An explanation for the interlude

No, I haven’t forgotten about my blog nor my readers (all two or three of you). I figured after the end of the Fall Term I would have more time to write and get back to spreading the joys of meteorites, science, and whatever else caught my attention. Something I didn’t take into account was a little thing called an abstract. I’m at the point in my research where I have enough data to finally start telling a story about my meteorite. The goal is to have an abstract submitted for a poster and accepted for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in March. The dead line is January 9th and with me being gone in San Francisco from December 23rd to January 3rd, I’m under a lot of pressure to get it out of the way.

I still have my basic duties in the meteorite lab, too. Primarily that of responding to e-mails when people think they might have a meteorite. This is a task where I can easily just say “no, you don’t have one” and move on, but I use it as a chance to tell them what they possibly have and why it’s not a meteorite. Some of the e-mails get kinda long as there are some people who like to argue that their river rock is indeed a  meteorite. Or better yet, argue with me as to why they believe they have a martian meteorite. It’s science outreach and something I do take seriously. Even when someone tells me that they’ve buried half of their meteorite because they don’t want NASA coming to take it (true e-mail).

But most of my time has been spent processing data from the SEM and learning geochemistry on the fly. I’ve probably learned more from my work in the meteorite lab than I have any other class. I’m starting to become familiar with cooling rates as ascertained from Fe-Mg diffusion distances and now I’m reading a paper on the solidification of metal-troilite grains in chondrites. All of which is needed for the completion of my abstract and to give me a general background of meteorite fundamentals. I’ve enjoyed my project so far, but it’s also been very intimidating. I keep thinking one day I’m going to get exposed as a fraud who really has no clue what the hell he’s talking about. In my head, that conversation  revolves around not knowing the difference between lodranites and acapulcoites. Or, even worse, differentiating between LL3.1 and LL3.2. Okay… So, I’m being a bit dramatic, but that imposter feeling is still there.

I just keep repeating to myself that I’m never going to amount to anything if I’m not willing to look stupid from time to time. It’s in that spirit that I keep moving forward even when I think I would have been better off in a squishy major.

Imposter cat

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.

#Iamscience, or how I got involved in space rocks.

I know. I’m late on this meme, but I do have some very compelling reasons. A couple months ago, when #Iamscience was the talk of the science-verse on Twitter, I was up to my neck in school work, meteorite research, and a moribund relationship. Instead, I squeaked out a tweet about my math difficulties, gave it the #Iamscience hashtag and went back to treading water for the remainder of the Winter term. Now that the Spring term has started and I’ve somewhat recovered from the death of a five-year relationship, I feel like I’m in a much better position to talk about how I got involved in science and grew to love meteorites.

I wasn’t a science and math genius as a kid. What I had were parents who recognized my interest in astronomy and bought me a cheap little Tasco telescope from Wal-Mart. I don’t remember if it was for my birthday or for Christmas. All I remember was the excitement of breaking out that 2.4 inch refractor from the box and setting it up without looking at the directions. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but let me say what a glorious gift that was! I remember cruising the Pleiades and Orion’s Nebula during the cold Missouri winters. Summer vacation was spent traipsing through the Summer Triangle in the Milk Way. Jupiter and its dancing moons became a nightly game of guess-which-moon-is-which as they conspired in their galactic version of musical chairs. And then there was Saturn. If ever there was a “holy shit” moment in my young life, it came from stumbling across the queen of the Solar System.

I was hooked. For about two years (which seems like eternity for a 12-14 year old) I devoured everything astronomy related. On a 7th grade field trip to the Pittsburg State University planetarium, I was that annoying kid who kept asking questions about focal ratios and mirror diameters. It was, in a way, a very empowering F-you moment in an otherwise hellish junior high experience.

In spite of all my enthusiasm for the stars, I still couldn’t get past my math fears. My sixth grade math teacher had ridiculed me in front of my class for not being able to do simple arithmetic on the board. My parents found out about this episode and verbally flogged in her in the principal’s office, but it still wasn’t enough to undo the damage. I went through junior high and high school with a palpitation-inducing mathphobia that pretty much destroyed my math confidence and the desire to do anything with it. Those hesitations prevented me from pursuing astronomy and science in general throughout my high school career.

After graduating high school, I entered a transient point in my life. I’m going to spare you the details of my early and mid-20′s. Suffice it to say, I moved to Hawaii and studied Intercultural Communications (whatever the hell that was) and then ended up in Portland, Oregon as a culinary arts student. Told ya it was a transient period. I then spent a couple more years cooking before I realized that I really wanted to be a scientist. Mathphobia be damned.

At the age of 26, after two career expectation changes, I decided to enroll in Portland State’s geology program. I was attracted to the program because of the space and planetary science minor. Nearly two and a half years later, I’m about halfway through the program. I’ve also been working in the meteorite lab geeking out over thin sections and even doing original research.

It has not been easy. I wasn’t a math or science prodigy as a kid and I sure as hell ain’t one now. I’ve retaken Calculus 1 twice and I’ll be doing the same thing for Calculus 2 and linear algebra. It’s a safe bet that I’ll be doing the same for Calculus 4. At times it’s frustrating and I just wanna give up and slink back to whatever kitchen will let me peel potatoes or cut onions. You wanna watch me sweat and start contemplating the end of my academic career? Give me some partial fractions to work on. Or some obnoxiously large matrix that needs to be reduced to row-echelon form.

There are days that I wonder if I’m cut out for the life of an academic. I look at some of my fellow undergrads who seem to understand the math and it’s kind of an isolating feeling. I watch them get their B’s and the occasional A’s and get that much closer to graduating or entering grad school. Meanwhile, I’m mired in calculus wondering when things will click or, worst yet, will it ever click. There are definitely occasions where I wonder if I’m not wasting my time and that of my professors.

When I get to that point, I try to remember why I went back to school. It wasn’t because it was easy, but because it was a challenge. And it will always be such. There are those “a-ha” moments that serve as a fleeting reminder that knowledge and understanding only come with perseverance and just a stupid amount of stubborn determination.

And then there’s the meteorite lab itself. Working in the lab and having projects has given me a tangible motivation to not give up. It’s a consistent reminder of what I’m fighting to accomplish with my life. It’s there that I see the usefulness of the integral and everything else that has eluded my understanding. As clichéd as it sounds, working in the lab has kept me in school. It’s kept me from saying screw it and studying… oh I don’t know… something squishy like sociology. (Of course, I’m joking. I don’t actually believe sociology is squishy. Not completely anyways).

So, what was the point of all this? Why did I make you sit through a short history of my childhood and late 20′s? To show the unconventionality of my path to science. I still haven’t collected enough cereal box tops for my scientist badge, but I’m getting there. Slowly. And I’ll get there because I’m a stubborn bastard.

(Many thanks to @Kzelnio on twitter for starting this dialogue. Visit here and here for more #Iamscience stories.)

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?

How a small Oregon town continues to teach me about geology

Our families land and house in Glide. The Little River is to the left of the image behind the trees.

About a year ago this month I wrote about the geology of Glide, Oregon. For those unfamiliar with the town, Glide is a few miles east of Roseburg in the Umpqua Valley of southern Oregon. It pretty much lies in the foothills off the Cascade mountains and it’s one of the last towns you’ll see heading out to Crater Lake on OR 138. My partners grandparents live down there and it’s been somewhat of a vacation spot of ours for the past four years.

When I wrote that post I’d only taken two general geology courses and a three day field trip to central Oregon. I knew just enough about geology to sound intelligent to the lay person, but grossly misinformed to anyone who knew the difference between dacite and andesite.

One of many serpentinite outcrops in the river bed

Regardless of my ignorance, I tried to write as thorough of a post as possible based on some of my observations. I also included pictures taken with my old eye-fone 3GS to illustrate my explanations. To be sure, there were a lot of things I couldn’t explain. Take for example the masses of green serpentinite in the river bed behind my grandparents house. I knew that it was a metamorphic rock that only formed at great depths. So, how did it find it’s way to the surface of the earth? The only explanation I could conceive was that the river carved it’s way through the valley, and with the aid of uplift, the serpentinite was exposed. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I was looking at an ophiolite- sea floor rocks exposed at the surface of the earth. (For a great explanation of an ophiolite, I highly recommend Evelyn Mervine’s O is for Ophiolite blog post.)

A very sneaky piece of serpentinite masquerading as gneiss

However, I didn’t let that stop me from trying to figure out the geology of the area. Every time we went down there, I brought my rock hammer, hand lens and a little bottle of hydrochloric acid to look for the signature fizz of a carbonate rock. I found the usual assortment of sedimentary river rock, more serpentinite, and rocks that developed a calcite band or crust from the flow of the river. One of the more unusual rocks I found was what I thought to be a piece of gneiss. It displayed the usual banding and as such I always referred to it as gneiss. However, on this last trip, I took a closer look at the rock and realized it was another piece of serpentinite sporting some gneiss-like banding.

Since that first blog post, I’ve had geomorphology, mineralogy and petrology. The latter of which did more to help my understanding of geology than anything I had taken up to that point. It was from the petrology field trip to eastern Oregon that I learned about the power of observation- and by this I mean the capacity to unravel the mysteries of a landscape by looking at the various rocks and landforms of the area. It was on that trip and on this one to Glide that I realized geology is a balancing act. It’s equal parts understanding the land for what it is and what it was. Focus too much on one or the other and you lose out on the majesty and greatness of what you’re studying.

An outcrop of heavily weathered serpentinite. Apparently it gets quite a few visits from other geology students.

With that experience and knowledge in hand, I decided to take a look at some of the outcrops around our families land. A few of the outcrops I figured were basalt. This was more assumption than observation. 9 times out of 10, if you guess a rock is basalt in the state of Oregon, chances are you’re right. After some whacking with the rock hammer, I realized that the outcrop was composed of serpentinite. In fact most of the road cuts in the area were composed of serpentinite. And since this is ophiolite country, the odds are good that the rest of the hills are composed of unexposed sheeted dikes, gabbros and, dare I say it, basalt. Just not of the Columbia River kind.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Glide during all seasons and see the way the Little River affects the rocks and surrounding area. During Summer months, the river runs at it’s lowest and is great for swimming and finding rocks. In the Spring the river tends to run at it’s highest and possesses a deafening roar. One can see the cycle of the river by looking at the tops of the outcrops in the middle of the river. On this last visit I noticed tree trunks on these outcrops that stand at least 20 feet.

That large tree trunk wasn't there last summer


Scour marks left behind from gravel in fast flowing water

When the water is low enough you can start to see scour marks and pot holes in the surrounding rocks. These are left by the pebbles and gravel of the river as they churn about in eddy’s from the fast flowing winter waters. The first time I saw those scour marks I was immediately reminded of the marks left behind by the advance of glaciers. Unlike glaciers though, rivers can also create pot holes in the underlying rock. I’m not terribly sure how it works, but I think it has to do with sediment getting trapped in the current and slowly being driven into the rock, much like a never ending jack hammer.

One of the much larger pot holes in the river bed. This one comes just a few feet away from the previous picture with the scour marks.

Now the point of this post isn’t to show off what I know or how much I’ve learned in the past year. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Regardless of the classes I take, the books I read, and the research done, there will always be something for me to learn. Doing geology, and science in particular, means becoming comfortable with the unknown and getting cozy with your ignorance. This doesn’t mean one should become complacent in their knowledge though. It just means for every piece of information you learn, there are at least a dozen other pieces of the puzzle that still need to be discovered. People don’t get involved in science because they know it all, but because they don’t know it all. And it’s for that reason I will continue beating rocks and playing in the river bed when we go to Glide.

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.

End of the term musings

*Initially this was to be posted at the beginning of the week, but I wasn’t happy with the many iterations that came before it. I’ve scraped it many times and I finally decided to stop stressing over it and just publish it*

The end of the term is always such a strange time for me. The last three or so weeks before finals I get into a routine that involves a lot of frantic studying and worrying about papers and projects. Then the last week (dead week as we like to call it) arrives and I descend into the “OMG i’m not going to pass any of my classes” phase. At the end of finals week, when I should I be feeling some sort of relief, I end up feeling a little lost. I get so used to having my back to the wall, that, when said wall is taken away, I have to figure out how  to stand again. So, instead of feeling some sort of relief, I just wish for something else to stress over.

Thankfully, that only lasts for a few minutes before the post-finals adrenaline rush settles and my sanity returns. Not to mention an overwhelming need to sleep.  And have a few beers.

But there’s also that time to reflect on the things that I could have done better. Let’s take my calculus class for example. Statistically, at PSU, about half of the  Calc one students will need to retake the class. At the beginning of the term I told myself that I would not be in that category. However I struggled with a lot of concepts and inefficiently spent my time grinding through the text instead of simply talking to my instructor. To be honest, I did have an excellent calc tutor (who also happens to be my best friend) whom I didn’t utilize as much as I could have, but that probably would have required her moving in with me. So now I find myself retaking calculus next term. I didn’t fail, but I’m certain that my grade won’t be high enough to count towards my bachelors. Even if I do escape the class with a C, it’ll be in my best interests to retake it. Calculus is far too important for me to just be content with getting by.

My other two classes were a bit of toss up. I found the concepts in the second round of chemistry to be easier to understand than last term, but the tests were brutal enough to make me doubt what I actually knew. Sadly enough, this spring will be the last mandatory chem class I have to take for my degree. In spite of some of the difficulties I’ve had, chemistry has been a lot of fun and, if the time permits, I may take a couple more classes.

Mineralogy was about the same. It started off rather slow with us covering crystallography and the various crystals classes, structures, space groups and how it all plots on a stereonet. It wasn’t the easiest part of the course. Trying to visualize the inversions, mirror faces and the symmetrical aspects was rather challenging because I’m not terribly good at recognizing spatial features. Once we got into the microscope work things got really interesting. You don’t really know a mineral or a rock until you’ve studied its thin section under polarized and cross polarized light. Nothing is cooler than seeing the undulatory extinction pattern in quartz or the zebra like twinning features of plagioclase.  Next term I’ll be taking petrology which seems like it’ll be an extension of mineralogy. There will be lots of microscope work and time spent with thin sections and the hand samples from which they came. Not to mention a daunting amount of memorization of crystal classes, structures and chemical make-ups.

With all that being said, i’m gonna wrap up this post. I wanted to end it with something inspiring or at the very least a proper closing sentence, but I can’t think of anything. So, I’m just going to hit the publish button and call it good.