On Being a Gay Scientist and Finding a Sense of Community

Last Tuesday evening I had the chance to attend a social gathering of sorts for a national GLBT rights organization. In spite of being gay, I’ve never been involved in GLBT advocacy nor the politics. I was having a conversation with another guy and he asked what I did. I explained that I was a geology undergrad, but that I mostly study meteorites. I went on to talk about my current project and I could sense that I was losing his attention. I tried to explain things in more approachable terms, but the damage was done. All my talk and enthusiasm over shock veins, olivines and zoned pyroxenes was lost on this poor soul. He was there to learn about getting involved with this organization, not hear about space rocks. I was there because I was invited by a handsome guy in PSU’s pre-med program and the prospect of free food and gin.

After that conversation, and a couple others, I realized that I wasn’t among my people. And by that I mean those with whom I share a common language or interest. Generally speaking these are either fellow science nerds or restaurant workers.This wasn’t some earth shattering revelation. I’ve never felt a pressing need to let my sexuality dictate my friendships. Unless I decide to tell some bawdy joke, I’m not likely to talk about being gay. If you’ve read my blog for any extended period of time, then you already know where my enthusiasm is found. If this is your first time here, then take a look at the topics on the right side of the home page. Therein is where you’ll find the subjects that are nearest and dearest to my heart. And if you understand or try to understand those topics, I count you as among my people.

That evening stuck with me. Here I was attending a gathering for an organization that has worked to overturn discriminatory laws and fight for my right to marry who I love, and I was there for the free food. This isn’t an aspect of myself with which I am unfamiliar. I’ve often thought about my apathy towards such advocacy, but never did much beyond that. However, it wasn’t until that point that I started to become somewhat bothered by it.

Later that week I had dinner with two other geobloggers, Michael Klaas and Julian Lozos who also happen to be GLBT. I wanted their perspective on the issue and asked if they’ve had similar thoughts. All three of us arrived at the same conclusion: just because someone is GLBT doesn’t mean there is a connection or rapport that automatically makes them “family”. In fact, none of us have felt much reason to consider the GLBT community our “community”. The three of us were having dinner and conversation because of our interest in science and science communication; not because of our non-hetero normative experiences.

At this point you may be asking yourself why I’m writing about being a gay scientist if I don’t feel the need to publicize it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear-cut reason. Part of me feels a sense of responsibility to speak up and make it clear that there are GLBT within the ranks of science and academia. After all, it was someone else’s speaking up that made my life as a gay male easier. Do I not have a responsibility to pay the same debt forward for the future generation? And how do I approach that without labeling myself in terms of my sexuality?

Therein lies my major struggle and I have no expectation that any reader answer those questions. I’m simply throwing out some thoughts and ideas that I’ve had over the week. However, feel free to comment on the subject. Be warned though- if any comments are derogatory or inflammatory I will exercise my mighty ban hammer and delete them without warning.

Learning to rework the blogging muscles

I’ll admit it. If blogging were a muscle, mine would be soft and pudgy. School effectively curtailed my blogging time and dealt me a worse problem than a lack of material with which to work: I fell out of the habit of blogging. And I am quickly learning that getting back into that habit is more challenging than the writing itself. Even my Meteorite Monday posts, which were meant to give me an easy writing outlet, became a victim to my procrastination.

So to help myself get back into the habit of blogging, I offer up one of the coolest videos that has ever come out of NASA/JPL. It’s a video that shows some of the challenges of landing the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, on the red planet. Some will probably deride the video for being overly dramatic and looking like a slicked up Hollywood production. And it does look that way, but the science is real and the people at JPL did a great job communicating the excitement that comes from doing honest, real science.


Dusting off the ol’ blog (hopefully)

It’s been far too long since my last post. I had intended to take a week or two off during the holiday break, but that quickly turned into a third week. Which then was worsened by my working retail during the holiday season. And then there was the four day trip to Seattle for New Years where I got to spend the better part of New Years Day with the incredible Dana Hunter from En Tequila Es Verdad.

Yes.... Dana is just as awesome in real life as she is on the intertoobz.

I wish I could guarantee a regular blogging schedule, but this term is looking rather unforgiving in regards to my schedule. I’m only taking three classes: meteorites, physics 2, and calculus 2. However, all these classes are rather time intensive and require that I spend most of my waking hours working on them. Hell, I’m even feeling a twinge of guilt for writing this post.

With the start of this term I did receive some good, if not slightly anxiety-inducing, news. That meteorite I’ve been working on is part of my advisers’ wife’s paper about other meteorites that were found in the same area. The work I’ve done will be incorporated into the paper, and assuming I don’t drop the ball, I’ll be named coauthor on the paper! Which is really exciting and stressful all at the same time. The goal is to have the paper finished and submitted over the Spring break.

Factor in my moving to another part of Portland at the end of the month, and you have a very busy, very tired (and possibly cranky) Ryan. I am going to try and revive my Meteorite Monday posts, but I wanna make sure I’m putting out posts of quality and not just posting to post (if that makes sense). Since I am taking a course in meteorites this term, I should have plenty of material to write something that isn’t too time consuming on my end, but won’t seem hollow and trite on the readers end.

So, if you don’t see me updating and posting on an even somewhat regular basis, just know I haven’t forgotten about my blog. I’m probably in the meteorite lab or the bowels of the library learning integrals or the laws of thermodynamics.

Post-Fall Term Musings

The Fall term of 2011 has officially ended and I’m glad it’s over. Well, technically it ended last Tuesday, but I’ve been feeling too lazy to do anything that involved thinking; AKA blogging. At the end of each term I have a tendency to reflect on what went well, what didn’t and what new lessons were learned. This Fall term was unique because I had to learn to balance my research with my classes. Up till now, my research has been confined to the Summer when I wasn’t taking any classes. I found this beneficial because it lit a fire under my ass to keep up with my studies, and also served as a reminder to keep working hard to achieve my goals.

So, I thought I’d put together a small list of some of the more important concepts I learned this term. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Always read your syllabus: You know that piece of paper your professor gives you at the beginning of each term? That one with important dates and deadlines? They don’t put that together for shits and giggles. Read it. Otherwise you’ll end up like me and realize that a few days before finals, you have all of them on the same day.

2. Projects and research: When working with your advisor, even as an undergraduate, come prepared to all your meetings. Be prepared to tell them what you’ve done, what you’ve read and what you’re next step is in completing the project they’ve entrusted to you. Don’t give them any reason to think you’re wasting their time.

3. Set backs: Life is full of them. This occurred when I realized that my version of Leica Software (the interface between the computer and microscope) wasn’t as fully functional as my advisors. I had to make some adjustments and I’m still working on getting the software to my liking. The important part is that I made do with what I had and kept going.

4. Be the over achiever: Did you do all the problems your instructor assigned in the syllabus? You did? Great! Now, go do more problems from the book because chances are you’re still not prepared for the exam.

5. Relax: Go have a pint with your fellow students and remember you’re not the only one going through the stresses of a final project. Sometimes taking a break with your classmates is a good way to gain some perspective and pluck yourself out of the “woe is me” stage we all go through from time to time.

Any fellow students/teachers have anything else to add to the list?

Blogging as an undergrad, pt. 2

Sometime back in January I wrote a post about science blogging as an undergrad and I meant to follow up on that post sooner than later. I’m not a huge fan of writing back-to-back navel gazing posts and I wanted to give some time between part 1 and part 2. Some of these ideas are new and others are just expansions of thoughts from the original post.

When I sit down to write a post, three things come to mind

  1. My personal expertise on the matter
  2. Getting past that “homework” feeling
  3. Blog content and coherency

At this point in my academic training, I am an expert in nothing other than whatever I’m cramming for at the moment (and even that can get sketchy). When I sit down to write a post I want to feel comfortable with whatever it is I’m writing, and if I don’t feel like my understanding of the subject is strong enough, I am more likely to avoid the subject than explore it.

This leads me to my second point on the “homework” feeling. At times, writing a blog post can feel similar to doing homework. If my knowledge on a subject is lacking I’ll do the necessary research to make sure I’m not positing complete b.s. If there’s one thing my friends and family will tell you, I’d rather be caught dead than wrong. It’s an issue of personal pride that I know what I’m talking about and that requires a lot of fact checking. Also, knowing that a few geologists and scientists I respect and admire read my posts makes me doubly afraid to post rubbish- even if it’s unintentional. I know I’m not being graded for content, but if I wouldn’t hand it in to my professors for a grade, why would I feel comfortable posting something for the geoblogosphere to see?

Finally, not having an area of expertise means that my blog can be rather unfocused at times. Those that I try to read on a regular basis (like what is found on my blogroll) are fairly focused in their content. Clastic Detritus, Mountain Beltway, and Looking for Detachment come to mind. However I also know that others such as Outside the Interzone manage to cover a fair range of topics with plenty of competency.

In retrospect, I don’t know if any of my concerns are unique to undergrads. Certainly the concerns are valid, but perhaps not isolated to one group. It could  be that these are the growing pains of a relatively young blog and are shared by anyone new to the community.

Blogging as an undergrad

“Goals of getting undergrads to write blog posts? Improve their science comm or improve their understanding of science? Or both?#scio11

-from @colo_kea on the Twittersphere

As an undergrad that attempts to blog about science topics, I would like to say that the goal of science blogging should be both to improve the communication and understanding of science. However, I’d like to add an addendum to the above tweet. Instead of getting undergrads to just write blog posts, they should also be involved in Twitter. Blogging when combined with Twitter is far more effective at these goals than it would be on its own.

Through Twitter, I’ve made some fantastic connections with other geologists and professionals in their chosen fields. It’s a lot like having open access to the faculty lounge where I can drop in when I want to and ask questions or share thoughts. When combined with my blog, I have an outlet where I can formalize my thoughts and questions in a less restrictive format and receive critiques to help bolster my understanding of science. Without Twitter, my blog wouldn’t have the same benefit for me that it currently produces.

As I write about science topics I’m forced to learn the material and verify the validity of what I’m writing. It’s basically like writing a research paper and the geotweeps are there to offer corrections and answer my questions. In this way, I strengthen my understanding of scientific principles and I have the chance to communicate those findings with guidance from professionals. This ensures that I’m not espousing quackery and psuedoscience as real science.

From my perspective as an undergrad, the goals of blogging are clear and the benefits tangible. For me, the real question is how do we get more undergrads involved in the blogging process?

First post of the new year

First off I want to wish everyone a happy 2011.  I hope this year is better than the last for all who stumble upon this post. For me, last year marked my return to school to study geology. After having completed culinary school and working my way through a few restaurants I decided that I wanted a career with some growth options and retirement benefits. Initially I got into the geology program because of the planetary science minor that could coupled with it. One of the geology instructors, Alex Ruzicka,  headed up the Cascadia Meteorite Lab and also taught astrogeology, so I figured the geology program was the right place to be. As I moved my way through the intro to geology courses, I realized rocks were cool regardless of their place of origin. That amalgamation of minerals and crystals tells a story of where it came from and under what condition it formed. With enough detective work, the formation of the earth and even the Solar System can be pieced together from the detritus that floats through space and litters the ground around us. They’re the ultimate time capsule with their preservation of thousands and million of years of history. That concept alone, to study and understand the beginning of it all, makes geology a worthy passion to pursue.

So, to start off my second undergrad year, I’ll be taking mineralogy, my second chemistry course and calculus one. I also have a side project lined up to classify meteorites and learn how to use the schools fancy new scanning electron microscope. That will look really nice on the resume when paired with my electron microprobe experience. I’m excited for mineralogy because it’ll help me make sense of the minerals I see in some of the meteorites I’ve looked at and it’ll bring home the chemistry aspect of geology. Maybe it’ll even help me understand chemistry better (fingers crossed). Calculus should be fun. I’ve done well in trig and my other math courses so far, so I’m not overly anxious about it. The real monster for me will be chemistry. Last term was a huge struggle trying to figure out combustion equations and the appropriate conversions to get at the right answer. The bright side was that my math was fine, it was figuring out how to apply it that led to some interesting times.

With all that being said, I am going to try to update my blog on a more regular basis. I’m not going to call it a New Years Resolution because I break them so frequently. I’m going to think of it as a “personal enrichment goal” for the new year. Worpress has some ideas for either a daily post or a weekly post and I’m going through those to figure out the best way to tackle my “personal enrichment goal”. I figure that mineralogy and the meteorites will give me some inspiration so, but I just need to be more regular in writing about it.

So, to end my first post of the new year, I’m going to end with a picture I found while romping through the raw images of the Cassini Mission. This one is of Enceladus with Saturn and part of her rings in the background. There’s not much in the way of details, but the link will give you the details behind the image.

Latest Enceladus pic from the folks at JPL

Glacial Till

One of the features I love about WordPress is the ability to not only see the number of daily visitors to your site, but what led them to your site in the first place. This is shown as either a link from another website or it can come from search terms. As I was going through my statistics, I noticed someone had stumbled upon my blog while looking for information about glacial till formations. Unfortunately, not a single piece of information about glacial till can be found on my blog. My current interests don’t even include glaciers. However, I liked the concept of glacial till enough to snag it as my blog name. And let me explain why.

For the non-geologists, glacial till is one type of glacial sedimentary deposit. Much like rivers, glaciers wend their way through valleys (called fjords) eroding the landscape around them. Although they do this at a much slower rate than rivers the concept is still the same. The main difference is that glaciers can and will move any size of sediment around them. They act like giant conveyor belts that move sediment towards the front and deposit it at the toe of the glacier. This sediment is what geologists refer to as unsorted. Or in other words, it comes in all different sizes. So, one would expect to find boulders, gravel and smaller pieces of rock all within the same deposit.

How does this relate to my blog?

Well, at this point, I’m not interested in just one thing. I like to pick up everything around me and “deposit” it in my blog. Whether it’s geology, astronomy, general science, beer or even stuff I’m covering in school, it’s all fair game. It helps me to learn and retain information about things that interest and excite me. In time I’ll decide which area of geology to concentrate on, and if I’m still blogging, the content will become more refined as well. Until then I’ll continue to blog about the random pieces of science that catch my attention.