Thursday, November 19, 2009


I'm alive, just trying to avoid distraction so I can get my work done. It seems amazing to me that it can take more than a year to lay the groundwork for a new project, and then all the data comes out in just a few of weeks. Is it like this for everyone? I've been working serious overtime lately, but come Thanksgiving, I should have all the data from phase I of my current project. My goal is to finish phase II by Christmas. Then write, write, write after the New Year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The not so big meeting

Now that my advisor has secured an obscene amount of funding for the next five years, he's all about paper productivity. Over the past month, he's introduced to me four new ideas for "side projects" that he'd like me to add to my work load. Each would take about 6 weeks or more to complete. While I appreciate and understand that he is a young professor and needs both money and papers to achieve tenure (as well as to enjoy his role as a PI), I'm on a strict personal time line to defend in late spring/early summer of next year, and I simply can't take on all of these tasks and meet my goal. So, I knew we were in for a big talk. I had to tell him that I couldn't (wouldn't?) do all these extra projects. And I was really nervous about it.

It seems that the advisor/advisee relationship is really poorly defined. My advisor pays my stipend and spends (some) time advising me in my research, so I feel a responsibility to work on projects related to his grants. I have also willingly completed a couple of side projects, as well as taken on a variety of additional responsibilities for the betterment of the lab in general. However, I'm a student, not an employee, which means my primary responsibility is to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to become a (mostly) independent researcher, and to proceed to the next step on my career path. And none of these side projects offer significant learning for me, only a reasonable gain for my advisor. So, who gets to decide what I do and don't do? And who gets to decide when I've achieved enough to move to the next level? How would I respond if I told my advisor I'm ready to wrap things up and start writing, and he told me he doesn't agree?

We met today, and he brought up his most recent idea for a side project, and rightly suggested that when he'd mentioned it earlier I had sent out a "bad vibe." What was the deal? So, I took a deep breath, and reminded him of conversations we'd had in the past about my wish to defend this spring/summer and said that I feel "very strongly" about achieving this goal. I admitted that I have a lot of work left on my primary project, and so I don't feel that I can't take on all of his proposed extra projects and still defend on time. He looked like he was about to argue, until I reminded him that I had already agreed to take on two of his proposed projects. As soon as I mentioned this he immediately relaxed. "Yes," he said, "you should really focus on project B. That one is the most important. Ok. I had forgotten about that. Looks like we're on the same page then." And that was it. All the other arguments I'd spent time developing and prioritizing didn't even need to be brought up. We're on the same page. I'll be out by next summer. Really? Just like that? I can hardly believe it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Time to get down to business

I'm back from vacation, and feeling very much revived. It's taken a bit too long to get reorganized, but I think I'm there now, so it's time to get back to work.

Providing great motivation to jump back into work, our microscope, which has been out of commission for two months, is back online today. I've also successfully run all over campus collecting books and photocopying journal articles from four different libraries for the big push to work out the theory side of this project.

My goal is to be "done" with this project by the end of the calendar year. That means serious work from here on out. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I'm taking off on a mini-vacation to celebrate my anniversary tomorrow! Woohoo! Four days away from the lab; four days without cell phones, computers, tvs. We're hiding away in a cabin in the woods, just us and the dogs. We'll hike during the day and snuggle by the fire with good books in the evening. This is just what we need.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


As workdays go, Tuesday is by far my favorite. Mondays are just a horror for me. Monday mornings drag on with finishing up laundry, packing clothes and leftovers, and making the hour and a half drive to school. Yesterday, I made it all the way to my apartment before realizing I'd forgotten to pack underwear -- underwear! -- thus requiring an impromptu trip to the mall after school and dance to buy new underwear, then washing it in the sink and leaving it to dry overnight. I mean, really. But, I digress.

Tuesdays are the only work day that I wake up and go to sleep in the same place. With no dogs to walk and no husband to talk to in the morning, I'm up, showered, dressed, fed, watered and out the door in about an hour. I usually arrive at the lab between 7:30 and 8:00, invariably making me the first one there. This gives me at least a half hour of peace and quiet to check email and get started on my work before anyone else comes in to distract me. I usually have equipment time in the morning, which can lead to some frustration, but almost always yields at least some amount of data. Afternoons are for analyzing data and "getting things done." I leave around 5:30, grab a quick bite at my apartment, and head to dance. Then it's home for the last 15 minutes of NCIS and back to work. Tonight, I was delighted by finding a new season of So You Think You Can Dance getting started, so I'm enjoying some dance while I write this and will shortly break out my notebook to finish adding in a few notes from today.

Don't get me wrong. I'd much rather wake up at home, jumpstart my day with an invigorating walk with the pups, make a reasonable commute to work, return home in the evening for dinner with my husband (instead of the tv), and work out of my office rather than at my kitchen table/desk in my little studio apartment. But, c'est la vie. I'll take what I can get. And Tuesdays are the best that my work week has to offer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

No approval. What to do?

Just a couple days ago I read a blog post about a student who had submitted an article manuscript without the permission of his/her advisor. (I wish I could give credit here, but I can't find the posting!) I was shocked when I read it. I couldn't believe a grad student would have the nerve to pull something like that. I do remember how frustrating it was when I had my first manuscript prepared and had to wait two months for one of the authors (incidentally, by advisor's father) to return the manuscript (by snail mail) with comments. Still, I understood that it was the proper thing to do. Anyway. This past Friday I was cleaning out my inbox and discovered that I had a poster abstract I'd been putting off due on Sunday (today). So, I put something together and emailed it to my advisor, who I then remembered was out of town delivering a guest lecture at another university. I had hoped he would see the email and give the abstract a few minutes of his time, maybe at his hotel in the evening, but I waited until 8:00pm this evening and no reply had come. So, I had to submit without his approval. I realize this is very different than submitting a manuscript without the approval of an author, but I still feel a little awkward about sending out an abstract with my advisor's name on it, knowing he hasn't even seen it. Hope he's ok with it when I see him tomorrow. (I should have with me some great samples I finished making this weekend. Hopefully that will appease him if he's upset!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Have Faith

On days like today, I have to have faith that sooner or later, all the equipment that I need will be back up and running and all my data will come together to yield a fabulous paper, and the basis of a fantastic thesis. Sooner or later, sooner or later, sooner....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Job Search, Day One

For no particular reason, except that it seemed easier than tackling the other items on my to do list, I took the first step towards searching for a job today. About the future, I know one thing absolutely -- I don't want to be in a long distance relationship with my husband any longer; and one thing with a fair amount of confidence -- I want to work at a small liberal arts college. To these ends, I jumped online and set about looking for any and all colleges within about a one hour radius of the PUI my husband works at. I found 14. I then broke these up into MRUs (3), which might offer prospects for a post-doc position, and smaller colleges (11), which might offer prospects for a visiting assistant professorship, or even an immediate tenure track position. I then looked up all the schools, browsed around their physics department websites, and bookmarked all their associated human resource pages so I can return frequently to look for updated job postings. In the process, I lost one MRU (a medical college) and two small colleges (one turned out to be a two-year college and the other had no physics department!).

So now I'm down to 11 schools total -- 2 MRUs, 4 PUIs, 2 state schools, and 3 community colleges. I'd say my prospects of finding gainful employment -- in terms of a job that will make me happy, boost my resume, and make me money (hey, let's be honest, it's important) -- are pretty slim. I may have a little bit of a leg up at the local MRU, as my advisor completed his PhD there and is a bit of a bigwig in the field now. Also, it's almost certain I can at least get an adjunct position at my husband's PUI, so I shouldn't be unemployed. Still, after 7 years of graduate school, I'd like to have something more to look forward to than merely not being unemployed. I'm trying hard not to get too down regarding my prospects when I'm barely 7 hours into my job search.

My husband and I knew going into this that it would be hard, and we'd both have to sacrifice. In a couple of years, after my husband has successfully passed tenure, we'll re-evaluate, and probably conduct a country-wide search together for a better match for us. Leaving a tenured position will be no small sacrifice on my husband's part. Being successful in this life is going to require a lot of give and take. The question I can't answer with complete confidence yet, however, is: Will it be worth it?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Babies and grants

Last week at lab meeting, my advisor told the group that he had just received word that a third major grant he submitted this year has been funded. We now have more than $2500 to spend PER DAY for the next five years. So, he continued telling us, he won't need to write any more grants for about three years. Now, it's time to get out lots of papers.

Gee, thanks. So glad I could be with you during more than three and a half years of babies and grants. Three and a half years when you were often absent, or holed up in your office, refusing to speak to anyone. Three and a half years with scant guidance because you refused to hire a post doc because you didn't think you could get one good enough. Three and a half years of hanging wall clocks, ordering basic supplies, and building equipment. (Did I mention that I started in the lab just 6 months after my advisor got here?) Three and a half years of being cramped in a too-small lab because we grew so quickly, but didn't have the clout to get more space.

To his credit, I guess, my advisor is now trying to get me interested in a bunch of "side" projects, each of which he expects will take only 4-6 weeks, and each of which will get me authorship (2nd or 3rd) on the resulting paper. But, here's the thing. I'm about to enter my fifth year in this lab, and I am already well into my 6th year of grad school over all. At this point in my career, 6 weeks for 2nd authorship on a paper just isn't worth it. I'm exhausted, spent. I don't want to spend even 5 minutes on anything that isn't going to directly advance me towards graduation.

I'm done. All done. It's time to move on.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


As in all labs, our lab has a lot of equipment that is shared, and for a few heavily-used items we keep a sign up sheet and designate specific time blocks for equipment usage. I had an experiment running this morning that I wanted to continue into the afternoon, but there was a peer signed up for the equipment after me. Hoping to gain some extra time, I asked him if he intended to use his time. (It's not uncommon for people to skip out on their time and not inform the rest of the lab, as they should.) "Sorry," he said to me, "I will be." So, I stopped my experiment and cleaned up all my stuff. It's now 45 minutes into his time slot and he is still sitting NEXT TO ME at his desk, reading online gossip columns. Really???

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Advice for new grad students

One of the best pieces of advice I can offer a new grad student is to find time each week for a non-school related activity -- sports, hobby, etc. This should be something fun and, preferably, something you do without any of your lab buddies. This probably sounds easy, and perhaps obvious, but when the work starts to pile up, it can be very easy to neglect your own self.

I've been dancing since I was six years old, and dance has always been a big part of my life. When I first started at my current university, I was reluctant to seek out dance opportunities because I already had so much on my plate -- trying to navigate a new school, learning to balance two residences (my first house, with my husband, and my apartment at school), and planning a long-distance wedding. About 6 weeks after moving, however, I had a huge argument with my fiance (we've fought maybe 3-4 times in the 9 years we've known each other), and the very next week I came down with the first migraine I'd ever had. We both agreed that it was time for me to to start dancing again.

When I'm at dance, everything else disappears, and I get an hour or so to focus entirely on me. It helps me work out the frustrations of the day; it gives me a chance to express myself in a wholly different way than I do at school; it gives me an opportunity to interact with people with differing interests from my own... This week was my first week back to dance after a one month "summer break." I didn't realize how much I missed it. Already, I'm sleeping better, waking up more rested, dealing better with all the things that are going wrong in the lab right now. It's a wonderful thing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I feel as if I've been coming across a lot of blog posts and articles about motivation lately. I just read a piece in Inside Higher Ed which suggested that grad students should find something they are looking forward to at/after graduation to use as motivation.

I am a very non-traditional grad student in the sense that I am married and a homeowner, and in that I'm essentially a commuter student, since I spend my weekends at home with my husband and my weeks up at school. This has made it very difficult for me to cultivate close personal relationships with any of my friends at school, and impossible to even find friends in my home town. After four years, this has become very draining.

Some of my lab mates had suggested in the past that they'd like to visit me at my home and tour the local college town, which is fairly well-known and has some fun activities to offer. So, last week I sent out invitations for a bunch of them to come down, visit the town, and enjoy a BBQ at my house. All but one of them bailed at the last minute. In the end, I guess they were all put off by the hour and a half drive down. I can't blame them -- I have turned down invitations in the past to do things with them over the weekend because I don't want to make the drive back to school an additional time, or lose what precious little time I have at home for an activity that maybe isn't all that exciting to me. Still, my failed attempt to gather friends at my home highlights the fact that the life I'm currently living is out of whack. Really, I'm living two lives -- a life at school and a life at home, and neither one is complete.

So, one of my motivations for graduating is knowing that when I'm through I will finally have the chance to find a local best friend. Someone who is in a similar place in life (married, homeowner, maybe with a kid on the way -- as I hope to have too once I get out of school). Someone that I can go for coffee with, or to dinner, and talk about the things happening in our lives. It will be nice.

Friday, September 11, 2009

iPods and Dance Parties

When my sisters bought me an iPod a couple of years ago I was skeptical that it would get much use. In actuality, it's turned out to be one of the best gifts I've ever received. In addition to helping block out noisy peers when I'm trying to get work done at my desk, it's great for keeping me company when I take data. I'm a microscopist, which means that I spend a lot of my time standing around in the dark, pushing buttons and watching data accrue. To help the time pass, I listen to music and often dance around like a fool. (This also helps me stay warm as the scope room is kept very cold for the lasers.) The "door" to the microscope room is actually just a curtain, which has a velcro strip on the side to keep it closed and to seal out any light. The velcro makes some noise when pulled apart, but I'm almost certain that one of these days I'll have the music up so loud that someone will manage to get inside and catch me in the act of my one-person dance party!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Educating the family

My current home puts me very close to my extended family, and I spend time with them at least every 6-8 weeks. We were together this weekend for my cousin's birthday -- chatting and eating, as is always the way. Talking to my family about what I do is always a bit of an adventure because neither science nor graduate school are things that they have great familiarity with. I've been in grad school more than 6 years now, and it was only last year that they stopped asking me what my plans were for summer vacation, or what classes I was taking the upcoming semester. I should be finishing up this Spring, and one of my cousins (21) asked me, "So, when are you applying to [your husband's] college?" My immediate thought was, why would I apply to another school? Don't I have enough education? Then I realized that she meant apply to teach there. So I replied that I would apply this fall, if there is a position opening, and that's a pretty big if. Later in the conversation, her sister (18) asked me if I would be graduating with a degree in science. Well, not just science, I replied, physics, with a focus on biophysics. So, you wouldn't go teach chemistry?, she asked. No, I said, I haven't taken chemistry since high school, so I'd be a very bad chemistry teacher. Still later, my uncle asked my husband if he should be called "Dr.", since he has a PhD.

I don't say these things to poke fun at my family. Really, I wonder when I became aware of graduate school -- what it means to get a masters vs. a PhD, what (sub)fields are available, what you do when you get out, the difference between an MRU and a PUI (in terms of going to teach at one or the other), what a post-doc is. My cousins are both intelligent women, so I can't figure out why the older one would assume I could just apply to teach at a university whenever I wanted. It's not like applying at Walmart; there aren't always positions open. Also, my husband and I talk about being physicists, and he is a physics professor, so I wonder how my younger cousin could believe I was getting a PhD in general science.

Am I just too far into the process to remember how little I knew about it before I started? Or was I maybe more aware because my father has a Master's and I grew up in a University town? And is that awareness, or lack-thereof, indicative of the scope of a person's aspirations? (My sisters both have Master's degrees, and I'm on my way to a PhD, but of our five cousins on that side of the family, only one seems likely to complete a four year degree.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Teaching Physics

For those of you unfamiliar with the name David Griffiths, he's a physics professor at Reed College and the author of two (that I know of) text books: Introduction to Electrodynamics and Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. His E&M book is considered the gold standard for undergraduates and his Quantum book is very nearly as highly regarded. His books are clear, straightforward, and even a little humorous. Griffiths is also a highly regarded lecturer. I lived in Portland OR (home to Reed College) for a year and sincerely regret that I never took the time to attend a lecture of his.

In any case, a good friend of mine posted an article on Facebook that was written by Griffiths. In it, he talks about teaching physics. Here are a few of my favorite outtakes:

"ours is a subject the relevance and importance of which are beyond question, and which is intrinsically fascinating to anyone whose mind has not been corrupted by bad teaching or poisoned by dogma and superstition"

"...rolling a ball down an incline is emphatically not tedious and dull. Take a closer look at the classical theory of rolling: why does a sphere roll faster than a hoop, and exactly how much faster?"

"Learning physics is hard, and it can be frustrating; there is no point in concealing this or (far worse) watering it down in a futile attempt to make the subject more marketable. Serious students relish a genuine challenge; they do not like being coddled, patronized or made to feel stupid, and they resent meaningless hurdles – tedious lab sessions, plug-in problems, trick questions, unfair examinations and confusing explanations."

"I believe every educated person should study physics. Why? Because it is interesting – the natural world is a remarkable and fascinating place; because it is liberating – the universe is not arbitrary, but rational and comprehensible; and because physics is unequivocally the most powerful and profound system of thought ever devised."

Yes! Yes! Yes! Every paragraph I read got me more excited. I couldn't agree more with pretty much everything he said. I love physics, and I love teaching it (though it's been more than 3 years now since I was in a classroom). The unfortunate thing about physics is that it has been so susceptible to bad teaching and superstition. K-12 aged students eat science up, but high school students quake at the thought of taking physics, without even knowing exactly what physics is! Those who brave it, and are fortunate enough to have a good teacher, find that physics IS intrinsically interesting and relevant. It can be challenging, but it is not impossible for anyone. And it's not all math. (I actually has someone ask me once if physics could be considered a sub-field of math!) I wish everyone had to take physics. And, I would add to Griffiths' list about why students should study physics something my husband always brings up. Understanding physics (and all sciences) helps us to be better citizens, to make better choices about matters involving science. Stem cells, evolution, the LHC (it's not really going to blow us all to bits!) -- how many people weighing in on these issues really understand what they're talking about?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Humbling perspective

A friend of mine from high school lost his son yesterday. His son was only 4 weeks old, and spent his entire short life in the NICU, with doctors constantly working over him, trying to find out what was wrong with his tiny heart. This friend of mine has already suffered more from death than a young person should, having fought alongside both his parents as they battled, and eventually succombed to, cancer. My friend and his wife kept a blog during this past month, which I read each morning with a heavy heart. Good people shouldn't suffer so much. It was humbling to read about their struggles and the strength and hope with which they faced each day. They lay their son to rest tomorrow. I can hardly imagine a deeper sorrow.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I love computer geeks

It's true. Computer geeks are great! I have yet to ask Google to find me an answer to a computer query and not found that someone else has asked the same question before, and been answered. Workarounds for weird software gitches. MATLAB files to manipulate plots all sorts of ways. LaTeX tips and templates. And all for free! I'd love to join in the fun, but don't have the time quite yet (will I ever?) to learn all the nitty-gritty programming. Someday. For now, I enjoy hacking together the stuff I find online. So, thanks to all you computer geeks out there! You are very much appreciated.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Not again!

So, I just got back from another failed attempt to get work done at the shared facility where I'm trying to make some samples. This morning I checked the facility website before taking off to ensure that the tool I needed was up and running. It was! And, it was in use. Great! So, I packed up, headed in, and when I got to the tool I was immediately faced with a malfunction. I checked with two other users who were nearby, and both were as baffled as I was. So, I called the tool manager. His response: "Yeah, that happened to me this morning when I tried to use the tool. I was hoping it would just go away." You were hoping it would just go away?! "You're best bet," he tells me "is to log out of the tool, file an incident report, and leave it to us to look into later." REALLY? I'm not usually the type to say this sort of thing, but do your job!!! At a facility like this, a tool manager's main responsibilities are to keep his/her tools online and to train new users and help troubleshoot when they run into problems. To me, it is absolutely unacceptable that a tool manager would encounter a problem, not report it so that users (from all over the country, mind you) would be aware of the issue and could plan according, and then continue to in fact ignore the problem. My husband has worked at a few other facilities of this type and assured me when I started that this one was by far the most well-maintained and well-staffed. I'd hate to see the other facilities he's worked at, because my experience has been pretty frustrating and unsatisfying.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ugh, biology...I was duped.

Before the many biologist bloggers get offended, I don't hate biology, and I don't plan to rant against the subject. This is a complaint about an interdisciplinary relationship gone awry. I (a physicist) was my advisor's first grad student hire. My advisor's background is in physics, and when I joined the lab he had already hired a research assistant prof from a bioscience. The plan, as I understood it, was to balance the lab between the biological and physical sciences. And that seemed to be the case, at first. After me came another physical science grad student, then one from the bio side -- a perfectly balanced lab. But then came the MD/Phd from biosci, then a technician with a BSN, then another technician from biosci, and then another full time biosci grad student. And always in the background has been a continual assortment of undergrads and graduate rotators, you guessed it, all from the biosciences. Now one might say, well, at least you have the one physical science grad to buddy around with. Um, wrong. My phys-sci buddy keeps pretty much entirely to himself, showing no interest even in talking science with me (or anyone else other than our advisor).

Of course, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the bioscience grad students actually showed any interest in the physical science side of the lab, but they don't. When I give presentations at group meetings, I get at best feigned interest from maybe half the lab. If I dare to put an equation up on a powerpoint slide, just a single equation, they all start getting twitchy. A couple of years ago I suggested to my advisor that we start giving 5 minute updates during lab meeting. My hope was that in each talking a little about our research each week it might foster conversation across the disciplines. But here is how 5 minute presentations usually go (taken from today's meeting):

Me: 6 minutes (only my advisor commented)
Phys Grad #2: 5 minutes (only spoke to advisor, only advisor commented)
Bio Grad #1: 10 minutes (advisor, tech and research asst prof commented)
Bio Grad #2: 25 minutes (advisor, tech and RAS commented)
Tech #1: 10 minutes (advisor and bio grad #1 commented)
Tech #2: 15 minutes (advior, bio grad #1, myself, RAS commented)

That totals 1 hour of bio science talk and 11 minutes of phys science talk. And two bio people were absent today.

Again, I don't dislike bio. If I did, I wouldn't have gone into biophysics. But I do regret that I have no one in my lab to talk to about the particulars of my projects (save my advisor). That means no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to dialog with during meetings/presentations, even no one to laugh at silly physics jokes with. It has truly been the most disappointing part of my graduate career.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I am the lab tech support

Around my lab, I am the go-to person for computer tech support. I generally enjoy the opportunity to share my knowledge with my peers and to help them out. Quite often, however, I feel that they come ask me questions, not because they can't figure it out, but because they are too lazy to do so. It's not rocket science, or magic, just a willingness to take the time to poke around for the answer. This comic appeared on xkcd today, and explains how I feel perfectly. If only there was a way to nonchalantly spread this around to my peers.

Monday, August 24, 2009

When is enough enough?

Back in the Spring I began using a shared facility at a neighboring University to prepare some samples for my research. As the summer hit the number of users at the facility increased dramatically and it became more difficult to get time on the tools and with the staff members. Being fortunate enough to live close to this facility, as many users are not, I made every effort to be flexible regarding my use of tool and staff time. I really pushed myself to be diligent about timeliness (I'm usually late for everything), and I strove to be forgiving when staff arrived late for training appointments with me because I understood how very busy the summer season is and appreciated their time.

Now, each new user at the facility is assigned a "host," who performs most of the new user's training. My host and I had a really good working relationship going, until the summer hit and my host began constantly running late. I waited on him for as long as 30 minutes on several occasions, and was eventually completely stood up by him. I let this stand up slide because, again, I know how busy the summer is and because I've learned that you can get farther with kindness than with confrontation. But then it happened again, and I got ticked. As a grad student I'm used to being walked over a bit, but this seemed ridiculous. My host claimed he had been pulled into an impromptu meeting, but I contend that he could have called. There are pager phones EVERYWHERE in the facility. So, I sent him an email and suggested we take a "break," and that I return when the busy summer season was over. I was pretty sure I had ticked him off in return, because he didn't immediately return my emails when I contacted him a couple weeks ago to get started up again. When he finally got back to me, though, and we had our first appointment back at the facility, he was on time, we chatted amicably while at our task, and I walked away feeling good.

Then today happened. Despite really needing to return to my own University today (2 hours away), I arranged an appointment this morning at the facility because I knew it was a convenient time for my host, and I wanted the task out of the way. When I showed up at the facility this morning there were 4 people there. Four. And guess how late my host was to our appointment? 30 minutes! Really?! What could he possibly have been doing? I honestly don't know what I am going to do at this point. Well, sadly, I do. I'm going to hang in there and deal with it because I am literally days away from finishing. But how do I prevent this type of situation in the future? I worry that if I'm too stern I'll upset the person I'm working with and ruin the working relationship. But is the alternative really to be walked all over?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Perks of working from home

A few of the top perks of working from home:

1. Shorts and a t-shirt; no shoes; no bra
2. Open windows
3. Music through speakers, rather than headphones
4. A clean and private bathroom
5. Dogs to pet when I need a 5 minute break
6. No distractions from my peers/advisor
7. Room to stretch
8. Pierogies with onion and pepper for lunch, enjoyed in front of a TV show rented from Netflix (no commercials!)
9. A glass of apple juice sweating on my desk
10. No commute -- I'll be sure to be home on time!

Every once and a while an opportunity arises for me to work from the house. I love these days. Admittedly, though, give me two or more in a row and I start going stir-crazy from solitude and find other activities around the house to distract me. But one day, relaxing and productive!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Math is fun

When I was in third grade I asked my Mom for a math book for my birthday so I could practice over the summer. What a geek! So, when I came across this quiz this morning, I just had to try it out. I did all the math in my head and got a perfect score. How did you do?

PS. Two posts in one day. Is it obvious that I have a task at hand I'm not motivated to complete?

The First Lady's Shorts

This morning I came across a ridiculous article on MSN, describing a recent controversy over Michelle Obama's decision to wear shorts on a family outing to the Grand Canyon. The article invited feedback, and pretty much everyone who wrote in agreed that her shorts were not too short, were perfectly appropriate to the situation, and were not an issue we should really be wasting our time on. I couldn't agree more, especially with the point that we shouldn't be wasting our time on this. So why am I? Because I noticed something far more subtle, but disturbing in the article -- this quote: "While most women would agree that shorts (at any length) are often tough to pull off...".

Really? What is so difficult about shorts? Is it that shorts are generally unflattering, or that the average woman doesn't have legs worthy of showing off? Either option offends me. Must every inch of my body be perfect, and my clothes perfect for showing it off? Am I not allowed to dress comfortably, instead of perfectly fashionable, every time I leave my house? Do I need eyeshadow and high heels to work in the lab?

A few years ago a young girl approached me while I was doing work at a coffee shop and asked if she could ask me a few questions for a school project. I agreed. Her first question was, "what beauty magazines do you read?" My answer, "none," completely flabbergasted the girl. Her mother had to prod her out of speechlessness and suggest to her that she ask my why. Why? Because I refuse to allow something into my home that constantly reminds me that I'm not pretty enough, fashionable enough, rich enough, pleasing my husband well enough...

Part of me fears the challenge of possibly raising a girl (once I get started on family) because of the increasing prevalence of such degrading expectations of physical perfection. And another part of me hopes that I have a girl, whom I can teach to love (or at least not fear) science and math, and to shun the media's shameless expectations and be proud of everything that she will be.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I could get used to this

This week I am fabricating samples at a shared facility at a University other than my own, which just happens to be only a few miles from my home. (Wish I could have gotten in here for grad school, but it was a bit over my head.) This means I get to stay home all week long. Yesterday, I snuck away for an hour to meet my husband at a vet appointment for one of our dogs. (She has a host of medical issues and is prone to biting vets, so it helps to have us both there so one can manage the dog and the other can ask and answer questions.) On my way home, I was able to run three different errands, including buying groceries, and still arrived home earlier than I usually do on the nights I drive home instead of staying at school. Today, I carpooled with my husband. Wednesday, I'll get to go to the local farmer's market for only the second time since I moved here four years ago. Thursday, I have a lunch date with one of my aunts, who works for the University I'm doing work at for the week. Friday, I'll sneak another hour for a second vet appointment with the same pup. And later, maybe my husband and I will go out for dinner, a real rarity on a night on which I don't usually get home until almost 8:00. Is this really what life is like for most people? Because I could really get used to this.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The laser is down

Four words I dread to hear or utter: the laser is down. This morning I had been happily aligning our laser system and bopping away to tunes on my iPod, when I moved over to the computer to switch the microscope into scan mode and found the display black and the keyboard and mouse dead. I punched keys, unplugged and replugged cords, shut down and restarted the system. Nothing. I called in the IT guys and we agreed...fried motherboard.

Our laser/scope system is not even four years old, but the computer controlling the system is ancient. It's not that we were cheap when we set up the system; apparently it is always the case that microscope companies prefer that their consumers use well-tested (aka old) computers to run the necessary software because there is known and documented compatibility. Even with little else installed on this computer, an old computer is an outdated computer, and just isn't capable of handling such long and heavy usage. And because we have proprietary PCI cards installed and there are apparently known software compatibility issues with some motherboards, I'm not at will to frantically run down to the computer store and buy a cheap Dell and load it up. Instead, I'm in the middle of a phone/email tag game, looking for recommendations for the right system to buy as a replacement. This will probably take the better part of two weeks or more. And so I had to send out an email to the lab this morning, subject: the laser is down until further notice.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Choosing a husband

An entry at Female Science Professor today reminded me of an incident from early in my graduate career. I had chosen to attend a "women in physics" luncheon. At the luncheon, the three or four female faculty in the department offered their words of wisdom to us young female scientists. "The key to success," one of them stated, "is a supportive husband." I immediately bristled at this suggestion. Although I had always anticipated getting married someday, I couldn't believe I was being told that I needed a man to succeed. Without considering an alternative interpretation, I indignantly thought to myself, "I don't need anyone but myself."

Fast forward a few years. I am now married and have transferred to a different school to complete my studies -- ahh, the two-body problem. My husband's college (he's a physics prof) and my grad school are two hours apart. We decided the best option was to buy a house near his school and get me an apartment near mine, where I stay three nights a week. It's hard, really, really hard maintaining this dual life. And a couple years ago I began to falter, and considered leaving grad school. All the women in my mother's family, whom I live near and visit often, as well as my middle sister, were excited that I might leave school and encouraged me to do so. Why should I sacrifice so much to get a PhD and become a professor when I could make a fine living as a high school teacher with the education I had? And then I could start a family, since I would be living full time with my husband, as I should be anyway. (These were their opinions, not necessarily mine.) Even my oldest sister and father offered only cautious support. Be careful you don't let your aspirations threaten your marriage, they warned. (Not altogether terrible advice.) Still, did no one think that maybe what I needed was encouragement to stay the course? Did no one think that maybe this was just a bump in the road, and what I was looking for was support to make it through? Or validation of my choices? One person. My husband. The one who had the most to gain by my leaving school and moving home. He alone -- well, and to be fair, my best friend, an MD -- assured me that we would make it, that I would make it. He alone of my family validated my aspirations, and inspired me to keep going. I'm now within a year of graduating, and as hard it's been, and continues to be, I'm happy with my choice.

And now I understand what those women at that luncheon meant. It wasn't that I needed to get married, and to have that man support me. It was that if I did get married, I better marry a man who supports me. And he does. May you also be so fortunate.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Scientific conceit

"None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder."
-- From Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

There are many ways to interpret this sentiment, particularly as it reflects Frankenstein's character in the novel. My first instinct, after smiling at the first sentence, was to note the conceit in the last as a general commentary on scientists. Have scientists always believed themselves superior to pursuers of other subjects? Because this attitude still resonates today -- physicists being among the most susceptible to this mode of thought.

N.B. Mary Shelley was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein. 19! What were you doing when you were 19? I'm sure I wasn't writing a literary masterpiece. What genius!

Friday, August 7, 2009

On working for new professors

What it's like to work for a new professor: (Prompted by an entry by Janus Professor, which reminded me of a common new professor lament that they never get the great students. I wonder if new PIs realize that their students might suffer as much from the PI's inexperience as a lab manager as the PI is suffering from his/her students' perceived lack of ability.)

1. If you are (un)lucky enough to be the first hire, you are automatically the senior-most student. And if your advisor (like mine) does not also hire a post-doc, then you have only your advisor to turn to when you need advice -- a limiting and humbling situation.
2. You are likely to spend a good deal of your first 3-6 months doing things like ordering and hanging clocks and white boards, setting up equipment, and organizing drawers and shelves. All things which do not forward your graduate career, and for which you receive no credit from your advisor.
3. EVERYTHING you need for your research must be ordered. And your advisor will know where to order these items from only about 1/3 of the time.
4. You will often hear something like, "Well it always worked for me this way at Big Name University, so you must be doing something wrong. Ok, got to go."
5. Because your advisor is unfamiliar with the school and department culture, you may struggle more with things like setting up an advisory committee and learning how to prepare for exams.
6. You will likely be made aware -- consciously or otherwise -- that you do not measure up to the standard of your advisor and his/her peers, and so are a disappointment. (Someday, he/she is thinking, I'll get the good students.)
7. You are at the whim of a person who is inordinately stressed out over being a new professor and who may also be tangling with the challenges (and sleep deprivation) of starting a family. Rationality will not be your advisor's strong suit.

1. New professors have great enthusiasm for their research, and it's contagious.
2. New professors often have lots of great ideas for research, and may let you have choice in the project you pursue.
3. Being younger makes it easier for you and your advisor to relate to one another, and may lead to a more relaxed atmosphere in the lab. (Our lab is prone to having wine and cheese parties for just about every occasion we can think of.)
4. Having more recently left graduate school than established professors, your advisor may show brief glimpses of humanity and understanding of the personal circumstances of students with new spouses, new homes, and new children.
5. You will likely get your name on a decent number of publications.
6. You will get to know the ins and outs of starting up a lab, which may prove useful if academia is your career path as well.
7. Having had to rely mainly on your own wit and skills (see cons #1), you will gain a stronger sense of independence and confidence than you might have otherwise.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What's in a name

Choosing a name for myself on this adventure was probably the most difficult task I faced in setting up this blog. My husband suggested FemaleScienceGraduateStudent, modeled after FemaleScienceProfessor, a favorite blogger of his. Although I am very proud to be a female scientist, I balked at being so narrowly defined. It is one of my pet peeves that when I meet new people and tell them that I am a physicist they almost unanimously reply either: "I didn't like physics in high school." or "Wow. You must be really smart." And then the conversation dies. Apparently, I can't be related to by a non-scientist. Nor am I expected to have other, non-sciency, aspects of my life upon which we might find common ground. Although I intend to use this blog to talk mostly about my life in science, and realize that most of my followers will likely be scientists, I still prefer to describe my musings more broadly. As well, I find that a fair number of my graduate school woes stem from the fact that, in my lab, I'm a physicist swimming in a sea of biologists, and the tide can be overwhelming. So I decided to give my blog the moniker Interdisciplinary Introspective. Welcome to my world.