“I’ll try not to eat sushi before lab next week” and other undergrad-isms

As some of you know, I’m TAing a stand-alone introductory geology lab this semester. It’s been a pretty wonderful experience so far, and I’m learning all sorts of glorious things, such as (1) I may be a paleoceanographer and geochemist, but I still know my rocks pretty dang well, and (2) mother nature shares her angst equally with all geology field trips. But perhaps the most hilarious aspect of TAing has to be the plethora of undergrad interactions I’ve had ranging from missed lab excuses to “can’t you just give me the answer?” questions. Now that I’m on the other side of those interactions, I’ve gained a whole new level of respect for my own super-human rockstar TAs (seriously, go you guys), and in order to pass some of that respect on to those of you who have never or will never TA (and to make all you TAers out there giggle a bit), I present a short list of common undergrad-isms from an intro geology lab.

(1) Sorry I can’t/didn’t make it to lab, I have/had….

This is (not surprisingly) a weekly occurrence for all of us 1030 TAs. In recent weeks it’s been the stomach flu–seriously puking students, please stay away from my lab–and I’ve gotten plenty “I hurt myself at practice last night so I can’t come on the field trip.” But my new all time favorite lab miss excuse comes from a fellow TA (thanks Dave) who received an email excuse from a student citing food poisoning as the culprit for missing a lab and ending with “I’ll try not to eat sushi before lab next week.” Made up or not, I have to give this student some mad props for adding some serious laughter to my otherwise Matlab and journal article filled afternoon.

To be fair, I also have to give some serious props to my 8am lab last week when EVERYONE showed up for a field trip… hiking around a mountain… writing while standing up… in the pouring rain. I probably should bake them brownies or something.

(2)…will I/did I miss anything important?

This. So much of this. Of course you will still have to know the material you missed. And yes you will still be tested on the material you missed.


Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

(3) Is this right?

We’re all guilty of this one, but as a TA I do everything I can to side-step this question. Sure, it’s important to let a student know that they’re on the right track. But it’s more important to get a student to a level in which they can critically evaluate the answers they are producing. I only validate a student’s answer(s) after they’ve proven to me that they understand the process behind the answer, and that usually involves me answering their question with another question attempting to get them to tell me why they think they’re right (or wrong). It frustrates them to no end, but it forces them to actually comprehend what they are learning instead of pulling out their smartphone and googling the answer (not that it actually keeps any of them from doing exactly that).

(4) What’s the answer?

This is literally the worst question to ask in the list of all possible questions. Seriously. I don’t give away answers, and I certainly don’t like to give away answers to students who haven’t done the work for themselves.

(5) [Email 5 minutes before pre-lab is due] I waited until the last minute to start this pre-lab and now I’m having technically difficulties, can you extend my time?

No. Starting a lab five minutes before it’s due, when the pre-lab has been available for review all week, doesn’t warrant extra time. And technical difficulties require an actual computer tech (side note: I am not one) who, no matter how skilled, cannot solve those issues for you in the amount of time you have left before your pre-lab is due. So, no. No extra time for you. (Guys, am I turning into a pre-lab nazi?)

(6) I forgot everything I learned last week…

I’ve totally been here (undergrads are expected to learn a lot during the course of a semester), but a face-palm is always warranted when it’s more than half-way through the semester and students keep forgetting how to identify the three basic rock types.


Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

(7) But I don’t want to look/touch/walk up to the rock!

This happens every single field trip. Many of my students have a serious aversion to getting all up in an outcrop’s business to do some serious geologizing. It usually takes a serious pep talk, and my stead-fast refusal to allow the students who do look at the rocks to give away any answers (and sometimes literal physical separation of students who’ve looked at the rocks from the students who refuse), to get everyone involved. I do find ways to reward my students who jump at every opportunity to get a little dirty, like the time I gave extra credit to the students who jumped in freezing water to measure flow velocities and creek dimensions, but ultimately I want to get everyone at least a little excited about being in the field (I mean come on, rocks are pretty cool).

(8) What lab are we doing next week? Do you do make-up labs? When is the final? Where is your office? When are your office hours?

It’s in the syllabus. Seriously, no one reads the syllabus. I’ve emailed my classes copies of the syllabus at least three times, and every week there’s still an email or an in-lab question asking a question about something in the syllabus. READ THE SYLLABUS (pretty please).


Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

A day in the life: Proposal writing grad

It’s crunch time in National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Proposal writing land, and I’ve been spending almost all my free time (and office time) the past few weeks drafting my application. In fact, the very reason I didn’t throw down some serious blogosphere knowledge last week is because I was all drafted out. But here I am (still editing my draft), realizing that this topic is the perfect opportunity to let all you non-graduate students/scientists know a bit what it’s like to have your life turned upside down by a very important grant/fellowship/plead your case for money application. So boom, here’s this weeks knowledge: a day in the life of a proposal writing grad.

  1. Think one draft iteration is enough? Think again. Be prepared to write one draft. And then another. And then another when your advisor or peers tell you your topic is too specific… or not enough. And then another when you find a new critical knowledge gap in your research field. And then yet another after you get a whole new sets of eyes on your proposal. This process will go on until minutes before your deadline, but I think you get the picture.
  2. Page limits will become your arch nemesis. Try fitting your plan for five years of research into two pages without banging your head on. Spoiler: it’s impossible–your head will be sore.


    Source: Daily Dilbert’s, United Feature Syndicate (2002)

  3. Free time? What free time? All your free time is dedicated to either (1) working on your proposal or (2) worrying about your proposal. You’ll probably spend more time worrying than doing, but you’ll also probably spend more time on your proposal than your did actually applying to graduate school. #truth
  4. Don’t like constructive criticism? Too bad. If you want a good proposal, you need to put it in front of as many eyes as you can (or maybe not if you’re a super star advisor like mine). Even if you don’t get others to review your proposal before submitting it, you will get reviews back whether you get funded or not. Sometimes those reviews are harsh, but they are there to help you. So, it’s probably best you get used to criticism now (that is part of the game)


    Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

  5. Oh, you forgot about class and hw and TAing responsibilities and all your other assignments? No one feels sorry for you. Find a way to get those done too.

By the way, all of this is in no way comparable to a little thing called comps (comprehensive exam–usually including the submission of your research proposal to your committee) that PhD students have to suffer through during the beginning(ish) of their third year. So, I guess I have lots to look forward to… right?

Why the Earth’s past has scientists so worried about the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation – The Washington Post

Because here’s an article that says all the things I want to say on this topic and because I didn’t have time to write something myself this week… Marine geology is important guys!

***Ocean circulation changed many times in the last 70,000 years, according to new research.

Source: Why the Earth’s past has scientists so worried about the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation – The Washington Post

Scientific literacy: Lessons from The Martian

As I was walking out of the theatre after seeing The Martian last Friday, I noticed a tweet by one of my favorite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, which summed up the movie (and by relation, the novel) so well that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t though of it before: “The @MartianMovie — where you learn all the ways that being Scientifically Literate can save your life.” Besides the fact that I love almost everything Neil deGrasse Tyson says (it’s all relevant, I swear), this tweet hits on something that goes much deeper than a quirky blip about a popular new movie. Scientific literacy.
Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 5.54.23 PM

What is scientific literacy?

The long definition: “Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” (National Science Education Standards, page 22)

The short definition, scientific literacy is the “knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” (National Science Education Standards)

To summarize, scientific literacy implies that one has been thoroughly educated in the scientific process and can apply the things they have learned to real life situations.

Scientific literacy is the "knowledge and understanding of scientific 
concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation 
in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity." 
(National Science Education Standards)

Why is The Martian so important?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie (but seriously read it too)—READ/WATCH IT! As a scientist, I can’t think of a better example of scientific triumph in the world of fiction. The author, Andy Weir, is a software engineer, who set out to write a novel grounded in scientific truth. He did amazingly well–I’m only aware of one scientific mishap/exaggeration regarding how Martian weather is depicted (and forces the Hermes crew to evacuate and thus leave Mark Watney behind). However, the rest of the novel is filled with the scientific success (and blunders) of Mark Watney as he tries to wrestle his survival from Mars.

After Mark Watney is mistakenly left on Mars by his team, he has no choice but to “science the shit out of this.” As the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, his abilities are admittedly perfectly suited to his stranded on Mars situation (i.e. he must figure out how to make his food last until he can be rescued and he must rig equipment for new uses); however, much of the work he does need to complete to survive is beyond his normal comfort zone, and he must rely on his ability to use science to solve problems. For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie, you know how this ends–I won’t give it away for those who have not, but the message is the same–Mark Watney’s life depends TOTALLY on his scientific knowledge and ability to adapt using the tools he has around him.

Now, not everyone on this planet is astronaut material. Mark Wartney and the rest of the Hermes crew were the best of the best (just like all those super-human real life astronauts) and they were likely picked for the mission because of their specific skills. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of us stuck back down on Earth should be able to avoid our worldly responsibilities because “science isn’t our thing.”

Okay… but we’re never going to be stuck on Mars right?

Chances are no. But our planet is currently facing its own “struggle for survival’, which is only being hindered by the general public’s lack of scientific literacy.

Struggle for survival, you say? On Earth?

You might be tempted to think that scientific literacy has absolutely nothing to do with human survival on Earth, but I strongly disagree. Our planet is currently faced with with a rate of warming likely unmatched in its geologic history. Anthropogenic CO2 is being rapidly released into the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels and disturbance of other carbon sinks, such as the world’s forests and permafrost in arctic and alpine regions. Glaciers are melting and sending a large amount of fresh water into the oceans causing changes in ocean circulation. Species are being lost at an incredible rate. The only way to lessen or reverse these effects, is for people to understand and accept these changes and to move into action to do something about it. Without action, humans (and everything else living on this planet) face an extremely uncertain future in a rapidly changing world–evolution takes millions of years, and humans may not be able to adapt to these changes quickly enough. Like Mark Watney, humans must “science the shit out of this” for survival.

So why aren’t more people jumping into action?

There is a terrifying lack of scientific literacy in the United States and other countries around the world. People misunderstand the scientific process, and therefore misunderstand the consensus among climate scientists in term of anthropogenic climate change (for the record, 97% of scientists AGREE that anthropogenic climate change is real—see Skeptical Science – Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism). These misunderstandings lead to a feeling that science is bad or inaccurate. They lead to the thoughts that scientists are radicals who just want attention. They even lead to complete ignorance about how important the scientific process is (i.e. what it means to have something published in a peer reviewed journal vs. just somewhere online). And when politicians and people of power use their lack of scientific literacy to spread false information about climate change, nothing gets done.

We all need to do better. Not all of us are scientists (and most of us will never set foot on Mars let alone get anywhere near space), and that’s fine. But America (and the rest of the world) needs to work harder to improve the scientific literacy of its citizens. Without a general understanding of science, people will continue to doubt everything about it. If people continue to doubt science, they will never trust it to save their lives. If people don’t trust science to save their lives… well, that doesn’t leave a very shiny, bright future for planet Earth.

If cats were geologists

Cats are magnificent beasts. And so are geologists. And because my brain is too fried to write anything else (thanks Matlab and fellowship applications and grading and life), I present a photo montage entitled: If cats were geologists.

The oh my god I just did something horribly, horribly wrong and my data is so, so wrong geologist


The please give me money for science geologist


The eat all the things in sight (including the mystery meat) after a long day in the field geologist


The trying to take a group photo geologist


The just lost your mapping partner and start hearing scary noises in the woods geologistsurprised cat

The freshman geologist cat


The grad student geologist


The after being stuck in the rain all day mapping geologist


The I’m so tired I think I could die after weeks of fieldwork or proposal/grant/thesis writing geologist


The I’m just going to sleep here (after a night of magical liquid consumption) geologistdrunkcat

The you can’t make me go back to the lab geologist


The I’m very skeptical about this data geologist


The how out of shape you feel after months away from the field geologist


The just tried to take a picture of a rock but the selfie cam was on geologist


The this is my rock, this is totally my rock geologist