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!