19 November 2009

Cute stuff.

Katy's been bugging me to put a pic of this little guy up somewhere, so here he is! His name is Elefante, and he's a cute free pattern I found on Ravelry. Sure, his ears are crooked, and he looks sad when he's not supported by a ball of yarn, and he looks like a clown barfed on him, but he's squishy, he's friendly, and he's mine...all mine!!!

He is but the first in a line of cuteness that has permeated my life lately. All of said cuteness is very welcome right now, as a dark raincloud has apparently permanently relocated to right on
top of Columbia, and the dark misty days are weighing on my heart.

What else is cute-ifying my life right now? Well, the cats, of course! Here's Atticus, in his second favorite bathroom sink, with his new favorite toy from his absolute favoritest auntie. How could you not love that pudge (which, as Bill is quick to point out, is actually muscle).

And last but not least, something not cute so much as delicious and squishy. It's Sherino, which is Shetland x Merino (you know how I love my punny/clever names) dyed green, with PEACOCK feathers in it. For real. It's lovely and squooshy and soo pretty...got it in a destash on Rav, and will have to make something for myself with it, I think. Mmm...sheepy birdy yumminess.

16 November 2009

Fiber Art.

Yesterday was my second Ravelversary! For those of you that are not fiber geeks, it means I've been a member of Ravelry for two years. It's a wonderful website, the future of the intertubes, if you will, and surely worthy of its own post. On this momentous occasion, however, I feel inspired to let you know how I view fiber these days.

This is my first handspun, hand-dyed, hand knit sweater. It's definitely not perfect. It's heavy and a little sloppy, and the skeins didn't take the dye exactly the same, but I love it. It's snuggly and fuzzy, it knit up quickly, and it makes me happy. Mostly because I feel like I've really created something, and no one else will ever have one like it, because the materials, the time, and the feeling of it can never be recreated.

That's what's so fun about fiber these days...I can take wool, or mohair, or ramie, or some other random spinnable fiber (cat hair? recycled soda bottles?) and turn it into something useful. Add some color, and the fun aspect increases even more!

I think this is such a revelation to me because I tend to undervalue what I create. I probably have at least 30 pairs of handknit socks in my drawer right now. I just crank them out, not for the product, but for the ease of travel and process of knitting. Talk to other folks over on Rav, though, and they'll tell you the real story...handknit socks are a definite commodity to some folks. Highly prized, highly coveted commodities. High quality sock yarn is expensive...a basic yarn can cost $10-15 per pair, and hand-dyed sock yarn can cost more than $20 per pair. So materials are expensive. Most experienced knitters would say it takes 10-12 hours to knit a pair, so at minimum wage, just labor would cost at least $60. It would not be out of the question for a knitter to charge at least $75 for a pair of handknit socks. Let's not get started on the hand-dyed, hand-spun aspect, either. I refuse to think of them as costing that much, though, because I walk on them everyday!

All of this musing basically adds up to one key concept: I create fiber art, but I don't like to constantly view it as art. I really like to share fiber stuff with other people, and I like to think of my creations as warm, fuzzy, hugs. I joke with people sometimes that if everyone were knitting when their hands were idle, there would be no more cold feet (or hands, or heads, or necks). But I really mean it. I knit for utility, sometimes for pretty, and mostly to keep my hands busy.

14 November 2009

New to the herd.

I keep meaning to write a post about spinning, and today I found a very good reason for bloggage.

First things first, though. Meet Lenny.
Lenny is my first spinning wheel, a Lendrum double treadle castle/upright wheel. I purchased Lenny after a short-lived love affair in July 2008 with some spindles that convinced me I needed more power. Things worked out nicely, since Yarn Barn in Lawrence, KS happened to have a Lendrum in stock, and Bill and I happened to be going in that direction for a wedding that week. Lenny's a great all-purpose wheel, and I've slowly accumulated accessories for it that make it serviceable and useful for many types of yarn. I would be happy with Lenny as my one and only wheel forever. But, as many fiber fiends will tell you, it's hard to stop with just one (wheel, bag of fiber, ball of yarn, etc).

Meet Betty.
I met Betty on Craigslist and decided she should come live with me (I know, I'm a smooth talker and move quickly). She came to me disassembled, so I had some fun putting her together and getting to know her working parts. Here she is in workable, spinnable glory.

She's a saxony style wheel, double drive, and has a distaff (that thing sticking up on the right) to hold fiber while I spin. She's a pretty sweet little girl, made in 1974 for a company called Haltec/Hallcraft that manufactured furniture and decided to make these wheels for decoration, but that also could be used to spin wool. I think we're going to get along just fine.

06 November 2009

Hate it.

As a graduate student, I attend lots of meetings in which we discuss research. Sometimes we talk about research articles. Sometimes we talk about theory. I meet with different groups of people, who all work on different research questions and organisms.

Lately, I've noticed a disturbing trend in the reactions of fellow graduate students when we discuss their personal (dissertation-related) research. The two situations that stick out in my mind right now involve discussions of research proposals. Obtaining funding for research is quite competitive. A research proposal that seeks such funding
needs to be rigorously evaluated and should pass muster from a variety of viewpoints, because not everyone rating your research proposal will be an expert in every subject your proposal explores.

I try to be a helpful peer, and I try to provide as much feedback as possible about possible advantages and disadvantages of specific research plans. Maybe it's my debate training, my nit-picky nature, or my current mindset from critically grading so many essays for my class. Regardless, I tend to be critical in my evaluating, and I tend to play devil's advocate as much as possible. The result, however, is lots of questions about methods, analysis, and a desire for an answer different from "Well, this is how everyone else does it." So I push, sometimes hard, for other students to think about why they do things certain ways.

The somewhat startling result, which I've encountered twice recently, is a proclivity for the person to get a little huffy and to respond with something like "I didn't know you would hate [this part of my research] so much."

OK. WAIT A MINUTE. I never voiced an opinion about other people's research that indicated I hated it. I never even stated that I thought the fundamental questions of their research was bad.

What I did was ask for justification about why they would ask a certain research question, or why they would perform certain tests in certain ways. I asked for cl
arification about research aims, and made them explain why they would draw that conclusion from that specific piece of evidence.

I asked them to fulfill the requirements of most grant proposals, and to be explicit in their scientific thinking. What kills me is that most of these questions are similar to the reviews I've recently received for my own (rejected) grants. Apparently, expressing any thought about someone's research that could be construed as negative means that the research is hated by the audience.

This is a new idea for me, and one I somewhat resent. As the first graduate student in my lab, I feel like I received relatively little feedback on my early research proposals, and I think I'm worse off as a scientist because I didn't face much constructive criti
cism then. I would much rather hear a question from a peer before I submit a proposal than in a reviewer's comments after a proposal is rejected.

Right now, I feel like I'm much more able to turn my critical eye on my own writing than I was previously able. I tear my own writing apart numerous times while writing, and I'm very lucky to have a couple of people in my life who can take a little time to look at my writing and tell me what they really think ("That figure is WAY too small, and I have no idea what that means!").

I suppose it's ironic that my graduate student peers are rejecting the very
thing which I currently seek.

And now, for the obligatory cat picture! Here's Fatticat hiding in a yarn bin.

30 October 2009

A story and a PSA

I had fun at the dentist this week. I mean, I really did. It had been a year and a half since my last visit...I've never had a cavities, I never had braces, only had two wisdom teeth...I take advantage of my teeth by lapsing a bit between cleanings.

Anyway, I had a pretty good time chatting with the dental hygienist as we were getting settled...she loved my sweater (which I had spun, dyed and knit), and we talked about science and plants, which was fun.

Then she pulled out a machine which, I kid you not, was called the "Cavitron." It apparently shoots sprays of water to break up buildup on teeth. I cracked up...it could only be more ridiculous if it were called the "Plaque-o-matic."

So while she's busy with her hands in my mouth (and I am completely unable to speak), she starts talking about music. She shares an iTune library with her 19 year old daughter. She likes Lady Gaga! Then she told me about how her church played the instrumental portion of one of her songs in the service a few weekends ago. OK...at this point, I'm glad I couldn't respond.

Then she started talking about her other daughter's fascination with the Twilight book series. Caveat: I have not read said books. All I need to know/say is summarized in a great article from Bitch magazine.

Needless to say, I did not bite her finger. But I was relieved when she started telling me more about her citrus trees.

And now, for a Public Service Announcement:

It's been raining a lot lately. When I drive, I tend to stop frequently for pedestrians so they don't have to get wetter. Unfortunately, most of the drivers on MU's campus don't feel the same way. They don't like to provide the right of way for pedestrians, even in the rain, and I seem to lack the gene coding for stepping out in front of cars and expecting them to stop. But then again, maybe that's why I'm still alive.

So the PSA: let folks cross the street, please.

And now for a cat pic: my darling Powdie, who scared the piss out of me when I was putting laundry away a few weeks ago.

Our time

As I've been pondering how my time is spent, one of my fav science blogs muses about the same thing.

29 October 2009

My time, Part 2: Scheduled meetings

I've recently discussed the amount of time each week dedicated to teaching this semester. I'm now prepared to tackle another group of obligations each week-- time dedicated to scheduled meetings not related to my TA, like seminars, personnel meetings, etc.

Things I generally attend every week:
Lab meeting: 2 hours. This (theoretically) includes everyone in my lab, and we spend time talking about various lab tasks and the research on which we are working.
Phylogenetics discussion group: 1 hour. My only "class" right now, which I was astonished to realize I've attended for nine semesters now. I'm not actually obtaining credit for it, but attend for professional development purposes nonetheless.
Other meetings: 1 hour. During various weeks, I meet with my advisor or other people in my lab to hash out the details of projects and provide updates on research progress. These vary but I average them at 1 hour a week.
Other seminars: 1 hour. I used to enjoy attending several seminars a week. I would choose from the multitude of seminars offered at my University, including (but not limited to) Interdisciplinary Plant Group, Division of Biological Sciences, Ecology and Evolution/EcoLunch, Division of Plant Sciences, Conservation Biology, and Conversations about College Science Teaching. Now I try to attend just one a week, which may or may not correspond with a lunch with the seminar speaker (but I can't really count a free lunch as "work," can I?).
Outreach: 1 hour. I participate in a few outreach activities each year, which generally do not overlap in time during the semester, so I average them at 1 hour a week too. This generally consists of writing e-mails and planning materials for presentations.

I think that's it for random other meetings. Total? 6 hours.

TA + random meetings total: 22.5

Alright, so I'm already over half of my hours for a "normal" work week, and I haven't even gotten to the reason I'm getting a PhD...research. I'll be interested to see how this plays out.

27 October 2009

Top ten cool things about knitting

I couldn't resist a link to this blog post about cool things about knitting. It's funny to me that there are people who now know me almost entirely as "that girl that knits," and people who ask me if I'm OK if I'm not knitting. I think for me, knitting in public (AKA, knitting while talking with other people, sitting in meetings, etc) is mostly a tool to concentrate better, and sometimes a way to channel excess energy or tension (I've found myself knitting more furiously in tense and stressful meetings).

I have a few projects and ideas in the works to flesh out my thoughts regarding knitting a bit more, and plan to incorporate pictures. I grabbed a ride on the lazy train and stopped downloading pics from my camera several weeks ago, but I'm feeling the urge for some photographical evidence of my life.

My time, Part 1: Teaching

In my recent musings about life and priorities, I've started to re-think how I spend a lot of my time. I have my share of embarrassing time sucks from my past...Webkinz (thanks, Dad and Bailey), Fark (although I never caught this bug as bad as Bill, the silly Farker), etc. Recently, though, I find myself always compelled to work more. Why? A large part of it is the imminent threat of graduation. That looming deadline (only 14 months?!?) is currently compounded by the amount of work necessary for the class I'm teaching this semester. Early in my graduate career, kept a small journal detailed exactly how many hours I spent working each week and which tasks I tackled each day. It was really useful for awhile to evaluate my progress and efficiency, and I will likely dig it out one of these days and compare it to my current workload. For now, though, I need a baseline. How do I spend my time these days?

The first issue to address: on average, how much time each week do I dedicate to my teaching assistantship?

Here are the issues to consider. I have 23 students, mostly upper-classmen from biology-type departments. It is a writing intensive field course.

Here's how my time breaks down, in hours per week:

Face-to-face class time with students: 4 hours (designated lab time, sometimes a little less if we get done early).
Weekly TA meeting: 1 hour
Prep time for class: 2 hours (reading handouts and papers, preparing and tweaking powerpoints, organizing materials)
Grading papers: This seems like it takes forever. I've timed myself, though, and I seem to take at least 15 minutes per student assignment (sometimes a little longer if I'm watching TV). 15 min * 23 students = 5.75 hours. Let's round that up to 6.5 hours, to include organizing papers, re-checking grades, etc. There are 13 weeks in the semester that I have something to grade, so this is an almost constant job.
Office hours: I have one official hour a week, but meet with students at other times, still only totaling 1 hour of work.
Correspondence with students: 2 hours. Students need to get their topics for papers checked with me on occasion, and I answer many questions about assignments via e-mail (this actually saves time by not making me schedule another meeting).

Total hours per week: 16.5

OK, so that is kind of shocking to me. I feel like it takes a hell of a lot more time than that. A TA position is generally accepted to require 20 hours of work a week. Sometimes it does take me that long to grade, prep, etc. But on average, it looks like I'm doing OK. This, however, does not include time I spend looking over the lecture material for the course, reading the textbook, and other things that make my ability to teach better without actually having a specific, tangible goal.

So why is the class such a strain on me this semester? Well, it's the first time I've taught it, so I have more work up front to get comfortable with the class material prior to teaching. It's also my first time TAing in four years, so I'm a bit out of practice. I also agonize about grading. I seem to have intermediate grades to the other TAs, though, so it seems like I'm not being overtly unfair, harsh, or too kind. And sometimes I really do dally while grading, so I probably sit with papers in front of me waiting to be graded for much longer than 6 hours a week.

I've come to realize, though, that the real strain of the course is the minutae associated with many assignments, doing field work, and arranging all of these things among myself and the other three TAs working on the course. This is compounded for me by the fact that I work in a different building from the course instructor and the other TAs. It doesn't sound like much, but running across the hall is a lot easier than walking to the next building (on both my energy level, organization, and possible experiments I may leave at my desk/in my lab to talk with someone about an ecology issue). It's the strain of trying to coordinate and remembering everything I need to do. Sometimes I really wish I had a more straightforward lab to teach this semester, where everything is planned for me and there aren't so many bloody decisions to be made! I would kill for a short answer/multiple choice/fill in the blank assignment to grade right now. Sometimes I also wish I were teaching a course where I felt like an expert at the course material. I am very confident in my ability to advise on writing, and on how to help students organize their thoughts, so I guess it's not all that bad.

And have I mentioned how great my class is lately? We went to the cemetery today. It was raining and cold. It started to pour pretty hard. I called the class instructor for advise, and she said if my students really start to complain we could leave early. Maybe this would work for other classes, but my students? No way. They'd never whine, and definitely not complain. They were soaked and cold, but we stayed a few more minutes before calling it quits. Hooray for students putting forth good effort!

19 October 2009


News on the dream (nightmare?) front: last night I was at Disneyworld and kept drinking slushies. All different kinds of slushies, really, but only the nasty-not-good-for-you kind. Like, ice-cone type slushies. And the kind that you get at the gas station out of the machine. The highlight of the dream? Stealing a slushie from a store that was closing up for the night and feeling really guilty about it.

Recently, circumstances of my life have compelled me to re-evaluate some of the more relevant aspects of my life, particularly those NOT related to drinking slushies. In the course of pursuing a graduate degree, getting married, and growing up, I've somehow lost the link to introspection and careful thoughfulness that I maintained as an internal check for awhile. Now, all of the sudden, apparently important questions like "Am I happy?" and "Are my priorities logical?" are not so easy to answer. And more trivial, but relevant, questions like, "Am I approachable?", "Can I socialize with other people?", and "What in the hell am I doing?" are even intangible for me to answer. e As with all other important issues in my life, I've turned to list-making, as that seem to attenuate the overwhelming despair associated with tackling large problems, like how to re-evaluate my life and what to buy at the grocery. Here's what I know, in no particular order.

  1. Work is going well. Teaching is good, research is progressing. Apart from periodic e-mails from various sources that temporarily send me into the depths of despair, I am making progress on a number of projects that may eventually lead to useful information to add to the (infinitely?) growing body of scientific literature. Teaching and outreach activities are fulfilling and seem to help other people. Phew... (that's a sigh of relief, not a nose-wrinkling from a bad smell).
  2. I like fiber. I like being a fiber artist. I'm cranking out tons of beautiful yarn. I have several sweaters' worth hanging out right now, which is good cause I really don't feel like wearing coats now and would rather throw on a nice snuggly sweater.
  3. Home is good. But people are good too. I miss my family, and I miss my friends. It's hard to be family and friend to some folks right now, either because of geography, emotion, communication, or just life. I need to remember how to talk to people for a purpose other than necessity.
Phew. That's a short list, but a long one, too. I feel like my life's under a microscope right now, and I've been trying to focus it. It's still fuzzy, though. Like I can't quite grasp what it is I'm trying to see. So many little adjustments to get right...

13 October 2009

This old house

There is an issue with the fluorescent overhead lights in our kitchen. Of the two light switches that control the lights, only one is currently functional (at least most of the time). The other requires some finesse to turn on, and generally requires turning it on and off several times during which time it flickers. I sometimes just give up on the lights, and grope around the kitchen instead, since it must look like I'm starting a rave with all the blinking lights and whatnot.

These are the trials of renting a house that was built in the 1960s and has rarely been renovated since then. Here are other things that have gone wrong in recent history (not exhaustive):
  1. The light fixture over the kitchen sink spewed flaming sparks when we flipped the switch. Turns out it still had the original brown paper wrapped wiring.
  2. Like so many other basements in a karst ecosystem, there are cracks in the walls and it frequently leaks water when it rains (or when someone spits in the backyard).
  3. The bricks in the back of the fireplace are crumbling and falling.
  4. The bathtub faucet leaked. Again, original hardware, had to be special ordered, blah blah.
  5. The computer system in the refrigerator had to be replaced and drainage cleared.
  6. The toilet innards had to be replaced because of calcium buildup.
  7. The basement drain had to be professionally cleared because of roots growing into the pipes.
And my personal favorite:

The elbow joint in the bathroom sink was almost completely filled with calcium buildup and had to be replaced.

I mean, sure it's a big house, but for real? Why is everything going wrong when we live here? Sometimes it's because the house is old, but the fridge is quite new!

House rant over.

In other news, I breathed a big sigh of relief today after reading some informal mid semester student evaluations. It appears my hard work really does help my students, and it is gratifying that they appreciate it! I almost have motivation to start grading the huge stack of papers I have waiting for me...

Teaching, learning and writing

I had a rough lab meeting today for the class I teach, a writing intensive, field ecology course. I am a TA for the class, so I am responsible for instructing 23 students (of the 90 students total in the lecture course) in ecological methods and experimentation. That basically means I do a short lecture about the main topics for the day, drive them to the field site, and help them out as they collect data. I also instruct them in data analysis. Finally, I grade their assignments, which mostly involves lab write-ups (scientific format) and scientific arguments, often involving multiple drafts of the same document.

I've found that, although the ecology course matter and curriculum is not my forte, the actual teaching an instruction is not really the most difficult part of teaching for me. The hard part is remembering the absolutely mundane minutiae. Keys for the van to get to the site. Directions to the site. Equipment for fieldwork. Keeping track of 23 students. Cell phone, first aid kit, water, everything else I like to have in the field with me. Decent shoes and clothes in which to teach. Sheesh...ecology is the least of my worries!

Today we went to a beautiful section of virgin forest near campus to learn about forest composition. It's a bit of a hike to get to the site, and it was cold, wet, and windy. Four students were not able to attend class (for various reasons), so the remaining students had to work extra hard to get their data collected. I am so proud of my students for getting so much done, and for not complaining. I, however, am really exhausted, and am ashamed to say I was not looking forward to taking them out for lab today. We TAs set up the lab plots on Friday afternoon, and I was pretty miserable. But I did have fun today, and it was mostly due to my students having fun, being engaged, and wanting to get their work done.

Their effort always makes me wonder what I was really like as a student. In laboratories that actually met in a wet lab, I think I was horrible. I always got decent grades, but I really hated them. I also took a ton of classes requiring one (or many) papers. I got even better grades on writing assignments, and learned to work very efficiently to get papers done in a timely manner.

I've found that it generally takes me about 15 minutes to read and grade a 5 page paper. I think I'm pretty thorough, and I hope I give helpful comments. I know my own teachers did. I doubt many of them graded that quickly, though, especially given the types of assignments I used to write for some science and history classes. Someday I will go back to my old notes and syllabi and look at exactly how many papers I had to write. I would not be surprised to learn that my teachers over the years literally spent HOURS reading and grading my papers. I don't take my writing skills for granted anymore, since they are the result of quite a few people spending quite a bit of time helping me hone them.

06 October 2009

Love of small appliances

It might be that I'm super tired, and it might be that I'm so mentally exhausted from grading papers, but I feel compelled to write about a few little items in my kitchen that really mean a lot to me.

In our house, Bill cooks and I bake. Sometimes we switch it up a little bit, and I'll cook dinner and Bill will whip together some bread. But for the most part, cookies and cakes and fancy breads are my fault. And we spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen...sharing a share of a CSA this summer has made us be a little more inventive and efficient at cooking. Inevitably, with Bill in the kitchen, that means more mess.

Several things make my life easier when Bill's feeling inventive (case in point: Bill decided he MUST make bouillabaisse one night. I think every dish in the kitchen was used). While I was tidying up after dinner tonight I realized they were all small appliances. Again with the lists, because the auto-number columns make me feel efficient.
  1. Electric kettle. I don't have to fight Bill for a burner when I'd like a cup of tea! Amazing!
  2. Rice cooker. The appliance we didn't even know we needed till we got one as a gift. The inspiration for this blog post. Did I mention it does vegetables, too?
  3. Bread machine. The reason we're able to almost exclusively make our own bread.
These machines are smarter than I am. They do their thing and (usually) turn off. They make cooking in the summer manageable, because the oven and stove don't need to be on as much. They are more energy efficient than turning on a large appliance.

Here is a haiku about them.

cooking woes are gone
small machines so smart and clean
food heals and tea soothes

I think I need to sleep now.

05 October 2009

Cool research questions and applied research

As a graduate student of an advisor that likes to socialize and network, I often find myself meeting with various visiting scientists to chat about research. Over the past few weeks, I've met with three such scientists. All of them are incredibly intelligent and do interesting work on genomics and chromosomal evolution in plants.

I had lunch with the first scientist. Each student or post doc chatted a little about our research. When it was my turn, I described my work (genome evolution in an obscure monocot family, Commelinaceae). He said he was going to ask me a mean, perhaps unfair, question. I was game, said OK. After all....why did I spend so much time competing in speech and debate if it wasn't to field unfair questions? He asked why I worked on plants that didn't have an applied research angle. I provided my standard answer about comparative biology offering a unique and useful approach for understanding biological complexity in the realm of plants not altered by humans, blah blah blah. I felt I was pretty articulate for being ill and doped up on cold medicine. He waited a moment, then said he didn't buy it. Basically, no answer would have worked...he didn't think a plant was worth studying unless people could eat it.

The second meeting with a scientist went much the same. Lunch, talk about science. This scientist was just mystified as to why I would choose to work on an obscure group. He accepted the value of empirical research, but didn't seem to grasp the relevance of working on a non-model system.

I just had a meeting with yet another scientist. This was an individual meeting with no other folks present. I must admit I approached the meeting with a moderate amount of trepidation, as I wasn't really geared up on this lovely Monday morning to defend my research again.

I'm pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised. We had a quite excellent discussion about chromosomal evolution, molecular mechanisms of genome restructuring, and emerging areas for research as technology develops and our knowledge base grows. He had not only heard of my group of plants, but used it as a teaching tool when instructing students in cytogenetics and chromosomal evolution. He helped me develop my conceptual framework for chromosomal evolution and the context in which I place different types of chromosomal information and analysis. It was an inspiring, refreshing, and very nice way to spend 45 minutes this morning.

In light of my new-found enthusiasm for cytogenetics, here's a picture of some painted wheat chromosomes I took a few years ago when learning cytogenetic techniques. The blue blobs are wheat chromosomes. The red dots are centromeres, and the green dots are an unknown genome fragment I was testing. Now if I could only get some Commelinaceae cytogenetic pics this pretty...

01 October 2009

A list and a story

I'm taking a cue from my friend Brittany who thinks that blogging via list format is easier. She is an authority in my book for how to make life easier, since she is both graduate student extraordinaire and mother to two young (and wonderful!) children.

  1. Teaching this semester is a blast! There are some corresponding challenges, and I'm feeling probably more than my share of anxiety, but my students are top notch learners and very fun to have in class.
  2. I am branching out into spinning art yarn! This means adding in other fun things, like beads, thread, found objects, ribbon, etc to my usual wool bases. It's very fun to play with texture and color, and I will post pics as soon as they are finished (that's a fancy word for washing handspun yarn to make it prettier).
  3. The flu sucks! Bill and I both got sick shortly after my last blog entry, and my respiratory system is still not happy (I think it's also cause of the mold and pollen that are especially problematic this year. Cool, wet weather....blegh).
  4. Work is intense right now. Besides teaching, I've got lots of projects cooking in the lab and even more being analyzed and written into papers and grants. I've got great help from an undergrad worker and a new, rotating grad student, though, so I'm hopeful I'll muddle through the semester relatively easily.
And now for a story, related to item 4. I'm big on organization of my data, my writing, etc. I spend lots of time making lists in Excel describing my data and ways to manage and analyze it. Last night I was having a dream about entering data into a spreadsheet. I woke up at 3 am, sitting up cross-legged in bed, and I was TYPING on my BLANKET in front of me. No wonder I'm so tired these days...I work all day, and apparently work all night, too! Then I remembered something I forgot to do related to work, and I felt the compulsion to get out of bed and send an e-mail apologizing to a colleague for not getting it done. Sheesh. High strung, much?

10 September 2009

Tiny things that make me irrationally happy

As a follow-up to my previous thoughts about things that make me happy, I thought I would add some new ideas that are making my life simpler. These small facets of life are especially useful now that the semester is in full swing, and I am experiencing the effects of many stressful and time consuming (albeit fulfilling and interesting) activities like teaching a field course, grading essays from the same course (which happens to be writing intensive), mentoring a new undergrad and a new grad student in the lab, and writing a gazillion papers and grants (OK, maybe just several papers and one grant, but still...).

  1. Metal lined travel coffee mugs. Do NOT be distracted by mugs that are metal on the outside but plastic on the inside! My favorites keep coffee hot for HOURS. I'm trying to make sure I don't regularly drink a latte for breakfast (even if it's made with real milk, it's still not a meal), but I still have the mug...just replace with tea.
  2. Over the door hooks. Mine are basically these, but I bought them at the grocery on clearance. We have been without a clothes dryer for several months now, and I don't really care to obtain a functional one. That being said, summer is rough here in MO because the humidity is too high for clothes to dry efficiently in the basement, and then they smell all...basement-y. To remedy this, I have started hanging select items of clothing (read: Bill's clothes that are heavy and full of cloth like boy clothes) upstairs so they can dry quicker. These hooks have made it possible to dry almost an entire load of clothes upstairs without being too inconvenient. When I'm motivated and organized, clothes go outside. But until I manage that with regularity, this will help.

These are things that make me happy, and remind me to let up on the gas pedal of my mind and soul and cruise a little bit through life. Well, maybe this is a little stupid and I'm waxing a little poetic, but what do you expect? That crap has to be dumped out of my brain somehow, and it sure isn't going to happen while I'm writing about phylogenetics and genome size evolution.

29 August 2009

The art of thrift

Despite an early morning appointment last weekend, I still managed to make it to a yard sale this morning. Granted, it was right across the street from my house, but it was still nice to partake in this weekend ritual. I generally pick up a friend and make a whole morning of digging through other people's unwanted items, but even my limited excursion this morning proved useful. I picked up a knitting book (Two at a Time Socks), a cat scratching post (our cats love things from yard sales above new things, because the smells are so much better!) and a set of wooden toy blocks with ants painted on them. 

My musings about yard sales and other types of thrift (dumpster diving, thrift stores, etc) have been running rampant over the last few months, mainly due to the positive influence of Katy. She actively attempts to fulfill her shopping needs by repurposing, thrifting, and otherwise obtaining items without buying new from a store. This has ended up being an interesting proposition for me as well, because sometimes I have to be a little creative, and sometimes I end up realizing I don't need it anyway.

[Note: the above philosophy does not apply to fiber-related needs. I still buy yarn, fiber for spinning, and other craft supplies, since it is a compulsion for me, and because it is used to make something else. Also, Bill and I still buy food and toiletries, we aren't freegan.]

Since I like hearing about what other people manage to find while thrifting, I thought I'd share some of what I've found. Up for today are a set of weird wall hangings I bought at a yard sale here in Columbia a few weeks ago. I thought the sale would be a bust, but then I spotted the one with knitting sitting on top. I looked at the one below it and it was the spinning wheel, and knew it had to come home with me. Here they are, artfully arranged on my favorite chair in the living room, as I haven't found the right place to hang them yet.

25 August 2009

Science FAIL

I was browsing through a recent issue in Science magazine yesterday and came across this travesty of an article.

There are a couple of things wrong with it. At first glance, the use of the now ever-present and over-used "-omics" suffix in combination with phenotype-- resulting in the obnoxious term "phenomics"-- is annoying, and makes me a little ashamed to admit I work in "phylogenomics." 

However, a closer glance reveals a teeth-grinding error that also makes me twitch. In the second paragraph, the author refers to the grad Brachypodium as having a small genome composed of only "one pair of chromosomes," whereas wheat has "three pairs of chromosomes." 

Sigh. Big sigh. The scientific reality: the author is referring to sets, not pairs, of chromosomes. It's a big deal when the effect is saying wheat only has a chromosome compliment of six instead of 36. She is referring to the incredibly important genomic phenomena of polyploidy, which has enormous implications for plant breeding as well as plant and animal evolution.

Why does this small mistake set my teeth on edge? Well, a quick Wikipedia search would correct the "pair" vs. "set" mistake. More importantly, this type of mistake perpetuates a mistaken mindset that constantly confronts me as a plant geneticist. Here's how the fail train of logic goes...humans are an evolutionarily advanced species (I suppose this is open to debate, although I still think orchids, grasses, and my own dear Commelinaceae surpass us in terms of being "highly advanced"). Humans are more "complicated" than other organisms. Plants can't move or think or stir fry beef or do anything that complicated humans can, so why would anyone want to study them? 

When combined with the idea that fewer (chromosomes) means simpler, this article in Science has effectively trivialized my area of research. The truth of the matter, as my husband is so willing to point out, is that humans--indeed, most animals--are unbearably boring as far as genetics are concerned. Plants and fungus are far better model systems for examining the multitude of molecular and genetic pathways extant in living organisms. 

Sigh. End rant.

29 July 2009

Things I like right now

I'm going to take a minute and be completely self-indulgent and talk about things that just really make me happy right now.
  1. Iced tea cold brewed overnight in a mason jar. I got the idea here. And not just any tea, but fancy tea that is meant to be iced. Like strawberry osmanthus black tea. Ginger peach white tea. Pineapple green tea. I compulsively bought a sample pack of these wonderful teas at the grocery while they were on sale, and three months later (when I finally brewed some), I realized how smart three-month-ago Kate was. In fact, these teas are better dressed than me...they come in silk bags (?!?).
  2. Fruit crisps. Fruit in the bottom of the pan (I'm partial to berries and peaches from the farmer's market) with oats, flour, brown sugar, butter, etc on top (recipe originally from my dear friend Leenie [blogger profile but no blog? Here's the start of some peer pressure]). I had to stop making them because it was all I ate for days (except for the food Bill made me eat).
  3. Soakers. Wool+babies=awesome. I've knit several prototypes...I'm developing the master plan for the best fitting, easiest knit soaker (IMHO). Perhaps Katy will grace us with an action pic of a soaker on her little angel?
Self indulgence is over. 

28 July 2009

Ah, the feeling of being poked by tiny needles...

...and I don't mean after being with my husband! Mwa ha ha...interpret that as you would  like, sorry, I couldn't resist another burn to Bill.

After feeling a little down in the dumps lately, I decided to lift my spirits with a long-neglected, somewhat rebellious side to my psyche...I got another tattoo. 

The story behind this tattoo goes back a few years, to the very first week I was living in Columbia. My boss was trying to convince me to focus my graduate work on Brassica, a genus of plants in the mustard family. I thought about it, but finally told him that I wouldn't work on a plant unless I would consider getting a tattoo of the flower of said plant. And frankly, Brassica wasn't going to cut it (including a myriad of other reasons regarding my research interests and goals for graduate education). When I stumbled upon a lovely little genus of plants  in the monocot family Commelinaceae, Tradescantia, I knew this was a genus I could stand getting inked. When choosing my tattoo, I was inspired by Tradescantia sillamontana, a wonderful Mexican endemic that is fairly common to cultivation that blooms often in my greenhouse (I took this picture there). 

Based on this pic, I sketched a small flower, very botanically correct, and indicated some areas to shade coloring. 

My wonderful friends Katy and April went with me to Hollywood Rebels here in Columbia. A young but efficient woman named Katy (not the same as above) re-sketched the flower into a more stylized, simpler flower, and although not what I initially expected, is just what I wanted. After all, that's why I go to professionals instead of doing it myself with soot, boot heels, and urine like in Russian prisons (random, yes, but I saw a documentary on it once). 

All in all, this has been a long story for such a little tat. Here's a pic.
It hurt quite a bit more than my first (which I shall blog about later). It's purple, like a traditional Tradescantia here in the Midwest. I was worried about fading, being on the inside of my left foot and all, but I will get touch-ups and additions (yellow for the anthers? more purple? SPATHACEOUS BRACTS characteristic of the genus?!?!) as needed. 

Here's a close-up, complete with hairy ankles (you're welcome), cat scratches (courtesy of Fatticat), and new-tat glossiness.
Another cool thing about this tattoo? The center of the flower indicates where I should start turning the heel when I'm knitting socks from the toe-up. I'm already envisioning my next two...knitting related, and a phylogeny. Yes, I'm a dork.

21 July 2009

Post-deadline let down

The grant is officially done, and I feel like I can behave normally again. That's not to say I won't work as much, cause I'm definitely busy, but at least my working will be on my own timeline. Here are the major lessons I've learned while working on this group project, not in any particular order, and certainly not organized by relevance, but recorded here for the next time I need to write something and am feeling the pain:

1. Letters of collaboration submitted to NSF are written from one scientist to another, like "Hey Kate, how's it going? I heard you're writing a kick ass grant and I think I might be able to support you with *these very specific resources.*" For some reason (perhaps because I'm quite simple minded about some things), I thought letters of collaboration would be written from a scientist to NSF saying they would help *X scientist* do a particular portion of work. The real way the letters are written for some reason tickle my pickle, partly because it seems like the way Thomas Jefferson must have solicited scientific assistance..."Yo, Lewis and Clark, you don't have much going on right now...how about a trip out West?"

2. I no longer feel sad when I get revisions back about my writing. This was a great training exercise for me, because I was incorporating bits of text from all sorts of people (including grad students, postdocs, professors, collaborators) and the reconciliation between all these types of word choice, sentence structure, and other patterns made me understand and appreciate stylistic differences all that much more. As much as it pains me to admit, I think I might have been hanging onto that sad, silly little habit from my childhood where any criticism was viewed as a personal attack. The end point: I don't get grumpy about reading comments about my writing and can get going with revisions.

3. I am a heck of a lot more efficient at writing than I was before.

4. Three C goals for writing: clarity, cohesiveness, concrete.

5. Blogging has helped streamline this process.

Addendum: I love that my boss quoted an interview from NPR with Nora Roberts to me (I haven't been to that fansite before, I just looked it up for the purposes of blogging, I promise). The motto of this romance novel writer is apparently "Sit your ass down a write." I read lots of her work (I should blog about my firm stance on dirty romance novels later), and I think that's a good place to start.


I've been spending loads of time lately helping my boss write a grant. It's been a great learning experience, and my writing and thought processing has definitely improved as a result. Both myself and another grad student in the lab have been immersed in the project for a few weeks now, and I think our communication processes are starting to show it. My boss and I received an e-mail from said grad student with some comments on a portion of the grant. I opened the e-mail and this is what it said:

Here are my comments on this section.

Tracked changes,
*Other grad student*

After so much editing and proofreading, it seems perfectly justified to use "Tracked changes" in place of "Sincerely," "Best," "Go with God," or my personal favorite, "Cheers."

When I pointed it out to my boss, he laughed so hard he spit coffee on his shirt.

10 July 2009

Working at a University and some pictures to make me feel better

I lost my student ID a few weeks ago when I was sick/traveling. This wouldn't be so bad, except it's required to get into my building to work after hours and on weekends. After digging through nearly the entire house, and begging people to let me into the building a few too many times, I finally sucked it up and went and got a replacement. 

I get the new ID without much problem (*except having to get a new picture taken, and the Missouri heat made my face a wonderful shade of red that served to accent my double chin, but I digress...). I then realized I had to trek across campus to the Key Shop (conveniently located in a parking garage) to get my card encoded for key swipe access. I check my watch, and the web...it's open for another half hour.

I make it there with time to spare only to find the office is closed. I call the number listed on the sign (and accidentally dialed the wrong number the first time, sorry Cherise?????), and was connected to someone in the office. Here's how our conversation went:

Me: I need to get my ID encoded, but the office is closed.
Her: Our hours just changed. Customer service hours are from 7:30 am to 10 am Monday through Friday.
Me: I was really hoping to get my card swiped so I could work this weekend. There is no way I can get this done today?
Her: Customer service hours are from 7:30 am to 10 am Monday through Friday.
Me: So that means no?
Her: What building do you work in?
Me: (my building)
Her: Oh, we sent an e-mail to (my facilities manager) this morning, and you should have received it. There was someone else earlier today that had this same problem...

At which point I gave up, after a mental face palm. You mean, there will be confusion about your hours if you don't change the website, and you don't notify people ahead of time? So I have to beg my labmates to let me into the building for another weekend. So goes my tenuous relationship with facilities management at my University. It has surely deserved its capital "U". There are some truly wonderful people working there that have gone far beyond their job descriptions to assist me, and there are people that also seem to make it their job to complicate my life.

So instead, I give you some cat pictures, because they always make me feel better.

Exhibit A: Fatticat in one of his new toys...an area rug that also serves as cat bed and jungle gym.
Exhibit B: Fatticat sleeping in a basket of clean clothes. I'm glad Bill doesn't mind a little cat stank on his clean jeans...

28 June 2009

The trials of travels

I feel like such a bad blogger for writing such a depressing entry and then failing to update for so long! I'll share some of the fun times from the past month to make up for it.

The husbeast and I had a blast collecting plants in North and South Carolina right after my last entry. Bill has exhibited quite a knack for finding suitable collection locations for my plants, despite his current claim to fame as a fungal geneticist. 

I had a brief reprieve from traveling for a few days, and then left on a (long, read: 26 hour) road trip with some other biologists to attend the annual Evolution conference in Moscow, Idaho (sidenote: there are some interesting posts from other folks that were at the conference here). 

Check out this pic of the Badlands in South Dakota...some beautiful country I had never seen before, and many new-to-me states (ID, MT, WY, SD). I had a tough time on this trip...I've never had joint pain, but my knees were killing me from sitting in the car. I got a massive ear and sinus infection while there, and was generally miserable but tried to be a good sport about learning fun things and meeting nice people. 

Upon returning from my trip, Bill discovered a special surprise: a tick bite I had acquired in NC/SC had developed a huge rash. A doc appointment later, I was diagnosed with my very first tick-borne illness (not sure which, and not really worth the test to find out) and had a huge bottle of antibiotics. So my other problems while traveling (infections, aching knees) suddenly made sense. 

Now I'm settling into the horridly hot Missouri summer, and the usual issues that summer brings...lack of clear timelines, few obligations for work, and lots of people wanting to play instead of being productive. I'm managing my workload fairly well, and am still excited about some of the projects on which I'm working. The real issue is trying to pace myself and not get too burned out. I sit around the house and night and feel like I should do some reading, but make myself do chores instead. LMAO...I want to work too much right now. 

23 May 2009

The ups and downs

At the risk of being a total downer, I am going to take a few paragraphs and contemplate the process that is science. I struggle with the public availability of revelations like this entry, as my blog is linked to mypersonal/professional website that is included on my business cards. Although I tend to drift away from blogs that focus almost entirely on the negativity associated with science, I think grad students do a great disservice to each other by not attempting to share and discuss movement through the ups and downs of graduate work.

I call it a process because, especially as a graduate student learning the ropes of scientific inquiry, publication, and grant writing, I am exceptionally cognizant of the stages of developing a scientific idea. At this moment, though, I can't help but feel that is the only thing about which I am currently exceptional.

E-mails and writing from the past few days have revealed a number of mild to serious stabs to my self-confidence. I am trying to write a manuscript that (I swear) will never end. I have been turned down for some funding opportunities. And I'm trying to reconcile all of this input with the looming prospect of a teaching assistantship that starts next fall, graduate student peers that are excelling where I am failing, and worst of all, imminent graduate in December of 2010. Yes, that's a long way away, but that's the trick about my PhD education thus far...I spent a lot of time early on taking classes, feeling out a research project, and setting up a lab. I never imagined being the first grad student would be this tough...four years in and I'm still the youngest person by age in the lab besides the undergrads. 

Before I completely divert this musing to a pity-party starring ME, I'll close with a reminder to myself to redirect this sadness and self-loathing to motivation to prove my grant reviewers wrong...this project is not overly ambitious. I do have a firm grasp on the techniques and theory about which I will study. Go write some papers, Kate. My personal motto, that I need to recall again:

Shit or get off the pot.

15 May 2009

Essential computing: Google

The quality time I have spent with my computer lately has led me to investigate some areas that I have previously under-utilized. Some of this you might already know, as I admit I can be a bit slow at times. I have lots of fun, mostly free little findings that I'm going to share over the next few days. First up is an oldie but goodie, Google.

I am constantly amazed by the capabilities Google offers for advancement of scientific enterprise, organization, and keeping my life sane. That link goes to the list of Google products that is updated at an amazing rate. Here are some of my current favorites.

1. Gmail saved my e-mail a few years ago when I started regularly receiving e-mails from my boss with 10 Mb attachments. I no longer use the e-mail interface offered through my school, because everything gets funneled through Gmail. 

2. iGoogle (i.e., having a Google account and customizing your main Google page) is an awesome way to keep my life together. I have widgets for just about everything else in Google I regularly access. I am a big fan of consolidation of information, and iGoogle lets me consolidate to my heart's content. Here's a screenshot of the top part of my iGoogle page. *sigh* All the organization!!! A calendar, to-do list (that I can share with Bill! Thanks, Katy), dictionary, Spanish word of the day, Google maps, and so much more! I am a dork, I know.

3.  Google Scholar trolls so many different portions of the intertubes, it is awesome. Lit cited counts, and multiple sources to access the same article. Awesome.

4. Google bookmarks offers a portable way to keep track of websites, complete with searchability and tagging. (this is a widget I added to my iGoogle page).

5. Google Earth, which has great potential for keeping track of plant collection information for work, contact locations for friends and family, and a huge time suck for looking for weird things around the world.

6. Google Reader keeps track of the blogs I read (science-related and blogs for fun), reminds me about sales at places I shop, and can even include updates about when my scientific publications are cited.

7. Google Groups,  while a close cousin to other less desirable networking sites, has a nice interface with decent capabilities. I've joined help and discussion groups for some of the tricky software I'm using for my research.

There are so many other resources I don't use yet but am excited to try. Anybody have experience with these?

Google code, for computer developers and programmers.

Google sites, for creating webpages and personal wikis. 

Google SketchUp, for creating 3D models (I am SUPER interested in this one).

Wow, I didn't know I liked Google so much. This isn't to say I like everything Google offers, and there are some things I really hate (Google docs). We also won't talk about the political, economic and sociological implications of Google. However, I can't help but be enthusiastic for the ability to improve the efficiency of my workflow with FREE resources, and these tools give me lots of ideas for improving my career development in the future. First, the accessibility of these tools lets me easily accomplish tasks that I might otherwise avoid due to a steep learning curve (like with modeling in Google SketchUp). Second, this accessibility could allow for the incorporation of these tools into the classroom (after all, I'm trying to get this PhD to teach at a university someday). 

Thanks, intertubes. Thanks, Google.

ETA: Right after I published this post, I realized I'd been using another Google-affiliate all along: Blogger!

13 May 2009

Life in the Hertweck-Alexander household: A few words about communication

In the car riding to work this morning, Bill and I had a nice meta-level conversation about communication. Specifically, how we communicate with each other. His comment?

"Talking to you is like trench warfare."

Why, thank you, honey!

After a relationship of almost five years, we're still trying to figure out how to talk to one another. I like to think this is because we work so well together...I will never get bored. Bill likes to talk about random things, sometimes to the extent that I feel like he practices lectures on me that he'll later use for a class. Unfortunately, this often has the inadvertent side effect of making me feel like he thinks I'm dumb (which happens often enough in graduate education).

He definitely won't get bored, either, cause he always reminds me how I like to twist words around (Example. Bill: Do you want to eat a salad for dinner? Me: You think I'm FAT?!). He finds this quite infuriating, but seems proud of himself when he's able to do the same to me.

How much of these differences are due to gender? Are they artifacts of two academics hanging out too much? How much comes from subtle differences in life experience? After all, Bill spent his time in college hanging out at a fraternity, talking lots to other men. I spent a lot of time as an undergrad competing in speech and debate, learning to listen, interpret, and make strong arguments (although I never made people cry like some of my old teammates).

Why am I thinking so much about communication lately? I was a communication minor as an undergrad, but I never really took it seriously as an area of research in which I might be interested. I suppose I'm thinking about it a lot because I'm working on writing up results of my research, and preparing for an oral presentation at a conference this summer. When combined with my traveling over the last few months and the computer programming I'm learning (which seems like learning several new languages), differentiating between different types of media and languages is taking on new urgency.

Anyone out there with smaller feet than me (I wear a women's size 9-9.5)? I knit these socks and they are a bit too tight, but I like them too much to rip out. They're mostly wool with a bit of nylon, handwash cold. Let me know if you'd like for me to send them your way.

12 May 2009

Life in the Hertweck-Alexander household

This morning, while we were getting ready:

Me: "Bill, are you ready? Honey? BILLY?!"

Bill: "Just a minute, honey! Someone's wrong on the intertubes!"

For real. And so I waited while he trolled some forums trying to piss off some random person.

04 May 2009


The life of a grad student is uniquely turbulent. The demands of each semester, combined with the self-promoted timelines of research, construct an interesting dynamic of rolling milestones that are often appointed by a university but are more often driven by self motivation. I admit that my personality does not lend itself well to prioritizing and scheduling in a manner that is manageable. I commit myself to too many activities and have an overwhelming sense of responsibility to fulfill the obligations these tasks entail. As a result, I have problems with muscle tension, mood swings, migraines, and a suite of other issues related to high stress levels. I find that fiber arts attenuates stress to a certain degree. Knitting during lunch breaks and spinning at night is very meditative and satisfying for me, but it is a catch-22...on the occassions I'd like to do something fun, I often don't have the time, so my stress management techniques fall short.

Here's another gratuitous pic of fiber, this time some of the unspun wool I've dyed myself.

I am a proud member of a Facebook group for science grad students struggling with depression. I don't think anyone in high-pressure situations like grad school benefit from pretending everything is peachy keen and hunky dory. You can't adapt to altering levels of stress without being able to roll with the punches, and I don't think you can brush things off without obtaining objective perspectives. I'm not sure that viewpoint is always readily obtainable from family, friends, and advisors; moreover, I don't think it is the responsibility of these people to constantly offer the mental and emotional support we need to persevere. Everyone has problems, and there are too many times when my interpersonal relationships take a hit because everyone else is stressed out and can't help me with my stress.

My solution for the problems I've outlined above: I see a psychologist for an hour once every other week. I have no shame in publicly admitting it and cannot think of anyone who could not benefit from having a regular relationship with a therapist. The details of the journey that led me to this psychologist (I'll call her "R" since I don't know how she would feel about me blogging about her) are a long and TMI story (suffice it to say that they are tied to continuing, long term health problems), but the relationship I have with her is valuable enough to me that I continued to meet with her even after her position on campus ended and she began working at another, off-campus group.

The extra time and expense I expend to meet with her twice a month is totally worth it. R is not the first psychologist with which I met when my doctor first directed me to therapy. I met with two other practitioners, both with very different approaches to listening and offering advice, but neither of them struck me as particularly useful or helpful. It took all of five minutes to decide that R suited my personality and could help me address my problems in a constructive manner.

No, I haven't been diagnosed outright with anxiety or depression related "disorders" (I subscribe to the viewpoint that if a person takes enough psychological tests, they will eventually be "diagnosed" with a mental disorder; in other words, there is no "normal" for every mental parameter). I don't always feel like I need to go see R, and if I've been traveling, fitting an appointment in is kind of difficult. But I still make it a priority to go. I appreciate having a sounding board and checkpoint for times when I need to make decisions, resolve conflict, or just re-evaluate my life. I trust R's opinions, and believe we get along so well because we're similar enough to understand and relate to each other. I think I'm fortunate to have found a psychologist of whom I am fond, because I don't see it as a burden to talk to her. 

All in all, it makes sense to sit down every few weeks to just think about how I'm really doing.

03 May 2009

African violets

I'm going to let my inner botanist geek come out right now, since I had the opportunity yesterday to go to one of my favorite bi-annual events: the Heart of Missouri Africa Violet Club sale. I'm such a fan of these plants that I'm considering throwing away most of my other plants at home in favor of them. I suppose I'll keep my aloe, and definitely my orchids, but I like the compact nature of my pretty little violets (which aren't actually violets, BTW).

The group is comprised of several women that have enormous collections of African violets and relatives. They propagate these plants (because it is SO easy) and sell them for unbelievably low prices (like, $1 for a plant) at their sales. They maintain databases of all the varieties/hybrids in their collections.

Because I think it is so interesting, I'm going to tell you a little bit more about these plants.

There is a group of a few species of plants (the genus Saintpaulia) that are hybridized and cultivated to produce the varieties we grow commercially today. They have awesome names like "Rob's Heebie Jeebie." They are characterized and described by a suite of characteristics, including:

1. Petal color (striated, dual color, etc)
2. Petal type (doubled, curly edges, etc).
3. Leaf color (variegated, green, purple, etc)
4. Leaf shape (curly, depth of veins, etc).
5. Plant size (miniature, semi-mini, etc).
6. Plant growth habit (leaf crown, trailer)

That was a lot of etc. Sorry. I'm sure there are more categories, but these are those I am most familiar with. This also doesn't even touch on the African violet relatives (Nematanthus, etc)

My list of important tips about maintenance of African violets:

1. Only ceramic or plastic pots that are smaller than the size of the leaf crown of the plant.
2. Bottom water. Accomplish this by always using pots with drainage holes, and stick a piece of acrylic yarn or pantyhose in the drainage hole (this will wick water up to the soil).
3. For plants that seem sensitive to temperature, or new plantlets, I use old fishtanks and fishbowls for
4. To propagate plants, use a sharp knife to cut off a large leaf. Place the leaf petiole (stem) into moist soil. Three to seven plantlets will sprout from the cut leaf end. It might take a few months, but separate the plantlets when they have a small crown of leaves (5-7 fairly large leaves).

Minatures and trailers don't like me much, so I don't have any advice about them.

Here's a gratuitous picture of a portion of my collection. I bought this little shelf at a yard sale with Katy yesterday, and it fits some of my planters wonderfully. The plant in the front center is an especially interesting variety, as it is a trailer that has these amazing leaves that are deeply curled.

If you have a hankering for a new little plant, please let me know and I would be happy to accommodate you.

Since Elene wanted some pics of my kitties, here's a nice one of Fatticat being cute.

21 April 2009

Gift giving

I'm really bad at gift giving on holidays, birthdays, etc. But I love giving gifts. Case in point: I have at least three gifts for friends and family on the needles (for you non-fiber arts people, that means I'm knitting them). Unfortunately, I think two of those are actually Christmas gifts. One of them was a Christmas gift for Xmas 2007. Sigh.

Here's the thing...I really hate giving gifts with a deadline. This doesn't apply to just gifts I'm making. Sometimes I find the right gift easily, or I enjoy knitting up the project. Sometimes I don't. But I hate it when I feel pressured to giving an imperfect or ill suited gift just for the sake of getting it there on a timeline. I'm just glad I have friends and family that understand and appreciate my position, even if I've never discussed it with them...there's no resentment if a gift is late, and no expectation that a gift from them equals a gift from me (at least none that I've ever noticed).

The real point...I like to give for the sake of giving. Not cause it's expected, or because I'm obligated, but because I found the right yarn, that would make the right pair of socks, for just the right person. I especially like to do craft exchanges or bartering with other people. My friend Katy and I seem to work well like this...I knit some knee socks, she screen prints a hippo, and around and around it goes. There are other people with whom I really like to share crafting this way (but it's harder when they live on another continent).

Here's a pair of socks I made for a friend, just cause she said has to watch me knit socks all the time but never gets any. At least she's a knitter, so she understands.

As a knitter that likes to knit all the time, I often am faced with requests for knitted objects. These requests come in various forms, from half-drunk demands, to teasing guilt trips, and it's interesting to me which ones tend to stick in my mind as I'm digging through my yarn stash looking for something new to work up. I'll always make things for people with whom I've made a deal. I'll sometimes make things for people just because, for no other reason than I think they need some cheering, or because I'm exceptionally fond of them that week. So a piece of advice...if you really want that pair of socks from a knitter, make a deal. A batch of cookies (recipe too, please!) will go a long way to appeasing a hungry fiber artist.

13 April 2009


Ever since returning from my series of business trips, I've found myself repeatedly forgetting to attend appointments and meetings of various levels of import. My forgetfulness is most startling because I am generally so diligent about keep track of my schedule, but also because of the frequency with which I am forgetting things right now.

Being the problem-solving scientist I am, I find myself wondering about the causes of my forgetfulness. Am I distracted by anything? Something new in my life that requires more attention right now? Well, not really. Am I spending more time than usual doing other activities? Well, not really. I knit a lot. I read quite a bit. But not more now than usual.

The unfortunate part about my forgetfulness right now is the utterly nebulousness it possesses (I think there are too many of the letter "s" in the last phrase in that sentence). It's difficult to figure out how to fix me being a space cadet when I don't know why I am being spacey.

Here's another lovely picture of flowers emerging in from the ground, mostly because I like them so much, but also partly because flowers generally do not forget to pop up in the spring. Sometimes they're late, sometimes they're frozen out, but they always keep trying.

29 March 2009

Internet and e-mail etiquette

The next installment of "Kate is awed by the huge variation in reactions to normal life situations in academia."

I love e-mail. In most situations, I prefer to e-mail rather than call on the telephone, even when a moderately rapid response is desired. I am constantly boggled, however, at the manner in which some people view, interpret, and respond to e-mail. I tend towards informality in e-mail although I strive for clarity and succinctness. However, I am often addressed very formally in regards to my activities in service organizations. I have never been burned by my relative lack of formality, although I know folks that have had quite disastrous encounters via e-mail through no fault of their own (except for a misinterpretation of e-mail language).

On the plane from Mexico City to Dallas this past week, I came across a nice quick list of the top ten rules of e-mail etiquette. As the name of the magazine currently escapes me, I found a comprehensive list of tips for e-mail etiquette online.

Although buried beneath several subheadings a quite a scroll down the page, the hint that startled me the most when I was something along the lines of "Treat an e-mail address like a home phone number." I currently struggle with the concept of how often to e-mail (or CC) certain people in regards to partially relevant topics. This issue becomes even cloudier for me when I start to consider whether a response is needed for a particular message.

I interact with a number of individuals that love to send e-mail. In some ways, I really enjoy being kept in the loop and engaged in the discussion about certain topics being conducted via e-mail. At times, though, this becomes out of control, to the point of completely missing important messages because they are buried between multiple messages about another topic. I believe I'll need to ponder this topic a little more over the next few months...

For future reference, my other favorite rules for e-mail:
(1) Don't send huge attachments.
(2) Learn the difference between "reply" and "reply all"


I'm not sure where my sense of morality and ethics originated. I do know that it tends to be as/more strong/stringent as most other people I know. Despite many situations in basic schooling (elementary, middle and high school) when opportunities arose to allow me to cheat at schoolwork, I decided not to follow that easier route. In college, I knew many students that attempted, and sometimes even succeeded, in cheating the system to achieve better grades but I never permitted myself to even consider the possibility (*sidenote*: my lack of cheating at schoolwork had as much to do with academic snobbery, or a feeling of being superior to the need to cheat, as the weak ethical standards it represented *end sidenote*).

My undergraduate university presumably maintained strict standards about cheating and plagiarism, including required ethical conduct statements in all syllabi. Regardless, I knew of no one that experienced class failure or dismissal from the University because of the violation of this statement. However, I was granted the opportunity to learn from several outstanding professors that adhered to strict standards about ethical violations. On one particularly memorable occasion, a professor encountered plagiarism on a relatively unimportant assignment. He delivered a short, well-worded, and vehement lecture condemning the practice and then cancelled class in order for us to "consider the implications of academic dishonesty." While I am not sure how other students in the class viewed his display, I felt relief in knowing people I admire take such cheating seriously.

I remember that professor every time I encounter a case of academic dishonesty. While beginning my graduate education I took a class in ethical conduct of science. Most of the exercises seemed silly, because I had already considered the implications of most examples of dishonesty presented. The most striking revelation from this class was the frequency with which such violations occur. Perhaps because I suffer from the common ailment of most academics in thinking that everyone else maintains a similar mindset to me, I was shocked to discover that there are scientists that have inappropriate relationships with students, falsify data, and maintain less-than-perfect standards in data collection and analysis.

A recent article in Science Magazine documents an interesting study in which plagiarism detection software found a few hundred cases of academic dishonesty in (mostly medical?) journal articles. The main subject of this research article, however, revolved around questionnaires sent to relevant authors and journal editors of both the original articles and presumably "copied" articles. The responses to these queries was quite revealing: responses ranged from outright condemnation of the practice, to tact acceptance, to apologetic remorse.

I have encountered several examples of cheating in the course of my graduate career. My graduate student peers often have undergraduate students attempting to cheat in classes they teach. Conversations with post-doctoral researchers and other graduate students reveal interesting situations of compromised ethical standards at other institutions in which they worked, including inappropriate student/professor relationships (which can have direct effects on the standards to which scientific inquiry is held), questionable data collection/analysis, and stealing scientific ideas, experiments, and data first developed by other researchers (and other related cases of academic blackmail).

More importantly, I have experienced interesting cases that required direct decisions and judgement on my part. I reviewed a journal article that had whole paragraphs copied directly from a previous paper with some of the same authors. At the time, I thought a new graduate student (or technician, or undergraduate) had used a senior scientist's paper as a template to write a new paper and had leaned a little too heavily on the previous author's writing. After reading the Science article, however, I'm starting to wonder if the situation had less to do with an accident and more to do with ignorance and lax standards. Recently, I've also encountered a case related to one of my service activities in which a graduate student may be attempting to pass over another student's work as their own.

The most interesting aspect of this issue is that I have noted so many cases of academic dishonesty directly related to myself and my peers, but that some editors questioned in the Science article admitted to never having faced these difficulties before. Why? I see that there are several options. (1) Academic dishonesty is increasing in frequency. (2) The frequency of such violations remains the same, but technology is allowing them to be detecting more often. (3) Scientists (and other academics) are becoming less adept at hiding academic dishonesty. (4) I am more adept at noting and remembering academic dishonesty.

Perhaps it is a combination of factors. I can only hope that the people with which I interact maintain similar standards of ethical conduct. I know we will not always agree on the relevance and importance of ethics in certain situations; many situations are generally distilled down to esoteric and abstract philosophical notions. However, any situation that could result in a contribution of scientific knowledge demands, in my opinion, only a strict adherence to standards of accuracy and precision in the interpretation of data, and in these cases, a discussion of such standards may be worth the time.

These are some lovely golden raspberries I had to buy the other day as they were on sale at the supermarket. They reminded me of my days working on plant systematics at WKU, as my undergrad advisor was an expert in Rubus, (raspberries and blackberries). So many pretty little berries, all perfectly alike...it is so interesting to me that the collection of data is best done with strict replication, but the writing up and publishing of research results is so flawed when copying from previous authors occurs....