Sunday, March 29, 2009

overcoming or giving in

This month the Candid Engineer has asked for Scientiae submissions related to overcoming adversity. There have probably been more important struggles in my past, but what comes to mind most immediately are my last months in City and the end of my PhD - a time that I still count as the worst prolonged experience I've had so far. I should count myself lucky that I can say that, I suppose. I often think it's something I did to myself and therefore, somehow, I got what was coming to me.

I went to City for a graduate program - I hate cities. I dragged Partner to City because I couldn't handle long-distance relationships - he hated City, just like me. He got a crappy job to support his presence in City, because he's a good partner. He kept me sane, which was worth much more than his half of the rent. And the funny thing is that I really enjoyed my PhD program, and my lab group, and my advisor, but I hated the place we were living (and this was true no matter where we lived). This was in part because of my apparently high standard of living. For example, I demand to live in an apartment that has an attached outer door, as opposed to one with doors that regularly fall out of their rotting door frames. I demand that the utilities I pay for as part of my rent actually function. I shouldn't have to play the role of caller-of-police in order to prevent the injury of my neighbors living with domestic abusers. I shouldn't have to answer the building door and find my neighbor's dealer on the front step. I should be able to expect that my neighbors won't physically or verbally threaten me, and that if they do something will be done about it.

I should have just sucked it up and moved to a different part of town, and in particular to a non-student-housing part of town. But we were poor, and rent isn't cheap, and we were sooooo close to being done. So when the last of my above preconditions was not satisfied during the fall of my final year, I demanded that we move, and Partner was kind enough to drag all of my stuff into yet another apartment. Which, as it turned out, was a block from an extremely loud bar, which kept me awake until 2 am every night until May of the following year.

The series of bad housing situations that we had been through culminated in this final apartment-by-the-bar, and my hatred of City grew. As I sat awake waiting for the pulsing music to end every night, I also focused my hatred at the loud car stereos, the city traffic, the drunken college students and the sirens. I became extremely sensitive (or, at least, much more so than previously) to the ambient noise and I wasn't getting any sleep.

At the same time I was preparing for two months in the field, my final pre-dissertation season. I was going to be leaving Partner for the holidays, which is stressful anyway, but he was also hating his job more than he had before and I felt bad about leaving. I was applying for jobs and going on interviews. I was writing my dissertation. My car was stolen. My plates were stolen too, and I started getting red-light-camera tickets that weren't mine. The cops were useless in any of the above situations, and I started to feel like the whole world was out to get me and there was nothing I could do about it. City was my mortal enemy. I was losing my mind.

When I got back from the field, I was supposed to be buckling down. I did, actually, get a lot done, and finished about 2/3 of my dissertation writing in the three months following my field season. But, I was also still living by the bar, I was carless, I needed a job, I had a defense to schedule. I had analytical data that I needed, but the techs who had to run my samples were taking their sweet time (or, even more frustratingly, asking me if they were for my Masters project, since I could always put that off a few weeks if necessary...).

By this point I was, in retrospect, depressed, anxious, angry. I felt powerless, stuck in a situation I couldn't change (primarily for financial reasons) - looking back it seems like a silly thing to get so worked up over, but one of the many lessons that came out of that time is that I am extremely, overly, excessively sensitive to my environment, and that includes noise to (what I assume is) a higher extent than most people. I was stress eating, I wasn't sleeping, I was miserable.

I got a job offer. I got a marriage offer (I have my suspicions that this was an effort at distraction - it was partially successful). I wrote my ass off, and I defended. It went well. I got the HELL out of there. We ended up living in Partner's parents' basement for a month, but I didn't care, we were out of that City and we were never going back. I came to Small Town, and I bought a house. I still have noise issues, but I'm slowly getting over them, and trying to disassociate noise in general (particularly loud music) from the City-ness that I still carry with me. I have a hard time trusting people, sometimes, and I have a general dislike of humanity as a whole, as a result of several years' worth of negative interactions. I'm hoping that this too will fade away, given enough time.

However, I don't have any misconceptions that I "overcame" anything. I left, and I left before I completely lost it, but that was it, and I was otherwise completely incapable of dealing (emotionally) with my situation. Partner, I'm fairly certain, was looking into mental health options. I considered taking some kind of anxiety medication, and after talking it over with a friend in the field (of psychology) decided that the short-term nature of the triggers (I was definitely going to be out of there in May) meant that it wouldn't be worth dealing with the addiction that comes with such medications, unless things somehow got worse. I don't know if that was a good decision or a bad one, or if I was really in a place (mentally) where I should have been allowed to make a decision regarding how badly I needed some kind of help, but I made it through.

I still have some shame related to this emotional weakness - prior to this episode I would have considered myself much hardier in an emotional sense, and certainly able to withstand such petty environmental factors as pounding music and loud traffic. I think part of my issue came from the immediate stress of finishing, but more so from all the years of bad interactions with neighbors, with people. I was tired of dealing with people asking me for money on my way to work...tired of having to watch my back, secure my belongings. I still have those habits; sometimes I lock a colleague's car here in Small Town and they laugh. I'm glad that I'm finally living somewhere people don't feel the need to lock their cars, but I doubt I'll ever be leaving my doors open. I also doubt that I'll ever feel that I didn't set myself up for a horrible last year in City.

There have been some good things that came out of that shitty eight months. Partner took the brunt of my anger for most of that time, and yet he stuck around. I wouldn't have blamed him (in retrospect, of course) if he had decided that this raving bitch wasn't someone he wanted to spend his life with after all, but he gave me the chance to make it up to him. I hope I have. I think I have a lot more faith in "us" after what we've been though. I also have a much more realistic sense of my personal capabilities and boundaries - I have a better idea of what I can deal with. And I feel good about the career choice I've made, because I don't think I could deal with another City. Not soon, in any case. Maybe, hopefully, never again.

Friday, March 27, 2009

demo microscope?

I'm purchasing two microscopes with an interchangeable USB camera (I don't really think my pseudonymity is threatened by that confession - don't most of us use microscopes for something?). I've been offered the demo unit of the previous model - the company has a newly updated version now, though the previous is just as good for my purposes. Is a $2300 discount good enough to buy the used one? I would get the same warranty coverage regardless. I'm thinking yes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

to the starting line

I'm taking a few students to a regional meeting next week, just for shits - and since they got funding, why not. One of them wrote me today to ask what they should wear, correctly assuming that pajama pants are not ok as conference attire. At least they know that much! I'm hoping that isn't going to be a problem...I shouldn't have to worry about students owning real pants, should I?

Today was my last day of freedom, so I did some important things like getting oil changed and meeting with a roofer. A ridiculous roofer. Quote #1, I doubt that you will make the cut, and not just because you insisted that you "only use commercial grade" materials, which incidentally are very expensive. No, it may have more to do with the fact that you referred to me as "hon" repeatedly, and spent almost as much time pointing out all the things (non roof-related) that are wrong with my house as you did looking at the roof you were supposed to be quoting us for. I am actually aware that the storm door needs to be fixed, thanks. And yes, I know that the wetness indicates a leaky roof - that would be why I called you in the first place. Finishing your visit with "God bless!" might not be unexpected in these parts, but it was the icing on the cake. I guess I should have expected this sort of thing from the get-go, since your secretary asked me for my Husband's Name when I first called you. Why that might be relevant, I have no idea, but I can think of a few reasons why that might be a bad thing to ask. Maybe you guys are so overworked that you don't need non-Christian, female, gay or unmarried business...great for you, I guess.

I have 1/3 of a lecture for tomorrow, and I'm thinking that maybe that's enough for the first day after break? Why do I feel burned out already!?

Monday, March 23, 2009


Partner is off again on a training adventure, leaving me alone to discover important things about myself and the world around me, such as:

- I am incapable of making just enough popcorn for one person. I am also incapable of not eating too much popcorn when too much popcorn is placed in front of me.

- There's still nothing good on TV

- Apparently getting to the gym at an ungodly hour is still not enough to guarantee that I'd get to use my preferred equipment

- I am so not ready for classes to start up again

Sunday, March 22, 2009

suck it

I've been a shitty blogger recently - a lot going on, but nothing all that exciting, and sometimes I try to avoid being a whiny little brat in here...though venting is usually the primary use for the blog! A little brain-dump sometimes helps me get some sleep, at the very least.

We are back from visiting Partner's family, which was preceeded by a trip to City, wherein I remembered that I actually like Small Town quite a bit in comparison except for the lack of clothing stores. So I bought some clothes before coming home, and all is well.

Most of the recent conversation has circled around the issue of what to do with Partner's money now that he has a good job - we accumulated a decent list when we had nothing to spare, and now it's time to prioritize. Things we need include: roof work, a non-gas-guzzler for Partner to drive, student loan payments, savings, a couch (does this count as a need? I think it should. We still use a futon, and it has seen better days). Things we want start with a decent desktop computer for home and some money for wedding planning, and they go on from there. I suck at prioritizing.

Break is almost over, and what have I accomplished? Not enough. One of my vendors cancelled on me and I didn't do anything useful while traveling. I did, however, get to visit a local field area with the person who knows the most about it, and I'm now very excited about some work I'll do this spring. I think I even know exactly what gear I need to purchase to get it done. It will be experimental, but I think it will be good. Tomorrow I get to test-drive some microscopes. Sweet.

Also, I just noticed that it's almost April, which means I have to take some students to a conference, arrange travel for a May workshop, and really start thinking about summer fieldwork. I think I need another spring break.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Why do grant deadlines always fall in the middle of the month? And right at the beginning of spring break, which not only doesn't let us work on the grant over break but requires that the grant get submitted just when we're giving exams and administrators are taking off for a week? Small grant #2 for this year will probably be in on time, but there's still a lot of back-and-forth to be done between myself, my co-PI and the grant coordinator.

Sunday I hope to head out to City, eat way too much and sit around for a few days, shop and celebrate life events with some good friends, and have some fun. Then I will head back to Small Town, meet with various vendors of expensive equipment, potentially buy some of that expensive equipment, test some lab methods that I'll need to use in April, visit a local field site, set up my lab for class, get estimates on some roof work that needs to be done on our garage, buy plane tickets for summer fieldwork, write an internal grant proposal, start getting gear together for summer fieldwork, visit Partner's family for a few days (probably - unless Partner ends up having to work), and dive back into the term. Spring Break! Er...Woot?

Although - I still have today and tomorrow before I get to think about being on break, so I shouldn't be jumping the gun!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Some recent annoyances, in no particular order:

- I can't get ahold the one brand of frosted shredded wheat that doesn't use gelatin in their frosting. It can't be that necessary, if one brand doesn't use it. Why are we throwing cattle hooves into our food for no good reason? Kashi's flavored shredded wheat is a close second, though.

- Battlestar Galactica includes spoilers from the CURRENT episode in its title credit sequence - WTF is that about? Dumb.

- My students think that if they've already given presentations they don't need to come to class any more. Ok kids, but you're missing out on some serious participation points, and you aren't going to be happy when grades come out.

- All but ONE day of my spring break is already scheduled and full of shit to do! Blah.

Monday, March 9, 2009

saving daylight

It took me a few minutes this morning to figure out why it was so friggin dark at 6:30. Was it raining? Oh...right.

Today we got mail (from Partner's family) addressed to Me and Partner Partnerslastname. I'm not sure what I think about that. Mostly, I'm surprised that it's starting before we even get married.

I might be making a quick trip down to City to celebrate with various people who have recently gotten jobs and tenure. Which is even more super awesome than normal job-getting, considering the state of the job market right now. Multiple times this year I've thought, man I'm so glad I graduated LAST spring.

If I go to City, I am so buying piles of spring/summer clothes. And I'm going to Whole Foods, also, in between eating at good restaurants. Poor Partner has to work. I should probably stop talking about all the food and shopping in City - a nice place to visit, but I'm glad I no longer live there!

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I think there have been a lot of highs and lows lately. That, or I'm being overly emotional and getting myself all worked up for no good reason over things that I should chill out about.

Startup funding snafus have been cleared up to my satisfaction, and I am admittedly quite relieved. The attitude of most people at SLAC (in which we are all a happy family, even when we aren't) kinda makes me feel bad for mistrusting administration and allowing myself to stress over a potentially simple misunderstanding. But then my common sense snaps me out of that mood and reminds me that I need to be looking out for myself.

The students in my software class are finishing up a big project, and revealing their inner awesomeness. Several of them are going way beyond the requirements of the project just because they think it's cool. And then there's the kid who takes one look at his dataset and gives up because it doesn't look exactly the way he wants it to. Can't win them all over, I guess.

I get to buy some fancy toys and do more playing outside pretty soon, which makes me happy, and an annoying coworker is going to be gone for at least the short term, which makes me even happier. Spring is looking up!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March Scientiae: Role Models

This month I asked for posts related to role models. I wanted to know who inspires women scientists today, in honor of Women’s History Month and the Anniversary Edition of Scientiae. It turns out that we all have different answers, but our answers falls into similar themes.

Some of us are inspired by the works of relatively high-profile or historic women.

Lab Cat writes about Marie Curie. "I connect to Marie Curie and see her as a role model because she gave her all to science despite the conventions and expectations of women at her time."

Podblack Cat applauds the work of consumers rights advocate Loretta Marron, whose “…diagnosis of cancer in 2003 gave her first hand experience of the scope of misinformation that contributes to the exploitation of our most vulnerable Australians.”

At Women in Astronomy, Hannah writes about pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who “…became an astronomer in an era when few women were even working out of the home. She discovered dark matter. She has four children, all of whom are now scientists themselves and raising their own families.”

Others find motivation close to home.

Cherish at Faraday’s Cage reveals that her husband and her advisor both “helped me move from a place where I was certain I couldn't do anything on my own to a place where I felt very comfortable with my independence.”

Friday Afternoon finds that her mother has had the biggest influence on her professional life. “…my mom is still in inspiration to me, through the way she has lived her life, is living her life.”

The Silly Conservationist writes that her own advisor has been her mentor, and leads by example. “I am learning to be a good senior and “Supervisor” from Lady Advisor’s successes and of course, mistakes.”

At the Physicality of Words, we can read about the power of having peers who will tell you the truth. “I had always felt that if you could not be enthusiastic about your research all the time, you were somehow not worthy. Being frustrated and bored to the point of crying was to me a shameful secret. Maybe, just maybe, this was something that happened to others too? Even smart, successful students!”

Academic tells us about her admiration for older academics who love what they do. “I want to be someone who's known for my ideals, even if they are quirky as all get out. I want to have fun with what I'm doing. I want to have a realistic picture of myself even if that means telling humorous stories at my own expense when I'm an invited speaker.”

Melissa contemplates her teaching persona and decides to be herself, since “…I’ve finally given up trying to find exactly one person who will be an ideal mentor/role model for me. That person doesn’t exist.”

Pat at FairerScience outdoes us all by taking a well-deserved break! “Yup I'm being my own role model and accepting and acting on the idea that sometimes you just need a break in between making and remaking history. Please let me be your role model too.”

Some of us are looking for role models who can show us that we can be scientists and professors while having a family.

Patchi of My Middle Years discussed this very topic last year, revealing that she became aware of success stories only after her own pregnancies stimulated family-related discussions:

Why doesn't "family" come out in conversations with female professors, while male professors always seem to mention that their wife stays home with the kids? I always thought the latter was the problem, the bad advice that one needs a "wife" to have kids. However, the lack of realistic discussions about career and family might be the biggest problem. Are women keeping women out of science?

Some of us were lucky, and found ourselves in a supportive environment from the start.

Laura at Neurotypical credits her early science teachers as well as her neuroscience mentors, who provided a network of female scientists and make her want to give something back.

As I reflect on all of these people who have helped me get where I am today, I'm anxious to give something back to other women like me. Although I'm relatively inexperienced, I, too, have support to offer.

Some of us, perhaps expectedly, find that female role models are few and far-between in the sciences.

Mrs. Comet Hunter finds inspiration in friends who have managed some degree of that sought-after work-life balance. She writes,

I find it unsettling that I have a hard time finding female role models. There should be more women in the sciences that can lead the life they want and not feel they have to sacrifice their other roles as wife (or fiance or girlfriend), mother, daughter, sister, or friend…it's time to take action. In order to do so, we need the support of our male colleagues, so we can create that change as a whole.

In my own experience, I seem to have these sought-after supportive male colleagues, and I have to wonder why they seem so scarce in the experiences of most other female scientists.

Volcanista reveals a similar lack of female mentors, but offers an anonymous tribute to one woman who kept her in grad school. “It was like a magical breath of fresh air to work with a supervisor who, well, kind of gets it innately…it got me over my burn-out and renewed all of my vigor for my degree, and it just gave me hope again, so that I could return to my all-male home world for another 3 years.”

Rivika at Life and Then Some discusses the lack of significant contributions from female mathematicians. “It’s pretty easy to find biographies of female mathematicians on the internet. Harder is finding information on the mathematics that they worked on.”

Finally, for those of us looking to become the mentors we lacked or loved, Kate provides a guide to good mentorship.

The best mentorship I have received has explicitly appreciated my hard work, creative thinking and mind, and has clearly articulated criticisms throughout whatever project I was doing. Less helpful mentorship has ignored hard work, and avoided criticism until the very end of the project. But I also want to say that there is a lot that both the mentor and mentee can do to improve communication; it does not necessarily have to be only up to the mentor.

Thank you to everyone who submitted! Hosting was a lot of fun, and I appreciate having the opportunity to put this month’s Scientiae together.