Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dream Life

For this month’s Scientiae, Pat at Fairer Science has asked,
What do you think a better, more equitable society should look like? What are your dreams for your life? For the lives of others? How close are you to living the life of your dreams? What would make you able to live that life?
Acmegirl over at Thesis - With Children, wrote a fantastic post that pretty much sums up how I would answer this question in a general sense. I would highly suggest reading and commenting on her post.

So, since she did such a great job, I'm going to answer these questions on a personal level. And, since I'm methodical, I'm going to answer these questions one at a time.

1. What do you think a better, more equitable society should look like?

Seriously, go read Acmegirl's post. I agree with pretty much everything she wrote, but I'll touch on a couple of my favorite points here:

- Everyone should be able to choose the life they want to lead without fearing ridicule or judgement from others. This includes who they want to marry, what they do with their money, where they want to live, what they do with their free time, if and when they have children, etc. etc.. Every single person in this world is different - why would we expect each other to live our lives the same way?

- We should value all levels of post-secondary education: university degrees aren't for everyone! College diplomas and trade school certificates are just as valuable (if not moreso in some cases) than a four year degree. If someone loves to fix things and wants to be a mechanic, they shouldn't feel guilty or that they should be doing more. I found that was the problem when I went through high school: the people with good grades were told to go to university, based simply on the fact that they could get in, and not based on what they were interested in. I wish that more options had been given to us, and that they were all perfectly acceptable.

2. What are your dreams for your life?

My biggest dream is to have both a fulfilling career doing something I love and have a wonderful family. And I don't just mean having both and struggling like hell day in and day out trying to please everyone. I want to be able to work when I want, but I don't want my life to be centered around it...and I want that to be accepted (and, since I'm dreaming, understood) by my colleagues. I want to be able to spend quality time with my family without feeling guilty.

At this moment my dream job would be to run my own Astronomy outreach program. I could work as much or as little as I wanted, and the work is incredibly rewarding.

3. For the lives of others?

This is "simple": I want everyone to have the life they want, without having to answer to anyone else. I wish that people (myself included) would stop living the way others want or expect them too.

4. How close are you to living the life of your dreams?

Right now, I just feel like I'm in limbo, so I don't feel close at all. Not that my life is particularly bad, but I do feel like I'm just treading water until we move. I realize that's not the best way to live life, but I think it's what motivates me to get my work done.

5. What would make you able to live that life?

First, we need to move - and there will be loads of discussion on where we should move and why. There seem to be benefits and fall backs to all the options we have right now, so there will be some compromise. We'll have to take into account things such as: the quality of DH's job, the city/town, education systems, benefit packages, opportunities for me (work-wise) and cost of living.

Then, I need to decide if I want/need to work and, if so, what I want to do and what I'm willing to compromise on in order to do so. For example, we want to have children soon, and we will start trying shortly after we move (since I'm not getting any younger and would like to have our kids before I'm 35). I refuse to take a job where I will be looked down upon for wanting to start a family, or spending time away from work!

It's funny - these days my dream life seems to be changing on a daily basis. I guess that's what happens when your future is unknown, but there are many options. In the end though, it will all comes down to doing what I want, and not worrying about what others expect out of me - or at least that's the plan.

Friday, January 30, 2009

2nd Paper

I've started working on my second paper this week. My goal is to have it in a submittable form by the end of February, and I definitely think that's doable.

The problem is I'm having a harder time writing it compared with the last paper. One of the issues is the topic: although it is related to the other two projects I am doing, it is a bit removed from what I usually do. I haven't done a lot reading of the relevant literature, which means that writing the introduction is going to be a pain in the butt.

I also feel like I'm not as strong in the background science - it brings some chemistry in, which I never really use. So, when writing my methods sections, I'm not really sure what I should include or how in depth I should go. I can look at similar papers to see what they do, but it seems like everyone does things their own way.

I'm also really worried about having this project in my thesis, and then getting hammered on it during the defense! I fully admit that I don't know the subject area as in depth as the other two projects - and I know examiners can sniff out weakness from miles away.

Gah - I need to just concentrate on what I'm supposed to be doing NOW, and not about what will happen in six months.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Day of LaTeX

So, I've used LaTeX for years, and I've used it for my MSc thesis and the papers I've written. I went to upload my newly accepted paper to Astro-ph, but it kept being "rejected".

The first time I tried to upload it, I used just the PDF version. It was rejected (even though they accept PDFs) because it looked like it was generated by LaTeX.

Fine - so I put all my LaTeX files in a zipped file and uploaded that - it didn't work either. That was my fault though, because I had left out a style file. I tried it again (making sure it all worked before uploading) and it was still rejected.

I emailed them, and they told me my bibliography wasn't done using Bibtex, so I had to do that in order to upload.

I spent the whole entire afternoon trying to figure out how to use it. It was such a frustrating experience!! I finally got it to work at the very end of the day, and now I feel bad for leaving it undone.

Maybe I'll work on it tonight.

Or maybe I'll have another glass of wine.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Weekly PDRP

It's time again for the weekly Puppy Dogs and Roses Post!!

1. My paper was officially accepted!!!

2. I went to a conference this weekend, met some really cool people and got some really amazing ideas!!

3. Lots of people showed up to my office hours on Thursday!!!

4. The painting that we ordered on our honeymoon a few months ago finally arrived!!

5. I finished a book and started a new one (I'm doing well on my New Year's resolution to read more)!!!

6. I made some progress on my research and hope to continue that this week!!!

Friday, January 23, 2009


My first paper from my PhD was officially accepted last night!!

Now, on to the next one...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Astronomy 101

Chick with PhizzleDizzle asked the science blogosphere to post about their area of research and what it's all about. So, here is my attempt at summarizing the field of Astronomy.

The first thing I'd like to clarify is this (both entries are from Wikipedia):

Astronomy is the scientific study of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the Earth's atmosphere. It is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and motion of celestial objects, as well as the formation and development of the universe.

While Astrology is a group of systems, traditions, and beliefs in which knowledge of the apparent relative positions of celestial bodies and related details is held to be useful in understanding, interpreting, and organizing information about personality, human affairs, and other terrestrial matters.

Simply put, Astronomy is the application of science (physics, chemistry, biology) to objects out in space, while Astrology uses the positions of the stars/planets/sun 2000 years ago to tell you something that could apply to almost anyone. It is true that, back in the good old days, these two were indistinguishable. That is no longer the case - so please keep in mind if you ask an Astronomer if they study Astrology, make sure you know how to bob & weave your way out of a slap to the head.

In Astronomy, there are two broad research areas: theoretical and observational. Many people choose one or the other, but some do overlap. We couldn't do one without the other. Most spend a lot of time in front of a computer: theorists write code, observers reduce and analyze data.

Inside each broad area are the same sub-fields which are basically classified by object (starting small and working our way up): meteors, asteroids/comets, planets, stars, star systems, star clusters, galaxies, galaxy clusters and the whole frickin' universe. The further out you go, the more theoretical things get.

A common misconception in Astronomy is that we've been studying it for thousands of years, so we must already know everything. This is far from the truth, even with objects close by like the Moon or Mars. The reason why we don't know much is because we can't just go over to the comet/star/galaxy we're studying, take a sample and analyze it back in the lab. We have to come up with innovative ways to learn about these objects that are so far away.

Even though that seems to be the downfall of Astronomy, it's really the reason why our research is so important. Without Galileo building his telescope to look at Jupiter and Saturn, we wouldn't have TVs, cameras, photocopying machines or anything else that depends on optical equipment. Without understanding the motions of the planets, we wouldn't have satellites or GPS. Plus, without the astronaut program, we wouldn't have Tang!

I find I get caught in the problem many Astronomers know: what are we doing that will really help society? I try to keep in mind that it's the pure scientific research that leads the way for engineers or developers that take those ideas and make them into useful, everyday things.

Personally, Astronomy helps me reach students of all ages because of the common awe and wonder it inspires - everyone has looked up at the stars and wondered about what (or who) is out there. It's a romantic, sexy science, and if people are already interested in it, then it's as easy as 1-2-3 to take them to the next level.

Hmm - I seem to have veered away from the specifics on Astronomy research, but I hope that I shed some light on to why Astronomy is important and why I love it so much.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

PhD-Level Work

I was reading FemaleScienceProfessor's blog today, where she discusses how much time a grad student should work on their thesis. There were a lot of interesting comments, and I highly suggest reading it.

In my mind, it's not the amount of time one works, but how efficiently they use that time. We all know someone who puts in long days but gets nothing done because they spend half the time on Facebook or MSN Messenger. We also know other people who are in the lab 5 hours a day and finish their degree early. Most people probably fall between the two extremes.

That discussion made me think about a related topic: how does a supervisor or advisory committee makes the decision that one's project is enough for a PhD? There seems to be quite a difference between what passes for a PhD-level project, even in the same lab. DH's previous lab is great example of this:

His PhD project was to design and build a new type of "bicycle". He started from scratch, learned the theory, designed each part of the bicyle, built each part, put the whole thing together AND made sure it worked.

Another student in the same lab is supposed to design and build a new pedal for the bicycle. That's it. It doesn't even have to work. They both started at the same time, and DH defended his PhD a year ago...the other student is still slogging a long with no end in sight. How do these two projects warrant the same degree?

I understand that, in a lot of cases, it's like comparing apples to oranges: maybe someone has a smaller project but is studying it more in depth, or maybe another has a crap load of data and is just doing simple analysis on all of it. It all depends what the point of the project is, I suppose.

However, in some instances, it seems that some students definitely have a lot more work to do in order to get the same degree in the end. Is this because the advisory committee, or whoever it was to okay the project, wanted that much work, or is it the student who adds the work themselves?

What happened in your PhD? Did you find the amount of work you did was comparable to those around you? Did the amount of work expected for your project change at some point?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The question of publishable results has come up this past week. The original project that my thesis topic is based on has two sets of data. One is good, the other is not great - in fact, it sucks. All is not lost - it can still be reduced and analyzed, and it'll still be used in my thesis (and thank God I have the good data set and two other projects that worked out).

I know that the crappy data isn't publishable - there are too many holes in the data acquisition and reduction process. However, I'm wondering if I can use the decent data set for a paper on its own. The problem is that this data set is much smaller than the other, and I'm just not sure if there is 1) enough to say about it and 2) a point to publish it besides just adding another paper to my name.

Any comments? How do you decide if something is publishable or not?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Weekly (P)uppy (D)ogs and (R)oses (P)ost

I noticed that a lot of my posts are somewhat negative in tone. So, to offset this, I have decided to do a weekly PDRP (Puppy Dogs & Roses Post), where I talk about the good things that happened that week - or at least put a positive spin on things.

I'm hoping this exercise will let me begin each new week with a positive mind-set or, at the very least, give my therapist some more material to work with (oops - was that negative? I can't even tell anymore).

So, here we go (beware: many exclamation points to follow)!

1. I resubmitted my paper this week and think it's substantially improved, thanks to the helpful comments from reviewer #1!!!

2. Even though someone criticized my outreach skilz, and it made me question my abilities, I know that I'm really good at what I do! So, boo to you, Critical Astronomy Club Man!!

3. DH and I talked today and there's a possibility we might move earlier than we thought!!!

4. We went to the Wine & Food Show last night and had great wine, food and hung out with some pretty cool people!!

5. The Calgary Flames, my favorite hockey team, are kicking ass in their division!!!

6. It's Sunday: that means FOOTBALL!!!!!!!!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


To the person/people that thought it was funny to bang on our door at midnight and 1am last night --- what are you, 12 years old?? Cause, really, that's the only way that kind of sh!t would be even half-way acceptable.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Crappy Week

It all started with the "very poor English" and other comments from reviewer #1. I agree with him to a point, but there was no reason for him to be so condescending. There are ways to give criticism constructively.

On Wednesday, my supervisor came into the office and pointed out something in my data that was really obvious. I was so embarrassed that I didn't see it. I'm in my 4th year of my PhD. I've always been told that, by this point, I should be the expert. Clearly, that's not the case.

I realized that night that I'm just no good at research. I just haven't been able to develop the skills that I should have by now. I don't know how to figure out stuff on my own - or if I do, it's wrong, and my supervisor probably thinks I'm an idiot. I can't sit down and read papers and understand what they did. Basically, I feel like I need my hand held the whole way or I won't get anywhere.

I have no idea what I'm doing, and I worry more each and every day that I get closer to my PhD defense. Right now, there is no way they are going to pass me. The committee is going to ask me questions and I will have no clue how to respond. They'll find out that I'm a fraud.

I know that everyone feels this way at this point: six months to go and it feels like the fattest man in the world is sitting on your shoulders. But, for some people it must be real, and not just caused by stress. After all, not everyone passes their PhD defense. Will I be one of them?

My saving grace (I thought) was having good communication skills. That maybe my writing abilities would help me start a career in technical writing or something. But, after the reviews from my last paper, that's clearly not the case either.

That's okay - I still have hope. Maybe the fact that I've been running outreach programs and doing activities for six years is worth something. Nope! I was told last night that I basically suck at outreach - that I don't entertain my entire audience. First of all, I'm not going to stand up there in a clown suit so a 4 year-old will pay attention to me. Second, 75% of the group were engaged and were asking really great questions! I'm sorry that the other 25% weren't interested, but that happens with any group, no matter the age. I'm not going to cater to the lowest common denominator --- I'm going to make it interesting and (GASP!!) educational for as many of the students I can. Yes, I'm going to use words they had never heard before - and it's okay if they don't understand it all right now! The point is to show them things they've never seen! I can't help if some kid wouldn't even pay attention if Spongebob Squarepants was up there.

First, I'd like to tell everyone that has criticized me this past week to shove it. You try running two outreach programs and doing PhD research and see how things go. Please - I'm sure you can do much better.

Second, if anyone else out there has gone through something similar, or has advice on how to move forward or get over it, please share it with me. Right now all of this is just way too overwhelming and I might just kick someone in the head.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Graduate Students Want Balanced Lives

An interesting post over at Sciencewomen pointed toward this fascinating study. Researchers at UofC Berkley surveyed more than 8000 PhD candidates about what they want out of their career, life, and family. Funny enough, most feel like me and want to balance their career with their social life and family, and think that the academic world demands too much.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Changing of the Guard

I couldn't tell you how many conversations I've had over the years with fellow students about how awful teaching is in physics courses. This is especially true with first year classes, where 300 or more students are piled into a giant theatre and a professor writes unintelligible equations on the blackboard. I myself remember how hard it was to keep up with the notes, and then not understand them at all when I went to study for an exam. Unfortunately, this is a common theme, even in graduate level classes.

Well, it sounds like MIT and other universities in the US have finally realized that things need to change. Take a look at this article to learn more. Thanks to Hana over at Teach Me Science for posting the link on Facebook.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Now that I think about it...

...maybe the reviewer had a point :P I read the paper again a couple days ago and it was pretty clunky. Some sentences were just too long, and a lot of informal language was used. I've spent the last two days, along with DH (who has been an enormous help!), reading and editing it. I think it's a lot better now, but that's for the reviewer to decide!

One issue is that my supervisor and I have very different writing styles and, when put together, don't flow well. For the next paper, I need to make sure that he doesn't change the style of the paper, and only makes comments or suggestions on the content. That way, we won't run into this problem.

Also, since one of my career options is technical writing, I want the papers I publish to be "mine". It wouldn't be good if I went into an interview and either 1) had papers that weren't written well, or 2) had papers that were basically written by someone else. I have a hard time standing up to my supervisor, but I need to do it in this case for the sake of my (possible) future.

I plan on resubmitting the paper next week, and I'll be sure to include a "thank you" to the reviewer for his harsh, but useful, criticisms.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Me No Speaky Engrish

...at least, according to one of my reviewers for my paper. Apparently, I have "very poor English", and should get a native-English speaker to read over my manuscript before resubmitting.

Now, I don't want to toot my own horn, but I always thought I had fairly decent communication skills - both oral and written. I guess I'm mistaken.

Funny enough, they had no other big revisions for me - just changing one figure slightly and adding a bit of stats to the analysis. The second reviewer liked the paper and only suggested a few references to add. Overall, I'm happy with the comments I received; I don't have a lot of work to do before resubmitting.

I just can't get over someone telling me that I have very poor English --- not just "you made a couple mistakes" or "I don't like the style of some of your statements" --- very poor!! For crying out loud, it's not like I used the words "ain't" or "prolly" or asked the reviewer "where you at?"

Since we have to respond to each comment made by the reviewers - by either saying "thank you, referee, for the enlightenment. I have made the change" or "thank you, referee, for your wonderful input, but we decided not to change it because..." - any advice on how to respond to the "very poor English" comment?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

International Year of Astronomy

For those of you who don't know, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) - so chosen because 400 years ago Galileo pointed one of the first telescopes up to the heavens and discovered Saturn's rings, the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter, craters on the Moon and Sunspots.

There are events scheduled for the whole year around the whole world. Have a look at the international website here:


and for information in Canada:

www.astronomie2009.ca ('cause we're all French, apparently)

To find out what's going on in your local area, just Google your city + IYA and see what comes up! Many communities are hosting their own opening ceremonies this weekend, so take a look!

One very cool thing we're doing in Canada is giving out Galileo Moment cards - these are basically like baseball or hockey cards, but instead of a picture and stats of an athlete, they show a picture and stats of a famous astronomical body (Jupiter for instance). On each card is a registration number, and these cards will be given out at IYA events throughout the year.

When someone receives a card, they can go to Canada's IYA website and register the number on the card, along with their name. Then, in 2010, the Canadian Space Agency will launch a disc with all the names that were registered into space!! That's pretty cool, if you ask me!

I hope that everyone takes advantage of this amazing opportunity to learn more about the universe around us, where we came from, and where we are going!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Dreading Monday

Every time I think about going back to work on Monday I get a nervous feeling in my gut. Not because I don’t like what I’m doing, but because 1) I feel guilty for not doing anything the past two weeks and 2) I can’t believe how much work I have to do in order to finish my thesis in six months (6 MONTHS!!!???).

I took these two weeks away from work on purpose – so that I could come back in January renewed and able to tackle my work with more vigor and (let’s be honest) interest. I only have a few months left, so I want to ramp up my productivity and really dig in. I actually get excited about my research…until I start making a mental list of what I have to do, and when I have to do it by. Then, I just feel overwhelmed and want to curl up in a corner in the fetal position.

I know, once I actually think it through, that I should be able to finish everything on the schedule I have set for myself. I also know that, if things don’t go well, I have a few months to play with before we move. But, these facts don’t make me feel better, and I think I figured out why:

I’m SCARED TO DEATH about my defense! Seriously – I wish I could put it off forever. I know, I know --- if you get to the defense, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to pass, and all that BS --- but, for God’s sake, my butt puckers up just thinking about it!

I’m so bad on my feet in a normal situation that I can’t even imagine how I’m going to be when four professors want to see me lose my mind and run out of the room crying! Plus, everyone has always said to me that I will eventually feel confident in my subject area, and I’ll know more about it than anyone (even my supervisor). That hasn’t happened yet --- is it coming??

The bad thing is I’ve done a defense before for my masters and that doesn’t help one bit. In fact, I think it makes it worse because I have an idea of what’s coming, and it’s not pleasant.

Maybe I’ll get lucky with some divine intervention – like the physics building imploding, or going into a coma, or winning the lottery and paying off my committee.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcoming in 2009

Happy New Year!!!

I had a look at my resolutions for 2008, and realized that I didn’t do too well on them. It makes me wonder why we do it every year? I guess a new year gives us new hope that we can bring excitement into our lives – like we get to wipe the slate clean and start all over again.

I did really well with two resolutions. The first was to read a book a month, and I read 13 in 2008! I also did well with ‘taking care of home’ – we cooked a lot more, and I experimented with baking and other new recipes. We also took a lot of time to go through our closets, cupboards and storage rooms and purged a lot of unnecessary junk. It’s funny how good it feels to have a clean, organized space!

I did okay with three others: getting married with little stress (it was more stressful than I thought, but I think I did better than a lot of people!), drive more responsibly (if you know me, you know what this means, and I’m much better – except for my road rage! Thanks Dad!), and take work more seriously (I didn’t have to do much for this – having a PhD thesis looming generally accomplishes this task on its own!).

Those I didn’t do well on: get to the gym 3 times a week (I did well from March-September but not the whole year) and get out/socialize more (I think I was more of a hermit this year than ever!).

My resolutions for 2009 will have a bit more meaning for me since I 'll also be turning the big 3-0. A big milestone like that makes me want to make some changes (for the good!). So, here they are:

1. Find a hobby to do at home instead of watching TV or surfing the net (any ideas?)
2. Forget the gym – I just want to be more active in general! More walking, more outdoors, or even just using the Wii instead of sitting on the couch!
3. Keep reading – we’ll keep it at a book a month again for this year.
4. Learn how to handle confrontations better and without guilt.
5. Research possible career options for when we move.
6. Journal more – I used to do this a lot, but haven’t been keeping up with it the last year.
7. Try not to take things so personally.
8. Work on my confidence and self-esteem – I’ll be 30, damnit, I’m tired of looking down on myself!
9. Finish and defend my PhD.
10. Travel to Chicago.

Okay, the last two aren’t really resolutions, but at least I’ll be able to check off two things on January 1st, 2010 ;)