Monday, April 28, 2008

A shift in importance

My initial interest in my discipline began with fieldwork - I loved the idea of applied science, and if that got me outside, potentially to other countries, sign me up! Beyond the subject itself, which is still (and will hopefully remain) something that gets me out of bed in the morning, I liked the sense of adventure and discovery that just wasn't matched by lab- or computer-based work. A good field season sometimes makes all the rest of it more meaningful and important (or at least tolerable!).

I've been working in Africa for most of my student career; my dissertation work is in one country, but I've worked in others as an undergrad, on graduate field courses, and as a warm body on other field projects. I love that I get to travel and interact with people from other cultures in a very non-tourist fashion. I started out as a gung-ho, I'll-suffer-anything-for-the-project undergrad, and although I've really enjoyed the majority of my field time, over the past few years I've become much more reluctant and resigned to field work as actual work that also takes me away from my home life.

I'm not sure if this has more to do with experience or the fact that I'm getting old and moving into some kind of "adult" phase where home is more important, but I'd sometimes honestly rather be hanging out with Partner and getting regular showers than dealing with the rigors of field life, despite its perks.

As a younger person I had visions of myself as more research-oriented, discovering the undiscovered, etc. Now I find myself equally interested in teaching, and looking forward to a little less pressure on the field work front. This is probably a good thing, because high-end field projects may be out of reach in the long term at a small college. I hope to stay active research-wise, but I'm a little surprised by my lack of concern about giving up the majority of my research activities. Apparently, I have grown.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who's the feminist?

As a woman scientist, I get the impression that I've had a less-than-average experience. I'm coming out of a science department made up primarily of women, and I've had a number of female mentors over the years, including my own advisor. I've also worked with a number of female PIs; on one project our field crew was made up entirely of women. My subfield, like many, comes from a tradition of "manly," "rugged," "adventurous" scientists, but a number of the big names these days are female, as are more than half of the graduate students by my own (casual) count. Even my male mentors have been extremely encouraging to young women, often involving themselves with programs designed to encourage women in science.

I've apparently been lucky to avoid the negative situations we all read or hear about on a regular basis, wherein women are not mentored to the same extent as their male counterparts, or are made to feel otherwise incapable or unwelcome. I'm also aware of the imbalance in pay scales, family planning, and teaching/advising loads, as well as the issues involved in trying to have both a family and a career. We still have a long way to go to reach true gender equality in academia, I have no doubt.

However, I've also seen a number of women fall through the "cracks" created by an academic system seeking to increase the number of women involved. I know of students passed through their exams entirely because of their gender, and offered jobs partly because of their gender. Few people will argue that an entirely male faculty wouldn't be under some pressure to add a woman or two to their list. I've also seen women abuse sexual harassment policies in order to avoid punishment for their own illicit or inappropriate behavior, or to get out of certain academic situations.

Personally, I don't want a job only because I'm a woman. And I'm not saying that sexual harassment policies should lay some sort of "burden of proof" on the victim. Similar to the theoretical goals of the penal system, I'd rather have guilty people walk away without punishment than put innocent people through hell. However, I have to think that the tide is changing if I can come up to my defense at the end of the week with this as my primary experience: women are favored to some extent by the current system.

I still try to involve myself in "girls in science" programs, and I want all of my students to be equally involved regardless of their gender. I have hope than in ten years we won't be able to look at any University and see more male tenured faculty than women tenured faculty. (I think the largest burden to making this a reality comes post-degree, when women are forced to decide between family and career, but I'm hardly qualified to discuss that particular subject).

I still call my self a feminist, in the more modern and academic context of that word, but sometimes I feel unqualified to use the term. I should probably be thankful for that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day

Happy Earth Day!

I try to use Earth Day as a resolution day, similar to New Years (except that I rarely make New Years resolutions for some reason). It's good to have a reason to reevaluate how I'm actually living my life, and how that reflects how I'd like to be living my life. I'm a little bit limited, still, being a renter and a student, but there are always things I can do to improve. On the short-term this year, I should start working on:

- bringing a mug with me to the coffee shop instead of using their styrofoam cups. I should also probably have some reusable plates and cutlery in the office in case someone brings in food.

- remembering to bring my own bags to the grocery store, and getting more canvas bags so that my entire order can fit into reusable bags instead of just half.

- buying more locally-grown foods and paying attention to how far things have traveled to get to my table.

- buying more recycled paper products for the bathroom -- the Seventh Generation tissues aren't as rough as I had expected!

Since last year, I have made a few improvements:

- We've started recycling all of our plastic packaging, like the plastic bags used for packaging bread and toilet paper. This stuff piles up if you start keeping track!

- We moved into a much more energy-efficient apartment and have the added bonus of much lower energy bills.

- We've been focusing more on Organic foods and made an initial attempt at a stoop garden.

On a longer term, I hope to have some drastic changes once I manage to own a home. We'll be gardening, adding solar panels if we can, replacing all our light bulbs with more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, etc. But that sort of thing will have to wait until we manage to buy.

I also want to look into carbon-offset purchases; I know that the majority of my personal "footprint" comes from all the flying and driving I do. I'd like to be able to offset some of that damage, but I'm not sure what I think of all these services and how the process works (and whether it actually does any good!). I'll have to do some research when I get some time!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dissertation rocking the house

The dissertation is in! I'm having a hard time figuring out what to do with myself now that I don't have a backlog of Word documents to edit! But I took the afternoon off to decompress a bit.

I needed the break, since I was rudely awoken at 4:30 by the Earthquake! Although, I didn't realize until this morning that it had actually been an earthquake and not high winds, some kind of nearby traffic incident or Partner shaking the bed in his sleep. I did get to witness the 10:15 aftershock in complete consciousness, which was fun, because it was my first earthquake. The cat, however, didn't enjoy it, and she spent the rest of the morning in the closet.

Friday, April 11, 2008

One more week

One week from today the writing will be over, and my work will be out there for all to criticize. I'm actually looking forward to it, knowing full well that there will be plenty of revision post-defense and that I have a story to tell, however convoluted (or tentative) some parts of it may be.

The bad part for me has been the cold I developed earlier this week; I'm well into the sneezing/coughing stage, which is a progression from the sore throat/headache stage. I guess I should be glad that it's getting somewhere, but it hasn't been helping me write! Sneezing be damned, I should still be on time, and there will be much celebration. Prior to stressing over the defense talk!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Back to work

Back to the grindstone! It was a bad time to be gone, but I'm glad we took the time to visit the new town. Results:

We're going to try to get loan approval and then (assuming all goes well) see if we can find something to buy in early June. I have no idea what I'm doing, and the idea of buying a house is making me feel old, but I'm excited.

My future students are awesome, and I can't wait to teach them.

A project I was hoping to be part of is going forward, but might require my presence this winter, during a month when classes are in session. My contract offers me a teaching reduction if I need to be gone, but I hadn't planned to be gone this coming year and I'm planning to teach a course and a half during that term. That might be a problem. I really want in on this project.

Somehow a stressful week of travel and meeting people left me more refreshed and ready to work than I had been; I'll take it!

Thursday, April 3, 2008


This week Partner and I are visiting our future small town, in part because I wanted to meet particular professors emeriti and visit a field research term in progress, but we also wanted to start our search for housing. I'm lucky that a friend of mine from a field project is now a visiting professor at this College, so we get to stay with her while doing business.

Yesterday we were home with her old but adorable cat when he had a stroke (he's ok now, but it was a frightening thing to watch!) I'm glad we could help by calling my friend at work and telling the vet what had happened, but it's sad to watch the final stages of his kitty life.

More directly related to life in general is our disappointment over the lack of available rental properties in our future home; we had planned to rent for a year, get to know the area, figure out what Partner would be doing, and then buy something in 2009. Our current lease ends at the end of May, and ideally we wanted find something available in early June. However, it looks like we won't find anything available until July or August, and although we might just be a bit early to find available properties, it also seems that renting here is a very hit-or-miss situation in general. We might be able to find something later, or we might not, particularly because I'm going to be fairly picky about where we live due to several bad-neighbor experiences that I've had over the past few years. Most incoming faculty buy houses, and there seems to be very little knowledge in general about how or where we might be able to find something to rent.

After driving around for a few days, we've started wondering whether we should try to buy something now. That wasn't in the plans, so it's stressing me out; I have no idea how home-buying works, or whether I'd be able to do it with any financial security. We'd be counting on my salary alone for the time being, and because part of my graduate fellowships aren't taxable, my income tax returns list me at a fairly low income bracket. I'm not sure how that would affect my chances of getting a loan. We can put down $10 k or so, but that would be at the expense of paying off my student loans and it wouldn't make up the suggested 20% down payment either.

We're talking to a local real estate broker tomorrow, and we'll see what she says. If we can find something we like, I might be willing to go for it, but I have no idea how difficult this might be!