rebeccmeister: (Default)
I finished reading Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande last night. I'd been hearing about it on several fronts, including from our former Farmer House neighbor, who is a wonderful thinker and atheist coping with her own imminent mortality from cancer. My mom had also requested that we kids read the book because she is someone who wants to have that series of tough conversations about how to go through the process of dying.

I can understand why: we have the stories of my great-grandma D and my grandpa W to reflect on, in addition to the stories of my Aunt Penny, and Grandma and Grandpa C. In addition, there's the looming spectre of my dad's cancer, where even if he has a 10-year horizon, we should still all think about how to spend that time well. I am grateful for parents who seek out these conversations.

Anyway, the book shares a whole series of insights about how we treat old age and the act of dying, and offers up a series of ideas and examples for things that seem to help make those experiences as good as they can possibly be. Given that we are all mortal, everyone should spend at least some time thinking about how to cope with the end stages of life.

But there was one thing I deeply appreciated while finishing the book: in the Acknowledgements section, the author not only talks about all of the people who helped with different aspects of the writing, but where he also slips in a comment about how he has NEVER found writing to be an easy process. This is especially comforting coming at the end of a well-written book.


I took a break from writing, while working my way through this last cricket circadian experiment. It's impossible for me to write while conducting that kind of research, where I am constantly trying to stay mentally ready to run experiments at all hours of the day and night. But now I need to return to writing on two fronts: job applications and manuscripts. I think the author's comments are a comforting reminder to be compassionate towards myself while I work on these projects. I'm feeling a whole host of emotions about writing right now, but the ones that stand out are guilt over leaving things to sit for so long, severe anxiety over whether I will manage to get things done and over the sense of vulnerability that accompanies job applications, and anxiety over how to carve out time and quiet space to write productively, while living in a loud, chaotic house and working in a loud, chaotic lab. I also miss my grad school writing buddies. But I have a feeling that I can't just wait for more writing buddies to show up. I need to buckle down and get to work no matter what.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
I finished reading Insect Diets: Science and Technology. A lot of the later chapters seem to generally reiterate subjects from the earlier chapters, or talk about issues specifically associated with mass-rearing, which is defined as rearing millions of insects, as for a large-scale sterile release program. Those are subjects that aren't as directly relevant to me, so reading those chapters was a bit of a slog. My next fun academic reading project will be to read the newly-published edition of Biochemical Adaptation. I should also work my way through the rest of Protein Turnover to see if there are any specific subjects I need to know more about and think over.

Not too long ago, I read this interview of Robert Caro, author of the book The Power Broker, which is about a guy named Robert Moses who had a huge influence on shaping the urban fabric of New York City and its surroundings. While the stuff about Robert Moses is fascinating in and of itself, I also appreciated all of the discussion about what it's like to go from journalistic writing to writing an in-depth investigative book.

I'm also envious of the writers getting to use the research and study rooms at the New York Public Library. Those spaces just sound so heavenly and productive. My rough equivalent is going down to the Biosciences Library on the second floor to sit at a kiosk among all of the undergraduates, who have special savory habits like wearing WAY too much cologne, talking on their cell phones, talking to each other, and bringing in take-out food to eat and slobber over in the "group study" spaces. And this is at a fairly studious university, overall.

Maybe there are other secret writing spaces on campus that aren't so terrible, but if there are, I haven't found them yet.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
This article on overcoming the pain barrier in rowing talks about critical aspects of mental training for rowing. It highlights some of the key traits that rowers have to address to perform at their maximum capabilities. That's part of what keeps me going as a rower - knowing that continuing to work on mental training will have positive benefits for how I live my life in general.

Meanwhile, here's Anne Lamott on how to find time to write. It's funny - I wound up following her on Twitter, which is a mixed blessing because she posts a lot of political stuff that I don't care for. On the other hand, she's so good about addressing emotional aspects of writing, and I found Bird by Bird satisfyingly encouraging, so occasional things like this are a good boost.

That piece by Anne Lamott motivated me to show you a figure out of the book How to Write a Lot:
Writing motivation

These are data from a writing experiment conducted with a group of academics. The "abstinent" group was asked to not write anything for the experiment duration. The "spontaneous" group was told to only write when they felt inspired to do so. The "contingency management" group was told to set up and maintain a writing schedule.

And on that note, time to abscond off to the library to work on my research statement for job applications...
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Wouldn't it be nice if demanding a revised draft of a manuscript NOW resulted in such a thing?


Instead it seems to just push me over the edge of the stress-performance inverted U-function.

To some degree, this has to do with how I process feedback from other people. It's an instinct to drag my heels and fight because I *know* that I know the literature way better than coauthors and am trying to think it through on a deeper level than they are. I refuse to turn in embarrassing and shoddy work. And I know this is to my detriment at a certain point, but I've also observed firsthand that turning in stuff that's half-baked is seriously embarrassing and an even larger waste of everyone's time.
rebeccmeister: (cricket)
Just a brief update regarding that troublesome manuscript I vaguely referenced earlier in the week. Somehow*, between yesterday and today, things started coming together, so today I got it turned back over to my co-authorsbosses. Ka-POW!

Now back to eleventy-hundred other projects. But still - this is the pace of writing, for me. Several agonizing days that feel slow, stupid, and sluggish, and then finally, an actual sense of progress. I think some interesting things can come of this particular manuscript, but it's going to take a lot of brain-power to get it there.

*I was in really bad physical shape yesterday, which partly explains some of my woes. I woke up with a sinus headache at 5 am, which didn't go away until I took a Tylenol at 11 am, and even after that, the weird leg muscle thing was bothering me and I was generally sleepy and stupid and unproductive. A classic example of why experts caution people against just diving in to a new exercise regime. I knew that was a risk when showing up to a new ride, and repeatedly checked in with the other riders. Even with all that, it's too easy for me to get all excited and push myself too hard. Live and learn, hopefully.
rebeccmeister: (cricket)
I'm struggling with the current cricket manuscript, but it occurs to me that one of the subliminal elements in the struggle is an underlying power struggle. When I started my PhD, one of the things I strongly respected about my advisor was the emphasis she put on her students owning their own dissertation research. This emphasis is not an easy one for anybody involved, and comes at certain costs, but with certain benefits as well. She actually developed this emphasis in reaction to several unfortunate events, one of which I'll briefly describe. The main unfortunate event involved a student mentored by her husband (also an academic), who was carefully shepherded through the early stages of their* PhD, up until they had to take their comprehensive oral exam and defend their dissertation proposal. Well, this student got up in front of their committee and couldn't explain themselves to the committee.

It is important to know how to collaborate, yes, but in the American system it is unacceptable to outsource one's intellectual development, so clearly this situation did not stand, and it was a hard experience for all involved - a great sense of shame. When an advisor lets an unprepared student get up in front of a committee, it usually indicates poor mentorship, not failure on the part of the student - at least, mature committee members should be cognizant of this distinction and not abusive of their power over the student. At the same time, it's also impossible to predict how committee dynamics will shake out. Sometimes committee members feel it's important to prove their intellectual chops to each other, and use the unfortunate student as a punching bag in this exercise. I hope this generally isn't the case, and more than anything it again can reflect poor mentorship on the part of the advisor, who is hopefully sensitive to the interpersonal dynamics among the faculty to a degree that he or she can steer a student clear from such trouble. In my own case, I intentionally chose an intellectually challenging committee, and was rewarded by some tough questions, but I did so for the purpose of putting together as good a dissertation as I could muster. And I intentionally avoided having certain people as committee members based on recommendations about how well (or unwell?) they worked with my advisor's academic style.

So then, the postdoctoral experience. There are some fields where one's personal research activities are most effective if they're closely guided by more established researchers. In physiology, it's very difficult to throw undergraduates into a laboratory and expect them to come up with groundbreaking experiments. In many cases, it makes more sense to hand them a chunk of a larger puzzle, so they can make a meaningful contribution over a shorter timeframe.

But that's undergrads, and I'm referring to the postdoctoral experience. Postdocs can fall into a similar category, depending on the nature of the project, funding, and the project timeline. If I had been successful in acquiring my own funding, presumably I would be working on a project over which I felt and had more ownership, and would feel more power to steer the ship myself. However, in accepting the postdoc position I accepted, I voluntarily gave up some of that power. But I did so knowingly, because I saw the position as an opportunity to gain a number of useful skills that I could apply to other contexts in the future. And I've definitely gained those useful skills.

The challenge is, that doesn't make the power struggle go away, and it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, my co-authors are awesomely enthusiastic and excited about my experiments and the papers I'm working on. On the other hand, at times I have followed suggestions and pressures down blind alleys due to this power differential, when a part of me was quietly raising doubts about the navigational decisions early on. This leads to regrets.

The difficulty of the situation tends to manifest most strongly when staring at a half-written manuscript. I find myself rehashing out the whole series of decisions that led to the present state of the manuscript (the data analysis), and start experiencing doubts over the direction of the manuscript and what to do next (massive "Now where was I and how did I get here?" reiterations). By this point, I know that I have to think myself out of this particular box at this particular point, and find myself wishing I were willing to be just a bit more obstinate about things in the early stages. Then again, I've always liked to collect lots of data, and in a lot of cases more data makes things harder, not easier.

Despite all of this emotional baggage, I must still forge on, and persevere. As my graduate advisor would say, there's no such thing as a perfect experiment. That said, there are insights to be gained from all experiments, but we must get back to work to find them.

And on that note, perhaps now I can get back to work on this pesky manuscript.

*I don't know the student's gender, and this pronoun seems more straightforward than "she/he."
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I'm thinking about rewriting my teaching statement for these job applications. Alternatively, I might just write another document, a Teaching Manifesto, intended to reach a broader audience beyond hiring committees, because over the years of my own education and teaching I've reached a specific perspective on educational goals, and I'm starting to think the whole thing deserves to be its own essay.*

Part of the reason I bring this up is because I first heard about the subject of this post, the book Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, in my undergraduate Writing Fellows training seminar, and the Writing Fellows experience continues to inform how I approach teaching. I'm not quite yet at a point where I'm ready to write the shitty first draft (Lamott lingo) of my Teaching Manifesto, but when I do I suspect you'll be the first to hear about it.

Bird by Bird is twenty years old by now, but it's a timeless book for writers because Lamott does a phenomenal job of reaching out and capturing the thoughts and emotions one experiences as a writer. While her intended audience is primarily writers of fiction, writers of all stripes will find in her work someone who is sympathetic to the struggles of professional writing and able to offer up both consolation and kicks in the pants as necessary.

While reading the book, though, I kept thinking back to a comment [ profile] scrottie made while I was reading Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Turkel. He had a hard time with the idea of reading Working because the concept of reading about work just sounded like a whole bunch of work! However, that wasn't my experience of Working - Turkel did such an amazing job of capturing the different workers' voices and their passions for what they were doing and purposes behind their work, that the book is a rich and fascinating compilation about the human experience.

Reading Bird by Bird was closer to work than leisure reading. I read most of the book while traveling, where I didn't have the mental space to settle in and write, so it also involved reading about work instead of just going out and getting work done. Today, after finishing it, I wound up bringing the book in to work so it can sit next to How to Write a Lot, which looms on a bookshelf right above my desk for maximal impact.

And on that note, perhaps I should get back to work.

*The other day on a different social media platform, I posted a rather simple commentary piece on how most students don't know what learning is, but in the same vein, there's some odd tension in the biological sciences over teaching methodologies, too. With teaching philosophies, it can actually be dangerous to be overly pedantic, and at the same time, many biologists teach poorly or use uninformed teaching methods. So - the Manifesto will start with my perspective on the purpose of an undergraduate education, and will then cover specific tools and approaches that should be used to facilitate student development, as informed by my experiences in grad school and as an undergraduate Writing Fellow.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I made myself go in to the lab today to force myself to work on job applications.

Instead, I made some decent headway on a leafcutter manuscript that has gotten the back-burner for the past three weeks while I've scrambled to get other more immediate things done. You know, like all those talks and workshops and cricket manuscript revisions and manuscript reviews.

Not a total loss. But for this week, I am going to have to set a goal of getting out one application per day, on top of writing a conference talk and wrapping up the cricket manuscript resubmission.

Working on a manuscript is a pretty terrible form of procrastination, if you know what I mean.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Bike fashion is in the news again (NYT). There was some interesting commentary on this piece in the Slow Bicycle Movement group, noting that this sort of crazy coattail-riding bicycling fashion craze has happened before, but I think there are two different elements to consider in the present case. One element is that the technology for incorporating reflective material into clothing has only recently been developed, so it's still something of an experimental arena for fashion designers. Bicyclists are a logical target audience in the US because we Americans have done a fantastic job of designing our transportation infrastructure for cars, to the point where anyone interested in riding a bike for transportation spends time deliberating on whether or not to go the traffic-cone route. I'm reminded of this book that I just started reading that talks about many peoples' conflict-of-interests between wanting a feline companion but not wanting a home that's festooned with beige carpeting and litterboxes. Anyway - I like the reflectivity from an aesthetic standpoint, and mostly I just hope someone gets womens' pants right, one of these days. I plan to check out Clever Cycles's pants selection when I'm in Portland next month. I like the look of this shirt, but for some reason I'm still failing to find women's short-sleeve button-down dress shirts. I tried one on at Goodwill last Saturday, but it had poofy sleevelets and squeezed my biceps - a no-deal.

I only recently discovered that the League of American Cyclists has a bike-friendly university list. None of the universities I've attended are on the 2013 version, but I'm pleased to see that Arizona State has managed to step it up and get on the list for 2014. The improvements are noticeable.

In the realm of simple living, I'm working my way through thinking about my relationship with sentimental items. I think the author makes a valid point about emphasizing the importance of shared stories over sentimental items, but I'm still working on figuring out an appropriate system for acknowledging the presence of the sentimental items and then letting them go. Can't say I've pulled out my high school yearbooks in a number of years.

Words of encouragement for sharing your writing in public. This post on coping with insecurity also feels related.

The psychology behind Social Media Brand F's 'success', which is important to consider when thinking about how we use it in our lives. While I was off traveling over the past two weeks, I spent substantially less time on social media sites. Now that I'm back in Texas, it's featuring prominently in my procrastination loop, I think because of differences in how my social interactions are structured out here. Traveling was socially overwhelming, but also included time spent with [ profile] scrottie, and the long-distance absence is still just as hard, if not harder, now, as it was when I first left Arizona.

Lastly, how about an intriguing video demonstration of cymatics? One of the presentations at the recent Bio-math meeting, mostly focused on computational questions in topology, included this video. Turn off your computer's sound after a certain point.

rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
The cat is making small noises as she sleeps on top of the heap of freshly-cleaned bedsheets.

I spent too much of the morning procrastinating, by vacuuming the house, cleaning the litterbox, cooking crepes, watering the garden, tending the worm bin, washing dishes, and doing laundry. I draw the line at lawnmowing. I skipped the household trip to Austin so I could get work done today. Time to shower and trim my fingernails. I'm spending the afternoon being irritated by incidental noises: the next-door neighbor's loud radio music and barking dog, someone else's leaf-blower, the mariachi music of the neighbor across the street. My small table, adjacent to the cat's litterbox, makes me think of Jane Austen's writing spot. I can't force myself to sit still. If I sit in the living room, the cat yells at me because she's on the other side of the fence. When all the chores are finished, I'm sleepy and slightly hungry. Time for a snack. Maybe time to cook some dinner.

Three paragraphs down, two paragraphs to go. Let go of the need for a perfect first draft. Let go of the need to intensively scrutinize the literature. Let go of the side points, about incidental things from other studies that are only tangentially related. Stop aimlessly web-surfing. Let go of constant connectivity.

I once naively thought that if I lived in a place with fewer distractions (=moving to Texas), I'd be more productive. That might still be true, and the lesson I might have learned is rather that when I'm relatively satisfied with my life, I'm more productive. Hard to say for sure. I create my own distractions no matter where I live.

Think space

Sep. 9th, 2014 09:42 am
rebeccmeister: (cricket)
A week or two ago, I suggested to [ profile] scrottie that he read A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf [he'd previously been conflating it with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is completely different and irritating, as best as I can tell*]. He wound up reading it last Friday in an epic five-hour bathtub-sitting session, and pulled out a few quotations to share with me. Here's one that he found a touch hilarious because it suggests Woolf is as enamored with food as I am:

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes ... if she had left two or three hundred thousands pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk
might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography. If only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships
and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine ... We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortable
at half-past four to write a little poetry."

But it remains painfully true for me that a thousand little pinpricks seem to interfere with my ability to concentrate on and think and write about certain scientific subjects of interest. Friday was a dismal day, despite my running off to the Medical Sciences Library's Quiet Study area for real, honest Quiet. Yesterday, I started to finally converge on the appropriate context for what, in shorthand, I've been calling the Cricket Respirometry paper. I wish I could think faster, but sometimes I just can't. At least I *know* when I've settled on the appropriate context, after reading and thinking about 50 different papers on the topic.

The mental and emotional energy can be exceedingly difficult to summon, though. So much so that I couldn't will myself out of bed and over to the Rec Center this morning, and I couldn't will myself to head in to the office, either. A brief mental illness. Eventually, after lying in bed for a while, things started whirring and clicking and humming again. I often despair that these shoddy work habits mean I'm not cut out to be an academic, but then I return to the short-term mission of getting my hard-won, taxpayer-funded work out into the world, and those thoughts send me back to the keyboard. There are other fields that require the development of this sort of thought-space, although probably too often programmers wind up having to turn something in before a deadline and don't have a chance to fully develop their work. On the flipside, stuff needs to be declared "finished" after a certain point, even with its imperfections, and the book How to Write a Lot is still a useful kick in the pants.

And so.

*I tried to go to a production of the play at Tufts, but got there 20-30 minutes late, so I sat outside of the the theater and tried to just listen through the first act, which sounded dull, and now I can't remember if I then decided to leave or if I sat through the second act as well. Regardless, I'm not especially motivated to give it another try. This also reminds me of my own conflation of The Society of Mind with a certain other institution of a completely different nature that calls itself something similar.


Jul. 16th, 2014 01:32 pm
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I'm still staring down the throat of a lot of academic writing projects.

I procrastinate by reading stuff about how to write.

The false promise of an office at this institution is still one of the things that most greatly angers me about my experience here. A desk in a laboratory does not have a door that can be closed. A hallway to someone else's lab space is NOT an office.

My living situation for the fall is going to be even more full of people than the Villa Maria house. The Villa Maria house was already too crowded. Hard to think there.

The library on the main campus has individual study rooms available.

I will make appointments with myself, to go to the library, and write.
rebeccmeister: (cricket)
There are certain stages of the writing process that get to be a real slog. Mostly, the "refinement" stages. I spent a ridiculous portion of the day yesterday trying to make sure I had a solid understanding of everything that's known about connections between diet and resting metabolism (short answer: not much, actually). Part of the problem is that most efforts to classify and measure what different animals are eating have been inadequate. In a lot of cases, it's possible to generate a list of the different things an animal is eating (as in this article on sparkly bat poop), but that doesn't say much about what a specific animal has eaten, in specific amounts, or what nutrients the animal has gotten from the things it has eaten. And the things eaten by a specific animal can vary tremendously. The closest I got was a review that talked about feeding sea lions either squid (low-quality diet) or herring (high-quality diet), and feeding vampire bats either regular blood or diluted blood (Cruz-Neto and Bozinovic 2004 - full references at the end).

One of the insights from that review was that neither the sea lions nor the bats responded to the low-quality foods by upping their intake. This contrasts greatly with what happens in grasshoppers (and crickets, to some extent), who will start to pig out if you give them dilute foods. Grasshoppers are such good eaters that in a lot of cases they can almost completely compensate for differences in nutrient dilution. So, that in and of itself, is interesting, but means that comparisons with the sea lions and vampire bats won't be very helpful except on a very crude level.

...but these insights are not going into the current manuscript, because they're too much of a tangent. Which meant I had to self-redirect and think about the problem from other angles.

The good news is that the people interested in digestive physiology have done much more comparative work that involves detailed examinations of diets than the people interested in metabolism (so far!). So I could find cases where people have found amazingly good and strong associations between the things animals eat and the digestive enzymes they produce.

Anyway, we'll see whether my arguments on that whole front wind up holding water, or whether they wind up getting cut from the paper.

And that was work for one sentence in one paragraph in the Discussion.

Today, I need to spend more time thinking about comparisons between ectotherms versus endotherms. Ectotherms are animals whose body temperature is passively regulated by the environment - things like reptiles, crickets, and grasshoppers, who still behaviorally thermoregulate by basking in the sun. Endotherms are able to generate heat to maintain a core body temperature. One of the coolest endotherms I learned about in Comparative Physiology is tuna fish. Knowing that tuna are endotherms makes it harder for me to ever eat them (on top of knowing that they're long-lived predators and that we're overfishing the oceans like crazy).

Anyway - for my purposes, I think one of the big distinctions I need to highlight between endotherms and ectotherms is that endotherms are able to use "diet-induced thermogenesis" as a regulatory mechanism when feeding on diets with a protein-carbohydrate ratio that is mismatched when compared to their preferred/optimal ratio. A paper (Huang et al) got published in 2013 where researchers fed a group of 279 mice one of 25 diets with different ratios and total amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat, and then measured their body surface temperature at 25 weeks of age. They found that body surface temperature increased with the total amount of energy consumed, and specifically with amounts of protein, carbohydrate, and fat making similar contributions to temperature based on the kJ eaten.

Previous work has suggested that the mechanisms for diet-induced thermogenesis are best developed in animals adapted to habitually low-protein diets - things like nectar- and fruit-eating bats and marmosets (Stock 1999). But what about ectotherms, like my crickets? Does this all mean that the work in ectotherms can't be meaningfully compared to the work in endotherms?

...and those are the questions to address for today.

Cruz-Neto AF, Bozinovic F (2004) The relationship between diet quality and basal metabolic rate in endotherms: Insights from intraspecific analysis. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 77:877-889.

Huang X, Hancock DP, Gosby AK, McMahon AC, Solon SMC, Le Couteur DG, Conigrave AD, Raubenheimer D, Simpson SJ (2013) Effects of dietary protein to carbohydrate balance on energy intake, fat storage, and heat production in mice. Obesity 21:85-92. doi:10.1002/oby.20007

Stock MJ (1999) Gluttony and thermogenesis revisited. International Journal of Obesity 23:1105-1117.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
These days, I have the following on my plate:

-Postdoc proposal due next Monday. A (mercifully) fairly short application. I don't think my chances are particularly good; the last successful candidates look highly "groomed" for the position. Plus, I don't think I've nailed the question of, "How do I turn myself and my research program into an attractive woman-scientist narrative?" I know women who have. It's not always easy to do, especially when one's research program jumps around a bit and isn't something super-sexy, like birds. It's reminding me of the stupid point during senior year of college when I thought it might be a good idea to apply for a Rhodes scholarship. Actually, much of this year reminds me of that year. Too much stress and flailing about over what the future will hold, and applying for all sorts of things, many of which are unrealistic. I shouldn't be too hard on myself, though, because on the flipside women often get told that they don't apply for enough things. And if I don't apply for things, I can't get things. Anyway. That's that thought process. Easily depressing.

-Respirometry manuscript. Here, too, I'm at that point where the major question is, "How do I clearly articulate why this experiment is groundbreaking and exciting?" Because when I think about it, the experiment provides a good, insightful perspective. It's a stage of narrative construction that I still struggle with.

-"Short-term experiment" This one is a meaty paper. Just not enough hours in the day to work on it.

-The next leafcutter paper. Whenever I think about it, I get excited about this one. I keep getting stuck in data analysis doldrums, but I really need to get this paper submitted and published. The other day, I discovered that my first dissertation chapter has been cited, which is exciting because it means people are interested in it and are reading it. Once I get the next leafcutter paper out, I'll be in a much better position to point to my accomplishments and say, "Hire me/give me money/etc."

Lots of writing. With practice, I hope I can push through the roadblocks more effectively. I know that I know a lot and have a number of valuable skills, but I still wind up rocking back occasionally, wondering about my merit and the folly of trying to make an academic career work, feeling inadequate and stupid about the things I don't know or don't do well.

And it's hard, when I can remember all-too-vividly that fall semester when I had to really live on the edge, and the whole experience of moving out here.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
One of the greatest benefits of working with my current boss is that he's quite good at pinpointing ways to improve my academic writing, and we work well together as writers. Last week we met to discuss a current manuscript-in-progress, and he suggested spending a bit of time with two books while thinking about and working on revisions to the manuscript's introduction.

I had to spend the better part of last week working on two other manuscripts, so it wasn't until Friday afternoon that I cracked open one of the books, Physiological Ecology: How Animals Process Energy, Nutrients, and Toxins, by William Karasov and Carlos Martinez del Rio, and promptly found myself nodding to sleep. It's a well-written textbook, but I just couldn't focus, so I decided to cut my losses and work on sorting out the materials collected in Arizona instead.

Here are two examples:


Interesting stuff - in the first example, there are a bunch of mistletoe flowering/fruiting stems on the left-hand side. After looking at everything for a while, I determined that the tiny, seed-like items are actually mistletoe flowers.

Flipping my to-do schedule meant that I could go home at a reasonable hour and try to work on reading Physiological Ecology on Friday evening, instead. Of course, I didn't get as far as I would have liked. Hopefully I will manage to get myself to focus more today, instead.

Which brings me to the weekend. Saturday morning, the Aggies hosted the Lake Bryan Sprints. Originally, they'd hoped to rope in three teams, Baylor, St. Edwards, and UT-Austin, but Baylor and St. Ed's backed out at the last minute. It was great to have UT-Austin there, though, because the Aggies needed some good competition. UT won every event they entered, but A&M had some solid and very close (one-foot) second-place finishes, so there was a lot of good racing for everyone.

The A&M Open Women's 4+ had the same problem they always have - no one to race against - so I challenged them to a duel against me in the 1x at the very beginning of the regatta. They won, but not by a huge margin, and the race was good practice for all of us with keeping our heads in the game. After the 1x, I hopped in the launch and spent the rest of the morning aligning boats at the start and chasing after the boats as they raced.

The rest of the weekend mostly consisted of chores: groceries from Brazos Natural, a recycling haul and several more groceries from Village Foods, then cooking up some aged vegetables on Saturday night (note to self: don't buy discount eggplant from Farm Patch ever again, it's just not worth it). I played Pancake Factory on Sunday morning, although it's kind of a depressing game when I'm the only one to eat them. Then the sink and bathroom got good scrubbings, things got vacuumed, stuff that migrated across the house got migrated back, and the worst of the weeds got pulled in the garden. I have a feeling that the snails are going to eat almost everything I'm planting, but I just can't seem to make the time to give the garden a proper going-over.

I tried to invite people over for crafts on Sunday afternoon, but nobody made it, so I sat out back and worked on painting an oar until I got too cold and it was time to stop, and then I knitted a bit on a vest I will most likely frog, while C worked on crocheting some blanket squares.
rebeccmeister: (cricket)
As mentioned in my previous post, I spent a lot of time over the past week with I, a new graduate student. Interacting with her is reminding me of a number of little things that I have learned over my time as a scientist. A lot of those little things are obvious, in retrospect, but I always have to wonder if I would have spent less time flailing around if I'd known about or thought about many of them earlier in my career. A few examples:

1. Enter in your data as you collect it. (this is what I'm working on today, which is what made me think about this entry)

2. Along those same lines: Clean up as you go along.

3. While writing manuscripts, keep a text file with a "to do next" list. Actually, this should be started even before you start writing a manuscript. For me, it has been the simplest way to put down a project and then be able to pick it back up with minimal fuss.

4. When meeting with other people, put as much as you can into writing, but keep it simple. To have a focused meeting, have a goal for the meeting and put that at the top. Do you want feedback on a specific piece of writing? Do you want help with the experimental design? Do you want help figuring out the holes in your logic? Are you trying to figure out who to put on your committee or who to include in the project? The sooner you can get concrete specifics in writing, the easier it will be for others to help you make progress.

5. Have a plan for analyzing your data *before* you collect the data. You might change your mind later on, but this will save you many potential massive headaches. This means having a thorough outline of your experiment and its dependent variables. Is it frequency data? Continuous data? How many treatments are you comparing? How many figures in a paper will this translate into?

6. Consider keeping annotated bibliographies for projects. I don't know about you, but my brain and memory are small, and the amount of literature I need to be familiar with is large, and covers a wide range of themes. Annotated bibliographies are a shortcut for organizing your thoughts about the literature, and for staying on task with #3. I just keep mine in text files. No need to get fancy.

7. There are a lot of other useful sources of information that might be helpful. Don't skip over them. Read them in the evening before bed. This book comes highly recommended (although I haven't read it, I suspect if I read it I would do a lot of nodding). For academic writers in all walks of writing, I've found How to Write a Lot helpful, too.

8. For keeping the different parts of a research project organized, here's an idea of how I structure my files. I'll come up with a short name for the project and will make a directory (folder) for it. Within the directory, I'll have subdirectories for: datasheets, raw data (as it is entered in to the spreadsheet), figures, R scripts, and the manuscript. I'm not good at throwing things away, so whenever I generate new files, I make a directory within a folder, label it "Old," and stick the previous version in there.

9. I like Zotero as an open-source browser plugin for keeping track of references. I still download pdfs of references into a big (separate) folder, and label them with the authornames, year, and a few keywords. Note that this is completely separate from my annotated bibliographies.

I suspect I'll think of ten more pointers somewhere further down the line, but this should be a good starting list.

What work-organization insights have you wished you'd had at an earlier stage?

Get it Done

Feb. 5th, 2014 11:32 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
A good grad school friend contacted me about a week ago about setting up a virtual Writing Club. She has a couple of dissertation chapters she wants to publish, and is looking for a kick in the pants to work on them, because it's all too easy to let those things slide in the face of seemingly more immediate concerns.

I'm excited about this. I, too, have more dissertation chapters I want to publish. So far, our efforts have gotten me to open one up and work on its "to do" list.

I wish I found it this easy to establish a working relationship with people at my current university, to get the cricket writing flowing better. I *know* I could get a whole lot more done if I had just a bit more collegial structure for writing these cricket papers. It's stupidly difficult to write this stuff in isolation, and I say "stupidly difficult" because it doesn't have to be this difficult. It just has to be:

-Schedule time to write.
-Stick to the scheduled time.
-Track writing progress.

The thing on campus is that what used to work for quiet space is now overrun with graduate students. Maybe I need to start walking over to the closest library for some new quiet space.

The other thing is figuring out how (when/if) to get feedback from my supervisors.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I think I've mentioned that I just finished reading How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul Silvia. He's a psychologist, so the book's audience is psychology professors. But when it gets down to it, biologists have plenty in common with psychologists, including the need to develop and maintain a productive writing schedule. I've been trying to treat this postdoc as a chance to develop into a full-fledged scientist, and part of that involves figuring out how to manage the whole process of science, from coming up with ideas and designing experiments, to conducting the experiments and collecting data, to analyzing samples and then data, and then writing up findings. I need to do writing in more than just that context, however. Scientists also have to write grants to obtain funding to pay themselves, to cover the costs of experiments, and to pay other people. I just finished writing a grant for funding for an awesome undergraduate minion, for example. This summer, I need to write more grants for whatever job I take on next. I'll need to write more job applications in the fall, too.

It doesn't stop there, either. Inasmuch as I wish to make scientific contributions, I must also evaluate the contributions of my scientific peers, by reviewing manuscripts submitted to journals in my field. That involves writing, too.

It's a lot of writing, which raises the question of what practices one should use to manage it all relative to other aspects of one's work. Silva does a good job of debunking many of the excuses people use for not getting more writing done, and you know, I have to listen to him. After all, my time as a postdoc is just about the only time in my career when I'll ever have this tremendous amount of scheduling flexibility. It's a double-edged sword, though, because free time can also mean extra time to procrastinate. Facebook has never been so thoroughly checked. At least up until now.

So far, in this first week of trying to schedule my writing time, I've seen a pattern develop. When I sit down to write at my scheduled writing time, I start a bit slowly and check the clock. Minutes drag on. Internet isn't allowed. If I'm stuck, I have to stare at the wall of the grim, empty postdoc office. But then, by the time the finish time rolls around, I'm not finished and want to keep going! I've had the luxury of doing so, for this week, usually for an additional hour. Next week, well, we'll see what happens.

I keep reading things that suggest scheduling writing time, but most of them then say, "For example, I write best first thing in the morning, so I leap out of bed, dash over to my typewriter, and get to work for an hour or two before I even have breakfast."

You'd think something like that would work well for me, as a morning person. Au contraire, I've never been that sort of person. It's probably because I either wake up with a list of ambitions, or I wake up to go rowing. I'm just not ready to write until I've had time to recover from rowing and work on other things. For now, I start in the midafternoon. Dissertation-writing also gave me a good indicator of my writing stamina. On my best dissertation-writing days, I would write for three or four hours in the morning, then eat lunch and go in to campus, then write for another three or four hours. Three hours in one sitting is therefore enough.

Silva suggests keeping a log of one's writing activities - he keeps a spreadsheet, which allows him to datamine his writing habits, and which also serves as a motivator, much as keeping track of one's spending habits helps keep mindless spending habits in check.

I am my father's daughter. I can feel the urge to start the spreadsheet coming on.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I keep on blogging today because I'm trying to work on my dissertation proposal, which means that I'm seeking out distractions instead. Actually, I *feel* like things have been going okay so far today, which is probably even more important than thinking I'm making progress or actually having any measurable indicator. This feeling could be because I don't have any particular pressure to show a definite product for my effort today.
cut for blathering )
Anyway. I'm impressed if you read the above blathering, but if you are in similar straits, perhaps it's useful to you. The interesting part of the day is that I figured out a nifty new way to look at some of my data (new to me, at least). I'm working on trying to understand the relationship between leafcutter ant colonies and their fungus as the colonies grow, and so I measured colony size and fungus size every week for two months in 25 colonies (with more than a little help from my friend [ profile] myrmecology, of course). My challenge at the moment is how to depict these things in a way that will allow me to ask and answer interesting questions. There's a positive relationship between colony size and fungus size, but that in itself isn't all that exciting. It's the changes over time in the two factors--are they systematic and regular (fungus and colony grow together), or crazy and irregular (colony grows, fungus shrinks, fungus recovers, colony grows)? And how does that relate to the way that other things grow? I can't say much more than that at the moment, but I'm working on it.

Pen Pals

Feb. 1st, 2008 08:55 am
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Through a mentoring program called Futures for Children, I am pen pals with a middle-school-aged Hopi girl. This is the sort of thing I don't talk or write about that much because the most important part of it is our conversations with each other, not with you. But I keep returning to the subject we've discussed in our most recent letters, the difficulty we often have in convincing ourselves to sit down and write to each other. She put it quite simply: usually, after she's finished with her homework, she just doesn't feel like sitting down to write out a letter. I can certainly relate--it's a quiet activity, and I like to be in the right mindset. It's hard to do after a long day of teaching and e-mailing and finagling things at school, so I usually end up writing on weekends when my mind is clear. [This could be an entry about paper journaling as well, though some aspects of the conversation would differ]

So I was left wondering, how do I reply? My role as a mentor is to provide encouragement to this person as she works on her education, but we both see our letter-writing as one more thing on top of so many other things. It also makes me think of my other attempts at letter-writing, some successful, some not. [How do I gauge success? Sustainability? Honest, open communication? A feeling of joy in response to both sending and receiving? Acting not out of guilt but out of intention?]. When I was in grade school, one teacher encouraged us to become pen pals with students in Lithuania, for instance. I think I wrote two or three letters, and then the project basically came to a halt. Lithuania seemed so exotic and far away, and I didn't know what to talk about and lost interest. But I probably still have those letters somewhere. In contrast, my friend C and I exchange letters when we feel like it--I think it helps that she is able to write quite freely and that inspires me to do the same.

I tried to explain at least some of this in my letter to my young friend (it will help if we are ever able to meet, for we aren't really all that far apart, geographically, and then we will have a fuller grasp of each others' personalities). Hopefully my letter will be encouraging for both of us as we learn to be patient with each other. This is the sort of mentoring relationship where I am not interested in producing any particular tangible result--I am most interested in how we learn to tell stories to each other, and learning how to do this telling is pretty important.


rebeccmeister: (Default)

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