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?