Wednesday, February 29, 2012

more waterworks

FSP has a new post up about crying students here.

I mentioned before that I am a bit of a crier. It's not that I'm emotionally unstable - I have a naturally sunny disposition and I tend to return to that state readily. But if I'm short on sleep and am feeling overwhelmed by a particular situation and I receive a blast of negative emotion from someone else, I will likely tear up. If I'm not able to take a quiet minute or two to pull myself together, then it becomes a horrible feedback cycle and I turn in to a sobbing, snotty mess and will take quite a bit longer to pull myself together.

I have never cried in a professor's office. I wasn't inclined to solve problems in professor's offices as an undergrad, and by the time I was a grad student, I had enough experiences with the possibility of screwing up very expensive projects and/or getting someone seriously hurt that I didn't worry inordinately about grad school stuff.

But I do have painful experience (unfortunately, significantly more experience than when I wrote that post 4 years ago) with crying in the field in front of other people, especially as the person in charge of something big that has all gone to shit. Not in the middle of the crisis - then I'm too busy managing it. But afterward, when the recriminations start...

So how to deal with someone who is crying in the field?

1. Offer something resembling tissues (grubby paper towels, most likely)
2. Ask if they need a minute.
3. Give them a minute.

For criers like me, tears are a similar response to yelling or throwing things. Hovering anxiously, attempting hugs (if I'm crying at work, my personal space has just doubled. No hugs!), and generally making a big deal of everything is counterproductive.
Usually the best thing is to let the venting happen and then get back to work.

Monday, February 20, 2012

the fix-it fairy

I have never been the most conscientious person about cleaning up. My personal space is usually in disarray (my desk has been taken over by piles which have started to grow together into one tremendous mess) and I'm not obsessive about cleaning every bit of crud from my sampling equipment.

However, I do have some standards. For example, I do clean up after myself. Unlike, say, in the following radio conversation:

coworker: "Hey, Short? There's all sorts of nasty gack on everything we're pulling out of the well. Tubing, pump lead, water level indicator..."
SG: "Ok. Do you have enough paper towels to clean off the stuff as you pull it out?"
coworker: "Paper towels?"
SG: "Yes. To wipe the gack off before you roll everything up or smear it on the ground."
coworker: "Well, it's already smeared everywhere."

An hour later, there's a trail of goo from well to the rental truck and the coworker has disappeared to do...something else. So who is going to clean up the mess? Because I'm not seeing any cleaning fairies out in the field.

Friday, February 17, 2012

like with like

In my last post, I mentioned that I can pretty much get along with anyone as long as they don't have any personality issues that have a severe impact on the work and coworkers (such as a pathological liar). In the environmental biz, you often don't have a lot of choice in coworkers/underlings.

If I were a professor and had the ability to select advisees from a teeming horde of potential students, would I select students based on how "likeable" they were or how well I thought we would relate to each other?

No, I wouldn't. Partially, because I was burned in high school for not winning popularity contests with teachers/decision makers and therefore didn't win a single one of the plethora of academic/leadership prizes that were given out to the teachers pets. (You'll have to trust me when I say that I had a far more serious commitment to volunteer work and better grades, but it wasn't just me. One of my best friends started his own massive and wildly successful charity and didn't get anything either).

But even if I weren't embittered by high school, I still wouldn't pick advisees or employees or field staff based on how "relatable" or similar to me they may be. First, if everybody on my team had a personality like mine, we would be seriously unbalanced - very, um, excitable, somewhat scatterbrained, and inclined to taking work far too seriously. Second, I already have friends who share my interests (and perhaps some of my personality quirks). There's a whole world of interesting people and oddball hobbies - if I have a new coworker who's big into spelunking and is looking for someone to share gas, I'm in. And third, I'd prefer to pick a team based on, oh, their contribution to the actual work.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I like everyone!

FSP has a post up today about the importance of liking your grad students. I don't have grad students I advise, but I have had long-term working relationships with the people I've worked with on field projects.

When you're trapped with someone for 10, 12 hours a day, perhaps in the middle of nowhere, or in extremely stressful situations, personalities can clash. Or maybe you find yourself driving 7 hours to a field site with someone you don't know and that you have nothing in common with (and you can only talk about work for so long).

I've worked with guys who continually made passes at me (and we were the only people for miles, ugh), drunks, miscellaneous small supply kleptomaniacs (hmm...where did all my screwdrivers go?), and folks with hair-trigger tempers. I didn't like any of those people. They were aggravating in a thousand different ways.

Depending on schedule and the project requirements, I have some ability to assemble my own field team. The selection process is based on what the project needs and the ability of the available personnel. I may not like those people personally. But I'm a grownup, and I am a professional, and I can deal with people I don't particularly like in order to get the needed work accomplished.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

rallying cry for science

My sweetie is an imgur addict. I am not. However, I had to distribute this one from today's gallery:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

do-nothing advisor?

FSP has a post up today about advisors who appear to do nothing.

My advisor was not a big hand-holder, as I've discussed before. He also spent a lot more time jetting around the world, attending conferences in tropical/exotic locations than worrying over any snags in my thesis. So what exactly was his contribution to my research?

Well, for one, he had gotten a big industry grant to work with a particular type of contaminant and to do something... environmental to it. I just had to figure out what my project was going to be and how to put everything together to do it. Even though it seemed at the time that I did all the work (after bugging my technical advisor non-stop for advice), I wouldn't have gone anywhere without that financial support and for at least giving me a framework for study.

He didn't produce or even check the data analysis, partially because of time constraints - I ended up with enough raw data for about six projects, but I was out of funding and desperate to get back to my sweetie, so we wrapped up without exploring any interesting side issues. And he was about to retire and perhaps had started checking out mentally/emotionally.

But my thesis (and the journal article that resulted from my research) would never had happened without him. He did enough for me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

mainstream media

I am not one of those people who rant and rave against the evils of mainstream media. However, I have not had very good experiences with newspaper articles written about stuff I've been involved with.

The issue hasn't been that the science was wrong, but that time and time again, the article reflects the view of whoever is "louder" or who has an axe to grind at the time. For example:

I was involved in a contentious long-term project that continued for years. The big polluter was an institution that had made a mess way back when you could dump anything you wanted legally, and they were in the middle of a long-term cleanup to the appropriate standards. The neighbors, most of which were dead-set against anything the big polluter did, had banded together to form a coalition to keep the big polluter honest and nag the regulators into keeping an extremely close eye on the proceedings, and they had succeeded.

Ten years into the project, a local politician seeking reelection inserted himself into the mix. He never did get his fact straight and he called up his connections with entirely false accusations. The story got picked up by a newspaper with a national following, and the big newspaper picked up his story essentially verbatim. His statements were so off-base that the neighborhood coalition and the regulatory agency independently got fed up and wrote letters to the editor defending the big polluter.

So much for getting other sides of the story... or checking your single source by looking up simple, publicly available information on the internet.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

organization! organization?

I've been doing this blog for long enough that certain posts no longer have as much relevance as they used to. For example, in this post, I went on and on about my superior e-mail organization.

When I've spent several months in the field, working super-long hours, the whole printing out and sorting of e-mails into binders is a ridiculous idea. What actually happens in this case is that the e-mails pile up electronically until the system crashes from lack of memory. And then you do a frantic cull of everything that doesn't seem critical without printing because you either don't have a printer, your printer is actually the "complimentary business suite" at the hotel and cost $0.10 a page, or you have a printer, but it's a crappy inkjet that is almost out of ink. And three months later, you're wondering what the heck you agreed to back when you were buried with work.

I developed a project notebook-based organizing system that I was quite proud of about a year ago. It lasted until the most recent jag of fieldwork, when I only set foot in the office at the beginning or end of each workweek. Then the notebooks got buried under the piles of whatever got dropped off and wasn't critical at the time and I ended up resorting to a flurry of sticky notes - exactly what I was trying to avoid in the first place.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I have an oddball phobia about damaging my teeth, or specifically knocking them out. I'm sure this is because I fell out of my high chair when I was a toddler and knocked out both front teeth. My mother popped them back into place and they survived to fall out naturally years later.

Anyway, this means that I notice missing teeth.

Recently, I've been working with a number of drillers with conspicuously missing teeth. Occasionally, it's because of tobacco use/bad oral hygiene (eew). But it's mostly older drillers who have clearly knocked out one (or two, or most of the front row) and never got them fixed. I've joked about drillers with missing teeth in the past, but it's a standard occupational hazard (along with missing fingers).

At various times, I've discussed my relatively low pay/impression that drillers and their helpers have an easier job than me. That's just me being cranky. In reality, drilling is a tough, dangerous job that exacts a heavy toll on the folks who spend their career on a drill rig. Almost every driller who has been running a rig for more than a few years has had some spectacular near misses if not injuries. Broken teeth, missing fingers, and exceptional scars are just a visible symptom for the many drillers are worn out long before official retirement age.