Friday, 18 September 2015

Unintentional crossfit for parents

Well, I am exhausted. And my muscles are already sore, an hour after my unplanned extreme workout. So, tomorrow is going to suck. But hey, maybe this will catapult me towards getting back into shape post-new-baby!

I haven’t written any posts for a while, mostly because I haven’t had any unstructured freetime, and partly because a month of prodromal labor, having a baby girl, and then learning to take care of two kids plus my dilapidated body sucked up all of my remaining energy for those pockets of time that I may have had.

Anyway, enough complaining. Let me tell you about our awesome morning, so you can wallow in jealousy!

I woke up to the sound of light rain, which is odd because it’s September and I’m in San Diego. As I told my mom 10 years ago when planning my wedding with no back-up plan for rain, it would be a miracle for it to rain here this time of year. The next day after saying that, of course, there was a crazy tropical thunderstorm. It doesn’t often rain here this time of year, but it obviously can.

The next thing I did was take a mental inventory of all of the inconvenient things I had left outside: approximately 6 rugs, a baby bouncy-chair, an old couch, a pile of random clothes I had accumulated in the car and thrown onto the deck to be dealt with at some unforeseeable time in the future when I had nothing better to do, and 2 loads of laundry no longer drying on the line.

We all got up, the husband went to work and I did the breakfast routine. These days it mostly consists of letting Ryder eat Lucky Charms and then watch cartoons (educational ones!) while I nurse the baby, put in my contacts and try to find some clothes that will allow me to nurse easily while being a color/fabric that hides absorbed spit-up, and attempt to drink some coffee before it gets cold.

I suggested some cozy indoor activities for the morning, but Ryder pointed out that we could also go splash in puddles. Of course! We got out his rainboots and rainjacket, I put Adelaide into the Moby wrap, and found our gigantic golf umbrella. We headed off towards the canyon at the end of the street, splashing along the way. I mentally whined to myself about the weight of the umbrella.

Totally ready for absolutely nothing

I was quite pleased at the science-observation opportunities on our walk: we were discussing wind-blown currents while floating an abandoned flip-flop across a particularly large puddle, and gravity and erosion while exploring the miniature waterfalls running down the side of the sandstone canyon. We followed the main flow of water down to the bottom of the canyon, where it infiltrated and disappeared, then back up the other side. I had never been that far along the trail and was enjoying the exploration as much as Ryder.

The trail lead into a big empty lot that we traversed, only to find ourselves trapped by large fences. We backtracked and found another exit through a neighborhood. By now Ryder was totally soaked, as his rainjacket turns out to be totally non-waterproof (how useful!) and of course all the puddle-splashing had filled his boots to the brim. He also mentioned that he was hungry, which for some annoying reason sent my insulin production into overdrive and I started getting minor low-blood-sugar shakes. I had not anticipated such an expedition so had no supplies of any sort. We were about ½ a mile from the house now, and our lovely and fun walk was threatening to disintegrate into unhappiness. So, I encouraged quick walking towards home by splashing through the mini rivers in the street gutters to keep up morale.

About ¼ mile from the house, we had The Incident. Ryder tripped and went down face-first into pavement. There was blood and loud crying originating from his mouth and nose, and I feared displaced teeth or a broken nose. The teeth appeared intact on first examination, so I decided we needed to get home out of the rain to actually do anything useful towards soothing him. Of course, it’s hard to walk while crying uncontrollably when you are 3 years old, so this meant I had to carry him.

I was already carrying Adelaide and the large and heavy golf umbrella, so I had to get Ryder onto my back and hold him with one hand while trying to keep the baby somewhat dry with the other hand, and then run home. Halfway there, the holding arm gave out and I had to drop him and try to get him back on with the other arm. Let me tell you, it is hard to get up from a squat carrying 45 pounds of children with no hands to help steady yourself. Also it is hard to run with said burden, particularly when you are trying not to let the infant’s head bounce too much on her weak little neck and everyone is now wet and slippery and the heavier child is doing almost nothing to help hang on except scream loudly into your ear. Luckily, I had randomly decided to wear shoes instead of flip-flops this morning. Also luckily, adrenaline counteracted my low blood-sugar so I did not end up a crying mess myself.
The start of the canyon, when the walk seemed like a great idea

I have never been to crossfit, but my understanding is that it goes something like this: 
-Instructor tells you to do some unreasonable physical activity
-You try and stop when you are tired and can do no more
-Instructor forces you to do more
-You do, and destroy your body
-Repeat and get fit eventually
I could be wrong, but if that's the way it goes, parents should be quite to used to the concept: Don't think you can go one more night without unbroken sleep? Too bad! Endure 2 more years without it!

On the way to the house, I mentally prioritized the order to address all of our issues. First, I didn’t want to destroy our newly-laid wood floors, so I planned to run us all into the bathroom to drip. Then, since the teeth were intact and I didn’t think there was much to do even if the nose was broken, getting Ryder dry and warm seemed most important (after the floors, of course…). The baby was sleeping still, despite the ruckus, so I planned to put her on the guest bed and hope she would just stay asleep while I got Ryder sorted out.

First, the useless raincoat came off and into the shower. Ryder kept wailing about his face until I explained the dryness plan, and then he helped by taking off his boots and pouring the water all over the floor – at which time I remembered I had not resealed the tile grout since ripping out and replacing the tile after the toilet leaked underneath them. So I mopped that up and then got the rest of the soaked clothes off and a dry towel around the now-whimpering instead of screaming child.

Then of course it was time to clean up the blood and assess the damage. Ryder let me gently clean his nose, and poke around without much fuss, so I figured it wasn’t broken. The lip was gigantic, and upsetting him, so we agreed that he would try an ice pack while towel-enrobed on the couch, as long as I also brought Lucky Charms to him with no milk and 2 bowls, then separated out the charms for him. Of course the baby had woken and started to fuss for milk, so I had to settle Ryder as quickly as possible while she worked up to full-volume shrieking and he continued to request additional items that I could not hear over the baby-distress-call.

But soon we were all on the couch, and I was using one arm to hold and nurse the baby while feeding cereal to the 3-yr-old with the other, as he could apparently not use his own. As I realized I had successfully not allowed either child to be seriously damaged, the adrenaline wore off and I started to seriously shake from my need for food. At this point I also wondered how much more broken I had just become: the doctors had explicitly told me not to lift Ryder or other heavy things for several more weeks. Oops! Our western nuclear families are so annoying; there is no help for the parent, so one must learn to just suffer quietly. As long as the kids are alright, we are supposed to just smile like benign martyrs.

So, I gazed lovingly at my little darlings. At least I won’t have to go to the gym ever again.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Dr. Tim Hunt Guide to Gender Parity

Ok, Tim Hunt, you want to separate the sexes? Then you need to prioritize funding to female PIs.

If you missed it, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt recently put forth in public his opinion that science labs should be gender segregated, apparently because he thinks men and women can’t handle working together professionally.

Here is what he said according to journalists in the audience: Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

He was subsequently encouraged to apologize and explain himself, but really just dug in deeper, saying he stood by his views on sex-segregated labs.

So, let’s pretend that we think this is a good idea – after all, there are sex-segregated schools (Tim Hunt’s long-winded Nobel Prize bio suggests he may not have attended strictly sex-segregated schools but perhaps didn’t exactly engage much with females during his schooling). So, let’s say we think that both men and women do better when supervised and taught by men and women, respectively (for the record, I think this is a horrible idea, and was very happy with my male PhD and Postdoc supervisors, who were totally non-sexist and non-terrible to me). Let's say we also want to go farther than Tim Hunt suggests (he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women”), and reach gender parity at all levels in the sciences (not a bad goal, I think). How can that be done?

Men and women working together - yikes!

A number of surveys have been done on faculty gender balance in STEM fields. In general, women at this point make up about 20-35% of the faculty in the US. Of course, the mean does not represent reality completely – some departments are much more heavily skewed towards male representation (the Physics department at Caltech has 4 female professors of 41 total), and perhaps other departments are skewed towards women (maybe?).

A 2014 study found that Biology labs led by elite male scientists have disproportionately fewer female than male trainees (the numbers vary of course by trainee and elite-ness level, but let’s just go with approximately 30% women for now). Theoretically, these elite labs are procuring a majority of funding, while training fewer women and therefore exacerbating the gender imbalance at higher levels. Elite female-run labs had close to gender parity in female to male trainee ratios, but were not female-dominated; therefore they could not counteract the trainee output from male-dominated labs.

So, let’s say we want to shuffle all the male grad student and postdoc trainees from female-run labs into male-run labs and vice versa. What can we do to result in gender parity at the end of the trainee pipeline (those completing postdocs)? Let’s pretend at the moment that all PIs are receiving the same amount of funding per lab and are training the same number of students and postdocs with that funding, proportionally:

Current Status
Male PI (~70% of labs)
Female PI (~30% of labs)
Funding Proportion
Male Trainees
Female Trainees
Female Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Male Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Total Trainees

The above scenario naturally results in a larger proportion of men completing the trainee program and applying for jobs as PIs.

If genders are segregated but funding proportions remain the same, the output of male and female trainees remains unchanged:

Gender-Segregated Labs at Current Funding Rate
Male PI (~70% of labs)
Female PI (~30% of labs)
Funding Proportion
Male Trainees
Female Trainees
Female Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Male Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Total Trainees

Therefore, in order to achieve gender parity in trainee output with segregated labs, female PIs need to be granted 70% of the available grant funds so they can train a larger number of female trainees per PI, while male PIs need to be granted just 30% of the funds. This means that for every dollar an individual female PI is granted, male PIs should receive only receive $0.18.

Gender-Segregated Labs at Adjusted Funding Rate
Male PI (~70% of labs)
Female PI (~30% of labs)
Funding Proportion Needed
Male Trainees
Female Trainees
Female Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Male Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Total Trainees

So, Tim Hunt, do you still believe in gender-segregated labs, yet also ostensibly supporting women in science?

Monday, 18 May 2015

Flying with an infant

Babe #2 is still incubating in my (surprisingly gigantic) belly, but when a good friend asked for advice on travelling with an infant, I realized I didn’t have any posts about this. So, while it’s been more than 3 years since I flew around Australia and across the Pacific with Ryder as a tiny babe, I’ll do my best here to provide some useful (read: quite possibly bad) advice.

Packing your suitcase
As you know from being at home, babies are insanely messy. They are constantly peeing and pooping and puking on themselves and you. While it’s tempting to just bring enough clothes so that you won’t have to do laundry while away, this may result in a ridiculously large and/or extremely smelly suitcase partway into your trip. It’s a good idea, therefore, to pack a bit of laundry detergent that you know the child is not allergic to so you can hand-wash some of the really bad stuff in the evenings or, if needed, visit a Laundromat.

In addition to clothes, don’t forget some of the essentials you find yourself using around the house: barf rags, extra pacifiers, a few (like 2) special toys/books if they are of-that-age. Other stuff that may come in handy and is a pain to acquire on the road: thermometer, baby medicines of various sorts, bathing liquids/lotion/etc., baby bug repellant and/or sunscreen (or, if they are too little for these things, then something to keep biting bugs and excess sun off them if you are planning to be outdoors). A few small blankets of various weights are also handy.
It's pretty convenient when they can't go anywhere themselves

Packing for the plane
On the plane, you will need all the usual diaper-bag stuff: diapers (bring more than you think you’ll need), wipes, butt cream, pacifier, extra clothes for the baby (and a waterproof bag for the dirty ones), barf rag, and hand sanitizer for changes in places without hand-washing facilities. It’s definitely possible to travel with cloth diapers – you just need to be sure you have enough dirty-diaper storage capacity to get between convenient washing locations (for instance, the plane is not a convenient place to wash and dry nappies). However, I admit that most of our travel – aside from long trips to our relative’s houses or short weekend trips – was completed using disposables.

Note: airline employees and fellow passengers do not enjoy it when you change your baby at your seat, even if it’s just a pee diaper. There are pull-down tables in at least one bathroom on every plane (that I’ve been on) for this purpose.

In addition to these typical baby-clean-up items, you should also pack a change of clothes for yourself. It is super unpleasant to fly halfway across the ocean after being voluminously puked on and having nothing to change into.

Also, bring some sort of blanket/swaddler, and a carrier – a sling, wrap, ergo, whatever you like. Note that it’s inconsistent how airport security and airlines behave when it comes to carriers: in some cases you can wear the baby through security but get some extra patting-down and explosive-hand-swabbing-tests done, and in other cases they make you take the kid out and awkwardly put the carrier through the x-ray machine and then somehow get the kid back into the carrier on the other side without putting him on the floor in the interim (I guess it helps if you are travelling with a partner). Similarly, some airlines will let you wear the baby on the plane in your seat, and others will make you take them out and hold them (I’ve been told this is because they want to be able to easily get the baby off the plane if there is a crash and you are incapacitated. My thought is that the baby would probably be in better shape for survival during a crash in a carrier, but some airlines think otherwise…also note it’s not a good idea to argue about this with the airline people, as they do have the authority to judge you hostile and kick you off the plane). 
Don't forget to take differences in weather into account. Sydney to San Francisco in December? Thank goodness for clever grandparents showering warm clothing upon the babe.

Other accouterment
Things you should not attempt to bring on a trip:
            -Baby bathtub
            -Breastfeeding pillow
            -Baby towels
            -A bunch of toys
            -A behemoth stroller, if you can help it
            -Baby bed, unless it’s collapsible
            -A travel crib
            -Baby swing
            -Other large and bulky items

That said, when we went to the US for over a month when Ryder was 6 weeks old, we brought: a collapsible bassinet, a bouncy chair (that came apart), carseat, and relatively small collapsible stroller with carseat attachment capability. In hindsight, the bassinet was not necessary. On a subsequent trip, we just put him in a drawer – literally – that we pulled out of a dresser, put some padding into it, and voila. However, he was a bit older then and we were less worried about SIDS. So, if you’ve got a baby bed that you like and doesn’t require a separate suitcase, toss it in the bag. Similarly, the bouncy chair was nice to have on such a long trip – he could sit and be part of the action at dinner, for instance, but we could have survived without it, given all the extra arms available.
Don't underestimate the ingenuity of grandparents
I know people who have travelled without carseats – they either rent them on arrival, or in places with less strict laws just say – “hey, the local babies don’t use car seats!” I personally find this second idea insane, as I prefer my children not to be killed in easily preventable ways. But, that’s just me. Also, renting car seats can add up quickly. Given that airlines allow you to check a car seat for free, it doesn’t make sense to leave it behind (unless the carseat you own won’t pass for legal in the country you are visiting – check the local laws).

I also know people who have made a point to travel without a stroller. They just pop the baby in a carrier of some sort, and whisk off. I find this way too exhausting: carrying the baby, the carseat, the diaper bag, and dragging the luggage is too much for me, so I would rather bring a stroller to help get the load off my back.

That said, I check the carseat and stroller with my luggage at the counter, and then wear the baby around the airport. Of course, if your baby hates going in the stroller or the carrier, then leave the hated one behind.

On the plane
I’ve seen stories about people touted as being “so thoughtful” for handing out earplugs and candy, etc. to fellow passengers seated near them when travelling with an infant. Well, screw that! Here’s why:
(1)  Most babies do not actually cry that much on planes, particularly little ones. The white noise is soothing, they get to sit on the parent’s laps, there are interesting things to look at, and they generally just eat and sleep most of the time anyway.
(2)  If you are the kind of person who is bothered by other people’s kids crying, then get your own damned earplugs, or don’t fly.
(3)  People who get to spend a flight drinking whiskey and reading trashy magazines—instead of being puked on and fretting about whether a tiny person is too hot or needs a nap—need to just shut their traps and smile kindly at those of us doing our best to ensure the survival of a fragile human.

While Ryder has never exhibited ear discomfort on planes (not sure how this is possible), I was always somewhat religious about nursing him or giving a pacifier on takeoff and landing. After a brief few days of trying and failing to use a nursing cover, I realized that unless I am nursing in front of people I work with, I don’t really care if people potentially see some portion of my mammary glands. After all, humans are mammals and that is why we have these lumps on our fronts: to nurse babies. So flying between places like the US, Europe, and Australia I had no qualms about nursing Ryder in my seat without a gigantic mumu-style cover-up hanging around my neck. I did use one while transiting through Dubai, and around Singapore, and I would use one in other places where modesty is an important part of the culture. 

On long-haul or otherwise international flights, we always requested a bassinet. The bulkhead seats on a lot of the international planes have space for bassinets to be attached to the wall. It’s pretty fantastic to be able to put your baby into a bassinet to sleep (particularly on overnight flights on airlines that don’t allow carriers – it’s basically impossible to sleep without dropping your kid on the floor otherwise).

 Oh yes – and the best two pieces of advice a lovely older woman gave me: you’ll almost certainly never see any of your fellow passengers again, and the flight will eventually end. So you’ll be just fine. 
Just taking a little break on the ground at the train station with our camping and surf gear, as you do.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Starting a new job

I’ve been working at UMass Boston now for more than 6 months, but I still have a lot to learn. I’ve found it somewhat surprising how simple things can trip you up when starting at a new place of work, so I’ve made a randomly ordered list (I know, I’m obsessed with lists) comprised of things that might confuse new people. If every company/University/government office would hand us each a “new employee” manual that contained the answers to these sorts of questions – I think it would make things run much more efficiently.

1.     Where are the pens?
2.     Where are the other office supplies?
3.     How do I get set up with email/wifi/etc.?
4.     Where can I find and get access to the important websites, like:
  •  HR
  • Class schedules and roster
  • Blackboard 
  • Maintenance requests
  • Tracking spending on grants/startup $
  • Websites for specific things such as graduate admissions documents (if you are on that committee)
5.     How do I print?
6.     How do I make photocopies?
7.     Where is the library and how do I find and check out:
  •  Journals 
  •  Books 
  •  Interlibrary loan items
8.     Who are the PR people to contact for press releases?
9.     Who are the grants office people?
10.  What is the standard overhead rate for grants? Do we get any of this back?
11.  What are fringe benefits and how are they charged on grants?
12.  Is there a lactation room, and where is it?
13.  What shared lab facilities exist, and where are they?
14.  Where is the bathroom?
Who do I call for help?
15.  What teaching supplies exist for lab classes?
16.  How do I get new teaching supplies for my classes?
17.  How do I order supplies for my lab?
18.  Is there an on-campus stockroom where I can purchase items?
19.  How do I get my own website?
20.  Where can I store and heat up my lunch?
21.  When and where are any recurring seminars held?
22.  What public transport and parking options exist? Are there discounts?
23.  How do I sign up for instrument/boat/etc. time?
24.  What if my assigned classroom is not set up well for teaching, and/or the ceiling starts falling down when it rains?
25.  How are graduate students supported?
26.  How do I recruit graduate students?
27.  How can I incorporate undergraduate students in my lab (independent study, volunteer, work study, etc.)?
28.  Are there any on-campus health facilities that I can access if needed?
29.  How do I use the exercise facilities?
30.  How do I get basic supplies like paper towels and soap in my lab classroom?
31.  How do I take students on fieldtrips? 
Is there an adorable toddler who gives out protective eyewear and air fresheners somewhere on campus?
32.  Is there any organized safety training that myself, students in my lab, or students in my lab classes need to undertake?
33.  Who do I call if I have a hazardous waste spill in the lab?
34.  How is hazardous waste stored and picked up?
35.  How the actual F- do I keep the lights on or off in my office instead of relying on the automatic motion detector thing that doesn’t work?
36.  How do I get a phone and/or what is my phone number?
37.  How do I dial out? Long distance?
38.  How do I access new software licensed or purchased by the University?
39.  Where is the best/worst coffee on campus?
40.  What childcare facilities are available on campus or nearby?
41.  Where should I live for ease of commuting, quality of life, schools?
42.  What kind of specialized gear do I need to buy to deal with the new climate into which I am moving?
43.  Do I get my money back if there are 4 blizzards within the first month of spring semester?
44.  How do I get an ID card?
45.  How do I get keys/access to my office/lab/building?
46.  How does incoming and outgoing mail and package delivery work?
47. What is the emergency phone number?

I’m sure there are other questions I’ve forgotten – and I haven’t even brushed the surface when it comes to moving countries! But that’s another story.

What other items would you include in the ideal “how stuff works here” manual?