Tuesday, August 26, 2008

drain snakes and slug tests

In a previous post, toolkit, I mentioned a couple essential items that I try to always have with me:

Drain snake

You might notice a connection…

Yep, they’re all things that you use to retrieve stuff you’ve lost down a well or borehole. In all honesty, I’ve never gotten a magnet to retrieve anything.

The drain snake, though has gotten me out of a couple iffy situations. You see, sometimes we do slug tests - we drop a solid mass, called a slug, into the well, and see how fast the water returns to its original level after it’s been disturbed. Usually, you have a transducer sitting at the bottom of the well to measure the water level changes.

That’s where the problems happen. The transducer is a rather expensive little piece of equipment that is usually retrievable by a power/data cord and string…or just the string. The problem is you’re dropping a solid mass as quickly as possible into a well already occupied by this other stuff. Ideally, you’d drop it in a controllable manner, and have enough water in the well not to let it get too close to the transducer. Sometimes you don’t.

So, the slug I’ve used has generally been a solid piece of PVC with a hole drilled in it. You don’t have things you can try and snag with a hook, so if the slug gets tangled up in the transducer line or wedged in there, you don’t want to tug too hard because the last thing you want to do is break the string holding the slug. And it goes without saying that you don’t want to start yanking on the transducer cable.

This is where the drain snake comes in handy. It’s stiff enough to be forced to the bottom of the well, and flexible enough to get by obstructions. All you do is rig the end so that it has a good “lip” to catch the bottom of the slug, and it’s sturdy enough that you can yank the slug loose. It can also be modified to remove dead critters, used to probe for possible damage to the well, costs less than $15, and even your smallest local hardware store will carry it.

Slugs don't even need transducer cable to get stuck. The first time I bought a drain snake, it was a day I'd planned to just take manual water level readings because we had a tight budget. I had someone standing by, reading to start collecting readings as fast as possible, and I hurled the slug into the well and it got wedged inside about 5 feet down, short of the water and easily visible, but out of reach. The well had gotten bent, and PVC well + PVC slug + me throwing it down too fast = severely stuck slug. I was convinced we'd permanently blocked the well. We went to the tiny hardware store about 20 minutes away (there's never a home depot when you really need one) and raided it for anything that looked remotely useful, came back, and popped the slug out in one try.

So if you've got a toolkit that you're dragging into a remote area and you need to pare down the stuff you're bringing, leave the big magnet and take the drain snake.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

SLAC leprosy

Warning: this post is not directly related to geology or remediation. It's just something that's been rattling around in my head for a while.

I was pretty shy and unsure of my abilities when I was younger. As a high school student, a SLAC seemed like the ideal nurturing environment for me, whereas a big research university was just intimidating. I had seen some indications that the students in the school I chose had a tendency to form cliques, but I wasn’t that worried. I’d always found friends despite my shyness because there was always another wallflower who I could bond with.

I was assigned to live with 3 other girls. I’d hoped that this would give me chance to meet a larger group of people. What actually happened was that I discovered that I was from another planet.

My roommates were from all different backgrounds – rich, poor, city, country. They had completely different interests and ambitions. But somehow they had all absorbed this White Bread Middle Class culture that I had utterly missed. Everything I did was different or odd, and all their friends (which they made immediately; I’m not sure how I missed out on that) were Just Like Them. As a queen-bee survivor, I’d been exquisitely aware of what was cool and what wasn’t, but this went a lot deeper. Everything from the way I related to males to the way I expressed happiness to the way I shaved my legs was somehow wrong. My attempts to break into various cliques were rebuffed. I did find a boyfriend who loved and believed in me, but it was hard to ignore what felt like everybody else at school.

The problem with being lonely in a SLAC is that it seems like you are the only one who doesn’t have friends. I didn’t want to be Joined at the Hip with my boyfriend, so we didn’t have lunch together. Every day at lunch, I’d pass row after row of tables full of people, and nobody even looked at me. I’d bring homework to lunch, find an empty table way in the back, and pretended that I was simply busy instead of friendless.

It’s hard to admit to your parents that you don’t have any friends. I minimized communication with my family, and when I did talk to them, I made sure to mention every minor social interaction, leaving them with the impression that I was actually hanging out with people other than just my boyfriend. This indirectly resulted in my lowest point in college.

For my 20th birthday sophomore year, because my parents loved me so and wanted me to be happy, they had arranged for the delivery of an extra-large birthday cake, streamers, hats, and noisemakers for all the friends I didn’t have. I sat there in my dingy little single and cried.

Things did improve from there; in fact, they improved later that night, when I found someone to share the cake with us. That person is still a close friend today. But I have powerfully ambivalent feelings about SLACs to this day. I do believe in a liberal-arts education, and I survived a disastrous social life by reminding myself that I was there fundamentally for the education and not to make friends. Unsurprisingly (in hindsight) I was hardly the only one who felt lost. I didn’t get invited to parties, but my school had a contingent of “party favors” who used alcohol and sex to dull the loneliness. And my best friend from high school went to a supposedly wacky and super-friendly SLAC and ended up estranged from the social life as well.

If a somewhat shy or withdrawn high school student were to ask me about the best option for college, I don’t know what I would tell them. You can easily get lost in a big school, but you also have a better chance of finding other folks who share your passions or even are lost themselves.

Friday, August 22, 2008

fieldwork motivation

When I interview people for entry level scientist jobs (i.e. involving fieldwork), it's hard to suss out how good a potential employee will be, unless of course there is some sort of obvious negative. Everybody is on their best behavior in an interview, and most technical stuff can be taught if someone's background is lacking.

I am looking for someone who is a "self-starter", which is unfortunately near-impossible to determine from entry-level interviews. What I mean is someone who can be taught the rudiments of what we need and who I can trust to go out and do that work independently, and who will a) ask if they have any questions and b) see what needs to be done and actually do it without constant nagging.

This isn't critical for officework because if somebody is lazy and playing solitaire all day, it will be discovered quickly based on the billable hours/work actually completed ratio. A manager (or anybody) can also drop by to hand off more work or see how things are going. When I'm in the field, however, there are consequences if work doesn't get done - there are equipment rentals to consider, idling drill rigs with antsy drillers, and we may have a strict client-dictated or regulatory time limit for doing the work. And there is always work to be done. Prep samples! Fill out health and safety paperwork! Catch up on your field logbook!

The independence thing is critical. If I'm managing a field site, I've got a million things of my own to do and I'm generally not working right next to other people - we're often spread out over a fairly large area. I physically cannot hover and make sure shit gets done. If someone seems bored, I have an extensive list of things to do, and if work gets slow, then that person can go help someone else who could use another hand. If you're doing soil sampling with a drill rig, you can always use another hand. But I need to hear that you've finished with whatever so I can give you something else to do.

I once had to supervise someone who was an anti-self starter. During a somewhat slow field day, I had told her to clean out the trailer and then go help someone else when she was done. Well, what she did was a half-assed sweeping job (this is bad because then I think, if you can't even sweep the goddamn floor properly, how can I trust you to watch a drill rig), then moseyed over to the person who could have used help and said, "are you ok with that?", got a sort of affirmative answer ("I guess I'm ok"), and then disappeared to take a nap. She was booted out in short order.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


When you're working in the field, certain tools are indispensable. You have the obvious:

extra large flat-head screwdriver for prying stuff loose
socket set (and wrench!) for well covers
hammer to loosen well covers and then to close them again
socket set extender to avoid destroying your knuckles
utility knife
small flathead screwdriver
small phillips head screwdriver
tape measure
duct and electrical tape
2 adjustable wrenches
fat and skinny sharpies
ballpoint pens (lots)
Spare bolts for well covers

Then you have the random stuff. These are equally indispensible:

teflon tape
5-sided well key
hose clamps and various small heavy objects to weight tubing
tubing connectors of all sizes
a drain snake (that may need some explaining...)
50 feet of mason line, generally attached to a hook and frayed all to hell
ruler with increments of inches and 1/10 of a foot
miscellaneous batteries
safety glasses and work gloves
footvalves (little plasticky doohickeys that cost like $35 each)
spare lengths of silicone tubing
a couple of vials or jars
zip ties
hand lens
strapping tape

And the stuff that doesn't fit in a toolbox per se...

pry bar
bolt cutters
bailer for interesting liquids

What have I missed? Let me know...

You may be thinking that this is a seriously long list of crap to haul around. I tend not to have every single item at once because I'm forever breaking/losing things. I can't tell you how many bolts, zipties, socket attachments, pens, and rolls of tape I've gone through. And yes, you can do almost anything with a pair of pliers, a hammer, and a knife, but it's a hell of a lot easier if you're using the right tools. Some stuff, like the teflon tape and the footvalves, is only used occasionally, but it's the sort of thing that you'll forget when the closest hardware store is 45 minutes away and probably doesn't have what you need anyway.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

hard at work...

I've got A Big Deadline tomorrow, so I can't craft my usual e-novel.

Speaking of which, FSP has her own book-like thing, which you can purchase and which she is apparently actually making money on. Internet 2.0 at work! This leads to a question: do all bloggers have a secret desire to be published?

I don't. The reason I allow myself to post this public stuff is that I can drop it if my mouthing off starts to get me in trouble. I am not currently working or looking for a job, but that does not mean that I am a big fan of burning bridges.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Interdisciplinary studies

I am writing this using the persona of Short Geologist. However, this is not strictly true. I am indeed short. “Geologist”, however, may not be entirely accurate. I graduated from college with a degree in geology and I have worked in a few consulting companies in which part of my title was “geologist” something (staff geologist, peon geologist, geologist monkey). And because of these experiences, I look at the world with the eyes of a geologist. That is to say, I would like to figure out exactly what is happening in the subsurface, but I am comfortable with knowing that the real world never operates quite the way you expect it to. There are just too many variables.

My academic interest is in contamination, which can be looked at from all sorts of angles. When I started applying to grad schools, I did look at geology programs because that’s what I was familiar with. When I started visiting places and talking to people, I was quickly introduced to folks in the chemistry department, the biology department, the environmental engineering department, etc. And those people pointed me to other schools that didn’t have geology departments relevant to my interests, but still had folks working on problems I was interested in. My background in consulting meant that I could jump in and start working because I did have experience with all sorts of different disciplines.

I go to conferences with geologists, engineers, chemists, biologists, and computer scientists. There’s another person associated with my field site who is working on a similar problem, and what I am doing would probably be considered his department’s focus and vice versa. I had a fantastic conversation at a party a couple weeks ago (gotta love STEM schools!) with a computer science/math person whose work with the medical field intersects with some of my work. I’ve taken “methods” courses where it seems like every physical science and a couple different engineering disciplines have a representative.

So, I will always consider myself a geologist, but my master’s degree isn’t necessarily in geology.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I'm waiting...

Some of the things that irritate me are fairly specific to environmental work. Some are universal. For example, one of the things that aggravates me the most is when people wait until the last friggin' second to do something simple and hold up the entire project.

Procrastinating is near-universal. I know. For example, right now I'm typing away in my office instead of fighting with numbers that aren't working out. But when you're a manager, it's your job to keep the ball rolling. If there's some mindless 4-page document that you just have to check over, sign, and send on its way, take the 10 minutes out of your oh so busy day and sign the thing. That document you're not signing has to go out for formatting, then to the client for approval, then work its way over to some regulator within a specified time period.

Yes, I know, it is possible to wait until an hour before the absolute deadline and then run around like crazy, stressing out everybody else in the office, and make special requests in order to get the document out the door in front of everybody else who has stuff that needs to go out later. And I know this project brings in lots of money and you need to keep the client happy. Here's the thing: the admin folks and the CADD folks making your figures have a lot of different projects. They'll indulge you a couple times if you have an "absolute emergency", but then, ehh. They're not going to kill themselves for every little thing you need because you have no time management skills.

As a peon starting out, I saw firsthand what a mess these chronic procrastinators caused. So when I started writing reports and shepherding them through the various bureaucratic hoops, I not only gave a decent lead time, but I also padded the due dates a little so that I would have time to make changes if needed. The problem with this is that I got an unfortunate reputation for being reliable and then I became the person delegated to make sure all those little steps happened. I was the one they called to bring documents over to various departments because documents I handed in didn't get "lost". I'm a scientist, not a secretary or a gofer, damn it!*

This is why I need a combination of field and office work - I get wound up and then I'm dying to go into the field, where I'm not constantly irritated by all this unnecessary crap. I work outside and everything goes to hell in a handbasket and I can't wait to get back to the office. And repeat.

*funny how it is always a woman who ends up in this position, even with female managers...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

full time vs. part time education

Bear with me; I'm going at this one sideways.

At one time, I was "officially" supervised by someone high up the corporate ladder, so I didn't really have much contact with him. At review time, he gathered reports about my work from the project managers who I actually worked for. This worked out fine because he was a terrific manager (and geologist, although at this point in his career, he'd risen too high to actually do technical stuff) and I really respected his advice.

During the review, he'd ask about my medium and long-range career goals. In my first review, I'd only been working there a couple of months and my goal was pretty much to do interesting stuff in consulting, because I didn't really have a clue. Later on, I admitted that I was planning on going to grad school. My supervisor thought I would really limit myself if I didn't get an advanced degree, but he also said, "I have more people trying to come in here with coursework towards x degree. It doesn't mean shit unless you finish a thesis and get those letters after your name."

My company would pay for my tuition (up to some dollar amount) if I kept working full time, if I only took 1 class at a time (i.e. I'd be studying and working forever), if I could work out how to do fieldwork at the same time, etc etc. It is so easy to get derailed when you're working full time, probably doing fieldwork so you're working more than full time, and coming home exhausted only to do homework. And then life happens, and your advisor sort of forgets about you because you're not in his/her face all the time, and before you know it, you spend years and years trying to just finish the damn thing. I couldn't do that.

So I worked my ass off, and took all the overtime I could, and saved my pennies, and then I skedaddled. As a STEM grad student, I had a decided advantage over some other folks because all the schools I applied to would support me with TAs/RAs/scholarships, so that in theory I wouldn't have to dip into savings while in grad school. But for me, 2 years of (relative) poverty is worth it to get the degree and then go back into the workforce a better scientist.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

cold toesies

I have a long list of reasons why it can be annoying to be a short geologist. My feet are in proportion to the rest of me (small) and one of the more concrete problems is appropriate footwear.

As a short, slightly-built person, I am fairly endothermic, and my extremities tend to be about the ambient temperature. When it's below freezing, my hands and feet get dangerously cold quickly. I generally worked in an area that had an actual winter; i.e. the temperature could be expected to remain below freezing for a significant portion of the time. The problem is that for the several years that I worked in consulting, I never found insulated steel-toe boots in anything approaching my size. And yes, they have to have steel toes and steel shanks.

I'm not picky. I only knew of one place within an hour's drive that sold womens' steel-toe boots, and they literally didn't have a single pair of lined and/or insulated boots. And stuffing your boots with chemical handwarmers like "hothands" don't work because they don't have enough oxygen to keep the reaction going. So the options available to me were:

1.Buy the smallest mens size available and wear 4 pairs of socks. This is awkward and it's dangerous to drive with such oversize shoes.
2. Wear mens-sized rubber boots over the steel-toe boots. These can be removed, although not easily, and you have the same problem with driving/walking.
3. Stand in the snow and slush until you get chilblains, then sprint to the nearest vehicle and spend 20 minutes with the heat on full blast until you can feel your feet again.
4. Say "screw it" and wear non-steel toe snowboots that are insulated with the justification that you're in much more danger of damaging your feet with the cold than stepping on a nail or dropping something heavy on your toes.
5. Variation on option 3: borrow the gigantic propane torch that the drillers are using to un-freeze the drill rods and pass it over your toes. Try not to set your pants on fire.

I have used options 2-5 at various times, but you can't beat option 3 for sheer misery. Maybe I should make acceptance of future employment conditional upon providing me with cold-weather appropriate steel-toe boots.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

indoor voices

I'm sorely tempted to add a label for "rants", but I'm afraid I'd be tagging every post.

Back to the issue at hand...

I have been working diligently (or procrastinating) in my office at school for a good part of the summer. The problem is that my office is right next to a lab where several young women work, and due to some quirks of this space, I can hear every friggin' word. They sound like undergrads or very young grad students. Anyway, I am trying to concentrate on work that is necessary but boring, and all I can hear is this high-pitched, echoing chatter, which seems to be pitched to a precise frequency to drive me crazy. The "ping" of their equipment and the periodic door slamming (does nobody know how to close a door quietly?) pales in comparison.

Does this make me a bad feminist? Or merely an irritable one?

Monday, August 11, 2008

serenity and geology

"God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference."

I am somewhat of a worrywort. I stress out about the million things that could go wrong, informed by the experience of things that I have screwed up in the past and how those screw-ups caused problems down the line. The day before fieldwork begins, I worry/complain incessantly about all the details that I need to keep track of.

The one thing I am (relatively) serene about is the geology. I live by the motto "it is what it is," which is not as elegant as the little prayer above, but it's something I repeat when things start to go south. I cannot control the geology. We will not know if we run into boulders, running sands, massive (unfractured) bedrock, or other problems until we start poking holes in the ground. There's a drilling company out there (which I have not worked with) that has a terrific picture on their uniforms of a demon pushing a boulder under the drill bit, and it does sometimes seem as if nature is conspiring against you.

I am generalizing wildly here, but most drillers get really wound up when the geology doesn't behave. After all, it's their drill bits that get jammed, their casing that breaks, and their rig that overheats when they push it too hard.

I try to arrange our contracts so that we pay the drilling company on a footage basis and not per day. The problem is that it makes the first couple feet of drilling more expensive because it takes time to set up the rig and the equipment, especially if you're dragging a mud tub around. So if you keep getting shallow refusal and have to poke around in different areas, you're wasting time that you want to spend actually drilling. This is frustrating for me, but it makes even the most even-tempered driller extremely cranky.

When a driller goes into a full wrench/drill rod/mud tub throwing fit, however, reminding the driller that I cannot control geology is not, um, productive. I find that the best solution is announcing a coffee run. If I dissappear for 10 minutes, the driller can stomp around and rant freely about how impossible this job is. When I get back, we can discuss what the next step should be in a somewhat rational manner while relaxing with cold/hot drinks, as tantrums usually happen in scorching hot or freezing cold weather.

Friday, August 8, 2008

international communication

As a grad student at a STEM school, I work and study alongside students from every corner of the world who have English skills ranging from perfect with an adorable accent (New Zealand!) down to "how did they pass the TOEFL!?".

My school is located a significant distance from where I was previously living. Since I was only staying for a couple of years, I left most of my stuff in storage and moved into (furnished) graduate housing. Grad student housing is generally reserved for non-local students and is probably about 75% international. My first 3 roomates and I were from four continents, so I lived with non-native English speakers as well.

Growing up, verbal communication was fairly low on my list of interests and/or abilities. I tended to mumble, and as a massive geek/bookworm, I had a vocabulary larger than most adults. Even in college, I was accused of using too many big words. Working as a consultant took care of the mumbling in short order. But I have to admit to still using big words. Certain terms have a very specific conotation and I prefer to direct my speaking and writing so that it is exactly what I mean.

Now that I have long conversations with friends with varying English abilities, I've become adept at simplifying my language and using lots of gestures. (gar! more big words!) I've also had lots of practice describing things in a different way if someone stalls out on a particular concept. I tend to emote more when talking to non-native English speakers so that if someone misses the words, they still get what I'm trying to say. I do try to avoid seeming condescending. The folks I talk to are highly intelligent and knowledgeable - we just have to figure out a way to keep our languages from interfering with what we want to say.

frolicking in the sun

Someone commented in a previous post, muscles, that office dwellers are often envious of us outdoorsy types because we get to work outside. My working environment is better than that of an office about 75% of the time. Positives:

1.I prefer to be outside when possible.

2. I have evolved a fairly high tolerance for weather extremes and dress appropriately. I'm not wearing a flimsy skirt under an overcoat that's more fashionable than warm, so it doesn't feel as cold to me as it does to my coworkers who are running from the car to the office.

The negative is that I work in all kinds of weather. When I told my doctor what I do, she thought I had a terrific job because I wouldn't work when it was raining. Ah ha ha! I've suffered through 105 degree weather (with high humidity!), 0-degree weather (with wind chill) and monsoon-like rainstorms. In all the winters I've worked and been a grad student, I've only stopped working because it was too cold once, and that was because we couldn't keep samples from freezing solid within a minute of collection. When I was consulting, I stopped working midday because of incipient blizzard conditions exactly once.

The #1 suggestion I have to alleviate weather issues is to buy one of those portable pavilion thingies at home depot or walmart or whatever, and always take it with you. You should be able to get one for about $100. When I started working, we used to bring tarps along and try to string them to fences or trees. Don't bother. Take the real thing. It provides shade when it's scorching hot and protection against some rain/snow. Trying to take notes sucks when it's raining, and that "waterproof paper" isn't as helpful as it sounds, especially when pens won't work. Also, weather can be unpredictable. Put up the pavilion first thing in the morning, and you won't be running around getting stuff wet when you get a mid-afternoon thunderstorm.

A ten-second search for "pop-up gazebo" gives me a million hits, but this is the one I use.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

why not academia?

My advisor has implied on several occasions that I should stay and get my PhD, but I don't have any interest in continuing my career in academia. I've got a couple major reasons.

The first reason, and the one that I'm more comfortable admitting to, is that I have no interest in playing the networking game. This was brought home to me when I was reading one of FSP's posts a while back about students who don't recognize professors or other big names in the field. Apparently it's construed as an insult. I'm sorry, but if someone comes up to me at a conference and I don't know their name/affiliation, then I'll treat them with my standard professsional respect, but I'm not going to treat people differently based on how famous they are. If someone approaches me at a conference and has an interesting technical/scientific perspective (and knows what they're talking about), I want to hear what they have to say, regardless of who they are. I refuse to live my life sucking up to various people because they may be good for my career. In industry, I gained respect and greater responsibility because I proved that I could do the work (including interacting with clients). No ass-kissing required.

The other reason I'm not interested in academia is that I'm pretty bad at teaching or explaining things. I can explain difficult, technical stuff fairly easily. But I have a really hard time explaining things that are so simple, they should be self-evident. You can probably tell from that previous sentence why I have such a problem... I have been burned when I explained what I needed, and some people who misunderstood part of my directions ended up doing real damage to samples that can't be re-collected. As a TA, I could never figure out a balance between showing a student what they needed to do to get an answer vs. leading them to the answer. Teaching/explaining things, for me, is a tedious job fraught with difficulty. Being a professor would not be a good fit for me or for potential students.

I'll leave academia to other folks who more suited to it - one less competitor for those post-docs and professorships.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


One nice thing about fieldwork is that all the tedious dragging around of heavy equipment tends to keep you in shape. Also, I'm somewhat of a spaz and I spend most of my time in the field in motion. A couple of observations:

I used to swim competitively in high school, but my swimming and other formal exercise activity dropped off afterward. A few years after I started working, I started swimming again. To my joy, I found I was able to kick ass at the butterfly, which I could barely do 2 laps of in high school. Yay shoulder/back muscles!

I'm fairly skinny, but some of my relatives are very delicate-looking. Someone took a picture of several of the ladies wearing bathing suits at a family function. I loomed over my relatives like some sort of giant linebacker, thanks to my (relatively) massive shoulders. I regret to inform you that this picture has been "lost", so you'll have to take my word for it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

abusing your field manager

In my previous post, "crybaby", I discussed how a field manager, Bob, made me cry in front of what felt like the entire field crew. This may lead the reader to consider Bob an unrepentent asshole, or even an ogre (with apologies to any of my ogre readers). And "asshole" would be one of the top couple of words some of my co-workers would use to describe him, not because he made me cry but because of other incidents.

I had a long and complicated relationship with Bob. We worked together on a 2-year, massive field project located several hours away from our office. Although I'm keeping this anonymous and could leave the reader with a totally negative idea of him, I'd like to describe more of what was going on.

1. Ideally, a field manager would have the support of the project manager back in the office, who would be doing the organizational work to keep the fieldwork going, running interference with higher-ups, etc. In this case, the project manager was SuperVolunteer who apparently spent every waking hour doing Something Important. While he technically did put in full days, he worked bizarre hours like 4am to noon and was often not around when issues arose.

2. This project had a client that changed its mind continually and needed the changes implemented NOW NOW NOW! As any consultant knows, change orders = lots of money, because it means a whole bunch of wasted effort and extra work. If the project manager couldn't be reached, the client representative would bug Bob. And you can't hurry or put off the client, so those phone calls (and the resulting follow-up) took a lot of time.

3. I mentioned that this was a large field job. At various times, we had up to 6 drill rigs, ranging in size from the little geoprobes that could drive along sidewalks, up to air-rotary rigs that took up most of a block. On a job that big, the drilling company manager, Bill*, would stop by on a regular basis, and on occasion stay for the day. I liked Bill a lot - he was charming and he really knew his stuff - but he haggled more than a Turkish rug merchant. Going over the dailies was an epic ordeal and could take a couple hours, especially when we had multiple rigs and various people were filling out the dailies incorrectly.

4. The target field area for investigations was massive and mostly residential. We'd dutifully sent out informational flyers explaining the planned fieldwork and anticipated completion dates (ah ha ha!), with a contact list for further information. None of the field crew was on that list, but everybody knew where we were based. If someone had an issue, they were more likely to walk down the street and knock on our door than to call some PR flack. Any public/media inquiries we got were directed to Bob, since he was the highest-ranking person on site. So Bob spent a significant amount of time trying to explain that he couldn't really talk about results (or anything, really), but they should call the PR flack. That rarely went over well.

5. Long term field crew working around public roads = bonanza for the city, which required police details for each crew working on the streets or sidewalks. Bob kept the PD informed as to where we'd be and for how long.

6. Consultants for "the other side" - it's sad how there always seems to be an other side in the environmental field - occasionally skulked around, intimidating field crews and prompting calls for Bob's intervention. Regulators and auditors dropped by sometimes, also prompting calls.

7. With a large number of people rotating in and out, Bob had to make sure that everybody understood the basic technical and paperwork-type requirements. He made it a point to drop in to make sure there weren't any obvious problems (like making a sketchy lake in the middle of a very public and originally clean area when drilling).

8. Any time you have a big group of people together for a long time, you're going to have emergencies: Someone fell into a frozen lake! Someone else has shooting chest pains! The drill rig broke and it's spraying oil all over the street!

9. Big field crews + long days + nasty weather = high drama. By the end of one exceptionally long stint of work with something like 20 people, we had factions, folks who couldn't work together, and a whole heap of breakdowns and fights. (not physical...barely)

10. Although we had technical people in the office planning the next stage of work, Bob still had to keep abreast of what was planned. At certain points, fieldwork was based on the most recent lab data. Combined with an overly hands-on and fickle client (see #2), he often didn't know where the drill rigs were going until the last possible moment.

Bob spent most of his time tearing from one crisis to another, phone glued to one ear, radio squawking on his hip, trailed by any number of people needing something or other, and growing an ulcer.

*remember, all pseudonyms!

Sunday, August 3, 2008


FSP's post about crying students reminded me of a certain incident from fairly early in my career.

As I've said, I do struggle to project an aura of authority. However, not only do I look young, but I am somewhat of a crier. This is interpreted by many people as a sign of being overly sensitive. I am not overly sensitive. I cry in the same way another person may go into a snit or throw a tantrum. I have only cried on a few occasions after being belittled or shouted at, and generally I am able to busy myself with paperwork or go rummage around in the back of the truck while I pull myself together. Afterward, I'm able to discuss whatever the problem is rationally.

However, there is one exception...

I took over as sample manager about halfway through a large field project. Samples were just pouring in, and we were innundated. I did have a new employee who had been helping the previous sample manager, and she got me up to speed on how things were organized.

I'd been doing this work for about a week when the head of the field effort (I'll call him "Bob") stormed into our area. He'd just found out how we'd been organizing the samples and he thought it was stupid and would make later analysis difficult. Well, what we'd been doing had been cleared by other folks, but I could see his point and if I had started the program I may well have done things his way. I tried to reason with him, but he was on a roll. What possibly possessed us to do it this way, he had too much to do without worrying about sample organization, he thought we were somewhat competent but apparently he was wrong, etc etc.

Bob must've yelled at us for a solid 5 minutes. I stopped saying anything after the first couple of protests in the hope that he'd wind down, but no luck. Eventually, the other employee stormed out, muttering "I don't need this shit". Bob then rounded on me, saying that he expected her to screw up because she was a lazyass and she wasn't going to be there much longer if he had any say about it. But he hadn't thought I'd screw it up.

At that point, I just exploded with these horrible, loud sobs that I couldn't get under control. And there was an entire peanut gallery hovering at a discreet distance - most of our field crew. Ugh. The worst thing was, I wasn't really crushed by his tirade as much as enraged, and then mad at myself for not responding in a more socially-appropriate way.

One thing about my ouburst was that it made him feel like a shit, and it made the rest of the crew think he was a world-class asshole. Well, fair enough. The problem was that I was now considered fragile and had to be tiptoed around. One of my (male, older) coworkers had dissappeared during the commotion and brought me cheesecake, which was nice, but I just wanted to be treated like a professional who had just temporarily and justifiably lost her temper.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Stubbornness can be stupid

I had heard that there would be snow in the forecast, but I wanted to get some fieldwork done for my thesis. How bad could it get? My field site is pretty sheltered, so when I was out working and noticed the snow was falling rather heavily, I decided to cut my day a little short.

15 minutes after hitting the road, I drove into this.

Ok, it doesn't look so bad, right? Well, the other car in the picture drove into whiteout conditions, and I followed, white-knuckled. An hour into the trip back, I sort of lost the road, and I came out of "100% whiteout" into merely "hairy" and found that I'd been driving on the wrong side of the road.

I should have pulled over, but I was afraid that a. conditions would worsen and b. there was no safe place to pull over. I've been in analogous situations a couple of times before, and for all cases we were trying to make it home in front of storms that were overtaking us.

What is particularly stupid about the day I took the photo was that I chose to drive to a field site hours away with potentially bad conditions in the forecast by myself. I would like to think I've learned from that experience, but it's easy to say while I'm sweltering through a heat wave and snowstorms seem very far away.

Please, don't be stupid like me. The fieldwork can wait.