Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Open the fuckin' doors already!

We are probably about 2 or 3 weeks from moving into the big fancy new building that will house the lab for the foreseeable future and it can't come soon enough. Everyday I pass by the new building and gaze lovingly at my new lab space before retreating to my current hovel with it's state issued furniture, assembled (and delivered) by prison inmates. So, so unfortunate.

But I can deal with the furniture. I can deal with the numerous water shutdowns in the past couple of months. I can deal with the flooding. I was even okay with the fact that we didn't have heat until around Thanksgiving in a climate where that is not a good thing. What I can't handle anymore is the way my lab is set up. You see, in the new building there will be a bunch of shared equipment and some shiny new toys to play with, so there is no reason for me to use my start-up funds to buy these things when I will have access to them all for free in only a few weeks. But a few weeks is not now and the holidays (backed by a big-ass grant deadline Jan 12th) have only served to underscore how much time I currently spend running around using equipment in other labs - in some cases across campus. I'm having to take some low-tech options suddenly because I can't get into some labs in other buildings and everything is taking twice as long as it should.

In theory, I still have time to get everything done... assuming that Mother Nature stops kicking me in the nads with one snow storm after another.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday weight loss program

I finally managed to figure out a good way to drop a few pounds following the holidays and a way to incorporate the whole family in the fun. It's actually really easy, all you need to do is find a virulent strain of the Norwalk Virus and let things take their course.

So, what worked really well for us was to have my wife wake up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and have to make a B-line for the bathroom. After she spent a couple hours retching, we all went downstairs in my parent's place to a nice egg breakfast, which sent her directly back upstairs. She suffered through opening presents before napping while I packed the car and the baby. At this point, we thought it might be food poisoning from the party the night before, so no precautions were being taken to avoid contaminating others. We drove the hour to her parent's place, while she managed to hold it together in the car. A second round of present opening ensued, during which she felt a bit better and even tried some liquids that stayed down. Maybe it was food poisoning and she was pulling through. That night disproved that theory, as it was a reenactment of the previous one.

The next morning we left for our own home, with me playing single parent to try and keep the baby from getting steamrolled by the virus, but to no avail. The day after, as my wife was finally feeling better, the baby began to vomit in ways that would make a Hollywood FX director jealous they couldn't duplicate. Following that, she filled her diaper (and clothes and chair) with the most horrible smelling semi-liquid I have ever encountered, and as I ran her directly to the tub, fully clothed, I was trying to figure out if my stomach was feeling ill because of the virus or what I was dealing with at the time. It turned out that I was still not infected... yet.

By Sunday the worst had passed and we had managed to keep the baby hydrated. Feeling fine and like I had dodged the bullet, I watched some of the last regular season NFL games and had a couple of beers. I don't know if that was a tipping point or not, but by 10:30 Monday morning I knew something was not right and I headed back home. By yesterday afternoon I was relegated to sitting on the toilet puking into a bucket in my hands because there was no right answer to the question "which end of my body is more explosive right now?" Luckily for me, it seems to have passed as quickly as it came and I even got a decent lunch down before coming in today.

So, nothing shaves off the pounds like not eating for 24-72 hours and purging everything from your body in a violent way. Just a suggestion for kicking those New Year's resolutions into high gear.

Monday, December 29, 2008

How anonymous is anonymous blogging?

Last night I had my 1000th visitor, which is about 995 more than I ever thought would read anything here, so I thought I would take the occasion to write about something that has been in the back of my head to post for a while.
I walked into this all a bit naive about the blogging community and it has taken me a while to get settled in and feel a bit like I know what the hell I am doing. What I'm doing here is still all a bit amateur-hour compared to the more committed out there, but I'm stumbling along, happy to do what I can. I wanted to do this blog as a way to discuss my experiences as a new faculty member in the hopes that it would help others anticipate some of the challenges they would face if they have the good fortune to find themselves in a similar situation.
One thing I did not anticipate was the variety of tools available for bloggers to monitor who visits their site when and for how long. Even creepier, I can easily figure out details of a visitor, including their server, location, even the platform, OS and browser used to access my blog. Whereas this information really does me no good, an interested blogger could easily determine, at the very least, the university home of anyone who left a comment on their blog. Initially, I had set out to introduce as little information about myself and my university into the blog but over time I have gotten lazier about details. Armed with the knowledge of my university, a couple of details gleaned from what I have written and a little bit of curiosity, one could quite easily figure out who I am. I'm not saying this happens, just that it could. For my own part, I assume that anyone else doing this is less interested in who other bloggers are in person than what they have to say in this odd little community. Plus, as someone who would prefer to remain nameless here, I extend that courtesy to others and hope they do the same. Nevertheless, I already mentioned that I came here like a country boy to the city....
So, that got me thinking whether or not I would care if someone took the time to track down who I am and I don't really have an answer yet. I know that, in an effort not to be too obvious about what I do, I have avoid writing about some things that I would really like to. Perhaps that is the sacrifice for taking this approach, but I have decided to post a bit more about science in 2009 even if it means reducing the pool of scientists to hide in. After all, what's the point of discussing a science job if you can't pepper in a bit of the science you love along the way?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The importance of The Post-doc

There has been a lot written about getting jobs on blogs recently, so I am not going to further that discussion here other than to recommend the jobs wiki as a resource to anyone in the market. It's not a comprehensive list of jobs, but if you get involved it is a tremendous way to get insight into the progress of searches. Waiting is the most maddening part of the process, especially when some schools (about half) never take the time to bother writing you back about your application. The community there can let you know when others have heard anything back from the same search committees you have applications into, reducing some of the wait. There is also a good discussion forum there.
However, what I would like to talk about in my final post before a brief break is the importance of getting a good post-doc position. I can only speak from my experience, but this is where many careers either float or end up timbers on the rocks. There are more than enough PhDs out there for the various tt positions that come up in the annual feeding frenzy, so if that is your ultimate goal it is essential to differentiate yourself from the rest as a post-doc. The following are a list of factors I would strongly recommend considering when looking for a post-doc position. Take it or leave it.

1) Do something different!
This varies between fields and some of the BioMed folks may take issue with this idea, but I think it is a massive mistake to stay within your comfort zone as a post-doc and pursue research that is very similar to your PhD work. By exploring a new field for a few years you can bring expertise from your PhD while continuing to learn new techniques and approaches to problems. Though it may not be obvious from the beginning, this will give you an advantage when starting your own research program. By combining diverse training you are more likely to come up with novel and innovative research questions that a peer who has spent their time in only one field may not think of.

2) Look for an interactive group.
Even though you will be working in one lab, it will be to your benefit if your lab is part of a collaborative group or center that regularly brings together (through lab meetings, or even socially) several different labs working in a particular sub-field rather than being isolated in a department. Not only does this open you up to new ideas and collaborations, but these types of groups tend to have more equipment and techniques available to their members, which is helpful when you want to chase something down that is out of your lab's expertise. Also, if the group is made up of PIs at different points in their careers (the established head honchos and a couple of rising stars), this is ideal.

3) Don't be a number.
Again, this may be different in BioMed, but IME, being in a lab that is not the size of a small corporation means that you can actually interact with the PI and regularly bounce ideas off them. This can be important if you follow #1 and speed your development. Also, enormous labs tend to just buy anything they need, which is great from a productivity stand-point, but sucks for your development as a researcher and thinker. Personally, I would rather be the scrappy motherfucker who knows where his meat comes from because he grew up on a farm and not the guy who sees steak as just something that is in every grocery store, as though delivered in the middle of the night by meat fairies.

4) Write, write, write.
I know this is hardly novel, but a bit too important to leave off the list. I have often heard the unsubstantiated rumor of The Rule of 20. Essentially, if you don't have 20 pubs on your CV (not all first author), SCs are going to file your application in the big round file that gets taken out by the janitorial staff. If you have a bunch of first author C/N/S papers and only 10 pubs, I'm sure this would not apply. But for the human among us who publish some in specialty journals, get the papers on your CV. My goal was to average 5 pubs a year as a post-doc. Seek out opportunities to write reviews and opinions whenever appropriate.

5) Review, review, review.
Grants, manuscripts, cake recipes - whatever anyone will send you. It may not make for the most productive of times in the short-term, but it will make you a better writer, editor and grantsmith (which is an art). Once your name gets on a few lists, and don't hesitate to mention to senior colleagues that you would be willing to review, quantity should not be a problem.

I'm sure I will think of other things as soon as a post this, but my point is that you have to view a post-doc as a transition between being a student and being a mentor. This is a developmental process and it is critical that you chose a place where you can develop the necessary skills and be selfish about the importance of this stage of your career. A good mentor will see a post-doc as more than a skilled set of hands and it is up to you make the most of the situation you are in by taking advantage of the resources available to you.

Happy holidays all.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What I've learned in four months

Arlenna at Chemical BiLOLogy recently posted a first semster roundup, which got me thinking about what I have learned in my first semester as a tt assistant prof. As lame as Top Ten Lists are, here is my Top Ten Things I Learned About Being an Assistant Prof in the Last Four Months.

10. As willing as I was to take any job where I felt comfortable, I am glad I ended up in a department where I am treated well and have colleagues that respect each other. Many of my friends have not been so lucky.

9. Having a semester off from teaching is essential. This experience has been overwhelming enough without teaching responsibilities this semester. If I had to add teaching on top, I would be seriously behind with my research.

8. A lot of the people around me have been telling me not to be as ambitious with my attempts at funding, to build slowly, etc. As DrugMonkey discussed yesterday, fuck. That. Apply for everything that fits.

7. Hiring people is both a lot harder and a lot more important that I had first thought, and it was something that I considered key before starting.

6. I count more on the people at Post-doc U than I thought I would.

5. Spend money fast and furious in the begining to get things in the lab as fast as possible, because every day counts. I filled the lab with almost everything I needed in two months and I still feel behind.

4. My wife kicks ass and I wouldn't be able to be doing nearly as much as I have without her support and effort.

3. Hire your first students based on the recommendations of people you trust. The first few people in the lab can make or break the most important time you have.

2. Get to know the grad students in other labs, they will tell you what is really going on in the department.

1. Have I mentioned that my wife rocks my shit? This job will test your relationship, especially if you have kids. It takes two to make it work, but it helps a lot if your partner is understanding and constantly encouraging.

I should move to Russia because...

All I've been doing lately is rushin'. Alright, that's a horrible pun, but better than the two I thought up before that, so there's something to be thankful for. However, there is a point here.

For the last three weeks I have been constantly up against some kind of looming deadline. I had to hurry to get ready for back-to-back trips. During the trips I had to work quickly enough to get the things I was there to do, done. I got back Thursday night and had Friday to finish up everything that needed to be dealt with before Employment University essentially shuts down for the holiday. Not to be out-done by the calendar, Mother Nature though it wold be fun to throw in another deadline by shortening the day with a massive snow storm that sent everyone scurrying out of here like rats from a sinking ship.

On the way into work this morning I had one of those moments where something I was thinking about played out in front of me, at least in a metaphorical sense. Thanks to a horrible job of plowing, the stretch of highway I have to drive was a death trap. I was preoccupied with my thoughts about the shit job I had done with a few important tasks at the end of the previous day when a car about 100 meters in front of me started to do the "oh shit" swerve about halfway up a hill. I slowed while watching the car perform as almost graceful sideways slide and catch it's front bumper on the snow bank before spinning into the opposite bank. The car lodged itself into/on a shelf of snow at an awkward angle and by the time I pulled up the driver was stepping out to survey the damage. Prior to leaving my house I had thrown a shovel in my car in case a plow buried my parked car in at work and I offered to help dig the guy out. He readily accepted, adding "I just tried to push it a little harder to get up the hill when the wheels slipped out."

As I pulled my car up to a safe spot where I could get out it occurred to me how apt the metaphor (simile?) was for me right now. There's only so fast I can go and so many things I can get done. If I try and push things out faster, I make mistakes or do sub-par work and I'm going to find myself in a heap on the side of the road. It's a bit ironic that when I need it most, my time management goes to hell, but I need to keep reminding myself to take the time that each task needs to be done right rather than rush through important things and later regret it. This should be self-evident, and yet...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An under-appreciated factor

I am not an ecologist, but everything in my lab starts in the field. It may be a small portion of the overall project, but is nevertheless essential. Because of this aspect, trips into the field are a common feature of what I do and I am just about to complete the first such trip as a faculty member, directing all of the details of a week-long quest to find very specific things in the wild. Everything worked out better than I had hoped and we should be working with the fruits of our labor for a while now.
One thing I did not really consider before the trip, however, was the impact that the student I brought with me could have on the whole week. Having been on many such trips before, I have had experiences at all points on the spectrum, from unmitigated disaster to unbridled success. For some reason I never attributed the differences specifically to the people on the trip, perhaps because they were always a complex mix of personalities who were my peers. As an advisor and planner of this trip, I have a very different perspective.
I can not understate how important it is, at least in the early stages, to have people to travel with who you are happy to spend time with. In the last 5 days I have pretty much spent every waking minute with the grad student who came along with me, in a variety of situations. Amazingly, we had a great time, had plenty to talk about and never spent awkward minutes between forced conversation. That alone made the trip infinitely more enjoyable and easy. I don't think it will be the lead criterion for selecting students in the future, but I also underestimated how important it can be. The long hours we put in are hard enough without having to look forward to time alone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ethical Dilemma

As I have chronicled, I am having a bit of an issue with a potential collaborator, but the situation is a bit more tricky than what I have written about so far. The reason I have been trying so hard to contact this person is not only because they have old (10 yrs!) data I would like to analyze and publish, but because I want to avoid an ethical dilemma that I will have to deal with, should I never get in touch with this person.

The backstory: when these data were new, “Data Producer” collaborated with another individual who had far more experience analyzing these types of data. “Collaborator” put a substantial amount of time and effort into the project and then it never got written up. Collaborator has (and had) plenty of other projects on the go and never pushed very hard to get the thing out, so the data have languished. Amazingly, these data are still relevant to the field and have a very interesting story to tell.

So, fast forward ten years to a conference over the summer where I had some time to talk with Collaborator. We got talking about a number of things and I asked Collaborator if they had any knowledge of the data that never got published, not knowing that Collaborator had worked on the project. This got Collaborator a bit steamed thinking about the time invested and the fact that nothing ever happened with the data. I discussed my inability to get much communication from Data Producer and Collaborator suggested the following: We both try and get Data Producer to resurface and participate in whatever capacity they feel like towards getting the data published. BUT, the kicker is that Collaborator still has the data and suggested that they would give it to me to analyze and publish, should Data Producer ignore our communication and fade into retirement. I would then be free to use the data as if I had produced it – and herein lays the dilemma.

On the one hand, it seems silly for me to spend the time and money to reproduce the data from scratch. It’s already done and there is nothing tricky about the process, it would just take time and money. Rather than have data lost to science, it makes more sense to use the data set already completed.

On the other hand, these data are not mine, nor will they ever be. I feel extremely uncomfortable (maybe fraudulent) using data I did not produce, without the knowledge of the person who did. I’m actually not sure I could do it. Despite Collaborator’s insistence that it would be the best thing for science for the data to be available, I don’t think it would be the best thing for me.

Collaborator did get an email back from Data Producer (just as I had originally) saying that they were interested in getting the data out and that we should work it up, but nothing has happened since. Data Producer even had the gall to ask Collaborator for my email address (apparently the 10 emails I sent in the last 5 months didn’t include my address on them), but that was two months ago and I have yet to hear anything.

So, the data sit on a hard drive and will never be published unless I either get Data Producer to agree to let me deal with them or I ignore my conscience. As hard as it has been to get in touch with Data Producer, it will be far more difficult to do the alternative.

Collaboration with Frustration: Part II

I posted earlier about a problem with a particular researcher who had agreed to work on a project together months ago, then never responded to any follow-up. Well, now I'm in their backyard. I tried today to drop by the person's office, but to no avail. I did, however, check out the departmental office and notice that this person was not on the vacation list, and thus, is probably around. The good news is that their office is between where we have to park and where we have lab space, so it's an easy drop-by every time we are on campus. But, with classes out, there is no assurance that the door will ever be open when we get there. Maybe I will try and call their cell number one more time tomorrow, but I just don't think there is much else worth doing. After this trip it is time to move on.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gearing up and getting out

Tomorrow I embark on the second of back-to-back research trips, this time to California. This one is different. Last week's trip was to work with a collaborator, flesh out the base of a grant and produce some more data by combining the techniques we each bring to the party. This week's trip is all me, and it's the first such trip for the lab. My grad student and I are heading across the country to get the preliminary data which will from the basis for me to be able to say "See, I told you I could do it" to the NSF reviewers who demanded more preliminary data (As a side note, I know that the current funding situation demands that reviewers find ways to not fund things, but complaining that someone might not be able to complete a technique only marginally different from the ones they have been doing for the last ten years is really weak). So, in a lot of ways, the results of this trip will largely determine the success of one of my January grants. If you don't think that has me wracking my brain to remember every last thing we need to bring and pretty much assuming I am going to remember a key item about halfway over Indiana, you would be very wrong. I have a pile of things in the middle of the lab and like Santa on meth, I've checked the list about 30 times, unable to trust the there won't be one undeserving child who found themselves on the "bad" list. I don't need a box full of coal from NSF next year. Alright, I have to stop listening to Christmas music.

Everything is good so far. We got some good work done right off the plane and worked things up until now, when we're both ready to crash. The only downside has been that there is some derranged Christmas train that keeps going slowly by where we are staying, as if mocking me for my earlier mentioned disdain for Christmas music. It's full of people badly singing Christmas carols to no one in particular and a Santa yelling HO HO HO. Did I mention that there is no one on the street watching, but that it goes by every hour? If it wakes me up in another hour I swear I'm derailing the fucker.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Damn the girl scouts

Is it alright to hate teenage girls for selling crack tasty cookies? What about grad students for bringing them in? I need someone to blame for my lack of self-control around those damn chocolate/caramel/coconut things.

If I had known y'all were coming, I would have worn something nicer

Well, thanks to Drug Monkey for highlighting this site yesterday and basically increasing the traffic here ten-fold. Unfortunately, I don't have a ton of time today to be insightful or witty because the list of things I need to finish in the one day I am in the office is ridiculous and our "building that is about to be demolished so they won't fix anything in it" flooded in several places last night, leaving me with a mess to clean up as well. Instead I'll leave you with my first picture post of the blog as a figure "Dr. Isis style".

Fig. 1. I like traveling to the south and enjoy the people and culture, but I am glad not to live there because of the need to put up a sign like this. One hopes to live in a place where it is taken for granted that people know not to bring guns to airports. I don't ask much.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thank effing goodness

Two days ago it looked like this trip could be a bust and that I was going to go home empty-handed, which would have made the grant we are working on significantly more difficult to "sell". Yesterday we had some major breaks, both in terms of data and realizations about how to explain some very nagging problems with our arguments regarding our data. The whole thing is still a massive mind-fuck, but at least we have a plan and a way to explain it now. Over some beers last night we worked out some details, and if I could just find that placemat we scribbled all over, I think we can pull it all together. I leave in three hours so I can be home for two days in which I get to order about a dozen things that I will need before the Uni goes on holiday, attend the departmental holiday party, remind the wee one that she still has a daddy and spend some time with my wife before I fly across the country for a whole different escapde. As crazy as it all is, I wouldn't give it up for anything.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Keeping up

This week and next week I am on the road, in North Carolina then California. It's a hectic schedule, but I'm getting a lot done... except here. It's been hard enough just staying on top of the flurry of posts from others, let alone posting anything myself. At the moment, it's taking all of limited mental energy to solve the lab and grant writing issues we are confronting this week, while preparing for a completely different trip next week. Perhaps there will be time to breath on the plane.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Excitement over teaching intro courses?

Intro courses are typically to be survived (from the UG perspective) or avoided (From the Fac perspective). They are not the type of course that anyone looks forward to enduring, wether you are teaching or attending them. Junior faculty can be loathe to be saddled with a semester (or, shudder, a year) of a first year course because of the breadth of topics one can only cover in a shallow manor and the inevitable fact that one is forced to teach at least some topics they are not comfortable with. The result of this is that these courses are often taught by non-tenure track faculty, grad students or in rare cases a movie (yes, it happens).
The problem, of course, is that this course is the foundation for all of the higher level courses in any department. When we complain that the students are not prepared for their third-year courses, why do we think that is? While there are many competent non-tenure track lecturers and many incompetent tenured (track) teachers, one can hardly argue that it makes sense to put the department's best foot forward in the first-year classroom. If only for the fact that it is the first chance to hook your future majors with the exciting stuff happening in your field. However, in my experience this is rarely the case, and I am not in a position to be upset, because I have not raised my hand to be a part of the first-year class in my department. But, that may be changing.
Employment university is going through a massive overhaul in light of the economy and that fact that the new provost wants to wear a cape to work. Our college wants to be at the forefront of this movement and is hurrying to have a reorganization plan to the provost by mid-January. In short, about 13 different departments are about to become 2. The reason I mention all this is that the ciriculum is being modified as well and there was a long discussion in a meeting I was in today about re-vamping the first-year course and team teaching it. I know there is data to suggest that students don't like team teaching because they have to adjust to different styles during the semester. I can understand that, but how is it bad that you get people in front of the classroom who know all of the details of every subject they are covering? How much easier and more fun is it to make lectures on topics you know interesting, compared to those you need to review a bit before you teach? I was surprised to see that several of the junior faculty were excited at the prospect of having a 3 or 4 week section of the intro course to really get into and the more I think about it, the more I think it could be a lot of fun. Additionally, that intensive stint of teaching (there are back-to-back sections) would count as a full course for the semester, leaving a lot more free time outside of that period. If there was a group of faculty that could work well together and coordinate their sections, I think it would really transform the class and the way the students respond to it... but maybe I'm just being optimistic.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

To PhD or not to PhD

How do you know, when you are first starting out, which students you should have graduate with a MSc and which you should try and keep on for a PhD? That is a question I have been wrestling with for a little bit now and still don't have a clear answer. There are obviously cases where it is clear, but it is the borderline situations that make it a tough call. I realize that it depends heavily on the student being willing to stick around and interested in take the project to the next step, but even when that is the case there will be students that probably shouldn't take on a PhD or are doing it for the wrong reasons. I initially enrolled as a MSc student as a grad student, then switched into the PhD program after a year. My supervisor was willing to let me do that and we had discussed it at the onset. Now I am in the position of having students and considering whether to suggest they make the same switch... or not. I am perfectly happy with my students, but is there a clear difference in the first year of grad school between those who will be successful as PhDs and those who will just get some stuff done? That I don't know yet. It is particularly difficult to tell when the lab is going through the growing pains of starting from scratch. How much of a student's progress is hindered by having to battle with new or missing equipment and reagents? It is proposal writing time, so perhaps I will get a better feel for where my students are at once we work through that process and we can sit down next semester and talk about possibilities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sometimes I hate our society

My wife and I bank at a large financial institution, which we have consistently thought about switching from but after weighing the pros and cons of switching all of our banking needs and re-setting everything up, decided to stay with. This bank recently started a promo where they would give you ten cents for every paperless transaction under the auspices that it is good for the environment, and that is something they support. Since we do most of our banking online anyway, we signed up. And then something odd happened. The bank sent us new ATM cards that they excitedly announced were made from recycled plastic, which was sure to get out environmentalist juices going. BUT THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH OUR OLD CARDS! They were not about to expire, they worked fine and we already had them. So, to recap, we now have recycled plastic cards that required energy (and plastic) to produce and resources to get them to us just so we could throw out perfectly good plastic cards already in our possesion. Dude! Fuck. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Most shocking conference experience?

Since I just got back, dealt with the things that had built up and am not quite ready to fully commit my head to work this morning (still waiting for coffee to set in) I thought I would follow up on something I posted in response to Professor Chaos' blog posting on scientific dress. I got thinking about some of the more interesting things that have happened at conferences and decided I would post two of the more memorable conference moments for me in the hopes of getting others to share theirs. The first I covered in abbreviated form in the above mentioned post but thought it worth elaborating on here. The second is from a massive conference a couple of years ago.
1. As a grad student I had the opportunity to go to a small conference, which is typically attended by a large number of heavy hitters in my field. As I read through the program it was like a who's who list of all the people who wrote the books, papers and programs I used the most. I was honored to have the opportunity to give a talk to this group, but felt rather strongly that my project was hardly worth their time. I am not the type that has a problem getting up and talking about my work, but this was a slightly more intimidating audience than I was used to. I was talking in the morning of the second day and spent the first day feeling even more inadequate after listening to talk after talk on some of the most significant research happening in my field. By the day of my talk all I wanted to do was get it over with.
The day started off with an hour-long talk by a renowned research from the UK giving a key note talk on his views of a particular subject on which he had written a book and many papers. The man looks VERY much like an elder Darwin, with one key exception - he wears a kilt and Doc Martin boots. No problem, I thought, not so unusual and scientists can be an odd lot sometimes. So, Darwin gets up to give his talk using overheads (again, not unusual at the time. Fuck, that makes me feel old), but I don't remember anything he spoke about because of one peculiarity that held my attention the entire talk. Every time Darwin approached the O/H projector the light revealed something odd through his white shirt. Specifically, he was wearing what appeared to be a lacy camisole under his shirt. On first glance I didn't believe that's what it could be, but every time he approached the glaring light I became more convinced that indeed, Darwin likes wearing ladies undergarments. By the time that it was my turn to speak I was a bit less nervous, having spent a decent amount of the morning having an internal debate as to whether I was correct in my observation. Nevertheless, I had a far more shocking discovery to make.
The auditorium was stadium seating with a decently steep incline and I stood in front of the room looking up at the audience and feeling a new wave of anxiety kick in. I got a couple of slides in before I scanned the crowd and got an unexpected sight. It turns out that Darwin conforms to tradition when it comes to kilt wearing and in panning the audience I found more than eyes staring down at me. I don't even remember going through the two slides subsequent to the sight of Darwin and his "boys" observing my talk and am still unclear whether I even said anything or just numbly flipped through, but no one mentioned it to me afterwards, so I assume that I was at least minimally coherent. However, I am pretty sure that I will forever remember that talk, not for the significance of the data, but because I now shiver whenever anyone gives the advice "picture the audience naked", because it aint pretty! As if to quell debate, this same man has now taken to wearing skirts, abandoning the ambiguity of the kilt, and what can really only be described as blouses. The Doc Martins remain, however.

2. My second memorable conference experience is a bit more tame. I was invited to speak at an enormous conference in Chicago when I was a post-doc. It was the kind of conference I would never normally attend because the abstract book was as big as the Chicago yellow pages and there were 15 parallel session running on most days. That kind of meeting is just not conducive to meeting anyone and not at all the kind of thing I look forward to, but they were paying my expenses so I thought, what the hell. The conference was being held at the downtown Hilton, which is a place I will never stay again. To my amazement, the hotel did it's very best to nickel and dime people staying there for every little amenity possible, whereas the Econo Lodge on the same block provided the same services for free, at a lower per night cost. One could argue that the rooms would be nicer in a Hilton, but these rooms were nothing special and barely fit the bed and a desk. In addition, the hotel was so massive that the line to check in was longer than those at the airport. It took 45 minutes to navigate the maze of velvet ropes to the front desk.
As if the over 3000 conference participants were not enough to make every common space in the hotel seem like a bee hive, on the second day of the conference group after group of middle-aged women started showing up. Apparently there was a "Pampered Chef" conference running concurrently with the one I was attending. It wasn't the added number of bodies that was a problem, however. Descending on the Hilton was about 1000 housewives who were out on the town without the husband or kids. Individually this might not be a problem, but in packs... Like some bizzaro Mardi Gras, after about 6:00 pm any young male had to move around the hotel quickly and without making eye contact, lest he hesitate long enough to be surrounded. I watched as the overwhelmed bar tender fended of multiple requests for him to remove various articles of clothing, a flurry of sexual innuendo and more offerings or "body shots" than anyone should have to endure. I even had my ass slapped walking through a crowded hallway as a group of giggling women scurried off behind me. The whole week was one of the more unusual conference experiences I have ever had, and memorable in many ways.

Annnnnnd, we're back

Absolutely needed that break and happy to be back at things this week before being gone next week and the week after on two separate trips. It was nice to have a break before this push over the next couple of weeks to the January NSF deadline. I have two grants I am submitting (one with a Co-PI) and some data to gather before they will be ready, which is why it was great to spend a few days in another country, on the beach and in the water. Even Baby-like Substance traveled pretty well, despite a slightly upset stomach for part of the trip and the purging of mashed pear all over me and the floor while waiting for the plane home. I felt the same way leaving though, so I could really blame BLS for that. Plus, the pear had only been interned for a few minutes, so it was basically like spilling all over myself, which I am fairly used to. In any case, one trip down and two to go.