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.