Friday, December 19, 2008
In the meantime, here's a geology meme that I'm late to the party on. It was started here. Things I’ve done are bold.
1. See an erupting volcano.
2. See a glacier. [Iceland, Alaska]
3. See an active geyser such as those in Yellowstone, New Zealand or the type locality of Iceland. [type locality! Yay!]
4. Visit the Cretaceous/Tertiary (KT) Boundary. Possible locations include Gubbio, Italy, Stevns Klint, Denmark, the Red Deer River Valley near Drumheller, Alberta.
5. Observe (from a safe distance) a river whose discharge is above bankful stage. [like the one that flooded my high school and put it out of commission for 6 weeks? Yep.]
6. Explore a limestone cave. Try Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, or the caves of Kentucky or TAG (Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia). [super cheesy, but Laurey Carverns - I have a postcard!]
7. Tour an open pit mine, such as those in Butte, Montana, Bingham Canyon, Utah, Summitville, Colorado, Globe or Morenci, Arizona, or Chuquicamata, Chile. [correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the Climax molybdenum mine open-pit? It's been a while]
8. Explore a subsurface mine. [lithium mine out west, uranium mine in the east]
9. See an ophiolite, such as the ophiolite complex in Oman or the Troodos complex on the Island Cyprus (if on a budget, try the Coast Ranges or Klamath Mountains of California).
10. An anorthosite complex, such as those in Labrador, the Adirondacks, and Niger (there's some anorthosite in southern California too). [adirondacks here]
11. A slot canyon. Many of these amazing canyons are less than 3 feet wide and over 100 feet deep. They reside on the Colorado Plateau. Among the best are Antelope Canyon, Brimstone Canyon, Spooky Gulch and the Round Valley Draw.
12. Varves, whether you see the type section in Sweden or examples elsewhere. [elsewhere, as an undergrad]
13. An exfoliation dome, such as those in the Sierra Nevada.
14. A layered igneous intrusion, such as the Stillwater complex in Montana or the Skaergaard Complex in Eastern Greenland.
15. Coastlines along the leading and trailing edge of a tectonic plate. [leading edge, anyway - 1/2]
16. A gingko tree, which is the lone survivor of an ancient group of softwoods that covered much of the Northern Hemisphere in the Mesozoic.
17. Living and fossilized stromatolites (Glacier National Park is a great place to see fossil stromatolites, while Shark Bay in Australia is the place to see living ones)
18. A field of glacial erratics.
19. A caldera [beautiful one in Iceland].
20. A sand dune more than 200 feet high [that sand dune national park at the foot of the rockies]
21. A fjord. [Alaska, Maine (although the latter is debatable)]
22. A recently formed fault scarp.
23. A megabreccia.
24. An actively accreting river delta.
25. A natural bridge. [Aruba, but it just fell recently]
26. A large sinkhole.
27. A glacial outwash plain
28. A sea stack [iceland again!]
29. A house-sized glacial erratic. [ok, sort of a small house]
30. An underground lake or river.
31. The continental divide.
32. Fluorescent and phosphorescent minerals. [not in-situ, so 1/2?]
33. Petrified trees.
34. Lava tubes.
35. The Grand Canyon.
36. Meteor Crater, Arizona, also known as the Barringer Crater, to see an impact crater on a scale that is comprehensible.
37. The Great Barrier Reef, northeastern Australia, to see the largest coral reef in the world.
38. The Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada, to see the highest tides in the world (up to 16m).
39. The Waterpocket Fold, Utah, to see well exposed folds on a massive scale.
40. The Banded Iron Formation, Michigan, to better appreciate the air you breathe.
41. The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania,
42. Lake Baikal, Siberia, to see the deepest lake in the world (1,620 m) with 20 percent of the Earth's fresh water.
43. Ayers Rock (known now by the Aboriginal name of Uluru), Australia. This inselberg of nearly vertical Precambrian strata is about 2.5 kilometers long and more than 350 meters high.
44. Devil's Tower, northeastern Wyoming, to see a classic example of columnar jointing.
45. The Alps. [from the air]
46. Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park. From this spectacular summit you can look down onto the floor of Death Valley - 11,330 feet below.
47. The Li River, China, to see the fantastic tower karst that appears in much Chinese art.
48. The Dalmation Coast of Croatia, to see the original Karst.
49. The Gorge of Bhagirathi, one of the sacred headwaters of the Ganges, in the Indian Himalayas, where the river flows from an ice tunnel beneath the Gangatori Glacier into a deep gorge.
50. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River, Utah, an impressive series of entrenched meanders.
51. Shiprock, New Mexico, to see a large volcanic neck.
52. Land's End, Cornwall, Great Britain, for fractured granites that have feldspar crystals bigger than your fist.
53. Tierra del Fuego, Chile and Argentina, to see the Straights of Magellan and the southernmost tip of South America.
54. Mount St. Helens, Washington, to see the results of recent explosive volcanism.
55. The Giant's Causeway and the Antrim Plateau, Northern Ireland, to see polygonally fractured basaltic flows. [saw that on Iceland’s south coast]
56. The Great Rift Valley in Africa.
57. The Matterhorn, along the Swiss/Italian border, to see the classic "horn".
58. The Carolina Bays, along the Carolinian and Georgian coastal plain
59. The Mima Mounds near Olympia, Washington
60. Siccar Point, Berwickshire, Scotland, where James Hutton (the "father" of modern geology) observed the classic unconformity.
61. The moving rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley
62. Yosemite Valley
63. Landscape Arch (or Delicate Arch) in Utah
64. The Burgess Shale in British Columbia
65. The Channeled Scablands of central Washington
66. Bryce Canyon
67. Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone
68. Monument Valley
69. The San Andreas fault
70. The dinosaur footprints in La Rioja, Spain
71. The volcanic landscapes of the Canary Islands
72. The Pyrennees Mountains
73. The Lime Caves at Karamea on the West Coast of New Zealand
74. Denali (an orogeny in progress)
75. A catastrophic mass wasting event
76. The giant crossbeds visible at Zion National Park
77. The black sand beaches in Hawaii (or the green sand-olivine beaches)
78. Barton Springs in Texas
79. Hells Canyon in Idaho
80. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado
81. The Tunguska Impact site in Siberia
82. Feel an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 5.0. [just barely – felt like a truck rumbling by. I was a fair distance from the epicenter]
83. Find dinosaur footprints in situ
84. Find a trilobite (or a dinosaur bone or any other fossil) [tons]
85. Find gold, however small the flake
86. Find a meteorite fragment
87. Experience a volcanic ashfall
88. Experience a sandstorm.
89. See a tsunami.
90. Witness a total solar eclipse
91. Witness a tornado firsthand.
92. Witness a meteor storm, a term used to describe a particularly intense (1000+ per minute) meteor shower
93. View Saturn and its moons through a respectable telescope.
94. See the Aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights. [more iceland]
95. View a great naked-eye comet, an opportunity which occurs only a few times per century.
96. See a lunar eclipse.
97. View a distant galaxy through a large telescope
98. Experience a hurricane. [two biggies, 1 of which involved sheltering in a school with 350 other people]
99. See noctilucent clouds
100. See the green flash
I've got 33, which is pretty low. But I have less, um, life experience than some other folks.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The problem is when I come in out of the cold for more than a couple of minutes, i.e. for lunch. For some reason I'm fine when I first get outside, and I can stay outside all day without feeling unbearably cold. This is especially true if I've spent the day running around. But once I go inside and start unravelling layers, my body seems to think, "ok, now we're done with that cold stuff" and it is impossible for me to warm up when I get all dressed up again and go back outside.
This is especially true at night. When I get back to my hotel room, I always start a nice long, hot shower, and find that I can't bear to turn off the water because I'm so cold. If we go out to dinner after fieldwork, I also tend to start shivering uncontrollably/need to wear my layers during and after dinner.
I know that eating tends to make me cold because all that energy is going toward digestion (and in the field I eat a prodigious amount of food). But I'm not sure why going inside and then outside fouls up my system so much.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
I was complaining about this to a manager, and she said, "oh, just shop where you are after work!" Well, after I've been working 12-13 hour days outside in the cold, half of that time in the dark, the last thing I'm going to do is hunt around for a good place to shop in an unfamiliar area and then brave the after work crowd.
It's frustrating because I'm surrounded by all this holiday cheer, and it seems like everyone else is just cruising, and then I'm out there working your ass off in the miserable weather. And if I'm not actively working, what I really want to do is cuddle up with a nice hot drink and sleep. So when I'm in the field, the holidays are just one big blur. It sucks because I like to actually enjoy the holidays.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
5. Jumping spiders: Not a big fan of jumpers, but they’re usually pretty small. I’m ok with small spiders – ok in that I gently remove them from my vicinity (or swat them midair) instead of squealing and running away.
4. Ceiling spiders: Ok, these aren’t really field spiders I run into, probably because they like to be up high. But I had an apartment that was like catnip for ceiling spiders. Well, maybe just one. We kept squashing what we found to be discarded spider skins in the ceiling corners. They kept getting bigger and bigger. Hm.
3. Golden orb spinners/black and yellow garden spiders: These are both big and distinctive. One summer, I had one in a field site that sort of became the site mascot, while at the same time I had the same type of spider building its web between my car door and the side of the driveway every morning. Kind of annoying to have to get in on the passenger side every day.
2. Wolf spiders: Huh. They landed on both lists. Again, I’m not a fan of big, fast, and hairy.
1. Hedge spiders: Ok, these are actually funnel spiders. If you look at any hedge in the summer, it will be riddled with funnels. And those spiders can get to a couple inches across. Luckily, they hide down in the hedge. Unlucky for you if you have to poke around in said hedges for your work.
If I had to work outside regularly somewhere with seriously large spiders, I'd have a big problem. Luckily, I don't encounter spiders that suprise me into a shriek all that often.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Inevitably, I will get a few stray readers (or more than a few) who did not find what they were searching for. Some apologies are in order:
If you have snakes and/or slugs in your drain, you're probably not exactly sure why you're enlisting the advice of a geologist. Can't help you there.
I'm guessing that all you folks from former soviet-bloc countries (I'm guessing that's who uses google.ru, .ro, .kz, etc) who are looking for various iterations of extra-curricular activities did not find what you expected. If you want to optimize your naughty website so that you're ahead of me for those search terms, go right ahead.
I will not help you find funny nicknames for environmentalists, scientists, short people, or anybody else. Ask your local pre-teen instead. If you are a pre-teen, I'm sure you can come up with some ideas on your own.
If you like the name Shortencia, feel free to name your child after me. I'd be honored. But be aware that your child may run into problems if they are either exceptionally tall or exceptionally short.
It's kind of neat to see that I pop up in searches. And I've procrastinated many times by jumping all over the internet using "wrong" search results and the related links myself, so maybe I can provide a little bit of an education to folks who have no intrinsic interest in environmental work or geology.
Friday, December 12, 2008
So here’s what happened when I announced that I was going on a big grad school-visiting tour:
Mom: “You’re going all by yourself?”
Me: “Ma… [for some reason I call her “Ma” if I’m exasperated/whiny] I’ve been living on my own for years. I drive by myself for work all the time. I travel for hours in lousy conditions to get to remote little field sites. I am perfectly capable of navigating to various schools.”
Mom: “But I have a bunch of vacation time I need to use up. And you know how I love to travel…”
Me: “Look, I’ll be fine.”
Mom: “I’ll pay for my half of the travel expenses. We can take my car.”
Me: “Your car, eh?”
So off we went. I was pretty paranoid about appearing to be a snowflake/helicopter child, so like an embarrassed teenager, I tried to park her in inconspicuous places while I met people. She explored the greenhouse/museum/gothic architecture while I was otherwise occupied, and she had knitting for when she got bored.
My mother says she had fun seeing all the different schools on that trip. It was also nice to get a second opinion from someone with no financial stake in the final decision this time. We did, however, decide that our driving styles were somewhat incompatible (she drives like an old lady, I don’t) for any further extensive road trips.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
I don't think my parents met my advisor, since they visited on a weekend. But I showed them various equipment and lab spaces. The funny thing in my case is that my parents are science/tech people (they worked in industry). When they saw the equipment that our research group uses, their immediate reaction was, um, nostalgia.
Mom: "Aw, look at this [complicated machine]. I used that exact same model back in the late seventies, when we had to do everything by hand. And I haven't seen this type of [standard lab equipment] in ages. It doesn't even have [painfully obvious safety gear]."
Dad: "Dot-matrix printers?"
I walked them all over campus (I do stuff in 2 departments separated by miles of hallways) and we ended up at my department's watering hole, where my parents got to sample the local brews. They did end up meeting some of my fellow grad students, and a good visit was had by all.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
My friend's professor is striving for tenure and trying to make her mark, so she's stressing out about teaching new classes and doing BIG NEW IMPORTANT research. In order to do this, she's piled a massive amount of work on my friend, who is a master's student like me.
My professor has advised generations of students. He's taught classes for decades (and he's quite good). He doesn't have anything to prove; he's already famous in his little spot in academia. So my project is sufficient for a good thesis, but I'm not running around doing massive amounts of extra work. I pulled some 13 hour days, but that was for only a part of my time as a grad student.
My friend spent a lot of his time writing proposals and then writing reports to explain the results in order to get continued funding. He had to justify everything he bought and used.
My professor has ridiculously extensive connections, with sources of money all over the place. Thanks to his knowledge of school and money-dispersing regulations, he pretty much spends it as he sees fit. So I'm able to use more equipment. Not that my buddy can't beg/borrow stuff, but it's always better if it's your stuff that's getting lent out because you have first dibs.
We represent extreme cases - most professors I know are less stressed than my friend's advisor and not as detached as mine. Overall, my friend is doing a lot more work, but that means that he's learning more and has a more extensive CV/resume. I would like to think that's just as good as having a big-name advisor, since in my case I have the feeling people are thinking, "that old fossil still has students?"
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
"I just graduated with a geology degree. I got a job with an environmental consulting company, and I found out I was supposed to take samples outside. I quit in two days and now I need an office-only job."
My first thought was, "Ah ha ha! Seriously, how did you get through a geology degree and not realize that it involves being outside? We call it earth science for a reason."
Then I realized that being obnoxiously snarky was not helpful. So, are there geology jobs where you do not need an iota of fieldwork, or any knowledge derived from fieldwork? Environmental consulting is out. If you don't understand the conditions the samples were collected from and the errors that can arise, you're not going to be a very good geologist. I'm a firm believer that even modelers need to have some idea where the variability can come from.
There are true office/lab-only geology jobs. I know someone who used to work in the oil biz, identifying fossil critters on an unending series of slides. They were utterly separated from the field setting because the company didn't want to get scooped. I can imagine a number of resource-extraction settings where you're simply given samples for identification.
But is there a career path I'm missing? Something else that requires absolutely no experience with or understanding of field conditions? I'm sure that poster isn't the only newly-minted geologist who doesn't want to go outside.
Monday, December 8, 2008
And he was right, annoying as he was at the time. I had a tendency to get frazzled when I was trying to pull things together for fieldwork, which was usually a couple hours away and involved corraling various people, specialized equipment, several coolers of supplies and piles of paperwork. I often forgot something if I made an equipment requisition list or if I left the office in a rush.
Now, every time I go out, I take a deep breath and go through a mental list of everything I need before getting in the truck. If I have someone else with me (although I usually didn't when I was doing my thesis fieldwork), I'll go through it out loud so that they might catch something I forgot. And that moment of calm is usually enough for me to remember whatever I've forgotten. Failing that, well, I always brought my toolkit to jerry rig whatever I didn't have.
Friday, December 5, 2008
In the comments, someone posts a typically clueless male reaction: These pants are close to $120, so they're wicked expensive. Well, here's the thing. I could go out to Sears or JC Penny or Old Navy and find a pair of jeans for less than 50 bucks. All the jeans in my size are designed to be "sexy tight" and if you get them looser, they're so big as to fall off/look utterly ridiculous. Why do I refuse to wear tight jeans? Um, it's unprofessional? I have a hard enough time getting taken seriously by drillers as it is.
I would love to wear Carhartts, which are the field geologist's uniform, but the only stuff you can find in stores is the men's sizes, which are just too big. If I had wider hips, I could wear them and just cut off the bottom 8 inches, but Carhartts are generously cut and the smallest men's size is way too big. I've just found that they do have women's stuff online, which I'll keep in mind.
So, what did I do before I learned about the Carhartts and Red Ants Pants stuff online? For jeans, I found that the Gap men's sizes run pretty small, so I just picked the cheapest wash they had (hey, they're field pants - I don't care). I do have a pair of carhartts, but they're humungous. They go well over wool long underwear, though.
But that leaves the problem of what to do in the summer, when heavy pants are unbearable and you can't wear shorts because of ticks/poison ivy/company dress requirements. I'm always on the hunt for nice, light, non-constricting pants that would actually fit me. The only ones I've found have been at REI or EMS or some other outdoor activity type store. The problem is, they assume I've got big hips/ass relative to my waist and that I want "mature" styling. So they either cinch in my waist so I can't breathe, or they balloon out oddly under the waistline. They also usually have an unbearably high waistline. The price is $80+ as well.
It's so frustrating. I'm not looking for a "wardrobe". I need, say, two pairs of heavy pants and two pairs of light pants. I appreciate that I have online options now, but it sure would be nice to walk into some random local store and walk out again with everything I need, just like the guys have.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Some managers were not so good at organizing stuff. If I asked about field prep and a manager said "it's all taken care of", I knew that with some people, everything was fine. With other people, I'd have to go over everything myself to make sure. A couple things I always wanted to make sure we had:
1. Documentation (work, safety plans)
2. Site access; do we need to coordinate with someone?
3. We have a live "ok to drill" number, right? What is that number?
4. Water (critical for drilling)
5. Bathroom privileges somewhere vs. porta-potty
6. Vehicle/equipment arrangements
7. Drilling/sampling/whatever locations and a plan for what we're actually doing
This is all well and good, but I've run into managers/management teams that are incapable of making a decision. I can pretty much handle 1-6 on my own, but usually somebody needs to sign off on/agree to number 7 so that we're not just floundering around out there. We're doing this work for a reason, right? So what's the reason, and how can we make sure that we're doing what we need to do?
I was working on one project that was managed by folks several hundred miles away. We got embroiled in long, painful discussions about what, exactly, we were supposed to do because every time someone on my end would ask a simple "what locations where" question, they couldn't answer and would put that off for the next conference call. By the last call, when we were to go into the field the next week, it had devolved into awkward silence and paper-shuffley noises on their end and eye rolling/kill me now pantomime on our end.
But we did end up with a work plan. It got sent over via 1-day delivery and arrived late Friday afternoon for fieldwork starting on Monday. I read through it, made some quick notes, made sure we had all the stuff we needed, and went home late on Friday.
Monday afternoon, I got a call.
clueless manager: Did you get the revised work plan?
me: Uh, revised work plan?
clueless manager: I e-mailed it to you this morning...
me: I'm staying in a motel in the middle of nowhere with no internet and no way to print stuff. Now I'm working outside, not near any sort of internet facilities. We've been drilling and collecting samples for the last couple hours based on what you said was the official work plan. If you have a list of the changes, I'll write them down and make a note in the work plan for the future, but we're continuing with the orginal plan for the first couple locations -
me: Ok, then, original work plan it is.
Needless to say, that project didn't end well.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
In my environmental consulting career, I've proven to be reliable, able to think my way through tricky situations, and capable of working independently. So I advanced into field management situations, and then project management situations. And I like being capable and learning new stuff. But in reality, I completely stress out when I'm outside my comfort zone. I think I hide it pretty well, and I'm publicly up for whatever is thrown at me, but sometimes I wonder if it's worth it.
I know someone who's a terrific scientist, well-respected in a couple of fields, and who got himself a drill rig and now he's a driller. And I think, wouldn't that be nice? To simply go from job to job, be outside, and not have all this responsibility?
I'm not talking about conventional rigs. I am really too small to hoist the casing that conventional drillers can pick up practically one-handed. I am also not especially mechanically inclined. But direct push technology (DPT) rigs can be handled by anybody, and the only female driller I know does run a DPT rig.
Ok, so maybe I'd get bored, or exhausted, or start to talk back to clients who don't have a clue what they're doing, tell me to do the wrong thing, and are out there with me all day so I can't escape them (yes, I do recognize some of myself in this, especially when I was first working). But the real reason I haven't run off to join a drilling company is that I like doing science - figuring out what's actually happening underground. God help me, I even like writing reports. So I'll stay in consulting, but I'll always sort of envy the drillers.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I spent over a year on a particular project several hours from the office. I wasn't in charge of the field effort, but most of the work needed from 1 - 4 geologists and I ended up staying on while other folks came and went as needed. Because I was there almost the entire time (I did get pulled off the job for a week or two at a time when some other project had dire need of a geologist) I became the field leader's primary gofer when I wasn't actively watching a drill rig. The two of us spent 60 hours a week for essentially a year and a half at this field site.
At one point, things quieted down while we were ramping up for a new phase of work and the folks in the office were putting out a big report. We had a single drill rig that I was watching, and the field leader was running around trying to prep for an onslaught of people and fieldwork. We got a phone call that went something like this:
office buddy: "So, what did you guys get?"
field leader: "...?"
office buddy: "The project manager just threw this huge party to thank everybody who worked so hard on this project. We all gorged ourselves and basically took the afternoon off."
field leader: "What about us? You know, the people out here busting our asses in this miserable rain?"
office buddy: "I think I'm the only one who remembered you guys are out there."
We did shame the project manager into sending us a care package, so that was something.
Monday, December 1, 2008
Anyway, I was moving more stuff out of storage this weekend, and it reminded me of something that I think varies widely for environmental folks. In the interest of family harmony, I moved out as soon as I had a job, as I've mentioned before. But I know people who lived at home for years after they got a job in environmental consulting. Why? Well, first of all, it isn't exactly a high-paying job. But in addition (especially if you're working for an abusive company), you're not home except for weekends. And you're exhausted on the weekends, so you just sleep and get ready for the next week. Is it really worth paying for an apartment that you're not spending any time in?
This raises another, more general issue. When you move out, do you have some sort of option to move back in? In my case, once I was out, I was out. My mother told me that when I moved to my first apartment after college, she cried for about 10 minutes and then immediately started plotting ways to use the extra room. Bottom line: when I visit my parents, I am a guest. I sleep on a spare bed and I live out of a suitcase. When I moved out of a big apartment (think lots of furniture) and went ridiculously far away to grad school, I couldn't leave anything with my parents. I'm still paying the damn storage fees, which means that by this point it would have been cheaper to chuck everything and then re-purchase it (I'm a big salvation army shopper).
My SO, who came from a more privileged upbringing, is horrified by this. The "kids" rooms are theirs and I guess will always be. So if they move to a smaller apartment, they can stash the overflow in their old rooms. And if someone loses a job (a distinct possibility in this economy), it's easy to come home and retrench.
I never imagined that I would turn into a nomad. When I was younger, I thought I would come back from college, settle down close to my parents, get hitched, and never move again. But circumstances change, and now I've lived in three totally different regions in as many years, and my stuff is spread all over the place. My parents' house hasn't been my house for a long time, and nothing really feels like home right now. Maybe when I finally get rid of that storage space, one way or another...
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
1. I had an annoying case of poison ivy a few years back that was centered right at the waistband of my field pants. It drove me nuts, but eventually went away. About a week after it did so, I had one of those hellacious weeks of fieldwork where you start with no budget (due to earlier cost overruns that are out of your hands) and you have difficult neighbors/client reps and everything that can go wrong does (this was the week that I first needed a drain snake). So you look like an idiot while you've got these other people breathing down your neck. All week.
Two days into this hellacious field week, my poison ivy reappeared in the same places it was a couple weeks before. Yep, I had stress-induced poison ivy. And it lasted the same amount of time as a regular full-course attack - another couple of weeks.
2. A dear friend of mine is pretty sick right now. He had cancer a while back and it appears to be in remission, but it was pretty serious and had a fair number of side effects he's learning to live with. He got surgery, radiation, chemo. Right before he started chemo, he tangled with some poison ivy and he had a pretty impressive case of it. When he started treatment, the poison ivy cleared in a flash, prompting jokes about using chemo to end poison ivy symptoms.
When the chemo ended, the rashes came right back to where they were before. He went through the whole course of poison ivy if nothing had happened.
Yeah, poison ivy's way more persistent and more of a pain in the ass than I'd imagined before starting fieldwork.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
This inflexibility burns me. Now, sometimes intro courses teach basic stuff, like lab safety or what the department expects from an essay. In that case, you gotta learn the basic stuff. But if you're in a department that has any claims to being interdisciplinary, you're going to get students with different backgrounds. Who cares what the name of whatever previous course you took was, as long as you have enough background that you're not floundering from day 1.
In the course I mentioned in the last post, I was missing, say, 1/5 of the expected course work. I had not taken a single one of the three (undergraduate) courses listed as prerequisites. The rest of the background I got variously from my undergrad education and from what I'd picked up at work. Did I create more work for the TAs? Maybe a little, but I wasn't asking them to teach me another course; I'd just go and ask a couple questions to clarify some background that I wasn't sure about.
I agree that you can't go and expect a lot of hand-holding if you skip a prerequisite. If you don't know a lot of the background, it's perfectly legitimate for a TA or professor to say "you need to go through this book before I'll answer any questions about review material." But if you already know most or all of the stuff in the prerequisite courses, it's a waste of time and money to go and warm a seat in a class just to get a box ticked off for the next one.
Monday, November 24, 2008
This was a good thing, because I was taking a couple courses that I didn't have all the prerequisites for. That's one problem with going to a SLAC for college - a lot of my physical science courses were just general chem, physics, bio, whatever. My grad school was a big research university, so if you were doing, say, contaminant related stuff, you'd do contaminant chem, physics, bio, which diverges from the "general" curriculum early on. So I had some pretty big holes in my education. I was determined and fairly confident, so I thought I could just pick things up as I went along. And I did.
The problem came in when I was expected to figure out a whole bunch of complicated stuff in a short midterm. I hadn't taken a test in years, and certainly not one that I had no hope of finishing in time. I sucked.
Luckily, lots of other people sucked, too. But mostly not as spectacularly as me. The prof curved the exam and, well, I still didn't pass. If this had happened in undergrad, I probably would have a) cried, b) asked everybody except the professor what I should do, and c) developed an ulcer. I'm proud to report that I did none of these things. Well, I did get a little choked up at one point, but we'll ignore that.
What I did was meet with the professor. I said, "I do understand the material. But I didn't have time to go through even half of that test. I was working through stuff that I needed to have essentially memorized. Is there any way I can salvage this course, or should I drop it now?"
And I did salvage the course - I worked my ass off on all of the assignments, spent more time studying for the final than probably all the finals I'd studied for in undergrad, and pulled out an ok grade. It helped that the pace of the 2nd half of the course slowed way down for me - we had flown through all this stuff that was review for everybody else, and so the "new" stuff was a lot easier for me to keep up with.
My cumulative GPA in grad school was essentially the same as for undergrad. But my stress over grades was nonexistent in comparison. Why? Because I had finally internalized that I was in school to learn, not to get specific grades.
Friday, November 21, 2008
A few caveats:
Unless you have spent your life working in an asbestos mine and you have mesothelioma, a reputable scientist will NOT indicate to you that exposure to a particular site did cause your illness. Why?
1. The links between dangerous chemicals and long-term health effects have generally been quantified only in animal studies (except for a handful of obvious baddies, like lead). And we really don't have the foggiest about healthy adult vs. child or infant exposure. We make educated guesses based on body weight.
2. Potentially synergistic effect of various chemicals in the body (PCE/lead? PCE/benzene/arsenic?) are unknown. We're still working on this "does this 1 chemical cause cancer?" above.
3. Often, folks charge that a single obvious target (a factory, a military base, a dump) caused the problems, but exposure is the cumulative effect of living near busy roads, gas stations, dry cleaners, auto body shops, etc.
4. Cancer is wicked complicated. We know anecdotally that people in polluted areas get cancer at a higher rate (and you need to look at it from a very local neighborhood NOT townwide basis, people!). But to prove this in court is nigh impossible because the same exposures may spawn different cancers in different people.
5. There's a whole world of chemicals that don't have any exposure values. A number of petrochemicals, dyes, and industry byproducts haven't even been looked at.
I'm not minimizing potential harm from contaminants. I'm saying we can't quantify it to the degree that people would like and the degree that a lot of people think we can. The % risk that people publish for exposure at certain sites is based on a huge chain of (conservative!) assumptions.
A lot of people go to public meetings wanting validation that x exposure caused y disease. They often get frustrated when they don't get that validation. It is not a government conspiracy, but the caution of scientists who want to make sure they get things right, enforced by a battalion of lawyers.
Finally, you have to remember that the environmental laws in this country have to pass through a gauntlet of commentary, much of it by big bad industry. Remediation is often done to the letter of the law. If you get all fired up and want to tighten up the law, I'd suggest working through advocacy groups. Your local regulatory representative cannot change national laws and exposure limits. Browbeating said representative may be cathartic but doesn't accomplish anything.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Here's the problem: in environmental consulting, you tend to have a variety of field sites. Some may be close to the office, but a lot of times the fieldwork is beyond a daily commuting distance. You may have some flexibility in scheduling so that if you have commitments during the week, you can do local fieldwork or office work. But folks with kids tend to use up that flexibility. It makes sense, right? You never know when you'll have a daycare emergency or if your kid will get sick.
Meanwhile, there are all these other field projects that are too far away to commute to. In practice, the single and childless people do the lion's share of that work. That's fine, but I've run into situations where as a childless person, I end up never getting to work close to home. I've spent periods of over a year at a time going from one field site to another without a break. And if I'm working a 10-4 schedule and I'm flying back and forth (or driving several hours) on my "free" days, what I'm really doing is working a 12-2 schedule, with 10 of those days being 12-13 hours long.
After a while, it gets tough. I may have prescriptions I'm trying to fill, doctor/car/plumbing/whatever appointments I'm trying to schedule, and believe it or not, I may have the odd family issue that needs to be addressed. Just because I don't have kids doesn't mean I'm totally free of commitments. I got pretty pissed when a family member died (not immediate, so it didn't trigger official bereavement policies) and it was like pulling goddamn teeth to get a couple days off, while we had a decent number of people who apparently couldn't fill in because they had kids (not babies, and they had spouses who worked normal hours).
This brings me back to my previous post. If you're childless and have chronic family/health/financial problems and you'd like more flexible working conditions to deal with them, it can be somewhat hard to 'fess up (especially with problems that can have a certain stigma) and request more local/office-y work because that work is already taken. Maybe that's why folks who are having problems in the field are "protected" to such a degree by their coworkers.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
When you have an office job, it’s a lot easier to be flexible. If you have a personal crisis, you can immediately talk to your supervisor, delegate work to subordinates, come in at odd hours, and work out other ways to get stuff done. If you’re in the field, you may be sharing the only vehicle with one other person, and you may be hours away from home.
I can think of a number of situations where a coworker may not be 100%, may not be close to 100%, for a long time because of their personal demons. For example, bankruptcy or other massive financial problems, substance abuse or mental health issues, chronic illness, or a disastrous family life. In these situations, a coworker may be using work as their only escape from their problems. Often, these issues carry a certain stigma and your coworker may not want to mention it, so you find out about it via the grapevine and the observations that you build up over a long time working with them.
The problem with fieldwork is that if you’re careless or distracted, you can get seriously hurt. As I mentioned before, you can’t fool around with drill rigs, excavators, and other heavy machinery. And as a consultant, you may be directly overseen by regulators, your client, and/or consultants for another company who are being paid to try and find fault with what you’re doing. So if you mess up, it may have a clear impact on your job and your health, never mind compromising the data.
Ideally, if you think your coworker has a personal problem that’s affecting their work, you’d want to bring it up with them in confidence and then bring it up with some sort of impartial HR person if you think they’re becoming a danger to themselves. In practice, if you’ve been working with someone in the field for a long period, you develop a certain camaraderie. You may not want to get other people involved who may not view your coworker in a particularly charitable light. If a coworker makes it clear that they don’t want any help handling it (or don't think they have a problem), the tendency is to not push things; to compensate for them when they have lapses, even if you’re ordinarily an (obnoxiously?) assertive person.
So how much would you cover for a coworker? In my experience, more than I'm really comfortable with. Collectively with a group of field folks, it can add up to a hair-raising number of incidents where the coworker was "protected".
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Here's the thing: in a lot of these departments they can't find enough American students to fill the openings. I'm familiar with one engineering department that didn't have a single non-international grad student in the entering class for the next year. They're desperate for Americans because, frankly, those statistics look really bad. And they want to educate Americans. But trying to get an engineer in this discipline in for a masters or PhD is nigh impossible because they can earn tons of money right off the bat, without going to grad school. Same thing for a lot of math and computer science departments.
We don't live in a vacuum. Everybody wants the US to keep its technological superiority. And to do that, you have to compete with a lot of upstart well funded universities. If we aren't raising the numbers of scientists and engineers we need ourselves, we're going to have to take the best and the brightest from the rest of the world.
I do think we have a culture against STEM education - the popular conception is that all STEM folks are hopelessly nerdy white males, and smart, ambitious people people here tend to gravitate toward better paying and more culturally accepted work. We do need to improve the STEM pipeline, but in the meantime we're going to have to supplement with non-Americans to keep our competitive edge.
I think international students are a net positive for grad schools in other ways, but that's another post.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Friday, November 14, 2008
I spent a lot of time on a long-term project that involved traipsing around small water bodies. I had to be in the water a lot of the time, so I didn’t have a whole lot of maneuverability to back away from spiders I ran into. I developed this sort of horrified obsession with the spiders I encountered regularly and developed the Short Geologist’s Field Guide to Large Water-Loving Spiders. They’re in order from least to most scary.
5. Flat spiders: These are bad because when you slam a big lid on them, they don’t get squashed. They’re tan-brown and about an inch wide including legs, so they’re on the small side for this guide. The problem with flat spiders is that when you think they’re squashed, they scurry out at you. Aaah! *short geologist leaps backward* …The Short Geologist does NOT like spider surprises.
4. Amazing underwater spiders: These guys are slightly smaller than the flat spiders. They live in air bubbles underwater in the crevices of your equipment. This would be pretty cool, but what it means in practice is that when you reach into the water and grab something, a spider runs up it at your hand. AAAH! *short geologist drops equipment, tries to leap backward, and falls into the water*
3. Twig spiders: These black spiders with long, spindly legs like to live on twigs and especially like to hang out on any mooring lines or strings stretched across the water. They’re organized with their sets of legs straight out at 180˚ from each other, and they’re super long and skinny (about 2 inches) so that they can surprise you when you’re untying knots.
2. Wolf spiders: Ok, these are pretty terrestrial, but I kept running into them on bridges. Lessee, they’re big, hairy, and super fast. These are the only spiders whose actual name I know, incidentally.
1. Bridge/culvert spiders: These are the worst. They’re big (up to 2 inches) and they have similar bodies to black widows. Huge, black, bulbous body, spindly little legs…They hang up under culverts and bridges by the hundreds, filling the airspace with webs. Words cannot describe how much these horrify me. If I had to venture inside a culvert filled with these bastards, I’d need to use a flamethrower first.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Vernal pools are a big pain in the ass when you have to work around them. I can't tell you how many times somebody has planned a bunch of fieldwork based on site visits in the late fall and winter, and then you get outside in the spring and the whole area has turned into a sodden mess. However, vernal pools are incredibly important for a number of critically endangered amphibians.
Spring in the hollows
but births happy frogs.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
1. Hand augering
2. Lugging around 60+ pound sample coolers
3. Yanking generator pull cords (my arms are too short)
4. Lugging various awkward pieces of equipment (tanks, pumps, etc) long distances over bad terrain
5. Sampling or developing wells with a check valve (yanking water-filled tubing up and down) for a couple of hours
6. Opening flush-mounted wells that have been rusted shut
7. Cutting locks (often on wells, but sometimes elsewhere)
8. Unscrewing things that have been previously cranked on by Superman. And have rusted.
If you're doing fieldwork regularly, you tend to build up strength. I found that I got a lot stronger once I started hauling coolers around, as I've discussed. Also, I've discovered that I can do a lot more than I thought I was capable by simply gritting my teeth and throwing myself into it. Note that I don't recommend this method for lifting, but it works for almost everything else. But the #1 thing I use when I run into problems with stubborn wells/locks/gas regulators is leverage. Followed closely by a sledgehammer.
Drillers use "cheater bars" all the time - they grab a chunk of drill rod, slide it over the wrench they're using to break the rods or casing, and yank on the end. In a pinch, spare PVC piping, like the leftovers from well construction, will do. Similarly, I always try to have an extender for my socket wrench so that when I'm faced with a cross-threaded bolt on a flush-mounted monitoring well, I can really put my knee into it.
I'm not a masochist. If I spend more than a couple minutes flailing away at something, I'll get help if I can. But 95% of the problems that test my strength in the field can be overcome with persistence and a little engineering.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
My e-mail organization system was as follows:
1. Delete e-mail that has no long-term relevance or is included in a long chain of replies later on.
2. Do nothing more complicated than shuffle saved e-mail into general folders.
3. When work is slow or you're stuck on an intractable problem or you want to procrastinate, print out the accumulated e-mail, including the ones that say only "I am enclosing x". That's your record that you actually did send x to someone.
4. Delete the files you printed. I tended to save attachments into a separate, public folder so that coworkers could find them if necessary.
5. Pick a binder. A lot of companies use binders with inserts for their reports. If this is the case at your company, scrounge around for some garishly colored insert paper (every office has a stash somewhere) and write "x's e-mails" on the spine insert. Otherwise, pick a binder that's off-color from the usual ones your company uses. Again, you can usually scrounge something.
6. Organize the e-mails in the binder however you want. I tended to use sticky notes as tabs because they were available.
The advantage to having all your e-mails organized is that if you are organized, the chances are good that you will be far more organized than the other people you work with. You and your binder will become a resource. Once people realize that you have this binder, it will get borrowed and disappear all over the office. The horrid or strange binder color is to help you find it again.
So then you go back into the field. When the drill rig is banging away and the reception is all fuzzy, you'll get a frantic call saying "The response to comments is supposed to go out in two hours and we can't find the address of that researcher the EPA wanted us to contact to settle this issue", then you can yell over the din, "Look in my binder. It's probably in section a or b. The binder's retina-searing pink, and if it's not in my office, poke around the offices of x, y, and z."
And you will have saved the day without having the slightest clue what the answer actually was.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Asphyxiation: If you’re emptying nitrogen or carbon dioxide tanks for transport back to the rental place, vent them outside. If you’re running a drill rig inside a building, open the place up and set up fans.
Drain bamage: If you’re collecting water samples in a manufacturing facility and you hear a commotion nearby and your little air quality meter starts spooling up, take a break. Outside. If you’re sitting inside a vehicle because the weather’s bad and you’re labeling stuff with a big sharpie and you start giggling uncontrollably, go outside.
Personal protective equipment: If you’re in a space with low oxygen, the fresh cartridges in your gas mask aren’t going to be a big help.
Common sense? The problem is that once you’re in a low oxygen environment or you’re breathing funny fumes, you may not have common sense. So you’ve got to think about what you’re doing before you start.
Friday, November 7, 2008
So I don’t spend much time at my parents’ house in order to preserve peace in the family. But I was back earlier in the fall to collect the stuff I had in storage and get my teeth cleaned and do a bunch of other errands. It was a gorgeous fall day – cool, dry weather, and the leaves were just starting to turn.
When I was driving over, I noticed that some of the houses were festooned with toilet paper. Now I don’t know how widespread the practice is, but where I went to high school, this wasn’t vandalism. Sports teams would TP teammates’ houses for various reasons; for example, if you win a big game. The team I was on in high school would TP the houses of the freshmen near the beginning of the fall season and later on the freshmen would help TP the houses of the captains and maybe the graduating seniors. So for me, driving around my old hometown in the fall is a wonderfully evocative time.
So, I came back late at night and was planning on running all my errands the next day. I got woken up the next morning by the smell of cinnamon buns. My dad was cooking them with most of them put in the dish upside-down (hey, they all end up in the same place in the end). He rescued them from the oven after they started to brown (he never did figure out the kitchen timer) and we shared a big plate of cinnamon buns, just the two of us.
I would like to think that as I get older and more experienced, I am more able to appreciate “moments of grace”, rather than getting totally cynical. Every once in a while when I’m in the field, I make a conscious effort to step back and appreciate that I love being outside, doing something that I’m good at, even though I could find a million things that irritate me.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I'm at the point at which any poison ivy I get becomes systemic. Now, medical experts will say "you can't spread poison ivy, blah blah" but the rash you get is a reaction. You can't give it to someone else unless you still have the urushiol (the oil from the plant) still on you, but I am telling you now as a friggin' personal expert that the allergic reaction does in fact spread if you are sensitive enough.
Take my most recent reaction, which was bad enough that it may have been poison oak and not poison ivy. It started on my face, with what I thought was a mosquito bite and sort of absentmindedly scratched all day. The next day I felt the itchy spot and I had 4 or 5 distinct itchy bumps and I knew it was poison whatever. I was worried about my pillow, so I threw all my bedsheets and pillowcases in the wash. I also took a very thorough shower with lukewarm water (hot water opens the pores). A couple days later, it popped up on my left hand and this rash got worse fast. This looked like another contact spot, so I tossed the gloves I'd been using and attacked all known surfaces with alcohol wipes. And I re-washed all my stuff. Twice. A day or so later, my left hand looked like this:
And then it spread between all my other fingers. Also, notice the little spots on the top of my little finger. Trust me. I wasn't touching a damn thing with my left hand. Now, usually I'm pretty anti-medicine. But when it went between all my fingers and the little blisters turned into massive blisters and my fingers were physically stuck spread apart, I broke down and got a prescription for topical steriods (basically a stronger hydrocortisone cream) which is the only stuff that helps me.
And then it went systemic. Little spots popped out right above my eyelid (scary!) and on my wrists. I got a big patch on my right hip, which I don't normally touch with my left hand, but which happens to be right where I had bad case of poison ivy a couple years ago. It appeared on my belly, my thighs, my back, my ankles. Nothing as bad as my hand, but they all still itched. I was chasing new itchy spots with hydrocortizone cream for about a week.
A word of advice: if you get a horrible, nasty case of poison whatever and you get really, really big blisters, for the love of God, don't poke/lance/pop them. They're huge for a reason. I made the mistake of lancing one when I got a really bad case of poison oak and it wept/ran down my arm all day long. It never deflated and the only reason it stopped running was because the little hole plugged with dried pus. *shudder* And if you can bind it up with gauze, you're a stronger person than I, because that skin is exquisitely sensitive.
So know your local poisonous plants! Wear pants and long sleeved shirts if at all possible! And if you get a rash, don't wait until it's excruciating to go to the doctor.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
You may find yourself in the bluest of blue states, or the reddest of red states. You may think that your entire office has similar political leanings to yourself, but you may be wrong. Not everyone who voted differently from you is a knuckle dragging throwback or a spineless pantywaist, and it is not terribly politic to assume and say so in an office environment.
I can think of any number of cultures and creeds that are considered "not like us" in various parts of the country. Rural folks, city folks, Muslims, Evangelicals, Mormons, immigrants... Regardless of your personal distaste for a group of people, I would also suggest that you keep disparaging jokes/comments to yourself even though the overwhelming office culture seems to consist of people "like us". Immigrants, people from other US cultures, and members of religious groups aren't immediately obvious, even to coworkers. They may be your boss, your client, your office buddy.
I get tired of this ignorant BS, tired of arguing with it, tired of fighting against it. I many not make a fuss every single time I'm offended. But if I'm in a position to promote/mentor/generally help out someone, it's going to be someone who doesn't piss me off with his/her rampant stereotyping.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Some international students in the physical sciences and engineering have only a theoretical background. Their grades are terrific, but when they go into the field or sit at a bench, they have no idea how to apply what they've learned. And then they go into industry and start at a somewhat higher level, with more responsibility, but less of an idea of how to make sure that the scientific stuff is done correctly in the field. A good field or methods course can help with this, of course, but there's no substitute for fixing problems on your own, with real-world complications.
I came to grad school with a decent gap after finishing undergrad. I'll admit that I had to work harder than the students who came straight from undergrad, because I had to retrieve or re-learn some of the material that other folks knew right away. And I know that a lot of people want to finish their education as soon as possible so that they can start making money and start a family.
In my case, I went right to work after I graduated for another reason. I didn't admit it to myself until later, but I just couldn't handle more education at that point. I came from a culture where I was supposed to go to college, so I did. I worked hard and I made honor roll most of the time because I was supposed to do that, too. It was only when I finished college that I really took a look at what I wanted to do. It took working for years for me to realize that I really did want to learn stuff for its own sake and that I was really interested in various contamination-related issues. When I got to grad school, I had a great time learning new stuff that explained some of the problems I ran into when I was in the industry, while some friends who went straight to grad school were starting to burn out.
To get back to the previous post, I don't think that taking time off before grad school has a significant impact on your chance of getting accepted and your success once there. However, if you were not a fantastic student as an undergrad, success in industry can help as long as you show capacity for scientific work. I applied to departments that valued so-called life experience (they wanted resumés and accepted non-academic references) and departments that only wanted to see the academic record (3 references from professors whose courses I took years ago? ugh). In my case, the former liked my application more and I did end up in one of those departments, so it all worked out.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Almost all of the departments I applied to followed method A. One or two may have been A/B: they seemed to accept students based purely on the strength of their general application, but professors had some amount of influence to take certain students who would fit in with their research.
So, do I consider myself to be a privileged student? No. I was completely clueless and had minimal help. And method A worked for me.
Let me walk you through my application process. Remember, I had been out of school for some time before applying to grad school. I was working full time and I didn't have the foggiest idea where I should be looking. But I had certain geographical restraints. I tried looking in one of those books that describe/rank all the grad schools in the US and quickly realized that for my particular interests, that was useless. So I pulled together a list of every single university in this geographical area, and I started surfing webpages.
I looked at all departments (as discussed here) related to contamination. I only considered departments that offered a terminal masters, not just a PhD, cutting the number significantly. And then I started firing off e-mails to professors whose research seemed interesting.
The emails went along the lines of: "Dear professor X: I am an environmental consultant interested in applying to grad school for a masters degree. I saw that one of your research interests is Y. I have done (some work vaguely related to Y) and find it interesting because Z. Are you currently working on area Y and are you looking for graduate students? Sincerely, Short Geologist."
This got a variety of responses, and if everything seemed to fit, further correspondence. Once I'd established that I did want to apply, I asked the professor how I should submit my application or who I should talk to about that aspect. I did go and visit most of the schools that fit what I was looking for. I'm not sure how common this is, but I had no idea what I was doing and that's what I did for undergrad. I also contacted my undergrad advisor to ask him what he thought of the various schools, but he didn't have a strong opinion either way on most of my options. So that was it.
My situation was slightly different from that of a stereotypical student because I wasn't coming right from undergrad. If you're working in contamination-related stuff, you find that a lot of the students may have worked in the environmental field in some capacity before going to grad school. Who has more of an advantage? Well, this is turning into an e-novel, so I'll save that for later...
Thursday, October 30, 2008
My "smelly stuff" allergy has gotten worse as I've gotten older. And I get more than just a runny nose, as I discovered when an officemate came into the office on a saturday all decked out and doused in perfume (although to be fair, she had a cold, so she may not have realized exactly how much she was wearing). I can deal with a constantly runny nose. After about 10 minutes, what I could not deal with was a massive, pounding headache and a general feeling that my entire respiratory system was clogging. I didn't feel better until the next day, and my nose ran for a couple days after that.
I am not a hypochondriac or a medical weirdo. I know I am not the only person sensitive to strong perfumes. Please, please, please: When you attend a meeting or a conference where you can reasonably expect to sit close to people you haven't met, for the love of God, don't add any extra scents. Except deodorant, of course. There's nothing like spending an entire day (or several days) stuck in a miasma that makes you feel like you're contracting an exotic disease.
Incidentally, if you're a lover of fine perfumes, and somebody suggests that maybe you're coming on a little too strong, smell-wise, you are. Nobody is going to go up and mention it to you unless it's a real problem. And if someone tells you "other people have noticed this" it means that a significant number of people at the office/conference/meeting were overpowered by your smell and that you need to tone it down, stat.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I didn't expect to have to ramp it down to 45 on my long-ass drive. Going that speed with both hands clenched on the wheel and doing some fairly active braking/accelerating to keep control for hours is not my idea of fun, especially when I had determined my travel timing based on setting the cruise control at some level above the speed limit.
Even when I'm going to be working all day in the field, my natural tendency is to assume that the weather is going to be what it was yesterday. By this point, you'd think I would know to check the friggin' weather forecast before I go.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
This sort of thing doesn’t come up very often, luckily, and I’ve never seen a high-pressure line break loose or a drill rod assembly fall and hit a power line or anything like that. But a good friend of mine did have a genuine “asses and elbows” moment. They were digging some test-pits in a scrubby area, so he was getting his stuff ready. He heard a commotion and saw the operator leap out of the excavator and hit the ground running, so he turned tail and ran himself. The excavator shovel had ripped open a hornets’ nest.
Monday, October 27, 2008
What does it show? Either I'm especially fond of analogies, or I'm speaking like a valley girl. "Like" is way too big. But that's the blog in a nutshell!
Friday, October 24, 2008
I'm not really interested in blogging about the state of the industry and the various players, although my various connections from my work do keep me updated. First, that's not a personal interest of mine, and second, going there brings me too close to "industry gossip" and I have no interest in commenting on specific companies or groups.
I will say, however, that the environmental consulting industry is pretty incestuous. I've heard it said that "you'll get your first real raise when you quit" and there is something to that. There's a fair amount of movement when companies gain and lose contracts, and then field folks are forever overseeing or being overseen by contractors from litigating firms, regulators, etc. So you often see the same people over and over again working for different companies.
This means that you need to be careful if you want to blog about the industry and not run into trouble. My goal isn't to write exposés, but rather to share some experiences that are common to many of us. So when I write blog posts, I change details, and I will not be writing about some of the more amusing/embarassing things that have happened that are odd enough to identify me.
I would imagine that someone who had worked closely with me and knows me well would recognize me from my "voice" on this blog and the pattern of incidents I discuss. If you think you know who I am in meatspace, feel free to drop me a line. But there are a lot of short female geologists who have struggled to project authority, especially when first starting out, and have later gone on to grad school. I know several myself.
I'm not interested in being much of an "authority" on consulting, geology, or anything else on this blog. I'm incisive and brilliant enough elsewhere. Here, I just want to tell stories.
ps. if anybody can tell me how to add accents here, I'll fix my spelling. "Exposes" is sort of hurting my inner perfectionist.
pps Thanks! You learn something new every day...
Thursday, October 23, 2008
So I spent a lot of time going out to dinner with one male coworker. Restaurants see this and they think "date", unless the coworker is 10-15 year older. In that case I always felt sort of awkward because I felt like other people were thinking "he's way too old for her" (remember, I look 10 years younger than I am). This leads to sort of funny situations where we're given some romantic booth in the back corner.
I've had dinner with lots of folks over the years, and only once has the meal ever been awkward because my male tablemate tried to pursue some sort of romance. In that case, I think the person I was eating with would have made a pass at any female who made the mistake of straying into his orbit. He was the only person who I actively hid my hotel room from as well, incidentally, because he completely creeped me out. It did make me appreciate the scores of normal, professional dinners I had with all the other guys I've traveled with.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I tend to fret a lot before a big job. This may look like a whole lot of needless energy, and maybe it is, a little. But what I'm doing when I'm worrying is going over all the contingencies and trying to make sure I have everything covered. I'm naturally absent-minded, so what I try to do is always write things down. I have a tendency of think of all the things I need to do just as I'm starting to drift off to sleep at night, so I pull out the old pen and paper and write it down, and then I know I've got it covered and I don't have to worry about that particular item. Of course, in the morning I end up with this weird unintelligible chicken scratch because I was writing in the dark and I was half asleep.
When I was in consulting, billability was paramount. I was paid overtime (which, as I mentioned previously, is not necessarily true for all consultants) and I rarely had a problem being billable. But if I spent a significant amount of time out of work planning stuff (not just worrying over a few details, but actually figuring things out), I did bill that time. I'm not talking about a lot of time; just a half hour or so the weekend or the night before the big field project. Same thing with dinner in the field if we actually had a productive pre-food arrival conversation and weren't just bitching about whatever.
What different people consider to be billable varies. It may sound as if I bill the client for every stray thought, but my productivity was generally a lot higher than certain folks who put in more "face time", even though they were standing around the proverbial water cooler for a big chunk of the day. Everybody works differently, so I think a fair amount of lattitude is required as long as the work gets done within reasonable time and financial constraints. But maybe where I worked was an exception...
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
If you add a cloud of question marks on top of each other in the margin, the reviewee gets a good idea of the intensity of your opinion about the paragraph it’s floating near. What the reviewee doesn’t get is what provoked the intense opinion and what to do about it.
Make sure that you really go over the first couple pages of your manuscript, because if you’ve got dumb typos in the beginning, the reviewer will get a poor impression of the overall manuscript, regardless of the fact that your intro is just “big picture” BS and your actual scientific data is terrific. If a reviewer has a foot stomping, red pen-throwing pet peeve, try not to include it in the first two paragraphs.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Sure, you have a state-specific marking program run by the utilities (who don’t want you breaking through their stuff) that will send someone out. But they may be off in their markings, late in getting to the site (as in a day or two after the site goes “live”), or you may be drilling on private property, in which case utility locations are often just an educated guess.
I have hit two utilities. The first was a probable water line about 2 feet from the marking. The casing bounced off it, we realized something was wrong, and we stopped quickly without breaking through. In that case, we went through super-clean sand and then went “thunk” and the driller realized we were drilling through bedding material. We didn’t break the pipe because we were just pushing the casing with no real weight on it.
The second utility I hit was in an old industrial area. The area I was trying to drill in had every utility you could think of and there were only two narrow spaces available. So we tried to thread the needle. It turned out that those two spaces were occupied by old (unused) steam lines, which we broke through. We had apparently no soil for the first couple feet. In that case we gave up and told the project manager he was just going to have to live without monitoring wells over there.
I have been extremely lucky. Better geologists than I have hit things spectacularly. You go through all sorts of hoops, do a walk through with a property owner (“now I am going to be drilling in this exact spot, ok?”), and then you hit some sort of irrigation/drinking water/waste removal line that they didn’t think of and have a very public (and possibly very stinky) mess. And that’s not taking into account the ones that are dangerous to hit.
So, even if I’m out in the middle of nowhere, I still hold my breath until we’re past the first couple of feet.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Spider solitaire is now at the bottom of the little program shortcut pop-up on my computer. This is the first time in my grad school career that spider solitaire isn't right near the top. It's an indication of how hard I've been working - I haven't been playing silly time-wasting games for two months now!
When I was working, I was always afraid that if I played computer games, that little pop-up would betray me if Ihappened to use the computer while my boss was watching. Or that some pinhead network nanny over at corporate headquarters would get me in trouble (hell, they could control my computer remotely). I do realize that my bosses and any pin-headed computer oversight people probably had bigger fish to fry than some illicit solitaire, though.
The one thing I do like about grad school and will miss when I go back to work is the unfettered freedom to do whatever I want with my time and computer, as long as I finish what needs to be done. The downside of this freedom, however, is having to exercise restraint so I don't spend my working hours playing solitaire and finding funny websites and then doing grad school stuff blearily late into the night.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Until fairly recently, my thesis was hovering around the 60-page mark. This had me really worried, although it didn't faze my advisor. So I ran around doing all these calculations and trying to discern more trends in the data and now my thesis has a little more content.
I have a friend who is a mechanical engineer, and we have fundamentally similar theses in that we did something fairly simple to explain (I can describe my topic in five words - I just counted) and a lot of the science and learning (and most of the time) was in getting the damn thing to work. My friend's thesis involves machining something very non-geometric to the nanometer, and his thesis is essentially a short video of a laser cutting away bits of material until you end up with what looks like a misshapen lump. So maybe I don't have it so bad.
I am glad that my thesis isn't 200 pages of "equation, equation, jargon, jargon, jargon, equation". I would like to think it isn't totally impenetrable and dull. But at the same time, I still sort of wish it looked more "scientific".
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I've noticed that people from a working-class background (whether or not they now have white-collar jobs) will call me Short, while folks from a privileged background (and male supervisors) never call me anything other than Shorty. For comparison, I consider myself to be from a middle to upper middle class background. Drillers always call me Short. There's some interesting sociological interaction going on with nickname selection.
Incidentally, you know how if you use a particular word too much, it starts to look really silly? Yeah.
Anyway, nobody has ever called me Shortencia within about a half hour of interaction, with one exception. I was working in a team with several other scientists, all male, from the deep south. For the entire time we worked together, they would call me nothing except Shortencia. A couple days in, it started to feel really strange, but then I felt sort of silly making a big issue of it at that point. I got the definite sense that they were using my elaborate name as a way to separate themselves from me. They certainly didn't have any problem giving anybody else a nickname.
Before that point, I'd never considered a female scientist to be unusual. Both my parents are scientists, and in college, grad school, and the offices I worked in, there was a roughly equal number of males and females. This was the first time I was made to feel different because I was a female scientist. There was more to this than just how I was addressed (making it clear the use of my given name did not indicate respect), but it was the refusal to use a nickname that really made me feel out of place.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I'm at well-regarded institution whose primary claim to fame is computer/math stuff. The secondary claim to fame is engineering, and then the rest of the sciences are sort of an afterthought to most people. I don't think we claim that we've invented the internet, but our former students and profs did invent a whole crapload of influential programs and software.
Do you think that if we're such a friggin' awesome computer school, we could have a working network around here? Hmm? I was trying to download a moderately large file from e-mail, and the download rate was something like 400 bytes/second. Helloo!? Some of us are trying to do research, and it doesn't help when we can't actually look at all those articles that are supposedly available on the science servers.
It got so bad, I went to our school's computing help desk. After I finally got the guy to focus on my network problem instead of how much I (over)paid for my laptop, he told me that "some buildings have weak networks." That's it? How about a solution?
Part of the problem is that my office is a (poorly) retrofitted lab and when they added network cables, all they did was plug them into a wireless hub of some sort, so even though I plug into the wall, I get the same reception as my usual wireless reception. Which is to say, flaky. And then if my computer goes to sleep, I can't regain my network connections. I'd go to the computer labs, but those computers appear to date from the 90s and they can't handle big files.
I realize that keeping all the buildings wired properly and updated is a big task. But considering the amount of money the school pours into quantum/nano/next big thing computing, the least they could do is cut the rest of us a break.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Part of my work the next few days will involve wearing a suit. I must be moving up in the world! When I was last applying for jobs, I just had a blouse and nice pants. Same thing for my other conference presentations. But now I'm at the stage where I think a nice suit is a requirement.
I had the damndest time trying to find a suit. First, I am built like a (young) teenager. Second, I wanted an actual suit, not a "come hither" club ensemble and not some sort of quasi-casual drapey outfit. Suits that fit me, that I can afford, and that are appropriate for a lower-level management interview are few and far between.
I tried jcrew, but the only suits they have in stores have these ridiculously short jackets. That's the last thing I need. And I'm not going to drop $250 on something from the internet I can't try on first. The other places I could think of that were suit-y and had stuff in my size (Ann Taylor's the only one that comes to mind, but I know there are others when I was trawling through the mall) didn't have actual matching jacket/pants combos that didn't have massive shoulders (*shudder*). I ended up finding something from a local store, but I had to get the pants hemmed 4 inches (?!) and the sleeves hemmed 2 inches. I just tried the jacket and the sleeves are still too long, but at least they don't cover my hands.
I can't be the only small female under the age of 40 who needs a respectable suit. I know lawyers my size and age who get their suits essentially custom-made, but I really wish I could find a decent option that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. Same thing with tops - if I see something that's remotely work appropriate, I snag it because 90% of the time, what looks like a perfectly normal blouse will have all the buttons from midchest up missing. I don't get it...you only need 2 tops if you're going clubbing, but you need at least 6 work tops so that you can at least rotate them a little.
It could be worse - my grandmother's 4 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than I am, and she has so few options, she'll buy whatever will fit without regard to style or cost. One option is the girls' sections, but once you're 90 years old, having "hot stuff" written over your ass looks a little silly. At that age, though, you don't care so much about the right suit.
Friday, October 10, 2008
I have friends who get aura migraines. I tell them, "that sounds like fun" because what I get are nausea migraines. Yep, exquisite sensitivity to light, aching eyeballs, and the need to crawl off and die in a very dark, very quiet room. Oh, and I also feel like I need to throw up the whole time.
My problem in this sort of situation is that I am pretty much unable to throw up. It seems to me that I would feel a lot better if I could just get things over with, but the only times I've ever vomited have been when I got a norwalk-type stomach bug and, um, when I did a scientific study of how it would feel to be really drunk and I didn't take into account the fact that alcohol doesn't impact your system immediately. In both cases, my body was saying "this is something you're not screwing around with. Puke or die."
I am fortunate in that I have never gotten a full-blown migraine while in the field (I have occasionally developed them at the end of the day) but I'm pretty careful to prevent them. My field bag always has a container of pain medication, a big old-lady hat, and sunglasses. Polarized sunglasses are key. I put them on when I step out the door in the morning and they don't come off until I get home that night. The silly-looking hat keeps my head from burning and keeps glare from sneaking over the top of the sunglasses.
I'm a lot more prone to migraines in the office, especially when I'm refering to a paper document (as in editing) while glancing back toward the computer screen. My old office had a library, and a couple times I would sneak in, close the door, turn off the lights, and have a little power nap with my face buried in my arm. Usually 20 minutes would be enough to keep me functional if I had to be there, or worst case, drive home.
You know what else triggers migraines? Long seminars or presentations with spindly black text (like times new roman) on an all-white background in a dark room. That glare kills me. I'm preparing a presentation right now, and it has a neutral backround (not too dark) and sort of off-white tables and graphs. It's sort of my "signature" color scheme, but I'm a little worried that non stark white tables and graphs look "unprofessional" for the venue it will be seen in. I'm sending it off today and I'll see what my advisor thinks. Anybody else have a favorite background/typeface combination?