Thursday, April 30, 2009

how'd you get here?

Drugmonkey’s post a couple days ago asks his readers how they came to start reading science blogs. How did I come to the science blogosphere?

I never went looking for science or academic blogs. I was reading a blog associated with a major media outlet, and the poster had a link to the angry professor. From there, I followed links to FSP and from there to the geoblogosphere.

I stayed a lurker for about 6 months, then I started commenting regularly. Less than a year after I first started checking out blog posts, I'd gotten worked up enough about certain topics that I was composing posts of my own in my head. And before I knew it, I became Short Geologist...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

dirt disposal problems

I'm always interested in the public reaction to environmental issues. So I was curious to see what folks would say about this NY times post about the interaction of contaminants and health problems.

A consistent theme in the comments was concern over the fate of the contaminants in the article. If the soil was so contaminated, why did they just haul it away? Wouldn't that just cause another mess somewhere else?

The idea is to take contaminants that are uncontrolled out of the environment. Contaminated soil has to go somewhere, so often it goes to another facility. Modern landfills that are licensed to take hazardous waste have all sorts of systems to stabilize contaminated soils and keep the contamination from migrating elsewhere, so it doesn't cause excessive risks to health and the environment.

Ideally, we'd like to neutralize contamination either in place or at some sort of treatment facility. But stubborn, relatively stable contaminants like dioxin are really hard to treat. And treatment systems to treat, say, solvents in groundwater may take generations to completely clean up contamination in place.

If we had simple, cheap alternatives to clean up contamination, we'd be using them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

scientiae snapshot

So the May scientiae carnival is being hosted by Katherine Hexton at Endless Possibilities. The theme for this month is "snapshots". So I'm including two snapshots, one of myself and one of this blog.

Snapshot #1: Who am I right now?

I've worked in environmental consulting long enough that I'm comfortable with whatever's thrown at me, but I'm not old enough to be considered middle-aged. My eyes have crinkles from squinting in the sun and my gray hairs are starting to become fairly obvious. Regardless, the opinion of the general public is that I appear to be 17.

I'm trying to preserve my pseudonimity (is that a word?) but things have been really stressful recently. I'm seriously reconsidering what I'm doing right now, but I'm going to be here a while (thanks, lousy economy!). I think my recent illnesses are a sign that I'm working too much, stressing out too much, and getting run down.

Snapshot #2: Where is this blog right now?

This is post 163.

I tend to write as I think - each post reminds me something of something else. For example, I've been on a "public" tag run recently. I do try to mix up my post topics, though.

When I first started this blog, I wrote down a list of about 100 posts that I wanted to write. I still haven't covered all those topics; in fact, I've got a couple of complete posts in my head that I just haven't written down. I've tried to post regularly this whole time, and when I don't post, it's because of physical limitations (internet or schedule problems) rather than a lack of topics to cover. So I should be here for a while yet, and if I do make a significant career change, I'll keep you posted.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I've had some sort of odd head cold/sickness (no, not swine flu, I promise) for the last week and a half. I've had only minor cold symptoms, but I've been totally wiped out. I've been sleeping 14 hours a day. I've had a bunch of stuff to do, so I've done nothing but work and sleep.

I am feeling (mostly) better, so I should be back to my normal programming this week.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

first abbreviation

In consulting and in grad school, I edited a number of technical documents. One of the first things I looked for was abbreviation usage. I did this 1) because it’s a simple fix, and 2), because it’s frickin’ obvious, people!

When you’re writing about contamination, you often have a number of terms that you’d rather abbreviate, such as Super Complicated Organic Compounds (SCOCs). The first time you use an abbreviation like SCOC, you define it so that the reader knows what it is. Then, you don’t need to define it again. You do not randomly write Super Complicated Organic Compound (SCOC) when you start a new paragraph, or whenever you feel like you haven’t spelled it out in a while. You define it once.

If you’ve got a technical report of any length, such as a thesis, it is nice to have a separate list of acronyms/abbreviations right at the front for the reader’s reference. In the rush to finish my thesis, I didn’t get around to this. It’s one of the many small things that I would have fixed if I’d had another week to submit it.

A paper that has its abbreviations and full-length terms all mixed up just looks like a mess. When you’re trying to convince folks that your ideas are correct, you don’t want your readers to think, “if they can’t even get something stupid like abbreviations right, how much can I trust the rest of the work?”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

field fingernails

How can you tell that an environmental consultant doesn’t do fieldwork? She has perfect manicured hands and fingernails.

Now, I’m not the manicuring type, and the odd time I put on nail polish, I do it myself. So that could be a large part of the reason why my nail polish lasts about 3 days before it starts to go (also, I admit to being a polish-picker. Once it starts to peel, it’s all over.)

But even when I do wear nail polish, it’s pretty hard to disguise the fact that I have “working” hands. If I’ve been in the field for any length of time, I have all sorts of odd calluses, inevitably at least one knuckle is scraped, and my fingernails look like crap. I get grime under the nails, and even when they’re cut super short (the quick of my nails is pretty close to the end of my fingers, so I don’t have a lot to work with) they snag and tear.

It’s petty, but I’m suspicious of a female geologist with perfect fingernail polish. How does that work? Do you have some sort of industrial-strength gels? Do you wear gloves nonstop? Or do you let someone else (me?) do the dirty work?

Maybe it’s me and I’m just a klutz in the field…

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the girl card

My last post was about advantages to looking younger than I am. But part of the reason I’m considered to be more helpless or unthreatening than, say, my coworkers, is that I’m female.

Sometimes this can be an advantage, especially if you’re lugging something heavy and awkward or you can’t get something unscrewed. Joe public is a lot more likely to stop by and offer to help if I’m fighting with something mechanical than if a male coworker is. Young women who are feeling lazy can “play the girl card” and find someone else to do it. It’s not something I’m a big fan of, but it often works with the general public (I would highly recommend not trying it on your coworkers).

Having said that, I have run into situations where I couldn’t get something done by myself, and I have gotten assistance that a male coworker may not have – or at least, not as easily. Two examples:

1. I got stuck in the snow at a large facility where most of the population was male (I got help in less than 5 minutes of floundering). When I got back, I was asked if I “showed a little leg.” Um, no. Since I was wearing snow pants, jeans, and wool long underwear tucked into my socks, attempting to show a little leg would have made me fall on my ass. The reason I got stuck in the first place was because the six inches of snow had 3 inches of ice underneath.

2. A female coworker and I tried to open some old flush-mount wells (rusted bolts) near a rest area, and we ended up with an entire road crew trying to wrench them open. We felt somewhat vindicated when the road crew eventually gave up.

In both cases, we didn't really ask for help. People just appeared. In most cases, though, if I get an unsolicited offer for help, I don't take anyone up on it. If I'm doing fieldwork that requires an extra hand, I plan for more personnel to be there, rather than trying to play the girl card once I get into trouble.

Monday, April 13, 2009

advantages to looking young

Long-time readers of this blog will recognize that I have a bit of a complex about being mistaken for a much younger person. I am super-polite (in fact, I'm probably too much of a pushover) most of the time, but if someone dismisses me (or worse, patronizes me) because they think I'm younger/less experienced, I react... poorly.

It pains me to admit it, but there are advantages to looking less experienced when you're working in the field. When I'm trying to fill out resident surveys or asking for permission to access a property, I'm seen as unthreatening. For example, old ladies were somewhat more likely to answer the door to me than to some of my grizzled coworkers.

Also, actively hostile people will tend to attack the person who looks older, even if we're doing the exact same thing (say, collecting groundwater samples from wells on the same street) independently. Not that I can't handle myself, but I'm pretty happy to avoid having an angry neighbor get all in my face.

I guess it's better that I surprise people by being experienced and competent, rather than have folks assume I know what I'm doing and then screw up. But when someone asks if I'm doing surveys for a school project (and no, they're not thinking grad school), it's still incredibly hard to smile and turn the conversation to what I'm actually asking for.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

blog break

Happy holidays, everyone! I'll be back on Monday.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

geologists are cool!

One thing that’s neat about being a geologist is that it sounds exotic and super-scientific to many non-scientists.

One of my closest friends is an editor, and we go to a lot of meet and greet type events and functions for various organizations (she’s single, I’m wingwoman). When we tell people about our respective jobs, folks are generally super excited to hear about my work, to the extent that I sort of feel bad that my friend gets neglected. Hey, she’s the single one here!

Once I start telling folks what I actually do, they’re generally not quite as awed. I mean, collecting dirt from rust-belt cities and sending it off for analysis isn’t quite the same thing as spending 6 months on the side of a volcano in some tropical location.

But as I’ve said before, I always like to be presented in public as a female scientist, so I can help dispel the myth that geologists are all sunburnt, 60 year old men who have permanent tilley hats attached to their heads*.

*ok, so I have a tilley-style sun hat while in the field. But it comes off (with great relief) once I'm back.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

predicting earthquakes

The NY Times had a bit of a kerfuffle about earthquake prediction after the earthquake in Italy that struck yesterday morning. You see, this Italian guy predicted an earthquake based on radon gas measurements, but he wasn’t specific about exactly where, and he had the date off by about a week. The authorities quashed his prediction, and now he feels vindicated.

Here’s the problem, as I see it. In order to evacuate an entire town, you need to have a fairly good sense that a disaster is imminent. Otherwise, you just get “cry wolf” syndrome. We already have problems trying to evacuate people from known, quantifiable disasters (floods from dam overflow, hurricanes, etc). How many people would evacuate after the first false alarm? The second?

Now, do I think the guy should have been shut down by the Italian government? No, I don’t.

What we should really focus on instead is reinforcing buildings so that they don’t totally collapse into rubble during a relatively minor quake. Or, barring that, enforcing actual building codes for new buildings so that eventually you’ll have less loss of life. Take a cue from Japan, which has tons of earthquakes and minimal loss of life compared to other countries with similar seismic activity.

But designing and enforcing good building codes is a long-term, expensive proposition that may not necessarily pay off in decades, if ever. Much easier to scurry around and point fingers and waste energy on whether or not an earthquake could have been predicted after the fact.

Monday, April 6, 2009

poor audience behavior

As I've mentioned before, I've been to a number of conferences over my grad school career. I have several pet peeves for speakers, but for now I'd like to focus on audience pet peeves. Which bugs you most? Here's a partial list, in rough chronological order:

1. Taking the last chair in a row too narrow for anybody else to sneak past. For every single row! Move in, people!

2. Folks who let the door slam behind them when they "sneak" out in the middle of a talk

3. "Whispering" the entire time a talk is in progress.

4. Tapping madly on your blackberry when you haven't turned the "button pressing" sound off.

5. Talking over other people (people who had their hand up, incidentally) during the question and answer period.

My personal pet peeve is the blackberry one. Seriously, how do you not notice how loud your blackberry is beeping during the entire talk? Hmph.

Friday, April 3, 2009

map trouble

I read a blog post a couple weeks back (sorry, I can't remember where) about trying to make sense of conflicting data on a topographic or geologic map. It’s true that sometimes you find yourself floundering of a thicket of aerial photographs, geologic maps, and your own (or someone else’s) mapping notes.

In the modern era, it seems like this problem shouldn’t come up. We can pull up aerial photos from google earth and other sources, and we have GIS to pull all the different layers together, right?

Well, that’s the way things should go. But sometimes you inherit a project that has conflicting spatial data. It all looks good when you look at the figures, but when your surveyor goes out and adds some new locations or you read their own survey reports, you find that your site appears to have a major fault running through it. It’s worse if everything looks subtly distorted when you import it, because then it’s nigh-impossible to figure out what’s causing the error. In worst-case scenarios, the only solution is to go out and re-survey every blessed thing, but that’s not feasible for some large-scale projects.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

slide organization

So, when you give a presentation, do you have an introductory outline slide? Chris Rowan of highly allochthonous is pretty clearly on the anti-outline slide camp.

I have to admit that I tend to include an outline slide. I never used them before I went to grad school, but my program had endemic outline-slide use and I succumbed to peer pressure. Before I'm drawn and quartered, I should explain that my "outline" slide is indeed a very quick overview, emphasizing "why this matters" and not "intro, methods, results, lather, rinse, repeat".

Here's the thing: for a short, well organized talk, the outline slide is superfluous. Your audience should be able to follow your presentation on their own, aided by your own slide transitions. However, I've been to way too many painfully dull presentations where the speaker appears to be mired in details and never bothers to explain why their topic is interesting/important/whatever. Those talks would be a lot easier to take if the audience had some idea where the talk was going.