Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Here comes the sun!

"Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say it's all right." - The Beatles

This is my last night in the south and I feel like this a beginning, or better, a continuation, as I interpret the song. "It seems like years since it's been here." I was in Churchill last summer for two weeks, where I fell in love with northern research, the tundra, small towns, and good people. I'm going back! And when I go back this time, it is less of the excitement of going to a new place, but returning to a place I have just begun to know. I'm thrilled for all the new experiences that I know are around the corner, all the new research I'll be exposed to and all the new people I will meet. I'm also excited to be away from home for so long, trying out what it's like to be independent.

But I'm also a bit nervous and scared. I've never been away from home for so long, and I'm pretty sure I will get homesick if I don't keep busy. I'll miss my family and friends - you know who you are :) - and my Star - she's a cockatiel who has taught me to whistle in her language. If you find me whistling a repeated high pitched note, do not be alarmed, I am merely attempting to call to my flock-mate - whom I will miss!

And I'm a bit afraid that I will get bored. I brought a bunch of stuff to do (novels to read, an ebook reader which can keep me busy for years, textbooks to brush up on ecology and statistics, jump ropes, a yoga mat, running shoes, a sketch book, a notebook, a camera) and I hope that I don't get through all of them, that I will be busy enough with my own research, helping with other people's research, the podcast, and rifle practice so I won't have time to get bored.

Nevertheless, the unknown always scares me a little bit, but "I say it's all right!" Because I also know it will be so much fun!

Let the adventure begin, "Here it comes..."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Getting ready for field!

A task often overlooked, but quite necessary is obtaining the field haircut. Too long and you will be stuck with fighting tangled hair everyday. Too short and you can never tie the hair back out of eyes... so this was my solution!


Saturday, May 28, 2011

PALS 2011 - Check!

PALS (Paleolimnology Symposium) was held at McGill in Montreal this year - or an 8 hour drive from Waterloo - even if by distance it seems like it would only take 6 - especially if you get caught speeding... or get stuck in traffic at 1 am due to a huge accident, narrowly escaping an accident of your own.

Diatoms: a type of algae that produces a silica casing which is preserved in the sediment so paleolimnologists (the crazy people who jump around in mud, look at it under microscopes, put it in various machines to measure different periodic elements, oh and I guess it's all for the purpose of studying lakes/ponds through time - but we all know it's for the mud!) can infer what the environment was like in the lake hundreds of years ago (or however old the core of sediment from the lake bottom is) by knowing the preferred environments that each species of diatom live in. Phew! That's the overview anyway!

Yep, the driving was fun, as always. Luckily, I was able to pass myself off as an established passenger and got to read and sleep. And, I got to put in some work. Which brings me to the first tip of the post:
  • Prepare the presentation early. I'm proud that I was able to prepare a week in advance, powerpoint in hand with an expected duration from practicing the talk, so that was good. The problem was not having the meeting time with my supervisors, who have different opinions of what should be presented and in what order, which are valid, of course, but a bit difficult to implement when I met with one the day before leaving for Montreal and met with the other during the car ride up.
So I was able to put something fun together, trying to incorporate some of those techniques for good presentations - very little text on the slides, a lot of space around figures, simple figures, application of home slides to remind the audience of the overall picture, structuring the talk by big picture overview, importance of the study, detailed methods, inferred results relating back to big picture, and conclusions in case they had fallen asleep during the whole middle part of the talk. Unfortunately, because of the last minute changes that were required after the car ride, that inspired tip two:
  • Balance the social with the academic. At my first conference, I learned that this is the one opportunity for profs who had studied together in grad school and now teach at universities around Canada/world could come back together and catch up, typically over a couple pitchers of beer - or in Montreal, over a "metre of beer". It also begins that lifelong bonding in the current grad students. More professionally, this would probably be called networking, but really, it's about having fun, talking science and research, and seeing the city. All good! Except when I had to present the next day with a yet to be modified presentation. See the first tip for best practice, but here I just want to add the importance of waking up early to go over the presentation or trying hard to get enough sleep to stay awake during the presentations of the day. Overall, conferences are for both, the academics and the social, so investing in both is important to personal enjoyment, for getting new ideas and feedback on the research, finding a potential supervisor, and beginning collaborations with other students. There's a lot to do, but make the most out of all of it.
Day of the presentation, I woke up early to revise and practice my presentation. I was probably relying a bit too heavily on my notes and learned a few things about presenting science from listening to other students talk.
  • Plan it out as a story. The best presentations were presented by storytellers. They were told by students who seemed to be talking to friends, casual and relaxed, well organized from main purpose to conclusions, and not reading from the slides. There are a lot of good reference sites for how to give a good scientific presentation, and looking at those helped.
  • Cite. I didn't realize how powerful it is to cite during the presentation, especially during the background. The talks that did this explicitly had so much more credibility than the ones that didn't. I had references, but I didn't say them out loud. I'm really bad at remembering the names of authors on papers, but because this is the primary way that science is communicated and referenced - as my Analysis of Communities professor stressed, I really ought to learn papers by author names. During the question period, the audience sometimes asked if the presenter had read so-and-so's paper and implemented that idea. I was amazed when the presenter would reply by saying, "yes, I considered so-and-so's method, however, using (detailed part of method) had (specific shortcomings) in the context of my study." That is credibility. I need to get better at that.
  • Know the exact numbers in the data. This goes along with being credible, but I think it also goes along with knowing who your audience is. If the audience is a general group of interested public, then the detailed numbers will just bore them. But if the audience is a highly educated group of professors and grad students who all specialize in the same field, know the numbers, exactly. For example, the C/N ratios around 20 verses around 10 indicate very important things about the source of the organic material (Meyers and Teranes, 2001) (see tip above). But even better is presenting that the average C/N ratio was 22.4 parts per thousand, which, according to Meyers and Teranes (2001), is a signature of terrestrial organic matter or alternatively could be an indication of nitrogen limitation due to very low %N (average of 2.7%) compared to carbon. This sounds so much more credible than what I actually said.
  • Practice. The worst presentations are the ones that go over time. It is truly mentally exhausting to listen to presentations all day and that 15 minute block is just about enough to handle at a time. Plus, it just goes smoother. This is probably one of those tips that everyone knows, but everyone gets too busy to implement, but it is really hard to present well without practice. Really hard. Practice also helps to get over the public speaking fright. As a friend informed me, I have 15 minutes that the audience has to listen to me, 15 minutes when I am the centre of their mental concentrations. Make the most out of it! It's my story, my research, and I want to share it, so to be courteous to the audience about not going overtime, and organizing and practicing so I can be proud of my work.
  • Avoid silence. If you do everything above, you shouldn't have that dreaded silent question period where bleary, blank eyes stare at you from the audience, waiting for you to leave the podium so they can go get the coffee - black in the deepest mug they can find - and stare into the murky depths while trying to wake up. So engage the audience, be enthusiastic about what you are presenting, and maybe have a question you can ask the audience, especially in a more laid back setting like PALS, where asking a question about further methods can be really valuable to your research. If you get the silence, smile and blame it on the late night at the bar. Alternatively, avoiding the silence could mean not knowing how to answer a question. In that case, be honest about what you know and don't know, saying "I don't know" and "Good point, I will look into it," are viable responses and can stimulate later discussion with the questioner for the benefit of both the presenter and the questioner. Mostly, don't get defensive. I have yet to go to a conference where the questioner is attacking the presenter's work, but I have heard some horror stories like that. I would think that taking the highroad during those situations is the best bet, but I will let you know if I ever encounter it, so stay tuned!
Final thoughts about the conference...
  • Go! It's kinda a lot of work to prepare the presentation, but it is so valuable on CVs, gives great experience in presenting, and it's just fun! If you have an opportunity, take it (this applies to many aspects of life)!
  • Be a tourist! If you have any extra time, try and get out a bit. Some conferences include options to tour the city the day before or after, do a bit of the tourist things. If you are already there doing work, staying an extra day to experience travel is advised - though I have yet to take that option. But I have taken the wake up at 6 am to walk the city option. In Montreal, I climbed Mont Royal at 6 am during a thunder storm. Got completely soaked! But it was an amazing view at the top and it was so nice to be in a refuge from the city.
So I didn't actually present any information here about my study, but I think this post is long enough. There are hints that I may be presenting my study again when I'm in Churchill, so maybe I'll save that science for then.

Churchill in 3 days!!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Shipping Out

3 coolers filled with the precise instruments of science are waiting on the UW shipping bay to be transported some 5,000 miles and to greet me on my arrival on June 1st.

As for the precise instruments of science: I've got a couple kiddy pools, a bunch of empty sampling containers to be filled, and a couple bottles of chemicals that are hazardous to your health in various dreadful ways.

Planning is done for now, and I can only hope I've planned enough to have what I need up there when I get there.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Preparing the Experiment

The measure I use for how significant an event or person is in my life is it's appearance in my sleep. For example, when winter begins to approach, I suddenly develop these dreams of speeding down a mountain, carving and flying through the snow. Floating on top of white with the tips of my skis. Those are nice dreams.

Last night, I dreamed that I had hundreds of these clear plastic containers. Everywhere I looked, there were these ominous... plastic... containers. And I had to sort them so that each container had the right contents - the right lake water and sediment and the correct volume of nutrient, phosphorus or nitrogen, added. A herculean task which exhausted me in the dream as much as it had during the actual day of planning for this experiment. Not the most pleasant of dreams.

It looks so innocent, but don't be tricked.
This little cup has become the current
bane of my existence.

The trouble with field work is the uncertainty of every decision. This exact set up has never been done before so there is no procedure sheet in a lab manual that I can just follow and be happy with. That, and I really don't know what I'm doing. I can try to plan for the things that I need, but I am in so far over my head (ha, water joke when I'm doing limnology - study of lakes... haha. K, not so funny) in this field. Especially the chemistry. It's been a while since I took chem, and I've never had to actually apply any of it so it never really stuck. And that is where this experiment is coming up against a wall. The pressure to get this planned fast is pushing from behind and I know on the other side of the wall, there is the lake and the tundra, but the chemistry has firmly built itself, cinder block by cinder block, in front of me.

So there's that hurdle. Then there's the whole bit about having to make sure that I have everything I need for the next 3 months.

Oddly enough, this is following pretty closely to the to do list of my first post. That's good, right?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Standard First Aid and CPR/AED Level C - Check

After completing this course I think there are 3 things that everyone should know:

  1. Take a First Aid course! Become familiar with basic signs and symptoms of someone hurt and become familiar with basic ways to help, especially breathing and bleeding problems. It is so easy to save someone's life if you take one course. Who knows? You could save the life of the prof in whose course you are failing - instant extra credit! A course can also help you recognize life-threatening situations so you know when to...
  2. Call 911! The sooner, the better. You can always call back and cancel or upgrade the priority. Paramedics prefer to come to a false call than to a call that has been delayed and the person's life is now severely threatened. So when you call, tell them 4 things:
    1. Location: They can find out where you are on a land-line, but not on a cell. If the EMS can't find you, they can't help you! Tell them where you are. If you are in a building, be specific and send someone outside to guide the firefighters and EMS in when they arrive.
    2. What happened?: The EMS can prepare for what's to come with potential injuries that you can't see yet.
    3. Number of people injured: This may seem obvious, but if you don't tell them and you have 3 people injured and only one ambulance shows up...
    4. How bad?: Are the people conscious or unconscious? Bleeding? Breathing? Is it something like a heart attack or stroke? This will help EMS rate the call from a 1 (not severe - "Ouch! I got a paper cut!") to a 4 (extremely severe - "You cut my leg off, you *-insert sequence of personally preferred profanities here-*!!!!).
  3. Don't run away! It seems to be that the human instinct is to crawl off into a corner and die - at least it is with choking. We are all guilty of it. You are sitting in a meeting and get something stuck in your throat and you start coughing and tearing up, so you make a v-line to the door and lock yourself in the bathroom where you can privately hack your lungs up. Now that grape you were eating gets completely stuck... you can't breathe... you're banging on the door... but no one's around... the next bathroom seeker finds you laying on the dirty bathroom floor, your deathbed. Don't run away! Call 911 and go towards people - run outside where someone can find you! I feel like this applies to all injuries in addition to choking. And if you see someone running away, follow them or get them to stay and not panic.
Of course there is much more to learn, so take the course, learn the acronym FAST for stroke and learn how to do CPR, how to use an AED, and carry gloves, a face shield, and a cell with you at all times.  You can save a life.