Saturday, December 4, 2010

It's official....

Well it must be official now- I am a wannabe travel writer, with a profile and everything!

Trying to focus on the uni work atm (still topic-less, the last idea I had hasn't really come to fruition yet), but I have a few ideas in the works for articles on the Arctic, Sweden, going on exchange, Brisbane travel guide and more! Any suggestions?

Won't give up the day job just yet....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More travel blogging!

Should I be worried that my travel writing is more productive than my academic writing? Another post I wrote for Gap Year Escape....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Updates on Science

Warning: Contains science content and rambling about thesis ideas.

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog was record how I am thinking and finding my way academically. Listening to older grad students talk about how they found their thesis idea has been interesting and helpful. I thought a similar record would be helpful both for other people going through the same process, for my own sanity, and so that I can articulate for myself exactly what I am doing and see what is working and what isn't.

Science, at the moment, is exciting. After half-heartedly embracing a topic idea I had come up with concerning the effect of invasive species on spring nitrogen retention in temperate deciduous forests (which I'd even written up and submitted for a grant), I decided that perhaps bigger ideas still lurked out there and went looking for them. My initial strategy of looking for literature and keywords surrounding topics I was already interested in wasn't so successful. I found and perused books on topics like organic nitrogen use by plants and frankly I wasn't feeling inspired. I think one of the biggest challenges of grad school at the moment is figuring out how to exposure yourself to ideas effectively and link things together in your mind. I've read plenty suggesting that attending seminars etc on a range of topics can be good for this, and while I've seen some great seminars, none have grabbed me or left me developing my own ideas (yet?).

What has worked (and an approach I am ashamed to admit I had ignored up until now as I didn't think it would work) is just scanning through the contents page of the most recent issue of a wide range of journals. My commitment to spend an hour or two each week just getting that week's journal updates has actually proved very successful. I stumbled across this article:

The Nitrogen Paradox in Tropical Forest Ecosystems- Hedin et al., 2010

and it's pretty much single handedly set my new direction. Turns out tropical legumes are amazing! I'm excited about everything I'm reading on the topic, frantically scribbling down ideas and looking forward to my next meeting with my advisor. At the moment I'm dealing with interesting concepts rather than a question per se, but it's exciting to have found something which is so intellectually stimulating. I would never have come to this point with my old approach. Yay!

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Science is awesome. I am so lucky to be doing this. All those ridiculous self help/guide books that go on and on about how hard and depressing grad school is have got it wrong. I don't think anyone would be here if they didn't love what they were doing. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My foray into travel blogging....

I love travelling, and whilst I like writing too, most of my life is taken over with scientific writing which isn't terribly gripping and has a distinct lack of flowery adjectives. 

Amar Hussain is a awesome travel writer (and good friend), and he invited me to guest post on his successful travel website, Gap Year Escape. I wasn't about to say no!

Without further ado, my first foray into travel blogging....


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An insightful and informative cultural analysis (well, kinda)

Fabulous things about America

  •        Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups. Nom nom.
  •      Cutesy furry things. My neighborhood is home to myriad adorable squirrels, deer, skunks, chipmunks and groundhogs. It feels very much like that scene from Snow White.
  •      Academic freedom. I’m independently considering three different and entirely unrelated thesis projects and I can take my time to evaluate and explore their merits before I decide- fantastic!
  •     Car-share programs. Such a great, sustainable idea, but don’t think I’ve ever seen one at home.
  •        Pumpkin in a can. It might take slightly longer to justify this one, but believe me it’s awesome.
  •      Enthusiastic friendliness. I kind of like it when shopkeepers call me ‘sugar’ and tell me to have a wonderful/fabulous/super-dooper day. Bonus points for ‘sugar bun’.
  •     Fractal broccoli. This stuff totally blows my mind. Not strictly American but again, I’ve never seen it at home.
  •     Bagels! Oh, bagels. Yes, I have noticed that half the entries on this list are food. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of horrifying fake cheese to balance out the good stuff.

Odd, ridiculous or otherwise disheartening things about America

  •        Cheque books. It’s 2010, people! It’s the future now! I can pay for coffee with my cell phone but I still have to pay my rent with a scribbled bit of paper?
  •     The Imperial measurement system. Continuing to use measurement standards calibrated to random body parts of dead royalty is never going to be a sound idea.
  •      The cereal isle in the average supermarket. It’s generally ¾ artificially colored, sugar-frosted, uber-refined flakes of god-knows-what supplemented with tiny novelty marshmallows. The sheer volume on sale leads me to believe people actually feed this to their children.
  •        Pronouncing ‘niche’ as ‘nitch’. Is there a T? IS THERE?
  •        Hershey’s chocolate. Has this odd aftertaste that I just can’t place- leather? Bacon bits?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

'We live in a time of consequences'- Winston Churchill

I'm a little embarrassed with myself right now. This evening I went to see a documentary about climate change. To be frank, I didn't really think it would tell me anything I didn't already know. Sometimes I feel like I've developed a little bit of the apathy that I so hate seeing in other people. I read or talk about climate change nearly every day, in a scientific capacity, and I could tell you a reasonable amount about how CO2 enrichment effects plant growth, soil nitrogen cycling or ocean acidification. While I might know more about the science of it, I actually think this has warped my sense of perspective and what I saw tonight really made me think on a whole different scale.

The film is called 'Climate Refugees' and I strongly recommend it (that's a link to the website by the way, for the less technologically inclined readers who shall remain nameless).

The film avoided the usual, and honestly often trivial, issues of energy-saving-light-bulb scale and focused on broader effects on humanity and civilization. It was pretty clear, that no matter what we do now,  creation of huge numbers of displaced people ('refugees') all around the world is almost inevitable. It pointed out, quite rightly, that natural resources in one way or another are the cause of most human conflict. And that destroying arable land, fresh water sources and habitable coastal areas, in combination with increasing population, is a recipe for broadscale conflict and displacement. Displacing literally millions (perhaps half a billion) people has incredible consequences for national security- increasing pressures on unstable states, vulnerability of desperate disillusioned people to recruitment into terrorism, unmanageable immigration pressures. On a human level, it's pretty confronting. I'm not trying to overwhelm you with negativity here, but I think on the whole the film was really informative and raised some good issues to think about and act on. 

I know that people in Australia might not feel like their vote is worth much right now- but it bears consideration that emissions legislation, as well as governmental pressure to address international humanitarian laws, immigration issues and development projects etc. are really something worth pushing for. Believing short term economic excuses for inaction when you really consider the long term consequences on every aspect of life is pretty laughable.

Anyhow, that's my two cents for the evening- something I am genuinely passionate about and not just cranky because my housemate drank the last of my milk (how am I supposed to have cereal for dinner?!). Will be tempered with more amusing material soon, I promise!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fall colors

My enthusiastic attempts to turn the stunning fall colors in Ithaca into a photographic masterpiece have failed miserably- so I borrowed someone else's rendition. I also found a brilliant geographic photostream- this one's for Ithaca but you can search for any location- I recommend!

                                  Flickriver Ithaca Photostream

Matt Chapman

Monday, October 11, 2010

Embracing American culture!

I have well and truly succumbed to the seasonal American cliches! In the last week I have:

a) Made an apple pie from scratch

b) Been pumpkin picking to select an optimal specimen (even color, smooth skin, correct height/diameter ratio) for pre-Halloween pumpkin carving this weekend

c) Gone out of my way to jump on every crunchy-looking leaf on the pavement (thus taking twice as long as usual to get anywhere and attracting concerned glances from onlookers who think I have some sort of unfortunate tic)

d) Begun planning my Halloween costume, which is apparently quite a big consideration around here. Online searching has confirmed that there is in fact a 'sexy' iteration of every conceivable outfit, including 'Sexy Nemo', 'Sexy Polar Bear', 'Sexy Construction Worker', 'Sexy Ninja Turtle' 'Sexy Lion Tamer' my personal favorite 'Sexy Chinese Take-Away Box'. I kid you not.

...God Bless America. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Life in Ithaca... A long overdue update.

Hello All,

I realize that this post is well overdue… I have been in Ithaca for nearly two months now and surprised how quickly it feels like home. I have an excuse- I’ve been keeping very busy! So I should probably start from the beginning….

It doesn’t take long when you land in LAX to realize you’re in a whole new world… America is certainly the land of opportunity but it does have its quirks. This time the passport officer managed to overlook the plethora of smudged middle eastern border stamps in my passport so I was spared my usual interrogation (the word ‘scientist’ always seem to arouse undue interest from border officials- but I’m a ‘student’ again now!). Highlights of the rest of the trip there included A) witnessing someone trying to check in the tray of a ute at the baggage drop off desk. Yes, a ute. This thing wasn’t exactly hand luggage and the passenger seemed very vexed when they wouldn’t let him check it in, nor would they allow him to carry a set of half-metre gardening shears through security. B) being sat next to a genuine 200kg gansta rapper on the plane (complete with copious bling) and C) being all buckled up and ready to take off from Philadelphia to Ithaca, and then being told that the plane was too heavy, and would someone please like to get off? (Actually my 43 kg of luggage may have been to blame for that one, but still).

But I arrived safe and sound, if hideously jet-lagged, in Ithaca. I spent the first few days living with Jed (my quirky but hilarious supervisor), his lovely wife Kim and their strong-willed three year old, but have now moved into my own pad, all of 15 meters away. I’m sharing with an Economics PhD student from Bejing and we have a cosy, if rather vintage (think dark brown wood kitchen cupboards and psychedelic orange lino in the bathroom), two bedroom apartment on North Campus. Location, location. We live in the area that contains most of the frat houses and sororities and I do get the occasional invitation to come and party with the undergrads when I’m walking home on a Saturday night (respectfully declined). My walk to central campus every morning is one of my favorite things here- I have the choice of three bridges, cutting across the steep, forested gorge which has views down to Cayuga lake and I still stop to admire the view every time (see photo below).

Cornell is a big part of Ithaca for me, but the town itself is pretty much the last thing you would expect to find in conservative upstate New York. “Five square miles surrounded by reality” is a favorite quote here. The town contains a good measure of hippies, a big organic movement and excellent local farmer’s markets, several surprisingly good wineries and a Buddhist monastery which is the north American seat of the Dalai Lama. The area is surrounded by forest and we’ve been spending plenty of weekends hiking and swimming in the gorges while the weather is still warm (which it won’t be for long…). Winter is coming, I am assured, and it will come with a vengeance. I’ve been spending a lot of time on ebay lately (shopping in Ithaca is none too exciting) accumulating ear muffs and snow boots. About eighteen ducks gave their lives to stuff my new winter coat, but when the time comes I will be very grateful for their sacrifice!

Uni (or ‘school’ as its called here, but I am resisting the change in vernacular) has so far exceeded all my expectations. The program is really worth all the study, forms, hours and hours of organizing, trips back and forth to Sydney, sad goodbyes and headaches it took to get me here. Apart from a lot of reading and thinking to come up with a project ideas (the measure of freedom is a little scary), I’m taking one course, which is an introduction to research in the department as well as a paper reading and discussion group. There are eight of us in my year, in fairly diverse fields, so we generate interesting and sometimes heated discussion. Apart from that I’ve joined an inter-departmental graduate-run program, called Biogeochemisty and Environmental Biocomplexity (or BEB if you love a good acronym), which is a very successful grad training program founded at Cornell and supported by a large national grant. I’m currently organizing a small symposium for them as well as preparing a grant to submit to them for funding. I’ve joined a committee organizing the annual departmental research symposium and am mentoring an undergrad environmental science student. Have also been attending plenty of seminars and somehow got roped in to doing a science communication workshop and presentation last weekend. The scope of activities most students here are involved in is impressive; though the program is long, I think it’s great preparation for complex roles in academia.

So though I make it sound all work and no play, I’m not too stressed out (yet?) and taking time to get to know Ithaca and make friends. My department is very social and I’ve met quite a few satellite friends through them. Ithaca may be lacking in a club scene (alas, no Cloudland here), but there are plenty of fun bars and house parties and a good roller derby league which makes for a great spectator sport. I’ve followed through on all my half-hearted proclamations about taking up rockclimbing at last. There’s a great natural rock climbing wall on campus and I’ve made friends with a few climbers and go pretty regularly- starting to improve and I’m taking some formal lessons starting next week.

Anyhow, I’m off to discuss the anti-viral components of coral mucous, in preparation for my upcoming graduate field course in Hawaii in January! More news coming soon and a run down of the quirkier aspects of American life.

Miss you all!

Xx Fi

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Campus in Summer

Here are a few pics I took wandering around campus during my first few days here- Cornell and Ithaca are stunning in summer...

The clocktower

View from the top of the clocktower

View over one of the gorges that cuts through campus, this is my morning route to uni!

The Arts Quad

The Ag Quad, across from my building

Botanic gardens on campus

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bye bye Brisbane!

Apart from mum and my fantastic friends, one of the beloved things I'm leaving behind for a while in Brisbane is my lab at UQ. Here's a little farewell I made for their lab website!

We're the Schmidt Ecophysiology Lab, and we really love science...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Something to look forward to!

I'm going to Linzie's graduation in a couple of hours, and decided to casually google what the Cornell grad robes look like. If I can stick it out for 5 years, I can look forward to looking this silly...

Monday, June 14, 2010

My first foray into the blogsphere!

As promised, I'm keeping a blog to chart my experiences over the next few years- leaving Brisbane, moving to upstate New York and starting my PhD in plant physiology/ecology at Cornell University.

I'll be keeping friends/family up to date with my news and adventures adjusting to a new culture and very different life. No doubt there will be plenty of ranting as well, not to mention general bemoaning of the imperial measurement system...

I'm also keen to explore a few other issues I've been thinking about lately- the realities of women in science, the PhD process and the changing nature of science as a career. Basically, I've been reading too many internet columns doling out advice to grad students and I'm interested to see whether the reality is as terrifying and depressing as they generally make it out to be!