Tuesday, December 08, 2009


One of the things we are encouraged to do at the lab where I work is volunteer. There are several local community programs which have been approved for employee participation. While we of course do not need approval to volunteer our time, these specific programs allow for up to 2 hours a week paid leave for employees wishing to participate and I have been told that public outreach is highly regarded by management when it comes time to decide which postdocs get to stay for good.

I have enjoyed volunteering in the past, but needless to say, there really aren’t any approved opportunities for federally employed scientists to sterilize feral cats. The next best thing is working with kids. There is a program that my group leader heads which hosts scientific workshops for elementary kids once a week. The scientists involved take turns lecturing, demonstrating and then guiding students through that week’s science experiments. To be quite honest, this didn’t appeal to me at all. While I like kids, I am still a physicist and my ability to connect with audiences is lacking. I have never liked doing demos and if I liked lecturing I would have stayed on the academic path. And while I’m being brutally honest, the fact that these workshops take place early on Saturday mornings was less than appealing.

I felt bad turning down the woman who approached me to join this program and I’m thankful it was her and not my boss, who is careful not to pressure me into anything. I will gladly work 12 hour days in the name of research, but my Saturday mornings are for stumbling out of bed just as Deano returns from the bakery with bagels, coffee, and the paper, thank you. I told the woman to please keep me in mind for other opportunities, and I meant it. So I was very happy when several weeks ago this same woman put me in touch with the local branch leader
of the American Association of University Women. The Gaithersburg AAUW runs a program that pairs local career-oriented women with eighth grade girls from a local middle school. The program’s main objective is to provide mentoring to girls with academic potential who are perhaps lacking in one or more of the tools necessary to succeed in high school, college, and beyond. Furthermore, studies show that girls growing up in homes where neither parent went to college are at a disadvantage for attending college themselves. By introducing these girls to college graduates, their chances for success immediately improve. Since this is a one-on-one atmosphere, I felt more confident in my ability to connect and provide meaningful insight to a young girl who is looking for a role model. So I joined, and I am happy I did.

Our first session was just for mentors and it was a presentation by the AAUW branch leader explaining what a mentor is and what we can do for the lives of young women who are reaching adolescence in an age unlike any other, where college educations are absolutely critical and careers must be chosen with care. Our second session was Parent’s Night in which the mentors got to meet the girls they were paired with as well as the girl’s parents. I really hit it off with the girl I was assigned to. I know that the woman running the program asks the girls about what they want to do when they grow up and tries to pair them with mentors of similar careers. My girl doesn’t want to be a scientist per se (she wants to be a doctor), but she likes science and most importantly, I see a lot of myself in her which gives me a strong desire to reach out and help her get through this confusing time.

That isn’t to say the program is perfect. We spend two weeks exploring career options, several weeks talking about what to expect in high school, what to expect in college as well as discussions on peer pressure, bullying and substance abuse. I think this is great, but I really think there is too much emphasis placed on careers. If I could tell 13-year old me that I was going to be a physicist I would have never believed it. My career path was highly circuitous. In high school I was clueless and in college I tried a number of classes and majors. It took me an extra year to graduate, but I can guarantee I am happier than many of my classmates who knew what they wanted and pursued it essentially wearing blinders. I have not wanted to scare my mentee, but I have been trying to convey to her that many people don’t end up doing what they thought they wanted, not because they couldn’t achieve their goals, but because along the way they found something they liked better, maybe something they didn’t even know existed. The career quizzes seem to cover a lot of ground, suggesting some pretty unusual careers (adventure therapist? snowboard designer? tattoo artist?), but still I would stress that these girls are not yet completely who they are going to be. I am relieved that as of now she has chosen a career that will always be in demand and seems to have interests that would lead her towards a recession-proof profession. But most of all I am excited for what is to come and hope I can help this girl find her way.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Crisis of Camera

Awhile back someone suggested that if I can’t post very often perhaps I could post some pictures of the kitties, the apartment or the area. Great idea! One of the first things I wanted to take pictures of and write a very short post about was the new Drinkwell Water Fountain we bought for the kitties a few weeks ago. I wanted to give my ringing endorsement for this product and show each of the kitties using it (either for drinking, bathing, or splashing each other). So I got out the camera to discover that the battery was dead. I removed the battery and set it aside while I looked for the charger, which I thought was in my “pile”. I never found it. I searched high and low for this thing. I never found it. So I broke down and ordered a new charger from Amazon. That took a good week to get here. When it finally came, I went to insert the battery and I couldn’t find it. The stupidest thing is that I know I set it someplace thinking specifically that it would be a safe place where I wouldn’t lose it. I looked everywhere for the battery. I checked under every piece of furniture that we have (in case the kitties got to it – I recently found an entire roll of stamps Dean thought he lost for good, it was under the bed…). I didn’t order a new one, but I think I am going to have to. In the meantime, I thought I would share some picture that my mom and stepdad took while they were here a couple of weeks ago. We had a fantastic time. I got to show them our new town, our new apartment, and all our new furniture. Plus, they got to see Washington, DC for the first time.

To my disappointment, I couldn’t be with them the first day they got to see DC. They came in on a Wednesday afternoon, and I had to work Thursday but I took off Friday. So I gave them directions to ride the metro into downtown themselves. To their surprise, they happened to go downtown by themselves on the same day as the Michele Bachmann tea party rally. It is ironic that they all come from the same state though my mom and Tom would stress that they do not subscribe to her bizarre ideology. Nevertheless, they did a lot of gawking.

Friday I had the day off and we went back downtown since the weather was beautiful. We saw the rest of the monuments that Mom and Tom didn’t visit on Thursday, which was good because I hadn’t yet seen the Jefferson Monument, the FDR Monument or the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. We had a couple extra hours to spare so we checked out a couple exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History. I love that the Smithsonian museums are free, because they are perfect for just such an occasion. You can spend days there, but I prefer to choose one or two exhibits at a time so that I don’t become over saturated with information.

Saturday we decided to get away from the city a bit and visit some Civil War sites. We first visited Harpers Ferry, a town that changed hands during the Civil War eight times due to its strategic placement and the armory it housed. We first got lost in the actual town which was a bit of a frightening place. Think mountain town with lots of trailers, abandoned furniture and angry looking dogs. What we didn’t realize that we wanted to see was the Harpers Ferry National Park and the Historic District. Once we found them, the park was gorgeous though the Historic District was a bit of a tourist trap.

After that we drove the 30 or so minutes to Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the bloodiest single day in the Civil War. Approximately 23,000 Americans died there on September 17, 1862. I'm not a big believer in ghosts or spirits, but the old farm that served as the site of the standoff between the Union and the
Confederacy had such a palpable feeling of sadness and loss. To walk the ground that had one time been soaked with the blood of American pitted against American was something I just could not wrap my mind around. We later visited Antietam National Cemetery, where many of the Union Soldiers that died in that battle were buried. Interestingly, the cemetery remained a national cemetery until the ‘50s so there were soldiers from both World Wars buried there as well.

Sunday we again took the metro downtown and went to the Wizards game. It was so much fun. My Mom and Tom are huge basketball fans (they must be to be Timberwolves season ticket holders, right?) and picked out some really nice seats for us. Dean and I treated them to a round of beers and while we were waiting in line on the concourse we saw Wolf Blitzer. The whole game was great (even though we lost) and we are going back next Saturday.

Oh, and here is the only picture of our apartment currently in existence. I only wish our awesome coffee tables were in the shot, but maybe next time.

So hopefully that will tide you over until my camera crisis is resolved. But with my luck, once I finally get the battery, my whole dang camera will be lost.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


My name is Natalie, aka magnetbabe. Once upon a time I used to blog here, and at times quite regularly. While I have tried to gradually lower expectations for regular updates, I have become aware that my lack of posting has made some of you worried, frustrated, or even confused. I apologize for that and while I can always try to do better, that doesn’t always mean I will do better. The biggest impediment to my regular updates is that fact that I absolutely cannot blog at work. I don’t think it’s a big secret where I work, or for whom, but it has been made clear to us that social networking via blogger, twitter, facebook, etc. is forbidden on government time. It is not forbidden to have a blog or have a facebook page (though it is strongly encouraged that all privacy settings be enabled) but suspicious traffic to those sites using government computers is monitored. While I totally understand where they are coming from with this (in theory none of us should be blogging at work and taxpayers would be understandably upset to see federal employees spending their days taking facebook quizzes) it does hamper my online activities considerably. I will justify this statement by saying that research in general is laden with downtime. You heat something up, cool something down, let something react, press a button that cycles and entire experiment and all these things involve waiting. This isn’t news to any of us in science which is why internet activity is considered just part of the routine. But as I have learned over the past four and a half weeks, public service does require some sacrifices and from what I have experienced in my short time here, those sacrifices are well worth the rewards of a challenging, meaningful career.

So. Why don’t I just write up a blog post when I get home? Or on the weekend? Welll…. Easier said than done. By evening I am usually exhausted from working and preparing dinner and the last thing I want to do is get back on the computer after hours of reading papers online or staring at data. Plus, how can Deano and I catch up on our days when one of us is glued to the computer? So that leaves the weekend. Have I mentioned that Washingon DC is a totally over stimulating place to live? Free museums, festivals, demonstrations, ceremonies, two baseball teams, and excellent food combine to make my weekends even more tiring than my work weeks. We’ll see how things go in the few weeks. Baseball season is effectively over – if I can’t see a team in person (like the Nats or the O’s) or root for them in good conscience (like the Twins) it might as well be over. And I could just like to say that I was incredibly proud of the Twins winning the division, and then horribly, terrifically embarrassed by their performance against the Yankees. My intramural physics department softball team from USF could have scored more runs than that. And the weather should be cooling down a bit. We only have a few more weekends to do the outdoor things downtown that we really want to do, most notably going on the Monuments by Moonlight trolley tour.

Dean started his new job this week. He is working for a large car insurance company outside of Baltimore. He seems to like it, it is a position that he had held in Tampa for a different company. Even though he complains about the actual duties, he excels at it and of course everyone loves him. I have a feeling he won’t be so adamant about packing our weekend full of activities once he has a few 40 hour week weeks under his belt. But maybe that’s just the cynic in me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to say. I would like to sit down and write a post about what my actual job is, despite the fact that the description would probably put half of you to sleep. And the ever-present rant on the level of political discourse occurring in our society is always front and center in my mind. I definitely want to post some pictures. Our new “grown up” jobs have given us some financial freedom to replace our couch, loveseat and coffee table with a new set a few weeks ago. I ordered a TV stand this week that I’m very excited about, and Dean’s talking about that big flat screen he’s been dreaming about since Florida. I keep saying once it all comes together, then I’ll send pictures. Embarrassingly, we still have quite a few boxes sitting around.

But I miss you guys. I knew most of you aren’t posting as often as before. Is life just busier or has blogging run its natural course? I hope not. I don’t find tweets or facebook status updates nearly as informative, or frankly, as intimate. But that’s just me. I feel like it’s been 18 months since I’ve had a real routine where I felt comfortable and that I had time for everything I want to do. Even though I miss them dearly I couldn’t ever imagine caring for a colony and doing TNR and fostering on top of what I’m doing now, which makes me a little sad because I had hoped to volunteer. I wanted to join a reading group, but I’ve only read 100 pages since the move. But the upside is that my days are filled with more satisfying business than before and my mental and physical health in general is strong. Anyway, I hope you all don’t give up on me. I’m still around, just more sporadically. For now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

MB Goes to Washington

Hi Folks! I just wanted to check in and let you all know things are going great. I apologize for not getting up and running sooner, likewise about the absence from your blogs. It's all been a little overwhelming.

We left Providence on September 4th. The movers came that morning. It was a very surreal feeling, waking up in our apartment with everything in its place and then three strangers came and packed and loaded our stuff on the truck in a matter of hours.

Because I have anxiety in general with driving and specifically on the interstate, we decided to drive the cars down to Maryland overnight. After the movers left, we cleaned the apartment and went out to dinner. We we got back, we loaded up the cars, loaded up the kitties and got the hell out of town. This past year has been tough for a number of reasons. Even though I was so nervous to drive for 7 hours, it felt so cathartic to just leave it all behind and start over. I still can't believe it.

Needless to say it was a very long day and night. We were exhausted by the time we pulled into the Waffle House in Frederick. That was our initial destination since we knew we would be quite a bit earlier than the apartment complex would open. We had a delicious breakfast while watching the sun rise. After our final dose of caffeine for our long journey, we drove the last 25 miles into Gaithersburg. We were still a little early so we walked around the apartment complex and the neighborhood for awhile.

We got into our apartment okay once we met with the manager and proceeded to pass out on the living room floor for awhile. It took us a few days to recover from the whole ordeal. But now were are getting used to everything and have found our groove.

Our first week in Gaithersburg was awesome. I am ashamed to say it, but I am really enjoying the suburbs right now. I have never not lived in a city. That isn't to say I am done living in the city, but for where we are in life, this is perfect. And I'm very close to the lab. We went to Washington twice (we live close to the metro), both times going to Nats games. The second time we also went to the National Museum of American History which was very cool. We've also been furniture shopping but we promised ourselves we wouldn't make any decisions for one week to prevent impulse buying. We are very happy with the apartment. We are getting a little tired of renting, but this place is very comfortable. The bedrooms are huge and we each have our own bathroom which is nice. The balcony is huge and faces the woods which is makes me (and the kitties) very happy.

I started my new job yesterday. It's been mostly paperwork and training so I haven't done any experiments yet. But from what I've learned about the lab and the people I've met I have a feeling I'll be very happy here. The facilities are amazing and the Institute is deeply committed to research excellence as well as public service. I am already proud to be a part of it.

Dean is still looking for a job. He's had two unsuccessful interviews and is feeling a little discouraged. I don't blame him, but really it hasn't been a very long time and our savings along with my new salary is more than enough for us to live comfortably for quite some time. I really want him to take his time and find something that makes him happy. Not so secretly, I want him to follow my lead and look for federal employment. There is a lot out there right now. In the meantime, there is still lots of unpacking to keep him busy. I really can't believe how much stuff we have. I promise to post pictures one we get the new furniture and this place gets put together. Right now, things are still a little chaotic. But I'll try to be around more. Outside of government hours, of course.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Signing Off

Thanks guys for all the compliments and well wishes. The movers will be here at 8:30 tomorrow morning. We called to set up a cable/internet account at the new place and were stunned to learn that they have to install it in person and the soonest they could come is September 13th! I'm VERY upset that I have to be off line for 9 days with the possible exception of an internet cafe if we can find one. Dean pointed out there was actually several years that we were alive before the invention of the internet. I don't remember that at all. I'll check in as visit you all just as soon as we get hooked up in our new place.