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Posts Tagged ‘graduate school’

Yes, I mean actual diamonds. I cut rocks with diamonds. Be jealous.

Ok, so they’re REALLY tiny (microscopic, even), and they’re synthetic, so it sounds a lot cooler than it actually is.

Oh, who am I kidding, cutting rocks is one of the best things about being a geologist. Especially when you’re cutting sedimentary rocks with a diamond rock saw – it’s like slicing butter with a hot knife. If someone ever asks you if you want to try cutting a rock, just say yes.

Last Friday I got to cut some rocks as part of my thesis work. I’m going to attempt to explain my thesis project in non-geologist terms in a later post, but right now I just want to brag about cutting rocks and feeling a little bit like a god while doing so. This particular batch of rocks were all from a fresh rock core (someone drilled a tube into the subsurface and pulled out a cylinder of rock – essentially). The core was also thankfully already sliced in half. You might imagine that flat edges would make rock cutting much easier, and you’d be right.

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This is what the rocks looked like before I started slicing them, except for the 2 at the top. The goal is to cut a thin section “blank.” They go by many names (billet, chip…), but the piece you cut before it gets shaved down enough that light can pass through it under a microscope. They’re roughly 1″ x 1 & 7/8″ and about half an inch thick. Then we send them off to a lab where everything is standardized and we get a bunch of perfect thin sections returned like magic. And then I have to count 70,000 individual grains, among many other things. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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The rock saw! It’s basically stationary, and you put your rock on the rack, and move the rack under the blade. That chip sitting on it is a typical thin section blank. Fun fact: it’s pretty difficult to cut yourself on this blade, even though it’s designed to cut rocks. It’s actually pretty blunt – about 1/16″ thick. I meant, don’t get your finger trapped between the rock and the blade, but you could probably hold your finger right on the blade as it spins and it wouldn’t cut you.

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Look! I’m doing science! Literally just sliding the rock into the blade, and it just cuts. You gotta go slow, so you don’t fracture the rock or damage the blade. But not THAT slow. At least, not with sedimentary rocks. We were able to cut about 15 samples in about 3 hours – and that includes refilling water buckets and labeling everything. I have to cut about 85 more though… going to be a busy few weeks.

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In the end, this is what we had left. I failed to take a photo of any of the actually blanks, because… I have no excuse, it just didn’t happen.

Honestly, I am just really excited to get this part done. Microscopes are fun. Probably I’ll change my mind about this after I spend many hours staring down into them, but rocks look really cool in thin section. I’ll hopefully post some photos of that when I get around to that process. My project is mostly a sedimentary petrology deal (petrology = looking at rocks under a microscope and identifying minerals and figuring out where the sediment came from), and I am just really anxious to get to the data collection part. Collecting and preparing samples is only fun for the first few days, in my opinion.

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Then there are the big cabinets in the lab that just say “ACID” on them in giant red letters…

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The internship is over, and I’m back in Montana. A mere 24 hours after I got home, I went out to my field area, and I’m still there. I have had so much to worry/think about over the last week I hardly knew it was Sunday. I actually kept forgetting it was Sunday until I realized, at 10:30pm, that I needed to write a blog post. I don’t have time to write a whole bunch of words like I normally do, I don’t have time to put together some spam poetry, and the mosquitos are eating me alive (seriously, I look like I have chicken pox right now). Also someone just walked up to me and asked me for the wifi password at 11pm. It is time to go to bed.

Instead, I’ll give you some photos of field work this week!

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This was the view from my lunch spot in a tiny patch of shade that only got smaller as we sat there. We then proceeded to climb to the top of the cliff, which is higher than what you see here.

 

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This is a trace fossil! I think it’s paleophycus, but I’m terrible at trace fossils. So. Um. Worms did this. In the Cretaceous.

 

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This is my fancy artistic attempt at a panorama view of my field area. That little bit of civilization out there beyond the cliffs? That’s where we left our car. This is the top of the ridge that you can see in the first photo. There was more of it behind us.

 

photo 4This is a bug. I don’t know what kind of bug, because I am not a bug scientist. But possibly cicada? It’s about an inch long plus wings. Much prettier than those giant cockroaches I saw in Houston. If you are a bug person and can identify this, please leave a comment! It died outside our apartment, and I think it was stuck there for a couple of days, making loud noises in the middle of the night. That, or there’s some giant cricket living in the cabin walls trying to torture us in our sleep.

Welp, that’s my thesis update! More to come later when I am not surrounded by flying insects. I am so ready to be home, but I’ve got 4 more days out here. Be glad you are not me right now. I have slept in my own bed exactly once in the last two and a half months.

 

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Well, I made it to Houston, for my second adventure of the summer! While here, I’m going an internship with an energy company. It’s all rather hush-hush as to what I’m really doing, but basically I will be using my geology knowledge to figure out where some oil might be in the rock formation they’ve assigned. I promise I haven’t sold me soul yet, and yes, there is the whole environmental issue, but the point is, we still need oil. Until we can mass-produce sustainable energy, and people are willing to buy it and go cold turkey off petroleum, we still need it. But I don’t want to get into that right now, because I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on the issue.

Anyway, Houston! It’s a strange place. I was expecting desert, but instead I got tropical rain forest? Seriously, it feels EXACTLY like the tropical rain forest exhibit at my hometown’s zoo. It freaked me out when I first got here. I’ve also experienced 2 thunderstorms, and I’ve only been here for less than 48 hours. The wildlife is obviously different as well. I’ve seen a couple new birds already, and I can’t wait for my zoologist dad to visit me next month and tell me what they are.

On my first drive through the city (my friend picked me up at the airport, I didn’t feel safe bringing my ancient Jeep with me on this trip – I don’t think it would survive the climate), I saw a church sunk into the ground.

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Um… what? Why? No signs anywhere? I was immediately reminded of a Sunnydale-style apocalypse, circa Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 6. A friend of mine joked it must have been satanic, and was trying to get closer to its leader. Make of it what you will, but not an hour into my stay in this city I had decided it was a strange place.

That night I had my very first crawfish, and was instructed on how to consume it.

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I made a huge mess, but I actually thought it was pretty good. I saw a few people order platters of them. I wouldn’t say no to splitting one with someone, as it turns out.

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So far, the food I’ve had here is pretty delicious. I wasn’t lied to about that. I’m currently in this funky little breakfast cafe that functions a bit like a cafeteria. Mostly I’m here because they advertise free wifi, and I don’t have wifi set up in my apartment yet, but the food is actually pretty delicious (despite the fact that my “fresh fruit” came in a pre-wrapped dish…).

My apartment is adorable. It comes with air conditioning (yay!), a tiny office nook, and a bedroom that’s almost as large as the living room. I even bought a little “dragon tree” from IKEA so it would look more lived-in. But it’s a cute little spot, even though I have to live very minimalist while I’m here (two and a half months isn’t long enough to be worth really settling in, especially when you don’t have a car to haul everything back in).

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The bathtub is also enormous enough to make bubble baths a possibility. I already bought the bubbles for it. Oh, and did I mention it has 2 pools and is a gated community? I’m like a poor person living in a rich person’s body!

While I am here, I will have very little school work to do, though I will be working something like an 8-5 job. This means that I’ll have evenings and weekends to do what I want. Hopefully, this means more writing and definitely more reading is in my near future! Honestly, this is probably the part of this adventure that I am most excited about. But I’m also looking forward to seeing what my future after grad school might look like. This heat and humidity will take some getting used to though!

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Yes, we all know that academia is expensive. Student loans are abundant, and work study is limited. Having already earned my bachelors of science degree, I have plenty of student loans, and I never qualified for financial aid. This story is familiar to many college graduates.

But what I want to talk about in this post is the price of being a graduate student. Specifically, a graduate student in the sciences. This line of thought was spurred by two things: this article about the relationship between journalists and academics, and some recent proposed budget cuts at my university.

The point of this article is that there is a major disconnect between academics and journalists who want to write stories about academics and their research. They claim that the root of this problem stems from a highly flawed and expensive system for spreading said academic research.

“The real problem is that the primary system for disseminating academic research — through professional journals and working papers — doesn’t work for anyone but academics, and it may not even work for them. Professional journals are wildly expensive to subscribe to and bizarrely difficult to keep up with… The journal system also fractures academic knowledge across dozens of different publications. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the papers being published. There’s no centralized list.”

“Professional journals are wildly expensive to subscribe to and bizarrely difficult to keep up with.” Major universities have the money to subscribe to most of these, but while doing both undergraduate and graduate research, I have had to special order specific papers and books from the Interlibrary Loan system (ILliad) – which is often problematic because you have to wait an unknown amount of time to obtain said papers and books. They are just too expensive for one university to have them all. And during the two years I wasn’t in school? No chance of looking at anything beyond the abstract because if you aren’t a student, your access to most academic research is cut off. Sure, you can pay for subscriptions, but that gets expensive fast. Academic journals aren’t like regular magazines, and their publishers know they can get away with these prices because universities will pay for them.

But shouldn’t academic research be public knowledge? Shouldn’t everyone have the chance to educate themselves and be able to keep up with the research in their field of study, long after they’ve earned a degree? I certainly think so.

Sure, it costs money to print the journals, but we all know most faculty and students are finding the research papers online these days. But do they really need to cost an arm and a leg? [Edit:] Peer reviewers aren’t paid, either, it’s something that goes toward their quest for tenure, in most cases. So why do academic journals cost so much? Knowledge is priceless, but I’m not saying academic journals need to be free, just a hell of a lot cheaper than they are.

Let’s not forget the other piece to this. Academic journal articles are indeed nearly impossible to keep up with these days. In the past few decades, the number of papers being published has increased exponentially. Based on what I’ve been told by members of the faculty in my department at my university, this is because standards have gotten lower, and expectations have gotten higher. Most PhD students are required to publish three academic papers to graduate. In order for one of those PhD graduates to become a professor, they’re expected to publish many more papers than that. Then, if and when they do become professors? They’re expected to publish several papers a year. As a result, research gets sloppy, and this is only apparent to those people paying attention in their particular field. In addition, it’s extremely difficult to stay on top of new research, which makes being a graduate student particularly difficult – we don’t want to repeat what someone else has already done. I don’t really understand how this came about, but this is the situation. Which leads me to my other favorite line in this article:

“Between the problems of the journals and the oddities of the working papers, journalists lack an easy way to follow the work of academics. That leads to the kind of frustration Kristof articulated: Journalists know that academia holds a universe of valuable information; they just can’t find a reliable way to tap it.”

I have established that the system is extremely flawed, and I don’t have a solution, but I am highly motivated to start searching for one after I earn my second degree. Perhaps I will take my blogging skills and try to bridge this gap between journalists and academics. I found the closing statement of this article inspiring:

“…it would be better if academics didn’t have to blog, or know a blogger, to get their work in front of interested audiences. That would require a new model for disseminating academic work — one that gets beyond the samizdat system used for working papers on the one hand, and the rigid journal publication system on the other. If academia was easier to keep up with, I think a lot of academics would be surprised to learn how many journalists care about their work, and I think a lot of journalists would be happy to find how much academic research can do for their stories.”

So, let’s start working on some brilliant ideas to solve this, shall we? I’d like to think a good place to start would be making education (and thereby knowledge) more accessible in this country our number 1 priority, but that is probably too ambitious.

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I am attending graduate school with a teaching assistantship, which means I have to TA two classes every semester. This year, I’ve been teaching the Intro to Physical Geology Lab. So here are my three words:

I enjoy teaching.

For years I’ve been claiming that I could never enjoy teaching. It’s my primary motivation for not going after a PhD. I have an enormous appreciation for people who do teach. The world needs people like that, as many as possible. I just never considered myself one of them.

But let me be clear.

I enjoy teaching, so long as it’s geology, at the college level. I couldn’t teach children (they terrify me, and honestly I find them rather boring), or high school students (living through that experience once was enough for me). But geology is something I’m quite fond of, and rather passionate about. If I can inspire at least one student in a class to pursue geology, I consider my job well done.

I recently finished teaching our Winter Session geology 101 lab course (winter session is a 3-week intensive version of the normal semester course; the students have lab every day rather than once a week), so I thought I would write this before I change my mind about how I feel about teaching (the atmosphere of the regular semester is a bit different than winter session, and yes, I’ve started writing blog posts in advance).

This new revelation could just be a result of teaching winter session. These particular students are (in general) more motivated – they don’t HAVE to be here and take a class during the month of January. It’s completely optional – but it’s a quick way to get general undergraduate requirements out of the way.

On the other hand, now that I’ve taught these labs three times, I think it’s actually pretty fun. I feel confident imparting my geology knowledge on the next generation. Sure, the vast majority of them will never think about geology again when they leave my classroom, but it’s extremely rewarding when students do well, take notes when I’m talking, and get excited when they get a question right during a test review game of “Geopardy.” (If you’re a teacher and you want to find a Jeopardy game template, www.jeopardylabs.com is great for that).

And sometimes, I manage to recruit a new geologist. Spring semester classes started a couple days ago and I happened to run into one of my students on her way to her next geology class, and she seemed pretty excited about it. Even if she’s the only student I manage to inspire during my time here, it will be worth it.

While I find I enjoy teaching geology 101 in general, there are many reasons this will not be my career path. For every great student, there is another who is completely on the other end of the spectrum. I don’t get disappointed when students try and get something wrong. What bothers me is when they don’t try at all, or when they expect me to hold their hands and take pity on them when they haven’t put in the time or effort. That’s when things get frustrating and disappointing. It’s astonishing how many students don’t want to stop for a minute and think, exercise their brains.

So, my experience with teaching for half a year has been quite the roller coaster, and my appreciation for those who choose to teach (and aren’t forced into it like I am) has grown considerably. To all those teachers out there, know that you are appreciated, truly.

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As I mentioned in my last post (which was a guest post written by Jesi Lea Ryan, and you should check it out if you missed it), I haven’t updated in five months. I am in my first year earning my Masters of Science degree in geosciences, and I made the mistake of taking 12 credits. You see, I asked around if that was a good number, as that was a light load in undergrad. But, no one told me 12 was too many until I was already to far to back out. Not to mention I had to teach two Geology 101 lab classes of 25 students each – lab prep, 4 hours of teaching, hours of grading, writing exams… Plus I had to actually figure out what I wanted my thesis project to be.

You can imagine I was insanely busy. I tried to keep up with my blog pact (they have 9 members now! When we began it was only 3! And if I can keep it up I’ll make 10! We will be the 10 plagues of Egypt, and I am the rivers of blood, because vampires… but I digress.), but it only lasted for a couple weeks before I was too swamped and drained of energy to be creative.

But now, after the winter break, I have been able to recharge, and now I’m itching to write ALL THE THINGS.  Last Friday, my writing parter wrote a guest blog for me to promote her latest novel: Arcadia’s Curse, the second in a trilogy about a teenage empath. Then I talked to a couple of my writer friends, @mmjordahl and @centralcoven about our writing lives, and I found myself inspired! So, I’m going to do a trial run and see if I can get myself back into the blog pact by the end of February.

I have to grade things all the time. Especially right now, as I’m teaching a three-week winter session geology 101 lab – I have to teach a different lab every day, including set-up every morning. In order to stay on top of grading, I have to grade every day. Grading, as I’m sure many teachers will tell you, is rather tedious. It’s not that I don’t enjoy teaching – I actually have a lot of fun doing this. But grading, as it is extremely repetitive (30 students, 5-10 graded pages a day), is tedious. So, in order to alleviate the boredom I sometimes feel while grading, I watch television. A LOT of television. Grading takes a couple hours a day. You get the idea.

A couple weeks ago I decided to give Scandal a try. Kerry Washington won an award for it, after all – perhaps it wasn’t as much of a soap opera as I feared.

Turns out I was right (at least by my standards). If you’ve ready my earlier posts, you’ll know that I love Revenge, despite the fact that it is TOTALLY a primetime soap opera (I’ll compare these two as they’re both on ABC). Sure, Scandal has soap opera-y moments (I mean, the main character is having an on-again, off-again affair with the President of the United States), and it is full of scandals, the mood of the show is completely different from Revenge. There is a much higher level of humor written into the script, and delivered perfectly by the cast. The music lightens the mood a lot of the time as well (something that is completely lacking in Revenge). While I love a few of the main characters on Revenge, I actually love all of the main characters on Scandal. Olivia Pope is having an affair with the POTUS, true, but she is incredibly conflicted about it. Sometimes she’s strong enough to rise above their impossible situation, and stand up for herself (honestly I think the POTUS is a terrible person and the King of Mixed Messages when it comes to Miss Pope. If the writers want me to hope for their eventual happy ending, they’re doing a terrible job of it). Other times the POTUS lures her in with promises which he later breaks. I only hope that she’ll learn soon. (I’ve only seen the first 2 seasons! No spoilers!)

So that’s the soap-opera side of the story. In addition to that we have the political side that reminds me of the kinds of things that happen on The West Wing. In fact, Scandal inspired me to try watching The West Wing again, and so far I love it. So if you like political drama, this is a good show for you.

Olivia Pope is a badass. She’s a fixer, not a lawyer. Rich people bring her problems, standard and obscure scandals, and she finds a way to fix them. But that’s not all she does – that’s just her job. She also takes care of people, people who made mistakes, people who got framed for terrible crimes they didn’t commit, people who lost their way. She and her associates call themselves “Gladiators in Suits,” and that’s pretty much what they are. They are afraid sometimes, but they face their fear, and when they’re in trouble, they solve their own problems and help each other. These characters are three-dimensional, each with their own backstory, their own motivations, and their own loyalties.

The other thing I love about this show is that it passes the Bechdel test! Half the cast is female, half the cast is male, and the women talk to each other all the time about things other than men. Oh, and did I mention there’s a fantastic gay couple that isn’t just the “token” gay couple? They have normal married couple problems, they aren’t just flaunted for ratings. They struggle with the decision to have a baby, they struggle with their jobs – one is the advisor to the President, and the other is a reporter. They just happen to both be men.

I honestly can’t remember why I was so skeptical about this show before. I think perhaps the previews and ads didn’t do it justice. They focused too much on the affair, and not the rest of the show. Scandal is dynamic, has great characters, and just the right amount of humor. I say it’s my new guilty pleasure, but I think it’s better than that. It’s good television.

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