Monday, October 29, 2012

Do bats have eyes?

Out of curiosity I wanted to see what google suggested is one of the main questions regarding bats and apparently it is 'do bats have eyes?'  The answer to this question is yes.  In fact many bats have big beautiful eyes.  In some cases bats do not rely on their sight very much and instead echolocate, other bats use their noses to find fruits but some use their eyes extensively.  Here you can see some beautiful examples of bat eyes!  Also- should you like musical inspiration while perusing please enjoy a cover of 'Call me Al'' by Noah and the Whale- a song with its reference to a 'rolly polly little bat faced girl' that just comes to mind when I consider bat faces!
Science Photo library winning photo by Steve Gschmeissner

Ok some species have tiny little 'batty'-eyes!

Friday, October 19, 2012

I'll see you at the bat meetings!

Really?  A meeting all about bats?!  Yes.  Why?  Because bat biologists need a place to get together and update each other regarding their research and network!

What better?

For the last 42 years the North American Society for Bat Research (NASBR) has met annually (now in October of course- what better month?!) 
Taken from their website:
"The North American Society for Bat Research (NASBR) is a society dedicated to the promotion and development of the scientific study of bats (Chiroptera) in all its branches, including conservation and public education. The society holds an annual meeting called the North American Symposium on Bat Research, usually in October, of professional bat researchers from throughout North America, with occasional attendees from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America."

This year the meetings will be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  255+ participants from across the globe will get together to geek out over their favorite taxonomic group: bats!

Entire days will be spent on topics like White Nose Syndrome and bat conservation in general.  I will do my best to update as the conference progresses with interesting and important talks or topics that come up!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Postdocs, academic gypsies, hobos, vagabonds?

What is a postdoc really all about?  A wise postdoc here at my current university compared it to being an 'academic gypsy'.  The description fit and stuck in my head and has since turned into a web of thoughts.  What makes the lifestyle of a postdoc so different from a graduate students (beyond the obvious qualifications)? 

To start off let's clarify- in case you don't know: a postdoc is a position you may take upon completing your PhD.  Assuming you plan to continue in academia for example to become a professor (at least in the sciences) it is almost a pre-requisite.  A postdoctoral position is intended to provide you with skills you didn't acquire during your PhD or that you would like to refine.  You conduct research and are paid by a principle investigator, the school or some external funding source.  You work hard, try to publish lots and hopefully enjoy the heck out of it!  That said it can be (is generally) hard work.  You may even be called upon to be the work horse of the lab, a 'lab coordintaor' who is in charge of other students or other activities in the lab.  Most postdocs last about 2 years (if you are lucky) some 1 (if you are unlucky) and others longer (if you are REALLY lucky).  Because you likely need several years to get sufficient experience and publications from your postdoc most people have 2 or more post docs before applying for a long-term academic position and this number increases all the time as more and more qualified folks are on the job market.  Thus, you can imagine that the second you arrive you are advised to start applying for another postdoc and that all of this can lead to a transient lifestyle.


So what fits best: academic gypsy?  hobo?  vagabond?  let me even suggest a few additional options: trustafarian or  beatnik?  It probably depends to some degree on what kind of postdoc you do (or don't) secure for yourself.

1.  The 'gypsy' in the post-doc
Now obviously gypsy refers to in many cases a group of people better referred to as Romani (or other ethnic groups).  However, it is also presents the connotation of a way of life, and this is the way I am using the word here - i.e. 'a nomadic way of life'.  Romantic notion although it may have been/usually was not out of choice: traveling the world, nothing but the road in front of you and nothing holding you down.  Certainly sounds great.  In fact the term Bohemianism is related to this very life style and things like 'the bohemian index' are used to denote the general intellectual creativity of a place!  I think this term perhaps best fits the postdoctoral lifestyle.  Part choice part necessity.  You must move to pursue your endeavors...  Generally it is a dynamic time in your career in terms of ideas.  Voluntary poverty in some cases.

A beautiful gypsy woman at Ellis Island (1902).  This woman's expression reminded me of that of other immigrants such as those below.
Volga River Germans in a refuge camp in Germany after kicked out of Russia.  My 'German' relatives came from this group who moved from Germany to the Steppes and Volga River area of Russia and as ethnic Germans were later asked to leave. 
Not 'gypsy' but a gypsy life-style illustrating that this type of 'moving from place to place can be for many different reason.

2.  the 'hobo'
 You may or may not already be aware of my idealization of Woodie Guthrie but in case you are not- here it comes again.  A working class soul transversing the land to take it all in, to experience it and fight against the fascist machine.  This is sounding about right.  Full of ideas and noble notions, not yet burned down by the rigmarole - but there is a catch: are you living out in the streets?  do you have a car?  a house?  Has poverty and desolation driven you from your home to seek better options?  Hard to say.

Woodie Guthrie spreading his word.  A lonesome traveler, traveling from town to town.

Beautiful image from  Another view of the hobo- here an optimistic view of what can be.
3.  the 'trustafarian'
There are indeed some postdocs that are so very prestigious that I think receiving one might be compared to being a trust fund baby.  The trustafarian all comes in based on how you use it.  A trustafarian is generally (in my mind) a young person who comes from money but chooses to talk about politics, ideas etc. without ever having to really WORK for a living so these notions come without a lot of personal experience of how the working man lives (sort of the opposite of our hobo postdoc)! 

4.  the 'beatnik'
Yes, you can picture it.  Intellectual.  But- I never got what this generation did for work.  That said- a hero of mind: Keroauc seemed to have gotten it right.  My favourite book of his: the Dharma Bums describes his time in the Sierras serving as a fire watch.  Maybe just soaking it all up and sharing these experiences through papers submitted to theoretical journals or writing tomes reminiscent of John Muir and Edward Abbey are what this group is all about.

In summary- I think it is what a person makes of the experience (of course as well as circumstance).  Lucky is the soul who can be a gypsy, hobo or vagabond as many others are tied to the place they find themselves for one reason or another.  I think by allowing people at this stage the opportunity to travel somewhere new they are able to grow and develop new ideas- perhaps while moving to work with an expert in the field who was previously far away.  I would love to hear what other people's thoughts and or experiences in the matter of 'what is a postdoc really like' are!

crisp changes

After what seemed to the longest destination-orientated road trip of all time: starting in California and ending in Massachusetts, I am at my destination in crisp New England.  Leaving behind the hot aseasonal summer (i.e. it never is truly fall) of my days as a PhD student in Southern California and starting my first fall as a postdoc the change from hot to the cold crisp fall of Massachusetts.  

(Pictured below is one amazing co-pilot and mostly willing participant...)

It is amazingly beautiful here.  Cold but beautiful.

I don't know what the change from PhD student to Postdoc is like for most people.  So far for me it covers most areas of my life: I live in a new place (let me say I LOVE my new apartment!) in a new city which is entirely different from where I lived before.  I chose to live in a town neighboring the University I'll be working at given it's reputation.  Northampton, MA is considered a seat of bohemian culture.  It is an art community, a home to intellectuals and also as home to Smith college and thus it is also a LGBT friendly city.  I love the perks of all of these attributes which include a suite of cool restaurants and stores within walking distance and local farmers markets as well as an involved community.  Instead of buying all my groceries at the grocery store I can buy them on the side of the road where they are grown!

The department at my new school (in Amherst) is great and now instead of walking to school I take a bus (another change).  My first week here there were several exciting events at the University: a wine and cheese sunset hike, a Science Cafe among others.  Other obvious changes: new people.  I miss my lab mates and friends but irony of ironies one of my very favorite people from my undergraduate and Master's lab is in my new lab!

The final transition is my research.  New projects to pursue abound and I have spent the last week or so reminding myself of what needs to be done to start them.  I look forward to sharing that information here as I proceed.  I meanwhile am making every effort to wrap up old projects which in many ways is equally exciting as it seems the transition from 'dissertation chapter' to 'submitted chapter' is easier than the usual preparation of a manuscript.  I suspect it is all the feedback you receive from your dissertation committee on each and every paragraph you write!   

(Below a view from the window of my new apartment.  Beautiful golden leaves are visible each morning!)
I suspect for many people fall signifies the end of summer.  For me fall has always represented the beginning.  Its the time of year you start school, its when you reap harvests and of course I remember the days of 'back to school shopping' so it is uniquely tied to new clothes as well!  So this beginning as a postdoc in the fall seems appropriate.  I am signing off here enjoying a crisp fall morning view and I look forward to many exiting updates in the weeks ahead!