Friday, December 30, 2011

Retraction Watch

Insert a mind-numbingly and excuse-laden list of reasons why I haven't posted.  There are many reasons.  Let's just chalk it up to a) being busy, and b) mental stress.

However, I have something fantastic that is above and beyond worth its own post.  In fact, it's worth its own blog.  And that's where there is a blog dedicated to it.

Retraction Watch is a wonderful blog run by science writers Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus and chronicles various and sundry recent retractions from scientific journals.  I find this blog and its content so important that it gets a special place in my RSS feed right alongside the journals I follow.  And believe me.... follow it, I do.  Some retractions are relatively harmless, and while not completely excusable, they are forgiveable.  Then, however, there are the retractions that involve doctoring of images, cutting/pasting of photos or text, and downright irreproducibility of data.  These lead to, likely, more retractions, and then firings (Zhiguo Wang), and then possible stripping (Bengu Sezen) of Ph.D.s (Diederik Stapel).

Friends, I'm scared of getting scooped just as much as the next guy.  However, I'm even more scared of scientific fraud.  This makes me want to do things right in order to avoid having my name associated with retracted work.  I imagine that after you retract (or your work is retracted FOR you), you feel much like this:

Found guilty of scientific misconduct?  This will be a statue-y, nude version of you afterwards.
Career over, job prospects ruined, scientific cross to bear?  It sounds awfully threatening and also awfully scary.  I really don't fancy that being me.  I think I and many other budding scientists can greatly learn from the stories of the falls from grace that other researchers have taken.

Really.  Go check out Retraction Watch if you haven't yet.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Penn State situation (from a Penn Stater)

This is one of those situations where I had to go and get a good Canadian beer (Sleeman's, from Guelph, ON) in order to be able and sit down and write this.  Walking the fine line between supporting Penn State and yet denouncing the horrible crimes committed in my town has been emotionally exhausting, chiefly because the actions of the PSU administration have made me so upset that sometimes I wonder why I even bother.  Every day I go through a range of emotions, such as "shocked, sickened, angered, disgusted, embarrassed, and saddened beyond belief," to quote my alumni association email.

Here's how it is with me and Penn State.  When I moved to State College, PA in 2005, I never dreamed it would become more of a home to me than any of the previous places I had lived.  In fact, the whole football thing seemed kind of weird, as did the hero worship of Joe Paterno.  But while there, I began to build a life, meet my best friends, and obtain a doctorate.  State College got into me, and tailgating was fun, and so were whiteout games, and so was that blasted "WE ARE..... PENN STATE!!" cheer (I always said that was a dumb cheer, because who else would we be?  It catches on, though).

I miss State College and my friends like nothing else.  That's why it saddens me so much to see my town and my campus in turmoil.  To think that something so terrible could have happened in State College sickens me, and yes, I have read the entire grand jury report and kept up with multiple news sources.  The Paterno firing is also an interesting issue, and perhaps one about which those outside of State College (i.e. 99.9% of the news media) have very little insight, because they simply don't know the history.  Paterno and the Board have been butting heads for years.  It seems very convenient to get rid of him and Spanier (the president) and let them take the fall.... yet what about the others that knew?  Gary Schultz and Larry Curley are still employed by the University, and their legal fees are even being paid by the University.  I find this hypocrisy distasteful, but there's a deeper feeling.  It's unnerving.  It's unsettling.  It feels like we're at the tip of the iceberg, and we're going to find out more very soon.  We're at the proverbial abyss, looking down and not liking it.  But we should face it.  The sooner we face it, the sooner that we and the victims can start healing.

I wish with an aching heart that I could have gone to that candlelight vigil for the victims last night.  Penn State's beauty really came out then, and of course, the media doesn't want to focus on it at all.  Ten thousand people in front of Old Main brought tears to my eyes, especially this clip taken by member of the Daily Collegian, the student paper.  In it, the Alma Mater is being sung, and they focus on the most applicable part: "May no act of ours bring shame/To one heart that loves thy name."

I miss Penn State.  I love Penn State.  We are not "Pedo State" or any of those cutesy little names that have cropped up by those who know nothing about the school other than the controversy and want to capitalize on a sore moment.  The terrible acts of a few will not overshadow the good that Penn State does.  We are Penn State.  And we are sorry.

-KBC, Ph.D. Chemistry, Penn State, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Artsy science

I've been working on various kinds of microscopes for about 6 years now, and I've taken a lot of pictures.  A LOT of pictures.  Somewhere in the realm of thousands.  Most of them are of nanowires of varying populations and striping patterns, but a couple were of funny things that were strange anomalies (i.e. nanowire walls and nano-Doritos).  Some of my pictures looked pretty artsy.

All of those pictures have been completely blown out of the water by a picture I took today.  Grad student Justin and I were evaluating the extent to which plasma etching revealed gold electrodes by plating gold and observing it under our optical microscope.  I have no idea what kind of etching happened to give us this shape, but there it is, a millimeter-sized treble and bass clef, both illustrated in fractal gold:

Merry golden melodies!
Nothing about this is, of course, at all publishable, so I don't mind sharing it.  We still have no idea what happened.  It almost looks like strips of support electrode gold came up after plasma etching, but we aren't sure.  In any case, it makes for quite a cool picture.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Small is beautiful!

I know, I haven't posted on here in a while. That's because life happened, aka my social life exploded. I'm no less in the lab, but I am less at home and contemplating blogging.

Still, I can't help but write about this topic. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to hear Paul Weiss, the director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA, give an ACS webinar entitled "Small Is Beautiful." Paul and I overlapped at Penn State before he made the move to California, and he is a very insightful and brilliant person whose mind is always thinking about the next big thing. "Small Is Beautiful" was about the role of nanoparticles and nanoscience in present and future technologies. There were numerous questions that went unanswered in the interest of time, and it just goes to show how much the public doesn't know about the nanoworld.

Then again, there is so much that nano researchers don't know about the nanoworld. We are just scratching the surface with studies of nanoparticle toxicity and nanoengineered electronics.  There is also the (large, looming) question of how we can control nanoparticle assembly and direct them to where we want.  So far, this has been explored by linking with DNA or electrical fields/electrofluidics, or just plain letting intermolecular forces do the work (references for all of these available on request), but it remains a very important field of study.  One thing that we can glean from these findings: locating and directly positioning a single nanoparticle?  Not so easy.

I, for one, miss working with nanoparticles. I used to work with nanowires that weren't exactly nano-sized:

I didn't take this picture, but it's a scanning electron microscope picture from our group.  Obtained from
Now I work with nanostructured microelectrodes.  Essentially, the structural size scale is the same, but now I'm dealing with things that aren't free-floating in solution.  The nanowires were electroplated on a solid scaffold, then released.  The microelectrodes are electroplated on a solid scaffold.... and that's it.  They have their advantages (namely, their ability to interface with electronics), but I miss the quicker reactivity imbued by free-floating particles.... not to mention the larger amount of redundancy.  I used to be able to make 1 billion nanowires at a time, whereas I can only make 20 microelectrodes now.

There is a certain allure of nanoparticles, especially when they're all colorful and pretty and they produce transmission electron micrographs that look like this:
From the Hamad-Schifferli group at MIT.  Image from MIT News.
Those are gold nanoparticles of varying shapes and sizes, and their colors change based on the shape and size of the particles.  Definitely possible optics applications there, as unlike dyes, nanoparticles don't photobleach or break down under light exposure.

I suppose I'm somewhat rambling, but my point is that small is indeed beautiful, and there is a lot about nanotechnology that needs to be investigated.  Being a nanoscientist is fun, because I never know what I'll get to look at under the electron microscope next!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The importance of communication

I realize I haven't posted here in over a month.... sorry about that. There were many things that have kept and still are keeping me busy, but I'd like to talk about lab communication and what an incredible tool it is.

I have come to realize how valuable this is firsthand because of my situation. Both my old and new labs underwent a major outflux of old students followed by some overlap with new students (more overlap in the old than the new). I was part of the outgoing group in the old lab, and I am on the tail end of the incoming group at the new one. It's a tough time when the lab is in flux, because, as I'm finding, not everything gets passed down. Sometimes we have to reinvent the wheel, or some crucial little step that someone thinks isn't important is left out, and troubleshooting ends up taking forever.

This is where good communication comes in. There are bound to be some things that get lost in transition, but good communication skills can greatly soften this blow. When I am handing down my knowledge, if I observe that someone isn't asking quite the right questions (because maybe they don't know what to ask), I seamlessly volunteer a little extra relevant information ("...and you should also do x, because of y."). This saves time in the long run, because they don't have to come ask me things every 5 minutes and get to try it out for themselves. I never realized I was doing this until I noticed that it isn't intuitive for everyone. I have observed a few other people doing it, though, and it's no surprise that better verbal communicators tend to write better papers and give better presentations. They are able to give sufficient background, put their work into context of what's been done before, and explain what they are doing to solve a specific problem. It sounds easy for some, but it's not for all.

Long gone are the days when scientists could hide in their labs with beakers and flasks. Now, your work has to be explainable, and you've got to sell it.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Addressing my google searches

Blogger collects stats regarding your traffic and referring websites, and I should mention that I saw a spike recently thanks to the link to my post Do You Use the Title? from Mike the Mad Biologist over at  Many thanks, mad one!  This post also got some recognition thanks to The PostDocs Forum twitter feed.  It was very interesting to see everyone's responses.

People also get here through all sorts of google searches.  A good number of them are searches for this blog's exact name, "american postdoc in canada."  I chose that obvious name so that it would get people to some kind of relevant information fast without having to wade through goodness-knows-what on google.  I also get a lot of searches regarding the car, such as"bringing usa car into ontario canada" and "importing car to canada from us temporary job."  For car importing posts, I will point you here and here; read in order.  For people googling "different words in the us and canada" and "funny canadian words," I will direct you to my posts on Funny U.S. vs. Canadian words, parts 1 and 2.

But there are some more interesting searches that I feel should be addressed, and they come in the form of questions or statements that I haven't directly responded to here, but are definitely relevant.  Here are a few google search snippets:

"How much do postdocs in Canada make?"

I'm not sure if this googler was searching out of morbid curiosity or if he/she was trying to compare postdoc salaries in Canada vs. elsewhere.  In my experience, Canadian postdoc salaries in academia are comparable to U.S. postdoc salaries, at around $30k-$50k per annum.  Just like in the U.S., it varies widely by where you go, your previous experience, etc.   Industrial and government postdocs, while fewer and further between, will likely have higher salaries.

"How come you have to pay to use the shopping cart in Canada?"

Because they don't want them stolen, dear googler!  Shopping carts are expensive, and many people walk to get their groceries.  Imagine how nice it would be if you could just cart them home instead of having to lug them.  A quarter or a loonie investment, however, should deter such behavior.  The shopping cart locks are shown below.

Source: Polycart on flickr

"I am tired of PhD in chemistry."

As I said on facebook, join the club.  Everyone gets tired of his or her Ph.D. at some point.  If you aren't or haven't been by the end, you didn't put enough into it.

[Reasons] "Why a PhD is a waste of time."

For some people, a Ph.D. is indeed a waste of time.  I have thought about this subject a lot, and my current thoughts are that if you don't need a Ph.D. for your job, or if won't get you a significantly higher salary/degree of autonomy, you're better off not getting one.  I credit my own Ph.D. work with helping me learn how to attack problems and solve them in a systematic way.  I use these skills in every day as a postdoc, and that's why they pay me the (not) big bucks.  However, if your reasons for doing a Ph.D. are "I want to put off getting a job," "oh, it sounds like fun, maybe," or "I hate my boss, and I need to get out of this dead-end job," you should greatly reconsider.  There are other better alternatives than entering the ivory tower for a dedicated 5+ years on a meager salary.

ADDENDUM!  A new funny google search!

"Is it true that Canadians only eat Kraft Dinner?"

Yes.  They occasionally spice it up with peameal bacon.  That is all they eat.  Ever.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Trying to cultivate some plant friends

For the past year, I have wanted to plant my own...... something.  I periodically, when inspired, go through a lot of fresh herbs, especially in the summer when they add some freshness.  I have often thought that if I had a basil plant, I would love to just pick leaves off of it and throw them into whatever I'm making.  

I now have a balcony, and this has made the planting urge come around even more.  So yesterday, I went to the store and invested in a planter and a pot, some soil, a trowel, and some plants.  I transferred them to their new homes, and now here they are:

(L to R) Basil, oregano, rosemary, and a jalapeno!
I use basil and oregano quite frequently in Italian or tomato-based dishes, and the rosemary looked too beautiful to pass over, plus I use it when I roast things.  The jalapeno is a treat, since I have a major love of spicy things and use hot peppers all the time in cooking.

All of these plants are cheap to get both fresh and dried at numerous stores, but there is just something cool about growing it yourself.  I like to check in on my new little friends frequently to make sure they're ok on the balcony.  I kind of got way too excited that they made it through their first night.

The one little problem I might run into is the lack of sun.  My balcony faces NNW.  In the afternoon (around 4:30 or so), I start to get some nice sun on the balcony, and it lasts for a few hours.  I have a feeling that that's not going to be enough for these little guys, though, because they really want full sun.  Plus, Toronto is one of the most sun-deprived places I've ever lived.  If I was back home in Atlanta, no problem, but alas.... I suppose if I kill them, I'll chalk it up to learning to grow things.  This is my first crack at it since I was 4, after all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do you use the title?

I don't use my title of "Doctor" often, especially not outside an academic atmosphere.  My email signature says "Kristin B. ____, Ph.D." but more often than not, I erase it before I send an email because it's to people with whom I am familiar.  This title is also on my CV.  Nowhere in print (I believe) does anything say "Dr. Kristin ______" or, even (I feel) worse and incredibly redundant, "Dr. Kristin _____, Ph.D."  I have a great aversion to that last one.

Many people, when I express this aversion, give me the line of, "Why not use it?  You worked hard for it."  Sure, I worked hard for it, but I see no need to bring it to people's attention, especially if what I am doing (e.g. grocery shopping, volunteering, etc.) has nothing to do with my degree.  To use it outside of a professional setting comes with overtones of pretension that I would rather not display.  That's why I made the conscious decision not to have my Canadian checks and address labels say "Dr."  I think a lot of this is based on my mother's treatment of the subject; people call her by her first name, and I have never heard anyone address her as Dr. unless it was the University of Michigan asking for donations.

If people ask me what I'm doing here in Canada, I don't hide it.  Usually I just say I "finished my degree in Pennsylvania" and am working at the university, and then if they press further, I'll tell them it was a doctorate.  This leads to a funny side-note: my youthfulness apparently knows no bounds, because most people don't think I look old enough to hold a doctorate.  They typically guess my age as 24-25 and have gone as low as "under 20" and as high as 27; at the time, 27 was correct.

The grad student in me wants to get 1) perks, and 2) something, anything, for free.  In many cases, I feel like revealing my doctoral status would give me some clout, but there is never a good way to bring it up without sounding like I think I'm better than everyone else.  Once again, if people ask, I'll tell them (this is how I got approved for a Canadian credit card immediately despite having zero Canadian credit), but it seldom comes up, and if it comes up, people expect someone with the title of "Doctor" to be an M.D..... and I am certainly not that.  I can only imagine how it would go on a plane:

"Doctor?  Yeah, I'm a doctor.  That'll bump me up to first-class, right?  Oh and by the way, if someone has a heart attack, I can't help, except to say they should've taken their 80 mg baby aspirin.  kthx."

Calling all Ph.D.s!  How do you introduce yourselves?  Do you use the title in speaking or writing or anywhere but your CV?  Did you use it and then find the effect wore off?  I'd like to hear your opinions.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How my life as changed as a postdoc (a.k.a. why I love my postdoc)

My life has changed as a postdoc.  Not incredibly, but subtly.  In little surreptitious ways that I don't notice when they crop up, but do notice upon reflection.

I was really worried that when I started my postdoc, I wouldn't be able to be on the accelerated track because of my relative dearth of knowledge on the subject at hand.  There are two major detection mechanisms in the world of biosensing: optical and electrochemical (or electrical, though I'm a bit rue to put it under electrochemical).  Graduate work was optical; postdoctoral work is electrochemical.  I planned it that way because of the broadening effect I hoped it would have.  I knew it would be delving into something different, but I had a sneaking suspicion that in the back of my mind, it would be ok, because I had the knowledge base regarding biosensing and biodetection.... I just had to learn a few different techniques.

So far, that's been what it's been, and there's been more.  I've found myself taking on a subtle leadership role, which is surprising since I've only been here for 3 months. I advise the younger students when the PI is not around.  I correct techniques that have gotten lost over the years and with the turnover of new students.  Right now, I am heading up putting together a budget for a major grant for which we are applying.  I would have never dreamed I would do those sorts of things in graduate school, but I am loving the freedom and autonomy.  And to top everything off, of course I have my own labwork to do, but learning what I am about our system is playing second fiddle to what I am learning behind the scenes, though it is still incredibly interesting, and I am devoting a lot of time to it.

Honestly, it's like I'm being groomed to become a tenure-track (TT) professor.  The grant process is teaching me that, ok, it's hard.  There is no doubt it's hard.  But it's not impossible.  I always thought it was like pulling teeth, and perhaps it is.... but perhaps also, the teeth aren't as firmly rooted as I had imagined.  Advising the younger students has also been a real joy.  They are so interdisciplinary, so smart in such different ways.  I love contributing to both their education and the lab's as a whole.  My ideas aren't just wanted, they're needed.  I think I finally am starting to understand what my Ph.D. advisor wanted me to see for so long: that she truly loves what she does.

In short, I'm glad I came here, and I love my job, and if you were worried about me going to a different country, don't.  Things are ok here.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Importing the car to Canada. FINALLY, it's done.

Last month, I presented to you a post about importing my car into Canada.  At that point, I had not obtained vehicle form 1 (the import form) because I was told I did not need it at the border.  In actuality, I DID need it, and so I had to take a trip all the way out to Pearson airport (on the other side of Toronto) to get it.  But now, the whole process is done, and my car is (almost) plated.

So, let's sum up, shall we?  For an American temporary resident in Canada, I needed the following things to import my little Toyota to Canada.  Things are listed in the order I got them.

-An Ontario driver's license.  This is pretty simple to get, and you only have to bring proof of residence.  I got it back in March, and I now have my real license instead of the paper one.  They confiscated my Pennsylvania license and gave me a copy in case I should ever need it.

-Vehicle form 1.  Very important and absolutely essential.  I went to the back entrance of Pearson and got it.  Because I am a temporary resident, all fees were waived, and I got a beautifully signed and stamped receipt and Vehicle Form 1 for a grand total of..... $0.  There were no RIV fees, no air cond fees, no gas mileage fees.

-Safety and emissions inspection.  To get the car plated in Ontario, it needs to pass the Drive Clean program.  Additionally, it needs to pass the safety requirements to get a Safety Standard Certificate.  Total cost should be around $100 for both of these.  Princess was a little lacking, so I needed some work done to pass safety (see below).

-Daytime running lights.  Ugh.  HUGE ripoff.  I have the option of turning Princess' lights off; hence, they needed to render that impossible, to the tune of over $200.  I asked them if I could just turn the knob to keep the lights on all the time, and they said no.  So now the lights are constantly running (except when the car is off, of course).  I don't like it, but it's essential for Canada.

-New brakes.  This was 100% my fault.  They told me in Pennsylvania last October that the brakes were rusting, but by the time I took Princess to get inspected, the brakes were totally rusted through.  New rotors and everything needed.  My total bill with the lights, safety, emissions, and brakes came up to about $700.  But now my little trooper is all fixed up and roadworthy.

-Title and registration.  I already had these.  I'd say they're essential to the process, but I think only the title is. Because I had my registration, they just took that.  I made copies of them beforehand because I didn't know what they would take and keep.  See below for what they did with them.

-Insurance.  Oh boy.  My insurance in Ontario is over 100% higher than it was in the U.S.  I got it through CAA, and I was walked through the process very professionally.  I also purchased roadside assistance.  My temporary insurance cards were emailed to me, so I could present proof of insurance.

I gathered allllllll these essential things up, trooped over to my local Service Ontario kiosk which is also a branch of the Ministry of Transportation, and obtained....

-My license plates!  Imagine me holding up my plates like Link holds up the Triforce.  That's how momentous this was.  The plates + registration for 1 year came out to about $90.  The Pennsylvania title was stamped "registered in Ontario" and given back to me.  The Service Ontario staff member helping out the guy who did all this for me said it was because "these things cost like $150 in the States, and we don't want them to have to get a new one."  This is the first time Ontario has expressed interest in saving me money.  However, my PA registration was confiscated, and I didn't get it back.  Instead, it was replaced with an Ontario registration, which doubles as a title essentially.  So I went in with all the stuff above, and I left minus my PA registration, but with an Ontario registration and front/back plates.

-Holes drilled in the front of Princess.  Poor Princess doesn't have a place for a front plate, only having been plated in Georgia and Pennsylvania, which do not require front plates.  I have to get holes drilled and bolts put in, but this should only be about $20.  This is the last thing I need to do before she becomes truly Canadian!

So yeah, the process is long and costly, and I'm so, so glad it's over.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Funny U.S. vs. Canadian words, part 2

By far, the most popular post on my blog so far (and the most searched) is Funny U.S. vs. Canadian words, part 1.  Those were pretty general, and I've learned some more.  The terms for things are just slightly different enough that I understand the words, but used in a context I'm not used to, I just get lost and have to ask for an explanation.  As a disclaimer, a lot of these are education-related (I do work at a university, after all), and many of them were observed from Ontario natives.  American English first, then Canadian equivalents.

"As-falt" = "Ash-falt."  Or, in the words of one Ontario native, "Ash-vault."  Asphalt, people!

Governor = premier.  Basically, the leader of a state = leader of a province.  For me, it's Dalton McGuinty.  Learnin' my politics!

Grades = marks.  Not incomprehensible, just a term you don't hear much in the U.S.

Napkin = serviette.  Ah, a French influence!

Nonprofit = not-for-profit.  I wouldn't have noticed it, but it looks so British!

"Pah-sta" = "Pasta."  I had no idea how to convey the Canadian pronounciation, but it's a flat a, like in "at."  I make great amounts of fun of them for this.

Powdered sugar = icing sugar.  It took me a minute to figure it out.

"Prah-cess" = "prohcess."  My way of saying process now sounds downright twangy.

Proctoring = invigilating.  In other words, watching university students take an exam.  Oh, wait, I mean WRITE an exam (see below).  One of the more boring jobs of a grad student, but it makes money.

Silverware/flatware = cutlery.  Oh, Americans, they think we are HILARIOUS for saying silverware, especially when we talk about plastic silverware.  I am guilty of this infraction.

Taking exams = writing exams.  This is a major point of confusion, because whenever someone tells me they wrote an exam, I think they created it.

Teacher workday = professional development/professional activity day.  Days that students get off so that teachers can catch up or do workshops.

xth grade = grade x.  For example, "The advanced school has them learning grade 11 math in grade 10."

Every day, I collect more funny Canadian words, so it's likely that there will be a part 3!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Accepting complements in science

Taking compliments to heart is something I need to learn to do.  People wouldn't go out of their way to tell you they felt a certain way if they didn't really feel that way, right? (Unless there's some deviousness afoot)

Case in point:  I gave a talk about the wonders of the nanoworld to a crowd of around 100 at Nerd Nite Toronto on Thursday night.  The talk went just as I wanted it to go, my ad-lib was ON, people laughed at my jokes, and I got lots of compliments afterwards. 

Me right before giving THE TALK.

I know it went well, but the one thing I can't help but dwell upon is the one question I couldn't answer.  This question was regarding alpha particle emission from gold nanoparticles/clusters.  We don't talk about nanoparticles in terms of nuclear reactions, and I embarrassingly didn't even remember that an alpha particle is basically a helium nucleus, so I froze a bit and really had no answer.  Upon talking to the asker later, I found out he was interested because of his job, but that still didn't make the question easier to answer.

I guess it keeps me human in science, though.  If you're just praised all the time and not faced with adversity, you're never going to grow.  The opposite is true as well.  I could give a talk on metal nanoparticles drunk and blind, but it could always be better.  Compliments tell me I'm on the right track, and roadblocks spur me to improve.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Muslim community in Canada

The title there is a bit glib; what I am trying to get at is how Muslims as a whole are perceived in Canada.

I live in a very Muslim part of town.  There is a mosque right next to my building.  I am clearly an outsider in this community, yet no one has been anything but polite and cordial, or at the very least neutral, towards me.  I have felt slightly self-conscious about doing things like bringing home a case of beer to stock the fridge (and there's no hiding that), but no one has paid it any mind.  The women smile at me; we do our laundry alongside each other.  The children sled down the nearby hill when it snows and shriek and act like children do.  The men hold the door open for me, and I for them.  I even shared an elevator ride up with an imam tonight.

I think of myself as tolerant of other cultures and willing to try new things.  I wholeheartedly believe that a smile is universal in any language.  But I am clearly still at heart quite American.  I remember 9/11 very clearly, and I remember crying that day and in the days after.  My country has many, many problems, but it is still my country, and it was attacked.  A part of me, so ensconced as I have been in American society for 28 years, slightly flinches when I see overt signs of Muslim culture.  I will be the first to admit that this unconscious reaction I have greatly bothers me.  No one has ever done anything directly to me.  And it is the extreme minimum percentage of the population that desires to hurt my country.  Yet I think that there is an extreme anti-Muslim sentiment that is ingrained in America, despite efforts of some to downplay it.  So pervasive is it that it has even infiltrated the ranks of the most broad-minded and tolerant Americans.

What encouraged this post was the fact that I finally was able to catch I show that I've been wanting to watch called "Little Mosque on the Prairie."  This is a Canadian sitcom focusing on a Muslim community out in the middle of nowhere in Saskatchewan.  There is no laugh track, and the humor is clearly different from an American sitcom, but I was surprised at how delightful the characters were.  The main character, a liberal imam, even has a smart-ass Anglican priest as his close friend.  His wife (in the episode I saw, they were just married!  Aw!) is an Islamic feminist and a doctor, and her Canadian mother converted to Islam to marry her Lebanese father, etc.  The show is just very sweet, showcasing the camaraderie of the community, but also highlighting the hardships (the conservative pundits who aren't happy about the community being there).  When I first saw an ad for it in the subway, all I could think was, "Holy COW..... I am not in Kansas anymore!"  Having seen the show, I could only think that there is no way anyone would ever agree to run it on American television.  It's kind of sad, too; it's a lighthearted look at the everyday life of Muslim families, and it pokes fun at everyone.  Perhaps America is still a bit too sensitive for that yet, though....

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Importing a car to Canada (Ontario) *groan*

This post is fueled by frustration.  On-the-phone-for-hours-being-kicked-between-3-government-agencies frustration.  I now know that I needed to import my car into Canada; however, the people at the border crossing didn't put the proper paperwork in order, so now here I am scrambling around to get it all done.

Taking a vehicle into Ontario for >30 days (or is it 60?  It's one of the two.) requires that you actually import this vehicle into Canada and get it set up with Ontario plates.  To get Ontario plates, you need Ontario insurance, an Ontario license, and basically all of the stuff listed here.  The notable part here is Vehicle Form 1, which you get upon entering Canada, except in my case, where they told me I didn't need it when I asked.  Whoops.  Wrong-o, border agents.  So I've got to drive out to Pearson airport and get that set up, which is a pain, because I live on the other side of the city from Pearson.

My view of Toronto when I first drove in here last September.... didn't know it'd be so hard to bring Princess here for real!

The rest of the stuff on that checklist is simple and obvious, like a safety inspection, emissions test, etc.  Vehicle Form 1, however is a beast, and you can read all about it here.  Luckily, because I am on a temporary resident work permit, and I will be returning to the U.S., the RIV registration fee is waived, so there's $195 back for me.  Nevertheless, there are taxes on EVERYTHING, even air conditioning, as can be seen here and here.  There are even taxes on the taxes!  That sample calculation scares me; a $50k vehicle from the U.S. would cost almost $4k to import to Canada if it was fuel inefficient.  Princess thankfully isn't worth nearly that much, only a bit more than $4k herself, I'd say.  Because she's 12 years old, she'll be duty-free (yay!), and she's relatively fuel efficient.  Her city mileage is 10.2 litres/100 km, and her highway is 7.4 litres/100 km.  Note there is a HEFTY tax starting at 13 litres/100 km and higher.  Canada's trying to be green, yo.

That's my (somewhat buried in the Pennsylvania snow) girl!

All in all, with the AC excise tax, the GST (which I can perhaps get waived b/c I won't be leaving Princess in Canada), the safety/emissions inspections, the registration fee, and the cost to get a plate-holder on my front bumper (Ontario requires a front plate, and neither Georgia nor Pennsylvania did), I'm guessing it's going to be around $500 just to get Princess into the country legally.  Insurance is a whole 'nother can of worms.  Therefore, this will have to wait until I get paid this month.  I never thought I'd say this, but thank goodness for my postdoc's salary.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Being quietly American (and southern) on the Toronto subway

I take the subway to and from work every day, and from my front door to my office comprises 45 minutes of walking to/from the station, elevator rides, transfers, etc.  After a couple of days of boredom with only my ipod to turn to for help, I decided to start reading on the train.  My first conquest was the very southern novel by very southern writer Flannery O'Connor entitled Wise Blood.  I first read Wise Blood in high school for class, and my notes are still scrawled in hot pink pen in the margins.  I couldn't help but think to myself that it was quite a wonderful thing, bringing something that was so innately southern into the subway system of the largest city in Canada.

Since then, I've become somewhat of an American rebel.  I downloaded Pete Seeger's American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1, put it on my ipod, and have been bouncing away to favorite childhood songs ever since.  Pairing those with Roger Miller songs makes for a merry time, and they make me want to be out in the middle of America in a field, strumming away on a banjo.  Or listening to someone else strum.  String instruments elude me.

I eventually come out of my reverie and get off at my designated stop, but those little times with America and songs reminiscent of small-town America are pretty valuable to me.  They remind me that America ain't gone.... she's 140 miles away if I really needed to go, and it would only be a few hours until I'd be back amongst either family or friends.  I can be all business in Canada, if you'll just let me have my subway ride with "Oh, Susannah."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Separating people from their science

On a daily basis, graduate students and other researchers get figuratively beaten down by experiments that don't work, and they take it personally.  This can lead to depression, an unpleasant work environment, and even a poisonous aversion to science that can spread all too easily to others as they fall into the same trap.  We all get a little self-deprecating when we run into a spate of bad laboratorical luck, but when do we cross the fine line of failures in the lab extending to our views of our self-worth?

Back in the day, I heard about a professor who had some dubious dealings, and being a young scientist, this shook me down to the core.  I recall the poignant memory of feeling physically ill and shutting myself away for a few hours after hearing the news.  I remember calling my parents while taking a walk to clear my head, and my mom telling me, "Krissy, if you're going to be in this business, you've got to learn to separate people from their science.  They're people, too, and they make mistakes just like everyone else."

This advice from my mom, who is quite the scientist herself, was some of the best I have ever received, and it came at the perfect time (i.e., early).  Since then, I have encountered professors, researchers, and colleagues that  might choose different paths than I would in life, but I don't associate our disagreements with their science.  Their science and work is independent of and not influenced by their personal decisions (hopefully).  More, I don't tie in failed experiments with my self-worth.  If it didn't work, I 1) still try to salvage some knowledge out of it (a subject for another post, for sure), and 2) dust myself off and start another day.  It's amazing the insight a good night's sleep can provide.

This advice might be why I only had very minimal inklings of imposter syndrome just at the beginning of my graduate career (i.e., feeling like you don't belong or are not good enough for a certain professional setting), or why I have no problems talking to famous professors on a casual level.  I also have no qualms calling professors by their first name if they ask me to; I know a surprising number of people who struggle with this.  They are just people, and they are just as fallible as I am.

On the flip side, I am relatively disinclined to throw my proverbial professional weight around.  "Doctor" is reserved for formal introductions and solicitations of my money from my previous academic institutions.  I believe making myself approachable facilitates discussion and promotes teamwork.  Looking around at my environments past and present, this seems to be the direction that this new generation of science is taking, and I have to say, I'm liking it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How SHOULD a postdoc act?

Greetings, dear readers.  When we last saw me on this blog, I was excited for my first day of work and still playing Starcraft in a camp chair.  Well, no more (at least, regarding the camp chair)!  My things are finally here, and I am mostly unpacked and set up, minus a few little odds and ends that I still have to take out of boxes.  The American postdoc has officially settled in Canada!

As for the lab, it's been fun to just take in all the differences.  The group dynamic is a lot different here, and this may be due to the differences in gender, age, and personality.  As I've mentioned before, my current group is VERY young and largely bottom-heavy, what with the 6 first-year M.Sc. students and all.  Also, of the entire group academic group of 15 and soon to be 16, there are 2 females.  Our group is split into 2 buildings, so in my subgroup of 10 and soon to be 11, I am the only female.  This isn't bad per se, just different, and I'm trying to find my place.

And while we're on the subject of that, how SHOULD a postdoc act?  My experience with postdocs in my previous labs has been one where they were much older than me, married, and very professional and, in large part, reserved.  I've never run into the hotshot young postdoc for longer than a few weeks at a time, though I know they exist.  I came into this telling myself that I was going to be more professional and reserved.... but there are two problems with trying to be these preconceived notions of a postdoc, and they are very important.  So important that they warrant their own paragraphs:

1) It doesn't fit in with the group.  The group is the group, and I'm a new little piece of it.  Everyone who joins a group of anything, be it a multimillion dollar laboratory or a knitting circle, changes it somehow; however, they largely don't overhaul it single-handedly.  My group is a very relaxed, but ridiculously bright environment where ideas are shared freely, and me being a bit more subdued just wouldn't fit with this open concept.  Additionally, the young age of many of the group members has put me in the position of a kind of adviser, and being proactive about heading them off at the pass when they make a wrong turn is definitely helpful in this line of work.

2) It's not me.  I've started dressing nicer and watching what I say a bit more, but largely, I'm still my light-hearted and good-humored self in lab.  I'm not going to refrain from participating in the joking just because I have a Ph.D.  It doesn't change my personality, and I don't have to shift my paradigm to fit what I've seen before.  Trying to be something you're not throws a wrench into the works.  Being myself helps the group run more smoothly and lets me do my job better.

It's amazing that I can even take this stance of observation so early in my career with this lab.  I think this is because my mind is less occupied with the science.  It's truly a beautiful and welcoming thing.  I'm learning new techniques, but I already understand why I am doing them, whereas as a new graduate student, I did my fair share of floundering with the influx of new information, as everyone does.  This crystallized experience is something that only comes with immersion in a subject for a good period of time (i.e., the length of a Ph.D.)... now I see why postdocs are such valuable researchers.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My postdoc, day one.

I am buying more and more into the camp of "your attitude is everything."  I have been looking forward to starting this postdoc pretty much ever since October when I made my decision, so I guess it should come as no surprise that my first day was great.  I feel like I really fit and that my knowledge will be put to great use.

Group meeting in particular put me in wonderful spirits.  It was right up my alley, and even the background information given was on papers with which I was intimately familiar.  I am not shy when it comes to piping up and asking questions, and I felt like they were welcome and encouraged.

I would write more, but I feel like exhaustion has hit me like a ton of bricks.  Suffice it to say, I am so glad to be back in the saddle.  I am almost as glad that my stuff FINALLY arrives tomorrow, so no more blogging from a camp chair!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interdisciplinary science

One of the reasons I chose to attend Penn State for grad school was its initiative for promoting interdisciplinary research.  The chemistry department had knocked down all the traditional division barriers (analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, biological) except for categorizing seminars, and most groups fostered relationships and collaborations with labs outside of the department in areas such as engineering, biology, and physics.  I was very drawn to this, and I am glad I was, because I think this is the way research is going.

(P.S. If you want to see something funny and are still on PSU chem's site, go here and wait until the 6th picture shuffles around to get a great and obviously posed glamour shot of my adviser and I "using" a microscope in the middle of a lit room.  BONUS: The biological division button here.)

Photobleaching the "sample"

No longer can one be a socially-inept scientist who hides away in his lab doing research and emerges only to eat or go home.  Funding is tight, and your work must be marketable.  Thus, you must be the one to pitch it.  This is a skill I have sought to attain and perfect, and I have looked upon it with almost as much regard as I gave my technical knowledge when I was getting my Ph.D.  One thing I have learned is that if you love your work, it's conveyed through your presentation and discussion, and people want to talk with you about it, thereby furthering you knowledge and feeding your curiosity.  I don't think this was evident more than in my final year of grad school, when I was presenting at conferences and applying for postdoc jobs.

Though my Ph.D. is in chemistry, I don't do any "traditional" chemistry.  I am a bioanalytical surface chemist, which means my work incorporates elements from 4 out of 5 of those aforementioned divisions, save organic.  My Penn State group of chemists worked with biologists, medical doctors, electrical/chemical engineers, materials scientists, and physicists.  It is so useful, almost like a shortcut, to have someone to explain to you about gate dielectrics and ribozymes.  On the flip side, you've got to be a good communicator in order to teach an "outsider" your language and convey your angle of approach to a certain problem. 

My group here at the U of T is in a similar boat, except we now incorporate all of those different departments in a single group.  I am one of three chemists, the other two being another postdoc and a third-year Ph.D. student.  The rest are biochemists, electrical/mechanical engineers, and even a psychologist (!).  I should also mention that the group is very bottom-heavy; a mass graduation exodus occurred recently, leaving behind one fourth-year Ph.D. student, the third-year Ph.D. student, 6 first-year M.S. students, and 1 first-year Ph.D. student.  And of course, there are us postdocs to round everyone up!   The younger students astutely show their knowledge in their areas of study, and it's obvious that they're already well on their way towards assimilation of different concepts into their core knowledge.  It's a marvelous sight to see, and I don't know if I would recognize it were I not in my position.  So far, I'm really impressed with the U of T and its initiatives towards promotion of interdisciplinary work.

Monday, February 7, 2011

My tumultuous relationship with Starcraft

Not a postdoc or Canada-oriented post, but still something near and dear to my heart: gaming.  This particular installation is about the real-time strategy (RTS) Starcraft.

Picture, if you will, a pre-Ph.D. me at a small Starcraft LAN party consisting of me and 3 of my best Penn State friends.  They knew how to play; I didn't, but I wanted to join in the fun.  They set me up with them on a 4v4 money map versus computers.  I was playing as Protoss, the race with the strongest (and most expensive) units of the three races available.  I made some probes at my nexus, ran around with them a bit, and started to set up a couple of pylons.  Then, I got rushed with zerglings and thoroughly taken out, leaving my 3 allies to battle the comps (which, as I recall, they destroyed).

How fascinating this game, with all of its crazy structures, units, and strategies!  How annoying that I got taken out so quickly without much of a chance to learn!  I then immersed myself in the campaign to get a bit more familiar with the concept of RTSs in general.  With the help of one of my best friends, to whom I refer playfully as my coach, I've gotten much better and have ventured into the fantastic world of the recently-released Starcraft II, which is much more amenable to new players. 

Sidenote: My coach is a huge basket of brilliant with regard to Starcraft and other RTS games in general.  He's been playing since he was relatively young and is currently ranked in SC2 as 4th out of 100 in his diamond league, a league that only allows the top 20% of players.  He's also ranked as gold (2 step under) in 3 other classifications.  He's GOOD.  He rescues me when I get rushed, though I'm getting better at that....

I don't know my actions per minute (APM).  I'll never be in highly ranked leagues, and I am certainly not the next ToSsGirL, a.k.a. the best female Starcraft player.  I simply came too late in life to the game; 25 is over-the-hill for most professional players.  There's no way my mind can adapt as quickly as a 13-year-old's.  I can still only play proficiently as the Terran race, though I'd love to branch out at some point.  But all of this is ok.  I play because it's fun!

Playing has also revealed an interesting social phenomenon.  The coach is a male Starcraft player.  He's humble, but if he was to reveal how good he was, he'd be regarded by other players probably with respect.  I am a female Starcraft player.  I'm not great, but I am regarded with automatic surprise and awe (I have a good number of data points on this now).  That's because the gender ratio in Starcraft is especially skewed, with a vast majority of players being male.  I have been hit on because I play Starcraft and other games.  I have also discussed races and strategies in bars, university offices, and even on social outings.  It's astounding how much Starcraft gets you nerd street cred.  Group it with a homebuilt computer and a science Ph.D., and it's a nerd girl hat trick. 

The girl thing is an interesting observation, but I'm more into getting better and learning the other races so I can participate more actively in discussions.  And of course also so that I can kick around some computer AI!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dredging up my French from a deep, dark place

I had what I would like to believe was a pretty rigorous education in French from the grades of 4 through 7.  Grade 4 was a bit lacking, but 5-7 were French overtime (as I am sure my elementary school friends at The Banana Stand and This Happy Happy Life will affirm).  I was good at it because I am a lingual geek.  I continued French in high school, but abandoned it in college for the more "interesting" (i.e. HARDER) languages of Japanese and Russian.

Because I learned French so young, it's always stuck with me.  I might not be able to string words together, but I can catch the gist of things pretty well, especially if they're written.  I haven't heard any Canadians speaking French yet, but French is rampant at my favorite place (where else?), the grocery store.  Almost everything is in both French and English, and I am proud to say that I am the owner of a bilingual toaster and coffeemaker.  Slick, eh?

But since I have encountered this sudden onslaught of a language I once spoke relatively well, it's started to come back to me.  Little pieces of songs and sayings, vocabulary words, common words, random words like parapluie that I thought I'd never see/use again.  I've found that I'll even talk to myself in French.  This came to a head today in the grocery store when I found the marshmallows (to which I am addicted) and upon seeing the French word for them, thought to myself, "OUAH!  J'ai trouver les guimauves au supermarche!!"

Where the HECK did that come from?!

Honnetement, je ne sais pas.  Mais je pense que ce continuer'a....

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Little American luxuries.... that aren't up here.

To follow up on my Canadian sticker shock post, I have put together a list of little pleasant things that make life easier in the States.  These things do not exist OR are hard to find in Canada (or at least, here in TO).  I'm not trying to whine; it's just an interesting look at a place ridiculously like America.... but just a little bit different.  Here they are:

Free checking accounts.  Cannot find them.  I think only America does these.

Carbon-copy checks.  Also called duplicate checks.  Apparently they weren't available at my bank, or else I would have gotten them.

Free pickups of tickets at venue locations (aka "will call"). Eluveitie is playing at the Opera House Sunday night, and I would love to go, but there is a small problem.  You can either get your tickets FedExed for $14 (this is NOT overnight, but rather the standard rate; welcome to Canada), or you can pick them up at any number of inconvenient locations throughout the city.  Picking them up at the place they're playing is unfortunately not an option, and I've never heard of this from any venue.

Coupon doubling/tripling.  I LOVED and took full advantage of this in the States.  It's a foreign concept here.

Hulu.  WANT.  But, no dice.

Nationwide wireless long distance at a reasonable price.  In the States, it almost doesn't matter what area code you have, because all cell phones can call nationwide.  In Canada, you're usually limited by province, unless you pay a huge chunk of change.  I will be limited to Toronto and the U.S., and luckily, that'll work for me.

Non-outlandish wireless plans.  The big three (Bell, Telus, and Rogers) have a fantastic monopoly on cellular service here in Canada.  Contracts are 3 years and sometimes offer as little as 50 minutes/50 texts for some ridiculous price.  Luckily, this is changing with discount carriers such as Fido, Wind, and Mobilicity, many of which do not require a contract and will even give you U.S. calling for cheap.

Free plastic shopping bags.  I've tried to cut down on these.  I use my reusable bags almost wherever I go, unless I've really got too much stuff to fit into them.  In Canada, there is definitely an impetus to do this, because the province of Ontario, in trying to cut down on waste, has mandated that sellers must charge at least 5 cents per plastic bag.  Because I'm a complete cheapo, I've scrounged all the plastic bags out of my car and made them into shopping bags.  It's worked, Canada!

Anything you want on amazon.  In Canada, you get just books.

TargetSoon.... soon. 

Am I forgetting any?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Canadian sticker shock

**disclaimer: The current exchange rate of CAD to USD is 0.997:1.000 as of this posting, so they're basically interchangeable**

Maybe it's because this is a city, and maybe it's because this is Canada, but the prices on things here are astronomically higher than things in the States, some in excess of 100% higher.  I almost fainted dead away in the grocery store. 

The items that I have noticed have the most price inflation over those in the U.S. are animal products.  The cheapest cut of chicken (or, even a whole chicken) here is still more expensive per pound than boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the States.  Butter and milk are both over twice as expensive, and cheese is getting up there.  Beef is a bit more comparable, but still expensive.  Same with pork.  Fish isn't quite as bad either, but honestly, it makes me a bit more inclined to become a vegetarian.  2 pounds of lentils were only $2.99 after all, and still a good source of protein....

Produce is surprisingly not really more than in the States, and some things are cheaper, depending on where you go.  I live in a very Bangladeshi- and Pakistani-concentrated area, so there are tiny markets with cheap produce and items like Basmati rice that I frequently eat.  Bread is pretty comparable to the States, and thankfully you can get coupons for many personal care items.

For many items, such as electronics and furniture, you're hit with an automatic 13% Harmonized Sales Tax on top of them just being more expensive in Canada.  I have been told by multiple sources that the only good time to buy electronics in Canada is during the Boxing Day sales (their version of Black Friday).  The HST also takes effect for bills, and it makes me glad all my utilities are included with rent.  It also makes me glad I moved a bunch of my furniture that I had initially regretted moving, because replacing it would have been a lot more expensive here.

Canadian Post is also more expensive.  To mail a package of about 1 pound in weight to the States cost $14.  Compound that with higher gas prices ($4.20 USD/gallon), higher car insurance (100% more), $2+ extra for books, and many other little fees, and yes, it is definitely more expensive to live in Canada.  Luckily, if I really need something, I can get it shipped to a friend's house in the States and then go pick it up when I visit.  This is a little luxury that I didn't think I'd take advantage of much, but now I am really considering it!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Funny U.S. vs. Canadian words

These are a collection I've found so far.  A good many of them are food-related, because I discovered them at the grocery store, where I almost died from the sticker shock of the prices as well.  First are the American words, followed by Canadian counterparts.

Bathroom/restroom = washroom.  I think I'm the only American who calls it a restroom anyway....

British spellings. The Canadians use the "ou" vs. "o," "re" vs. "er," and to pay someone, they write a cheque.  Examples: flavour, harbour, colour, neighbour, fibre, litre.

Coffee creamer = coffee whitener.  Huh.  Glad I wandered around and found it on my own instead of asking, b/c creamer is not a familiar term here!

Crunchier M&Ms = Smarties.  Gone are the chalky, fruity-tasting Smarties of America (sniff.... I liked those little guys), only to be replaced with flatter, crunchier M&Ms, as far as I can tell.

Electric (in an apartment) = hydro.  One of the most fantastically progressive things about Canada - use of hydroelectric power!

Kraft Mac'n'cheese (blue box) = Kraft Dinner.  So in the Barenaked Ladies' "If I had a million dollars, we wouldn't have to eat Kraft dinner... but we would!" they're talking about boxed mac'n'cheese.

True story.
Shopping cart = buggy.  You have to pay to get them out of their corral, too, so as to discourage theft.  Often it's either a quarter or a loonie, and you get it back after you're done using the cart.

Studio apartment = bachelor.  Because bachelors can only take care of an apartment if its confined to a single room?

Tim Horton's lingo.  There is code for ordering at a Timmy's.  2 creams/2 sugars is called a double-double, 3 is a triple-triple, and so forth.  But me, who just wants 1 cream/sugar?  This is not a single-single.  It is a regular.  And a frappuccino is called an ice cap (cute, eh?).

Zee = zed.  Still gets me every time because I expect "zed" to be with a British accent.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Being taken care of in Canada

First, a funny story.  When crossing the border, I submitted my paperwork to the clerk, who was surprised at the slowness of the computer system.  He disappeared into the back for about 20 minutes, then emerged and told me that the entire immigration system for all of Canada at every border crossing was down, and I could either wait or go on without a work permit.  The work permit being essential, I sat in my car and read a book until an hour later, when the system got back online.  I like to say that it was my work permit that crashed it, though I really am not quite sure of that.  However, I now have leave to work in Canada!

I may have.... underestimated my job here a slight bit.  I always knew that the University of Toronto was a good school, but I figured that since there were less universities in Canada, that wasn't such a big deal.  Based on everyone's reactions when they have asked me what I was doing here in Canada the past 2 days, though, I decided to go take another look at rankings....

What I was finally able to deduce was that the U of T is basically Canada's Harvard, given a run for its money only by McGill, which is pretty far away in Montreal... so essentially, I'm at the best school in Ontario, if not all of Canada.  This is quite an honor and very, very humbling.  My treatment so far has been nothing short of astounding.  The property managers for my building have bent over backwards to help me out, and I bet my degree and employment have had a good bit to do with that.  This place, while not a bad place at all, doesn't give me the impression of being highly inhabited by university-affiliated folk.  Everyone I talk to at all the stores and banks around here has been very welcoming and frankly a bit surprised that I am living where I am.  I like it because it is on the subway.  That's a great touch!

One LOVELY amenity that I had no idea about until I realized that there are no vents in the units is that the heat comes through the floors.  For someone sleeping on the floor in the midst of a Canadian winter, this is very, very welcome.  It's almost too warm for me since I've been living in the State College icebox apartment; I've had to open the windows and even the balcony door periodically!

Now for the obligatory pictures of the new place:

The bedroom with my tangle of blankets and pillows on the floor.

The living room, which now boasts 2 large bookcases.

The kitchen.  Cooked my first meal here last night!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why a Ph.D.? Why a postdoc?

I thought I would elaborate on some of my views regarding why I felt I had to do a Ph.D. and why I currently feel as if a postdoc is the best course of action for me right now.  The subjects of both Ph.D.s and postdocs are very polarizing, with people very firmly planted on both the pro/con sides.  However, necessity of both courses are firmly contingent upon the field.

Why did I do a Ph.D.?  

Well, I didn't do it to avoid getting a job, that's for sure.  This article would have you believe that getting a Ph.D. is a waste of time because the market is flooded with Ph.D.s.  This is at least true; the market is having trouble coping with the multitude of people obtaining doctorates.  This article would also have you believe that a Ph.D. is not worth obtaining, because the money does not scale with the education level.

My answer to that is if you went to get a Ph.D. for the money, you went for the wrong reasons, and this is one of many of the wrong reasons to get a Ph.D.  In my field of chemistry, Ph.D.s overtake M.S. candidates in terms of overall money earned only after a good number of years of work.  Also, academia is hardly the only route for hard science Ph.D.s; industry and government work make up a hearty part of the employment pool.  This isn't necessarily true for Ph.D.s in other areas, especially humanities.

No, I did a Ph.D. because I was proverbially dead in the water if I didn't.  A B.S. in chemistry can only get you so far, and it will get you a quality control job where you are possibly working night shifts and have a variable work schedule.  One example of a B.S.-level job is running HPLCs over and over again and not being able to change the conditions.  That would bore me to tears.  I did my Ph.D. for intellectual freedom.  This degree shows employers that I am able to think independently and plan experiments accordingly.

It should be noted that I also had a fantastic Ph.D. experience.  I was very proactive.  As soon as I got into schools, starting December 2004, I contacted potential advisors immediately and expressed interest.  I got into my top choice of school, and I got the PI I wanted.  Since then, I didn't look back.  I was extremely lucky to be on a project that worked and was basically set up to publish papers, but I wouldn't say it was all luck.  I capitalized on a good situation.  As such, unlike many Ph.D. students who are finished, I am not burnt out, nor am I tired of bench work or fed up with it all.  Actually, I would say that I thrive on it.

In short, my Ph.D. was not an option for what I want to do; nor is it an ending.  It's a beginning that gave me an extensive knowledge base that I plan to put towards my career.

Why am I doing a postdoc?

Because the market is flooded with Ph.D.s, there is essentially nothing to set me apart from all the other "kids."  I am still kicking around the idea of a tenure-track (TT) profession, for which a postdoc is essential, but I am not putting to rest the idea of an industrial position.  My Ph.D. advisor and another trusted professor urged me towards doing a postdoc to broaden my horizons, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this would be to my advantage.  I feel like even though I have a Ph.D., I have a lot more to learn, especially about being on the TT.  My postdoc is just familiar enough so that I can capitalize on my base knowledge, but different enough that I feel I can really break into a different part of the field.

I have heard that there are many researchers who have trouble getting postdocs.  Strangely, it was not hard for me to get a postdoc, nor was it hard for my labmates to get postdocs.  Everyone who has wanted one has gotten one, and many of them have been with very well-known researchers.  I looked around and went for two, one being a very prestigious program run through the National Research Council.  The other, of course, was at the University of Toronto.  My advisor assured me that I had a fantastic shot at both, and she was right, because I was offered both.  I chose the U of T because I felt that it offered more freedom, and though it was a huge pay cut, it costs much less to live in Toronto than in Washington, DC.  Also, like I have mentioned, it's not about money for me.  I felt it it was more in line with what I might want to do with my life.

I hardly blame the people who are disgruntled or unhappy with their postdocs, however.  A fantastic discourse on both sides of the fence can be found in the comments of this post by Dr. Becca.  Pro-postdoc arguments focus on it being a good experience if you are unfettered by financial woes, not tied down with a family, and want to check out/live in a new place.  That's a LOT of contingencies, but luckily, I fall in this camp.  However, I realize that the profession can also be fraught with frustrating advisors, nonideal fits, and low pay/interference from real life.  These are very real considerations; my Ph.D. advisor used to say that this is a hard time in anyone's life (referring to 20s/early-mid 30s) because this is when life starts happening.  I would say that women more than men are inclined to settle down and start a family, and it is very hard to juggle that and an academic profession.

Even if you do your homework beforehand (I am infamous for homework-doing), you are not guaranteed a good postdoc experience, and that's a bit nerve-wracking.  My reasoning in this leap of faith was that I can live on the salary and save some money because I am frugal, I have neither dependents nor a significant other right now, I am in good health, and this will further my career.  So I suppose the question is really, in my case, why NOT do a postdoc?  And why not do it in Canada?  I'll drink the Kool-Aid, but that's because I am in a unique situation where it's more of an energy drink than a poison.

When I post next, I'll be in my new home in Toronto.  Canada, I stand on guard for thee!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Now broadcasting from the floor.

The movers came yesterday and hauled out what was to my mind an appalling amount of stuff.  How did I amass 43 boxes' worth of stuff?!  To be fair, though, one lamp counted as one box, as did the coffee table, end table, futon frame, kitchen table top, kitchen table legs, papasan, couch, other lamp, 2x2 chairs, each of 2 desk chairs, the desk, the drafting table.... huh.  A good bit of what I have is furniture after all.   They sure were efficient, though; they packed a couple of things I didn't want them to while my back was turned, including my new shower curtain.  Guess I'll use the old one for a week.  At least I wrested my backpack with all of my immigration documents out of their hands.

So, what does it look like, now?  Well, it basically looks like an empty apartment:
The emptiest this place has been in almost 6 years.
Since the living room has no light, and I don't want to heat it, I've taken up residence in the bedroom with my soon-to-be-trashed mattress on the floor:
Home base alpha!
For someone hobbit-like like me, this is not a bad arrangement!  Note how I am living: bare essentials, clothes in suitcases.... and 2 nice computers.  Even my shoes are out in the frozen tundra of the car.

Everyone said moving in January was going to be uncomfortable, and I thought the same thing, except it was actually very pleasant.  As long as you're not battling snow or bad weather, the cold makes an ideal combatant to uncomfortable warmth brought on by physical labor.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Moving to Canada as an American postdoc (paperwork needed)

Here we go.  This post isn't about what goods you need in Canada (toque/hat, boots, coat, mittens, done), but rather the documentation that it takes to get across the Canada-US border.  I would have liked to have had my questions answered on the subject, but now that I'm (hopefully) golden, I'll share what I've learned.

What you need to live/work in Canada as a postdoc:

Surprisingly, not too much.  If you're in Canada less than three years, then you are a temporary resident.  If you are coming from the U.S., you don't even need a temporary resident visa (for info on what countries do/don't require visas, see here).  You also don't need to import your car, though you can obtain provincial plates.  I will probably change mine to Ontario.

The work permit:

Here's the biggie.  You need to apply for a Canadian work permit before you go to Canada.  You can apply from within the country, but you'll have to go to a border crossing to get your actual work permit.  Here's the kicker: you don't get the actual work permit until you cross the border.  You apply for it beforehand when you are still in the U.S., and then after your approval, they send you a letter to give to the officials at the port of entry, and they issue your permit.  The list of what you need to apply is a bit extensive, though, and includes:

-Your offer letter.  You are dead in the water without this.  Get it ASAP.  Be sure it says how much you will be making.  **IMPORTANT** Make sure it also states that your postdoctoral position does not require a code from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada stating that you will have a positive impact on Canada.  Postdocs are exempt from this.  A university letter should already have that in its template, because this happens a lot.

-A copy of your passport.  A passport has been required to enter Canada for a while now, so this shouldn't come as any surprise.

-Two photos of yourself, taken to Canadian specifications.  Don't forget to not smile!

-$150.  Processing fee.  Personal checks not accepted; get a money order.

-The form "Applying for a Work Permit Outside of Canada".  It will require things such as your passport number and expiration date, so keep the passport handy!

-A place to send everything.  A list of all available offices in the U.S. is available here.  I chose the Buffalo office, because I am close to it geographically, and I figured it handled a lot of these things.

-Proof of a Ph.D. This was a toughie for me because... I don't officially have one yet and won't until May!  Commonly, doctorate-granting universities will issue a letter stating you have fulfilled all requirements as approved by a Dean upon request; however, this can take a while to get, so hop on it quickly.  I did not have this letter, so I submitted both my CV and a letter from my advisor on official Penn State letterhead.  My advisor's letter stated a brief summary of my duties, said I was done with requirements, and gave my defense date/salary.  They accepted it.

You get all of this together, and mail it to your chosen office, and then.... you wait.  And you don't hear anything.  You cannot contact them unless you've waited an inordinate amount of time (i.e., 3 months).  You just sit back and hope.  I believe that if you are a Ph.D., they expedite the process.  I mailed my documents on December 10th or thereabouts, and my approval letter is dated January 12th.  Keep in mind that that span of time included Christmas Eve, Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year's.  This will not get approved overnight.

The itemized list o' stuff:

When you cross the border into Canada, they will require you to bring with you an itemized list of what you are bringing in.  I have it on authority from 2 Canadian officials that they don't care if you itemize every single little thing, just a general list for a temporary resident.  Also, you need to estimate a monetary value in $ CDN of each item in the listing.  It's not too hard; I'm doing it as I'm packing, and the movers will itemize what is in my boxes, and I will estimate a monetary value of each box.

Surprising things you don't need to get into Canada: A birth certificate, social security card, or driver's license/gov't-issued ID.  If bringing in a car, though, be prepared to have the title/registration/proof of insurance.

I am sure I will have more to report once I cross the border, but for now, it's back to taking stuff down off the walls and packing!

The obligatory introductory post

Hi, I'm Kristin (a.k.a. Quis to college and grad school colleagues), an American postdoc living and working in Canada (well, not quite yet, but I'll explain below).  I am starting this blog to keep my American friends and family up to speed on my life in Canada for the two years I will be there, and also to share interesting thoughts and information along the way.

As mentioned, I am not in Canada yet, but I'm gearing up to go.  My movers come tomorrow, and then I will be cleaning and bare-bones living in my Pennsylvania apartment until Tuesday, at which point I will hop into my packed Toyota (affectionately known as Princess III) and head up to Toronto.  There is a lot to do between then and now, but luckily the legal paperwork has all been pushed through (that will be the topic of my next post).

So, sit back and enjoy this academic's ramblings.  And for those of my friends with whom I have shared that I own ridiculous maple leaf pajama pants, feast your eyes:

The infamous pants!