Thursday, May 31, 2007


I have been conspicuously absent from the blogging world lately, doing the obligatory weekly check in and picking a few e-friends to visit every couple of days. There have even been a couple wanderers over here from other blogs and under normal circumstances I would happily explore their space as well and see how much this stranger may have in common with me. If you are new and visiting again, have patience. I’ll seek you out eventually. But alas, these aren’t normal circumstances. There are a few good reasons I’ve been scarce, like:

  1. My schedule is jam-packed. I work full days and when I get home I usually go for a walk to get some fresh air and exercise. I’m used to being very active in the lab and this desk job is driving me stir-crazy. Then I have a late dinner and if I’m lucky I watch/listen to a bit of the Twins game before washing up, reading about ten pages of my book and then passing out at the premature hour of 10:30 or so.
  2. If I were to use the little free time during the week that I have for blogging, I would never complete a post to my satisfaction. Weekends are spent with family and friends (sort of like when I come up for the holidays).
  3. In Tampa I’d post a lot and read blogs while in the lab because the work pace is “hurry up and wait” rather than this work which is more like a slow draining of my sanity stretched out continuously over nine hours. Today my two superiors are away and I’m determined to sneak some blog time in.
  4. There is so much swimming through my head right now that I’m overwhelmed with where to begin. Since writing these posts is like my own form of therapy, I’m going to try and lay it all for you. Let’s see what advice you may have to offer.

I started off this job knowing that having done it would look very good on my resume. I was also hoping and somewhat anticipating the fit would be so good that I could expect a full time position waiting for me when I graduated. I had allowed myself to fantasize about a life where Dean and I would move back up to Minneapolis, where I’d have a great job with kick ass pay, we’d buy a cute house in the city, and start a family soon after. We’d have all of our friends and family just short car rides away and we’d all get together much more often than twice a year. Everything just perfect and wonderful. Well I’ve been working here now for close to three weeks and I can see a couple of different situations emerging from this experience. I know it’s still early, but I’m getting nervous because it’s really not that early.

Situation A. Things could turn around, and the fantasy life I had envisioned would be possible. Dealing with this situation is a no-brainer.

Situation B. I could end the summer with a clear idea that the group I’m working for doesn’t think this is a good fit. I’ve heard rumors from a couple of new full time hires that this group is difficult to get hired into. One new Ph.D. told me that his dissertation was based exactly on this group’s work but he couldn’t join after graduation because the group wasn’t hiring. He had to settle for doing something completely different but he was willing to do that because he liked the company and the Twin Cities area. Dealing with this situation would be difficult because I would be faced with the decision to start over someplace else or go for a job at this facility like the new Ph.D. did. That would be hard to do because this group is the only group at this facility that does more physics-based research rather than straight engineering. Starting over someplace else could involve starting with a fresh company or national lab or else checking out the same company at a different campus (they have facilities all over the world). I’ve heard that interning at one facility gives you an edge for full time positions at any other. In summary, this situation would force me to choose between materials physics, or stay in Minneapolis. Seeing as though I’m not qualified for much else at this point, it’s likely I’d go someplace else.

Situation C. Things could not turn around and I could feel exactly the same way about this job as I do now, but they could want to hire me. And quite honestly, I don’t love what I’m doing right now. But they are paying me a butt load just for an internship. That situation would make me choose between living near family and friends, making good money, doing some sort of magnetic physics or else just walking away because it isn’t like what I’m doing in the lab. And I love what I’m doing in the lab.

Situation B worries me a little, but I’ve talked to Dean about it, and he has the type of easygoing attitude that I need for him to have. Some days he’d like to live here again, some days the adventurer in him comes out and he goes on the internet to learn about different cities and ask me if there are jobs for me in them. It’s situation C that really has me concerned. What do I “settle” for? And is it settling if it’s a job everyone covets but me? Would things be different if I were in the quiet cubicle across the aisle with a permanent nameplate? The good news is I ask myself these questions every day, and the feelings get a little better. But the scientific culture shock is still very much there.

I knew going into this that there would be lot riding on this summer. I knew that my career, and thus our future could take shape without even having my husband here for every en-or-discouraging sign no matter how small. But anticipating it and living it are two very different things. So there. Now I’ve opened the floodgates of my mind. Any suggestions?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Eight Random Facts About Me

Damn it, Scott! I can always count on you to give me a tough assignment. It’s difficult for me to come up with 8 random facts that don’t intersect with my 100 juicy details on the sidebar, so my apologies in advance if my random facts are things you may have seen before…

  1. I am a physicist. Most of you know this by now. What you don’t know is that in high school I took advanced placement physics and advanced placement calculus classes for one trimester my senior year. I hated them and dropped them both. I just didn’t understand the physics course and I hated the math teacher. She was a total bitch. I took health and painting instead. I have always felt like not liking math and science in high school made me “not a real physicist” and a lot of my successes I attribute to overcompensating for those feelings. In college my undergraduate advisor recommended I take a calculus class to “keep my options open” since I was completely undecided. I loved the college math classes and became a math major. Then after taking the required physics courses to complete the major, I ended up in the physics and astrophysics programs. I settled for just a minor in math.
  2. In high school I worked at Bachman’s, a flower and garden center. I still know a lot about gardening and can identify most annuals, perennials, and shrubs. I started as a cashier but by the time I left as a sophomore in college I did stock, carryout, sales, customer service and even spent a few days working the help desk.
  3. I classify myself as an “anxious meat eater”. One day I would love to be a vegetarian, but with a completely carnivorous husband and a weakness for good cuts of meat it isn’t meant to be right now. I go through fits of ultra-conscientiousness and avoid it altogether but an intense craving for a steak or fried chicken inevitably ends these fits. To find a temporary balance I decided to cut my meat consumption completely in half. In practice, that means that I almost always have meat with only one meal a day (usually dinner). This seems to make me feel like I’m doing something about my “meat issues” without taking the oh-so-difficult plunge. Real vegetarians might look down on me for it, but it’s a solution that works for me.
  4. As a junior in high school I tried out for cheerleading with a friend of mine. I don’t know why I did it, it wasn’t my kind of thing at all. That’s the power of friendship in your teens. She made the varsity squad and I made the junior varsity squad. I declined the offer and went back to being shy and awkward.
  5. I’ve kept all the ticket stubs from everything Dean and I have ever done together. This includes sporting events, movies, visits to museums, and boarding passes from flights on vacations. I have two shoe boxes full in my closet. I have another shoe box in my closet full of pressed flowers from bouquets he has given me. I have been meaning to shellac them onto a picture frame for one of our wedding photos. Maybe someday when life slows down. (yeah, right)
  6. I have never broken any bones, nor had any surgery except for the removal of my wisdom teeth.
  7. When I was in elementary school, I was in an after school program until my mom could come and get me after work. In hindsight it was a good program- we had healthy snacks and played games, watched educational TV, etc. I remember my mom was supposed to pick me up at a specific time each day, and about a half an hour before she was due to arrive I would get terrible panic attacks and cry because I thought something had happened to her. When someone finally got exasperated and asked me why I was always convinced she wasn’t coming for me well before her expected arrival, they learned that I couldn’t tell time properly and in my little world she was late everyday. Things improved after this correction was in place.
  8. I am very self-conscious about my feet. Growing up I hated being barefoot and I never even used to wear sandals. I didn't like people seeing my feet and I didn't want them to get dirty. Even now, I don't usually go barefoot unless I'm in my own apartment or someplace I am VERY comfortable. I will wear sandals but only if my toes are painted and not at all chipped. If I feel like my feet are getting too dirty I will put socks on.

The meme goes that you are supposed to tag eight people. Pretty much all my blog friends that are willing to do these have done this one so I’m out of ideas. If you haven’t dons this and you want to, consider yourself tagged by yours truly. If you don’t have a blog but want to share eight random things about yourself, feel free to do so in the comments!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

First Week

Well, I survived my first week at my internship. It was touch and go at first but I persevered.

I don’t think I can tell you too much about this job because I had to sign a bunch of confidentiality agreements. I can tell you that I’m working for a large company that is well known for making hard drives. Working in an atmosphere were I am right in the middle of literally cutting edge technology is just awesome. That’s all I can describe it as.

My job is more of a desk job because I’m doing theoretical work- something I’ve had to make major adjustments for. It’s very strange to me to work in a QUIET office, at a desk in a cubicle and have extremely technical, intense physics conversations. There is no “hands on”, no “tinkering” and no equipment besides the 100 computer cluster I’ve been doing calculations on that’s located somewhere in the basement.

Another big difference is the (lack of) interaction and encouragement I’ve had. I realize that this is corporate America and I can’t expect people to hold my hand the whole time, unlike the lab where my “advisor” has that title for a reason. The attitude here is more akin to being dragged out in the middle of a lake, being dumped over the side and told to sink or swim. To continue the metaphor, I feel like I am finally starting to doggy paddle a little after much flailing and struggling to keep my head above water. And by doggy paddle I mean that I’m getting the job done though I’m somewhat slow and inefficient.

I knew I would miss Deano while I was away, but I thought it would be more like the dull ache I feel when I leave for a week here and there for holidays and conferences. What I didn’t anticipate was the void I would feel not having him here for me during a few of the most stressful days I’ve ever had. You know you’re an adult when your parents try to comfort you, but you really just want your husband to hold you and tell you it’s going to be okay. Because let me tell you, I’ve had my doubts this week.

I’m not going to write much more right now because my ass is dragging. The hours are long and the intellectual and emotional challenges have drained me. There is so much I want to do while I’m in my hometown but at this rate I’m not going to get much done. I guess I have to just get used to things though I know it will take a little while.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Getting Smoked Out

Besides leaving Dean and the kitties for three months, I was worried I would miss the tropical haven that is my home down here in Tampa. Not so. The smoke from the fires that have been raging in every county of Florida feels like fingers nudging me to leave. It is irritating my sinuses and my eyes are bloodshot with sand paper eyelids. Normally this time of year, we would be getting our regular afternoon showers followed by the eerie steam that rises from the asphalt. Today the fog comes from the sky and is leaving ash on my car and the aroma of bonfire in my hair. I can't help but think of An Inconvenient Truth when I see news of the droughts that have taken over the country right now.

I'm pretty much packed all but the bare necessities I need right up until I leave the house. Dean has his plane tickets ready for June and as soon as I get a feel for the work environment I'll look into spending the long weekend around July 4th in Tampa. Maybe we'll get some rain by then.


Kitten update: The bad news is I wasn't able to get pictures of my four furry bundles. The good news is that there was no reason to take pictures for the adoption website- they went to the PetSMART adoption fair last Saturday and all of them have homes!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Loose Ends

Today I met with Dr. Hari for the last time before I leave. This whole week has been a week of “last times” which is only adding to my wrecked nerves. In the lab I’ve been explaining to my lab mates where I left off on measurements so they can resume smoothly after I’m gone. At home I’ve been training Dean to be a feral cat caregiver. I’ll think he’ll make a good crazy cat lady. The mood in the lab has been exhaustion mixed with excitement as I struggle to tie up loose ends and get ready for a grown up job. At home, the mood has been melancholy, wistfulness and sentimental. This isn’t going to be easy.

At the meeting today we discussed the status of my (several) projects. Dr. Hari wants to know if there are any updates to give collaborators. We went down a rather extensive list and got to a collaborator whose sample is giving us trouble. The data we get is intricate, the curves display four distinct features- I am used to interpreting two, at most three features and this one has me stumped. When Dr. Hari and I met with him in Denver to go over it, we all agreed the data was interesting but that we would need to be careful trying to explain what is happening. Afterwards, Dr. Hari told me that we had already spent an exhaustive amount of time on this sample and since we didn’t know what was going on with it, we should think about not pursuing it any further. After that, I made a couple other graphs and notes to bring to the project to completion to a level where I was satisfied putting it away for awhile.

It was wrapping up our meeting when I off-handedly asked Dr. Hari if he wanted to take a look at my final thoughts and attempts at interpreting this data. He shrugged and opened the entire PowerPoint file we had presented to the collaborator with my final slide added to the end.

He looked at the entire file as if he had never seen it before, marveling at how nice the data looked and expressed a lot of interest in rekindling our collaboration. I reminded him about our difficulty about interpretation, when he started listing off various possibilities and said he was immediately going to start reading up on the material. He was going to personally call our collaborator and talk about how to proceed. It was like I was presenting this data to a completely different person. When he got to the final slide I added to the end, he started talking about presenting it at the magnetism conference in November.

Why am I telling you this? It sounds great, right? Well he then yelled at me for “sitting on” the data too long without doing anything about it.

He told me two months ago not to pursue this project.

Being a grad student sometimes involves nodding your head and taking heat when you know to be in the right. I think this is a good lesson for the real world.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking

I just finished reading this month's book group selection, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It chronicles Didion's first year as a widow, during which her daughter was also seriously ill. Didion objectively recounts a journey into paralyzing grief as she tries to cope with losing her husband of forty years and the prospect of losing her daughter. It combines her raw emotions of loss with the clarity of hindsight into her marriage. Her speculation of whether he had premonitions of his own death is intertwined with instances which she terms "the vortex"- the tendency of routine sights to trigger a cascade of memories. It was beautiful, and heartbreaking. Stunning with its nakedness and at times I laughed out loud as she admits to the absurdity of her thoughts during that horrific year. It was the absolute wrong book to read days before leaving my husband for the summer.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Baby Thief

One of the dumpster kitties looks exactly like Nellie did when we first got her (that was about 10 pounds ago). For that reason, and because she is a total sweetheart, she is one of my favorites. At the end of February, I had an opportunity to get a free spay/neuter through Spay Day USA so I was hoping to trap her because she is one of the few females I haven’t fixed. Well I had an awful time trapping anybody the night I was supposed to get one and when a male walked into the trap I thought I should just take what I could get. Sure enough, just a few days later, the Nellie-cat starting showing a bulge. She was growing kittens. I didn’t quite feel the same dread as when I used to see the perpetual pregnant cat sporting a belly. I was almost a little excited for her to be a mom. Weird, huh? Part of that I think was because Nellie was a mom, too. She had two kittens with her when she was rescued as a stray and I sometimes wonder what kind of a mom she was. I know that’s silly, they go on pure instinct and they probably all act the same or close to it.

I watched the “Dumpster Nellie” get bigger until one day she was scrawny again. I had hopes of getting her kittens out of the woods and into foster care to be adopted, but I wasn’t terribly worried about it. I figured given her size she couldn’t have had more than one or two, which would be a couple more mouths to feed but not a catastrophe. Things are pretty well under control at this point.

Monday night when I went to feed (just a little later than usual), I saw her babies. There were four of them, all lying in a kitten pile on an abandoned cushion sort of in the woods. THEY. WERE. CUTE. About 4-5 weeks old and not yet taught to be scared of humans. I called Heather, my feral cat consultant, who was hot on getting them out of there as soon as possible. Now with two weeks to go before leaving for the whole summer, I am up to my eyeballs in finishing up experiments, brushing up on magnetism theory so my new boss doesn’t think I’m an idiot and getting ready to be away from home for three months. I wasn’t thrilled with the notion of finding a place for these kittens to be. Then Heather told me that if the raccoons find the litter, they might eat them. That got me riled the hell up. I went back out that night with a cardboard box but they were already hiding. I hardly slept a wink Monday night worrying that the raccoons would get Dumpster Nellie’s kittens.

The next morning I went to feed and after a minimal amount of poking around, I looked under a thatch and found four pairs of eyes staring back at me. I called Heather back and before work she came over and helped me rescue the kittens from their nest. The thatch was actually covering a metal grating, with a hole the right size for kittens to get in and out of, but not a good size for human hands to reach in and get them. We had to carefully maneuver their wriggling bodies out without scraping up against the rusty metal. They cried and tried hissing at us, which absolutely broke my heart. What broke my heart even more was seeing the mama watch us take her kittens. My mom always says that the right thing to do is rarely the easiest thing to do. I still feel like the scum of the Earth taking her kittens from her. I have to just have faith that if she could understand she would approve. She doesn’t seem especially mad at me, and she recognizes me as the lady who feeds her, so maybe she does know that they’re safe. It definitely must be easier on her to watch someone she trusts even a little bit to take her kittens than to see a raccoon get at them. This is what I have to keep telling myself three days later.

At that point the kittens were in my care. It was 8:45 a.m. and I had a meeting at 9:30 and I had no idea how long I would be held up. At that age, it is always a worry whether or not the kittens can eat on their own, and I figured if I didn’t see them eat within a couple of hours I would have to take them to the emergency room. So me, the four kittens and two cans of kitten food piled into the car went to the lab. It actually went over pretty well. They ate enough for me to relax and though the temptation was strong to blow off my experiments and snuggle them all day, I had a ridiculous amount of work to do. They pretty much resumed the kitten pile position and slept all morning anyway.

In the afternoon, a lady Heather had told about my kittens called me up and told me that if I got the kittens tested for feline leukemia (FLEUK) and feline HIV (FIV) and they turned out healthy, she would find a foster home that would take them. I was a little relieved since having young ones in my care made me nervous. They were, however, much older than the kitten I briefly had a few months back. The lady who offered to help happens to be in charge of the Campus Cat fund at my university. They pay to have the feral cats on campus fixed, vaccinated and fed. She said since I was a student living right across the street from campus the fund would pay for the testing, which can run about $20/cat.

After I got most of my stuff done, around 4:00, I loaded the car back up and took the kittens to the vet the Campus Cat lady had referred to me. That’s when the crisis and the chaos ensued. I thought the testing would consist of blood drawn from the kittens, and then I’d take them back to my place and drop them off in time for Dean and I to go to the Twins game at the Trop. The nurse at the vet’s wanted to keep them. I told her I wasn’t aware this was the plan and that I thought I was going to take the kittens until the test results came in. If the tests were all negative, THEN Campus Cats will find them a foster home. I assumed if they tested positive, the next step was Cat Call, an organization that will adopt out both healthy and FLEUK/FIV positive kittens. That apparently was not how they did things. They would take the kittens and if they tested negative they would hold them until Campus Cats found a foster home. If they tested positive, that was the end of the road for them. I did not find that policy acceptable. It wasn’t an option for me, who was already attached to the kittens, and even more attached to their mama. I simply was not willing to do that. So I told the lady she could keep the kittens over night for testing but she was to call me as soon as there were results. If the results were bad, I would come get the kittens and figure something else out. She jotted down my name and phone number in the file and said they’d call in the morning.

At that point is when the paranoia started. I called Heather practically in tears at the very notion of my kittens being euthanized. I know the nurse said she’d call me back, but could I believe her? Heather said she had no idea that’s what would happen and that she too thought the kittens were just going in for testing then coming back to my place. She called the Campus Cat lady again and said there was a mix up and that I would need to have the kittens back if they tested positive rather than the usual policy of euthanizing. The lady was a little annoyed but agreed to make a concession for my case, since I pleaded ignorance at being relatively new to this. I called the clinic once again to make SURE the nurse was going to call me with the results, at which point I offered to pay out of pocket for the testing if it was a matter of going against Campus Cat policy. She tersely said it wasn’t necessary and again told me she’d call in the morning.

So I had another sleepless worrying about the kittens. This time not a raccoon getting them but a mean kitten-killing nurse.

I called first thing in the morning to make sure the kittens were okay. They hadn’t been tested but were playing and eating well. The notion of them playing made me feel better about taking them from mama. I don’t know that feral cats can do a whole lot of playing without worrying about food and predators. Already things were looking up for them.

At 2:30 p.m. after an obscene amount of anxiety and emailing/calling back and forth between Heather, Campus Cat lady and me, the vet called to tell me my kittens were healthy. They are still a little young to be away from each other but are going to an adoption fair on Saturday for “pre-adoption”. I know they’ll be the cutest ones there!

She also said she’d email me pictures. I will definitely upload the cuteness when it comes.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My Own Small Way of Sticking it to the Republicans

Yesterday I was doing some experiments for a collaborator. The idea was to see if our unique measurement was sensitive enough to detect cells loaded with magnetic nanoparticles. We are talking about a handful of teeny tiny particles in just a handful of cells. Can our instrument tell which cells have nanoparticles and which don't? The uptake of nanoparticles by cells is very important for things like targeted drug delivery and hyperthermia. That was the experiment yesterday in between cat stuff which is another long story still unfolding.

After the experiment was done (the results haven't been analyzed) I asked the grad student who brought the cells over what type of cells they were. She told me they were human embryonic stem cells. I was flabbergasted. Stem cells were something I had just read about in popular science magazines and amidst political debates. I know more about them than the average citizen but not more than many scientists. She must have seen the look of surprise on my face and got very defensive.

"Shoot. Did I need to discuss this with you? Are you one of those people that is going to have issues with this?"

"No! I think it's awesome!"

I did stem cell research yesterday. Ha!