Monday, February 29, 2016

another stress dream

I've been a bad blogger the last couple weeks. You can get a sense for how my February has been going from the dream I had this morning:

I stop by one of my big environmental sites (an extremely sensitive and public setting) and find that a strange drill rig is set up right on the front lawn. So I start asking people what's going on, and I find out that one of my subcontractors, which is a very high maintenance "we're the technical experts so we don't need to pay attention to any field direction" firm, has gone ahead and started a big drilling program without clearing it with me. They just called up the client and organized everything behind my back.

So I get mad. I start making phone calls, and I find out that the rogue subcontractor hasn't applied for any permits or utility clearance or anything, they just showed up with a drill rig and started poking holes. And they call the client to bolster their claim that everything is actually all my fault, and we get into a giant argument, and suddenly they have a field crew of, like, 60 people all making phone calls and arguing with me and the neighbors come over and start asking questions like, "who cut down all the trees in my yard? and "hey, who drove into my front door?" and I'm trying to yell over the din and nobody's paying me any attention.

Not really a great way to start the morning.

Friday, February 12, 2016

sharing a porta-potty

So my last post was about how having my period in the field wasn't a big deal. It's true that it's not anything that really slows me down. However...

...this is your last chance to avoid a gross discussion...

it is super awkward to be the only lady in the field team and to be sharing the porta-potty with a crowd of guys, the same way it's awkward that you know someone's system isn't agreeing with breakfast because they booked it to the porta-potty and spent quite a while there. Nobody hangs out in an aging porta-potty just to finish the article they're reading. Much as some people are inclined to bury the results of an unpleasant visit to the porta-potty with a pile of toilet paper, those results are usually obvious to the next person. And if you have a field crew of any size, those results get, ah, closer and closer to the toilet seat as the fieldwork goes on. You can't help but look - you need to make sure there isn't some sort of horrible critter nesting in or about to fly out of the seat.

And then everybody knows exactly when it's a heavy flow day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

fieldwork and your period

A recent post at Dynamic ecology referenced a long twitter discussion of menstruating in the field. What amused/horrified me was all the suggestions that we (the ladies) should just get an IUD or take a whole bunch of hormones or something to banish our periods altogether. What a strange overreaction.

I've been getting my period since I was 13, and it's really not a big deal. On days where I need them, I keep my feminine supplies and a couple of plastic baggies tucked in a pocket, and then I wrap the used item in a bunch of toilet paper, stuff it in a baggie, and dispose of it discretely in the trash. Sure, it's awkward to spend inordinate amount of time in the porta potty or communing with nature, but honestly, I've worked with a lot of guys who seem to have, uh, intestinal distress on a regular basis and everybody gets that sometimes you need to take a time out.

Menstrual cramps have been more of a problem for me than disposal or awkwardness about having to disappear much more often than usual. Luckily, I found out late in college that my cramps are directly related to poor diet, and I avoid them almost entirely most of the time. I will admit that I'm lucky that both my cramps and migraines respond readily to non-prescription medications (naproxen for cramps, excedrin with caffeine for migraines) as long as I take it as soon as symptoms hit, not once I'm doubled over with pain/nauseous.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

pizza politics

As I discussed a while back, I don't really eat lunch in the field. I'm fine with other people eating lunch, but I tend to work right through the work day.

With that said, I may still get irrationally annoyed if someone:

1. Orders a pizza without telling anyone or asking if anybody else wants to order

2. For pickup right before we head out on a four-hour drive

3. Eats the large, greasy pizza with lip-smacking gusto

4. Does not offer to share, and

4. Leaves the remaining half of the pizza in the cab of the truck for the rest of the drive

Seriously, if you're going to order something big and aromatic and then trap me in the truck with it, the least you can do is an offer to share a slice.

Monday, January 25, 2016

smartphones in the field

I've admitted that I am a luddite (really, just a cynic about the brightest, flashiest new thing) here and here and...

It will come as no surprise that I was an extremely late smartphone adopter. I was essentially forced to get a smartphone because I was running field projects and it became untenable to not receive and respond to e-mails immediately. Running back to the trailer a couple times a day to refresh the laptop's e-mail wasn't working anymore.

Everyone around me swore that my smartphone would be life-changing. And I do use several functions in the field: the stopwatch. The calculator (although my dumbphone also had a perfectly adequate calculator). The alarm clock, with its ability to set different times for different days. The ability to text reasonably quickly. E-mail and internet. In a pinch, navigation and camera, although I have dedicated gadgets that work much better.

I haven't really added any applications, although I probably should invest in a few that would be especially handy: a flashlight (I've got a pretty good one on my keychain already), a magnetic detector/stud finder (although I don't think it's very sensitive), and a more accurate location finder/compass. I've focused most of my efforts into getting a bulletproof, water resistant phone with a good battery, so that it will survive tough conditions even if it's not very high-powered.

I do have to watch (in myself and in others) that smartphone doesn't become all-consuming. Just because you can browse the internet while you're supposed to be overseeing a subcontractor doesn't mean you should. And just because you get e-mails fired off from a bunch of night owls doesn't mean that you should feel compelled to respond at all hours, either. I really try to be on when I'm supposed to be and off when I can be, but the smartphone makes it easier to blur those lines.

Friday, January 22, 2016

would you buy this house?

I've worked on some seriously contaminated sites, and I have close and personal experience with the fact that you can find contamination anywhere. Rural? Suburban? Expensive neighborhood? Doesn't matter. Especially in the northeast US, which has been industrialized for hundreds of years, you can't rely on looks to determine if the subsurface is clean. There are too many old industrial areas that have gone to seed decades before redevelopment, too many hobbyists with extensive solvent collections, and too many old farmers who accepted drums of sketchiness before RCRA (the resource conservation and recovery act) forced people to track hazardous waste from the cradle to the grave.

So, would you buy a house in/on/over a contaminated site?

As an environmental professional, my answer would be "it depends". First of all, I'd want a deep discount, because even if I'm ok with living there, it doesn't mean I wouldn't have a tough time selling later. But setting costs aside, for me it would depend on the type of contamination and the relative risk.

I wouldn't buy a house with a contaminated drinking water supply. I'm not a big fan of private well water in general because it's another system to maintain/worry about. I wouldn't want to buy a house with contaminated well water because if I need to have a treatment system, then I'd need to either maintain it or accept that someone else (a regulatory agency or whoever "owns" the contamination) will be trooping into my basement on a regular basis for the foreseeable future to sample/maintain it.

Likewise, I wouldn't buy a house with a VOC (volatile organic compound) problem in the shallow subsurface. I'd be resigned to regular monitoring of the soil gas beneath the house and the indoor air, and I may have to deal with the noise and bother of a soil vapor extraction system to remove contaminated air from under the basement floor.

I would be ok with a house above a plume of contaminated groundwater as long as I'm not drinking it and it's deep enough/non-volatile enough that it would not pose a concern of contamination getting into the soil gas and/or the basement. I would be perfectly fine with non-volatile contamination in the soil, such as metals or asbestos. Worst case scenario, I'd build out a seriously extensive front and back patio, arrange to truck in a foot or so of fresh dirt around the rest of the yard to cover any surface contamination, plant vegetables in raised beds, and keep any digging to a minimum.

In reality, most of the contamination you'll find in and around private homes is from the house itself. House built before 1978? You probably have a lead problem at the drip line of the outside wall and several feet out from the house as well as on the inside. Same lead problem for houses built near busy roads. Have a reasonably high-end house built before about 1980? You may have asbestos insulation around pipes and in the ceiling. Do you keep a collection of stains, paints, and paint thinner from various projects in the basement? Do you smoke? The VOCs from that stuff will overwhelm the contaminants from a nearby groundwater plume.

My tolerance for contaminated property would probably be considered to be reasonably high. But I realize that's easy for me to say - I'm not the person trying to unload a house that's lost a huge chunk of value because of real or perceived contamination.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


I've been getting the odd invitation to join ResearchGate ever since my journal article* was published.

My paper is not going to set the world on fire, but more than 5 years after publication, I'm still getting a few pageviews a month and the odd citation. As I mentioned here, the paper hasn't had much of an impact on my post-graduate career, other than the fact that it looks nice on a résumé.

I have no intention of going back to grad school. I also don't have any future papers planned - I do present at the odd conference, but I'm not in a place where I'm advancing the science to the extent that I could get a paper out of it. And my existing paper is already open-access. So would joining an academic network really do much for me or for the general public?

I'm already a piss-poor correspondent and facebook/linkedin updater. I'm not all that interested in committing to yet another social media outlet when I barely use the two that everyone else seems to be on. But maybe I'm just an unsocial crank. Readers, do you use ResearchGate at all, and do you find it useful compared to other networking sites like linkedin?

* as with most academic papers, it wasn't mine alone - I was first/corresponding author, but it was a group effort.