Thursday, February 28, 2013


I'm a wee bit late for this month's accretionary wedge, on geo injuries.

I've had any number of minor injuries, but I'm pretty resistant to scarring. My primary scars (and I have a 1.5-inch doozy that you can clearly see the stitches for) are not from wounds, per se, but from sun exposure (huge, scary moles removed).

My biggest scar directly related to geology is this one:

What, can't see it? Let me use my amazing MSpaint skills:

Ok, so this scar is over 10 years old, and it's on the palm of my hand, so it really shows up as just a little patch of more pink/shiny skin. It's the outline of a monstrous blister from poison oak, earned on a hot summer day when I managed to get a Yukon stuck in a mud bog.

I also got a trail of blisters up my arm. In both my palm and arm, they started as a bunch of little blisters, and then they grew together to form these crazy spotted giant blisters. I thought they looked sort of awesome, but nobody else agreed. For some reason, I didn't keep any pictures for posterity. For actual blisters (resulting in zero scars a few weeks later), you'll have to go to my most popular post ever.

I have been super fortunate. I can only hope to remain more or less scar-less as I continue my adventures in geology.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


I've mentioned before that I enjoy editing technical writing - making something horribly dry and boring at least readable. I've discussed many pet peeves - abbreviations (here and here), repetitive sentence structure, citations... but I come across so many that I am compelled to share more.

So, one of the things that kills technical writing is the passive voice. Nothing puts the reader to sleep faster than having to read long, complicated sentences (buried in even longer paragraphs!) in which nothing happens.

The problem is that most geological reports are inherently descriptive. You have a study area/environmental site that just sits there and doesn't do anything. Ok, all sorts of fascinating stuff is happening on geological and microscopic scales, but those processes are seldom the focus of the report. The report is just supposed to Say What's There.

So writers tend to use a lot of "there is stuff here but not there" and "the stuff is located/situated in this particular place". You can get a little creative and mix in active words as appropriate. For example, a stream can flow or continue in a particular direction, a fence can cross a particular area, and various critters of ecological interest can burrow, stray into, and thrive in your study area. Figures depict, tables summarize.

One thing you shouldn't do in a report is favor readability over precision or responsibility. Something was only encountered if someone actually, you know, ran into it. Another issue can come up when making a description active - you may induce a lot more specificity into something that you really should keep general. For example, a whole bunch of samples were analyzed by someone or other, but writing that Lab X analyzed everything may not be technically correct (are you sure that over the 5-year monitoring period, the samples didn't go somewhere else?) and put the focus on the wrong thing - the mechanics of the analysis instead of the results. And sometimes things were done that you really don't want to own or imply that someone else should.

The other thing you can't do is stretch verbs to subjects that don't work. For example, lots of things can occur. But only events. Animals may appear from time to time, and that may be a (small) event for your site, but they don't occur spontaneously - they arrive there by some means or another.

One caveat: It doesn't take much sprinkling of active verbs to liven up a report. You don't have to tie yourself in knots to rid yourself of every passive verb. But just a few adjustments will make a routine report much less painful.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


AAM has a post today about finding a mentor, and she solicited input from folks who had formal and informal mentor relationships.

As I mentioned a while ago, I have never suffered from micro (or really, any) management. So I certainly never had a formal mentor relationship, one where I had regular (weekly?) meetings scheduled and some sort of planned progression.

Because of that, I've always found my own mentors. I badgered Technical Advisor when I was stumped on some of my analyses in grad school. And I've always worked with older geologists who were happy to expound on why their way was best give advice. I admit that I've never scheduled a meeting to discuss Career Advice, but instead have worked those discussions into reviews, requests for references and other times when it seemed appropriate.

I've never worked with someone who I truly wanted to emulate professionally and personally. Instead, I've admired (and asked about) different facets - whether it's an amazing manager who knows a lot about the industry, a technical expert on something I'm interested in, or another female geologist who's overcome shyness to become a fearsome field lead.

With that said, I don't have any problem at all with a more formal mentoring relationship. I used to work with someone who did schedule a lunch date with me to discuss career advancement in the consulting business right after she was hired. I was a little taken aback initially, because that's not my style. But I was happy to oblige and we had a lovely discussion. I suppose that wasn't a truly formal mentoring relationship - has anyone else had one?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Investigation equipment

I discussed the things that I drag along with me for fieldwork here. That's my personal stuff - what about equipment for environmental investigations that an office should have?

I don't recommend buying everything instead of renting. Water quality instruments are expensive and finicky and require a level of upkeep that most small environmental firms or offices don't bother with. Submersible pumps are also incredibly finicky and have cords that you either need to engineer or just deal with long lengths of, and although I've jury-rigged them to work well enough, it's easier to just order what you need. Air quality instruments can go either way - they're equally expensive, but more durable and you tend to use them all the time. Examples of what I've used regularly are a photoionization detector (PID) for general VOC detection, or 4-gas (O2, CO, CH4, H2S) for doing confined-space entry or if you have to run heavy machinery inside.

So, equipment that doesn't require a lot of upkeep and is extremely handy for environmental work:

1. Water level meter (fancy option - interface probe) - you end up using this for one thing or another on practically any field job. And as long as you don't wedge the sensor in the well (obviously a problem for rentals as well), tie the cable into knots, or drive into it, it's pretty much indestructible.

2. Peristaltic pump for groundwater sampling - rugged, relatively cheap, hard to screw up. Some jurisdictions allow you to sample anything with it, sometimes you can only use it for non-volatile sampling (metals). Also handy for field filtering samples.

3. Metal detector for finding flush-mount wells under 2 feet of snow or 1 inch of dirt.

4. Rod and transit.  Can be really simple (optical surveying) or a laser level, depending on the nature of the work and the accuracy you need. Extremely handy on small sites where you don't have a good base map and you need to figure out the relative elevations of various features and you don't have the need/budget for a professional survey. Also handy for figuring out stream channel contours to determine stream flow. I have many a fond memory of hanging the rod over or cowering under spider-infested bridges and fighting to plant it in a creek without snagging it on a tree branch.

5. Hand auger with several flights for soil sampling.

6. Hammer drill for going through concrete if you're doing a lot of indoor/basement sampling.

7. Miscellaneous hardware: crowbar, pry bar, large bolt cutters, medium and large pipe wrenches, cordless drill with attachments for sockets as well as drill bits, machete for clearing small brush, hand saw that is sharp enough to actually be useful (same thing for the machete), square shovels, spades, pickaxe, long-handled sledgehammer, snow shovels if appropriate.

8. A huge quantity of keyed-alike locks so that every single monitoring well, gate, and chain for large equipment can be opened by anybody from the firm and you don't end up with a fistful of keys for every blessed site.

9. Stuff to move stuff. Wheelbarrow, drum dolly, hand carts. If in a cold climate, plastic sleds for dragging equipment around.

10. Other heavy, durable equipment based on what the office does regularly. Sediment sampling? Various dredges/samplers and a metal boat on a trailer tucked in the back of the parking lot. Surface water stuff? Flowmeters and auto-sampling devices. Air? Weather station and ambient air sample/filter boxes.

... anything else I missed?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

madame geologist

FSP's recent post got a bunch of comments regarding the correct form of address for professors. The academic folks were complaining about being addressed too casually by their students.

In my undergrad geology department, we were told to address our professors by their first name. Same thing with my much larger grad school department. But I just conferred with another alumnus, who said that in his department, the professors were always "Professor Lastname". So maybe the lack of formality is a geology/small department thing.

I just had a mini-addressing issue earlier today, when I was trying to get some information from an outside authority. I had sent an e-mail to her several months before ("Dear Ms. Lastname") but she didn't provide any hint in her responses. So I wimped out and responded to the ancient e-mail chain rather than starting a new greeting.

Environmental consulting is a pretty casual business. I've always been on a first-name basis with everyone else from the first handshake, whether they were clients or regulators. The only exception is when I'm dealing with the public, such as when I'm requesting access for sampling.

I understand the impulse to impose a certain formality on your students. When I was a TA in grad school, my labs sometimes felt like they were on the hairy edge of control. But I don't think that being casual in your form of address necessarily translates to being less respectful.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I have an admission to make.

I play video games. I've thoroughly enjoyed a few platform games (Bastion, Lego Star Wars) and strategy games (Civilization Revolution), but my favorites are role-player games (RPGs), especially the ones where you get to explore a vast wilderness, run errands for the locals, and generally ignore the "plot" bits. So I spent an ungodly amount of time playing Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, where I could pick flowers (it's for potions!) and chase after mammoths and scale mountains. 

So, how did I miss this post and its follow-up on the geology of Skyrim?

The really nice thing to see is that the game developer did some research, so the landscape of Skyrim actually follows basic geological principles (volcanics, a rift zone, characteristic ores). I have no ability to write game mods (or program anything else, for that matter), but I'd be happy to pay for something that would allow me to interact with the geology in more depth - mapping? Prospecting?

I'm definitely going to be spending more time with Skyrim this weekend to check out the local landscape again.

Friday, February 8, 2013

field energy

I've discussed working hours previously. My maximum daily number to retain sanity is 13 (barely), but the number can go up from there if there's an emergency or if it's a travel day.

When I get back from a long day in the field, say, more than 12 hours, all I want to do is eat, decompress a little, and sleep. On occasion, though, I've worked with someone who is just ending either a 60+ hour work week or a 14+ hour single day, and starts coordinating a full night out with friends. I've listened to plans for clubbing or other high-energy hijinks with amazement. How on earth do they do that?

I mentioned this to a coworker, who noted that the folks going partying tended to be in their early-mid 20s and hadn't hit the post-30 metabolism/energy drop. Post-30? Hell, I've been doing this since immediately after graduating college, and at no point did I ever have the energy to do more than make dinner after a long field day.

I may be a wee bit of an outlier, though, for 3 reasons:

1. I'm an introvert. So spending an evening being social on top of a long day in the field would destroy me. Or at least make me a big party pooper.

2. When I was younger, I was often thrust into situations that were high-stress just because I wasn't experienced with overseeing surly drillers or dealing with the inevitable field snafu. I've gotten infinitely more comfortable with fieldwork and I'm much better at stress management, but I am probably feeling the effects of age more.

3. I'm a naturally high-energy person, but not an infinite-energy* person. When I'm in the field, I'm constantly moving, either popping up to adjust something, pacing during a phone call, or scurrying to collect something else I've forgotten. I do fine until I get home and sit on the couch/flop into bed and release all the tension I've been carrying, and then I'll need to be peeled off whatever I've landed on in order to shower and eat.

So when you were in or just out of college, did you go out and do active stuff after a long day of fieldwork? And if so, were you able to keep up that pace as you aged?

*I do have a friend whose bipolar disorder manifests almost entirely on the manic side. With medication, fieldwork, and a serious slate of physical hobbies, he doesn't need to be pried off the ceiling quite as often. He is very much an exception to a discussion of energy levels.

Monday, February 4, 2013

1000 words

I've been catching up with my geoblogosphere reading, and I missed a bunch of great posts. Anne Jefferson sent out a call for posts that explain something complex using only the 1000 most commonly-used words in the English language. There's a text editor available to design your description.

I was browsing the results, and I quickly recognized vapor intrusion/mitigation - search for the words "Sometimes there is bad stuff in the ground." which is the first line of the description, and a good way for me to start a description of anything I do! That particular description is especially elegant in the way it describes a summa canister (a very empty hard ball), which uses a vacuum to collect an air sample.

So I had to try my hand at it. Thank goodness there's not penalty for length or awkward sentences! I'll add it to Tumblr.

"Many years ago, when people made things they put the stuff left over on the ground or in the water near them. They didn't know that some of the stuff left over could get into the ground and into the water and could stay there for a long time, or that it could move far away over time.

Now we know that some of the stuff that was left out so long ago can make people (and animals) sick. My job is to find out how much of the bad stuff is left and where it went. Once I know that, I can take the bad stuff out or add something to the ground to change the stuff so that it won't make people sick."