescence. I can return to those childhood friends like opening a box of forgotten treasures, stowed away in a closet and remaining exactly the same as I left them. I know these people.

I mourn the fall of the written word. As much as technology and global communication has to offer, the tactile sensation of holding a hard-back book in my hands cannot be replicated. I am conditioned to associate that feeling with comfort and the intimacy with the friends I find. The sound of pages scraping as I turn them, the weight of the book, the smell of paper closed up and rediscovered... one of my top five smells is the basement of the public library in the town where I grew up, where the children's wing was. The musty smell of a book can bring me to tears.

For many years now, I have imagined myself growing old on in the country, with a chicken coop, a vegetable garden, and some goats... opening a used bookstore in a small town and selling coffee and homemade pastries in the mornings. I want to be there for another little girl who is searching for someone that understands, who will also cry with joy over the pages of a book because oh, I understand. I know there have always been people like me, and my husband. Books have changed the world. Books have killed people, saved others. I hope with all my heart that books will still be around in 30 years, that there will still be enough of us to keep my dream alive.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Big Bang Big Boom

This is completely amazing. A group called Blu has made 9 minutes and 30 seconds worth of stop-motion street art describing the Evolution of Life and it's utterly brilliant. I'm not commenting at all on the science, religion, or politics of it (the artists themselves describe Big Bang Big Boom as "an unscientific point of view on the beginning and evolution of life ... and how it could probably end"). From a conceptual and aesthetic standpoint, it's simply unbelievable. 

(Reposted from Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Instrumental

We bought our daughter's first violin today, a 1/4 size. She has been asking for lessons for several months now, which I think was instigated by a friend of hers at daycare, who also supposedly has a violin she is supposedly taking lessons for (this is all 5-year-old hearsay; I have confirmed the existence of the girl and the violin, at least). I grew up playing piano and French horn, probably because I am Asian and dorky, respectively, so as soon as she mentioned the violin, my Asian half went OKAY I BUY YOU VIOLIN NOW! YOU PRACTICE 5 HOURS, YES? My sensible husband convinced me to give it a few months and see if her desire persisted. Somewhat surprisingly, it did, so I went a-Craigslisting and found a decent 1/4 size for $100.
We got it home today at 4:00 and by the time we got her in bed at 9:30, she had taken it out to play it no less than 4 times. This kid has enthusiasm. I am psyched.
I also know nothing about the violin. I believe there is something made of horse-hair in the case and there may be rosin involved.
That being said, I have no idea what to look for in a teacher. I began playing piano when I was 6 and continued taking lessons until I moved from my hometown at 14. My parents, like most parents, weren't sure how serious I would take it, so they bought an electric piano and enrolled me in group lessons with a lady that was good with kids. Unfortunately, the only thing that changed over the next 7 years was I got a larger, better electric piano. Meaning I still did not have a real instrument, individual lessons, or a serious teacher. I had exhausted my teacher's sheet music collection as well as expertise, and I spent my time sight-reading crappy pop song arrangements and not progressing at all. When I was 13, I decided to find a hard-core teacher. A friend of mine, whose parents felt the same way about music as my parents did education (i.e., EXTREME), took lessons from a tiny, terrifying Korean woman who taught the piano majors at the local university and made my friend practice 3 hours a day, minimum (which she did, on either the upright piano they had at home or their baby grand. Ahem.). Clearly, this was the teacher for me. What could go wrong?
On my very first day of lessons (nay, my audition to even take lessons from her), one thing became apparent: my technique and theory were severely lacking. I had learned how to "play" the piano, but I was not a piano player. "In the key of blah blah blah" meant exactly that to me, and the difficulty level of piece I was capable of learning never seemed to progress. We frustrated each other for a few months, then I quit lessons for good. I learned a lot in those few months, but I am largely the same player I was before her. Old habits die hard, retraining hands takes a long time. 
Herein lies the dilemma. My parents started me off with a "nice" teacher at the beginning; maybe they thought if I got serious, they'd find me a more serious teacher... I got serious, but the new teacher happened way too late. Or maybe, due at least in part to a lack in any musical training on their part, they just didn't realize I was developing very bad habits and not progressing past "The Wind Beneath My Wings". So I don't want to make the same mistake. You know those ballet movies where the little girls have their hair scraped back and their teacher is a stern Russian woman that constantly corrects their posture and possibly hits them with a meter stick? A small part of me (okay, half of me. Maybe the Asian half.) wants her violin teacher to be JUST LIKE THAT. No mercy. It just seems like a waste of time to build a bad foundation, realize you're serious, then have to scrap that foundation and build a good one. Unfortunately, a good foundation costs $40/hour and SOMEONE'S husband isn't sure a 5-year-old's violin lessons are worth that.
We'll see what happens. According to our daughter, she doesn't even need lessons. I showed her a video of Yanni and she said "Oh. Yeah, that's what I was doing."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Scientifically Insecure

I've been asked to give a talk at a conference I'm attending next month! I had originally intended to present a poster, and I was feeling pretty good about it because this is a small meeting, organized by graduate students and mostly for graduate students (as opposed to a large conference where the leaders in my field will be conducting day-long symposia or something). In fact, this low intimidation factor was one of the main reasons I jumped on this meeting in the first place... well, that, and... it's in Switzerland. w00t!!!!
So a few days after submitting my abstract, I got an email from one of the organizers asking "Your particular field is rather under-represented, would you mind very much giving an oral presentation instead?" To which I initially reflex-vomited, then asked my adviser if he thought I was capable of such things. He said yes, I emailed back yes, and here we are.
I'm feeling unusually confident about the whole thing, but I'm sure that will fade quickly when I actually start putting a talk together and imagining myself standing there, with people assuming I'm some sort of expert on ANYTHING EVER. And here lies one of This Scientist's most common problems: insecurity. I'm starting my sixth year in graduate school (and my last, God willing) and I still hesitate to call myself a molecular biologist, an endocrinologist, a neuroscientist, any of the things I'm supposed to be at this point... when people ask what I do, I say "I'm in graduate school". At what point do I go from being student to scientist?
Confidence is a funny thing. It seems like I have two modes when it comes to being "a scientist", when people ask me science-y questions: 1) total spaz that babbles incoherently and answers with as little commitment as possible, or 2) calm, collected grown-up with enough maturity to stand still for ten seconds in silence while I think it over. I've only recently began to blossom from #1 to #2 and, more often than not, #1 takes over and I end up totally embarrassing myself. The first time I gave a talk (my alma mater invited me back to speak about my current graduate school adventures) I gave the most absurd answer to a question I have ever given in my life, so absurd I will not repeat it... because I was afraid of silence, afraid if I didn't say SOMETHING they would assume I knew NOTHING.
People say "It's okay to say you don't know", but what they really mean is "Learn how to say you don't know without sounding like an idiot". I'm still terrible at the latter, but quite good at the former! 
All that to say that I'm excited, and honored. Yes, I know it's just a student-organized conference, and they only asked me because my field is under-represented, and the fact that my boss is one of the invited speakers probably gives me some credit-by-proxy even if I turn out a total sham... but MY take on it is that if I was truly a complete moron, a quick Google of my name would shout out DON'T ASK HER TO SPEAK! SHE WILL HAVE SLIDES OF RAINBOWS AND CALL THEM DATA! SHE WILL SHOW UP IN A TUTU AND IT WILL BE AWKWARD! But that didn't happen! So maybe I'm not a complete moron, because they DID ask me!
Hopefully because I'm one of the few from my particular field, I actually will know more about what I'm doing than anyone else. When I'm attending a talk, I generally give the speaker the benefit of the doubt that he or she knows way more about their talk than I do. The idea that the audience will assume the same about me is nerve-wracking, but I know I have to get over it. Screw your balls on and go for it, right? Prepare as much as possible, hope it's enough, stay calm and carry on. Here we go.

That's what she said.

My favorite quote being "When the mantle of the squid was opened ... we witnessed an unusual event."

(Reposted from Pharyngula)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Meme

It is possible that no one reads this blog. I accept that possibility. However, I think you are not alone, reader of mine.
A blog meme has been going around science blogs (and maybe non-science blogs, but I have no idea about those) requesting lurkers to temporarily de-lurk and say something about who they are in the Comments. The responses have been surprising and encouraging (to read more, see Ed Yong and DrugMonkey's blogs) and I'm hopping on the bandwagon. We bloggers don't get a lot of feedback; we publish posts into the void, and once in awhile something comes back.

So tell me about yourself (but only as much as you want to tell). How did you find this blog? Why do you keep coming back? What would you like to see more or less of? Does this make me look fat? How many Peeps can you fit in your mouth at once?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Time to Hire a Housekeeper? Really?

I've been meaning for awhile to write about that much talked-about piece in Science Careers on women in academia and housework. This has been covered by many other bloggers, most notably in the discussion between Dr. Isis and the Science Careers editor Jim Austin, but in the interest of blogging about things I spend time thinking about, I'm going to write a bit about it as well.
I recommend following the link to read the original article yourself, but I think a reasonable summary is this: If you want to be a successful woman scientist, it is impractical to expect yourself to take care of your own home and family (and besides, none of you really want to).
If you think I've read it all wrong, please feel free to correct me (hopefully with more tact than profanity) in the comments. Like ScienceMama, I was not sure at first why I was so offended by this article, but I knew that I was! I think I've nailed it down to three main points: 1) Some of us really do want to take care of our own home and family; 2) Under the heading of Solutions, I'd rather talk about raising our sons to be husbands that do housework; and 3) Maybe science should be more amenable to having a Life.
I feel like this article assumes that keeping up with housework is something that we all hate, we all feel obligated to do, and there are no advantages to fulfilling that obligation. Maybe I'm all alone in this, but I don't hate housework. Don't get me wrong, I don't love it, but having an empty sink and all the laundry put up sure does feel good. There is something rewarding about taking care of your own home and cleaning up your own messes. I feel like once we start farming out our housework because we can afford to (collective "we" - I certainly can't afford to!), where does that slippery slope lead? I should hire someone to take care of my kids and take care of the yard and do the grocery shopping and decide what's for dinner, then cook it! If we could just pay people to sleep for us, we may never have to leave work! I realize I'm being hyperbolic, but I think the argument is reasonable - should we pay people to do our "life maintenance" for us just because we can afford to? I think there are inherent benefits to doing it for ourselves. I want my kid to make her bed and learn how to cook and clean up after herself because it builds character. It teaches her discipline, it encourages her to take care of what she has and be respectful of herself and the people around her.
That being said, I don't think it's a cop-out to hire help. It's a choice everyone has to make and I don't think everyone with a housekeeper is a workaholic, or undisciplined, or lazy. I simply resent the suggestion that chores hold no benefit, that they are just a necessary nuisance to being alive.
Although it may not have been appropriate for Science Careers, I would have been more interested to read an article about raising men that will split the housework. I don't have a lot to say on this subject besides that: if you have sons, teach them to be good husbands and fathers! It's not quite as quick a solution as a maid, but the next generation of wives will thank you.
Lastly is the issue of whether or not it's the discipline that should change, not the home life. Should careers in academia be less demanding? I realize this is a ginormous can of worms. For the record, I'm undecided. On one hand, good science takes dedication and one helluva work ethic. When Jonah Lehrer wrote about working as a technician in a neuroscience lab in his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, he put it well: "The truth seemed to slowly accumulate, like dust." To willingly participate in this accumulation of truth every day takes dedication. But should this dedication be so overwhelming that it preempts mopping your own floors and cooking for your own family? Is it unreasonable to expect people to work as hard as most academics do? I honestly don't know. I believe it when people say that so-and-so left academia because they wanted to spend more time with their family, because they ultimately found them incompatible (although I don't know any myself, and it seems like many of them left academia to "do science" in a less demanding career). I also know academics that seem to work 80-hour weeks and have a great family/personal life at the same time. I'm tempted to say that if this individual variation in response to academia exists, maybe the system is selecting for the right people? When I say selecting for the "right" people, I don't mean the best scientists; I'm sure there are plenty of solid scientists that left academia because of the hours, and that sucks. But the unfortunate truth, it seems, is that being "successful" in academia is not just about being a solid scientist. It is about juggling teaching, research, mentorship, administrative bull-shit (as my PI lovingly refers to it), getting funding, publishing, collaborating, networking, reading, hiring, firing... these are time-consuming. There are people who do nothing but one of those as a career, and PIs are expected to do them all. So what I am suggesting is that maybe it's all necessary, and maybe it has to take 80 hours a week. And if you can't work the hours, don't take the job? That seems like a reasonable enough statement outside of the furor surrounding this topic... why does it suddenly become unreasonable when we're talking about women in science? I think med students in residency get it... I think officers on nuclear submarines get it... should we accept it? Or push for change?


While I'm going to prepare myself for a frenzy of unmitigated Internet hatred in the comments, I'm secretly hoping you'll all be reasonable.