Wednesday, 30 May 2012

How to blend in: Australia

 When I was in the most painful of the teenage-angst years, my mom took me and my blue and black hair to Italy on a business trip. I was so worried about the random Italian strangers knowing we were tourists that I prevented her from taking almost any photographs. I was ecstatic when I was strolling through the Piazza Navona (in a very casual way, making sure not to actually look at anything lest it be obvious I didn't belong), and a group of teenagers passing by asked me for cigarettes in Italian. Clearly my 25% Italian blood and uber-cool attitude were paying off and I had blended in! Until I tried to respond.

If you, too, are filled with trepidation over sticking out in a foreign country, here is the first of a series of posts on secrets for blending in.

How to play it cool in Australia:

Forget Crocodile Dundee. Quite a few Australians do not carry around gigantic knives, wear hats decorated with crocodile teeth, or hideous croc-leather vests. To look like you belong, your best bet is to dress all in black, or in neon-hued surf-wear. Shoes are optional.

Don't wear your Uggs around town. They are like slippers. It took me more than 2 years to learn this, but now I understand why my co-workers made fun of me in wintertime.

Order your coffee properly. It is impossible to find American-style gallon-sized containers of cheap coffee in Australia. Instead, you will get to spend most of your income on some variation of espresso-based drinks. Short and long blacks refer to espresso straight up or diluted with hot water. If you want milk, you have 3 main choices: flat white, latte, or cappuccino. They claim these all have different ratios of coffee:milk:foam, but really they are all identical but presented differently: a latte comes in a water glass instead of a mug (so you can burn your hands more easily) and a cappuccino has chocolate sprinkled on top (clearly the best choice). 
Hot tip: if you try to go American-style and order a coffee with cream, you will be laughed at. Cream is a thick topping for dessert, not something you add to coffee.

Shoes optional for the pubwoman as well.

Don't order your beer properly. Actually, just don't bother--most of the beer on tap tastes like old shoes boiled in water. If you really feel the need, just point at something and ask for one of those. There are too many permutations of different sized-glasses (schooners, midis, pots, etc.) and truncated names for the beers (old, new, gold, etc.) that invariably, whatever you request will be wrong and embarrassing.

When hitchiking, point your index finger towards the wheels of the cars whizzing by instead of hooking your thumb out.

Eat large quantities of cakes and savory pies.

Do not suggest to anyone that you "throw a shrimp on the barbie." It would be more accurate to ask them to "chuck a prawn on the barbie," though I have yet to see anyone barbequing invertebrates. Better to stick to cooking up the lamb you won in the meat raffle at the pub (apparently you should bring your "eskie"--or cooler--with you in case you are the lucky recipient of a large tray of raw meat during your night out).

To speak Australian (don't attempt the accent), you can just drop the second half of most words, and generally add "ie." Bikers becomes "bikies" (the Hell's Angels sound much less intimidating here), wetsuit becomes "wettie," sunglasses becomes "sunnies." Then just say "yeah" a lot in a nasal tone.

Unfortunately, the Australians have also developed their own take on English, and use many words in totally different fashions than Americans. How irritating. Here are a few examples:
Hearing these words may seem scandalous, but they mean something quite inert in Australia:
Thongs          just means           Flip-flops (not tiny undies)
Skivvies        just means           Turtlenecks (not undies, either)
Rubber          just means           Eraser (not a baby-preventer)
On the other hand, here are some American words that are rude in Australian English, and the alternative you can use:
Don't say Root for a team    say    Barrack for them instead
Don't say Fanny Pack      say        Bum Bag (but really, why on earth do you still have one?)

Confusingly, some terms are the same as in the US. Try not to get tripped up and do things like grab a zucchini and ask the shop keeper "what is this thing called?" You will be told that it is a zucchini and look like an idiot.

Finally, come to terms with the sad fact that you will not see a Koala, unless it is in a zoo. Then you can stop breaking your neck and wandering off cliffs while staring into the trees wherever you go.
You may not see koalas, but while trying, you can acquire leeches!

Monday, 21 May 2012

How to chose an ill-fitting profession

I essentially stumbled into being a coral reef scientist. If I had properly thought about things ahead of time, I would never have ended up here. Why am I an unlikely candidate for this job? Why, I’m glad you asked!

I get horribly, horribly seasick. As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to travel on an oceanographic research vessel from Hawaii to San Diego on a fieldtrip. According to the crew, it was the smoothest crossing they had ever experienced. I spent the first 5 days puking my guts out until the medic gave me a scopalomine patch. (I was too ill to learn much on that trip, but I somehow managed to snare myself a husband).
Stop moving, ocean!
Sadly, over time “the patch” has lost its effectiveness, and I spent my last expedition both stoned from the scopalomine and seasick for a glorious 5 weeks. The only way I survive is that a few minutes after being underwater on SCUBA, I feel fine. The major downside: when perusing the (painfully bleak) job listings for marine scientists, I have to veto any jobs that require time at sea. This is, unsurprisingly, rather hindering my job hunt.

I am afraid of sharks, poisonous creatures and slimy things. This covers quite a lot of marine life. I intellectually know that my fears are unfounded—people purposefullykill more than 70 million sharks a year while sharks accidentally kill about 10 people. Poisonous things tend to advertise themselves as such (like the lion fish) so can be avoided, and sea slime is really quite clever and useful. But I still get a jolt of nerves before a dive.

Too close, buddy.
So long as someone else jumps in the water first (unless they are being too slow and my seasickness above water overwhelms my fear of being alone underwater), I can buck up and get to work. Once underwater, I remember why the ocean fascinates me, and I get down to business. I have even been known to do things, in the name of science, that no right-minded person would: shove my feet into crevices (potentially housing sharp-toothed eels) to gain traction against the current, dutifully turn my back on a swarm of 15 nosy reef sharks to inspect and identify corals along a 20-m long measuring tape, and even “boot and rally” for the afternoon’s dive.

There are 13 sharks in this view. It was slightly difficult to focus on the reef with these guys around.

I am not naturally meticulous. I am a horrible baker; I refuse to measure accurately and I usually have to substitute for ingredients because I didn’t make a list, forgot something, and don’t feel like going back to the store. I usually don’t plan things out ahead of time: I often start driving before I realize I have no idea where I’m going. I have booked flights for the wrong month. I have flown to Canada without a passport.

This is not a good way to do science, but the first step is acceptance, right? I accept that I’m supposed to be meticulous and that I suck at it. But really, I’m getting better. You should check out the amazing spreadsheets I’ve been producing lately. They even have metadata and everything! Hot damn. 

Despite all of this, I love my job. It is difficult, can be either tedious or dangerous, and the career prospects make me cry; but it is intellectually stimulating, often fun, always surprising, and I feel like I might be making oh-so-small of a positive difference in this great big world.

A big THANK YOU to everyone who has helped me sustain this crazy and exciting career path (there are a lot of you). I’m going to keep on trucking along it as far as it goes, which might be, if Adam gets his way, to an organic farm on an abandoned stretch of coastline swarming with dengue mosquitoes. But hopefully not.

Ok, this is pretty rad. The essentially untouched Kingman Reef, one of the more ridiculously amazing places on earth.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Packing: where you figure out that most of what you own is superfluous

Traveling can be eye-opening in so many ways, not least of which is when you realize that you really need almost no possessions to get by. However, some worldly goods are nice to have with you away from home, so here are my tips on how to maximize your usefulness:luggage weight ratio.

1. Bring bug repellant, and something that claims to soothe the itching associated with bites you do get. Seriously. Unless you are visiting San Diego, there are going to be bugs and they are going to bite you. I still haven’t learned this, which is probably why I got dengue that first time.

2. Pack some aloe vera. Even though you think you are awesome and aren’t going to get sunburned this time, you will.

3. Skip packing the work stuff. Even though you have big plans to finish reading those journal articles on the plane, crunch some data, or fix up your expense report (or whatever normal people do), really it’s just going to get crumpled and take up space underneath the US weekly you buy at the airport.
   What’s that you say? You are headed on a business trip/field expedition/going to a conference? Fine. You can bring the minimum required work-related accoutrement. But you are not allowed to bring extra stuff to “keep busy,” unless that stuff is a trashy novel that will melt your braincells. 

Try to avoid packing awkwardly shaped items, such as air compressors. It will save your back.

4. You really don’t need that many pairs of shoes. They’re heavy, and will probably just sit in your bag getting mildewy. Just pack flip-flops in your bag (perhaps inside an awesome Lusso shoe bag so they don’t schmutz all your clothes) and wear good walking shoes on the plane.

5. Always bring a swimsuit.

6. Bring your toothbrush, contact lens stuff, and a fresh shirt and underoos in your carryon. When your luggage is lost, you will thank me for this tip.

7. Make a pile of all the clothes you want to bring. Now put half of it back. Then put another half of it back. Pack the remaining pile.

Did you have to purchase an extra seat on the plane for your luggage? You clearly didn't follow tip #7.

8. Don’t bother checking the weather ahead of time. This will mean you have to go straight from the airport shopping for more appropriate clothing. You will thus simultaneously support the local economy you are visiting and potentially score clothes that will help you blend in.

9. Fill any remaining space in your carry-on with chocolate or other delicious sustenance.

If you have a child, disregard all of these tips. Your entire luggage allowance will be used up with their miniature clothes, toys, diapers, car seat, blankets, etc. so you’ll be lucky if you even get to bring a second shirt for yourself. Your martyrly awesomeness will have to sustain you instead.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Roadtrip without a map: freedom to color outside the lines

My darling husband hates to waste money on things like road maps, when that money could very well be spent on beer. Thus we have taken quite a few roadtrips without sufficient maps. Not that I’m very good at paying attention and directing him when we do have maps, so maybe it’s for the best. Here are some benefits of and tips for travel without boundaries:

1. Most obviously, you will stumble upon interesting places you might otherwise have avoided. We once had the pleasure of driving through a pedestrian-only area in the Basque country in Spain because we couldn’t turn our rental car around in the narrow street that dead-ended at the harborside. Lucky for us, nobody cared because all the townspeople (including the children) were busy getting drunk and throwing talc all over each other for an unidentified local festival (probably celebrating the town’s 800th anniversary or something equally baffling).

2. Practice your French/Italian/etc. by deciphering road signs. Hopefully, you will have at least learned the terms for the cardinal directions. This can be particularly helpful when deciding which on-ramp to chose on the highway. Generally, heading south when you mean to go north is counterproductive.

That's just unfair.
3. Practice pretending to understand foreign languages when you ask for directions. This counts in other states, too. Massachusetts-ites prefer to give directions consisting of phrases such as “turn left where the old bank used to be.” Presumably if you knew where the old bank once stood, you might not be lost. However, it is rude to explain that the directions you have been provided make no sense; just smile benignly, drive the way the person pointed, and then stop again in the hope of finding someone who speaks your language. Or try tip #4, below.

4. Work on your memorization skills. Did you know that most petrol stations sell road maps? Instead of purchasing one, however, you can quickly run in, figure out where you are, and memorize a route before the clerk notices you lying on the floor reading the map. A fun game to play is to track whether you or your partner is better at this (you can measure the distance each of you can drive before having to stop at the next station to re-orient!).
Sometimes, maps are provided in key locations! Turn your trip into a free-map scavenger hunt, for an extra challenge.

5. Test your relationship. Perhaps the lowest point in my marriage occurred when driving to the Paris airport at 5 am in the rain after being at a (fabulous) wedding until 4 am, and my husband was drunk and snoring instead of helping me decipher the road signs to guess which way we should be driving. He’s still alive and we’re still married, so that really speaks to his other qualities.

6. Drink more beer! Be sure to unwind after a tense day of driving in circles with a cool beverage. After all, that was the point of driving map-less, wasn’t it? An extra tip for today: try to order your beer in the local tongue. In Basque country, this is not Spanish. You may be served half a glass of flat, warm beer if you ask for cerveza. 

p.s. it goes without saying that using a GPS is totally cheating. You also may only call your mom if you have exhausted the other options listed above.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Travel without a guidebook

Travel is supposed to be an adventure, right? If you have a guidebook to tell you where to go and what to do, you’re cheating yourself out of a heap of potential excitement. You might also save yourself from accidentally purchasing a book written by people who have no idea what constitutes fun, and being miserable after following their terrible advice.

Here are some benefits of traveling without a guidebook:

 1. You can more effectively support the local street urchin population. Because you won’t know what the proper exchange rates between Guatemalan quetzals and Honduran lempiras, the adorable ten year old at the border crossing who changes money for you will be sure to keep 90% of it. What a fun way to donate to charity!

2. You can be the first to review Hotel Paradiso, an establishment in the red-light district of a notoriously dangerous port city in Honduras, on Yelp! Since you have no idea where to stay, just rely on your taxi driver to bring you to a hotel. Be sure to specify that you want to stay somewhere inexpensive. Don’t be surprised when you must remove rat droppings from the bed before fitfully attempting to sleep on it wearing all of your clothing.
This place was not in the guidebook. I guess it was sort of Ok.

3. You can stay longer inadvertently. Without the trappings of a guidebook, you will be blissfully unaware that you have crossed time zones once you have left the airport. If you’re luckily and the time difference is in the right direction, you’ll miscalculate your pre-departure arrival time and miss your plane home.

4. You can skip out on stupid sights that were included only because the authors needed to fill space. Instead of spending your 30thbirthday slogging through dry sand for hours under the blistering sun only to find that the “waterfall” the guidebook recommended is comprised of one-foot high rapids in an ugly brown river, you could instead stumble upon something way more worthwhile, like the Katherine Country Music Muster

Seriously? I made this picture big just so you could try to see the amazingness of this waterfall in the background. My pregnant belly is bigger than that crap.

5. You can accidentally order the national dish, which is inedible, twice! Don’t bother embarrassing yourself by pointing at delicious plates of food other restaurant patrons are eating—just let the waiter bring you whatever he pleases. You’ll probably be lucky enough to be served the national dish. These are usually designated as such because the government has a surplus of something unpalatable they wish to get rid of, and tourists are gullible.

6. You can contract the local disease(s). Since you didn’t read up on what not to do, you can become ill through a host of different methods: drinking the water, walking barefoot, being bitten by mosquitoes, or playing with the local cats. This allows you the special chance to explore the local health-care system, in addition to making for a fun story to tell your friends!

Can you think of other benefits of guidebook-less travel? Please share!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Collaboration in science: how to ignite your inner Power Ranger

Muddling along on our own, scientists can carry out experiments, come up with hypotheses to test, and make discoveries—but I think it’s far less interesting than combining strengths and working with other scientists to tackle a problem. My colleague Aaron Hartmann recently posted an article about mentorship and collaboration on his Union Tribune blog, which inspired me to reflect on my own experiences working with a range of scientists.

The Power Rangers have to combine strengths so each can transform into a superhero; combining different scientific expertise to address a common question strengthens the effectiveness of each individual’s contribution.

Here are just a few benefits of collaboration:

1. Fieldwork is way more awesome and effective. Fieldwork is usually exhausting, frustrating, and full of unexpected challenges. Having other people to laugh with and help come up with work-arounds, as well as to inspire you to quit whining and get back in the water (my favorite trip involved a lot of the phrase “harden the f*&$ up”), means you’ll get more accomplished. Note, however, that there may be a critical-mass effect, where above a certain group size, things can rapidly spin into chaos and infighting

Without this collaboration, I wouldn't have experienced the joys involved in using a pile-driver to slam a metal pipe into the lagoon sediments in Palmyra.

2. You don’t have to learn everything yourself. You don’t have to learn French to communicate with a French-speaker if you have an intermediary who can translate. However, it’s important to have a working knowledge such that you might detect when the translation is incorrect: if you hear “dix” and the translator tells you the cost is $20, he is attempting to swindle you. Similarly, you don’t want to just take your collaborator’s word for it that what they have contributed is correct, but fully reading all of the background literature on, for instance, organic chemistry, is overkill.

3.  You have a built-in peer-review system. Before anything is published in the great and hallowed Scientific Literature (at least in esteemed journals) it is first reviewed by other experts for scientific rigor and clarity (and often whether it is sufficiently interesting). The peer-review process can be painful: people who think they are the bees knees get to rip apart your work under the protection of anonymity, often taking time to pass judgment on your character while they’re at it. Your co-authors might save you some discomfort by (hopefully more gently) suggesting that what you have put together stinks before you officially submit it.

Here, 25 scientists collaborate on enjoying Canadian Thanksgiving.

 4. You get to learn new and unexpected things. Though as a minor player, I’ve gotten to contribute to projects like: developing a new ocean-water tracer using radioactive fall-out from nuclear weapons testing; estimating changes in coral growth rates due to atmospheric aerosols; and comparing the deliciousness of different types of algae to reef fish.

5. They inspire new projects and increase your productivity. Maybe I’m just a defective scientist, but I find coming up with new, feasible (that part is important) projects the most daunting part of the endeavor. Talks with colleagues are totally key for me, helping me to see where my skills can be applied to new questions. Continuing to work on a project together can help speed things along, too--now you aren't the only one bummed when work is languishing in a forgotten folder at the bottom of your "important" pile.

So, what are you waiting for?