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!