Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Flew North

Downtown Houston

Devin with His Bear

A Note From Lydia

Hello from Michigan!

I flew north on Thursday, and I’ve been spending the week with my family.  It is lovely chaos around here, beautiful and sweet and overwhelming all at the same time.  I haven’t been in Michigan in June in a long, long time, and the weather has been absolutely gorgeous.  We’ve been enjoying dinners eaten on the deck and an impromptu waterslide party.  My niece Lydia and I are the first ones up in the morning, and we wake up with computer games (for her) and some puttering and coffee-drinking (for me).  My nephew Devin is a handful in the best way, ever so determined to keep us chasing after him.  He does this hilarious thing where he tries to wear everything as a hat—a bright orange colander, a tiny wooden bowl, a slice of banana, pieces of turkey.  And everything is funny to him, so it’s hard not to laugh with him.  I  sometimes feel like being with these kids is an all-or-nothing proposition.  I’m either here with them, completely absorbed, or I’m trying to catch my breath and take a break for the next round of fun.  It’s wonderful and completely exhausting.

Tomorrow my sister-in-law and I are hoping to take the kids to a waterpark, and tonight we’re grilling dinner out on the deck.  Dinner plans include these awesome chickpea burgers and grilled peaches, along with grilled veggies and perhaps some burgers for my more carnivorous family members.  I’m happy I have one more full day in Michigan before it’s on to the next leg of my summer travels—Chicago!  I am not always the most patient or graceful of travelers, but I am always glad I dared to break my routine for a few days.  I’m such a creature of habit and order that I can’t help but think it’s good for me to shake things up every couple of months.

It’s good to remember that the world is much, much bigger than my little corner of it.

Race Day Morning

Saturday, June 16, 2012

No, Seriously.

Remember when I mentioned I had a 40-pound watermelon in my living room?

I was not kidding.  Behold, a watermelon as heavy as an eight-year-old child!

That is One Big Watermelon

I acquired this gentle giant from my friend Erin, who has a share in a local CSA.  She’s been donating some of the harvest to me so that her kitchen isn’t overrun by wayward produce.

It is ridiculous for a single person to accept a 40-pound watermelon into her home.  How much watermelon can one person eat?  The answer is: more than you think.  Watermelon is so very delicious, yet so very watery that it’s easy to eat a lot.  Plus I haven’t had watermelon in years—years!—and the novelty of it makes me happy.  It sounds cliché, but it really does take me back to the endless summers of my childhood, to backyard birthday parties and Fourth of July celebrations, where there was always a big watermelon cut into thick wedges.  We would bite down gently into the crisp fruit, spitting out the black seeds everywhere, and the juice would run down our chins and fingers, rendering us a sticky, summery mess. 

It was glorious.

No Seriously

(Yeah, wow.  I know.  It’s awesome and terrifying all at the same time.) 

I’ve made a good dent in this beast.  I chopped up a bunch of it and stuffed it in the fridge, to be eaten when watermelon cravings hit.  I also tried two recipes, including one which I served to Courtney of From Austin to A&M when she came over for dinner last Sunday.  I had so much watermelon that I just had to share the bounty!

I’ll be honest: I’m not completely smitten with either of these recipes.  I feel like they have potential, but I’m not sure what I want to do with them.  I will say this though: the homemade watermelon soda that I made with the watermelon soup puree was one of the tastiest things I ate this week.  That recipe (if such simplicity can be called a recipe) is a keeper.  Cheers to watermelon!

Watermelon Soup 

Watermelon-Citrus Soup with Mint and Chilies

From a recipe described by Lynn Rossetto Kasper on The Splendid Table

Serves 3-4

4 cups cubed watermelon, black seeds removed

1 lime, zested and then juiced

1/2 tsp. soy sauce

1/4 tsp. ground ginger (see headnote)

1 jalapeno, finely chopped

Handful of fresh mint, finely sliced

1)  In a blender, buzz together the watermelon, lime zest and juice, soy sauce, and ground ginger until smooth.

2)  Ladle the watermelon puree into bowls or mugs and top with a bit of chopped jalepeno and fresh mint.  Eat!

* For homemade watermelon soda, pour some of that watermelon puree from step 1 into a glass and top with some bubbly water.  This is so delicious and refreshing—a perfect summer beverage, especially after an outside run.  The watermelon puree is so sweet that you don’t need additional sugar, and the bubbles are just fun.  Make this! 

Watermelon and Feta Salad

Watermelon-Feta Salad

Adapted from this recipe via Jacques Pepin and Food & Wine 

This salad is an unusual sweet-and-savory combination.  I made my salad with what I had on hand.  If I were to make this again, I would try to include the olives and perhaps omit the onion.  I happen to like raw onion, but it’s not to everyone’s taste, and I think the salty, meaty punch of the olives would be a better fit with the juicy watermelon and creamy feta.

One more note: if possible, try to combine everything together at the last minute.  The watermelon will let off a lot of juice once it’s salted, so the salad can become watery.  The flavors are still great, but the texture doesn’t last as nicely.

1/4 cup white or yellow onion, finely diced

1/4 tsp. salt 

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

4 cups cubed watermelon, black seeds removed

1/3 cup crumbled feta

1 tbsp. olive oil, preferably a fruity, extra-virgin one like the one made by Olivas de Oro (which is really, really delicious)

A handful of chopped fresh mint

Freshly ground black pepper, optional

1)  In a small bowl, combine the chopped onion, salt, and lemon juice.  Toss together, then cover and set aside to marinate for 15-30 minutes.  This marination will help tame the onion’s heat and punchiness.

2)  In a large bowl, gently toss together all the ingredients.  Taste and adjust the seasonings, grinding over some black pepper if desired.  If possible, serve immediately.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Science Postdoc Wonders: Does the NIH See Value in Teaching?

Below is the piece that I submitted to The Chronicle of Higher Education about the research/teaching conundrum for science graduate students and new PhDs.  The Chronicle rejected my submission, so I decided to share it here.  I think the academics in my readership may enjoy it, and I want to share my story with other science PhDs who may stumble across it via Google.  If my academic woes do not interest you, feel free to skip this one!

I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher in a lab at the Texas A & M Health Science Center for more than two years. Earlier this year, my postdoctoral advisor and I submitted two grants, one of which is a fellowship application. The fellowship, a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), asks the applicant to write about her future career plans, so I wrote about how I would like to teach science at a small liberal arts college. The application also requires a training plan. In my training plan, I included several items that would give me more training to become a teaching faculty member who maintains a small research program.

As I wrote my application, I felt almost rebellious. Here I was, applying for research funding from the NIH and confessing that what I really want to do is teach. I have always wanted to teach. It is the reason I earned a PhD. As an undergraduate, I was nurtured in a college that believed in undergraduate research. My professors had dual passions for teaching and research, and they taught me to believe I could do both. As a graduate student and postdoc, I have enjoyed the luxury of few obligations outside of my research projects. Now, as a third-year postdoc, I find myself longing for the balance in my academic life that would allow me to enjoy the challenge of sharing science with others while pursuing my research interests.

NIH states that the goal of the postdoctoral NRSA is to “provide support to promising postdoctoral applicants who have the potential to become productive and successful independent research investigators” (http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-11-113.html). Nowhere does the NIH say that these applicants cannot aspire to teach in liberal arts colleges, but I suspect that applicants with dreams of teaching are not the ideal target for NRSA funding. It is hard for me to gauge if my career aspirations fit with NIH’s mission. From the time academic scientists enter graduate school, the emphasis is on research: data, papers, grant applications. Unlike other disciplines, we spend little time teaching and even less time talking about pedagogy and how one teaches science. I have been very fortunate in that both my graduate and postdoctoral advisors are talented scientists and gifted mentors; neither of them shied away from training me even though I made it clear at the outset that I planned to pursue a teaching position in the future.

The labor structure of academic science is a pyramid scheme. At the tip of the pyramid is the primary investigator (PI), the guy with his name on the lab. Below that are all the people who work in the lab: the postdocs, graduate students, lab managers, and technicians. The PI keeps grant money flowing into the lab and publications flowing out of the lab. The PI rarely does experiments, which means that most of the experimental labor, the bread and butter of science, is done by people who do not have their own labs and do not have tenure. In other words, it’s done by people to whom academic science has not made a long-term commitment. And many of these people want their own labs so they, too, can run a research program.

Here’s the thing: science can’t support all the people who would like their own labs. Unless the NIH’s budget continues to expand year after year, only a select few can be funded in new research faculty positions. NIH’s budget has not steadily expanded; it doubled in the 1990s and has remained, at best, stable since then. The doubling of the budget led to an influx of new independent investigators into the pool of grant competitors. To my mind, the problem is not that the NIH’s budget increased and the number of investigators increased. The real problem is that the pyramidal shape of the science labor market means that the number of people who now want to be independent investigators has increased exponentially. For example, if every PI has 4-5 people in her lab who want to be PIs themselves, then a doubling of the PI population means there are now 8-10 times as many people who want research faculty positions. That’s a lot of people who have dedicated their careers to science and who stand a slim chance of getting one of the coveted positions.

Of course, all is not lost for these academic scientists. Many of them will transition into careers in the public and private sectors, outside of the NIH. It can be very challenging for postdocs to find and secure these positions, but as long as scientists have transferrable skill sets and can obtain additional training in their new positions, other sectors can absorb NIH-trained scientists, thereby alleviating some of the pressure on NIH.

It is good for science to have many people who are working as academic scientists. If science needs a large labor pool, then the NIH needs to recognize the value in career paths other than that of the PI. Teaching is an undervalued yet critically important task for science. I see my students as being future scientists and medical practitioners. I also see my students making important scientific decisions, such as what to do about vaccines, food quality, pollution, and birth control, just to name a few hot topics. The more people who are scientifically literate, the better off we are as a nation. Science is not just for people who spend their days planning, performing, and analyzing experiments; it’s for everyone.

My hope is that when reviewers of my NRSA application read about my career goals, they will see that teaching is an essential part of the pipeline that produces scientists, and providing research training money for people who also want to teach is a valuable use of NIH’s resources. It is time that the NIH acknowledged that teaching and research do not need to be opposing missions.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Am Buzzing

I woke up this morning and I wanted to write.  But there was work to do—flies to test, data to analyze, flies to collect, flies to flip into new fly homes.  All day, I was showered with ideas for blog posts—an article here, a reminder there.  All day long, that urge to write burned inside me, impatient, hungry, eager, sharp.  My unfinished blog post sat taunting me, begging me, “When are you going to finish me?”  And I had to keep saying, “Not yet, not yet.  I must work.  I must focus.  Eyes on the prize.”

That’s how writing is for me.  So rarely is my writing able to climb to the top of the to-do list that I feel somewhat like a fraud—do I dare call myself a writer?  Wouldn’t a real writer rise early in the morning to put words on a blank screen?  Meanwhile, I had a leisurely morning of oatmeal-eating and coffee-sipping, showering and readying myself for the day.  Why doesn’t my hunger for writing jolt me awake at 6 AM, demanding to be satiated?  It’s only after I’m caffeinated, commuted, and ready to start my work day that my mind zeroes in on the work that I am not paid to do, the work that remains a labor of love.  Certainly it’s not a stretch to call blogging work, right?  It takes dedication, effort, concentration, and sometimes research to produce content.

My writing is done in my free time or in stolen moments.  Sometimes I cannot ignore the hunger, and I sit myself down to pour words into sentences.  I wonder if I should spend more of my time on income-generating activities, but my hunger refuses to accept such nonsense.  In my heart of hearts, I remain convinced that this writing thing is planning a future for me, somehow.  On days like today when it takes me hours to finally sit down and write, my passion for words, ideas, learning, and connecting the dots burns bright and clear.  I am buzzing with the love of this craft, this blog, this way in which I myself feel transformed into lovely, lovely words.  I could float away on the wings of this crazy art that occupies so much of my waking life.

This evening, before leaving work, I received an e-mail from The Chronicle telling me that they were rejecting my piece.  I am weirdly elated by this news, as rejection is something that real writers get to experience!  I laugh and know that I am way too high on writing to be anything but delighted by rejection.  “I’ll just self-publish it,” I tell a friend.  And I will.

Because the joy in writing is not to be found in someone else’s approval of your words.  It is found in those buzzing, passionate moments when you float away on a cloud of ideas.  We write because we simply cannot help ourselves.  Timidity and fearfulness just will not do if our goal is to spin something from nothing, which is why it’s always easier to be the critic than it is to be the writer.  I consider myself very lucky that I get to do both, and this blog is the magic carpet ride that makes most of that possible.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Five Months and Counting: 2012 at the Midyear Mark

New Dress

Sunflowers Behind a Chain Link Fence

2012 thus far has been, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, the best of years and the worst of years.  I can’t capture in words how much I miss Matt, my best friend and daily confidant.  His absence from my life is a source of profound sadness, but I do believe that it’s for the best.  It’s not the best for me, but it’s the right thing for him to do in order to realign himself with his own needs and wants.  I have tried to step back gracefully in order to give him space, but I won’t lie: it’s a struggle.  It has been neither graceful nor easy.  He says that I am being generous and patient with him; all I can say is that I am trying.  I mention this in the context of my goals for 2012 because dealing with my heartache has been the hardest thing this year.  And yet I’ve managed to remain fully functional—working, running, writing, eating.  I’m pretty pleased with that accomplishment.  I have yet to spend a day curled in the fetal position sobbing, though I’ve spent a few nights doing just that.

(Oh well.  The heartache comes and goes.)

Other than nursing a broken heart, 2012 has been pretty good to me.  I’m loving my work these days, and I have a new friend in the department who makes me laugh.  I chopped off all my hair and now have a breezy new ‘do for summer.  I have a 40-pound watermelon in my living room.  I feel optimistic about the future, perhaps delusionally so, but I don’t care.  I like my delusion.  I have basil growing on my patio and a friend who keeps giving me butternut squashes from her summer CSA share.  I’ve put down enough roots in this town to hold me steady, and that feels good.  I know where to go for a glass of wine, a pizza, or a walk in the woods.  I’m neither depressed nor riddled with anxiety, and that feels really good.

In short, I feel happy these days, even with my broken heart.  I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true.  I love Matt and he makes me happy, but he’s never been the only source of my happiness.  And thank goodness for it.  Now let’s get down to business and talk about 2012’s goals, shall we?   

* Publish, publish, publish.  My advisor and I submitted two research grants in April.  I consider grant submission to be a type of publication, though it’s a small audience who will read a research grant.  I also submitted a piece to The Chronicle for their Point of View column; I’m waiting to hear back from them.

Verdict: Excellent progress here!

* Peace and quiet.  The underlying rationale for this goal was anxiety management.  In January, I said that I would do yoga twice a week and eat a quiet, candlelit dinner twice a week, and I have done neither of those things consistently.  I have, however, been running regularly (2-3 times a week, on average), and that seems to be keeping my anxiety in check.  I’ve also been trying to get into bed earlier so I can read for a bit, and that always feels incredibly relaxing to me.

But I have to confess something.  This year I have found it easier to feel happy and optimistic when I’m doing something.  In those quiet moments, I find myself brooding about things, and once I get going, it’s hard to stop.  I suspect that I’ve been avoiding too much quiet so that I won’t start feeling sorry for myself.

Verdict: Incomplete.

* Thoughtful consumerism.  This goal has turned out to be a very interesting pursuit this year.  In April, I pursued full-time veganism (and here’s an index of my blog posts from that project), which was fun and eye-opening.  I shopped at Plato’s Closet for the first time and scored two shirts and a dress.  You can see the dress in the first photo up there.  (I think secondhand clothes shopping counts as thoughtful consumerism, don’t you?)  I wrote a little bit about simplifying my life in baby steps.

I’m happy with my progress in this category.  I consider myself to be a thoughtful consumer already; I think my underlying motivation for making it a 2012 goal was to have an excuse to write more about these issues on the blog.  I don’t want to write a blog exclusively devoted to this topic, but I’m happy to have the freedom to explore it when I have something to say.  I have more posts I’d like to write, too, which is the best feeling.

Verdict: Steady progress here!

Bonus goal: Organize the archives of this blog.  Here’s the thing: when you’ve been blogging for years, you accumulate a lot of posts.  I love how organized other people’s blogs are—they make it so easy to find the posts on a particular topic.  As a blogger, I tend to take a meandering course, which means I write about a lot of different things without much organizational forethought.  But!  I’ve been catching up on my Recipe Index and writing new index pages for various topics.  I am especially excited about my index for The Academic Life because it was so fun to dig into my old posts and remember all the ups and downs of my career so far.  I sometimes wish I could tell my past self that everything is going to be okay, but now I feel that it is my past experience that assures me that everything is going to be okay.

For a meta-index of my projects, check out the Project Index page.

Verdict: Onward and upward, friends! 

And as always, thank you for reading.  You, dear readers, are so good to me. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

But First, a Diversion

{I’m warming up to write a post about my progress so far toward my 2012 goals, but there’s something bigger we must discuss first.}

“How much do you love me?”

That is the question of the year.  How much do you love me?  My career wants to know.  Matt, in his way, begs the question.  So much uncertainty this year, and I say to science and to Matt: I love you more than you can possibly know.  I love you so much that I won’t stop until you tell me it’s over.

I knew that this year was going to be a challenging one, careerwise, because of the uncertainty, but I was not anticipating trouble in my personal life.  I haven’t written too much about it in this space, especially the details, because it’s not my story to tell and Matt is a very private person.  Even though I’ve been hurting, I can’t really articulate my side of the story without divulging too much about Matt.  And it’s certainly not my intention to cause him pain or to misrepresent him.  Instead, I will quote from one of my favorite books of 2011, Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha:

“Every relationship is a constantly changing world that requires specific attention.  Other than warning you to be wary of those who offer one-size-fits-all relationship advice, our best counsel echoes that of Polonius to Laertes (in Hamlet): ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man [or woman].’”

I especially love that line about being wary of one-size-fits-all relationship advice.  Nobody fully understands what makes a relationship work, not even the people within it.  I’m not sure that my relationship with Matt is “working” right now, but I do think it’s growing.  And it’s important to me to honor that growth by not interfering with it.  I have to let us become who we will be, as individuals and as companions to each other.

How much do I love you, Matt?  Enough to let you go, with an open invitation to come back.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Final Thoughts on a Month of Veganism

Flies Like Lemon Too

Fruit flies are vegans, you know.

I know, I know: it has taken me forever to wrap up my month of veganism.  I always seem to have more ideas than time, but nevertheless, here I am!  Let’s talk about veganism.

As you may recall, I’m a longtime vegetarian—ten years and still going strong!—so a month of veganism should not have been a daunting prospect.  But it was.  I love dairy and eggs and have never made much effort to eliminate them from my diet.  I have made efforts to purchase higher-quality products, but I’ve always felt it was easier to spend more money on my food than to pursue a vegan path.  Thirty days of veganism showed me that it is both easier and harder than I realized to be vegan.

At home, it was almost laughably easy.  I had to work out a few issues at the beginning of the month.  What should I put in my coffee?  How do I get my probiotics?  I also thought seriously about how not to turn into a soyatarian.  [Soyatarian: a vegan who avoids animal products by substituting soy analogs in their place.]  I wanted to write a post about this topic, but when I tried to delve into the scientific literature, I was overwhelmed.  The truth, I think, is that this was never much of a risk for me because I like a variety of non-dairy milks and savory goodies in addition to the soy versions.  I especially like almond milk and coconut milk, and I love beans and nuts of all kinds.  I fell hard for the amazing cashew, and I found myself buying big bags of walnuts (omega-3 fatty acids ahoy!).  I do like soy products and eat them occasionally, but I suppose as long as the health profile of soy is a little iffy, moderation seems wise.

Once I found my groove at home, it was easy to cook vegan meals.  To be honest, I didn’t miss dairy and eggs as much as I thought I would.  Eating in restaurants, however, was a different story.  I give myself a failing grade in this category because I think I managed to do it maybe once or twice.  I ate out three times that I can recall: burgers (plant-based for me, of course), sushi, and dinner at a pan-Asian restaurant.  My portobello burger was topped with goat cheese and probably had cheese in the pesto, my sushi may have been topped with squiggles of egg-based mayonnaise, but my bowl o’ soupy noodles and tofu was probably vegan.  But who knows what was in the stock?  I didn’t ask.  (Fail!)

I failed to be an advocate for veganism when I ate in restaurants.  I think I know why it was so hard for me: unlike vegetarianism, to which I am firmly committed, I am not a committed vegan.  I have no problems ordering meatless meals in restaurants, but I felt intimidated asking for vegan meals.  And to be honest, I think I lacked faith that these restaurants could deliver.  I live in Texas, cattle country, cowboy country.  Men wear cowboy boots and big belt buckles here, and they aren’t being ironic!  I don’t live in a hip, progressive college town—I live in Aggieland, where people wear t-shirts urging each other to “Keep College Station Normal.”  Veganism ain’t “normal,” folks.  I know this.  And maybe trying to be vegan in Texas is an act of rebellion.  I’ve never been much of a rebel, but of all the things I’ve done in my life, vegetarianism is my most enduring act of rebellion, one I’ve never regretted.

Walking the walk as a vegan opened my eyes to the heart of veganism: it’s an act of compassion.  I feel like I understand that in a way that eluded me before.  There’s just no getting around the fact that eating meat and milk is an act of violence, no matter how well the animals are treated before slaughter.  I think most of us have a hard time wrapping our minds around this basic fact.  As I move through my life, vegan or not, I will defend the vegans and their mission to cause as little harm as possible.  And I must live with the fact that when I choose to eat dairy and eggs, my choice is not as innocent as I once believed.  I have to live with the violent cost of my own hedonism.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

My Vegan MVPs

At the Table

I have a lot of favorite foods.  Perhaps you do, too?  There are so many delicious things to love, even if you restrict your diet for health, environmental, or economic reasons.  So much abundance, so much goodness, an almost overwhelming variety of options.  And this time of year, as the summer produce kicks into high gear, we are practically swimming in seasonal goodies.  At the grocery store the other day, I was inspired by a conversation I’d had with a friend the night before, and I totally went on a fruit binge.  I bought fresh blueberries, cantaloupe, and peaches, just because they looked good.  That’s the kind of shopping that makes me happiest.  My fruit wasn’t locally grown, except for my Texas peaches, but it was certainly seasonal.  Summer, you are so good to us.

Grocery shopping is, in my opinion, the foundation of a healthy diet.  Shop well and you will eat well.  With that in mind, I wanted to share a list of my vegan MVP foods, the ones that I think are particularly awesome to have on hand.  You don’t have to be vegan to love vegan foods, of course, but during my month of veganism (waaaaay back in April—good heavens!), these foods were my go-to items.   Note that with the exception of cultured coconut milk, they are all whole foods.

* Cashews.  I do two important things with cashews: roast them and eat them plain or turn them into a cashew cheese.  In either form, they add flavor, richness, fat, and nutrients to your meals.

* Coconut “kefir” (cultured coconut milk). This luscious beverage was my answer to two vegan questions: how to replace my beloved yogurt and how to sneak more probiotics into my diet.  I used it almost every morning on my overnight oatmeal in place of dairy-based yogurt.

* Black beans.  Black beans are my favorite bean, and I like them every way imaginable: in soups, stews, salads, or mashed into a spread.  I want to get into the habit of cooking them from scratch, so that’s one of my kitchen goals for the summer, but I don’t diss the canned beans.  Canned beans have saved many a weeknight meal at Chez Rose-Anne.

* Canned tomatoes. Another incredibly versatile food.  I love canned tomatoes for making soups, stews, sauces, even oven-roasted tomatoes like Molly’s pomodori al forno.  You can make that recipe with canned tomatoes, and the results are heavenly, even when tomatoes have been out of season for six months.

* Ground flax seeds.  Flax is a recent addition to my kitchen, but man, I love it so much.  I love the omega-3 fatty acids.  I love sprinkling it over my oatmeal.  And most of all, I love baking with flax eggs, like in my peanut butter cookies or Chrissy’s chocolate chip cookies.  (Hi, Chrissy!  Lots of link love for you around here these days!)

What are some of your favorite vegan foods?  Do you have any secrets for adding good flavor and nutrition to your meals, even when your kitchen rations are running low?