Sunday, April 29, 2007

Talking about science in the public

Remember, I talked about the blog we are going to have in one of the research projects I'm involved with. It's up and running now, but still only contains a few entries. With this blog being pseudonymous and all I am not going to link to it, at least not yet, but I do want to talk a bit about it here. Especially after I found this link yesterday where a freelance science writer and blogger here in my neck of the woods explains why she thinks we should change the way we think about science in the media. Her main points are that science has an oddly distinguished status in the news media, that it's only found worthy of mentioning after major discoveries have been made and that the general public knows too little about the scientific process before the results hits the headlines. I wholeheartedly agree. If I hadn't become a research scientist/academic I would probably have gone into either teaching at a lower level or into public outreach, and if there is one thing I hope to be able to change as a scientist it is to demystify the process.

It frustrates me daily that my own family and friends know so little about what I am doing , that the world of scientific research is so foreign to most people, that one is perceived as either extraordinarily bright and intelligent or remarkably different. I want people to know about the time, effort and money behind scientific results, the tedious collection of data, the careful analysis and heated discussions that are also part of the process, or the competition for grants, people and status. I am disheartened when the breaking news of my field fills the TV screen in a simplified and wrongish way. Not because journalists shouldn't talk about science, or because they should know all the minutiae, but because people are not offered any insight into where the results come from and why they are complex and two-sided.

When we first talked about having a blog for the research project it was as part of an extensive outreach package for a project that already has attained a bit of publicity. Apparently the blog as a medium has become so commonplace that every decent large collaborative project ought to have a blog these days. Nobody really talked about what should go on the blog until fairly late in the process. Most people involved seemed to think along the lines of reporting results/ field specific facts/ background and then we hope someone joins in and creates a discussion. What I wanted to do was to write about the day to day process on a more personalised level - provide a peak behind the curtain so to speak. I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about what happens before, during and after the research project, the people, the logistics, the After some discussion other group members seemed to come around to the idea, so that is the focus of the blog now. As I said it is early days and I don't know whether we will generate an audience or what an audience will gain from the blog, but I do think it is a different way of communicating science and I wish we would all try out more new avenues when it comes to public outreach.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Blogosphere spring cleaning

As you may have noticed I have been adding some more links to the blog. I have also removed a few that didn't work anymore and generally thought a bit more about who I want to link to and why. Generally I will link to you if I read your blog regularly or if you link to me. I also link to some fellow postdocs who post on the "what's up postdoc" carnivals. If you read my blog and would like your link in the side bar, let me know.

When I started blogging two years ago (on another blog) I was a lonely and frustrated graduate student desperate for contact to someone/ anyone in the circus that is academia who were not my advisors. I cast my net wide and joined organisations and fora, listservs, groups and networks and searched for blogs, diaries, real life stories and anything I would come across. I still read some of the blogs I came across during this frantic search for connection and company, others have disappeared or I have lost interest and others I have come back to. Most of the blogs I was able to dig up were written by people living in the US or Canada, and at the time blogging seemed to be a foreign concept to most people where I was. Since then blogging has exploded here and while I have no intentions of cutting out my fave blogs from other parts of the world, it would be nice to meet people from my region too. While my focus is not on factual research, I often wish I knew about more blogging people in my own field, and I have tailored my new links list so that it reflects my location, work and general interests a bit better than the old one did.

I have deliberately searched the blogosphere for some new links to people in my geographical area and of course Danish, Swedish and Norwegian graduate students, professors and science geeks are blogging too. I have also chosen to be more flexible regarding language and allow links to blogs fully or partly written in Scandinavian languages as well. If you belong in any of these categories and read my blog I'd be happy to link to you too. I think it would be nice to have blogosphere friends on this side of the pond as well.

I have also been searching for people in my broader research field. I have added a few link to earth science people who blog about research, work, life or all of it. Blogging doesn't seem to be particularly big with people in my field, but maybe that just makes it all the easier to connect with the few brave ones out there.

Other than that I have been playing around with technorati and their new "tag cloud" feature, but I can't get the cloud to show on my page. If anyone has tried this and made it work I'd love to hear what you did. I can only get a link to the cloud on the technorati page, but not show it directly on my blog. WTF?

ETA: Thanks to nice and helpful technorati people the tag cloud problem is now magically solved. Thanks.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday night recap and how the evaluations went

It is Friday night and The Week of Continuous Demands From Other People has finally come to an end. I am tired and exhausted and want nothing more than sleep, go shopping for my sister's wedding next week and hang around and do nice things. But Fiance is out of town and I have sort of a longish weekend so I am going to camp out at my desk for a little work retreat beginning tomorrow morning. I am going to work on the manuscript I have been close to submitting for months, but I just haven't had the time to finish it up. It will probably be very boring, so expect lots of blogging.

As tonight is the last bout of freedom until after the manuscript is done I am going to waste it by watching TV and reading my non-intellectual but very hilarious book and generally enjoying myself in the laziest possible way. I do have some blog posts on my mind, but I don't have it in me to write those out tonight. What I can tell you is that I am almost done with the annual assessment meetings and it has been such a great experience. Everybody has been nice and taken me seriously as the head of the group (something I tend to worry about more than necessary) and I have gotten lots of great and positive feedback. I know it can be annoying when people brag on their blogs, but let me just say that you'd probably brag too if you got responses to "how is the leader perceived by the employee*" like "fair, organized, gets things done, open-minded, respects peoples differences and has a good balance between authority and listening to other peoples opinions". In short, I am definitely happy with the outcome. I have also gotten some good feedback on what people think the role of the group/ department leader ideally is and how it should be filled**. Basically it seems people want the head of department to take care of administrative necessities, inform them and involve them when necessary, provide good working conditions and support/ create a good social environment. While I am happy to hear that people are generally satisfied with how I approach these tasks, I think it's interesting to think about the process and how the daily interaction with people somehow captures so many aspects of what the workplace is like.

*As it is an annual assessment for employees most of the questions are concerned with the work situation for the individual, but we follow a pre-made questionnaire, and the one question about the leader is there to open up for a discussion about how the department works.

**As I am at a research institute I have nothing to do with administering teaching staff, courses, academic programmes etc., only administration relevant to running a research department.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Annual assessments

I had the first annual assessment meetings with people in the department today. According to institutional rules the department head must offer one-on-one meeting with each employee once a year. It's an opportunity for the employee to get feedback on their contribution to the group and the institution and a chance to air thoughts or concerns regarding the way the department is structured, projects, responsibility, ambitions, plans or wishes for the future etc. It is where the manager is supposed to give constructive criticism or feedback on how individuals can improve and where our little group is going. It is also a chance to discuss the way the department is run, the quality of management and to which extent we have been successful at creating a sense of belonging. Given that I am young, recently hired and have limited experience it is probably the one thing I've been fretting the most about since I put on the department head hat back in January.

I inherited a very good group of people. We work closely together on a number of projects, our research interests match and individual people's skills fit in neatly with what others are missing. We have a good social life, at least while we are at work. People speak kindly to each other and we laugh a lot. I think most people are generally happy and satisfied, but I do see potential pitfalls and a few clouds on the horizon. The department is expanding and the power balance is changing. Maybe a centre of gravity is developing around certain people while others are being slightly left out. Many new things are happening, and I am not sure they are all as coordinated as they could be.

My ideas about running a department are still developing. Each day brings new decisions to be made and new opinions to be had, and some days it evolves in a more haphazardly manner than I'd like it to. My general idea, besides go with the flow and try not to make too many fatal mistakes, would be something along the lines of creating an open environment where everyone has a chance to be heard, give everybody lots of freedom to decide for themselves how things should be done but listen and take it seriously when people request something from me. One thing I like about the job is way it forces me to care about and point attention towards other peoples work and results in a different way. I also like that I have a chance to distribute resources to the people I think deserve them and need them and how it's up to me to point it out if someone has done a great job. My weak points are definitely my lack of insider contacts higher up in the system and maybe my team building skills (because honestly I wouldn't really know how to do that if the team wasn't already great). I don't know how this kind of management is being perceived and if people think it works at all, so I am very excited to get feedback (sneak peek preview: so far it has been going well, but meetings will run all week so who knows where it might end up). Initially I was also freaked out by the idea of having this sort of conversation with people many years my senior and with far more experience and natural authority, but so far that part has been OK. Most people have asked for a time slot for a meeting so I take that as a signal that they don't mind having this talk with me. We'll see. I'm jumping in for another round tomorrow.


Third carnival of postdocs

The Third Carnival of Postdocs is up over at What's up Postdoc. Once again PropterDoc has done a great job putting it all together. My brain is fried these days and I completely forgot about the carnival until today and haven't written anything of relevance in a long time. Hopefully I will get my act together before the next carnival the 23 of May.


The real me

As seen everywhere today. Apparently I'm a Junkie Monkey. Who knew? Thanks to ScienceWoman for directing me to another procrastination tool.


Monday, April 23, 2007

A week in the world of the academic administrator

This week is going to be crazy. I tell you, I don't remember the last time my schedule was this tight. It's like all administrative duties has been crammed into the next week with back to back meeting from tomorrow morning til Friday afternoon. Tomorrow hell breaks loose with the monthly department head group meeting followed by the first two annual assessment meetings with people in the department. Wednesday I'm going to the local travel clinic with the rest of the field crew for this summer to get immunised against all sorts of diseases before travelling to faraway field site. Hopefully I will make it back from that appointment just in time for the lunch seminar I suddenly find myself in charge of and another couple of annual assessment meetings. Thursday will be the big "get research group together and discuss our results from last years fieldwork"-meeting. This will probably be the day where we realize that we have nothing to report and that our work sucks (or that we are fabulous super scientists who will change the world). Friday I am going to attend the women's rights group at my workplace for their monthly meeting for the first time. While I'm all for women's rights I have a strong suspicion that I don't resonate with the work of this particular group very much, but time will show. They give a kind of career workshop/ talk about once a month and while I do like the idea of having that kind of resources available, I don't like the way they are singling out women for access to these events. Especially because we don't have any such resources available for male employees.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Random pieces of what's up?

Once again it has been a while. Good days and bad days have come and gone along with thoughts and ideas for blog entries. I don't know how you guys who blog every day do it. I find it next to impossible to keep up with 9 hour work days + commute time + cramming in a bit of exercise a few nights a week + keep the bare minimum of contact with friends and family + not let the household fall completely to pieces (Fiance is already taking more than his fair share during the week) + have quality time with Fiance and yet find the time and the energy to blog. I soooo wish I could blog from work (since I'm at the office all day anyway), but for one I really don't have the time when I'm there and second, I'm afraid it could eventually cause me trouble if anybody found out. So back to square one. I miss blogging when I don't find time for it and I still think about ways to write about what happens in my life, so don't despair I'm not about to quit, just organizing my thoughts.

So what have I been up to:

I'm back at work in full force after the South America adventure and Easter break. It is surprisingly good to be back. I am really in two minds about this job. Sometimes I feel endlessly frustrated about the character of the institution, the lack of freedom in deciding where and when and how to work and the outdoorseyness and small town-feel of this city. Other times I am hopeful and excited about the research projects that are growing around me, the initiative and success coming from the group and the way I've been given responsibility and freedom to develop more than just research skills. Right now I'm in the positive mode. Things are happening, projects are getting done, the group is happy, people do not seem to hate me although I'm their manager.

I've figured out how to follow European job advertisements in my field via e-alerts. As my European readers will know the job market on this side of the pond is completely fragmented and I hardly ever hear about open positions outside my immediate geographical area. With the very few universities here and limited number of candidates It's almost known in the community who is next in line to get a position. I don't think I am at the end of the line, but I'm not first either and with me doing the postdoc at a respected research institute people tend to think I am not even considering switching to a university. With the help of a few dear friends I have finally figured out where European jobs are announced (at least some of them) and having a lists of vacant positions pouring into my inbox on a weekly basis is extremely liberating even when I am not planning to act on it right now.

I have finally made myself go back to the gym and I don't hate it yet. Or I never really hated it. I like it when I'm there, I just don't like having to leave the house again after I get home at night because I'm lazy and tired and feel like doing nothing. But since we are going together now it's been fun and it's nice to feel better and get some exercise.

We redecorated the home office and it looks really nice and professional. I rarely work at my desk at home. Usually I bring all my stuff to the living room table where the view is gorgeous or just sit in the sofa or somewhere else where I'm comfortable, but with the new furniture the room seems much brighter and more appealing. I think I'm going to spend more time there now. And I have room for all my stationary, pens and other work stuff and don't have to keep it in a cardboard box anymore.

We are going to start a blog in one of my research projects at work. This is really weird and surely deserves a blog entry of it's own. My colleagues are the least tech savvy people you would know and they are obviously not the kind of people who reads blogs at home. I am trying to steer them away from the worst beginner's mistakes without admitting to having a blog of my own. Maybe I will eventually just come out and tell them. At the moment I am the magic blogging wizard who out of the blue knows one thing or another about the blogosphere. So far I have been given the task of writing the information letter to the other subgroups who will be participating in the blog because, as they say, "I have so many ideas". We'll see.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 09, 2007

No strings attached

When I was 20 my sister and I decided that when she'd finished high school we'd go backpacking and see the world. I was fresh out of undergrad when I signed up for endless days of high-stress, low pay and no need for a brain work to save for the adventure (but with the living on my own and having expenses I never really saved as much as i was supposed to). I was excited about it and I looked forward to the break from school and reality. I did not expect to find myself, or inner peace or any long-lost connection to the third world, but I was curious about what faraway places would look like, how people would be there and about tigers and elephants and altitude sickness and how to avoid getting a rat for dinner and everything I'd just read about up until then. I did not expect it to change my life for more than a few months, but in a way I was never quite the same after I came back.

Like anybody else who have ever done anything slightly outside of their comfort zone (i.e. most functioning adults) I was proud of situations we'd handled well, learned from situations we'd handled poorly and fond of exotic memories and new insights into different ways of life. But that part fades over the years and doesn't really cause any trouble. A much more complicated effect was a constant yearning for doing this again. Not just travel for work and vacations like normal people, not just going back to some of the same places or finding new ones (and God knows I have visited plenty of peculiar new places since then), but having months and months of freedom, no plans and and no strings attached. I guess most people who go backpacking across continents ends up having a great time and remembering the good times. They probably also go travelling again one way or another, but most people seem to put it behind them at some point.

I did not sell everything and head for the roads. I wish I'd done it, if only for a year, just to get it over with. Instead I went back home, went to grad school, got really busy and really serious and very boring, while I was desperate to throw it all overboard and go travelling again. I got a PhD scholarship, travelled a lot, got a little less boring, but all the time there was deadlines and money issues and peer pressure and fieldwork during summers and what not, and then there was the defense and the new job and who on earth goes backpacking across continents while in their thirties and at beginning of their academic career.

Due to some lucky circumstances we happened to have one paid return ticket to South America and I happened to have some money available for spending (that is spending on something else than paying off student loans and awesome-new-house-rent) and the backpacking idea did not seem sooo far away. Not the full version with oodles of time, but the downsized plan with quite a bit of time available and just enough freedom to let the itinerary develop as we went along. One of the perks (and annoyances) of being in government research is that working hours are regulated as if we were factory workers and that overtime is actually registered somewhere. It's not good karma to take it out, but no one has complained so far and an entire field season of twelve hour work days seven days a week last summer nicely earned me the right to four weeks off.

The initial plan was born far far out in the Russian woods on a particularly hot day in mid-June last year. We were miles from anything, had lost our way and sense of direction and were walking through some über pristine forest, more akin to jungle than anything else, and it seemed like the right place for the idea of "why not take advantage of this and get some time off at another time of the year" to pop into anyone's mind. I mulled it over for a while, introduced the idea for my boss who did not hate it and time passed and off we went to the southern hemisphere to explore a new country and a new continent.

It was absolutely fantastic. I was completely taken aback at the variety of landscapes, the vast empty spaces, the kindness of people and the roughness of living conditions in parts of the country and the sophisticatedness of other parts. But most of all I loved the freedom of having no set plans, carrying few possesions and moving with the whole lot from place to place from day to day. I think we will be back in Argentina. I hope we will also be back on the road.



Eventually we did give up the layabout lifestyle and joined the rest of the nation in the mountains. Gorgeous weather and amazing landscape. Sometimes I'm very happy we got the chance to live here (remember that I said this next time I complain about the weather, the food, public transportation or whatever it is I'm complaining about).

Labels: ,

Easter garden blogging

Ha! I did it. Found the one spot in the garden where I get a signal from our wireless network. For the past fifteen minutes I have been sneaking around the house and the garage to find a spot with a signal and here it is. I'm on the deck, sun in face, protected from wind by the signal blocking garage and with a beautiful view of a snow clad city. The sun is warm enough that I can sit outside comfyly without hat or mittens or thick coat (though dressed in woolen sweather, thick socks and boots). I'm still off work till tomorrow and I'm kinda excited to go back. Isn't life just awesome?


Saturday, April 07, 2007

How so little can be done

This has been one of those days where I almost (but not entirely) feel guilty for being the geeky, lazy type rather than the sporty energetic type who jumps up and runs outside at the first sight of sunshine. It's Easter, the whole country is more or less shuts down during the holidays, it's snowing and it's been sunshine/ not too cold/ not too warm and I'm pretty sure everybody who can stand on two legs have been out in the mountains skiing and exercising and looking really healthy. My only excuse has been the occasional snow showers, the niceness of staying inside and the fact that I'd already rented "The devil wears Prada" on DVD last night and had to watch it before 6pm tonight when evil rental place wanted it back.

So what did happen? I spent a LOT of time on the Internet (imagine where i could have been if I spent all that time working instead of reading about other peoples jobs), watched the movie (which was just as good as the book and very funny), did a lot of laundry, finished synchronising home laptop with work PC and talked to my mom on the phone (and had related breakdown because she is a master in turning something that is very important to me into a problem, and I am a master in spilling whatever anger I might carry around inside over her). I guess tomorrow it's time to start looking at that pile of papers I brought home from work.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Settling back in

For the first time since we came back, I got up before noon and was not completely exhausted. I guess I'm finally over the jet lag (that's been lingering for way too long given that it was only five hours time difference). I even might have some leftover energy for doing some work during the next few days. Or at least finally get down to organizing the folders on my laptop, call my sister or my mom, do some laundry or get myself downtown tomorrow to get the tires on my bicycle changed from winter to summer ones (one of the joys of living at 60-something degrees north).

It's been snowing yesterday and today. This is not quite what I had in mind for Easter since I was hoping for some spring-like weather, but it's way better than heavy rain and strong winds we had for the first few days after coming back. Actually the city is really pretty now covered in snow and bathed in spring sunshine and Easter is after all the "sacred"-skiing holiday in this country that is entirely obsessed with the great outdoors. It's just that my work is so outdoorsy that when I'm not doing field work I really do enjoy a fair amount of civilisation, and snow on the streets does go better with hiking boots and goretex jackets than with the spring attire I had in mind.

As for work I'm beginning to get my head around to the idea of doing a bit of thinking and writing during this Easter break. The thought of the unfinished manuscripts is not quite as suffocating now as it was a few days ago. Actually the inspiration seems to be trickling back in and maybe it's not the research part of my job I don't like but all the other crap that comes with it. I have one paper that's almost ready for submission, and I think I will give myself the week after Easter as a deadline to finish it, and not think too much about it right now. Instead I think I should have a look at the mound of new articles I have brought home from work (where said mound has been sitting unread on my desk for weeks .... or months is probably more correct). If I'm really, really good (in the academic goddess sense of good) I should spend some time having a look at much-dreaded--but-yet-promising-for-career-old manuscript and make some decisions about how and if it can be chopped into two manuscripts - and whether that will be the solution of the problems or the beginning of a whole range of new ones.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

A taste of Argentina

I apologize for the poor resolution of the pics. I'm not sure what the problem is, as they seem to be OK in my filing system, but change when uploaded to either Flickr or blogger.

Labels: , ,

Back from the other side of the world

Sorry to have disappeared so abruptly a month ago. I wasn't sure I wanted to announce to the whole wide world that the house was going to be empty for weeks. I have been on something as exclusive in the academic world as a several weeks long vacation. To South America - a continent I have always dreamed about visiting. I have let myself completely forget about half-finished manuscripts, productivity requirements, competition, administrative duties and people management of all sorts for four weeks, and it was amazing. Just letting go of it all for a while, taking in new experiences and thinking about something else for a while was much needed and seriously refreshing. I'm so happy I did this - despite the guilty-feeling for claiming my right to take vacation days at another time of the year when I'm doing fieldwork all summer and the stressing about everything that wouldn't get done if I took time of.

BUT obviously travelling a new continent, experiencing a new culture, crossing spectacular landscapes and enjoying the late summer in the other hemisphere, while winter has barely ended here, was a lot more fun than coming back into the office. Having a lot of free time also allowed for a lot of thinking about serious stuff like life and career and where it is all heading and at the moment I can't say I'm particularly excited about my job and the way it completely dominates my life. Thanks a an extraordinary stroke of luck we booked tickets back home so that they almost coincided with Easter break, when everything is shut down for days, and hopefully a few days at home will leave me with a bit more of perspective.

I will be back with South America pics and stories from the road one of the next days. Thanks for not giving up on me completely. I can see that I have still had a few visitors while I was away. Thanks for stopping by.