Thursday, October 28, 2004

It's all so surreal

Once again, this is not about grad school. But I think there's a law or something that if you have a blog, and you are a Red Sox fan, you have to blog that they won. So here goes.

The Red Sox won the World Series! It can't be true, but it is! I don't even know how to react. I bought the special "Victory Edition" of the Globe, and I may frame it or something.

I don't have anything to add to the reams of paper and megabytes of e-space that have already been written about this unbelievable victory, so I'll just leave it here.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Beauty tips

Engineers get a bad rep. People think we are too concerned about, I don’t know, math or seomthing, to be interested in our appearances. But this is an unfair generalization. As you will soon learn, we engineers can be just as shallow as anyone. (Physicists, though, are a group of people who let things go.)

Take The Doktah, for example. The Doktah had beatiful long red hair, but it didn’t get to be beautiful by accident. Every morning, The Doktah would arrive at lab promptly at ten-ish, her hair still damp and pinned up in a chignon. She never wasted time; she always got right to business by checking her email. But once that was taken care of she would pull open The Drawer.

Now, as a person with hair so thin I have to hurry to use the hair dryer before it dries on its own, I found it difficult to relate to The Doktah’s habit of washing her hair at home and waiting until she got to work to do it. But The Doktah’s hair was lovely and thick, and it took too long to dry it right after the shower. So she set up a mirror by an outlet in the cave, and kept her hair stuff at work.

The bottom right drawer of The Doktah’s desk was chock full of hair products, hair brushes, and hair appliances. She had hairwax, pomade, hairspray, silicone drops, curl enhancer, hair straightener, mousse, a hairdryer, a diffuser, a curling iron, two or three round brushes, and large-toothed comb. At least.

But, to be fair, The Doktah’s hair always looked fantastic. She became so famous for good hair that when my sister said she was thinking about getting some Aveda hair products, I said, “The Doktah doesn’t like Aveda,” and that settled that. My sister doesn’t even know The Doktah; she’s just heard tell of her.

The Doktah wasn’t the only beauty expert in the lab. One lunchtime, The Doktah, The Fashion Plate and I were chatting in the cave. The topic turned to beauty tips, and it turned out that The Fashion Plate had a million of them. She said that she, her sister, and her mother used to give themselves facials with oatmeal, and that cucumbers are good for the eyes and salad oil and coconut oil do wonders for your hair. She added that bananas are great too, but she didn’t say what to do with them. We asked her.

“No, you eat the banana,” she told us.

Monday, October 25, 2004

People skills: Part the second

These two posts are titled “People skills” because The P.I.’s social disabilities were not limited to a lack of phone manners. The P.I. is a classic science geek, brilliant, but unsocialized. When he meets someone new, The P.I. usually fails to make eye contact during the handshake, and he has a lot of trouble discussing things that aren’t science based. Case in point: I once wore a t-shirt with the slogan “What part of [long complex triple-integral equation] don’t you understand?” The t-shirt is meant as a joke, but The P.I. tried to figure out what equation it was. He was not being ironic; he really wanted to know. I had to stand there for several minutes while he tried to determine whether phi represented specific volume.

At one point, the Doktah made a sign for The. P.I. that said, “While I am interested in what you have to say, I am unable to focus on your problem right now because I am busy with other things.” She told him to tape it to his computer monitor and point to it when people seemed to be hanging around waiting for a response to a question.

Friday, October 22, 2004

People skills: Part the first

These days, the phrase “phone etiquette” conjures images of people shouting into cell phones at the movies, but phone etiquette actually dates back to the olden days of corded phones. In fact, I remember learning the proper way to answer the phone. In kindergarten, my teacher taught us how to say, “Hello?” and “Who’s calling please?” and “Just a second, I’ll get her.” We even practiced on prop phones.

But I think that my P.I. was absent from kindergarten that day. The P.I. answered the phone by grunting, “Hellumph?” If the call was for, say, The Doktah, he would scream, “DOKTAH!” while still staring at his computer screen. He didn’t cover the mouthpiece or even move it very far away from his face, so was essentially screaming into the caller’s ear. Thanks to this phone answering technique, people – including other professors – would routinely ask me if I was allowed to get phone calls.

By my fifth year, the lab had grown from five students to twenty, and the phone situation was becoming ridiculous. I suggested to the P.I. that we get a second phone line. Knowing how he felt about unnecessary expenses, I had already checked with the business office to find out how much it would cost. It turned out that the department would pay for it, since two phone lines was very reasonable for a lab full of twenty grad students. But even though it was free, it was surprisingly difficult to convince the P.I. that we should get a second phone line. It was as though he thought that the department would secretly charge him extra. I eventually wore him down by recruiting his wife. Mrs. P.I. was a postdoc in another lab with which we collaborated, and attended one of the the group meetings where I brought up the second phone line issue. She told P.I. that one phone line for twenty people was ludicrous; her lab had only 10 people and they had two lines. She said that there were several times that she called and the line was busy, which was very frustrating. So finally, finally, we got a second phone line.

The second phone line did nothing to fix P.I.’s phone etiquette He still answered with a grunt and still shouted in the caller’s ear, but at least the percentage of calls answered by him dropped a bit.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


OK, this isn't about grad school, but how can I not blog that the Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Evil Empire on their home turf and WIN THE AL CHAMPIONSHIP!!!!!

Johnny Damon and David Ortiz are my heroes!


Last year I asked my Magic 8 Ball if the Sox would win the world series, and it said yes. I realize now that I didn't ask what year they would win. And the Magic 8 Ball was right when I asked it if I would graduate, so look out, winner of the NLCS!

Leah Lar called me after the game last night from a safe haven for Sox fans in NYC, and I could barely hear her through the screams of joy. I wish I had been surrounded by Sox fans, but The Husband and I had to make do with each other.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Birds on the brain

I have a pigeon phobia. It’s not crippling or anything; I can walk freely through the city, but I get a little twitchy if I see a flock of them. It sounds crazy, I know, but there’s a story behind it.

It was a gloomy day in the early winter of my first year, and I was hungry for lunch. I asked around, but since everyone had already eaten, I headed out by myself to buy something from one of the lunch carts on 34th Street. As I stepped out into the grayness of the afternoon, I felt an odd silence in the air. The driveway leading to the street was deserted, save for the cooing of nearby pigeons.

Halfway to the lunch carts, I heard the flapping. Flap flap flapflap flap… The sound was coming closer and closer. I stopped to look up and there it was: A pigeon was slowly spiraling down from the sky, apparently unable to stop, and it was heading straight for me.

I let out a scream and flung up my arms to protect my head. The next few seconds passed in a blur, but I felt feathers brush my face and I nearly tripped in trying to avoid stepping squarely on the pigeon that had just landed between my feet. It was all over very quickly. Too quickly, because when I looked up I saw two people round the corner of the driveway. They must have heard me scream, but by the time they got there, all they saw was me, completely freaked out by a perfectly normal pigeon. Pointing at the pigeon, I shouted wildly at the couple. “That pigeon just fell on my head!” They just looked at me with pity. Just some poor crazy woman in the alley.

So yeah. I’m a little afraid of pigeons.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Music to work by

We had a postdoc from Eastern Europe in our lab for a year. She had a lot of idiosyncracies. For example, our electronic pipettor had a two pipetting speeds, and the “fast” mode was indicated by a small sillhouette of a rabbit. The Eccentric Postdoc did not immediately understand what rabbit display meant, but when I explained it to her, she found it hilarious. From that day forward, if anyone did anything speedily, he or she was “like rabbit.” You can split cells in twenty minutes? You are like rabbit. Set up an experiment quickly? Like rabbit. Put together a group meeting presentation in only five minutes? Like rabbit.

In addition to “like rabbit,” there were a couple of other phrases that The Eccentric Postdoc repeated endlessly. Our lab had some temperature control issues (see “Construction woes”), so it was either “like freezer” or “like oven.” We’d hear these three sayings fifty times a day, at least. As was bound to happen, we began to do imitations, and eventually had to institute a three-imitations-a-day rule.

But the catch phrases were not nearly as annoying as the humming. Whenever she sat working by herself, either at the microscope or at the computer, The Eccentric Postdoc would hum. Not a song or anything. Just a tuneless, rhythmless, droning, hum. With variable volume. “MMMmmmmmmMMmMMMMMMmmmmMMMMMmmmmmm” (breath) “mmmMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmMMMmMMmmmmMMmMMMM...”
Because she changed the pitch and volume at random intervals, it was nearly impossible to tune out the humming sound. Her hum was the audio version of Chinese water torture.

But The Eccentric Postdoc wasn’t the only hummer in the lab. One day, The Doktah and I were having lunch in the cave (a long, dark stretch of lab adjacent to the cell culture room where we had a loveseat, coffee table, and fridge for food) and we heard a burst of song coming from the cell culture room. It was Baseball Cap Guy. He was splitting cells, and had suddenly starting humming “When You Wish Upon a Star” at the top of his lungs. (Can you hum at the top of your lungs?) The Doktah ran to the door of the cell culture room, threw it open and sang, “Anything your heart desires will cooome toooo yooouuu!” but Baseball Cap Guy was unappreciative. He seemed a bit embarrassed to be caught humming that particular song, and did not find it amusing when we started calling him Jiminy Cricket. We were sensitive and mature young ladies, and we understood his embarrassment. So we only called him Jiminy behind his back.

Construction woes

From the state of the grounds at my grad school, the motto would appear to be “We must dig!” There was a steady state of construction going at the university, and our lab was no exception. We went through a major renovation where we built a cell culture room and an extension to the lab. During this process, the the air handler for our lab was dismantled and rebuilt on the roof. (Even though we were on the ground floor, we had an outside roof because of the odd shape of the building.)

One winter day, several months after the air handler was finished, I was standing over at the fume hood dispensing something or other. “It’s freezing over here!” I said. “Why is it so cold?” Bitter Guy, whose lab bench was right next to the fume hood, told me to look up. “You see that missing ceiling panel? Do you see that hole to the outside right behind it?”

Apparently, during the moving of the air handler, the construction workers ran out of material or something. So they duct taped a piece of plastic to the huge gaping hole in the air duct which opened directly to outside as a “temporary” fix. Did I mention that the air handler construction had been finished for months? I asked Bitter Guy if he had apprised Building Operations of the problem, and he said the construction guys had told him they were planning to fix it, so he was just waiting.

I shook my head in amazement and headed over to Operations. They sent a guy down to take a look at it, and he was fairly horrified that anyone could call such a job “finished.” He couldn’t believe we had been working under these conditions for so long. But I think what happened is that the people most directly affected by the hole got used to it and forgot it was even a problem, so it took someone with fresh eyes to point out that duct tape and plastic does not insulate from the cold.

At least it kept out the rain. Except for when the rain flooded the pipes and backed up through the sink. Which happened more than you might expect.

Pest control

Pests are a common problem, especially in a city. It was not unusual that we had roach traps and mouse traps placed around the lab.

But not every lab has squirrels.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

A giant vat

At the Christmas banquet my first year of grad school, I was sitting at a table with several professors and other grad students. One of the grad students was a second year who had a lot of opinions and a lot of personality. This deadly combination typically resulted in long-winded diatribes about a variety of topics. Because he was usually talking about things that I didn’t know about, I generally assumed that he knew what he was talking about.

That Christmas, however, I found out the truth. We were talking about blood donations for some reason, and Know-It-All said, “I never donate blood. I don’t think that their AIDS tests are 100% accurate, and I don’t believe in contributing to a contaminated source.” There was a pause, while everyone gazed at Know-It-All, digesting this.

“Um,” I said. “They don’t mix the blood together. They keep it separate.”

“But they don’t keep it those little bags, do they?” Know-It-All asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, they do,” I reassured him. Know-It-All glanced around at the rest of the table and saw that everyone was nodding their heads in that way that you do when you feel sorry for the person you’re talking to. You know, where you sort of sigh and press your lips together while smiling knowingly but a little sadly.

Whenever I look back on this story, I wonder what exactly Know-It-All was picturing in his mind. At what point did he imagine they pooled the blood together? Did he realized the blood is kept refrigerated? The image that comes to my mind is of a giant vat of blood with a spigot. A giant, festering, vat of O-positive in every hospital in the land, and maybe some guy on a landing stirring it to keep it from clotting.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Eating in the lab

One thing I miss about grad school (and there's not too much I miss) are the lax safety regulations. Now that I'm in Industry, I can't even have a glass of water at my desk. Something about "safety" and "OSHA regulations" and "not catching antibiotic-resistant streptomyces."

But back in grad school, we ate at our desks all the time. The desks were of course inside the lab because where were we going to get separate space for desks? In fact, I remember The Husband (at the time he was The Boyfriend) asking me why we didn't just get more space. "From where?" I asked him. "Where do you propose we find this 'space'? The building is full, dude." You see, at his grad school, there were apparently 10 rooms per grad student or something, so when his lab needed space they just moved their desks into an empty room. That was not how it worked at my grad school.

Nevertheless, most of us made the attempt, at least, of only eating at the desks that were in a separate area of the lab than the benches. But one undergrad in the lab, known as Cheeks McGhee due to his inclination towards very low rise pants with no belt, had more of a devil-may-care attitude towards health and safety. I had brought in some leftover Brie and French bread for group meeting, and we brought the remaining leftovers back to the lab after the meeting. Several of us were sitting around the desk area chatting, and I glanced over and saw Cheeks cutting bread and cheese on his lab notebook. I gasped, “Dude, are you using your lab notebook as a plate?” I guess he didn’t want to get crumbs on his desk. Nevermind that he worked with polyacrylamide, a neurotoxin. We all stared at him in horror as he shrugged and took a huge bite of his possibly toxic brie-smeared bread.

I threw out the rest of the bread and cheese.

This is a test

I messed around with the URL of this and ended up back with the original one. So I'm just making sure it still works.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The first post

So I'm starting a blog. Because all the cool kids are blogging these days, and I want to be just like them. That, and because my friend The Doktah said I should write a book about what it's like to be an engineering grad student. Blogging a book worked for Wil Wheaton, so.... what the hell!

I welcome story ideas from anyone who remembers anything I told them while in grad school. Or from anyone who lived them along with me!