Appreciating the gap year-point-five: Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school

It’s the first week of classes at CU Boulder, and as I find myself being bombarded with quasi-first-week assignments and TA responsibilities (and some logistical where-the-hell can I print this problems), I can’t help but feel quite fortunate for my real world working experiences and the time away from lectures, homework, and the non-stop go-go-go attitude of life in academia. And while I’ve been going non-stop since last Wednesday with training and new graduate trips and TAing and finding the damn ATOC classrooms along the outside of Folsom Field (and I apologize for the scatter brain this post probably is), it’s Wednesday post-day. So here is this week’s genius, straight from the jumbled brain of a busy new grad, all about looking back and appreciating the gap year-point-five between undergrad and grad.


Via “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school:
  1. Effective time-management. Most of us spent undergrad refining our procrastination skills, experimenting with the minimum amount of work necessary for the grade you want and learning how to work at all hours of the day, but this undergrad time-management doesn’t build the most successful worker. Out in the “real world” (you know, the one where people garb themselves in business casual and work in fancy or not-so fancy offices in or near large bustling cities), work usually gets done during the workday. There is no room for procrastination, and there is definitely no room for being lazy (you might slide for a little, but the big guys and gals in charge will find you eventually). You don’t get to take three-hour lunch breaks, and you certainly don’t get middle of the day nap-time. Graduate school is more like a job than our undergraduate years ever were: we’re responsible for our own research (a job) and classes (another job) and even teaching when our funding or interests require (yet another job) all of which must be done by specified deadlines, within certain timeframes, with outcomes elevated above the undergraduate norm, and with expectations that we’re ACTUALLY putting in the amount of work we were brought to graduate school to do. Sure, graduate students procrastinate, sometimes put in the minimum work, and yes, even work at all hours of the day; however, if you want to keep some sanity during you graduate years, you probably don’t want to make a habit of any of these things. Work taught me to be diligent with my time-management–it required constant revision of my work week and longer-term project goals, and it really beat the “I’m just a student with all this glorious workday free-time” mentality out of me (thank god).
  2. Meaningful multitasking. I’m not talking about the undergraduate-esque kind of multitasking where you sit in front of the TV watching Friends while blasting out a research paper or hanging out in the library with your friends to study or even working on two class assignments in the same day. I’m talking about the meaningful kind of multitasking that comes with juggling multiple projects, for multiple clients, with multiple due dates and variable products. I did a lot of this during “vacation” into the environmental consulting world, and while I’m no expert, my experiences prepared me well for the multitude of things I’m having to deal with my first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school. On top of being a new graduate student who is taking classes, attending colloquiums, working on research, and trying to have a life outside of the lab, I am a graduate teaching assistant responsible for 40 students in 2 different introductory lab sections for a class where I am the sole teacher. This requires me not only to be responsible for myself and my research (which is a daunting task in itself), but also for students who have a variety of different interest levels in the geology class they are taking. I feel a little bit more confident taking on all these things at once knowing that I was able to juggle projects of all shapes and sizes at the same time as an environmental consulting geologist.
  3. Embracing group work. Group work might have been the most dreaded works of our undergraduate years, and there are probably many (like myself) who avoided group work like the plague (or just did all the work themselves). But in the real world, all work is group work and there is no way around it. You have to learn how to work with all sorts of people (loud, quiet, shy, obnoxious…). There is very little “OMG, we’re friends so let’s work together.” You are thrown into projects with people you don’t always like or even put in charge or put under a person who just rubs you the wrong way, but you are still expected to get things done. If you’re in graduate school, hopefully you’re working with an advisor and/or research group that you hand picked and get along swimmingly with (if not, dear god what are you doing?)–but you don’t get to pick your new graduate department peers and if you’re a TA you certainly do not get to pick your students. Working exposed me to more group work situations (with consequences beyond a letter grade) and formal training than I ever got during my undergraduate years, and it will help me tremendously over the next five(ish) years as a PhD student.
  4. Getting things done in a busy office. In undergrad, I always went to quietest library with the creepiest cages to avoid being distracted by others while studying, but this was never EVER an option in my big-girl jobs. Instead I got something a little crazier: cube farms. Cube farms teach you a lot about being productive in high-activity environments, and my work over the past two years exposed me to cube-farms ranging in size from the insanely large (100 people on a single office floor) and super small (five people sharing a very small office). In both cases, I struggled with distractions and the seemingly never ending socialization hours. I had to find ways to shut off the outside world when I needed (like spotify and ninja concentration), and to tune back in when I was able. Being in a office room full of other new graduate students is definitely the most exciting part of the beginning of this semester because we’re all super excited about our projects and all bonding over our grumbles in regards to surprisingly un-user friendly online textbook programs, but I won’t always have the time to socialize with everyone. Eventually (even though all you guys are great), I’ll have to find ways to tune out the noise and get (for lack of better words) shit done.
  5. Knowing when to ask for help. In undergraduate, many of us were either one of two things: (1) the compulsive question asker or (2) the diffident question avoider. Neither of these scenarios is particularly ideal, but it takes practice to find the happy medium in the middle of the spectrum. I fell more towards to diffident question avoider end of the spectrum as an undergrad, and it really wasn’t until I was set free into the world of work wonders that I learned how important it was to not settle in the peripheries. It doesn’t take long sitting your desk in the middle of a busy office pretending that you understand you know what you’re doing when you absolutely do not have the slightest idea of what you’re supposed to be doing to make you realize that (OMG) questions are actually super, super useful. And on the other end of the spectrum, it doesn’t take long bugging your boss and/or co-workers every five minutes with unimportant or non-vital questions to realize that (OMG) sometimes you should spend some time trying to answer your own questions before rushing for aid. As a graduate student, you have to learn how to let your advisor advice (who would have thought!?). Advisors are there to guide you through the graduate world, but they are certainly not there to hold your hand through the process. In other words, us graduate students need to be curious not obnoxious.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful things real world work taught me, especially in terms of preparation for grad school, but I’m tired. And hangry. And Mike made me dinner (and it’s ready). So… that’s all she wrote.

A wannabe world wanderer’s guide to trekking abroad

As a wannabe world wanderer, I’ve certainly been one lucky global traveling ducky the past few years. I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in the spring of 2012, summited Kilimanjaro on Christmas Day 2012, and trekked to Annapurna Base Camp this past April. I’ve learned a lot since my first abroad trek (mainly from my master-planning, world traveling older sister, Lindsey), and looking back it definitely would have been much easier to have someone who had done this all before to guide me through the process. Lucky for you guys, I’m writing this post to do just that. Below, I’ve outlined my steps for planning a guided trek abroad (sorry go-it-aloners, I’m not the experienced trekker you’re looking for), and I’ve reviewed my three incredible treks in beautiful far away places and the people (and companies) who made them all possible. Hopefully, my long-winded words will inspire some of you to travel to some cool new places and bring me lots of good karma for my future world wandering ways!


Left: the Inca Trail Trek; Center: Mt. Kilimanjaro Trek; Right: Annapurna Base Camp Trek

Steps for planing a guided trek abroad

(1) Save your pennies. When planning a guided trek abroad, things can add up quickly. Unfortunately, this aspect can make or break your dream of trekking abroad, and so I put this as the very first step. You likely won’t know exactly how much your trek will cost until you’ve done some more research and completed steps 2-5, but putting money away in an adventure fund is always a great way to save without having to know exactly what adventure those funds will be used for in the future.

(2) Pick your trek. While a no-brainer, this step also requires a bit of thought. Once you have decided where you want to trek, you also often must decide which route to take to your destination and you must decide how long you wish or need your trek to be. When hiking at high altitude, you must pick your route and time-frame carefully–you will need to give yourself as much time as you can for acclimation (either on or off the trail) and this often means choosing a specific route and pace. During this stage, you will also need to research the best times of the year to go on your selected trek. Some treks are best done in spring and fall, while others are best done during the dry season; these seasons will not be the same in every region, so pick your dates carefully! Lastly, don’t forget to consider your physical abilities. While altitude can affect anyone, even the most experienced climber, differently on different hikes, it’s probably not the best idea to jump on a rugged mountain that tops out at 19,000 ft if you don’t already lead a fairly active lifestyle.

(3) Select your trekking company. This is by far the most important and intensive step of the list. NOT ALL GUIDE GROUPS ARE CREATED EQUAL. It is your job to find the one that not only best suits your needs, but also to find one that is qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy. Below are things that you should consider during your selection phase:

  • Use a combination of recommendations, reviews and websites to find a reputable trekking company. Listen to or read word-of-mouth recommendations, correspond with trekkers who have used the company, watch review videos, read online reviews, browse a company’s website or even look on the Better Business Bureau. The more sources you rely on, the more sure you can be about picking the right guide group. Remember, it is your job to make sure your selected trekking company is qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy–If you lazy it on this step, your trip could be a total disaster.
  • Find a trekking company that is owned and/or operated (i.e. guided) by local people. In places like Peru, Tanzania and Nepal, tourism is a huge part of the local economy. If you’re going to be paying big bucks to trek in foreign countries, the money should (in my opinion) be benefitting the people of that country. In many cases, the use of non-local booking companies may be unavoidable or may actually be the best option; however, try your best to ensure your trek is guided and portered by local people.
  • Find a trekking company that treats their guides and porters well. The amount of time they are required to be on the trail, their pay, their accommodations, and how much weight they are expected to carry and whether or not that weight follows the law are all things you should inquire about when selecting a guide group for you trek. The best way to look into this is to actually talk to someone who has hiked with the group before, but if you are unable to do that online reviews and even posts on a company’s website can be really telling. You will not have a good trek if your guides and porters are unhappy, but more importantly, the guides and porters on your trek deserve to be treated with respect.
  • Inquire about trek specifics, your own accommodations, gear, and add-ons. Most of this can be found on a company’s website, but it is also useful to talk to an employee via email or phone. Questions to ponder: Does the group use tents or cabins? How many people per tent/cabin/teahouse? Will you have to share sleeping quarters with strangers? How many people per trek? How many guides and porters per trek? Can you plan a private group trek? Does the group provide private bathrooms? Is there a separate dining tent? Is or can oxygen be provided (for high altitude)? Can you rent gear from the guide company? Does the trekking company offer add-ons, such as safaris or city tours? This list is not exhaustive, so likely this will be an iterative process. If you don’t get an answer you like from the trekking company you’ve selected, it may be a sign to check out another company. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

(4) Book your trek. Booking an abroad trek should be done more than a couple days in advance, especially with three more very important steps left to do before leaving for your trek (see below). At a minimum, booking your trek will require a down payment–be sure you have saved your pennies well before jumping on this step! Some guide companies will plan and book everything trek-related for you (and so, you only have to worry about paying them on this step), but often the flight(s) and sometimes extra lodging before or after the trek will be up to you. Again–so many pennies (make sure you have them)! Booking your trek in advance will allow you to find the best priced flights and lodging (if necessary) and to gather all the necessary gear (see below).

(5) Collect your IDs and paperwork. Make sure you have a valid passport! Many foreign countries require your passport to be valid for six months AFTER your trip, so be sure to look into these rules either through your trekking company or through the county’s tourism website. You will likely have other paperwork to fill out for permits and/or visas–the trekking company may require this as a part of the booking process, but it also may be something they have you do after you’ve put in your down payment.

(6) Gather your gear. Start hunting down items you need for your trek as soon as you book the trip. Trust me. You do not want to be running to REI hours before your flight leaves. Trekking can be an expensive hobby, and the more time you give yourself between booking and leaving, the better chance you will have at finding gear on sale! Every trek is different, but generally high altitude and mountain treks tend to have very unpredictable weather and thus require a variety of gear. This step is even more important for those who are new to trekking as you will need to drop even more pennies on gear you never thought you would need (i.e. Gore-Tex rain jackets, crampons, trekking poles, gaiters, etc.). Most trekking companies have extensive gear lists that you can follow, but I think it’s always useful to talk to someone who has either (a) done the same trek or (b) who has hiked in the same region. If there are expensive ticket items on your trek gear list that you are unlikely to use again, such as heavy down jackets or below zero rated sleeping bags, see if you can rent them from your trekking company.

(7) Take care of medical. Go to a travel doctor as soon as you can after booking your trip. Visiting your physician is fine; however, travel doctors will not only have better knowledge about the vaccines and medications needed in far away and/or high-elevation places, but also will have the said vaccines and medications in stock (your physician likely will not). Also be aware that some vaccines require multiple doses and will need to be administered far in advanced–do not put off this task! Some countries, such as Tanzania, require proof of specific vaccines for you to enter the country, so don’t think you can get away with avoiding this step. If you will be hiking at altitude, consider altitude sickness medication. Lastly, be sure your current medical insurance will cover you while abroad OR purchase travel insurance (which often includes med-evac airlifts out of high-elevation, rugged terrain). If you hurt yourself while abroad and only have U.S. based coverage, you likely will be paying for all medical services in CASH (kind of a problem if you don’t have the big dollar bills to pay for a med-evac ride to a hospital). Travel insurance is often designed to avoid this exact situation, and some trekking companies require it before you are allowed to hike with them.

(8) Sit back and anticipate! As your trek approaches, double, triple and even quadruple check your pre-trip tasks and packing list. But more importantly, be sure to make everyone around you extremely envious of your upcoming travels.

My abroad trek reviews – a little shove toward step (2) & a little help for step (3)

If you have no idea where to begin or if you’re new to the whole process, picking a trek (2) can be a little daunting, and word-of-mouth recommendations (3) can be hard to acquire. As I have been fortunate enough to go on three amazing abroad treks in the past few years, I wanted to share a good summary of each of my treks (2) as well as the trekking companies that made it all possible (3).

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru: Warmiwañusqa (highest pass) 13,829 feet (4,215 meters)


About: The Inca Trail (four-day trek) is situated in the Andes Mountains. It winds through a variety of environments including rain forest, cloud forest and alpine tundra. On the trail you pass modern settlements as well as a handful of Incan ruins on your way to the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu. This hike was really stunning, and between the alpacas, huge valley walls and snow covered mountain-tops there was always something to look at. The Andes Mountains were the perfect place to complete my first trek, and I highly recommend this trek for anyone who finds higher altitude or colder treks extremely daunting (plus you get to end in a pretty amazing ancient city). You definitely will not be isolated on this trek, so be prepared to deal with some trail sharing (patience is key).

Due to erosion of the trail, including degradation of the thousands of original Inca Stairs, the Peruvian government limits the number of trekkers allowed on the trail (only 500 people can enter the trail per day–this includes guides and porters) and they are very strict about the guide companies allowed on the trail. If you want to do this hike, you will have no choice but to book far in advance.

Best times to hike: May to September (My sister and I hiked in March–the only day we didn’t get rained on was Machu Picchu day)

Add-ons: Extra days in Lima and Cusco, tour of sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Trekking company: Booked through Peru for Less, guided by Wayki Treks

Peru for Less planned everything perfectly for us, including our add-ons in Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley. They didn’t miss a single beat, and I would highly recommend planning a visit to Peru through them. We had extremely knowledgeable guides take us through Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and our lodging was pretty incredible.

Wayki Treks was wonderful as well; the guide, the chef and porters were all local and despite the language barrier we had a lot of fun conversing with them. Every day our chef and porters would run ahead of us to set up lunch somewhere and then do it again after lunch to set up camp (they were so coordinated on the stairs I could not believe it). We had a very small group (four people total), which was pretty great and unusual. Lindsey and I carried our gear, so we did not hire a personal porter; however, that appeared to be the option most people favored on the trail. There were minor items that we weren’t made well aware of before the trek, such as you can’t have large backpacks in Machu Picchu and that we would be doing a super speedy mad-dash to Sunrise Gate on Machu Picchu day, but overall the trekking company did a really amazing job.

Biggest lesson of the trip: four days of hiking in the Andes is tiring–do yourself a favor and stay an extra night near Machu Picchu. You will appreciate the ruins so much more if you didn’t just spend the first 4-6 hours of your day running with gear on your back to Sunrise Gate.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: 19,341 feet (5,895 meters)

DSC02394About: Kilimanjaro is absolutely beautiful, and it is my favorite place that I have ever hiked. However, this trek is hands-down the hardest thing I have ever done. Kilimanjaro isn’t technically difficult, but the altitude is brutal (and can be extremely dangerous if you are not careful). Depending on the route, summit day on Kilimanjaro requires a climb of at least 3,800 feet (4,545 ft if you summit from Barafu Camp on the south side of the mountain like my group did), so this climb is not for the faint of heart (all of the Base Camps on the mountain sit at higher elevations that the 14ers in Colorado). Despite the altitude challenges, if you only are able to do one trek abroad ever and you are an adventurous spirit, this would be the trek I would tell you to do.

The route my group chose was the Shira 8-day Route (10-day trip). The Shira route on Kilimanjaro is perhaps the most beautiful, scenic, least-populated route on the entire mountain. It allows trekkers to see corners of the mountain that other people rarely see, such as Arrow Glacier during one of the afternoon acclimation climbs. The route starts on the west side of the mountain and takes you through forests, moor-lands (which often looked like a faux-under water world), alpine tundra, rugged boulder lands (base-camp) and the snow/glacier filled crater edge and summit. Because the Shira route is much less populated than many of the other routes, you don’t see much of any other groups until the last two days of climbing, and in my opinion, this is one of the best aspects of this route. We summited on Christmas day (hence the Santa hats in the photo) and despite torrential downpour most of the prior 5-days, mother nature decided to gift us with perfect summiting weather.

Best times to hike: January, February, September. (June, July, August are okay, but much colder).

Add-ons: Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crate and Serengeti Safaris; visiting Zanazibar

Trekking company: Booked through Peak Planet, Guided by African Walking Company

Like Peru for Less, Peak Planet made our trip planning and booking super, super easy. Lindsey and my mom added on safaris before our climb as I was finishing up my semester abroad in East Africa, and they had nothing but good things to say about the job Peak Planet did planning their initial part of the trip. Peak Planet even worked with my last minute trekking buddy add-ons, who I met through my study abroad program, and made sure they were in the same trekking group and stayed in the same hotels before and after the trek.

Now for the guides. I can honestly say that the African Walking Company is the most amazing group of humans I have ever had the pleasure to hike with anywhere in the world. Our lead guide, Henry, on Kilimanjaro had been porting and guiding on the mountain for over 15 years–he carried a first aid kit with him at all times and personally saw to every single scratch and ailment that occurred in our group (see photo above for proof that Henry literally always had his first aid kit on him). Our other six guides were also trained in first aid, and despite having their hands full caring for the 14 of us on the trail–even rushed to the aid of other hikers who had been ABANDONED by their own guides.  Every single hour during our summit night/morning, at least of our guides would check us for signs of altitude sickness, shove some chocolate in our mouths (the best kind of energy), and then tell a glorious white lie about just how close we were to the summit (because we had to stay motivated somehow). Our guides even sang to us as we made our final ascent of the mountain, and two guides-in-training (porters) ran up the mountain ahead of us to meet us at the crater’s edge with HOT TEA (seriously guys, these people were unbelievable). Our 47 (yes, 47) porters were so kind and wonderful–we wouldn’t have made it up the mountain without them. If you’re going to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, do it with the African Walking Company!

Biggest lesson of the trip: slow and steady wins (summits) the race (Mt. Kilimanjaro). Our group managed to make quite a few other groups grumbly over the fact that we were moving slow on the mountain. However, many if not most of the people in those groups actually never made it to the top (they didn’t have guides who properly paced them through not only the night/morning of the summit, but also all the days prior) and they were shocked to learn that our entire group had made it to summit. When your guide company is responsible for getting 14 people to the summit of a mountain with a 60% success rate, you know they’re doing something right.

Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal: 13,550 ft (4,130 meters)

About: Annapurna Base Camp is situated near the base of a series of highly technical Himalayan mountains: Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Tharpu Chuli and Machhapuchhre. The route winds through lush rainforest, rocky terrain, high-alpine tundra and snow/ice ridden valleys and mountain sides, and allows trekkers to stay in enclosed tea-houses (like very rustic cabins) that are owned and operated by local people. This route is one of the more avalanche prone areas of the region (steep walls and heavy snow/rain falls are common-place), so it is very important that you are with a group that knows how to avoid these dangers. On our trek we had to traverse a handful of recent avalanches, and at the summit we could hear avalanches occurring off in the distance.

The views on this trek were unbelievable, but be forewarned, this trek will take you on a seemingly never ending journey of stairs. Unlike Kilimanjaro which stands alone in the Tanzanian landscape, Annapurna sits amongst many other mountains–this requires trekkers to do a lot of ups-to-ridges and downs-to-streams during this trek. However, if you’re a determined trekker like me, this is only a “minor” issue (we’ll just forget my grumblings on the day of 10,000 stairs to lunch). This trek was as tasking on the leg muscles as Kilimanjaro was tasking on the lungs, but the final destination is one of the coolest, geology-rich places I’ve ever been.

I haven’t heard any recent news about the state of the Annapurna Base Camp trail following the recent earthquake in Nepal (we left a mere three days before it occurred), and so if you are interested in this trek soon you will need to do a little follow-up research. I have read that much of Kathmandu is back to business as normal despite some of its great temples and sites missing from the city, but remote areas are likely still rebuilding. The people of Nepal are resilient, and despite this horrible natural disaster, I wouldn’t hesitate to travel back to their beautiful country.

Best times to hike: March to May, September to November

Add-ons: Sacred sites tour in Kathmandu; extra day in Pokhara

Trekking company: Himalayan Glacier

Himalayan Glacier did an absolutely wonderful job planning our trip. They were extremely responsive during our planning/booking stages, and answered all our questions very quickly. Unlike my other two abroad treks, our Annapurna Base Camp trek was a private group trek; however, the cost was no different than if we had joined another group or groups for the trek. Bonus: they are a company completely owned and operated in Nepal!

Our guides on the trek, Rishi and Kesob, and our two porters were extremely hardworking and personable. Between the four of them, we always had our meals on time (they knew the tea-house owners well so we never struggled to get our orders in or to get our food), always had a place to stay (a lot of the go-it-aloners we met had a very hard time finding lodging at the higher camps), and never went more than a few minutes without a good laugh (usually at the cost of Mike doing something silly). Rishi was there for us through our entire trip: including picking us up at the Kathmandu airport, flying with us to Pokhara and back, joining us during our welcome and goodbye dinners, and also getting us in a car to back to the Kathmandu airport. When I go back to Nepal (and I’ll be back for Everest basecamp), I will DEFINITELY be using Himalayan Glacier again.

Biggest lesson of the trip: stair-masters are for wussies.

Happy [global] trekking!

Lab life: the cleanroom, the machine, the clothes, the work, and the fun

Last week was all about me, but this week is all about the lab. As I dove into in my About me bonus, I am a paleoceanographer, paleoclimatologist and a geochemist. Specifically, I use certain elements, mainly Mg/Ca ratios, to reconstruct past oceans and climate. To do that, I need a lab. But not just any a lab; I need a lab with a (very) cleanroom, a very nifty inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS), some wonderfully fashionable and functional clothing, and of course, a lot of interesting and exciting work. Here at INSTAAR, we call that lab the ICP-MS Trace Element Lab. And it’s in this lab where all my PhD dreams will come true (or explode catastrophically).

The cleanroom

What’s a cleanroom? Well, a cleanroom, is a room that limits the introduction of contaminants (i.e. dust, airborne particles, pollutants, etc.) through engineering controls to preserve process or sample integrity. Why do I need a cleanroom? The samples I work with are very specific to a source (where the sample came from) and a time (when the sample was “made”). This means that all the elements stored within a sample will be different from a sample taken somewhere else. The elements will also be different from the environment, let’s say, in a geology building. If a processing or dissolved sample (i.e. a sample that is being prepped for analysis on a machine) sits out in the un-protected geology building environment, it can uncontrollably “take in” or react with the set of elements its composition differs from because of its vulnerable state. This isn’t good. A contaminated sample will no longer accurately represent its source and time, thereby possibly changing the history the geochemist (i.e. me) will try to discern from said sample. This is where the cleanroom comes in; it limits sample contamination by controlling the environment.


A cleanroom to a geochemist is like a operating room to a surgeon; IT’S VERY IMPORTANT. It’s where we work our science magic (or sometimes where our dreams are crushed). Without getting too technical, my samples need to remain as clean (i.e. not contaminated) as possible through crushing, cleaning and dissolving steps (i.e. prepping for analysis) in order to accurately represent its history. Engineering controls, such as air filters, negative room pressure, laminar flow benches, and even coated metals (or better yet, metal substitutes) are used to limit sample contamination. Because we’re scientists, we have all sorts of checks to determine if contamination did indeed occur, such as: running a acid blank (no sample) test prior to using said acid to dissolve a sample or analyzing acid blanks during a sample run to determine if contamination occurred while dissolving samples. However, even in a cleanroom, contamination does still occur.

The machine

What’s an ICP-MS? It’s a mass spectrometer with energized plasma that ionizes a dissolved (liquid) sample to analyze a set of specific elements. Decoded: an ICP-MS will take a dissolved sample, analyze it and report a specific suite of elements. The suite of elements the ICP-MS reports depends on a couple things, mainly: the analytical precision and sensitivity needed to complete a run (some samples are smaller than others and thus require more precision and sensitivity to be successfully analyzed) and the interests of the researcher using the machine. I could go into all the physics behind this glorious machine, but as I myself am still learning them… I won’t. Just know this: Mg/Ca are the elements I’m mainly after and I will use this machine to find them. I will also analyze my samples for other elements, but that is a discussion for another day.

The ICP-MS is housed in an adjoining room to the cleanroom, and like the cleanroom, is a vital part of the lab I will be working in throughout my entire PhD career.

The clothes

IMG_5010I’ve been talking a lot about the air contamination, but contamination doesn’t just come from the air; it can also come from particles trapped in clothing. Because outside clothes and shoes, are well, from the outside, they must be covered at all times when in a cleanroom. In most geochemical labs, the coverings include a stunning white tyvek suit and booties. This makes us cleanroom geochemists the most stylist of the geology bunch.

Fashion joking aside, personal protective equipment (PPE) is a huge and vital part of any lab. The main function of the tyvek suit and booties is to protect the cleanroom from outside contaminants, but a secondary function is that it can protect one’s body from minor chemical spills. Gloves and googles/glasses top off the glorious cleanroom ensemble to protect our dainty hands and seeing organs–safety first. My PPE is designed to handle less hazardous material as the chemicals I work with are very dilute; however, I do still handle chemical stock solutions and other concentrated chemicals, so I still have to be very careful in the lab.

The work

Of course, working in any lab requires a significant amount of training (and often a very large learning curve). From safety training, to process training, to day-to-day maintenance, to just finding the damn pipette tips… a new labbie could spend anywhere from a few weeks to an entire year getting comfortable in a new lab. When a lab contains a cleanroom, one must follow an even higher level of scrutiny. Lucky for me, I worked in a similar cleanroom setting as an undergrad, so some of the basic concepts (i.e. upkeep, storage, cleaning, safety) are review for me. Unlucky for me, lots of other parts of my new clean lab (i.e. anything and everything foram and ICP-MS) are completely new to me, and it will still take some time (and lots of mistakes) for me to get 100% comfortable.

Lab Hazard Rating System

Via “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

My PhD will likely be lab heavy in the first couple of years. Some days, I won’t leave the lab (probably not by choice, but hey, when in PhD mode, one must PhD). Others, I’ll run far, far away from it (hopefully to be super productive reading and writing, but more likely I’ll be looking for beer). During my PhD, my lab work will include all sorts of tasks: foram picking, crushing, cleaning, dissolving and analyzing; chemical dilutions; lab cleaning and organizing; beaker/cup cleaning; ICP-MSing (i.e. sweet talking the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer); and many, many more. The foram tasks will take by far the longest, and most of those tasks require use of the cleanroom. Use of the ICP-MS will also be somewhat time consuming, especially when the machine is being difficult (as I write this, my advisor and I are trying to keep it from overheating so we can finally run some samples). However, I’ve spent my summer learning a lot about the machine, and hopefully by the time my own samples are ready to be run, I’ll be a super knowledgable (or at least semi-knowledgeable) ICP-MSer.

The fun

But life in the lab goes beyond the lab, the clothes and even the work; you learn along the way to have a little fun and to make a little fun of your mistakes or tragically embarrassing situations. To let you in on the “fun” part, I’ve decided to write about some of the funny situations you could find yourself in while working in a cleanroom. So, without further ado, I present:

You know you work (or have worked) in a cleanroom when…

  • You can replicate the delicate dance of putting on and (the often more difficult task) of taking off your tyvek (“bunny”) suit and shoe coverings in your sleep
  • You’ve fallen over trying to get your limbs out of your tyvek suit (probably in front of your advisor or professor or a very important world-renown scientist)
  • You’ve made the mistake of completely suiting up after drinking five cups of coffee… and not running to the bathroom first
  • You’ve found the “slippery” part of the cleanroom floor and know first hand what it’s like to feel as if your life is about to end (since you’re holding very delicate samples, and/or scary acids, and/or your advisor is standing right behind you)
  • You don’t care what you wear to work because nothing’s more fashionable than tyvek white
  • You’ve tried to sit down on a normal office chair while donning your tyvek suit and have gone flying off the chair Christmas Vacation sledding style
  • You’ve made the mistake of leaving your notes on the wrong side of the cleanroom and not realizing it until after removing all your fancy cleanroom clothes
  • You’ve made the mistake of leaving your notes in another room and not realizing it until after completely suiting up
  • You know what it feels like for people to think you’re about to get into some serious shit… but you’re really just going in the lab to clean some beakers
  • You look like a giant marsh-mellow… and like it
  • You know the struggle of trying to get your cell phone out of your back pocket once you’re already suited and zipped up
  • Your favorite time of the week/month is when you get to rip off the nasty sticky pads at all door entrances to reveal the brand new sticky pads underneath
  • You know what it’s like for something to come up in the lab where you need help from your more experienced advisor, lab manager or the lab’s grad-student/postdoc extraordinaire and have the internal debate about whether you should completely un-suit to hunt him/her down… or shamelessly text him/her until he/she comes to your rescue
  • You get angry over someone using the tyvek suit CLEARLY labeled with your name


About me bonus: what I do, why I do it and the basic science behind my PhD

By now, most of you are well aware of my love affair with geology. However, some of you may still not exactly understand what I do or why I do it or have any idea what my upcoming PhD focus means. Because my work will never be an easy explanation for those unfamiliar with what I do, I decided to take this week to describe as best I could (and as un-jargony as possible) what I do, why I do it and the basic science behind my PhD. Eventually, I’ll add or link a shortened version of this to my about me (hence the title), but I felt these words were probably best served first as a standalone post.

As with many geologists, I study the past. I do this for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I enjoy it. It’s exciting for me to dig into Earth’s history and learn something we didn’t know before or better understand something than we did before. Second, Earth is extremely complex. Studying modern-day change is vital to understanding the complex relationships of Earth systems, but studying the past, and all its glorious “natural experiments,” allows scientists to explore Earth dynamics beyond modern constraints. The past was different than today, and understanding the differences between ancient and modern Earth is extremely important. Lastly, studying the past allows scientist to apply past analogs to future scenarios (i.e. using the past to inform the future) not only in an effort to predict possible outcomes, but also to help the world prepare to face those outcomes. The latter point is the most important to me. We live in a rapidly changing world where human actions have a resounding impact on Earth’s future. Understanding how our planet responded and reacted to past changes, is our greatest hope to predict, plan and prepare for (and in an ideal world, limit) the negative impacts stemming from modern human actions on the complex Earth system.

climate comic

Extremely relevant Joel Pett cartoon, USA Today (2009)

There are lots of ways to study the past, which is why there are lots of different types of geologists (and paleo-[add your science here]-ists). There are geologists who study large, massive structures in ancient formations that are visible for miles away, and there are geologists who study the chemical make-up of rocks and minerals that can only be be discerned after hours of laboratory prep and machine analysis. Some geologists focus on deep time, while others focus on more recent events. Then there are geologists who wander all around the geologic boundaries, putting on all sorts of geologic hats in an attempt to better understand our wonderfully complex planet. Pick any topic and any time period (or even multiple combinations as insane as it may seem), and I guarantee you there’s a geologist somewhere dedicating his or her life to that very geologic niche.

In the spectrum of geologic possibilities, I am a paleoceanographer, paleoclimatologist and geochemist focused (for now) mainly on the more recent geologic past. To decode that geological jargon: I study ancient (but not too ancient) oceans and climate, and I use elements (i.e. chemistry) to discern past events (i.e. geology). Simply put, I’m one of those that wears lots of hats. And to make it even more confusing for you, all of the aforementioned words I used to describe myself as a geologist don’t necessarily make me a geologist at all. Paleoceanographers and paleoclimatologists come from all walks of scientific life. Some are geologists, yes, but many are atmospheric and oceanic scientists, or physicists, or chemists, or even biologists and statisticians. And like the word spells out for you, geochemists are often trained chemists “dabbling” in the world of geology. I will spend the next five years dipping my toes into geology… and all the other wonderful sciences that play a role at the cross-section of paleoceanography, paleoclimatology and geochemistry. Needless to say, I will be very busy as PhD student (gathering lots of pretty hats).

g. ruber foram

An example of fossil foraminifera. See source for detail: Thirumalai et al. (2014), Globigerinoides ruber morphotypes in the Gulf of Mexico: A test of null hypothesis. Scientific Reports 4, 6018. doi: 10.1038/srep06018

Now for the technical stuff. For my science readers–this will probably be easy for you to follow. For all my other readers–I’ll do my best to de-jargon. During my PhD, I will be using (i.e. picking, processing, dissolving and analyzing) fossil foraminifera (a marine protist with a calcite shell–here’s Wikipedia) that have been preserved in ocean sediments to determine and understand past ocean and climate states, changes and relationships. How will I do that?: magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca). Mg/Ca ratios can be used as a paleo-proxy (i.e. recorder of the past) for temperature. Simply (and without sending this post down the rabbit-hole of Mg/Ca relationships), the amount of Mg in a calcite mineral relates to the temperature at which that mineral was formed; the more Mg that is in a calcite, the higher the temperature was at the time of formation. In the case of formanifera, or forams, the temperature recorded by a calcite shell is the temperature of the sea water surrounding the foram at the time of shell formation or its calcification temperature. Pretty cool, right? (Yeah, I think so). Measuring Mg/Ca ratios in fossil forams allows scientists to calculate past ocean temperatures! (I know you’re as excited as I am). The exact Mg/Ca-temperature relationship can be dependent on other factors, including foram species, habitat, salinity and even dissolution effects (all things I won’t get into here as it would turn this post into a lengthy research project), but some very, very smart people have developed a myriad of calibration equations (i.e. equations that directly relate Mg/Ca ratios to temperature) to isolate the temperature signal.

Phew. If you made it this far–HIGH FIVE!

Now, some of you are probably wondering exactly how ancient ocean temperatures are going to help me determine and understand past ocean AND climate states, changes and relationships–and that would be a very fair thing for you to wonder. The ocean plays a major role in the Earth climate system, which also includes very important things such as the biosphere and the atmosphere. A perturbation in one part of the system often affects the other parts of the system. For example, a major shift in surface temperatures on Earth will cause a shift in ocean temperatures, which will cause a change in atmospheric winds and weather, which will affect the plants and animals dependent on all those things (…so on and so forth). Understanding the whole Earth climate system requires knowledge of all its parts. And knowledge of one part can also lead to insights on others. I choose to study the ocean because it’s a part of the Earth climate system that we probably know and understand the least about. And while the ocean is only one piece of the giant, complicated climate puzzle, its piece and its close connection with other pieces can tell us a lot about the past. So really, my ancient ocean temperatures will actually tell me a lot more than a simple reading on a thermometer. For those curious about exactly what my PhD project will be, I’ll probably reveal more about that later down the road. As a new graduate student, I’m focused mainly on catching up on the slew of wonderful Mg/Ca-foram literature (I still have a lot to learn), and while I have a pretty good idea where my project is going, things can always change.