Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shared research equipment woes, PUI-style

Yes, we have all endured the frustration that goes on when one person doesn't uphold the lab/ departmental standards of cleanliness or handling of equipment.We usually communicate this in a lab meeting segment I call "shared-use bitching".

I am reminded of a story in my post-doc lab (overseas). Due to culture and cost, the only allowed use for blue nitrile gloves was handling ethidium bromide. If one saw a blue nitrile glove lying about, it was assumed to be contaminated with this highly toxic material. I recall a lab meeting in which the normal "shared-use bitching" started with someone silently opening a PowerPoint in which there was a picture of a blue nitrile glove lying on the kitchen counter next to the coffee machine. A collective gasp went up among the 30 or so members of the audience. The lab head said, "You realize zat zis is absolutely unacceptable, no?"

No one ever fessed up to that (wasn't ME!).

In research-based institutions there are regular lab meetings, and their shared-use bitching is a helpful communication medium that increases the chances that trouble is mostly minor, can be repaired relatively easily, and that slackers get corrected in a reasonable amount of time.

In an undergraduate institution, there are no meetings regarding shared-use equipment. Moreover, undergraduates are left alone unsupervised in the lab for long stretches, and some equipment is only needed once in a blue moon. Equipment problems are harder to catch and correct in time.

I was infuriated but not surprised when I found this recently:

Figure 1:  An SS34 rotor with two non-high speed centrifuge tubes wedged in permanently,  heavy corrosion from salt, and some rust around the bolts.Note to non-specialists, this can create a dangerous situation if a rotor fails under high speed.

Figure 2: A shaker with multiple dried bacterial cultures, scraps of paper towel strewn about, mysterious white powder, and new corrosion.

I stopped to talk face to face with several colleagues about it, all of which basically gave me the "I didn't do it, not MY problem" response. 

What are your "shared-use equipment bitching" stories?

Monday, March 18, 2013

On Sale! College!

It doesn't work for JC Penney and it doesn't work for colleges, apparently.

As reported by our financial guru recently, my institution has historically had lower tuition rates than our peers, but that we gave lower tuition discounts. This has resulted in less tuition overall to the students nonetheless. It seems that we have had trouble competing with other colleges that charge more, but give more in their financial aid packages to prospective students. So we, like many others, are increasing our tuition rates by about 5%, but increasing our financial aid packages by about 3.5%. Therefore, we are engaging in a very classic marketing ploy used by retailers. We increase the price to give a bigger impression of the magnitude of the "sale". He reports that families and students get excited about their financial aid packages...

The press pillories the increasing cost of higher education, but the situation is more nuanced that it seems. For example, our tuition is going to increase 1.5% overall, but that is not the figure that will be reported. Reports of a 5% increase are more provocative, and therefore will get more press.

For professors like me, who really don't care much about the details of financial aid, it holds the promise that the discounts can be used to compete for more talented students. But I think that most professors are not enthusiastic that universities are forced (?) to engage in these types of  marketing methods. We just want to enjoy teaching good students, we want students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed, and we want tuition to reflect the quality of the education students are getting.

Friday, March 15, 2013

We'll get through this...

...said by my husband to me regarding my sabbatical.

Aren't you supposed to look forward to a sabbatical? We finished the exploration of trying to find day care in my expensive sabbatical city. We tried kindergarten and shopped around for institutional day cares and in-home day cares. There doesn't seem to be any way around paying my ENTIRE (gross!) salary in child care costs, unless you have ideas we haven't thought of. We can't seem to find a way to pay much less than half of Hub's (net) salary for rent. This promises to be a year of  challenge. Well, we wanted a cross-cultural experience!

I'm beating myself up for not writing a grant, but trying honestly to know when I would have been able to do that. There was one I was seriously considering, and it was for disease A, but I will be working on disease B. I very seriously searched for connections between the two, but found none. I asked colleagues about it and was advised not to spend my time "playing the lottery" but to get my manuscripts out.  There's a part of me that is blaming myself for putting my family through this, if I were only more capable...

We have called in a financial planner to talk about whether we can make this work. I can also hold out hope that the grant that I've been included on will be funded. I could also ask for a reconsideration of the year-long sabbatical, and come back six months early. If I did that, it would be harder to rent our house out, and I wouldn't get much accomplished in the lab.

3/21 Update: Financial planner shows on a best-case scenario we will run a $1300/ month deficit- biggest cost to attack: daycare

Your thoughts?


Monday, March 11, 2013

Nopety-Nope, Nope. No Kindergarten. Not this year.

Strike Three on the Kindergarten.
Talked with the principal from Home School. Nope, nope, nope. Everywhere Principal has ever worked in this state will not allow early enrollment. He even consulted with another teacher who said the problem really is when they go to Jr. high and High school, not now, using the term "ripple effect". Yes, you dear readers warned me of that.

Yes, Boy could enter Home School in 1st grade if entered into private kindergarten elsewhere. 

But no, discussion boards say that in Sabbatical district all the private kindergartens will not budge on the cut-off date either. 

Looks like we are stuck with pre-school. Well, then, I'm going to pick the BEST CLOSEST one.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Strike Two on the Kindergarten

I'm trying to get my son into kindergarten where I will be on sabbatical next year. Problem is, he will be 5 years old two weeks after the kindergarten cutoff this fall. But are willling to push it because 1) we think he's ready. He has been sounding out two and three letter words like "the", "he", and "red". He is able to add numbers under 10 using his fingers, and has a good vocabulary. He's probably moderately gifted, but not a "three sigma" type. 2) His sister is born before the cutoff date for her cohort. We would prefer that they be two years apart in school instead of one, and 3)  We would like to avoid paying $12,000 for another year of pre- school for him.

Several months ago, I called the school district and met with a resounding "no exceptions". Following your advice, today I walked into our putative grade school, and met with another confident, instant, and resounding "no exceptions. state law" . I don't expect to find anything different at another grade school in the area, but should I try?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Updates: teaching load, papers, sabbatical, kids

Well, there have been a few story lines going on that need to be updated:

1. Because of course- sharing , I taught two lab classes and a seminar class for the first half of the semester.  I confirmed that it is just too much for me. Organizational skills, single-Mom-hood, lack of sleep, attention deficit, service obligations... the reasons simply do not matter anymore. I cannot manage a "full time load" successfully. I felt stressed, was quite disorganized, and felt like I was just tumbling out-of-control from one deadline to the next. I will have work 3/4 time or less until whatever "it" is clears up. In the second half of the semester, I will only have to teach the seminar course. I am very hopeful for the coming weeks.

2. I have scholarship hours for the next part of the semester. Some of my research students are rock-stars in organizing and writing the "G" paper. We are going to get this paper submitted before they leave. I can't wait to write letters of recommendation for this group- they are superstars! This is work from my lab from the last few years. We had a great hypothesis and solid data, yet a negative result. This limits the number of journals that will take it, but we will shoot for one of those. Any suggestions?

3. I myself need to finish the "M" paper, which is from the first few years of my lab. It is mostly written but needs to be edited and pre-reviewed. Read here for more.

4. I am prepping for my sabbatical. Housing, daycare, advocating to enroll my son early in kindergarten, it all needs to be done, and soon. I had a moment of discouragement last night in realizing how tight the budget is going to be with half my salary and double the expenses. But, then I just picked myself up, shook myself off, and determined to make it work, somehow. My sabbatical host has an application in for a grant that could bring my salary up to 100%, which will relieve a big burden. How to go about it until we hear? I guess I have to prepare for every possibility, and that only takes work... :)

5. Girl (2.5) is still not sleeping through the night, but is doing better. We are more rested and things at home are a little more under control. I can really enjoy my kids now.

6.  I went to the doctor and asked for a refill on Ritalin. Read here for background. I still feel very, very conflicted about it. When I do take it, it is extremely helpful. There are no side effects at the dose I have, and aside from the cost, monitoring, and deep guilt, there doesn't seem to be any disadvantages :)

7. I simply haven't had the energy to formally tutor my son to prep him for a shot at kindergarten. Read here for more. The time most ripe would be in the evenings at bedtime, when I am pooped. He hasn't seemed to make much progress, especially since we took him out of the pre-school that emphasized phonics and put him into a more "montessori-like" setting. I don't regret letting him spend his 4-year old days at 100% play, I just hope that everything can work out the best for our family. During my sabbatical, we will be in an environment swimming with enrichment opportunities. I would rather have him in kindergarten and have the money to have him in this enrichment activity or that, as opposed to being crushed by the cost or a run-of-the-mill pre-school education. This feels especially acute since last night I re-calculated- and it will actually be more like $12,000 it will cost to have him in daycare for my sabbatical.

In short, things are improving, improving! I feel much better and am able to take care of myself more. I still love this work, and it energizes me, but I must be dose- conscious! My upcoming sabbatical could not be more welcome, and I am sooo looking forward to being back in full-time research (which I also love) and being together with my husband (who, yes, I ALSO love).