another paper.

In case you missed it – we had another paper published! I’m really happy that things seem to be getting out there, little by little. Of course, about the same day, I also got some comments from co-authors on another manuscript which left me with tears of frustration thinking of all the months I had spent on this darn paper, only to have to basically start all over again…. if only I had known what they thought earlier! well, such is life.

At least we have one more published to celebrate.

Here it is (open-access, free for anyone to download): ta-dah!!

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gotland nature photoset.

Thanks to my three friends who have come to visit in the last month, I’ve seen a lot more of the island than I had before – by car, by bike, and by foot. And it’s a pretty incredible island. Have a look, then plan your own vacation.

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spring in Gotland.

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Over the last few weeks I have been lucky to receive some great visitors to Visby. First my mother came and now two other friends (one at a time!). It’s always amazing how sometimes you don’t do things or see the sights in the place you live until other people come to visit. Suddenly you feel you have to show them around, and you realize you don’t know how! So I’ve learned quite a bit about Visby and Gotland in these days.

It has also been nice because as tourist season approaches, more and more things are opening up, whether it is cafes and restaurants or the ruins of old cathedrals. This weekend I was able to finally go inside some of the ruins and man, they were incredible. So thanks to my visitors for finally getting me outside doing things (and eating some FANTASTIC food, as I rarely go out to eat by myself here in Sweden, $$$$).

When my mother was here we rented a car and ventured to the far north of the island, to Fårö, which is actually an island of its own. We took a small ferry across the channel (just a five minutes ride or something – in the U.S. they’d just build a bridge, but the ferry was great and I prefer it!) to the home of Ingmar Bergman. Confession, I have never seen a Bergman film. But I will have to now. Fårö is amazing. I don’t have much time to write, but here are a few pictures. Click to enlarge.

gray but grand helsinki weekend.

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It’s been a while since I did something quite so frivolous, but I made a spontaneous trip to another country this weekend. I was in Stockholm for three days between when my mother left (thanks for visiting, mom! highlight of my spring!) and when I’m heading to Canada for my grad school visit. Instead of flying back to Visby or taking the ferry, at not insignificant cost and only to be home for one working day, I figured I’d go see one of the nordic cities that was still on my list of to-visits. The flight to Helsinki was only $100. I bought the ticket.

Unfortunately, as my friend Aino said when I asked her what I should make sure to see in Helsinki, “It’s definitely not the best time of year there.” I think it was sunny for a grand total of about two hours during my entire visit. But that didn’t make it bad. Far from it. I think that Helsinki is one of my favorite cities I have visited so far: it’s very alive, and has a fascinating and beautiful mix of classic style, art deco architecture, and modern design. I loved it.

Right off the plane I took the bus to the city and walked to the design museum. On the way there, I was serenaded by a string quartet. They were pretty good, and it was a lovely omen for my visit.

The design museum was great. I can’t say I know a lot about design, and tend to be pretty ignorant of modernism – I had to take art history in middle school, but we never got past the 1920’s and didn’t cover architecture at all. Sure, I’d heard of Alvar Aalto and seen Marimekko prints everywhere. Other than that, I was pretty ignorant of Scandinavian design, other than knowing that it was based in simplicity and functionality. I remember staying in Aino’s flat in Davos in December, and being amazed at how sparse it was. Yet every single item in that flat was beautiful.

The design museum took me through how such an aesthetic emerged. I admired the handcrafts that were the pride of Finland in the late 1800s and early 1900s; saw a video of the amazing Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair; watched the shift from classic European and Russian elements to art deco; and then, suddenly, the emphasis on functionality of the mid-century postwar years, where Finland became the most acclaimed country in Europe in terms of design. Tableware, art pieces, everything was beautiful. Glass in particular. Then plastic. Cute pop clothes. Finally, angry birds.

I understood how my grandfather, an ad exec in 1970’s Atlanta who had traveled the world as an officer in the navy, would have admired and coveted Scandinavian glassware.

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There was also an exhibit featuring Danish artist and fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, who I had never heard of before. It was pretty fun!

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I spent much of the rest of the trip exploring the city on foot. I’ve been very busy recently and so I couldn’t spend all day every day having fun – I had to stay in my (lovely) hotel room and do some work, too. I tried to schedule those times for when it was raining. The rest of the time, I walked and enjoyed all of the details of Helsinki’s landmarks.

Poor Finland: it was part of first the Swedish empire, then given up to Russia in the early 1800s. There was a famine, then a declaration of independence in 1917 and a civil war. The country fought hard during World War II and bore the weight of rationing and deprivation. Throughout all of this, they maintained a sense of national identity. The street signs may still be in both Finnish and Swedish, but this sure as heck does not feel like Sweden. Based on my limited experience in Russia, it doesn’t feel much like there, either.

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I was impressed with the mixing of styles, which somehow felt very right. Two Lutheran churches, a few blocks away from each other, are quite famous: the cathedral, built in the mid-1800s, and the Temppeliaukion, built in 1969 (more on that later). The two buildings couldn’t be more different in many ways, but it didn’t seem strange that they should exist in the same city fabric. Plus, while the Temppeliaukion is very modern, the other churches in the city also feel quite unlike the cathedrals I have visited in the rest of Europe. Finland is strongly Lutheran and as a result the interiors generally lack ornamentation. There’s not much stained glass, no gargoyles, no paintings on the walls like in the Uppsala cathedral. The interiors are light and leave a lot of room for thought. Finland loved white colors and clean lines far before Alvar Aalto.

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One of the most amazing places was the Temppeliaukion church, a Lutheran temple designed by the Suomalainen brothers and built in 1969. Another church was planned to be built on the site in the late 1930’s, but with the breakout of war, it never happened. 30 years later, the Suomalainen brothers took over and built something completely different. It had no tall spire, like the original, more traditional plan; it was round; it was partly underground. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much.

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Inside, though? yeah.

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The space was completely amazing. It wasn’t that big, actually, and being drilled in the rock could have made it feel dark and damp. Instead, I felt the expansiveness of the space around me. It was one of the most intense sensations of atmosphere I have ever felt. The light streamed in from the upper walls, and strips of copper coiled around and around on the ceiling, creating a sense of infinity. Without a single illustration from the Bible, I could understand how you could feel God in this space.

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On Aino’s recommendation, I also went to the Ateneum museum, Finland’s national art museum. The first floor housed some amazing paintings and sculpture which helped me understand the Finnish perspective. The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, has been on my reading list for months, and my interest has only been renewed. The art was beautiful, and among the works there was mysticism as well as realism about the challenges of agrarian living and poverty. Beautiful, beautiful pieces.

The reason Aino had mentioned the Ateneum, though, is that it had an exhibition celebrating Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday! I was so excited when I learned this. I read the Muumin books growing up and absolutely loved them. In fact, the last time I went to Finland (back in 2010, when I was skiing way up north and didn’t get to see the city), I took this picture in a souvenir shop with some Muumin goods:

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Picture me equally excited as I spent an hour perusing Jansson’s work. The exhibit was quite incredible. It included a lot of original artwork from the books, as well as sketches where she developed the final form of the illustrations. There would be the same general picture as a rough line drawing, a fully articulated pen-and-ink, and in paint, for instance. I didn’t realize that the stories had also been a comic strip, so that was cool. One of her friends also built elaborate dioramas of Muumin scenes! What fun. It made me want to go find and read all of the old Muumin books in my grandparents’ house, and then buy all the ones they didn’t have. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start here).

Jansson didn’t just make the Muumin books, though, she was also a “prolific” artist and writer, as Aino said. Many works of different types, from drawings to paintings (among my favorites: an early one called “Mysterious City“, and a series of more abstract paintings of sea waves from the 1970s) and even huge frescoes.

Another highlight were prints that she made for the left-wing satire magazine Garm. Many of her messages were perfectly easy to understand even if you don’t know Finnish or Swedish. They were remarkably pointed, including during the war years. Here is a good example. This made me even more convinced that Jansson was a pretty remarkable lady. Big thank you to Aino for pointing out this exhibition!

Besides the architecture, art, and design, Helsinki was just a nice city to be in. There is lots of outdoor space, green lawns, and the port. Because of the weather I skipped going to Suomenlinna, the island fortress that is a must-visit. So I guess I have to come back another time. But it was a really delightful city to be outside in. (click to enlarge)

I’m really glad I made this weekend trip and can’t wait to come back to Helsinki in the future! I didn’t even sample the food or music scenes, both of which are fairly legendary at this point. Helsinki is becoming a more and more hip city. I hope that by the time I come back, it hasn’t gotten to hip for me.

online dating, academic-style.

Being as I defend my masters thesis in November, I recently started looking for a PhD position.

I wasn’t looking hard: most positions being advertised right now start in the fall, which I can’t do because I’ll still be working on that thesis. I assumed I’d finish up, move home and spend a few months with my parents while I searched for my next job. I just wanted to keep an eye out for what was being posted.

So I was surprised when I saw an advertisement for a position studying something I was interested in, starting in January. The lab’s research topics were like a list of my own favorite concepts in ecology. The supervisor wrote a widely-read and sometimes witty blog about theoretical concepts in ecology. It was in Canada, and I had just spent a few e-mails discussing with my friend Jean how happy she is in her PhD at the University of Manitoba and how she feels that in some respects she is ahead of her peers who are at American universities.

The posting was like an online dating profile of a match designed especially for me. If this was Tinder, I would have swiped right immediately. I was excited. (was I being catfished? stay tuned)

It wasn’t Tinder though – it was a slightly more involved online dating program, with more than a one-night stand on the line. What I had to decide was whether I would be auditioning for the chance to be married to this guy for five years. And I did want that. I wanted to reply right then, right away – pick me!! But you don’t want to seem too desperate when you’re marketing yourself around, do you? You have to play hard to get, nonchalant. I waited a day.

(just to be clear: I have no romantic designs on any potential supervisors. this one, in fact, is married.)

The PI (principal investigator) had set out a series of questions for potential applicants – what are your interests? your background? your goals? your math skills? send some unofficial transcripts too, please. I spent one weekend evening crafting an introduction letter, answering each question in turn, then realizing that an entire 15-line paragraph for one question was too much and cutting it down. My tone was lighthearted and I joked around, but then I wondered if I wasn’t being serious enough. I didn’t want to depict myself as boring, either, though. Luckily my fingernails were painted a blaring warning-red color at the time or else I would have, unnoticing, bit them down to the nubs as I wrote and rewrote each sentence, wondering if it was good enough.

I attached my CV, my million transcripts (three universities during my masters alone), contact info for my references, and a project proposal from a recent grant application to prove how I thought about experimental design. It was Sunday morning. I hit send.

Immediately I was overcome by nerves.

Would I get a first date?

On Monday, I got a reply to my e-mail. The PI wrote that I was “clearly bright and experienced, and you have a very clear-eyed sense of yourself” and he was interested in learning more about whether we’d work together well.

He likes me. I felt a flush of pride and validation. Lately nobody had been telling me I’d been doing a good job at work, because my current supervisor doesn’t even usually read the methods sections for the analyses that I do for him. He’s the equivalent of a deadbeat boyfriend in that regard.

But this new guy? He had picked me out of a crowd. Yeahhhhhh.

The response included a few more questions, as well as asking if I had any questions for him. I tried to think of good ones: how does funding work in Canada? What is the department like? How big is his lab and what is their working style? What about the school or the city make you want to stay there? Would there be money for me to go to meetings and conferences, or to external courses if I needed to learn a new statistical technique that nobody taught at the university?

Again, I had to delete about two different versions of this e-mail so that I wouldn’t seem overeager. Maybe my perception of the first date and his perception of the first date were different. I didn’t want to demand a second date, like, tomorrow. Maybe he was just being polite when he told me he was impressed with my CV; maybe he was telling that to all the other girls (um, I mean applicants). How many were there, anyway?

After I fired off that missive, the PI told me he’d start looking into my references and get back to me later. I fervently hoped that they’d say nice things about me, and then began to worry that they wouldn’t say the right things.

I also began to do my own homework. After all, me and this PI were about to get into a pretty serious relationship. It would be a five-year partnership – that’s longer than 20% of marriages last in the US – and breaking up would be hard to do. This has got to be one of the very few fields where you make such a long, binding commitment to someone after knowing them only very briefly. Seriously, it’s like getting married – and in a hurry. You see the person almost every day, and your success depends to a huge extent on them. If the relationship sours, or never even starts off right, a quick divorce looks a lot worse on the “education” section of your CV than it does in a real-world dating scenario.

Worse, you can’t make it through life just being single, which has been my (non-)dating approach for about four years now. You have to have a supervisor. You can’t do an independent-study PhD.

This was a lot of pressure. To put it differently: in no part of my life have I ever made as large a commitment to anything as I am potentially about to make to a PhD supervisor. And I hadn’t even talked to the guy yet. Our relationship was online-only.

I found that I had two friends who had worked in the department at various times, so I began asking them what they thought of the PI. It was like asking your buddies about that cute guy you hung out with at the last party, but aren’t sure if you should call. “Well he seemed nice, but I only met him that one time – what do you guys think?”

They – and their friends they put me in touch with – had decidedly mixed responses. Some thought he was a nice guy, a great explainer of ecological theory. Others thought he was not a good supervisor. They pointed to potential red flags I should pay attention to, like how some of his students had dropped out.

(That’s not unusual, exactly, and in case I end up working with this PI I won’t go into too much detail about my deliberations and conversations about his relationships with his students….)

After all of this, I was intrigued. The university and its city sounded like great places to work and live, and I have other friends living in the area. There was nothing about the PI that made me feel like running in the other direction. One friend said she thought I’d be “a great candidate to have a healthy relationship with him”.

Apparently my references/friends also said nice things about me. Later in the week, the PI asked for a skype meeting. It happened. We were both nervous and very awkward when we picked up the phone (er, the webcam). In the middle of the call, his computer crashed, although I didn’t realize it right way. All I saw was that our call was dropped, and I freaked out wondering if it was my fault and if he was offended. Hanging up on your boss isn’t exactly a good interview strategy.

We spent a lot of time talking about ourselves, trying to make ourselves appealing to the other person. Actually, this is kind of the part of dating that I find disgusting and hate.

“Well, I’m a pretty strong writer, or at least a fast one so I don’t think that finishing my manuscripts from my masters thesis will be a problem,” I said at one point, before turning bright red because I hate giving myself compliments and sounding like a self-congratulatory asshole.

“Wow, that’s something most students don’t say about themselves,” he laughed. “That’s great.”

Ugh. barf.

But things seemed possible. The project seemed right up my alley. He invited me to come to the university to visit his lab.

Wow, our relationship was moving quickly.

Then he offered to pay for the trip.

$1500, it costs to fly from Stockholm to this part of Canada on two weeks notice. Yeah, our relationship was moving really quickly.

I’m excited to go on the trip, but at this point I face an emotional conundrum that has ensnared many a woman. I like the research and learning opportunities that are being offered to me. I’m not sure yet if I will fit in well with the lab and the PI. Obviously, going to visit is the best way to find out, and even if I decide “no”, it will be really useful for me in my future searches. Free vacation! (actually, a whole day flying, two days there, and then another whole day flying – not sure that counts as a vacation)

But it’s like when you get taken out to a really fancy expensive dinner. At the end of the night, the enlightened feminist in you thinks, “I don’t owe this guy anything, we just enjoyed a lovely evening in each other’s company.” The vestiges of female guilt bred into us for generations upon generations make you think, “wow, this guy just spent a lot of money on me, I probably owe him at least a kiss.”

Basically, if I fly to Canada on this PI’s dime, he’s probably expecting me to put out. i.e., take the PhD position.

Should I go if I’m not completely certain I want to do that?

Am I using him if I spend $1500 of his money and eventually say “no”?

What kind of person am I? Do we have any independence in this life?

Ah heck, I’m going. I’m sure even shotgun weddings occasionally have runaway brides.

And maybe I’ll decide that we will have a fun and productive five-year PhD student-supervisor marriage.