Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Ingenious parenting solutions

Babies seem to require a large amount of equipment to keep them properly maintained. Yet after 14 months of daily excursions, I seem still to forget some key item that inevitably becomes necessary. While the following tips may help you in a pinch, you will probably draw scornful looks by the always-prepared parents. To them I say: a fully stocked diaper bag, like a fully planned life, is boring.

Barf rags. Especially in the beginning, babies are small barf machines. The gentler phrase, “spit-up,” doesn’t quite capture the volumes that can be produced. Indeed barf cloths are very useful for wiping these patches off of your clothing or the babe’s (or, apparently, for protecting said clothing in the first place), but other things that work in a pinch include: discarded outer layers, extra outfits you may have remembered to pack, or your socks.

Bibs. My child mostly gets food everywhere except in the bib-covering-region, so I rarely remember to bring one around. Since I also don’t have a barf rag or anything useful to clean his face, I often resort to the old wipe it on my hand and then on my pants method, but sometimes even that is too much. So I have been known to, like a cat, lick my kid’s cheeks clean. I know…shocking.

He's got to get clean somehow, even if extremely temporarily
Wipes. When you run out of butt-wipes mid-poo cleanup, life can seem rather bleak. Especially when you are crouched on a grass median at a campground. First, try using wet paper towels your partner brings you from the nearby toilet block. When that fails, chuck the baby in the closest sink or the ocean (hopefully you’ve decided to change the child in running distance of one of these).

Diapers. This one is particularly awkward. When the babe decides to poo in the last clean diaper you have on hand, hopefully you have a not-too-wet one lying about from an earlier change to place him back into for the time being (here’s an upside of cloth diapers-you don’t throw them away!). Or you might use the extra onesie you used earlier to clean up his barf, your socks, or any other absorbent item lying about that you don’t mind getting dirty as a diaper.

Clothing. It seems inevitable that whatever backup item I forget will become soaked in some disgusting bodily fluid, muddy puddle water, or otherwise need to be changed. For some reason I find that people seem quite offended when you haven’t properly dressed your child in pants, shirt, waistcoat, socks, loafers, and a fedora. A barefoot child running around in diapers seems to dredge up fears of neglect; though I don’t personally define a poorly packed diaper bag as malevolent.
Way easier than sunscreen
Of course, when the weather isn’t cooperating, you must think of ways to shield your child from the elements when proper clothing isn’t an option. I have spent an afternoon shivering in the cold wind in my t-shirt while my babe wore my sweater with the sleeves rolled a million times. He has also spent more than one walk in the stroller wrapped in the wind-proof mat I use for changing him on the go, due to a lack of warm clothing.

Snacks. Breastfeeding is easy, because you don’t really have to think about packing snacks. Now that the babe sometimes prefers to eat solid food, I often resort to popping into the nearest place to buy a croissant or a piece of fruit. Usually this turns out to be more fun, unless the babe is also in a pre-sleep rampage mood and insists on ripping anything he can reach off of the shelves and bowling them down the aisles.

Baby carriers. Babies get heavy. Clever friends have had luck with backpacks, and I’ve made (not very good, but helpful) baby carriers out of a beach towel and a sarong. I’ve also had some luck doing a piggy-back with the baby stuck up inside of my sweater, with his head out the top. This doubles as additional warmth, if you’ve underdressed your child (see above).

Entertainment. Never underestimate the attraction of an interesting piece of rubbish.

What clever things have you -->come up with in a pinch?

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Car repair for the overly confident

I took auto shop in high school. I mostly learned that swearing is un-ladylike (which is perhaps why I talk like a sailor now, in retribution); I am scared of the machine used to put tires on wheels; and almost nothing can be done to fix a drooping headliner on your car’s ceiling. Yet, I still consider myself totally qualified to save money on car repair by spending obscene amounts of time doing it myself. Here are some handy tips I’ve learned along the way.

1. When you take something apart, keep the bits organized so that you can easily put it back together. Tossing everything into a heap is a great way to become totally flummoxed later on and waste huge amounts of time looking up repair manuals with incomprehensible exploded diagrams (yes, that’s the technical term) of various components.

2. Some things, like brake pads, have right and left sides. These should be installed in the orientation the manufacturers had in mind.

3. Save the old parts you are replacing. If the new part you purchased from the auto store looks different from the old one, they probably sold you the wrong item. You will proceed to partially or totally destroy your car, leading to a massive bill from a proper mechanic having to fix what you made more broken when you fail to do this.
Be sure to wear the right outfit for the job
4. When your car starts making weird noises, it’s Ok to ignore it if you like the idea of being stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours on end.

5. When you suddenly start seeing lots of exceedingly friendly people driving past you and waving energetically, it’s quite possible your engine is on fire. Instead of vigorously waving back and carrying on, consider pulling over to assess the situation.
Not exactly a repair job, but getting stuck in shin-deep mud brings its own set of possibilities for creativity
6. It’s probably a good idea to have a look at your engine compartment before something breaks, so you have at least a vague idea of what it looks like intact.

7. If you can’t find the right tool for the job, get creative; but consider that this might lead to personal or automotive injury. For example, there are tools designed solely to remove and replace brake pad springs
--> but a creatively cantilevered screwdriver will do the job in twice the time with the additional fun of injuries to boot! 

Maybe a bigger tool will do the trick
8. You might consider driving around with spare oil and water, and some emergency rations, in case the first two items fail and you find yourself stomping around in the snow trying to find a cell signal to call for help.

9. Build a relationship with your local mechanic so that you can sheepishly bring rusted-together parts over for him to help break apart with his pneumatic tools. Also, he can fix whatever new problems you create with your inventive repair job, possibly without overcharging.

10. Always make sure you have cold beverages in the fridge to celebrate completing the job; to soothe burns if you get too ambitious and don’t let the engine cool down before getting started; or to bribe someone to help you complete a difficult job.

How awesome have your car-repair experiences been?

Friday, 23 November 2012

How to get a parasite

There are in fact lots of easy ways to obtain parasites, if that’s your goal. For instance, some people purposefully infect themselves with hookworm as a potential way to relieve autoimmune problems like asthma; you can, too, by walking around African latrines barefoot or simply ordering a packet in the mail. Yum. Alternatively, you might contract Toxoplasmosis gondii by snuggling rat-eating cats on Pacific islands. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In practice for getting old, here's a long health-related story to bore you to death.

In mid November, 2010, the Hanse Explorer held position in the lee of a tiny dot of land called Jarvis Island, just south of the Equator in the central Pacific. With my legs braced against the sides of the head to combat the incessant rocking, I put in my contacts and then stared at myself for a long moment in the mirror. One side of my neck, just below the jaw, was puffy. Had I always been lopsided, and never noticed? I poked around, and felt a lumpy thing that was larger than the lumpy thing on other side. Nothing hurt, so I resolved to worry later, slapped on a new, not very effective, anti-seasickness/insanity-inducing Scopalomine patch, and headed to the mess hall before the day’s diving began.

10 days later, we finished out our expedition to the northern Line Islands in a spectacularly crazed and ineffective fashion at Kiritimati (Christmas) Atoll. Each morning I saw that the lump was still there. When I got back to San Diego, I went to a doctor. I wanted to get any needed screening taken care of, because I was planning to stop trying not to have a baby. I was surprised that the doctor told me to just go ahead; there was nothing medically I should think about in advance. I also asked about the lump. By this time I’d developed a theory, based on my extensive knowledge of human anatomy: the 5 weeks of dry-mouth associated with continuous Scopalomine use had desiccated the salivary glands in one side of my neck. The doctor agreed that this could very well be the explanation, told me to chew some sour gum to get the saliva flowing, and to follow up in a month if it was still swollen.

The middle of nowhere. From Sandin et al. 2008
How you get around in the middle of nowhere.

      At the beginning of January, I returned to Wollongong, Australia, where I’d been living for the past 10 months. A few weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant, noted that my neck was still swollen, and went to see my local doctor. She took the lump more seriously, and immediately referred me to have an ultrasound, to see an ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist, and to have some basic blood tests.

I strongly suggest that you do everything in your power to avoid having a nasendoscopy. In this invasive procedure, the ENT sprays a mist up your nose to numb it, which has the side effect of giving you a spectacularly foul taste on the back of your tongue. Then he sticks a bendy rod with a camera on the end up your nose and then down your throat. I guess this is his way to see thoroughly into said nose-throat region, but it is not cool at all. Even worse when he decides you probably want to see the inside of your own nose and angles a giant screen such that you cannot escape viewing gross, delicate, pink insides. In my case, this revealed that these portions of my body were normal, but didn’t inform the cause of the mysterious lump. The blood results were also uninformative.

The ultrasound was less disgusting, but still un-nerving. The ultrasound technician, not really supposed to make diagnoses, casually mentioned that the lump was not in fact associated with my salivary gland, but instead my lymph node. All I knew about lymph nodes was that they got swollen in response to an infection; such prolonged reaction to an infection I didn’t otherwise notice seemed bad. Of course I Googled this immediately and learned I might have a range of diseases that cause swollen lymph nodes, including cancer.

I had to wait several days to see the ENT again to discuss the ultrasound results. He confirmed the technician’s assessment, and referred me to have a biopsy. This seemed very bad indeed. He also wanted me to have a CT scan, so he could better image what exactly was going on in there. I preferred not to irradiate the tiny bean of a human in my belly, so asked to put this off until later, in case the biopsy was informative enough.

Later that week, I dragged Adam with me to get the biopsy. This was worse than the nasendoscopy. Even if it didn’t hurt very much, I knew that I was being stuck with a needle in a region that seemed rather possible for things to go wrong if I sneezed; that needle would also remove a core sample of my actual body inside of it. How totally disgusting. The biopsy doctor actually took three core samples at different angles through the lump. I took the rest of the day off after that.

Me being very dramatic and feeling sorry for myself after my first biopsy (note vulnerable location near various large blood vessels and things).
The next week, it was back to the ENT. The biopsy didn’t show any sign of cancer, a fantastic relief. The biopsy did indicate inflammation (how surprising!), so the ENT suggested a round of antibiotics, in case whatever infection I had could be killed off easily. He also called for more blood tests.

There are several diseases that can present with no symptoms other than swollen lymph nodes in specific parts of the body. The first set of tests looked for evidence of renal function, which would check if my kidneys were working properly; Ross River virus (for reasons unclear to me—this mosquito-borne illness causes symptoms similar to Dengue fever, which I knew well, and didn’t have); Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis (also known as glandular fever because it causes swollen neck lymph nodes) and is associated with certain types of lymphoma cancers; cytomegalovirus; and tuberculosis.

The pathology results came back negative, but the antibiotics didn’t help. There was still no clue why the lump remained. With lots of lead shielding over my torso, I consented to a CT scan of my neck; this didn’t lead to any great insights, either, except a better image of the inflamed lymph node.

My weekly visits to the ENT, pathology lab, and imaging clinic, combined with other doctor’s visits blood tests, and ultrasounds related to the pregnancy, started to get a little exhausting. I was glad the ENT was willing to squeeze me in, seeing me before or after all his other patients (he normally had a 4 month waiting list).

More blood tests were ordered, for Cat Scratch disease and Toxoplasmosis. I thought this was a bit ridiculous; I’d lived with cats my entire life until I moved to Australia, and since then had been essentially deprived of feline interaction (I guess people tend to have big horrible dogs here instead of lovely cats). But I was willing to try anything at this point; when doctors rearrange schedules to see you, it is a bad sign.

To be safe, the ENT suggested another biopsy while we waited for those results. This time he wanted a few gigantic-gauge core samples removed, instead of the previous fine-needle biopsies.

To make matters worse, a medical student was visiting during my second biopsy, so the doctor not only proceeded to extract the samples extremely slowly for her benefit, but he also explained loudly what he was doing the entire time, pointing out how the needle was piercing various parts of my innards—viewed via ultrasound—on a giant computer screen on the wall. This time I had come without Adam; the only way I survived was squeezing the fingers of the lovely old nurse to a pulp. She recommended I stop in at the bathroom before I left, to mop up some of the blood that had run down my neck and stuck my hair into mats.

On top of all of the doctor’s visits, I was also working long hours as a postdoc, stressing myself out over not being productive enough in the lab because I was so tired from my pregnancy, and stressing about the pregnancy because I knew I wasn’t supposed to stress because stress hormones are bad for the fetus. I was also, as my friend Branwen called it, the narcoleptic pregnant lady. I would lie down on the ground and take naps in the middle of walks, in the back of the car, at lunch time. The thought of eating vegetables made me queasy—inconvenient as a vegetarian. And I was even more emotional than normal, bursting into crazy sobbing fits after hearing cheesy commercials on the radio. So layering on the worry about whether I would be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness was not helpful.
At least the unexploded WWII ordinance we came across at Palmyra Atoll had long been rendered useless by saltwater, else I'd perhaps have many more things to worry about.
 The next week I went to see the ENT after work. In the waiting room, my GP called me, since she had also just gotten the blood test results: I had a recent infection with Toxoplasmosis gondii, a protozoan parasite. While about 10% of people in the US have a Toxoplasmosis infection at some point in their lives, it is generally only a problem if a woman acquires an infection during pregnancy, when it can cause severe and sometimes fatal birth defects. I was devastated at the idea of losing the baby, and already crying when the ENT called me in. He started with the good news that the large-gauge biopsy also showed no sign of cancerous cells. Neither the ENT nor my GP knew what to do next with the parasite diagnosis, so they sent me to an infectious disease specialist a few days later.

The specialist was clearly not primarily a clinician; his bedside manner was atrocious. He explained that although it was possible that the swollen lymph node was a symptom of the Toxoplasmosis infection, it was possible that the lymph node inflammation was caused by a different infection not yet identified; in this case, the Toxoplasmosis infection could have occurred more recently, after I conceived. It was therefore important to determine when exactly the infection occurred.

Toxoplasmosis is carried by cats who eat rodents. Prior to our stops at Jarvis and Kiritimati islands, the Hanse Explorer had delivered us to Palmyra Atoll, which has a population of two cats specifically brought to the island to eat the rats overrunning the place. I had snuggled these cats, who apparently had licked their bums and then cleaned their fur, which consequently had gotten parasite eggs (oocysts) stuck on it, which I then probably accidentally ate because I didn’t wash my hands after petting the cats. Or something like that. Lovely.
My attempt at simplifying the Toxoplasmosis gondii life cycle.
I had more blood drawn to test for the avidity of IgG (immunoglobulin G) Toxoplasmosis antibodies. This is essentially a measure of how well-tuned the antibodies are to the infection: poorly-tuned antibodies with low avidity indicate a very recent infection, while well-tuned antibodies with high avidity indicate an infection occurred more than four months prior.

After more waiting, the specialist gave me the result: my IgG had high avidity. This meant I had contracted the infection before getting pregnant. This also suggested that the swollen lymph node, occurring about 10 days after we visited Palmyra Atoll, was probably related to my contracting Toxoplasmosis from the island cats; happily I probably didn’t have some other dread disease.

The problem with this timing was that there was extremely little evidence in the literature to suggest whether two months between infection and conception was enough time such that my body had fully eliminated the parasite; there was a chance that the parasite was still viable after conception, and could get through the placenta and attack the baby. Infection early in pregnancy leads to worse birth defects than later infection; my baby could be blind or have severe brain damage if he was infected.

The only way to be sure the baby was not infected was through amniocentesis, so we met with the obstetrician who performs the procedure. He explained the odds to us: probably less than 1 in 6000 that the baby was infected, though the potential consequences if it were infected were large. The chance of a miscarriage due to the amniocentesis was much higher, around 1 in 200.

We decided to trust the odds, and the fact that our early ultrasounds seemed normal. We decided instead of amniocentesis, to have frequent ultrasounds to check for any abnormalities in the jellybean’s developing brain; if any were detected we could either decide to terminate the pregnancy before 20 weeks gestation, or treat the remaining infection with strong anti-malarial drugs, which could help reduce negative effects on the fetus.

All of the ultrasounds were normal, and I slowly turned into a whale. But when the due date came and went, I started to get panicky. I needed to see that my baby could see and function; that we had made the right decision. Waiting patiently until he decided to arrive was horrible.

Our baby is now a toddler, 13 months old and starting to walk on strong little legs. As far as we can tell he is completely normal (well, actually he’s perfect, from an unbiased perspective). Now I tell everyone I know who owns or tends to snuggle with random cats and might one day have a baby: insist on getting a Toxoplasmosis antibody test before you get pregnant. If you’ve already been exposed, and have developed kick-ass antibodies, you can rest easy. If not, you need to step up your accidental-cat-poop-ingestion-avoidance techniques.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

How to lose your eyesight

I’d love to be writing up my latest research for publication right now, especially since it's Academic Writing Month. But that project is currently in the waiting-for-various-things-out-of-my-control stage, so I can’t progress. Instead of biting my nails to the quick and sending inappropriately desperate emails across the globe, I have shifted focus to some lab-based tasks. What are these things? Come along and I’ll show you what fun I have! Both tasks I’m working on this week involve squinting at tiny things.

Task 1: Are the annual growth bands in my coral cores really annual?
Much of what I do involves collecting core samples from large coral heads. Much like trees, corals grow larger with time and form annual bands within their skeletons that can be visualized using x-rays or CT scans. I then measure the width and density of these bands to calculate the coral growth rate over the length of each core, and this tells me essentially how healthy the coral was over that time period.

(A) collecting a core from a nice big coral (B) the top of the core (C) what (B) it looks like once cut into a slab and (D) an x-ray showing annual density banding. If the top band in (D) is 2006, you can count years backwards as you move down the core, going back in time.

But of course this whole concept is predicated on the idea that the bands I identify are formed yearly. In some corals the banding is clear and lovely and life is happy. My most recent cores are not this type. They have painfully vague banding, and while I’d like to think that my experience means I can successfully identify the bands despite their lack of clarity, I’d like to be sure. 

This coral has nice banding. I like it.

This coral has rather shitty banding, and makes me want to poke my eyes out.

So, what to do? I first started by trying to count the number of something called “dissepiments” in the images. You can picture a coral as a tall apartment building, one that is constantly under construction; the coral adds a new floor to the top of the building once a month. Only the top floor is occupied by living coral tissue, hard at work on construction—once one level is complete, the coral seals this off and moves upstairs to start work on another. This is a decent illustration, because the coral skeleton actually looks a lot like this on magnification. The “floors” of the apartment building are equivalent to the dissepiments. All this is to say that one way to verify whether annual bands are annual is to count dissepiments—if there are about 12 of them for each of the bands identified, you are probably on the right track.

This could be easy if the corals behaved. (Nothdurft et al. 2005)

But really they look more like this and it hurts to find those little things the red arrows are pointing to.   (From Barnes and Lough 1992)
Another method is to measure the chemistry of the coral skeleton. While the coral is constantly building its skeleton, the composition of the skeleton changes ever so slightly with changes in the surrounding water—whether due to seasonal fluctuations in temperature, sediment in the water from river runoff, etc. I can use this to analyze a particular aspect of the skeletal chemistry that I know changes seasonally every millimeter down the core. This way I can put an independent time-scale on the core and then compare this with the time-scale I got by picking out my bands. In this case, I’m using the ratio of strontium to calcium, which changes due to water temperature (the skeleton is mostly made of calcium carbonate—CaCO3—but other elements can substitute for Ca).

This is the idea. The black wiggly lines on the left show seasonal water temperature change (low in winter, high in summer), and conveniently the banding in the coral x-ray lines up with the wiggles! (From Bagnato et al. 2004)

Making these measurements is pretty straightforward but takes a lot of time:
(1) I cut the cores with a rock saw to produce a flat slab.
(2) I take the slabs to a medical facility and get them xrayed to reveal the particular convolutions of the coral growth direction in that sample.
(3) I further cut the coral slabs so that the maximum growth axis is exposed for sampling.
(4) Using an automated CNC milling machine and a lot of swearing, I grind a ledge into that exposed edge from which I’ll collect my samples.
(5) I clean out all of the powder from cutting the slab and milling the ledge that has accumulated in the coral’s pore spaces using an ultrasonic probe. This device blasts high-frequency waves through water such that tiny air bubbles form and explode, which helps clean the material, and destroy your hearing (I do wear earmuffs for this).
(6) The samples dry overnight and then I mount them on the CNC machine again and mill precise, tiny amounts of coral skeletal powder every 0.5 mm down the edge of my clean and beautiful skeletal ledge. Each of these bits of powder is caught on a square of waxed paper and then carefully transferred into a tiny plastic vial, labeled with the sample number. Too much coffee is not good for this step.
I get really excited when step 6 is over. Especially when I get to use pretty vials to spice up the lab-life.
(7) I acid-wash and dry a lot of larger plastic vials.
(8) I use a micro-balance (a very tiny and sensitive scale) to weigh out about 50 milligrams of coral powder from each of the 0.5 mm-increment samples into my clean vials. I attempt not to sneeze while doing this.
(9) I tire out my thumb using a pipette to add super-clean acid to each of the vials to dissolve the coral powder to the correct dilution.
(10) I gratefully hand the samples over to my colleague, who uses a machine called an Inductively-Coupled-Plasma-Atomic-Emission-Spectrometer to measure the Sr/Ca ratio in each of my dissolved samples.

Task 2: What’s up with the benthic foraminifera in my sand samples?

Foraminifera are single-celled marine organisms, and the “benthic” descriptor means they don’t live in the water column, but instead on the ocean bottom or on other substrates, like seagrass. Forams make complex shells, and in some areas these shells make of the majority of reef sands.

I’ve been collecting sand samples from my study sites and using a stain called Rose Bengal to dye all of the living foraminifera a lovely shade of pink. The dead shells remain white. This means that I can compare the living and the dead assemblages—the ratio of different types of foraminifera—to see if there has been a change over time (well, between “now” – alive, and “before” – dead).
Some of my pretty forams. This is from my recent paper with Sheila Walsh                                                                      
Benthic forams are sensitive to water quality—some types (A and B above) take over in dominance when the water is clear and low in nutrients, but this balance shifts (to critters like C-F above) if the water becomes nutrified (i.e. we dump sewage, fertilizers, etc. into it, or change the nutrient dynamics by removing the big tasty fish).

So how to quantify the assemblages? I scatter a scoop of my stained and dried sand sample onto a gridded tray, place it under my microscope, and then use a pin with a bit of surf wax stuck to the end to grab individual foram shells out of the sand and stick these onto little slides. Once I have enough, I count them. Voila! 

Unfortunately for my eyes, it takes a very long time to get enough—several hours per sample. And for science’s sake, I have a lot of samples…so…back to it!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Essentials to pack for a field expedition

Regardless of what kind of science you do, fieldwork tends to involve broken equipment. It’s close to impossible to anticipate what will break, and bringing duplicates of everything is expensive. Here are therefore some essential tools to bring along for the best chance of getting your work back on track. 

  • Duct tape – the universal fix-it tool
  • Electrical tape – did you know that electrical tape sticks to itself underwater?!
  • Zip ties in a wide range of sizes – shove a few up the sleeve of your wetsuit if diving
  • Rope and string of various diameters
  • WD-40
  • Metal file – one application: cutting an extra tooth in your expandable wrench so it opens wider
  • Sandpaper – good for removing rust
  • Rags – so you don’t have to cannibalize your clothing to clean up
  • Instruction manuals – maybe
  • Leatherman or other multi-functional tool
  • Vice grips
  • Chocolate
  •  Zip-top bags and Sharpies – you can thus organize remnants of broken equipment for later identification/salvaging. Also, you can store melty chocolate in these
  • Extra batteries
  • Containers to keep things dry that are supposed to stay dry (like laptops)
  • Electrical plug adaptor and/or voltage converter
  • Money
  • Someone more clever than you

Though, sometimes you need to break out the big guns
What items have you found yourself grateful for, or wishing you had brought along?

Monday, 22 October 2012

How to teach yourself the obvious

Warning: rare serious—and long—post!

My son turned one last week. I did my best to fulfill my vision of motherly love by putting on my apron and baking him a cake, elaborately shaped and frosted to look like a duck. I did this while half-playing a game of Anno 1503 with our friends, Vanessa, Brett and 18-month-old Skylar, visiting on their way home to Victoria, 6 hours’ drive south. I also intermittently suggested new toys or activities (“why don’t you scrunch up this piece of paper?”) to discourage the birthday boy from trying to scale my legs while I hand-whipped the cream cheese frosting.

When my masterpiece was complete, I lit the “1” candle that Vanessa had bought, Ryder was placed in his highchair, and we all sang while I presented the cake. Ryder was delighted by the singing, and mesmerized by the candle. He grabbed the edge of the cake and I instinctively caught his hand away so he didn’t damage it. Then I blew the candle out for him.

I realized before the cake was finished how silly I was being. I even mentioned it to Vanessa—this was exactly the kind of thing I hadn’t wanted to do as a mother: use my energy up showing my son how much I love him in an abstract way that he doesn’t care about (while ignoring my friends as well). Surely he would have had a better time had I just chased him around the couch on my knees for 30 minutes instead. Or at least I could have let him go to town destroying the finished cake. But no, I followed through trying to become the domestic-goddess-earth-mother of my dreams and served up tiny bites of cake to the boys.
But really, isn't this cake just totally amazing?
I should listen to my husband more often. He told me months ago that I can’t do it all—that it’s not possible to be a perfect mother and a perfect scientist and maintain a social life and marital happiness, and everything else a person is supposed to do, like laundry. But I just thought he was being chauvinistic. “Of course I can do it all,” I said to myself. Just watch. I’ll show you.

They say there is never a perfect time to have a child; so we just went ahead and had one. It turns out that having a child in a foreign country far from your support system, while doing a postdoctoral stint (read: trying to publish like mad and be competitive so I can get a “real” job next), may be one of the worst times. Sure, if I had a baby in graduate school it would have been stressful, with pressures to graduate and pressures to get a good postdoc, and waiting until I had secured that “real” job would have come with its own set of stresses. But the sudden realization that I am now competing for jobs with men and women who have gotten a full night’s sleep, are not covered in spit-up, and aren’t typing out a coverletter while breastfeeding, is rather terrifying. I feel like I’m at a distinct disadvantage, and it boils down to time.

When I told my colleagues at work that I was pregnant, they all expressed their congratulations, as well as condolences: the good daycares had waiting lists at least 18 months long, and the ones I could get a space in wouldn’t be suitable for a tiny baby. Neither Adam nor I knew what having a baby would be like (my goodness how little we knew, in hindsight!), but in addition to the negative endorsements for the local childcare options, we felt nervous at the idea of leaving our tiny defenseless child in the care of a person we didn’t know. I reflected back on a terrible nanny I had for a short time, who forced me to eat more than I could stomach so I would be ill, and would lock me in the backyard when my baby brother was sleeping to keep me from disturbing him. I couldn’t bear the thought of my child ignored, crying in a crib somewhere while I was at work, oblivious.

Without family to turn to, we decided not to bother waitlisting our son (he’d be a year old before we made the top of the list. At the time that seemed so distant). Instead, we made the decision that we would share his care, each working and taking care of Ryder for equal amounts of time each day. I am incredibly lucky that I have a wonderful partner willing to do this. Not only does he share childcare equally with me, but he also shares the housework.

But all up, there are just not enough hours in the day to both work full time, yet also have some time together as a family. Instead of sacrificing our time together, we each have fewer “on the clock” hours free from baby distractions; but the work still has to be done, so we sneak in emails when Ryder is engrossed with a toy, or run some statistical tests while he naps. This is really not a good solution. It’s hard to be the present and caring mother I want to be when I’m constantly waiting to see when Ryder might be ready for a nap so I can get some more work done. I also spend much of the time I should be doing interesting activities with Ryder instead maintaining our lives: “now watch mommy hang the laundry…”
This time is important.
I became exhausted and not just from interrupted sleep. I set myself unrealistic goals and then doggedly tried to achieve them, feeling like a failure when my self-imposed deadlines passed and my to-do list trailed ever longer. There isn’t a very good metric for success as an academic, so it’s hard to say if I’m doing a good enough job. I do suspect that my colleagues without children, or with ample care for those children, work a greater number of uninterrupted hours a week than me. Maybe they aren’t as focused (I’ve significantly cut down on the time I take responding to emails, for instance), but just having the extra time to ruminate about science is important. Until recently I’ve just felt like I’m putting out fires when working; I haven’t had enough time or energy to just sit and think about the big picture scientific questions I am working towards. And it’s hard to think critically and form thoughtful scientific ideas while shopping for groceries or trying to change a dirty nappy.

While worrying the other day about whether Ryder’s speech was developing at a normal pace (he hasn’t said any obvious words yet), I remembered that my mom told me I said my first word, “dog,” when my mom took me to choose cookies at the bakery for my first birthday party. But at first I missed the important point of this memory—that my mom decided to spend her preciously small graduate student income to buy cookies and save time. I’m sure that I enjoyed the trip to the bakery immensely more than being propped in the corner with a toy so my mom could bake cookies from scratch.

So in the end, though I first got angry with Adam for suggesting I couldn’t be a full time scientist and a full time mom, he’s right. And lately there have been a number of articles discussing just this conundrum: why—after women’s liberation and a growing awareness at remaining inequities in the workplace—women still can’t have it all. More recently, Debora Spar wrote an article I needed to read, which echoed Adam’s statement—it’s not possible to do it all perfectly, so stop driving yourself mad: “Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a 60-hour-per-week job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the 60-hour-per-week job. No man can do this; no human can do this. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act…”

After reaching a critical breaking point several months ago, we’ve made some changes. For one thing, we are getting help taking care of Ryder. We’ve found some part-time daycare: I realized when Ryder turned about 6 months old that he was more than capable of communicating to us whether he was happy in an environment or not; thus my fear of leaving him with well-trained and qualified strangers was misplaced. With the help of friends, we found first a nice family daycare, and then a perfectly lovely larger daycare center where Ryder has had some fun and enriching days. Another mother friend has also agreed to watch Ryder along with her son some afternoons. These arrangements mean that we have more time for dedicated work, where we are both guaranteed time to focus. More importantly, we have breathing room to tend to the rest of our lives and reduce overall stress levels.

I’ve also decided it’s time to take some shortcuts. I’ll save my goal of becoming an amazing baker for when Ryder is old enough to help mix the cookie dough with his hands (and not smear it all over the walls, preferably). I will concede to take-out more often. I will buy more cloth nappies so I can do laundry less frequently.

But I will stop taking shortcuts where it counts. Each day I will think of at least one baby-centric activity to do with Ryder that is different from the previous few days. I will tap other moms for ideas and dredge up my inner childish creativity (did you know that building forts is still fun as an adult and entertaining to 12 month olds?). I will consciously remember that each day with my babe is a gift, and that soon he will be in school and have friends to build forts with and may not want to spend all afternoon playing with me.

I do think we can be good scientists/lawyers/whatever as well as great and present mothers, as long as we define those things with reasonable metrics and get some help along the way. This includes emotional support from other momma friends who are happy to discuss the intricacies of naps, breastfeeding, weaning, and bowel movements, and feed you cakes when you most need it!
More of this.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How to discourage houseguests

We’ve been staying with a lot of friends and family members lately, which has made me realize what a crap hostess I am in comparison. Some of these tips may come in handy if you feel obligated to host people, but don’t particularly like it. [Note: I do like houseguests, and do like being one; my adherence to these tips is not actually purposeful.]

1. Offer a range of pillow sizes, all of which are uncomfortable.

2. Provide too few blankets for the internal temperature. Also be sure that the thermostat is set either to “Arctic” or “Saharan Desert in summer,” regardless of the weather outside.

3. Don’t bother buying a new, actual bed for guests. Instead, chose from one of the following:
(a) get a new mattress for yourself, and use your old one for guests. Best if the mattress is so worn that it acts more like a hammock or taco. It’s more snuggly/back-breaking that way.
(b) get an air mattress. These typically come pre-punctured, guaranteeing that your guests will be lying on the hard floor by morning, but you could always stick it with a pin just to be sure.
(c) construct a “bed” out of various semi-soft items in the house, such as surfboard bags, packing foam, and/or an extra comforter.
(d) purchase a fold-out couch which is neither comfortable as a couch, nor as a bed.
Try to get your cat to infuse all guest bedding with fluffy hairs and dander.

4. If you don’t have a guestroom, you can create a private space for your guests by placing a blanket over a table, and installing their “bed” (see option “d” above) underneath it.

5. Live on a street that appears safe, but from which your guest’s vehicle will be stolen in the middle of the night.

6. In the bathroom, do not provide any horizontal surface for your guests to store toiletries, aside from the back of the toilet or the floor.  Best if the back of the toilet is slightly curved so that things are more likely to fall in the bowl.
This looks like a great spot for the guestroom.

7. To discourage long showers, be sure yours either (a) has pathetic water pressure, (b) doesn’t actually get hot enough or (c) fluctuates wildly between freezing and scalding.

8. You can also hide the towels or provide only very small, non-absorbent ones.

9. Be sure you have very little food or drink on hand. Few things encourage repeat visits more than a delicious plate of cheese or a glass of wine.

I hope this post helps you get rid of the pesky friends who keep hanging around, wishing to spend time with you.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

How to fly in comfort

--> This blog post is not for those people who are rich or clever enough to fly in first or business class—you’re already comfortable in flight. This post is for the rest of us. Is it possible to fly in economy class without losing feeling in your limbs? Read on.

1. Fly cross-country, or better, cross-Pacific, with a small child on your lap. If you do not have your own, try to borrow a friend’s child. I guarantee that all subsequent flights—without trying to entertain/restrain a kicking, wiggling, grabbing, whining creature—will be blissful and relaxing in comparison.

2. Check before you chose a seat. This way you can avoid being in the window seat on the very last 3-seater row in a 747. This row is hemmed in by the curvature of the airplane, thus providing just 73% of the space a normal human needs for comfort, as opposed to the 86% provided by every other economy seat.

3. Ambien. Perhaps with a little red wine to sweeten the deal. That is, if you don’t need to be alert to look after a child. Actually, the rest of this post can just be completely ignored if you have a lap child. Come back in a few years.
Go to your happy place. Envision yourself as a wee babe sleeping on a lovely tropical beach...which could help you drift off to sleep, or just increase your irritation at reality.

4. Bring a thin, but soft, full-sized pillow. Placing this under your butt will significantly reducing numb-ass syndrome brought on by stupidly-firm chairs.

5. Use the airline-supplied pillow (or one you have stolen from a previous flight) to provide some lumbar support. Unless you like being forcibly hunched over.

6. Bring a neck pillow, placed mostly toward the front but partly sideways around your neck. Placing a neck pillow behind your head just reinforces the hunching/spine-braking tendency of the curved seats. Alternatively, check out some of the interesting inventions available through skymall to help you fall asleep upright.

Yes. I totally approve.

7. Raise your feet a bit. For some people, comfort can be attained by using a small cardboard box as a footrest. The box can double as storage for some of your in-flight essentials. You could use your bag, instead, but the unevenness may lead to mid-flight waking as your foot slumps off to one side, your leg flops into the aisle, and is then run over by the drink cart.

8. Other people need more lift to prevent massive airline cankles. There is literally no good way to get your feet to stay propped at seat height, but here are a few ideas:
(a) Knit a sling to hang on the back of the seat in front of you, in which you can rest your feet. Unfortunately this might just stretch to the floor and/or annoy the person whose seat your feet are pulling down.
(b) Use the seat pocket. You can try shoving your feet inside directly, but this will probably lead to circulation arrest as the metal bar presses against your ankles. Instead, try to prop the pocket open to act as a footrest using a rolled-up magazine, and/or your sweater.
(c) Get fancy. Construct a folding shelf that you can shove into the pocket and provide yourself a nice stable platform. Apply skateboard grip-tape to the top to prevent foot slippage.

9. Corral your flopping limbs. Once you get situated with your feet propped up and your neck pillow at just the correct jaunty angle, the ambien helps you slip off to sleep. Just then, your knees flop outwards, waking you up and startling the stranger next to you. How do you avoid this? One option is to use several bungee cords to first tie your knees together, and then act as guy-lines to steady the legs between either arm rest. You probably will not be able to sufficiently tie your arms in without help, so try just jamming them into your lap and hope they behave themselves.

10. You might try the bungee-cord technique to keep your head from sliding over onto your neighbor’s shoulder, as well. I recommend wearing a soft cap if you are going to try this one, to reduce forehead-denting.

Now that you are sufficiently doped up and comfortably wedged into your pillow fortress/seat, nod off and sleep away the remainder of your flight. Just try to avoid having to pee.
If you miss the discomfort of your airline sleep at home, skymall has got you covered.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Handy travel tips

--> Let me start with an apology for the extended quiet since my last blog post—I know you have been sobbingly whiling away the hours waiting for this next one. 

I’ve just completed my first official circumnavigation of the planet, and after this marathon, I thought it was high time that I share my most important tips for successful travel. You might print this one out to keep in your wallet for important tips on-the-go!

1. Double-check the dates before you book your tickets. It’s highly irritating when you show up to the airport to fly to Hawaii to meet an oceanographic vessel on which you have plans to ensnare your future husband, only to be told that your ticket is one month outdated.

2. Double-check the routing before you book your tickets. It sure sucks to present yourself for check-in at the Aer Lingus counter in London to be informed that, since you are already in London, it appears you won’t need to used the Dublin à London ticket you had mistakenly purchased for that afternoon. Note also that most airlines charge a premium for booking same-day flights.

3. While you’re at it, double-check that you’ve spelled your name correctly, and that you’ve used the same name as on your passport.
If you eventually get where you are going, it'll probably be worth it. [Wat Chalong, Phuket, Thailand.]

4. Look into details on baggage restrictions. Some airlines put embargoes on excess or oversized baggage during certain times of year to certain destinations. Being told you are not allowed to bring your surfboards on your honeymoon surf trip may cause last-minute cancellation of your honeymoon, which is mildly frustrating.

5. Peruse the baggage allowances and charges for excess. There’s a vast difference between paying $25 for an extra bag vs. $100 for a single overweight bag. Similarly, if you see that your chosen airline is one that charges $200 for an extra suitcase, you may pack differently before leaving the house.

6. Make sure you go to the correct airport.

7. Bring a credit card, and ask the issuing company not to block weird charges (like last-minute tickets to Dublin) while you are away.

8. Consider travel insurance. I hear it’s pretty handy.

9. Bring enough change to call your mom.

10. Taking advantage of a 14-hour layover by exploring the city is an awesome idea unless you have food poisoning and simply feel like dying. Instead, paying a little extra to fly directly is probably worth it.
(a) Are we there yet? Or possibly (b) I wonder if I could fit onto that chair for a nap?                                                                                        
11. Check the entry requirements for each country you plan to visit. Americans can get pretty lax on this, assuming we need only to show up. Some countries (gasp!) actually do require visas, and some require that your passport expire over 6 months in the future. (Note, however, that you can get a new passport in just a few days in a last-minute, didn’t-realize-this-rule, impending-travel type situation).

Now, go forth and travel, preferably without acting like a bumbling Jessica. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

How to feel productive

--> Since I had my son, there have been entire days that pass by without a single noteworthy task being completed. Instead of wallowing in self-pity for my newfound lack of time to do things, here are some ways to increase the perception of productivity, which theoretically will lead eventually to actual productivity, or at least increased happiness.

I’m generally not very good with lists, namely because I typically make them either (a) on a scrap of paper with is swiftly lost or (b) in a notebook which is never subsequently opened for list perusal. But really—what is more satisfying than crossing everything off of your list and then throwing it away?

1. Make copious, short lists filled with easy tasks. Obvious examples: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast. Check, check, check! Feeling of satisfaction. Less obvious ideas: drive to work without getting in accident; find person picking nose in public during commute; drink 2 cups of coffee before 10 am. Really, the possibilities are endless!
Pretty colors, and bite-sized chunks of samples, make science fun.

2. If you must make a list filled with actual work-related tasks, be sure to include abundant sub-tasks, so that you can check them off frequently and not feel like things are dragging on forever. For example:

Bad list
  • Finish Spanish mackerel project
  • Finish beluga whale project

Better list

Spanish mackerel
  •   Plan fieldwork:
    •      Book flights 
    •      Book accommodation
    •      Buy WD40 and duct tape
  • Do fieldwork
  • Return to lab
  • Put samples in freezer
  • Spend several days catching up on sleep and recovering from bug bites
  • etc…you get the point.

3. Catch the fat rabbits first. I can’t take credit for this phrase, which I learned at a workshop, but it’s a useful visual to remember, and attempt to actually do.

First, identify what your fat rabbit is: this is the main project on your list, which stresses you out every time you think about how you’ve been avoiding it. Next, start each day by chipping away at that project.

I know that (a) it’s way easier to start the day by checking and responding to emails, and (b) you are just waiting until you have a clear week to really dig into and nail that project.

But: (a) checking emails leads to adding things to your list, pushing the fat rabbit farther away, (b) you are never ever going to have a clear week and (c) if you can possibly learn to switch on and off intense, actual work (quickly) you will be much more productive once you have children, or otherwise defined working hours.
Increase your computer power, and you might work exponentially faster!

4. Say no once in a while. I find this incredibly difficult; especially because I am lacking the ability to estimate the actual time it takes to do things. For example—and this has not been repeated—one Christmas day we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with different sets of family members in different cities. This felt productive, but really it was just insane and rushed.

I’ve seen a lot of articles lately about how multitasking, though seemingly efficient, is actually bad for productivity because it decreases focus (for instance here and here). But of course, that's because other people are doing it wrong. To follow proper Jessica Multitasking Protocol, use time spent doing something repetitive or otherwise non-brain-intensive (formatting your journal article, let’s say) to simultaneously do something enjoyable like listening to a podcast. Or, go for a walk while reading articles. Because you'll be doing something enjoyable while doing something perhaps a bit on the dull side (sorry, science, but you are often rather dry), you may find your attention lasts longer and you feel like you haven’t wasted your day sitting on my ass/wearing down your pointer finger on the computer trackpad. 
How's that for effective multitasking?

Be realistic
This is something I’m currently struggling with: setting goals that are feasible so I don’t just collapse in a heap of stress, unable to accomplish anything. I’m slowly coming to grips with the surprising fact that I can’t work 10 hours a day, spend time with my son, keep up some resemblance of a social life, and also sleep—and therefore I won’t be able to produce quite the same amount of science that once came from long days and often nights and weekends spent working. And really, that’s (eventually going to be) Ok with me.