Friday, October 8, 2010

bad bad grad

Well that was an unproductive month*. It's a good thing September is over, because it was a crappy month anyways. August was fun: presentations, coursework, unexpected funding... and then September was all writing and wasted efforts. Though as my roommate pointed out, I did do a lot of reading that should be useful in the long run. Here's hoping October will make things happen.

But instead of buckling down to get things done, I'm running away for a week to recover some sanity. Hopefully the distance from work for at least a few days will give me new impetus to do that buckling down and actually accomplish something. Which would be a good idea, seeing as this semester I have to jump through some scholarly hoops, and prove to my committee that I can stay in school.**

* Why yes, I suppose we are already a week into October. Don't tell me that. I want to live in my little dream world where time pauses because I still have things I need to do. Either way, September still sucked.

** Which I'm sure will be fine if I ever finish writing my proposal. The one for my thesis, not the other one I was writing (that we didn't even submit). Gah. Stupid proposals.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Well that must have been at least 20 minutes of effort. It must be time for a break.

That's about how my brain is functioning these days. I guess that's the trouble with proposal writing - there's always something else that you would rather be doing.

Clean the cat litter? Super!
Make some more coffee? Why not!
Check the facebook status of everyone you know? Valuable use of time!
Download more references? I'm sure they'll come in handy eventually! Even if you don't read them!
Check the news in three different languages on at least 15 different websites? Can't hurt to know what's going on in the world!
Update your blog? Hey, at least it's writing!

I've also decided that I need to see home, so I splurged and bought a very overpriced flight to Montreal. Just don't tell my supervisor. I'm sure it's a terrible idea, at least considered from the work perspective, but then again, I haven't seen my home since June.

In other news, I have plenty of embryos, but no protocols worked out to preserve them. I'm sure they'll stop producing as soon as I figure out what I want to do with them. Because of course, I am interested in early stages. Fingers crossed that it doesn't become an issue. At least fixing embryos will be contributing to actually getting some data for this thesis, and not just compromising my sanity with never-ending proposal writing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

lazy hazy crazy

Today was supposed to be all productive and writing, but that hasn't worked out so well. At least updating is writing and that's much closer to what I should be doing today than aimlessly surfing the interwebs.

It's been a busy month. That policy course I was taking, while officially over, now refuses to finish. We are still doing interviews, etc. and the course ended nearly two weeks ago. Uncharacteristically, I am not being very helpful to the group paper we are putting together. But I have bigger fish, er, snails to fry. Preferably in garlic and butter. I am in the process of writing grant proposals, but extra funding for my project has materialized, seemingly out of thin air for me to go in a very interesting direction. And not exactly in a direction that I thought I would be moving into: next generation sequencing and transcriptomics. I don't know what that means either*. I am very excited and overwhelmed by it all -- it's not every day that people are coming to you wanting to give you extra money for research.

So that's all very good.

My next feat will be to move into my office. I have a key, all I'm missing is a desk. That isn't being used by someone else. Long story short, some people may look like grown-ups, but they behave like children. Especially when it comes to sharing.

So, the next few weeks I will be reading and writing, writing and reading. With a short break to go out collecting. And getting a better idea of what exactly I want to do with my new-found research monies.

*Okay, that's not true. Mostly.

Monday, August 16, 2010

it's raining ants

Two things I forgot (or tried to forget) that I didn't like about living in the tropics:

1) Ants are everywhere. Especially my kitchen. We have a serious issue with some kind of little tiny ants that go everywhere, and get into all of my food. Including this morning's breakfast. I'm not impressed when my cereal has legs. On the plus side, at least I noticed before I started eating.

2) Rain. It rains a lot, and when it does I just want to sleep. And as an added bonus, it makes it hard to catch the elusive taxis.

That is all.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


And back to Panama...
Things here are as hot and humid as ever, though I and my colleagues probably have more warming on the brains than ever before. My first few weeks here are being spent doing a course in Environmental Policy -- mostly in discussion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), two major pieces of international legislation that include various associated protocols. One you may have heard of called the Kyoto Protocol.

You would think that a course in policy could be taught anywhere in the world, but the professors are working hard to make being in Panama worthwhile, particularly for students that aren't based here for research. This week has been all about getting the nuts and bolts under our belts so that next week we can hand in a short paper, participate in a negotiation simulation (hence the title of this post) and then start working on a term paper that involves interviewing local stakeholders that may be impacted by international policies. The professors have many contacts here, and I can't imagine getting the same things out of a similar course taught in Canada. Sure, we would get the same basic understanding of the policies, but not the same opportunities to meet and talk to people working with government, NGOs and other countries to make these policies happen. I'll admit to not looking forward to the negotiation simulation next week -- I've never been particularly good at those sort of things, and there's a reason that I'm in biology and not a field that requires negotiation! Maybe my taxi haggling skills will come in handy?

Other than being snowed under with reading and work, it's good to be back. Of course, I miss being at home, but for the moment I'm too busy to think about it. Today it was nice to enjoy sleeping in, having a late brunch with my housemates and doing standard things like laundry.

I'm looking forward to getting to my own work, and I'm excited to have already made a few contacts here at the Smithsonian that will help me with new directions in my research, but that will have to wait at least a week or two. Though not too long... grant deadlines are looming.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A homecoming of sorts

The last few weeks I've been in ecstasy... I'm at Friday Harbor Laboratories (part of the University of Washington) on San Juan Island, not too far from my old stomping grounds in Victoria. I'm taking a course, but the course is basically all about deep and abiding love for all things spineless (sorry boyfriend and family and friends -- you have all taken a back seat to adorable invertebrate babies).

The course is officially called "Comparative Invertebrate Embryology", but deep down, it's just about raising as many cute invertebrate babies as you can, and drawing pictures of them. Sometimes taking photographs. This involves starting with the basic ingredients of eggs + sperm. Which are obtained by a variety of entertaining and somewhat icky methods. Sometimes it's easy: turn animal upside down and warm slightly. Spawning! Yes, I am scaring animals into thinking that they are going to die, and that it is their last chance to reproduce. Sometimes it's more difficult: inject substances into the animal that tell them to spawn. Usually a hormone or something that changes their neural chemistry enough to trick them into spawning. Sometimes it involves vivisection and smooshing gonads through a seive. Less pretty, but often effective. Sometimes nothing works. The tricky part after that is to keep your babies alive long enough for them to grow into sickeningly cute juveniles. That can be difficult, and more so now that we have about a billion species in lab to look at.

Today I spawned not one, but two different species of mollusc, and as a result watched not one, but two different kinds of cleavage*. It was fantastic. I have pictures, but I'm too lazy to put them here. Eventually I will get some of them onto my flickr site, so if you're interested in cleavage(s), keep an eye out.

Oh yeah, I also went to the best wedding ever thanks to my best friend ever. So it's pretty much been an amazing time out here.

In a couple of short weeks I will say goodbye to the west coast (but I'll be back... I just don't know when), and hello rodeo. A week in AB visiting family and friends, followed by a cross country check up before I get on a plane to Panama again. I haven't thought too much about that part of the summer. It's only a few weeks, but it feels very far away.

* Yes, cleavage. I play with sperm and then watch cleavage all day long. Welcome to invertebrate embryology.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arizona: A Centre for Ants

Ants you say?
But you thought I was studying snails?

Well, I am still studying snails. I just happen to be in Arizona this week with another member of the lab looking for ants. Apparently, AZ is THE PLACE for cool ants.

It's not quite a random as it sounds. A couple of months ago, I got an offer to go along on a collecting trip with another student in the lab, as she couldn't go alone, and nobody else was going to be around. Not being one to turn down an all expenses paid trip, I signed up.

So far, we've been pretty successful. We're looking for one particular species of ant, Monomorium. They're very small, black ants that make their nests under small-ish rocks. We're interested in them, because it seems that for this species, colonies that live higher up in the mountains have queens that are able to fly, while the colonies at lower elevations produce queens that don't have wings, and so can't fly. This makes a difference to how much mixing there is between populations, and the potential to make new species, and also makes for some interesting developmental differences. How do the different types (with or without wings) actually come to be at the developmental level? And if they are all one species (and so have the same genetic machinery telling them how to make a queen), how do they decide to make wings or not to make wings?

We're here looking for high elevation colonies, so we've been spending a lot of time driving up into the mountains. When we get there, we turn over lots of rocks to collect whole colonies. The queens are especially important, as they are the only ones who reproduce in the colony (that's a whole other interesting story). We're also looking for larvae and embryos of the future reproductive ants -- future queens and males. Those are the ones that have wings, so my colleague is particularly interested in collecting those ones.

I've been having a lot of fun collecting ants. I think it's probably more fun to help with someone else's project, as you don't have to worry so much about what happens after you do the collecting. And as an added bonus, I'm learning some of the species names that everyone throws around the lab.

Oh, and eating lots of yummy Mexican food. Which is the *real* reason I wanted to come along.

Friday, February 26, 2010

semaine de relâche

I've been thoroughly enjoying the past week -- perhaps little too much. I'm at home in Trois-Rivières, and supposed to be working for reading week. I have been working and reading, but not nearly enough writing as I was supposed to. Or perhaps I just thought I would accomplish more. Ah, the standard lament of a student in reading week.

I have a list of things to do about as long as my arm, and I think I've been able to cross of maybe one item. Closer to half an item. So here it is, Friday, and I still have all of those other things to finish. And seeing as it's Friday, I really don't want to do them. I won't even go into what I'm working on, because one of the major problems I'm having is that I'm very much forcing myself to be interested in them. Not so surprisingly, the things that I didn't enjoy as an undergraduate I find I still am not enjoying as a doctoral student. Funny how that works.

At any rate, it's been very nice to be at home, to sleep in my own bed and to be distracted during the day by my own cats. And not to feel like I'm intruding on someone else's turf. Even if I think Francis has gotten used to having the apartment to himself...

The rest of the semester I'm sure will fly by, and promises to have lots of exciting things coming up. I'm going to a development conference in April (in Mt. Tremblant, on the lab's dime), and have an offer to go ant collecting in Arizona in May (all expenses paid!). There's still the possibility that I'll be doing an embryology course on the west coast (not covered by the lab), which would bring me back to the west before heading back down to Panama. At some point I suppose I might actually have to do some work on my own research, assuming I ever find the time.

Friday, February 5, 2010

¡Hola! Hello! Âllo!

We're not in Bocas* anymore.

We are in fact back in the cold bosom of winter. Being tickled by the icy fingers of Jack Frost. Having out pant legs soaked by the salty puddles of slush in Montréal. Winter, happily, is not as bad I had remembered it being. I was actually starting to miss changing seasons while I was in Panama. Give me a few weeks, I'm sure I'll be sick of it soon. February has a way of doing that to you.

Since last I updated, a long, long time ago in a country far, far away, things have been busy. I know, it's shocking. I had a really great couple of weeks at home in TR, a very good Christmas and super-fun New  Year's, and then an amazing week in Seattle where I presented the work that I had been doing in Panama. I met loads of people, made some good contacts, and hopefully didn't sound like a dolt while I presented my poster.

The conference was going on while classes were already in session, so I caught the red-eye back to Montreal, had a shower at the new apartment, went to my class on "Gene Activity in Development", had a Spanish placement test and then caught the bus to TR for a weekend of packing before moving more or less to Montreal. I say more or less, because I'm still heading back on alternate weekends.

I've been pretty much consumed by catching up with the first week of classes that I missed, and getting used to life in the big city. Classes are going alright - I'm facing a steep learning curve in the above mentioned biology course, and double-time Spanish acquisition in the intensive Spanish course I succeeded in getting into. So just getting into the rhythm of not one but two mega intense courses has been rough. And I know, two classes doesn't sound like much, but I am supposed have time to do a thorough literature review and design at least some preliminary projects. Oh, and those boring things like eat and sleep as well. And maybe even get out once in a while.

I am really enjoying the lab, even if I have no idea what people are talking about half the time. And not just because they are ant people and I'm a snail person. I feel light years behind in a lot of ways because I come from such an old-school embryological background (morphology, histology, organismal) whereas the lab is full on molecular (they are also organismal though, so I'm happy: they want to know what the molecules are doing at a the whole animal level and beyond, which is more complicated, but that's the way life works). But I'll catch up.

My Spanish is also improving. I can now talk about yesterday, which may not be as zen as only being able to talk in the present (tense, that is), but is much more useful in real life situations. And yes, it is ironic. I study Spanish at McGill - an English-speaking university in a French-speaking city. Though I must say, I  probably hear more Spanish than French on the streets some days.

I'm working on connecting with people I know here, and trying to get involved in something that doesn't involve reading or sitting and thinking. I'd better hurry up about it though, because sooner than I think, I'll be off again...

*Bocas del Toro - a supposedly beautiful part of Panama I have never actually visited, but there's a marine station there so it's on my list of places to work next time I head down.