olympic memories.

•October 4, 2014 • 2 Comments

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Dedicated readers of this blog will remember all the things I wrote about this winter when I was in Sochi, Russia, for the winter Olympics. What a trip that was! You can revisit it here.

I was thinking about the Olympics this week as Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 winter Games in Oslo. Man, that would have been a lot of fun. The whole ski world was holding our breath, daring to imagine how insanely awesome an Oslo Holmenkollen Games would be. But they won’t be. I thought not only about my experience this winter in Sochi, but also a long time ago when my family went to Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 to watch aunt Liz compete.

The result is this editorial, which I am pretty proud of.

When I was putting it together, I flipped through our photo albums of the Albertville and Lillehammer trips, which was super fun. I scanned a few of the photos, which I’m posting here! One takeaway, for sure: I used to smile more, when I was a kid….

The top photo is of a birthday party in Lillehammer. My uncle, father, and grandfather all have February birthdays, so there were always birthday parties at the Olympics. For this one, we brought a book of paper cut-out masks, and colored them all in. Lizzie is hoisting a glass of wine (I can’t remember if this was before or after her competition); I appear to be killing my poor cousin Mary, as my mom reaches across like stop, you insolent pain in the ass…

I have a new plan for 2022, which is that even if the Olympics aren’t in Oslo, that might be the best place to be. We already know that their television coverage is infinitely superior to what we get here in the U.S., so why don’t we all just head to Oslo and watch the Games from there? We can hit the Nordmarka on our skis in between events. Please join me. Oslo, I think this is a big tourism opportunity for you.

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go to northern scandinavia.

•September 26, 2014 • 2 Comments

After our brief stop in Tromsø, we continued on to Abisko. After staying in the main scientific research station for a night, we took a helicopter ride up to Latnjajaure, our tiny field site. It’s only about a 3-4 hours walk, but we needed to bring food for almost three weeks up there, so hiking it up wasn’t a very good option. Plus, I had never been in a helicopter before! so that was a treat.

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I don’t know what to say about the work (it was the same? hard? confusing?), but our time at Latnja was amazing. There is an extensive hiking/trekking trail system in northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland, so we were right on the path of one of the trails. We could hike off into the heath and up the mountains surrounding our station, or we could make huge loops on established trails. Both were lovely.

One day we even hiked to the nearby(ish) Låkta hut, where we ordered soup. Helen and I were getting pretty desperate after not having fresh vegetables, and luckily their soup of the day was cream of broccoli. I ordered a coffee, too. It was perfect. I was amazed to see that you could stay at the hut (without meals, of course) for just 40 SEK – incredibly cheap, way cheaper than any AMC hut in New England or a hut in Switzerland. In fact, there aren’t very many things at all that you can do in Sweden for SEK 40!

So: if the following slideshow doesn’t convince you to go plan a hiking trip to northern Sweden/Norway immediately, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

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Trøndelag.

•September 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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And so, one day, we left Svalbard.

It was sad, in a way, and it had its snafus. We went for one last hike; we drove the car back to the airport, stopping to fill it with fuel along the way but struggling for ten minutes to get the gas cap off. I laughed: what if we missed our flight because of the rental car gas cap?

And then we were off to Tromsø. It had been sunny, but chilly and blustery when we left 78˚N. We flew over the archipelago, seeing the many many glaciers we couldn’t see from town – Spitzbergen is covered 60% in snow (don’t quote me on that though).

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When we landed “down south”, it was t-shirt weather and the sun was hot. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were still far, far farther north than most people will go in their lifetime. Tromsø felt like the tropics.

Our friend Cecilie picked us up at the airport and brought us back to her house, where we also met up with our friend Nikoline. Then they drove us out of town to a favorite picnic spot along the fjord. In the back was Cecilie’s bassett hound, panting and shedding adorably.

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It’s hard to describe the sun in the north. I didn’t have a reason to because in Svalbard, it rarely shown. On those few days that it did, it was strong and bright and a joyous occasion.

When you’re merely in normal Scandinavia, the summer sun begins to dip at night. It might not get dark, but it’s not like noon, either. Sweden and Norway, especially in late summer, are encompassed in a glow of dusk – the sun resting at an angle on the horizon, bathing everything in its peculiar light. Amazingly, my camera did manage to pick this up.

We could have sat there for hours in the sun, all night, really. As it was we walked along the shore and the basset’s short legs took him to and fro. Sometimes he’d slip and almost fall, but he gamely scampered on, betraying no sense of the fact that he was not a dog built for anything but flat ground.

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Cecilie made us salmon burgers, the most delicious. And brownies, which we heaped with ice cream on top. She had found Helen her favorite new drink, a special ginger beer that we had never heard of before. The only thing better than the scenery in Tromsø was the hospitality. I really hope that I can offer Cecilie and Nikoline the same in return one day.

Helen and I had to catch a 6 a.m. bus to Sweden the next day, but Cecilie gamely woke up (despite not being a morning person!) and packed our lunchbox with not only lunch, but all the rest of the brownies. When we ate them in Narvik before switching to the train, I had rarely felt so spoiled in my life. Cecilie’s mother is American, so she knows how to make a real brownie.

And then we were off, traversing through the fjords and over the mountains. I had never thought much of northern Norway, but as the bus wound through the alpine landscape, I thought it might be my most favorite place ever. I wanted to jump off the bus right there and wander off into the heath, to climb over the bare rock hills.

It wasn’t just the Tromsø fjord that was so astonishingly beautiful; it was everything going East, too. I definitely have to go back some day.

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methods in ecology.

•July 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Hi! I’m actually out of contact completely – we moved to a field site in northern Sweden where the only communication is by satellite phone to check in with the main field station – but here I am, back form the void, with a scheduled post I made before I left.

The work we are doing in Sweden will actually be almost identical to what we did in Svalbard. That’s the whole idea: to make my thesis a comparative study. Thus, we use the same plexiglass OTC’s to warm the tundra, and we do the same measurements of the plant community to see what the effects of the OTC’s are.

Here’s what it sounds like when we are “point-framing”, which means surveying the vegetation composition and height at 100 fixed points within a plot. I took this video on a sunny day in Adventdalen, but you can hear the wind whistling pretty loud – even the nice days always found a way to be chilly.

(and now, I really am off – check back in mid-August when I’ll have lots of photos from Latnjajaure to post!)

boat trip!

•July 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I was lucky – really really lucky – that my parents love me a lot, and for my birthday they bought me a boat trip. Starting from Longyearbyen, there are several fjord cruises that go to different outposts. Helen and I really wanted to see some more of Spitzbergen besides just our little valley. So I was very very thrilled that my parents got me the best birthday present ever! It was an all-day affair, heading up to the former Russian mining outpost of Pyramiden by way of a few other places of interest.

I’m crunched for time and about to head to the airport so I’m not sure how much I can write, but I’ll at least post some pictures.

It started off with fog, clouds, and bad weather in Longyearbyen. What else is new. As we headed out, the coast was cloaked in fog.

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But look over there! It’s sunny on the other side of the fjord! And as it happens, the other side of the fjord is where we are heading, lucky us.

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First though, a stop at some bird cliffs. Hundreds and hundreds of birds perching and nesting on the rocks, although my zoom wasn’t big enough to give you a clear shot of them. The white stuff is bird shit.

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From there we headed out a long way, past some beautiful mountains and low islands, to a glacier.

Now: we have seen local glaciers. We have seen them from above, from the side, from below where they melt out into a moraine and a messy expanse of soil and sediment and boulders. Land-bound glaciers are impressive. But we hadn’t seen, yet, a glacier that goes down to the sea. It’s a whole different animal when you can see how tall and thick and just generally massive a glacier is.

We were wowed.

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While we were approaching, the boat slowed and our guide and the crew fished a piece of floating ice out of the water. It was quite the operation. Then he smashed it into smaller pieces with a mallet and served us all some whiskey on the rocks: the rocks being 3500-year-old glacier ice. That was something unexpected.

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(Photo credit: Helen. As usual, I’m blinking.)

It was… not very good whiskey. But we gamely drank it down anyway, you know, take a hit for the team. And it’s true that whiskey really does warm you up, so no complaints there.

And then we had drawn closer to the glacier. We’re really still quite far away, which makes it insane when you realize the scale of the ice chunks and fissures in this crazy blue-white texture.

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We had a grilled lunch on the deck. Yum. And then we headed over to Pyramiden, finally.

The history is interesting and I’ll try to summarize it briefly: although Svalbard is technically part of Norway, it’s also an international archipelago governed by a special treaty. The Russians have/had several mining communities, including one, Barentsburg, which is still running. Pyramiden was originally Swedish, then sold to the Russians, who then had to dismantle it at the outset of World War II so it wouldn’t be captured by the Nazis and used as a base. They began rebuilding after the war and production started up in 1956. It was going, going, going – with a population of 1200 at its peak – until the fall of the Soviet Union. Then it gradually tailed off and was closed in 1998. For ten years nobody was there. Now, 15 people summer there running a hotel in one of the old buildings and giving guided tours.

It was fascinating.

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Seriously. Wow.

There are major questions about what will happen to Pyramiden. The site has, unsurprisingly, horrible contamination and environmental damage issues. The governor of Svalbard reportedly wants Russia to scrub the site. But Russia doesn’t want to do much of anything (the site is still owned by the state mining company), and Norway is very sensitive to putting pressure on Russia.

Another suggestion is to turn it into a scientific research station. But, of course, scientists are the people who would care the most about the environmental issues, so there’s a bit of an issue there.

It’s pretty sad to see all the buildings abandoned: many still with furniture and empty beer bottles inside. The longer it stays not cleaned up, the less likely they will ever be suitable for use again.

Two more things of note: first, we had an awesome guide. Besides these awesome clothes, he was pretty funny and very interesting. He has lived in Pyramiden for three summers and spends his winters traveling. Last winter he hitchhiked around Iran and this year he wants to go to Argentina “so I can see some green trees for the first time in a long time.”

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And secondly, we saw an arctic fox pup playing!! (These photos are Helen’s: spot the fox!)

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Well: I’ve gotta run, but that’s the news for now. We’re off to Latnjajaure Field Station in northern Sweden, where we will have communication only by satellite phone. Check in a little later for updates when we get back!

dreary.

•July 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Tio Chris recently wrote in an e-mail:

“You do have to include some rainy miserable day pictures too.  Svalbard looks like England does in movies–always sunny and beautiful and the perfect place to be!”

So, without further ado:

Oh? You wanted to hike up to that ridge and see over the other side, out over the glacier and onto the rows and rows and rows of mountains?

Hahahahahahahahaha

It’s raining.

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(and yes, that is a huge icy glacier below Helen.)

up by the bootstraps.

•July 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Amid the recent economic downturn, there has been a lot of criticism of my generation. We say we have no jobs? Well, we’re lazy; we expect everything to be handed to us; we don’t plan for the future and then complain when the future is not good. That’s why we don’t have jobs. One common refrain is “well you should have majored in a STEM field, not the humanities, and you’d have a reliable job.”

It’s certainly true that there are jobs in the STEM fields. It’s true that a degree in biology, for instance, teaches you skills like data management and statistics which may be transferable to normal jobs. Recent census data shows that only 1 in 4 people with a bachelors degree in a STEM field go on to a job in those fields. So: there aren’t that many jobs available, actually. Good luck getting one. (Also, no shock here, most of the people who do get these jobs are men.)

It’s also interesting to hear people’s reactions when I say that I am about to start a PhD program. Getting a PhD is still so respected, so mythical: people tell me that they could never imagine receiving a PhD offer, much less doing the work to get the degree. Maybe I’ll learn otherwise, but I disagree. Do you have to be smart? Yes. Do you have to have done good work in your career up to this point? Yes. But in my mind, the biggest challenge to a long-term research degree is working really hard, working long hours, and staying motivated when there is no end in sight and things aren’t going well. It can be a very discouraging slog; many people hate their PhD project by the time they finish.

But more and more people are finishing. More and more degrees are being handed out. According to the NSF, the number of doctorates awarded increases by 3.4% annually. Clearly, achieving this is not an impossible feat: it just takes a lot of sacrifices and hard work.

Hard work is something I’m good at. That’s why I feel comfortable taking on a PhD. I think I can muscle my way through. But will it matter, in the long run?

For people in our grandparents’ generation, becoming a college professor was a good, secure, respected life. By no means easy or necessarily affluent, but solidly middle-class. Things have changed. In 1969, 78% of faculty positions were tenure-track; today that number has dipped to just 33%. The good jobs are disappearing. There are three times as many part-time faculty jobs as there were then, and reports of adjunct professors who have to work at multiple schools to pay the bills, or go on food stamps. Obviously it’s not like that for every person, but it’s not good.

So once you have gotten a doctorate, the future is really no clearer or more rosy than it was before. Friends and family might consider the achievement some sort of pinnacle or achievement; the labor market might not agree.  The same NSF report states,

“The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study fell in 2012 for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering, the third consecutive year of decline in these fields. In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2012 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or postdoc study was at or near the lowest level of the past 10 years, 2 to 11 percentage points lower than the proportion of 2002 doctorate recipients reporting such commitments.”

Only 2/3 of PhD recipients in science fields had definite employment commitments after graduation, in 2012; this was lower (closer to 60%) for life sciences, my field, than for others. If you want to stay in academia the costs are high, as a post-doctoral position earns less than half the average salary of an industry job.

I’m still not sure if I want to go down this road all the way, to become a PI (Principal Investigator: usually a professor, someone who gets a grant is in charge of a research project). But it’s clear to me that if I do, it will be challenging. I’m confident in my ability to finish a PhD, do good work, and continue to publish papers. But is this good enough to be able to have the type of life that I eventually want to have? Being smart is not enough to guarantee a professorship.

The journal/magazine Science recently made a widget for young career scientists to figure out what their chances are of becoming a PI. I filled in the information on a whim. I feel like I’m doing pretty well compared to many people at a similar point in their masters; I have a lot of research experience both in my masters and as a technician, I have a few papers published, I have made connections. I have applied for and received my own grant funding, something which is rare for students of my cohort.

Even if I don’t become a PI (or don’t want to become a PI), I think of other dream jobs – “reach goals” – and imagine that they might have similar requirements. Want to get a National Geographic Explorers Grant? Work for a nonprofit nature research group you admire in a cool part of the world? In order to choose your own future, you need to be pretty much a badass.

So I was discouraged when I saw this.

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I’m a girl, so lucky me, I’m sitting at 6% with my chance of becoming a PI.

I have written, maybe on this blog or maybe just on facebook, about why there are fewer women in science. There are more women in the life sciences, actually, than men, at early career stages. But that changes over time. There was a great article about why in the New York Times last fall. Read it. But regardless, I’m pissed: it’s not fair that I’m down at 6% while the boys are so much higher.

6%!? With all the hard work I’ve already put it? It felt like an insult.

The cool thing about the widget is that you can toggle the different variables and see how the line changes. The most important thing, it seems, is the number of first-author publications you have. I began thinking about what I could change in the next year. I will move universities to a more prestigious one and start a PhD program. But hopefully, I’ll also publish more. Publication is a long process, so the odds that anything from my work this summer is published by Christmas is zero. There’s hope though. We have one paper in review which has actually come back from reviewers and is sitting on the editor’s desk: hopefully, with revisions, they will take it. I have two other papers in progress where drafts are already being circulated among co-authors. On those two, I would be first author – the coveted position which I haven’t occupied so far.

The thing that makes a difference.

If all goes well, by the end of the year my chances could look more like this.

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So I have to get to work. And that’s science, for you: there is no relaxing. You’re in the field in a remote location? Doesn’t matter. You have to be working on papers. Haven’t seen your family in months? Too bad, keep working on papers. On vacation? Keep working on papers.

That’s the future I maybe have to look forward to – if I’m lucky and make it through.

I knew that it was tough to become a PI. Over the last decade, getting a tenure-track job is no longer the most common outcome for PhD recipients (and to be clear, I don’t mean the most common immediate outcome: I mean, outcome at all, even after one or a few postdoctoral positions). In the biological sciences, only 8% of PhDs receive a tenure-track job within 5 years of getting their doctorate.

If you get a postdoc, the future isn’t much better. 10% of postdocs are unemployed: that’s actually higher than our country’s unemployment rate. In 2012, 20% of postdocs were handed a faculty position.

There are many pros and cons to getting a faculty position, or a tenure-track one, at that. I’m years away from deciding if that’s right for me. But the knowledge that despite everything I’m doing, I might not be able to? It’s frustrating. It motivates me to work harder, but also to hate the system a little bit.

I have pride in the work that I do. I’m not asking anyone to hand anything to me. What irks me is that for myself and the many very talented, motivated students I work with, our work is not valued.

I hate being told I can’t do something, when I know that if I was just given a chance, I’d hit the ball out of the park.

It’s the worst feeling.

Science today is not the same as science used to be.

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On a final strange yet amusing note, here’s a predatory publishing e-mail I received today! Good for some laughs – until you think that people fall for this scheme. The paper they are asking about has already been published in an established journal, downloaded hundreds of times, and has copyright. So, nope, I’m not interested in paying you to publish it in paperback…. just no.

I guess to one extent, you know you’ve made it when you start receiving predatory publishing e-mails.

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