Monday, August 30, 2010

Week Two, Initialize!

Week two began, with few hiccups. I can safely say that my day of marathon teaching went well, aside from the fact that many of my students either didn't know there was a homework assignment due today, or they couldn't FIND it online. ::face palm:: I made it as clear as possible today, I even showed them the website where they can get all their assignments, and much much more. So, I'm hoping no excuses next week.

I must be one or more of the above: evil, scary, or I smell bad. It has to be at least one of these things, because I had many absences today, and I've had at least four people drop my class in two weeks. Two were today, from the same section, sort of just abruptly as I was handing them the quiz and getting going with the laboratory. Either it is me, or is a glorious example of how not having the lab book to a lab class makes you feel horribly unprepared.

I really need to work on the time management in my class, particularly my first section of the day. By the time my third section comes around, I have a handle on how long different tasks are going to take, but my poor first section are the guinea pigs. It seems like there is too much housekeeping type stuff in the beginning, so it takes forever to get to the actual lab exercises. Even today, when I felt like I was rushing through stuff with my first group, we only barely finished. Then I realized as we were finishing up that I had forgotten something. Argh! Next week, I'm going to get a grip on this!


In other news: I found out today that my adviser, Felisa Smith, is going to be on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me". She'll have an excerpt in the "Bluff the Listener" game, where a person calls in, has ridiculous "news" clips read to them, and they have to guess which one is real. Once the show airs, I'll find the archived episode and provide a link here. This is beyond awesome!

Okay, time to decompress. It's been a long day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Year 1, Week 1 Recap

The first week of my PhD experience is nearly complete. I already talked about my first day of teaching, so I won't repeat any of that. Related to that, however, was how the rest of my teaching assistant (TA) duties went this week.

I technically owe the department two hours of lab preparation time. However, both this week and last week the lab technician didn't really have anything for me to do. In a few weeks I'll be of more use, and he'll have more need for me to come in. In the mean time I'll hang out, pop in every once in a while, and see if I'm needed.

Another aspect of my TA job is to hold office hours to see students who need help, one hour per section of lab taught. I teach three sections, so I scheduled my office hours to be on Tuesday from 1pm-2pm, and Thursday from 1pm-3pm. Of course, I have to be flexible, so I ended up spending about two hours today (Friday) helping students. That's one of the reasons I tried to keep all of Friday open, to provide flexibility for students and myself so no one is freaking out. I'm pleased to say say that I had three students come see me, which helps me 1) learn names and 2) figure out where my lectures are lacking.

It looks like my classes will be useful, if not interesting, for the most part. I signed up for a biostatistics class, which is something I've been meaning to do for years now. The instructor seems very approachable, and I'm looking forward to learning how to deal with my data in a "not fluffy" manner. I'm also taking the core ecology class. We're talking about stable isotopes and how to analyze them, and it's gotten me excited about how I might be able to use this stuff with my own research. Stable isotopes can be used to determine what an animal is eating, so you are actually what you eat... isotopically speaking.

Lab group should be good as, well as the other various department seminars. There are talks during lunch on Wednesday which I am required to attend, but the perk is there are subsodized lunches I can buy while I'm there ($2 isn't bad). The only thing I'm a little apprehensive about is the Topics in Biological and Biomedical Sciences (TiBBS) class. This week's lecture seemed to not really have a point. Maybe with time it'll get better, or maybe I just need time to adjust to learning new and random things. The class was on imaging methods for the brain as a tool. Yeah.

I was promised free food and stuff this week, as it was welcome week for the returning students. I got a nifty jump drive that turns into a bracelet, so I can carry it around with me. Unfortunately, I have classes pretty much all week during the free food time, and I was only successful with getting a hot dog today with some chips and a cookie. I'll take it though! Matt joined me on campus today for lunch. Despite the crazy death metal playing across the duck pond, it was a really nice afternoon. There's all sorts of birds that hang around there, and we're thinking of going there earlier some mornings to see if anything cool comes around. The tree we were sitting under had several humming birds buzzing around in it.

Matt hung around for a while while I was attending to a student, and then we decided to walk home to see what we could, and to see how long it would take. We kind of took the long way, and stopped for some boba tea (delicious!). Had we taken a more direct route, and not stopped, I'm guessing it would have taken maybe 30-40 minutes. Not bad, but I'll still be taking the bus. It was good to see some of the more neighborhood-like areas, and not just the sketchy parts of Central.

Next week I'm planning on going to the open house for the student insurance. I have some unanswered questions, and I still need to pay for my dental coverage. I wouldn't bother, but I still have my wisdom teeth, and I'm guessing they'll need to come out some time in the next couple years. I don't want to find myself with a problem that I can't afford to deal with. Stupid vestigial structures! There is also the promise of more free food; the Biology Graduate Student Association (BGSA, which I was forced to be a member of) is having a free lunch right outside of where I hold my office hours. I can go freely to the first 30 minutes of that, and then pop in and out during my work time.

That's about it for graduate school related stuff, not sure what the weekend will hold! In general, I'd say I'm enjoying myself.

Stuff I'm still having issues with:

Still no mail keys, and for some reason our mail occassionally ends up in our locked mailbox where we can't get it. I'm going to contact the Post Master about this.

Still no access to the online training I need for my TA

Can't access the online materials for some/all my classes

My office looks like bomb went off, and it is located in a building that should be condemned, only it's apparently a "historic" building. At least it is close to the bus stop and most of my classes.

There is some confusion over payments for my more recent medical bills, which is something I doubt I can sort out until regular office hours on Monday. And, we all know how much free time I have on Monday...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Marathon Teaching

Ok, so it's been a few days, but I've been busy getting set for today, the big one, my first day of my PhD program!

Mel needs a drink. However, it is late and I have work to do tomorrow, so ice cream and a nice cup of tea will suffice. Matt is out getting the ice cream treat now.

The only way I can describe what I went through today: marathon teaching.

7am- Woke up, made breakfast lunch and dinner. Packed lunch and dinner.
8am- got to the lock shop to pick up my 5 keys so that I can function (While there, ran into Meghan, Felisa's other new student. She had vegan cupcakes.)
9am- Been to the student health fascility and back. Discovered I have to pay $200+ up front if I want dental. There is no vision coverage. Decided to return another time with a check, and also look into vision coverage on my own.
10am- Ate a cupcake, found my office. No one was home, so I'll come back to claim a desk and meet office mates later.
10:30am- Found the grad student computer pod and corresponding key. Checked email, looked up teaching resources.
11am- Lunch with Meghan
11:30- Wandered over to my class to make sure everything was ready to go. It was!
12pm-2:50pm- Taught intro to biology for non-majors!
Ate an apple.
3:30pm-6:20pm- Taught intro to biology for non-majors!
Ate 3 bites of my sandwich and gulped some water.
6:30pm-9:20pm- Taught intro to biology for non-majors and met the janitor, Toby!
9:25pm- Thunder and lightning. I made a dramatic exit into the night.

Matt picked me up, I finished eating my dinner (turkey sandwich), drank some water and a nice cup of tea.
I am now enjoying a warm compress on my shoulders, I'm about to have some grasshopper ice cream, and I'm going to watch some Daria!

All in all, I'd say the Biology department got their monies worth out of me today. I'm wiped. At least I don't have any grading until next week. I'm proud to say that I kept it upbeat and engaging for pretty much all 10 hours I was actually in the classroom. Not too shabby. And I get to do it all over again next Monday, for the next 14 weeks.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Student Orientation, Argh!

Day 1 of orientation:

8 hours of sitting around in a room trying to get to know about 25+ people, not remembering names, and being keenly aware of fluctuations in my blood sugar as the day progressed.

I realized the difficulty with coming from one graduate program to another: expectations. Such as the expectation that I will have building access and an office when I am getting started, and that I will be given a lucid and comprehensible explaination of what the core curriculum should entail. Or that I will have any kind of advisment for what I should be DOING as far as classes. Expectations are a bad thing, I'll just throw that out the window.

The office and key obtainment process is evidently more complicated at UNM Biology than at Penn State Geosciences. Maybe it's a difference in department size; in fact, I'm going to bet that IS the major factor. At PSU, I came to orientation, asked where my office was, was pointed in the right direction and got keys from those same people. At UNM, I evidently need to go through 3 different sets of people to obtain any key for anything. I suppose it works for somebody on some level.

I also experienced an over-the-top discussion on what is expected of TAs in the biology department. Emphasis on "MANDATORY" and "on time is not 9am for a 9am class" and other such cliches lead me to believe one of 2 things: 1) there is a general belief that TAs are lazy or 2) there is a general belief that TAs are incompetent. I like teaching and all, but even this got under my skin a bit. I'm not really looking forward to the first MANDATORY meeting tomorrow.

Day 2 of Orientation:

First day of research integrity training! To my surprise, I actually got something out of today and I was only there for 4 hours, so I can safely say that my mood picked up some since yesterday afternoon.

As of January 4th, 2010, any researcher or research institution that gets finding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institute of Health (NIH) has to go through some kind of ethics or integrity training. We briefly covered topics on conflict of interests, plagarism, using human and animal test subjects, etc. By tomorrow afternoon I'll have a nice piece of paper that certifies that I am trained in the subject of responsible conduct of research, for the next four years at any rate.

I received an assignment today as well, to read and bring in a news article highlighting science in society. I selected a Nature News article "Italy puts seismology in the dock", where Italy is trying to convict a group of seismologists of manslaughter for supposedly telling people there wasn't going to be an earthquake. Of course, seismologists can't predict earthquakes, and the scientists were misrepresented. I'm just really looking forward to making a bunch of biologists listen to something on geology. Should be interdisciplinary, and FUN!

Maybe tomorrow I'll get keys? Maybe Monday...

Monday, August 16, 2010

AMQUA 2010!

My initial intent this weekend was to blog from my hotel while away at my meeting. However late evening out and catching up with friends and colleagues made that difficult. I'm now back in Albuquerque, with my new home internet (yay!), and ready to recap the weekend.

This past weekend I was at the University of Wyoming in Laramie for the biennial meeting of the American Quaternary Association, a professional/academic organization for those who study the Quaternary. These meeting give people a chance to network and show off their research. The focus of the meeting was the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, which is what I study. I gave a poster on changes in environmental gradients based and changes in small mammal ranges during this time. There were four students from Penn State, and we all had posters. I think we pretty well represented the diversity of research that is going on in vertebrate paleontology in the Geosciences department at PSU, and I feel like we all had really interesting posters.

Here's a free hat I got. Notice the cowboy riding a mastodon.

In addition to the poster sessions, there were talks that went throughout the meeting that ranged on a variety of subjects: paleontology, paleobotany, archaeology, landscapes, and soils to name a few. The underlying connection was our study of the Quaternary. Russ gave a talk on biotic changes during the late Pleistocene, and to my surprise, had a slide with my work on it to entice people to go see my poster.

Saturday afternoon there was a special set of talks on the highly controversial Younger Dryas Boundry (YDB) impact hypothesis. The Younger Dryas is a period of time in the late Pleistocene that represents a very quick cooling trend right before the warming into the Pleistocene. The YDB impact hypothesis states that some kind of extraterrestrial impact caused the Younger Dryas and precipitated the environmental and biotic changes at that time. Very few people actually think this hypothesis holds any water: there are some serious issues with reproducibility of results that support the hypothesis, and the timing of biotic events don't quite match up. There are a lot of problems with the hypothesis, so much so that I could spend an entire blog post on the subject. The symposium on the meeting was really interesting, and it makes we want to go back to the original literature and read more about it. These kinds of controversies can get kind of messy, with personal attacks from one scientist on another. One unfortunate thing is that some of the scientists who have presented evidence against the YDB impact hypothesis, and who I tend to agree with, are kind of arrogant. So while I agree with much of their work, I think they need to rethink what they say and their attitude.

This was a very enjoyable meeting in general. The Penn State Students kind of got blown off for dinner by the rest of the student community at the meeting, but aside from that I was happy with all the people I talked to and the time I spent with people important to me. Any time I get a chance to hang out with one of Russ's advisers, it's a good time. There are just too many hilarious stories that get shared at these things, and you get to know the people you work with on a more personal level. I'm just lucky that the people I collaborate with are such nice and interesting characters. I have noticed, however, that when I meet up with my classmates my true colors as a geologist start to show. Especially if there are copious amounts of beer, even worse if it is free beer. There were time when I was laughing so hard that I cried. Also, by the end of the meeting, I couldn't help talking in a really bad New York accent and quoting My Cousin Vinny, thanks to my ridiculous friends.

Sunday was a travel day, which consisted of driving back to Denver, waiting around and drinking beer at the airport, and making my way back to Albuquerque. Through my own fault, I didn't schedule my flights early enough and had to talk a detour through Las Vegas to get back to NM. My flight was delayed by over an hour, so I sat around in the Vegas airport for longer than I ever wanted to. That airport of kind of dumpy, which surprised me. There were, however, lots and lots of slot machines. I'm happy to say, I didn't gamble any during my stay there. To put all of this into perspective: it is a 1 hour direct flight from Denver, CO to Albuquerque, NM. It took me about 6 hours to finally get home from the time I got on the plane in Denver to the time I stepped off in ABQ.

The flight into Vegas is really pretty, and I don't mean the buildings or the casinos. The landscape and views from the plane were just amazing. I didn't see the Grand Canyon, I was on the wrong side of the plane and we were too far north, however I saw Lake Mead. Lake Mead is kind of a weird feature, seeing as how this is a desert and suddenly there is the enormous body of water created by man. There was also a few mountain ranges we flew over and dozens of canyons that had been eroded through time by rivers. There is this cool dendritic pattern, and viewed from the air it looks like art. The colors are also just unbelievably beautiful, splashes of reds, oranges and tans. I'd like to go back and actually explore these areas, although the terrain looks pretty rough.

The view of Las Vegas at night is pretty neat too, though I couldn't for the life of me get a picture that wasn't blurry.

So I'm back now in my apartment, and it's good to be back here with Matt. I missed him, he should really come along on one of these meetings some time, I think he'd have fun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More From Moving

Once I have a reliable internet connection at home, my posts will be more thoughtful and regular, I swear.

Until then, this is my photo summary of the past few weeks!

Before moving away, we said goodbye to friends. That's Big Buck Safari in the background. Jon and I played for a good 20+ minutes. Thanks Jon!

Of course, somewhere in Ohio one of the straps on the trailer towing the car broke. Here we are at the Penske center St. Louis, MO. They fixed us up. Allen was happy to be out of the truck.

The St. Louis arch. I took this from the window of a moving vehicle.

New Mexico! FINALLY! Check out those big puffy clouds, like a painting or something.

Hooray, everything is out of the truck and... in here. Hey, we have Carl's Jr. so we're good.

Out birding at the Rio Grande Nature Center. My mom has never been birding. With a boyfriend like Matt around, it'll happen again.

That's a road runner. Contrary to its name, we didn't see it running, OR on a road. It was up in a tree. I took this picture through Matt's scope.

On our last day of adventuring with the parents, we took this tramway up to the top of the Sandias. It was made in Switzerland.

Matt and me at the top of the mountain!

Mom and me at the top of the mountain with great scenery behind us.

The apartment is almost put together and presentable. We can actually cook in the kitchen and bath in our bathroom at least. I'll put full shots up of the completed apartment once that happens.

Tomorrow I head for Laramie, WY via Denver for a meeting. My flight to Denver leaves at 7:20am. Ugh, but I'll have lunch in Denver, which is a cool place. I'll also get to see some of the Penn State crew from South Dakota for a few days (4 of us in a room at the Hampton Inn)!

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Trip Down Memory Lane...

This about sums it up...

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

One small victory today, I will be able to schedule all my classes tomorrow, and I'll be taking 10/12 possible credits. Two of those are new student things, integrity, etc. Phew.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Internet Cafe and General Disarray

The parental visit over the past week was fun and busy. All the big stuff was moved in, and our families did a few errands and odds and ends around our apartment. Matt and I didn't let them do as much as I think they hoped, and we went out and about more than they expected. This was good, you see, because they needed to see that we were living in a good place, and I think they got that impression. Plus, as Matt pointed out to me, it's hard to unpack with five people bumping around in a small apartment. I will post pictures of the visit in a later entry.

Matt's mother kept remarking how beautiful the city was, which I guess means our new home gets her seal of approval. On Thursday morning we brought the families to the Rio Grande Nature Center too look at local plants and animals. My mom saw more humming birdsin 5 minutes than she has ever seen in her life. During the day on Friday we took the tramway up to the top of the Sandia Mountains, and the view was amazing. Everyone left on Saturday afternoon, and Matt and I are still exhausted two days later. We've been really busy.

The past two days we've just been trying to get our stuff organized and put away. Meanwhile, I have things I need to take care of for school, and we have no internet at home yet. We've been taking some time in the evening to go to a cafe to use free WiFi, which can been pretty hit or miss. Compounding this inconvenience is the fact that I need to schedule classes but there is a conflict and I can't add one of them myself. I guess I'll be on campus this week to resolve this issue. We'll have our own internet by Thursday, hopefully. Thursday is also when I leave for my meeting in Wyoming. I'll be gone till Sunday evening. Monday the 16th, I report for work.

We made some headway in the apartment today and got more things organized. We can actually walk into the kitchen without doing fancy maneuvers around our stuff. However, Allen the guinea pig is still sort of "boxed in" by boxes and junk in the living room.  In general there is a lot we'll likely get rid of, as Matt and I have duplicates of many things. For example, we have at least 4 or 5 pie plates, and I'm not about to open up a bakery any time soon. I supposed Matt could just bake pies all day while I wait for classes to start and we figure out what he'll do for a job. Yum.

I started missing my mom as soon as she headed for security at the airport. She isn't going to visit again this year, so I probably won't see her until Christmas. I think we'll need to get webcams. I also think that once I get everything in my apartment situated and get started with school again I'll be so busy that I'll feel better. I just need some time to adjust to my new surroundings and to get used to being here. The first step will be getting my apartment to feel like home and not chaos.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting Here

We made it. After a ridiculous day of packing and 3 long days, I'm in Albuquerque for good.

The past few days have re-emphasized to me how important family and friends are. The move didn't go nearly as smoothly as I had hoped for. Between packing stuff and cleaning the house (which by the way, was a daylong task in itself), we didn't get on the road until after midnight, and didn't find a place to land until at least 4am. I don't know what would have happened if Lauren and Jon hadn't come over. They are wonderful, and did so much to help, despite the fact that they weren't the ones moving out of the house. Genuine friends, and I'll need to find a way to repay them.

Part of what made packing so difficult was the fact that a lot of things in the house weren't mine OR Matt's, yet we still had to deal with it. I'm happy to say, we left the house looking very good, provided you ignore the pile of trash out back with will hopefully be taken care of on Friday when the garbage is picked up. The bathroom and kitchen were scrubbed once all the stuff was gone, and all the floors mopped. And it was a TON of work.

The following day, Sunday, we made it somewhere into Ohio when I discovered that one of the tire straps on the tow dolly had broken. We lost 3+ hours trying to get that fixed, but ended up with a Jerry rigged some sort of thing that did not work. The guy Pensky called for us tried to help, but ultimately we needed a more permanent solution. Monday we stopped in St. Louis and had the straps replaced: I think they we a bit surprised at the poor state of the equipment that we were given back in State College. The folks in St. Louis were awesome; however, do not under any circumstances rent equipment from the Texaco on North Atherton. Unless, of course, you want to be held up by technical problems every mile of your trip. In addition to the straps being shoddy, the door on the van is a little messed up, and I can't for the life of me close it on my own once it is open. That didn't get fixed, but at least Matt seems to be able to get it shut.

Today was pretty much the only day that went according to plan. We got in a little after 6, and the apartment is awesome and in great shape. The previous tenant had painted one of the walls in the living room green, and the landlord left it that way like we hoped he would. I only spent a few minutes inside when I visited a month ago, and I only vaguely remembered what the place was like. We have a swamp cooler which seems to work fairly well, a gas stove, garbage disposal, dish washer, proper ventilation above the stove and in the bathroom, easy to clean floors, and laundry on the property. Everything is very clean, no holes in the walls, no peeling paint, nothing that turned me off like in the house on Walnut St.!

The guinea pig is out of the truck, and I think he's happy to be here, at least he isn't being jostled around anymore. I am excited to get stuff out of the truck and into the apartment tomorrow, and finally have a comfortable home again. I've been living in controlled choas for the past month, and it was starting to take a toll on my patience.

Now, to bed. I'm exhausted!