Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Today a student wanted to work in my lab, but when he started switching on the computers and the other fancy boxes, the general fuse tripped and all boxes and computers went back to silence.

From my point of view there were two possibilities for him to handle this situation:
a) walking over to the general lab manager, who lives just across the corridor and telling him about the situation.
b) in case the general lab manager is not in his office: calling me on the phone and telling me about the situation, because I'm the not-so-general lab manager and he has my mobile number.

For some reason he opted for the not so obvious version
c) walking away, without telling anybody
Back at his desk he wrote an email to me and went off to attend a class. 

When I found out about this whole situation, it was already to late to call the electricians in right away... *sigh*

Its clear, that he did not want to sneak out of the situation unseen, otherwise he wouldn't have written this email, but for some reason the direct approach - talking to a person in charge directly - was too difficult, even though the general lab manager is the kindest person you can imagine and I usually don't get mad at people as well - esp. not if they are obviously embarrassed about what happened AND its not their fault. 
I'm not sure what would be a good strategy to encourage shy students, how much I have to take their cultural background into account (both the shy-student-encouters were with Chinese students) and at which point I should stop being sensitive and start saying "Don't make such a fuss, student". I guess thats a continuous learning process on both sides...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

the arts of introducing

To be able to write a deep and meaningful publication, which at the same time s fluent to read and guides the reader through the different levels of it, is a very valuable skill in academia. If you can take your reader by the hand from the first sentence on and he doesn't want to let go until you are at the Acknowledgements, you are one of the very good "story-tellers" of your subject.

When I read a publication, I usually read through Abstract and Conclusions at first to get a feeling for the significance of the content. Then I check the experimental section, if there is one, for methods, sample preparation procedures, error estimations, etc. and then I read Results and Discussions.
The section Introduction usually does not get very much attention - maybe just the last few sentences of it, where the authors summarize what they will do. At some point during my PhD thesis I stopped reading Introductions because it was just so disappointing. In my field everybody seems to choose the same opening sentences on and on again - something along this line: "This research is so important, because it will save the world...". Which of course it will not, but that would be hard to admit. A while ago I had a discussion about this issue with some colleagues and one of them suggested to write something like this, instead: "Based on our investigations related to the funding level in various fields, this topic here seems to be the most lucrative one, so we decided to jump on it." This, of course, is a bit exaggerated as well, but it would be a bit more honest than the "we'll save the world" line.
So, the standard opening sentences are then followed by a line-up of "this group did this" and "these guys found that", which - if you are very lucky - leads to an "and based on this and for these five good reasons, we studied the following topic". Usually what you get is a totally not connected "and we studied snow flakes". So, usually, the Introduction does not give you much meaningful background and it's not used to set the scene for the authors work.
But some people really know how to use the Introduction in a way that the rest of their writing benefits from it. There will be a sentence about the general history of the topic to set the scene and to make clear why this is an interesting field. Then you'll be guided through the achievements of other researchers and the questions they tried to answer, to then finally arrive at the point where the actual paper starts. And you'll have the impression, that you start well prepared with some good background knowledge in this new piece of research - which does not mean, that you won't be hopelessly lost somewhere in the middle of the Discussion section. But at least the authors took care that you had a great start and the topic and you were well introduced to each other.
So far, I only know a handful of people, who can write engaging Introduction sections and I sometimes wonder, if they have a special skill or if they just try harder. And if this ability is reflected in the success rates of their funding proposals. And if they know about their amazing style of writing....

Friday, February 24, 2012


My current professor and my former professor are setting up a grant proposal together. In this context I was reading through their CV related documents today to do a bit of typo-checking. And I must say, that even though I knew already what amazing careers paths they both have, I was once more impressed by it. They are both very impressive chaps (imagine that I put a lot of respect in this word), each one in his own very special way.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

listen and think - no way

I really do envy people, who can just put their headphones on, vanish into their own world of music AND work at the same time. As soon as I have music on my ears, my whole brain seems to be completely focusing on that. I'm maybe able to do some stupid, repetitive data analysis stuff, but nothing more than that. No clear thought can move through my brain without being totally shaken into bits and pieces. I can start reading the same sentence 10 times and if it's longer than 5 words, I'll not make it to the end of it. This gets even worse, when someone else has headphones on and I slightly hear his/her music - that drives me nuts - even if its "good" music. At my last position I was commuting by train each day and I gave up the idealistic thought of "doing a bit of reading on the train" very quickly, because in public transport there is always at least one person, who seems to be half-deaf but still has to listen to music in public. Or forgets to actually plug in the headphones and doesn't realize that the French Chansons sound strange today.

Is that genetically fixed or are there any tricks or trainings to overcome this brain shutdown during appearance of music? Yoga? Scented candles? Mixed pickles?

(This article was written, while my neighbors were indulging in Indian pop-music)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

women and technical stuff

During the last two weeks I encountered two very different situations, which both fall under the topic "women and technical stuff".
1) the situation that was more familiar to me:
I asked one of our lab managers if we have a drill, because I need to drill a hole in a table. He said, that for sure we have one and I can have it any time after properly being inducted in the schools workshop. Then I could even use all the other fantastic tools that we have there. And the he asked, if I'm good with tools, because maybe it would be a better idea to ask one of the guys - means one of my PhD students - to do that for me. After reassuring that I have seen and used a hammer and a drill before without hurting myself, he agreed to give me the induction for the workshop.
 2) the situation that pleased me more:
A piece of equipment broke down in the lab and because we thought, there might be a problem with the labs electrical grounding, an electrician came by to have a look at it. Even though there were two male lab managers in the room he nearly exclusively talked to the person in charge - me.

Ever since the first time I got a washing machine delivered and hooked up, had questions about my Internet connection or wanted to buy a mobile phone, there were men, who ignored me and talked to my male companion instead or - if there was no male companion - lectured me about technical stuff as if I had been living in a pink, glittering Barbie world before. I got used to that by now and mostly I don't take it personally - I just think its stupid.
However, once in a while there are guys like the electrician, who just take your questions seriously and try to help YOU - not the random guys, who happen to stand beside you.  And I have the impression these kind of guys are slowly becoming more...   
I really like that! It makes my day! 

Friday, February 10, 2012

the "little girl"

A few month ago a new PhD student started in our group and as she decided to work in my field I became her co-supervisor. She is pretty smart and picks up new stuff very quickly. She is always well prepared for her meetings with our professor and gives nice talks in the group seminars, where she appears as very confident about her topic. But beside this "confident PhD student" there as well exists the "little girl". As soon as her talk is over the "little girl" takes over, which means, she does not just walk back to her seat, but she sort of runs with tiny girl steps. Sometimes the "little girl" even shows up during meetings and makes the "confident PhD student" press her hand on her mouth, giggle and blush for no specific reason. But what concerns me the most is that, even though the "confident PhD student" asks all sorts of questions about her project and even defends her ideas, when the boss doesn't agree right away, the "little girl" is too shy to tell him, when she literally doesn't understand a word he says, because her English is not yet good enough. So she sits in our meetings and smiles and nods, just to ask me directly after the meeting what the last 10 minutes were all about.

Luckily, she is at least not too shy to ask me about it later on, but I really wonder how I can move her, to tell us right away, when we talk too fast, with too much accent or just not accurate enough. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

money makes the world go round

The Australian government is recently discussing the pro's and con's of the Living away from home allowance (LAFHA). This allowance means for people from overseas, who come to work in Australia and are not a permanent resident, that they get some part of their salary tax-free. The idea behind it is that somebody who comes to Australia for maybe a year might still have financial responsibilities in his/her home town and this tax-free money is supposed to compensate for that. The LAFHA is mainly split into two parts: part one says that what one pays as rent will be tax-free, part two gives a certain amount of money "for food" as tax-free (how much that is depends on how man people belong to the household and the amount is calculated fresh every year). The weird situation is, that the more rent ones pays the more salary becomes tax-free and from the governments point of view, this possibility as been abused too much during the last years.
But instead of finding a better way to regulate that, it seems that the current plan is to stop the whole LAHFA thing completely - already from July on. This of course would bring in quite a bit of tax-money, but for a lot of people it would mean a very sudden and sharp decrease of their net income. If one can trust the numbers I saw in an information session of my uni, we talk about something like 10k per year less. That's tough!
In general, I must say, that when I came here I was surprised about this kind of "free money" and the amount of it. So I would have no objections, if the government would reduce this amount a bit or bring in different rules, that prevent the abuse. But cutting it off completely is a bit like changing the rules in the middle of the game. I'm sure a lot of people informed them self much better about how much money they'll have in their pocket, than I did. And I'm sure that quite a few of them would have reconsidered the job offer if they were told that they will earn 10k or 15k less per year.
If the new taxation comes as planned, recruiting new staff from overseas will become much more difficult for universities and its very likely that quite a few people, who already work here, will think about the duration of their stay once more.
Interesting times...

Friday, February 3, 2012

do it!

I love list! To-do lists! Where I can write down all the tasks that are swirling around in my head. I use to-do lists for my private and my professional me, so I don't loose track no matter what.

My first to-do lists date back to when I was a teenager and I noted down pretty much everything, just to have the joy of ticking tasks off the list a lot more often.

During my undergrads I had list of what I would like to do (seeing a movie, meeting with friends, writing a letter, going to a concert,...), because time passed by while I often was stuck in front of the TV or the computer and I needed to be reminded that my life can be more exciting than that. 
I still use this type of lists and they are very helpful to prevent me from "being too tired" every evening. By now I'm not using paper lists for that but a program that pops up little notes on my desktop (still sitting too much in front of my computer) once a week and once a month. They are reminding me to write postcards to friends, to go for a swim, to see a movie/go to the theater, to read a paper that is not related to my subject just out of curiosity or to cook something I've never tried before. I had a note that was popping up each day, which said "read a random Wikipedia article" and "make 20 sit-ups" - but my private me got bored pretty fast by the daily to-do list.
My most professional "professional" to-do lists were made during my PhD thesis. I was commuting every day to uni and used that time to make a list with the tasks for the upcoming day. And I became extremely good at judging what kind of work and how much of it I could handle. Sitting in the train on my way home in the evening with a completely ticked of list was always very satisfying.
For some reason this concept does not work as good anymore. Dealing with three PhD students plus my own projects and the responsibilities in the lab gives me the feeling that I can't plan my day beforehand anyways. So I sort of stopped trying. I started weekly list but even that is chaotic and often enough I can only tick off stuff like fixed appointments. I'm not sure what's the real cause for my to-do list dilemma: is it really the bigger diversity of my projects or maybe the lack of progress control by other people / supervisors? Do I become lazy or is it just bad time management? 
Maybe I need to find a new way to kick my own butt, at least the professional one - but I'll always love to-do lists!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

clean and fresh page

There was the idea, that writing about all the stuff that goes on in my small science world could be an interesting project and that it might help me as a non-native English speaker/writer to improve my writing skills. 
But before I opened up this first page of my fresh blog, I did some research and was amazed and delighted how many interesting blogs there already are. So I read for a few weeks what others have to say about their life at uni, their careers, their ways of work-life balance (and the discussions about the existence of it) and all the stories coming along with that. 
Then I searched for a good name for my project and again was amazed how many people had the same ideas - unfortunately often already years before me.
Now "Whooshing sound" is based on something Douglas Adams once supposedly said: "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
And as the Grant writing season just started again in Australia, I'd say this a terrific name.