Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Love My Job, But It Is Still Work.

Hello, Dear Readers!

I'm having one of those navel-gazing moments, and other than seeing that I have a hole in my shirt, a few things have happened, rather inconsequential things, that have given me pause to think about the state of my life thanks to science and academia.

The main trigger was this article by Miya Tokumitsu called "In the Name of Love." It covers how the mantra "Do what you love [DWYL] and you will never work a day in your life" is a sack of foetid dingoes kidneys. If you're not completely googly-eyed enamored with your job (say, for example, you have a job that you do because there is rent, food, daycare, etc. for which to pay), the DWYL mentality erodes the perceived quality and importance of your work. DWYL is the employment cry of the privileged. I used to buy in to the DWYL mantra, but reading this article has caused me to examine that belief and reclassify it as such.

The section of the article that hit home for me on a personal level was this:

"If DWYL denigrates or makes dangerously invisible vast swaths of labor that allow many of us to live in comfort and to do what we love, it has also caused great damage to the professions it portends to celebrate. Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia...Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all."
Being a scientist is a large part of my personal identity. I am a scientist in a time when being part of the "Ivory Tower" is politically and publicly unpopular (as least in Canada and the USA, where the term Ivory Tower is used as the adult version of "doody-head"). In a culture that believes that every opinion is valid, I thrive on logic, data, critical thinking, and knowledge.

Step away from the comments section, Strange Woman...step away. Image source.
In a sense, science saved me emotionally. In elementary and high-school I was the Amy Farrah Fowler. I was very odd, and an easy target. So, I was targeted. There were no anti-bullying campaigns in my day. Science kept me going. Paleontology was my dream, and studying and the good grades on my transcript were my ticket out of that prison of an educational institution. I left home for university with strict instructions to my parents to burn any reunion notices. I also left home with horrendously low self-esteem.

Science changed that for me. It started when my parents (with unwavering support for my career choice) gave me a choice of high-school graduation gifts: financial help on my own vehicle, or two weeks at a paleontology field experience program. I chose the field experience. During those two weeks I met future mentors and like-minded people who were also, by the social standards of my area, odd. They were odd and reveled science, and I reveled in their influence.

I still had a long way to go, and many mistakes to make along the way. I used to be that person who constantly fished in muddy waters for compliments. I used to be that person for whom, when receiving a compliment, would twist it to turn it into an insult. No one could ever say the right thing to cheer me up. I was draining to be around. I was draining myself. I had a lot of emotional scar tissue that was still raw.

Science allowed me the opportunity to rebuild my self-esteem. I realize that is an odd statement, considering academia is chock-full of situations that can make one doubt themselves with Ex-Lax-like regularity. I learned that what matters in science is the quality of the work that I do. As a student that meant grades. That meant volunteering. That meant working. Eventually it dawned on my that I was capable of accomplishing things that mattered, regardless of what anyone else thought or said. It also dawned on my that, no matter what, there is nothing, NOTHING, that someone else could tell me that would make me feel better about myself if I wasn't able to tell myself the same damn thing and bloody well believe it.

I do love my work. I have the opportunity to see things that haven't seen the light of day for millions of years. I take the impressions of past life and translate their stories. There are days when I think it could not possibly get better than this. That does not mean that the work is not oftentimes frustrating, tedious, exasperating, and actual hard work. Hard physically, hard mentally, and hard emotionally. The problem with the DWYL mantra is that a person who has a job they love cannot express frustration without being countered with such pablum as "Well, at least you get to do what you love." It sounds like a math-based platitude: X is difficult, but since the love (Y) is greater, the result comes out positive! YAY! Problems all solved, right?

No. Just no. Love of a job does not cancel out or erase the negative aspects. The DWYL mantra does not negate difficulties. There is no fix for those days that make you think "Why do I bother?" My friend Jenny, who is living her dream by running a school in Tanzania, said it best: "People confuse living your passion with living in a 5 star resort vacation! They are NOT the same thing!"

This is a dangerous mindset, especially if we insist on it to younger people entering the workforce. DWYL carries with it the expectation that it's all so damn easy to do what you love. Of course, one of the interpretations of "easy" is "I can just sit back and sip my wine, and it will all work out. No effort required!" The sooner that insinuation is challenged, the better.

At least there is some interesting ichnology happening during this particular head in the sand episode.
A job in academia comes with a myriad of costs. There is no guaranteed employment. There is little financial stability. There is little locational stability. Life milestones that non-academic friends celebrate become foreign concepts, such as starting a family, building a dream house, or going on regular vacations. There is no 9am-5pm: if I'm not doing something related to my thesis or work, I get antsy and refer to my down time as "being lazy." [Note: now that the thesis is done, I've purged that feeling.]

I love what I do, and I've had to realize that loving my job does not mean it is stress-free, problem-free, or even doubt-free. There are costs. Thanks to my job and the path that I took to get here, I feel like I have the emotional resilience to pick up the bill for those costs and work out a reasonable payment plan. [UPDATE: But it's STILL WORK. Hard. Bloody. Work.] The love of the job gives me the mental armor to wade into battle and slog through the difficult times. Do what you love, and you'll work harder for it than you ever thought you would or could.

Strange Woman

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What to Wear, What to Wear? A Woman in Science Packs a Field Work - Conference Bag.

An interesting article popped up in my Twitter feed a few days ago, rather whimsically titled "Why Women Have So Many Clothes." The image in the article is no where approaching whimsical: it shows a woman's leg, and drawn on said leg are the labels given to various hemlines (current style and perception dependent.) That in of itself is worth a post or two, but the first thing that popped into my mind was "Oh, don't get me started on packing for both a conference AND field work!"

Whether I like it or not, people (the public, colleagues, potential collaborators or consultees, conference coordinators, committees, students, prospective employers, etc.) are going to judge me to some extent on my appearance, and specifically on my manner of dress and personal presentation. Everyone has their own interpretation of professional style: it's normal at a paleontology conference to see someone in a suit and tie having a conversation with someone in khaki shorts and a T-shirt. From wool pants to sandals with socks, it's a matter of personal taste and comfort. Through many trials and countless errors, I've finally found what (I think) works for me in terms of conference-wear. Of course, just because I'm comfortable with it does not mean my style is immune to criticism: by dressing my body type and wearing skirts, am I trying to "use" my femininity? I like a nice pump: am I trying to get attention? There's a trace of make-up: just who am I trying to impress? Well, me, to be perfectly honest.

My personal philosophy on professional wear (conference, meetings, etc.) is that people are only going to respect me as seriously as I respect myself. I make sure I'm clean. I make sure my clothes are clean. I run a brush through my hair and over my teeth (not the same brush). For me, there are situations that are not appropriate for clothing that is stained, doesn't fit properly, or shows off Krakatoa.

Yes, Krakatoa is a euphemism. Image source.
I don't shy away from what are considered feminine styles, and I don't view looking feminine as a weakness: how others may view it depends on their own biases. I feel that I don't need to neuter myself to be a scientist, and I respect my colleagues and supervisors enough to know that they would never stoop so low as to give me an opportunity because they think I look "hot", or some other such drivel. That concept is (or should be) offensive to everyone. (Note: I'm not saying that situation doesn't happen in a professional setting. It does. If we've learned anything from the #ripplesofdoubt hashtag started by Karen James, we have learned that science and science communication is not immune from this kind of misogyny and the damage it causes. I'm only saying that, to the best of my knowledge, it has not happened to me.)

I dress at conferences to best represent my institution and my profession: in short, to best represent Strange Woman the Professional. None of these considerations come into play with my field clothing. Stains, mismatched colors, baggy, torn...anything goes. I wear what it takes to get the job done, and get the job done safely. That is how I dress the Strange Woman of the Field.

I love attending conferences for which there is a field work component. The insights that exploring a new area can add to your observations of your home localities just cannot be beat. However, it does make packing (for me) a bit of a pain in the ass. Strange Woman of the Field and Strange Woman the Professional have two completely different clothing needs.

My first experience with packing for an international combined field trip and conference was Turkmenistan. Both Rich and I admittedly over packed because we had no idea exactly what type of field work would be expected of us. Turns out it was hiking to see sites and no rigorous field documentation, so we didn't need half of the equipment we brought. We have since learned how to better streamline our suitcases, but Rich admits that he is glad he is not a woman when he sees the "extras" that I feel I have to bring.

I realize that all this could be avoided by just saying  "I don't give a Flying Spaghetti Monster what people think of my clothes" and just wear my stained field shirts, latex and silicone coated pants, and dusty old hiking boots for every occasion. I'm a field person, after all! Strange Woman of the Field and Strange Woman the Professional are both part of what I do as a scientist. Both do what they do best when they feel (and that's the key word - feel) appropriately attired. Would I show up to a job interview in a sweat-stained tank top and my clunky logging boots? No more than I would hang off of ropes on a vertical tracksite wearing my Fluevogs and a pencil skirt.
The perfect footwear for scaling a 50 degree slope 60m off of the ground, right? Nope. Conference shoes are not field work shoes.
Both Strange Woman of the Field and Strange Woman the Professional have to make separate packing lists. Unfortunately they also have to share a suitcase, but they both use the same plane ticket, so there is an upside.

Strange Woman the Professional/Shaman of the Field, the Carry-On Bag:
My carry-on bag contains all of those items that would physically stop (or at least delay) my being able to hit the ground running with field research or conference activities. This is where the two Strange Women share the packing duties. The carry-on bag doubles as my day pack for the field.
  • Computer and computer cord, with power cord in an easy to access section of the bag (for airport security)
  • Travel external hard drive
  • Wireless mouse
  • Digital camera
  • Hand held GPS
  • Digital calipers or measuring tape (Side note: when flying through the US, I was pulled aside at security because of the digital calipers and was asked if they were a dangerous weapon. I responded with "Only if I can measure something to death." Not smart. Don't sass airport security. My only excuse was that I was tired after a long flight and my mental filters were not working as they should.)
  • Rite-in-the-Rain field book with writing instrument (I doubt that I will ever give up hand-written notes)
  • Plumber's soapstone pen and soapstone sticks
  • Brunton compass
  • Photo scales
  • Angle-o-meter (my name for the device that takes any angle data on tracks)
  • Mini flashlight (once the paper on this site is out, I have a lovely story on how, for the lack of one flashlight, I did an unplanned overnight in the field in November)
  • Cell phone
  • Travel medicines, travel documents, toothbrush, one change of base layers, sunglasses, headphones, neck pillow
You can imagine that airport security just loves it when I join the queue, but I'll be damned if my research electronics and tools leave my side during travel. That bag becomes my mobile office.

The checked luggage is where the different research needs become the most obvious.

Strange Woman of the Field, the Suitcase:
This half of the suitcase is reserved for all the field gear that I would need for a week to a month or more of continuous field work. Most of this clothing also doubles as tourism clothing (except for my pants - I'm hard on pants).
  • Two pairs of synthetic fabric pants (wear one, wash one)
  • If it's the right season, two sets of thermal undies (one washed, one being worn)
  • One pair of non-field pants/capris
  • Two to three light, long-sleeved button shirts
  • Four sets of synthetic base layers, including socks (one washed, one drying, one being worn, and a spare - the spare is very important)
  • Two wide-strapped tank tops (for under the long sleeved shirts)
  • One wide-brimmed hat
  • Two bandanas
  • Small binoculars
  • Toilet paper (I learned this one the hard way)
  • Rain gear
  • Field knife
  • Hand lens
  • First aid kit
  • Gloves
  • Personal grooming items
  • Sunscreen
It seems pretty light up until now, doesn't it? Shove the clothing items into a compression sack and there is still loads of room in the suitcase! Then I come to this item:
  • One pair of steel-toed, Kevlar woven logging boots, or for non rugged terrain, non-TSA friendly hiking boots.
Damn boots. Field boots are a very personal item. They can also be an expensive item (for a student), if you want to make sure they will 1) fit (my sister-in-law jokes that my shoes should come with a full compliment of life rafts), 2)  protect my arch and ankle, and 3) not fall apart after the first day. I am as hard on boots as I am on pants. Perhaps one day I'll just throw caution to the wind and risk buying boots at my destination and leave them there after the trip.

Strange Woman the Professional, the Suitcase
Conference and business meeting clothing. Mix and match is the key for me, and nothing that would have caused my Granny and Aunt Molly comment "Hello, Sailor!" This is for a four-day conference, plus any unexpected side meetings. For only one or two professional meetings, one outfit plus an extra shirt would suffice.
  • One pair nice shoes (either the shoes pictured above or the ones I show in this post)
  • One knee-length skirt and/or one pair of dress pants
  • Two to three lace shells that can go under dress shirts
  • Two dress shirts
  • One suit jacket
  • A couple of finishing pieces (a bold pendant, a silk scarf, etc.)
  • Make-up
  • Hair clips
Most of these are soft, squishy items that can also be packed into a compression sack. I manage to cram all of this into something smaller than a steamer trunk. This is assuming there is no camping involved with the field work: that would require bringing a sleeping bag, an sleeping pad, and a possibly a tent and an actual expedition-size field backpack (which then becomes my suitcase). Also, this packing list only concerns personal field and conference gear and does not include any specialized research equipment. Before leaving for the airport I have to find out the logistics of obtaining these items at my destination (or the logistics for shipping these items if needed):
  • Heavy tracing plastic and permanent markers
  • Duct tape
  • Archive-grade, low ammonia latex, or, platinum-cure silicone
  • Fiberglass and resins (or plaster) for mould support jackets
  • Chalk (for outlining footprints)
  • Brushes, for cleaning a track surface and for making moulds
  • Hammers, chisels, and other digging tools
  • Climbing gear and rope
  • Bulk food and water for the crew
Every year I try to remove one or two extra items from my personal packing list, or to replace two or three items with one multipurpose item. I'll be interested to compare my 2013 packing list with the one I make a few years from now.

If you have any clever travel hacks to share (or horror stories), I'd love to hear them!

Back to being desk-bound: paper reviews, proofs, and revisions all decided to appear in my inbox this week.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Science Professional vs. The Person

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

I survived my New Year's party indulgence of mulled wine and homemade alfredo sauce. I started writing this yesterday, and then started editing when I returned home last night, admittedly under the influence of a bit of mulled wine. I broke a rule of wisdom:

Don't drink and edit a blog post, or, don't mull over mulled wine. It makes navel-gazing seem insightful.
More detrimental than drinking and dialing? Based on all of the shirts for sale expressing this sentiment...oh bloody hell, there's actually an app for that! #ClutchesPearls
Here is what triggered my mulling. I received what would be normally considered a pretty uneventful email a few days ago. Without getting into specifics, it was a very small professional request for a very small amount of assistance. It was not the request that made me do a double check (and a Google search to ensure that I wasn't making assumptions): it was the requester. See, this person is someone who's personal character I would call into question on my most charitable days. They are not someone with whom I would want to associate on a personal level. As the request was small (and really, it was a standard request), I obliged and moved on, at least physically. Mentally, though, I was still troubled, and the trouble had to do with how I was perceiving the situation.

This was the first time that I have had to seriously make a distinction between the Science Professional and the Person. Let me explain a bit. I work with a great group of ichnologists. They are professional and respectful, and bloody good at what they do. We are also good friends. I may have met them through my professional life, but these are people with whom I would want to be friends if we had met under non-professional circumstances. They are great scientists who are great people.

Here is where my personal, completely illogical bias comes in: if someone is a good scientist, I also expect them to be what I consider is a good person. More specifically, I automatically expect them to be the kind of good person with whom I would want to associate on a personal basis. I did not consciously realize this bias in myself until this email. As all biases do, it was lurking in the corners, influencing my judgement of situations, silently mouthing approvals or condemnations based on what I hear.

What traits fall under my definition of "good"? It's a fairly broad list, and there are many different interpretations of honest, respectful, considerate, sympathetic, empathetic, and ethical/strong sense of personal responsibility. For example, I have my own ethical interpretation of the sale of vertebrate fossils. There are others who have a completely different set of what they view as ethical in the sale of vertebrate fossils. The chances of me working professionally with person who has a professional ethical interpretation that is counter to my own will be tempered by that ethical interpretation, but I wouldn't shun them as a person. This isn't some "Oh, how big of me to let them in my life" thing, but just one of the realities of Science Professionals: you can disagree professionally with a person yet, after a vigorous debate, head to the local pub and grab a few drinks together and talk about everything else. Perhaps this is because I know so many great Science Professionals who are great People.

Now how about the person who is a good Science Professional, yet whose personal actions make you want to roast them with the Glare of Doom?

The Eye of Sauron does not hold a candle to the Glare of Doom. Your personal safety prevents me from showing images of the Glare of Doom. Image source here.
That type of professional-personal interaction I find the most difficult with which to deal, and that's the source of my mulling. Sometimes you have to separate the science from the person. A good scientist does not necessarily have to be (what I consider, at least) good person. That bugs me as a person, because I truly believe that being a good person helps you be a good scientist, because these personality traits are not those that I feel one just shuts off when you leave the lab. Here that? Those are my biases mouthing off once again, because these traits can be applied to a professional life yet be missing in a personal life.

The boiled-down point is this: I don't have to personally like someone in order to interact with them on a professional level. I don't have to like a person to agree with their body of work. Again, just one of the realities of being a Science Professional: just as you don't personally like everyone you meet, you are not necessarily going to like every Science Professional you meet. You may want to, but it's not guaranteed.

However, being a Science Professional does mean behaving ethically. It does mean being honest in your work and in anything that can have an impact on your work-related life. Professional courtesy is an old term for a good reason: you can't be a jerk to your colleagues and/or students and then expect them to want to work with you. Respect is a two-way street. There is a certain standard to which a Science Professional should hold themselves (and others.) Bad situations arise when these professional standards are violated. Since work is such a large part of a Science Professional's life, a professional faux pas has a good chance of having a negative impact on their personal life, and it's a two-way street. What goes around doesn't necessarily always come around, but the possibility lurks.

This likely won't be the only time I have a professional interaction where I will have to make this distinction, and I'm sure I am not the only one in science who has had to mull this over. There are still a few questions related to this issue that I have asked myself for which I have no answers. I'm sure I will find them as my mind free-associates during a run or a ski, which sounds like a good idea after the epic amounts of food that were consumed last night.

Here's to a Happy and Productive 2014!

3:34pm Update: I think the only way I can deal with making the distinction between the Science Professional and the Person is on a case-by-case basis, and this is a personal call. If I feel that their personal bad behavior is in any way related to their professional life, there is very little chance that I would want to be either personally or professionally associated with that person. I realize that, fair or not, this is the standard to which I hold Science Professionals. This will likely evolve with time (and experience.)