Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When music fades away in the roar

I am furious.

To put this in perspective, while I was away my supervisor called and pretty much insisted that I attend this conference. He said it would all be organised, that I could wait until I got home to do the paperwork and that everything would be fantastic. There was a university vehicle, so I wouldn't even have to worry about getting there, and so on and so forth.

OK, fine. I didn't want to do it, but I agreed eventually, realising that it would be good experience, and I've never done a proper presentation at a conference, only presented a poster, which is tedious and time-consuming and all-out horrible.

I haven't been able to track down the guy who will be driving there tomorrow, so today I went and got his phone number from his supervisor and tried to get in touch. No answer.

To put this in context, these people are the type that I think are very insecure and possibly unpopular way back in high school or something. They feel the need to develop an image of being 'cool' and they do so in the easiest way: they exclude other people. they are generally quite entertaining and as such the undergrad KIDS-es adore them, and they sue that to their advantage by shamelessly playing favourites. Amongst their peers they make sure that everyone knows what they are up to, and that everyone who is not a member of their little 'fan club' is quite aware that they aren't invited.

I'm sure if they weren't so desperate to feel adored they would be pretty nice - on several occasions on various trips I have spent time with them, and we usually get along really well, but the minute the trip is over and we're back in our labs they act as if we've never met. I refuse to hero-worship people who I don't find as funny as they think they are, or as 'cool' as they try to be. I left high school 6 years ago and I was glad to wipe my hands of the politics and mind games. I have great friends and we have fun, but I will NEVER try to exclude anyone (and if I do, please slap me or something!) unless there is a very good reason.

The whole cliqueyness of the situation drives me nuts, and as such I just plain avoid people like that, but, unfortunately when you work on similar stuff you end up running into each other from time to time.

Anyway I finally managed to ask the conference organiser if she knew how many people were going to be travelling in the university car, as it had also been volunteered to take people from the airport to the conference - a meagre 4 or so hour drive. She replied that my name was not on the list, and that the car is full. so now, THE DAY BEFORE I've had to shuffle plans and organise to take my car down, and then come back the day before I was planning on leaving so I won't have to leave my car in the middle of nowhere.

I'm not angry because they've excluded me once again. to be honest I expect it from them. I'm not angry that I have to make another plan, I rarely claim anything that I spend on my work, and I paid for my last conference myself because I didn't have the energy to do all the paperwork, so I WILL be claiming back fuel for this trip. It's not even that I'll miss out on a cool talk about tree frogs.

What really upsets me is that I had to find out from a complete stranger what the people downstairs from me are doing. They didn't even bother to ask me, or tell me or anything. If it wasn't for the organisers being really nice in scheduling my talk early so that I can leave, I would actually cancel my attendance right now. And now I get to look forward to driving somewhere completely new to arrive in the dark and to leave less than 24 hours later.

The bonus is that while I only have a skeleton of a talk right now, I don't feel nervous anymore. The people there are going to be the same cliquey 'family' as I always encounter (I know a few of them personally) and to be quite honest, I don't care what they think of me.

I just want this to be over.

What a wonderful world...

Yip, another day, another random song stuck in my head... And for some reason, lately it's been songs that I haven't heard in years! I wonder how it all works, how DO songs get stuck in your head? And how does your brain decide which song to torture you with?

I ended up erdoing all my analyses yesterday, not as efficiently as I would have iked, as after 5pm facebook becomes available here (it's blocked before that) and I ended up chatting to an old friend from high school. It was really cool to find out about what she's been up to, it turns out that I'm not the only girl out there who has refused to grow out of the tomboy/klutzy stage and who can actually change a tire! And she's doing really niteresting research, which makes me kind of jealous.

Anyway I'm starting to panic about this conference. I don't usually mind public speaking, becasue I learned how to get over the jitters: it's FUN to give talks if you can get so excited about your subject matter that you desperately want to tell people about it.

See my problem here?

And I still have to: organise how the heck I'm getting to the conference tomorrow, pack, organise diving equipment and deliver it to Luke (this includes buying one or two things and finding all the stuff all around my house), get my car cleaned (I always feel guilty leaving a dirty car at home), buy seasickness tablets and actually rpepare for the conference.

So I'm going to go and try to harness my panic into productiveness!

Man I need a holiday!

And a big bout of irresponsibility!

Monday, November 24, 2008

You are my sunshine...

No, this is not a post about the snookums in my life. Unfortunately I am more or less married to a PhD at the moment and therefore have very little time or inclination for any more of a personal life than the few friends who have stuck by me through all the cranky days, going away for months at a time and general depression that is usually associated with being stuck for 4 years in a degree that you hate.

I've just got the song stuck in my head, which is pounding by the way! I started a migraine on Friday and it hasn't gone away yet, so I'm on a strict regime of 7 or 8 Advil in the course of the morning, washed down with at least 5 cups of coffee. It seems to work, but it takes a few hours to kick in.

Anyway this is just a little post because I really have to get back to work...

On Friday our department had a year-end function. It was nice in that there was free food and drinks, and anyone who reads PHD comics will know that free food is the holy grail of post-grad students! I also sat with Luke and Terri, who is someone I know vaguely - we tend to book out the same vehicle at the same time and she's always really nice about letting me change her over to another vehicle, but other than that I don't think I've ever had a real conversation with her. She was nice though and I'm glad I got to know her a little bit.

But anyway, at one stage I went back to the lab to get another Advil, and when I got back to the party I was cornered by one of the staff members. To put it in perspective, she is kind of a friend of my family in that she goes to my church and she taught my admission to communion classes when I was 8 or so, so she has always taken a little bit more of an interest in my academic career than I would have liked. On top of it all, she's a very difficult person, violently disliked and incredibly difficult to work with or for, which is always a joy as she quite often requests me as a TA for her courses.

As she hasn't seen me in probably about 6 months she wanted to know all about everything and I answered her questions while backing away slowly until I came up against one of the huge metal doors in the building. She continued to invade my personal space a little bit (I'm still not used to having other people within shouting range, so I found it incredibly uncomfortable) and wanted to know all about my plans for when I'm finished.

Oh, an aside: questions that nobody may ask me under any circumstances:

  1. how is your project going?
  2. when do you intend to finish?
  3. How was fieldwork?
  4. Did you get the data you needed?
  5. What are you going to do when you graduate?

She worked her way down the list at an alarming pace and then asked me what I had planned for after I graduate. I replied: "Well, I'm hoping to finish mid 2010 and then get as far away from this university as possible. I don't know what I'm going to do, I'll figure that out closer to the time" She launched into another series of questions (or prompts) with:

"Well are you going to do a post-doc? Do you want to go overseas? Do you..." I interrupted her by saying yes, overseas could be fun and I've made a few contacts for postdocs in America and I could probably find one in Australia but I'm not sure that I want a career in academia so I'm going to have to see if there's anything else available when I finish.

She showed her incredible listening skills by telling me to take time off from academia. I answered that I don't WANT to be an academic, but it's a pretty big decision because, according to my supervisor if you take a year off you end up out-of-touch with the academic world, you lost track of developments in your field, you lose touch with contacts you've made and so on. She (who by the way is less qualified than me, but anyway) then went on a tirade about what nonsense that was and that I have to go and work somewhere so I can learn to have successful interpersonal relationships. I managed to bite back the giggles at the irony of the situation and pointed out that I've been working in the holidays since I was 15 and that I've maintained a steady weekend job for the last 6 years, so I know how to get along with a boss.

Fortunately someone wanted to open the door I was leaning on, and when I turned I saw a friend of mine who understood what I meant when I started mouthing "HELP! HELP!!!" at her, and I was able to extract myself from the situation.

Anyway, the whole thing made me angry. I know that I'm unhappy in research and I'll probably end up in a completely different career. I know that I have to get through this, even if it's in a head-down-and-sprint way. And I don't need the unsolicited advice of someone who has never been in my situation in order to figure out what I want to do with my life.

The weekend was a lot better after that. I managed to get some tricky work done, saw Lara for the first time in months which was awesome! I missed the girly giggling fits! And had a picnic at the zoo where I was bundled up in a blanket and pushed down a hill.

And now I'm back to work to get ready for the conference. Fun times!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who wrote that cheese?

I have spent the majority of my academic career (i.e. as a student, I don't claim to ahve entered the lofty world of academia just yet) leaving what most people consider the most important part of anything I've written to the end. I'm talking about... The Title.

A title should be catchy, memorable and make people want to read your work. It should be short enough, but not too short to avoid giving some kind of description of your study, while maintaining a professional, but accessible tone. I suck at making up titles.

Biologists, particularly in the more up-and-coming fields of Zoology, are the worst. Behavioural studies, which I am involved in, are often labelled as "sexy science" because laymen like reading about what the panda did or didn't do, and they generally can get a foot into the door of popular science stuff, which, unfortunately attracts stuff that is mildly necessary, like interest in your work, or funding. I find the whole situation quite tiresome.

Don't get me wrong, some people are great at coming up with titles. There are papers that I read over half a decade ago (showing my age a bit) that I remember clearly from the title. But unfortunately, as anyone who has ever spent an afternoon hearing the terrible puns that seem to emanate from zoologists, most titles these days are either completely dull and dry and boring (including most of mine) or else so pathetically cheesy that I battle to take their work seriously.

I am trying to get ready for a conference at the moment, and when I sent in my abstract (that's like a summary of what I'm going to be talking about), I found myself stuck in the mental quicksand that is writing a title. Fortunately I have a very creative brother who works in marketing and I sent him an email begging for help. I asked him to try and use puns, and that the cheesier it is, the better. He repleid pretty quickly with six or seven options, having taken full opportunity to poke fun of me by making the AWFUL in their cheesiness.

Adn you know what the worst part was? Most of them were fantastic, and I picked one, adjusted it slightly, and sent it to the conference organisers!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reintegrating into society

So, after 3 months of being pretty much completely isolated from the rest of the world, I'm back in Johannesburg, one of the biggest cities in Southern Africa. Actually, according to a quick google-search I just did, it is THE biggest city in Southern Africa. I love Joburg, I've lived here all my life. It has a buzz and a 'vibe' (inverted commas to stop me sounding like a yuppie) and a friendly atmosphere and it's beautiful in its own way. At the same time it's crowded and polluted and noisy and rushed. So rushed. Every time I go away I need a few days to learn to slow down, because here everyone is in a hurry. I'm not sure if all the rushing makes us efficient, or we just like to create the illusion that we are, but everyone is stressed out and hurrying from one task to the next. I like to sit back and watch the mayhem, but I'm afraid I'm as guilty as the next Jo-burger in wishing that we could cram another 6 or 7 hours into every day.

So getting home is one of the things that I hold on to when fieldwork gets difficult. I have friends here who I miss like crazy and I hope that they miss me while I'm away. I have my family and my animals and the bedroom that I've slept in since I was 10 and the zoo and my lab...At the same time, for the last few days of fieldwork I dread the idea of coming home. I always realise that the place I'm staying as actually beautiful, if you ignore the scorching heat, the falling down cliffs and the tangles of thorny plants that seem to conspire to grow between me and wherever I'm going.

I would sit outside on the veranda on a super-comfy green vinyl sunbed-type chair (it's hideous, but I could sleep in it if there weren't so many insects bashing against the windows right behind it) in the evenings and look at the sky where the stars are so bright that I could take a walk around the farm at midnight without a torch and still be able to see where I was going. The sky isn't black at all, but a beautiful indigo colour. And I would sit and listen to the night-jars and the spotted-eagle owls and the frogs, and the insects would buzz around me (particularly the dung-beetles and moths the size of my hand) and every now and then bats would swoop down and grab insects just millimetres from my head.

Sometimes I would see antelope in the garden, trying to be quiet while crashing through the bushes, sometimes at night I would see a jackal, sitting under a banana-palm, just waiting, and looking a lot like one of my dogs back home. As much as I'm almost completely bird-impaired, I find it easy to learn frog-calls, so after a day or two listening to the frog-call CD on my ipod (yes, I have frog calls on my ipod, so what?) I would sit outside at night and identify who was sitting in the little catchment behind the house, yelling their little amphibian lungs out. I have a definite soft-spot for tree frogs, and I often heard a close relative of my favourite frog in the whole world. On a few occasions I went looking for them and once I spotted the little guys being SO cute! Unfortunately I never got close enough to catch him, so I couldn't take a picture, but I felt that even a sighting made the stumbling around in the mud completely worth it!

Contrary to popular belief, life in the middle of nowhere is far from silent. When the reed frogs going it sounds like a million car alarms going off at the same time, but I never found it intrusive at all. All the birds and animals and insects (OK, the insects got annoying, there were a bunch of crickets that got into the house, and they were LOUD!). The water is from a borehole (and I know all the dangers f drinking borehole water) and tasted fantastic, I got to make campfires if I felt like it, wear clothes that had been ripped to shreds and stitched up with cotton that didn't match. For 3 months I didn't have to think about blow-drying my hair, wearing make-up, if there were fights between friends I was far enough away to avoid being caught int he crossfire.

I'm not saying that fieldwork is all fun and games, it's hard, hard work, with long hours, no weekends, and the exhausting feeling of powerlessness where your life is controlled by the weather. At the same time though, it's simpler. You can judge a day as a success or failure by how many animals you caught, if all the measurements are taken. If something goes wrong there is nobody else around so you learn how to fix it. It's a wonderful simplicity.

To come home is hard. For one thing my friends are used to me popping in and out of their lives, so I'm not really greeted with much surprise. I'm always happy to see them and they seem happy to see me, but it usually feels like I never left. I battle with insomnia from the noise and the light of the city. I have a constant headache from the noise and the pollution. I'm exhausted from all the human interaction but I can't sleep and recover.

And the worst part: after all that, I have to go back to the lab and learn to think all over again. I have a nice new pile of data to organise and analyse and interpret. And it's hard. My concentration-span (already pretty pitiful) has shrunk down to less than 5 minutes. I literally look at a set of numbers, do one thing to them and then need a break. I'm up against a pretty important deadline and I'm over 2 weeks behind schedule because no matter how hard I try I Just. Can't. Concentrate. Cue the reawakening of my fear of public humiliation!

Monday, November 17, 2008

more illegible candlelight musings

Due to a complete lack of popular demand for the rest of the random notes I wrote in the dark, I decided to post them anyway in order to procrastinate actually writing something now! I'm battling to focus on my work, which ios a major problem as I'm bashing my head against a deadline, so I must avoid any procrastination fodder!

There is one more, but it's pretty short, and it scanned upside down so I must still flip it and stuff...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Candlelight musings

So one night there was a big storm and I ended up measuring lizards by candlelight. I decided that as I didn't want to waste my laptop abttery in case the power stayed off for a few days (which happens) that rather than posting, I would write out some thoughts and scan them in when the power came on. Unfortunately my connection ni the middle of nowhere isn't great, so I couldn't upload the pictures, so I had to wait until I got home.

Yes, I came home two days ago! And now am working on a pretty nasty deadline, so rather than going into detail about life and everything, I am going to post some of the random stuff that seemed to make sense in the dark, in the middle of nowhere.
My apologies if you can't read my writing! It was dark!