Getting political: the proposed tax bill & graduate students

When I saw a headline about the tax bill destroying higher education, I assumed it was hyperbolic… but then I saw the subheader. It mentioned graduate students’ tuition waivers (often valued from $15,000 to $30,000 depending on in-state status) would become taxable income. For anyone remotely familiar with graduate school, this is clearly devastating and irrational.

Case study: me. I’m lucky; I’m at Michigan, which has a relatively high graduate student stipend for most STEM fields. I can pay rent and buy groceries without taking out loans, turning to food stamps, taking a second job, or just being flat broke – which is more than a large number of graduate students can say. That, you may realize, is a pretty low bar for a “good standard of living,” especially for people with college degrees. We chose to enter grad school because of our passion for learning and our desire to advance our understanding of the world. Grad students actively work to propel human knowledge forward. It is our job. And because we are dedicated to that goal, we agree to pretty meager salaries for five to seven years after college. If we can make a small living, that’s great.

In-state tuition for UM graduate students in my department is valued at ~$25,000/year. That isn’t money that I can put towards food or a new pair of shoes. That goes from the funding source (department fellowship, advisor’s funding) to the University – I don’t see it. It’s not income for me. Adding that $25k to my income would send me into the 25% tax bracket, and would hike my taxes from about $2000 to about $13,500. However, that $13,500 wouldn’t come out of the “income” the tax bill would define; it would come out of my actual income, which is < $30,000. It would take my salary from livable (not extravagant by any means) to paltry, and leave me absolutely unable to save month to month – unable to pay off existing student loans, unable to contribute to an IRA, certainly unable to start a trajectory towards the “American Dream” of home ownership. Unable to contribute to the free market, unable to “stimulate the economy.”

So tell me again how the proposed tax bill will put money in the pockets of everyday people.




Teaching: Lab tour!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our soils class has done some plant and soil sampling in nearby protected wetlands. We’re onto nutrient cycling in the class, so I prepped and ran the students’ samples on the EA to get C:N data. The goal of this lab was for them to see which major ions correlated with C, N, and C:N, and make some basic environmental interpretations.

The students weren’t able to process the samples themselves (I offered for them to help grind up plants, but none seemed very interested in spending their Friday afternoons or Monday mornings getting up close and personal with a good old mortar & pestle), so I gave them a lab tour and we discussed how the EA works and what you can do with C:N data.

We’ve been using real data for the lab portion of this class, which was been interesting. On one hand, it’s good (and more fun) for the students to see and work with their actual data… but on the other, it means a smaller dataset that might not always “behave,” making it more difficult for them to interpret. I think it’s been a pretty good experience overall, though I’m not sure how/if we’ll change it for next year. (We can at least incorporate/compare to this year’s data! Plus whatever I collect on my own with my undergraduate lab colleague.)


GSA 2017

Well, the conference is over. I’m still in Seattle; we have a couple of days to explore and do some sampling, which will be a nice little break after GSA, which was great, but tiring. I mostly went to talks about Precambrian oxygen, nutrient cycling, geobio, etc., and it was great that there was such a strong interest in the field.

I also co-chaired a session on advances in paleosol-based proxies, which was a cool experience. We got a good turnout despite being in the basement of the building across the street from the main conference center, and we also hosted the winner of the GSA President’s Medal, and a leader in all things paleosol: Thure Cerling. Meeting him was cool (he’s very nice and down-to-earth despite spawning most of the research in the session in one way or another). We heard from a lot of younger scientists too, and it’s exciting to see the directions the field is headed in.

I had to scurry out of that session to give my first ever conference talk(!), which was about my work on paleosols in India at the K-Pg and the paleoclimate reconstruction I did. My heart was pounding (the room was packed), but it went well and I had some good discussions with people a little later.

It’s been interesting to see how different conference experiences as I move through grad school. My first conference was GSA a few years ago; I wasn’t presenting, so I was just there to learn stuff and meet people. It was fun and marginally useful, but my second conference (AGU last year) was orders of magnitude more useful and directly beneficial because I was presenting my own work. I think giving a talk is great for exposure and for practice communicating your work clearly and well, but having a poster lends itself to more conversation, I think. By far, this GSA has been the most productive; now that I know my research path much better, I was able to be more focused in the sessions I attended and glean more useful information from the talks and posters I did see. I’m more amped and excited about my own work after seeing how it fits into what everyone else is working on, and how excited other people are about this stuff.

So my time here has been productive and useful, but somewhat exhausting. I’m looking forward to some hiking and time spent not talking about science 24/7. Then it’s on to prelims prep, paper writing, and making some progress in the lab so I have cool stuff to present at the Gordon conference in January!

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Baby grad student’s first talk!

APS Grant reception

Earlier this year, I received a grant funding my next fieldwork (soils in Iceland!) from the American Philosophical Society. This past Thursday, I was invited to join the travelling APS contingent for “cocktails and conversation,” and to check out the collection of crazy old books and papers they brought from Philadelphia. It was an interesting little evening. I got to hear about some research that’s very different from mine: an APS fellow at Michigan discussed his work in historical anthropology (I think), working with some of the extensive APS collections for his work on the relationship between anthropologists and the communities they study. His focus was the southwest, with a special interest in one community who worked with one female anthropologist, whose papers and records are all with the APS. It was an eye-opening talk that gave me some insight into the sort of work that modern anthropologists are doing, and definitely something I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. (It also made me wonder how the APS got interested in funding science work like mine – via the Lewis & Clark Astrobiology grant.)

I also got to see some of Galileo’s original writings and a first edition of one of his books, which was insanely cool and unexpected. They also had some old, apparently quite famous medical illustration books (1400s to 1600s). I poked around online a little, and their collections are impressive to say the least: their library in Philly contains Lewis & Clark’s journals, Ben Franklin’s papers, and some of Charles Darwin’s letters, among countless other cool things. It was neat to learn about that.

My fieldwork funded by this grant won’t be until next summer – Iceland in the winter isn’t so great for soil sampling – but I’m definitely looking forward to it. I might combine it with a trip to Norway to sample 2.4 Ga paleosols in a core repository… but that’s planning for further down the road.

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This was the paper I saw! Apparently it’s where he noted something about the moons of Jupiter. It’s from 1610. No big deal.

Heading to GSA 2017!

I’m excited to be on my way to GSA in Seattle tomorrow! I’ll be making the most of my week out there. I’m presenting my work on Indian K-Pg paleoclimate, co-chairing a session on advances in paleosol proxies, and going on two soil sampling road trips with my labmate. (If we plan things right, one of those road trips will involve stopping at Voodoo Donuts in Portland for some vegan treats… #priorities)

Both my talk and our session are on Tuesday morning, and there are so many awesome sessions this year. It’s gonna be great.

PS. It looks like I’ll be attending the Gordon Geobiology conference in January too – SO PUMPED. I’m excited my research is moving more towards biogeochem!

Seattle. February 2017.

Running in grad school

How do people find time to train for ultramarathons in grad school? I can barely find the time and motivation to run three miles a few times a week, let alone start a proper training plan for the 50k I wanted to do in the spring.

That’s all. Hit me with your sage advice.

PS. I know the answer is “good time management” and “making things a priority” but… those are hard…

Year Two: The Early Months

It’s October, and the semester is in full swing. I’m teaching, taking two classes, prepping for prelims, writing a paper, and giving my first talk at GSA in less than a week(!). Suffice to say, I’ve been incredibly busy. With so much on my plate, I’ve had to get a lot better at time management over the last six weeks (has it really only been six weeks?). At the start of the semester, I would look at the huge whiteboard looming above my desk, covered in scribbled to-do lists: lab tasks. writing tasks. teaching tasks. more writing tasks. It was totally overwhelming, and I found myself ending each 10+ hour workday feeling frazzled and unsatisfied with my work. Obviously, I couldn’t keep that up for four months.

Instead of staring at a seemingly insurmountable task – “Write the India paper!” “Write the NSF grant!” – and freezing up, or procrastinating in a seriously impressive way, I began to break these huge goals down into reasonable goals, then into truly bite-sized bits. Then, every day, instead of seeing WRITE A PAPER on my to-do list, I’d see things like “Research specific topic X” or “Find more papers for supporting idea Y.” These made my goals and deadlines seem a lot more manageable as well as approachable. Seems obvious, but it took me a year to figure out.

The other key thing I changed, I think, was being realistic about what I should expect to do in a day. Teaching and taking classes really helped with this, actually, because I couldn’t allocate all day to writing or working on figures. Rather than putting eight items on an impossible to-do list, now I put more like two or three very reasonable goals. “Finish grading last week’s homework.” “Work on editing Figure 2 for the paper.” “Don’t eat all the chocolate at your desk.” (Okay, that last one is impossible, and we all know it.)

Honestly, even with these mini-goals, I still sometime work ten or eleven hours and feel like I didn’t get anything done. Part of that is because I have other, non-research time commitments, and part of it is because I’m human and my brain fizzles out after x hours of staring at a figure of precipitation over time and trying to figure out HOW TO MAKE THE GRADIENT LOOK GOOD IN ILLUSTRATOR. Some days are just better than others; the key is, as far as I can tell, hanging on for the ride.

There are two months left in this semester. Three months until my prelims paper is due; five until my oral exam. Six days until my first conference presentation. Four days until I leave for said conference. Twenty minutes until I head home for the day. Bite-sized bits of time culminating into my second year.