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....

25 March 2009

My philosophy of travel

Lovely spring bulbs peeking out. Not from Mexico, but Boston. Still delicious.

The past few weeks have brought a great deal of disruption to my normal habits and schedule. I am generally apprehensive about travel for this very reason. I piss and moan about planning for upcoming trips, and view travel planning with moderate levels of trepidation. I err on the side of over preparing for trips, which doesn't help associated anxiety previous to travel. 

Regardless, I am moderately well traveled, and have developed certain expectations about trips as a result.

1. Books (mostly trashy historical romances) and knitting (almost exclusively socks) are a must. The romance novels I view as disposable, and leave in hotels, on planes, or wherever when I finish them. I wear the socks as soon as I finish them.

2. Sleep is secondary to adventures, fun, and seeing new things. It is mostly for planes, waiting in airports, and in cars (when there is nothing else to see).

3. I NEVER put important, light, and easily removable things in my backpack. Passport, money, etc always go in a messenger bag that is in my sight at all times, especially in crowded public gatherings. I have never experienced theft on a trip, although I know of several times when I might have been victimized this way if I weren't so aware of my surroundings.  

4. I almost always carry multiple copies of important documents (passport, credit cards, birth certificate, etc) and leave other copies at home. This has prevented huge hassles on several occasions. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:
5. I really hate being a tourist. I indulge myself in picture taking when the mood strikes, but more often than not, I prefer to blend into the background and into the culture of my surroundings. If people are walking fast, I hustle too. I eat what everyone else eats, and avoid tourist traps (Hard Rock Cafe and other American atrocities) like the plague if at all possible. I don't try too hard to see all of the "must see" places in the places I go, because I have had so many profound experiences going with the flow and just trying to experience life the way someone living in an area might. No time is really wasted while traveling. I don't begrudge an extra taxi ride, because I find taxi drivers, from Mexico City to Sydney, Australia, to be an incredible source of information. 

I have slowly learned to let go of much of the stress associated with culture, language, schedules, and airlines (although I'm not above sending a letter to a certain airline for a ridiculously frustrating experience we had last night in Dallas). I've experienced missing flights, delays, trouble with customs, missing luggage, sickness, and just about every other type of problem imaginable, and I've survived. I've discovered the zen of travel. Even after Bill and I have spent the last few week apart due to conflicting travel plans, we're already planning summer trips to see our families and perhaps collect some plants together. Work schedules, finances, cat care, and so many other details are coming back to the discussion table as we deliberate about when and where to go, and I really look forward to new adventures. I get super antsy if I don't have a trip planned in the future. Travel plans for the next year or so include Idaho in June (conference for work), southern Missouri (to see Bill's family), central Indiana (my dad and fam), southern Indiana (my mom), California/Reno (my sis and bro, if I can use my credit card points for airline discounts), South Carolina/southeast US (plant collection for a side project of my dissertation research that I've been obsessing about for years), and possibly a final long trip to Mexico in July (dissertation research).  

Still though, it feels damn good to be home. 

From Mexico

I've spent a fabulous couple of days in Mexico City and Cuernevaca, but they business of this trip has left little time for blogging! Here's a huge agave outside one of the buildings where we were presenting our research. Right behind it (not shown in the pic, unfortunately) was a flower bed with two species of Commelinaceae in it. In my excitement to see my plants, I cut my hand on this enormous agave. Plants can be dangerous, dude.

More photos and more thoughts to come when there's time...

20 March 2009

Scientific opportunism vs. planning

Ever since I first decided to get my Bachelor's from Western Kentucky University, I've been a firm believer that planning can only do so much to guide life's decisions. What I mean is that regardless of what choices I think would make me the happiest, and independent of how much I plot and plan to achieve those goals, I always tend to be pulled in certain directions. Case in point: I tried hard not to study science at WKU. I was history/pre-law/communication/etc for my first year, and then I started to do research and was hooked into plant systematics. I had the opportunity to do research, I thought it might be interesting, and then I kept following that path all the way to a PhD.

An alternative viewpoint to this train of thought: I'm incredibly clever in taking advantage of opportunities that arise, even if they don't immediately seem beneficial in the big scheme of my life.

A second alternative viewpoint: I'm too lazy to do what I really want, so I just go along with whatever is handed to me (which generally turns out to be easier).

Regardless, I don't think of living my life so much as my life living me. Maybe this is my attempt to become zen in the face of too much pressure, too much stress, and too many decisions...I just wait until something seems right and then go with it.

Why am I thinking about this now? Well, I'm currently faced with the prospect of altering literally a third of my dissertation to a field which is only somewhat relevant to my current research interests. More interestingly, I currently believe said area of research is full of scientific uncertainty, hand-waving, and not many answers...just more questions (that is a nice way of saying I don't really have any confidence in the validity of the analyses I've been running, just a deeper understanding of the algorithms that gave me answers). I've had the opportunity to learn some new things, meet some great people, and work on some cool questions. My gut's telling me to run with it. There are certain advantages...I'm discovering this new side to my intellect, where I can spend hours and days and weeks learning new computer programs and running analyses on the computer quite happily.

I didn't plan to end up here. But now I just have to readjust my thinking so that I can keep stumbling upon new, interesting, and unexpected things to learn.

17 March 2009

Goodbye, Harvard...

The picture above accurately depicts what my life has been like for the past week, and might suggest why it will be nice to return home. Note the knitting on the left. Mini cheesecake in the center. Mug of tea. Chocolate on both sides. And, in a position of prominence, my poor over-used and underappreciated laptop, much abused by analyses too large to handle.

I struggle while on trips like this to balance work and play. I mean, I was sent here to learn things, there is a limited time in which to learn, and then I must return home as the "expert" in said areas. So I limited myself this trip to visiting a few yarn stores and eating nice food. My dad reminded me I forgot to eat seafood this trip...coming from a landlocked state, it's actually a shame to let fresh fish (and scallops! and other crustaceans!) slip my mind. But my boss is already talking about sending me back, so who knows...maybe I'll still have a chance.

14 March 2009


I'm visiting Harvard for a week to meet with some folks and learn some new programs, like r8s and BEAST. Apart from the fact that this little trip is facilitating the production of a huge list of things I'll have to do upon returning home, and the little sidenote that these analyses are being conducted on a dataset that isn't actually part of my dissertation, I'm really enjoying the time I'm spending here. The lab that is hosting me is really top notch, full of great and interesting post docs that have helped me immensely.

I've also developed a nice little routine for myself. I'm staying at a bed and breakfast that, although a bit more hotel-like than some I've encountered, still has some nice perks. My personal favorite is the coffee, tea and cookie availablity from 12-10 pm. I have definitely been well-fed while in Boston.

The downside, however, is the my room. More specifically, the size of the room, which could give a postage stamp competition for most compact. The two accompanying pics document about everything offered in this room.
It's kind of a throwback to college, with the twin bed and shared bathroom (out in the hallway, I'm not even going to pretend it's even remotely related to the room). However, my dorm room did have a TV. I guess it's better this way, though, especially for a work trip.

10 March 2009

New start part deux.

Notice the data on my last post before this...

This post is actually the third installment of birthing my blog-life. We'll see how it goes. Katy FH has a blog, though, so I guess I can try to, as well!!

I get these urges to blog while traveling...I guess it's a throwback to my high school/college days when I wrote in my journal ALL the TIME. I fell of that bandwagon when I met Bill, though, cause I like to think he takes up the slack and lets me download everything that is in my head.

The more selfish motivation for my new blog-urge involves the need for me to streamline my writing. "What?!?!" you say, "How does adding another hobby constitute streamlining work?"

Well, little pumpkin, I'll tell you why. I was sitting in a Conversations About College Science Teaching (a monthly program where science type folks talk about topics) a few months ago and the discussion was about informal writing in science classes. The rationale behind using such writing is that it promotes student thinking without the pressure of performance (although the performance part is an artificial construct anyway, because it's just a different type of performance). It's true, though...I've realized lately I've lost my writing, speaking,-- heck-- even my communication mojo. Eight+ years of speech and debate experience and I find myself unable to form coherent sentences on a regular basis. Talking to myself in my head (shut up, you do it too) and talking to Bill are different, cause I know, and Bill knows, what I'm trying to say. YOU, lovely munchkins, do not.

So this is me taking a crack at being accountable for the words I put on paper. Or screen. Or whatever you want to call this.