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.