Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I grew up eating only cereal for breakfast, usually cheerios. My dad ate wheaties every day of his working life and they were always an option, but I was put off bran-flake type cereal for about 10 years after I discovered an infestation of itty bitty mealworms halfway through a giant bowl of wheaties. To this day, I have a bowl of cereal every single day for breakfast. I never get tired of cereal.

Lunch is different. Growing up, lunch was two cookies, a piece of fruit, and a sandwich comprised of wheat bread (which I hated), one slice of meat, and one slice of cheese. I went through lunch-meat fads (bologna! Ham! Chicken loaf! *shudders*) and after about a year of eating whatever, I never wanted to have it again. By the end of high school, I couldn’t stand sandwiches.

Then I got into fieldwork and sandwiches became my default lunch again. Does anybody who’s worked in the field more than a couple years actually enjoy sandwiches? How about sandwiches that were slapped together 7 hours before, have spent some time marinating in the sun, and have been mangled by various field implements in the field bag? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

I will eat anything other than sandwiches for lunch if possible. Aged leftovers? Check. Ramen noodles? Check. A varied selection of vending machine snacks? Check. I need to be ravenous (i.e. in the field after a long, hard morning) in order to overcome my aversion to sandwiches. And it’s too bad. They’re super cheap, relatively shelf-stable, and don’t require any other gear to eat.

Hmm. I should try some sandwich alternatives. Hummus and pita bread? Granola bars? Nuts? I’ll have to work on that.

Monday, March 30, 2009

grad program rejections

FSP had a post several days ago (I’m hopelessly behind on my blog reading) about students who don’t let programs know if they will or will not accept an opportunity.

As I mentioned before, I communicated a fair bit with potential advisors when I applied to grad school. I’m not sure how annoying they found this (opinion seems to vary by discipline and professor disposition), but it saved everyone some effort if our early communication determined that it would not be a good fit. So I’d been in touch with professors before and it was a fairly simple exercise to give them a heads up when I made a decision.

My “rejection” note said something along the lines of this:

“Dear Professor X:

Thank you for answering my questions and helping me through the application process [as applicable] at School X. It was a difficult decision to make, but I accepted [gradschool]’s offer of admission and will be working with [advisor] on [some sort of contaminant-related problem]. I will [follow whatever the department requires for a response], but I wanted to let you know personally that I appreciate your time and consideration.

Sincerely, Short Geologist”

Each professor I’d been in touch with sent me a gracious e-mail thanking me for the information and wishing me luck in grad school. I’m not sure how common this is, but I’d recommend sending something personal like this, especially if you’re planning on starting a career in academia and you could see collaborating with folks in the departments you “rejected”.

Friday, March 27, 2009

geology cuts

My posting has been somewhat irregular, and I'm going to be really busy in the next week or so. So I make no guarantees that I'll be able to write my usual 5 posts per week. But in the meantime, check out this link. Looks like U of Florida's flagship school may decimate their geology department. Yep, the state with a zillion sinkholes. Does this remind you of any recent boneheaded anti-geology rants?

This came to my attention via Pharyngula. Watch out for the comments, though - when I got there, it was past 600. Needless to say, the topic of geology dropped out of the discussion relatively quickly.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

easy classes

I keep track of a fair number of blogs by professors and other academic folks. The topic of clueless students and exams comes up fairly often. Here's a relatively recent example.

I always thought of easy classes as a gift and a chance to bring up my grades. Even as an undergrad, I was mystified by students who would bomb a really easy class.

When I was a TA, the lab sections were worth ½ of the course credit, and the students would have around 10 labs for the course. They also had a lab exam. So each lab was worth somewhere in the vicinity of 2% of their grade. A surprising percentage of the students – 20? Maybe more? – decided that 2% wasn’t worth trying for. They would skip labs, avoid answering questions that took any intellectual effort beyond looking them up in the textbook, and spend most of the time chatting instead of doing any actual work.

Sure, you can write off 2% of your grade. But collectively, your labs are a significant portion of your grade for the entire course. I wasn’t a terribly strict grader, and I was eager to help out and lead (and lead, and lead) students toward the correct answer. Students who showed up, made a good-faith effort at the work, and asked a TA when they had a question generally got at least a B for their lab grade.

The class average for the labs was a C-. And this was not an introductory class! I don’t get it…

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

subcontract secrets

My least favorite task in environmental consulting was when I had to contact potential subcontractors (say, drillers) because I needed pricing or technical information, but I wasn’t supposed to let them know too much about the job yet. Why not? A couple of reasons – I may have been required to get a number of “blind” bids, so I couldn’t divulge any real information. Or I was working for a particularly sensitive client, or at a site that we didn’t have access for yet/was in litigation.

The conversation often went something like this:

Me: “Hi, I’m working for [X company], and I had a couple questions for you…”

Drilling Co.: “Sure! Are you looking for a price proposal?”

Me: “Um, not…yet. I’m just [working on a spec/doing some early budgeting/writing a work plan]. Do you have the capacity to do [X], and would you be able to work around [conditions Y and Z]?”

Drilling Co.: “That depends. Where is the site, and would we be able to use technique A or technique B?”

Me: “The site is in [some vague geographic area] with [some sort of general geology] and due to the [nature of contamination/field conditions/prejudices of the person who needs to approve this work], we probably couldn’t use technique B.”

Drilling Co.: “Oh! This is site C, right? Wow, they’re pretty high profile. Are you working for [litigating party] or [regulator in the cross-hairs]?”

Me: “Um…this is just preliminary, so I can’t really talk about that…”

Drilling Co.: “So, when can I expect to see a proposal for this?”

Me: *mumble mumble*”…preliminary…”*mumble* “I’ll let you know when I can give you more information…”

I've gotten better at this sort of thing, but I still dread those conversations.

Monday, March 23, 2009

me, teach?

So, I’ve gotten an offer be an instructor. Teaching is about the last career path I ever wanted, as I mentioned fairly early on. But the economy is in the dumps, as you may have noticed, and this pays, well, ok money. I don’t have any real fear of public speaking anymore – my graduate program was pretty heavy on presentations, so I got lots of practice.

Unlike, say, my TA experience, this instructing gig involves a subject I know well. And I’ll be instructing adults, so hopefully they won’t make it their mission to drive me out of the classroom. Also, the course has a detailed syllabus already and I’ll have a good deal of institutional support. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m going to maintain radio silence on this for a while.

Friday, March 20, 2009

geology you should know

So, there's another meme going around the geoblogosphere - the top 10 things every geologist shoould know. But it's one of those "think up something utterly unique" things and I'm way too late. So I'm borrowing Silver Fox's idea and changing it around a little: what are the top things that you wish the general public knew? Here's a few of mine:

1. Just because something is natural does not mean it is stable or permanent. If you've got steep cliffs made of relatively soft material, they will be eroded. Don't build your house directly on the edge of such cliffs, especially if they're, oh, in an earthquake-prone area.

2. Natural resources, such as oil, are not infinite, but they're also not totally easily accessible either. When folks talk about "peak oil", they're talking about economically/technically extractable oil. There's a ton of oil/coal/whatever still underground; the issue is whether it's at all feasible to get to it.

3. There's lots of different "bad effects" on the environment. You have loss of habitat; production of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses; contamination of air, soil, and groundwater; species loss; humungous anoxic dead zones out in the ocean; accumulation of trash; etc. The culture and media are obsessively focused on climate change/greenhouse gasses right now, but some solutions for one problem (using minimal gasoline) involve creating another problem (more battery disposal issues).

I'm sure you can think of some other biggies...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

field break

In my last post, I discussed some of the scheduling issues that field scientists can have. One of the major problems is erratic field schedules. But you can have the inverse problem as well.
When you have a long-running project to manage, the tendency is to find a single field manager and keep them in the field nigh-indefinitely. There are two major problems with this.

First, you want to be able to trade out personnel in case your primary field manager goes on vacation or becomes sick or has a family emergency. Yes, sometimes life happens to even childless, single folks. Having all institutional knowledge in one person is never smart planning.

Second, if people are in stressful, long-term field projects far away from home, they tend to get cranky after a while. Eventually their performance starts to suffer, and they start threatening rebellion.

I recommend giving folks in long-term field assignments a “vacation”. If they’re involved in a complicated project, pick a time when things have settled down and let someone else take over for a while. It will give them a break and will give less experienced folks a chance to be in charge of another site. If you have 2 or more long-term field projects and at least one of those projects is within reasonable commuting distance, rotate your field personnel. That is, unless the person in Timbuktu has fallen in love with the place and truly never wants to leave.

I’ve known folks who had never left the country before they started fieldwork, and now they’ve lived and worked in completely different cultures. It’s a terrific experience. But it doesn’t need to become a permanent experience.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

field schedules

There’s a kerfuffle over at sciencewomen regarding fieldwork and families.

As I’ve advanced in a scientific career involving (mostly) fieldwork, the family situation of the field folks has gotten more obvious. As in, all the more experienced field people tend to be male. If they’re female, then they are childless and most likely don’t have a spouse either.

It’s one thing to bring your child into the field if you’re on some long-term exotic assignment. But in environmental consulting, my fieldwork was all over the place. I did get involved in some larger projects later on, but even then I would fill in for other projects on a fairly regular basis if needed. I could never predict where I would be more than a couple weeks in advance. So dragging around a small child would be impossible (ignoring, of course, the fact that the sites I was working on were hazardous).

I like being outside. I would like to remain a field scientist. But the fact remains that if I were to have kids, I’d have to either move into a strictly management/advisory position, or I’d have to leave the primary caretaking to my SO, who doesn't exactly have astounding job flexibility.

I have hope that as the next generation of geologists (who are more evenly split between men and women) progress in their careers, we'll figure out more ways to be more flexible and organize the schedules so that the "mostly field" folks have some dedicated time close to home.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Some managers (and to be fair, some contracts for environmental work) obsess about budgeting out exactly what's needed for a field job. How many rolls of paper towels? How many boxes of gloves? What's the cost of each size of cooler? Can we order only 68 sample jars?

It's the field. Stuff happens. You drop your roll of paper towels in the mud, or it rains and everything gets soggy. You get some new field folks rotated in who have ham hands and you run out of the extra large gloves. Sample jars break; if you're lucky, they break before you finish up at the location and not on the last day of the job, when you're packing up the last shipment. You break the last screwdriver trying to open a well cover.

When I budget for fieldwork, I tend to order what I need for each phase of work as if it exists in a vacuum. That way, I can scrounge from the previous job's leftovers if I go through more supplies than I'd anticipated.

I also don't sweat the small stuff. Having a complex formula to minimize how much strapping tape should be used to seal a sample cooler is foolish when the stuff in the cooler is worth several thousand dollars' worth of labor. Please, take all the tape you want! It costs $5 a roll! Wrap the cooler in a web of tape that will take 20 minutes to open, if that's what you want to make sure that it arrives at the lab intact.

Instead of breaking out every single plastic bag and glove, I usually go the other way when budgeting. Take a nice, round number that has some thought behind it, and put in "consumable sampling supplies - $40/day" or whatever, and be done with it. Nobody really wants to go through a long price list of basic sampling supplies.

Monday, March 16, 2009

internet problems

I'm trying to keep my blogging reliable, and I think I've succeeded for the most part. But last week, I lost my internet.

I'm pretty sure it's a network problem, not a computer problem. Other computers have the same problem as me. Also, my neighbor who kindly, uh, lent me his/her unsecured wireless when I first moved in apparently has the same problem, since that network is still unsecured and I can't connect to it either. The provider doesn't exactly have a sense of urgency about it, though.

So now I have to hoof it to the local free wireless hotspot and find some space amongst the hordes of unemployed. It's unfortunate - I used to wake up, turn on my painfully slow computer, take a shower, log in, get dressed, eat breakfast while catching up on all the blogosphere news (my keyboard is pretty gross), and write a post. Now I have to hike over to the wireless hub and wait for everything to boot up.

I grew up without any internet, and I had a fairly typical social experience for someone who was a big geek: bullied in middle school, ignored in high school. My coping mechanism was writing and playing a lot of loud angry music. Would I have turned out differently if I had the support of some sort of high school geek blogosphere? Would I have been as much of a writer? Would I have had such a passionate love of good (not just angry) music?

I simply don't have the time to hang out elsewhere for any significant length of time just to fool around on the internet - I'm pretty busy the next couple weeks. Maybe I'll be more productive. But I won't be able to take part in the give-and-take of reading, commenting, and responding to other blogs. We'll see how it goes...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

thank you

I do a lot of complaining in this space, but I’d like to take a minute to thank some very important people.

The residents who live near contaminated sites and let environmental folks have access to their property.

A large portion of the population would rather have nothing to do with an environmental investigation. If they let someone onto their land, the environmental folks may find a problem. If there’s a problem, then it becomes part of public record and may impact property values. A smaller number don’t want anybody on their land, for any reason.

But we can’t control where the contamination has gone. If we have a groundwater problem, the plume may travel for long distances, causing potential drinking water contamination and indoor air problems in basements. We try to put wells in public places, like sidewalks. But if a plume goes through a residential neighborhood with relatively large lots, the best sampling locations may be on private properties.

With this in mind, I’d especially like to thank the folks who have been talked into/agreed to have monitoring wells installed on their property. Unlike sediment or soil samples, a well is a permanent fixture. If you have a monitoring well, it may be unsightly (although often we’ll try to put a flush-mount well into the grass so all you see is a concrete pad), and it also assures that you’ll have environmental folks come poking around your property on a semi-regular basis. Samplers try to be considerate, but there are bound to be times when someone drops the ball in contacting homeowners, and then you get someone knocking on your door, asking if they can traipse around your yard, um, this afternoon.

So to all the folks who are gracious enough to let us into their yards and sometimes their kitchen, thanks. You’re making a big difference in an environmental investigation, and with your help, a site may be better characterized and therefore cleaned up as thoroughly as possible.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I'm back! Posts may be short for a little while while I sort out some stuff. Back to your usual programming...

When working in the field, we used a code to call for help if we didn't want the world to know we had a problem. We mainly used this for large, complex projects where we had field staff all over the place and could expect interested parties to show up at any time. This was used especially if we were using open-frequency radios to keep in contact.

If the drill rig springs a leak, or a news crew shows up, or a concerned citizen starts asking for information that might be sensitive, it’s easy enough to kick it up to the field manager by calling with the secret code. The code can vary, but what I’ve often used is some variant of “can you bring over a form number [random number] when you get the chance?” That way, you save face with the reporter/citizen/whoever because it’s not obvious you’re looking for help.

Friday, March 6, 2009

GPS = field gadget?

In my previous post, I got all self-righteous about avoiding the use of personal electronics in the field. And then I was asked about GPS.

My SO has a knack for giving presents of things I didn't ask for, and didn't think I needed, and which become indispensibe. The ipod I received a while back is a good example, but so is the GPS I received recently.

I've done some travelling with the GPS in tow, and it's terrific. Where's the grocery store? The airport? A restaurant that's close but which I haven't driven by? The GPS will tell me (although it's certainly not infallible).

But I survived for years without GPS just fine. Where's the local hardware store? Ask the client rep or someone at a gas station. What about food? The hotel will have a list and directions. And I never went into the field without directions to/from wherever I needed to go (hotel, FedEx, field site). I should have brought a local map with me, but honestly, I usually forgot and didn't have one unless the car rental folks handed me one.

So, I would certainly bring my GPS into the field, with a couple caveats:

1. This is my (pretty expensive) gadget, for my convenience. It is not to be borrowed/taken by anybody else or for another project.
2. If we're off-roading, on horrendous roads, or in other situations where the vehicle is going to be bouncing all over the place, the GPS goes safely away in its carrier.
3. The GPS is for driving only. It is not designed to be dragged around outside in a vain effort to locate a well. If feature location may be problematic or there's mapping involved, then rent an appropriate GPS to find them. I'm not subsidizing the project here.

We'll see how that goes...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

personal field gadgets

No, I don’t mean a way cool thingie that has 10 gigs of RAM and calculates your water chemistry without getting anything wet.

I’d like to discuss the personal stuff you have that tends to get co-opted for fieldwork.

When cell phones that were small enough to carry around easily came out, I thought they were a useless bit of frippery. Then I realized that with a cell phone, I could call my sweetie anywhere in the country and not have to worry about scary hotel phone charges.

So I broke down and got a cell phone. I had a tiny “anytime minutes” allotment and a ginormous nighttime minute allotment, so I made a lot of calls at 9:05 pm and I didn’t want to use it during the day. Also, the company I was working for had a byzantine phone use reimbursement policy that required advanced math and several spreadsheets to figure out. And a field person/company cell phone ratio of about 6:1. So I kept my cell phone a secret, for personal and emergency use.

I lasted for about a week before I discovered how convenient my cell phone was and started using it to contact fellow field crew members, and about 2 months before everyone in the company started calling it. Eventually, as I got put in charge of larger, long term field projects, I got ahold of a company phone and never really gave it up.

The real problem with personal field equipment is with the more delicate stuff. Like a laptop. I used to have a crappy old laptop that was fairly sturdy, but then it died spectacularly. I got a snazzy new laptop and then a big bout of fieldwork that needed one (lots of data logging). Luckily, I was able to borrow a more field-appropriate laptop (read: yank it from the person who wasn’t quite sure if they were done using it).

So I’ve been able to avoid using my more expensive and/or fragile personal electronics in the field, for the most part. But I have friends in consulting who have ended up using personal laptops, blackberries, and other expensive stuff for work almost exclusively, with no real payment. Hey, when I was in consulting I wasn’t working for some poverty-stricken nonprofit. If the company wants to use high-end electronics, it can find the money to pay for them.

Note: This is a long weekend for me - I'll be blogging somewhat erratically in the beginning of next week.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

lunch etiquette

Sometimes (often?) in the field, you’re running on a relatively tight schedule that involves coordinating the activities of several people. When you’re juggling schedules, you need to work together to make sure that everything happens at the right time.

In this case, it’s a big pain when someone takes off without notifying anyone. Usually they have a good reason, like they need to run to the store or the trailer or whatever to grab some supplies they need. That’s fine, but I need to know who goes where so that I can coordinate things.

If someone takes off, I can just call them up and get an update. That’s fine. But what aggravates me is when somebody (or the rest of the field crew) takes off on some minor errand and then disappears for an extended length of time because they’ve just decided to take lunch. Hello? I’m stranded here on the site, waiting for you to get back. I don’t like calling every 10 minutes for status updates, but if something changes, I need to know. If you come back and you’ve had lunch without telling me, then either I skip lunch so that we can get something done, or then you wait for me to grab something and scarf it down while everyone else is waiting on me.

Is it so hard to call and say, “we went for lunch”? I eat too, you know!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

um, blogspot?

If anybody else can see my posts, let me know. If I try to configure the blog, the entire thing shows up in the preview window ok, but once I go to "view blog" I get nothing but the sidebar stuff.

Maybe this has something to do with the "malformed request" page I keep getting redirected to after I post something or approve comments. I've been closing the window and re-logging in to blogspot to find that what I've posted went through, so I've been ignoring it.

Note to self: ignoring problems, whether it's your webpage or your professional life, rarely ends well.

Ok, it's working...for now. I'm still sending "malformed or illegal requests" that go through anyway each time I post something.

Monday, March 2, 2009

work-appropriate hobbies

I never know what to write when a job application or job website suggests listing hobbies. It reminds me of high school, when everyone was running around trying to get the “right” extracurricular activities to impress colleges. I feel like I should have hobbies that indicate a healthy, well-adjusted lifestyle, but my hobbies aren’t really that impressive on paper.

I write stuff. Poetry, that novel that’s been gestating for a while and is temporarily stalled 2/3 of the way through, blog posts. I read voraciously – books, newspapers, blogs. I dabble in art, but strictly for my own amusement. When I find volunteer work that fits into an erratic schedule, I do that. I like to see stuff, whether that’s through travelling, hiking/enjoying the outdoors, or traipsing around museums.

My passion is for silly, childish stuff, as I’ve alluded to before. I love sledding and making snow creatures. I’ve got fancy, abstract coloring books that I fill in. I play role-playing video games (RPGs), which are essentially grownup “play pretend”.

But really, how relevant are my hobbies to a potential employer? Even if you deduce a particular “personality” from my hobbies (creative, adventurous, doesn’t stick to any one activity over the long term), those traits aren’t necessarily reflected in my “work personality”. I’m pretty serious and a bit of a perfectionist at work – let me be free to enjoy myself when I’m off the clock!