Prelims paper: DONE. (Also: snowy bog!)

My paper for prelims is done.

Is it perfect? No. Is it ready for submission to a Real Journal? Nope. But is it ready to be viewed by my committee and used as ammunition against me in the oral exam? Yeppers!

Actually, a brief comment on that. I’ve found that while it’s easy to get sucked into the negative hype of prelims/quals – people saying stuff like “It’s going to be torture,” “the worst thing to happen to you ever,” etc. – it’s not that hard to step back, take an outside view, and consider it from the other side: a chance to have a good conversation about science with experts, and to improve your work. Hopefully, you enjoy discussing your work enough that even though it will undoubtedly be nerve-wracking, it’s not the be-all end-all of grad school. Well, hopefully not, anyway.

So I’m not feeling too stressed about it right now, actually. Check back with me in a month and a half, though, and we’ll see…

PS. Sonya and I went sampling bog soils in the snow! Water sampling was hampered by the fact that the ground was, you know, frozen in about half the spots we tried, but we got a couple water samples and a full transect of the bog, so it was a success! The sun even peeked out over the LOTR-esque misty wintery forest.



Holiday break & the importance of actually taking a break

Happy 2018, everyone!

Sadly, the end of the holiday break has arrived and I find myself looking back not only on the past year, but also on the past week or so. Grad students as a group generally tend to work a lot, even on breaks and holidays, and my friend group is no different. For better or worse, I took most of the break to actually relax and recharge, and – perhaps most importantly – to get bored enough that I am excited to go back to work, to feel re-invigorated enough about the problems I’m working on, to be motivated to spend a few days later on in the break exploring some things.

Was it the most productive ten-ish days ever experienced? Absolutely not. But did I get to spend time with family and friends, go on runs, cook actual food, bake inordinate amounts of cookies, and get mentally refreshed before the Semester of Doom (aka prelims)? Absolutely. And that, in my mind, makes it a good break.

Onward to prelims!

PS. Had a dream that I got the NSF grad fellowship – here’s to hoping that dream comes to fruition!

How to sell students on science: Sample bog soils in the rain in November

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my undergraduate research assistant Sonya and I went back out to one of the sites our soils class had visited in October: the Gerald Eddy Reserve, part of Michigan’s Ecology & Evolutionary Biology program. This would be Sonya’s first time doing fieldwork, and I hoped we would have a good time.

We headed out into the fog, driving down dirt two-track in the Reserve and looking for the turn for our first site, relying on patchy cell service and my (patchier?) memory of where it was. Just as we found it (I did manage to recognize the tree to turn at!), of course, the fog turned into persistent drizzle. We maintained high spirits even as the temperatures dropped a bit and the drizzle upgraded to Steady Rain.

Our first site was Buck Hollow, which has had a few papers published about it. It’s a small bog which is filled with cranberries and pitcher plants at its peak, but now we could mostly see mounds and mounds of spaghnum moss, and we could hear the ground (“ground”) sucking and squelching under our boots as we made our way across, taking two transects to look at chemical variations in the soil and soil water – though since it was pouring, I’m guessing most of the water looks pretty much like rainwater. But we’ll see.

Sonya the super research assistant! Everything got blurry from the rain but we had fun anyway.

After Buck Hollow, we drove over to a bigger marsh; we had sampled a farther-north part of the marsh during the field trip, so we wanted to get the other end. By this time, we were pretty soaked (I had lost track of my rain pants, but my hiking boots were performing admirably considering we had literally just been standing in wetlands for hours) and, even though it was a little warmer than the season called for, it was still getting chilly. We picked a few plant samples, took a transect through the marshy brambley pokey bushes (I am not a botanist), hopped in the jeep and headed home with the heat on full blast.

It was great getting to sample so close to home! Our current plan is to keep sampling wetlands in the area, and to do monthly sampling at a subset of sampled sites. We’ll see how winter changes those plans… but seeing as it’s November 28th and it hit 65 degrees today, who knows what kind of winter we’ll get!

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.