Working over the holidays

So, it’s that time of year again.  Classes are over, finals are finished, and the campus is almost deserted.  The pressure is off, at least for the moment, and there is an overabundance of cookies, parties, and free food.

From PHD Comics

It sounds good, but I have mixed feelings about it.  I can’t decide what I should be doing during this time.  School is technically no longer in session, but the University is still open…  Does this mean I am still expected to be working?  (I’ve decided that, since my credits for this semester are “research credits”, and I get paid half time as a research assistant, that I should probably be working only half time now.)  There isn’t really a set guideline on what is expected.

I could also use this time to be more productive.  It’s quiet and peaceful, a perfect moment to catch up on research, put work into those side projects I never seem to have time for, and get myself organized.  But, do I only think this because I’m from the US and have been indoctrinated into the “work is life” culture?  Maybe a break from everything would be better for my health and sanity.  After all, it is a holiday – why would I be so crazy as to stay and work at this time?

If I take a serious break from grad school work, that doesn’t necessarily mean less stress for me.  I’m just putting off the stress of research until I return to my office.  Not to mention that I would spend a good chunk of that time off catching up on cleaning and laundry.  Even planning to visit family and friends holds a similar level of stress – its just a different type.

So I’m torn.  I’m happy that its the holidays, and a lot of the little annoying things about grad school don’t apply for a few weeks.  But its not clear to me that any of my options are winners.  In the end, I decided to compromise.  I’m spending some time with friends and family, but keeping part of the break for catching up on work.  To alleviate some of the normal pressure, I’ve been coming into my office every day, but not putting any expectations on what I get done.  If I feel motivated, great!  If I need a break and spend the whole day on social media sites, well, that’s ok too.

In the end, when you don’t hold a job that has defined hours, it’s hard to define days off and vacation time.  So far, my mish-mash solution is (mostly) working for me.

Tell me, do you do anything differently over the holidays?  Is it a time to catch up on work or to put work aside?  I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts and plans, and maybe changing how I think about it.

Dive In: Oceans melting ice shelves

This is the second post in a new series called Dive Into Science.  Here I’ll be explaining results from recent scientific papers.  Dive Into Science gives you a glimpse of current research in an easy to read format that anyone can understand.  To read more, just use the Dive Into Science tag.

Today’s article is “Ocean variability contributing to basal melt rate near the ice front of Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica” by Isabella B. Arzeno et al, published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 2014.

If you think about sea level rise and future climate predictions, and all that, one of the biggest unknowns scientists are trying to understand is the rate at which the ice sheets are melting.  See, it’s not exactly a straight-forward process to figure this out.  You would think that if you knew the temperature of the air, you could calculate how fast the ice melts, and how much melted water goes into the ocean.  But, you’d be wrong.

When we talk about melting ice sheets, we really mean the change in the ice sheet mass balance.  This is exactly what it sounds like.  To figure out how much ice is lost or gained from the ice sheet, we balance out all the sources and sinks.  In Antarctica, the major source of ice to the ice sheet comes in the form of snow over the continent.  This snow eventually compacts to form ice, and adds mass to the ice sheet.

Now, there are several ways an ice sheet can lose mass.  I’ve already mentioned melting ice from the top of the ice sheet – this does not have a large effect (true for Antarctica, not quite true for Greenland).  It is rarely warm enough to melt significant amounts of ice, and the water must also evaporate, or it will just refreeze at a later time.  More important are the outlets of the ice sheet, or where the ice meets the ocean.  Here, ice loss can occur through pieces of ice falling off as icebergs, or through the ocean melting the ice it touches.

Cartoon illustrating ice sheet mass balance.  Here, we’re concerned with the Antarctica side.  Image by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

This brings us to the topic of ice shelves.  Ice shelves are the part of the ice sheet that floats in the ocean.  Trick question: How much would sea level change if all the ice shelves melted?  Answer: No change, because they are floating.  BUT, it’s even more of a trick question!  Even though the ice melted from the ice shelf doesn’t contribute to sea level rise, it causes more ice to flow in from the ice sheet and increases the ice loss term of our mass balance.  And, if the balance shows that ice is being lost, well, that does contribute to sea level rise.

So these ice shelves then, act as plugs to the much larger ice sheet.  We need to understand how they melt, by how much, and how that affects the ice sheet.  In a best case scenario, the ice shelves melt a little bit, lose some icebergs off the edges, and are replaced by ice from the ice sheet to form a stable configuration.  In a worst case scenario, the ice shelves melt enough that they no longer act as stable plugs, and the ice sheet becomes unstable and eventually drains out through the open hole.  Even for the worst case, the process would take several hundred years for all the ice in Antarctica to drain out.  But, what is happening now with the ice shelves may determine the eventual fate of the ice sheet.  And, wouldn’t it be nice to know what that is?

Figure taken from Arzeno, et al. 2014.  Data from the mooring under the iceshelf.  A) is current speed, b) is temperature difference from freezing, c) is calculated melt rate from temp, salinity, and current, d) is melt rate from tide velocities only, and e) is the tide velocities.  Notice how a higher temperature leads to a higher melt rate (b vs. c), and how peaks in the tide-only melt rate correspond to high tidal velocities (d vs. e).

This paper is a significant contribution to our understanding of one ice shelf in particular, in the Ross Sea.  (All the ice shelves behave differently, based on size, shape, what water they are in contact with, etc…)  It is the first time scientists have been able to simultaneously collect data on temperature, salinity, and currents under the Ross Ice Shelf.  These three variables are what you need to directly predict ice shelf melt.  The temperature tells you how much heat is available for use in the ocean water, the salinity helps determine what the temperature of ice melt actually is, and the current speeds give you an idea of how long it takes to replace this water.  As the ice melts, the underlying water grows colder and fresher, and the ice melt slows down.  In order to keep melting rates up, the water needs to be mixed around or replaced.

The authors use results from their mooring underneath the ice shelf, and from ocean models to better understand how the melt rate of the ice changes.  They find that tides play a large role, both in the data, and in the ocean model.  As the measurements were taken near the edge of the ice shelf, the movement of the tides back and forth under the ice shelf helps bring the cold melt water out, and replace it with warmer ocean water.  The authors also notice longer time signals in the currents that affect the melt rate, but don’t have enough information to identify them.

Overall, this paper presents rare data on ice shelf melt rates for the Ross Sea, and also investigates the processes that contribute to the melt rate.  This information, along with research from other groups, can be used to better understand, and eventually predict, the fate of the ice shelves and how that affects the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Q&A on graduate school

Earlier this month I participated as a panelist in a Q&A session for undergrads about grad school.  The event was sponsored by the newly formed Fellowship of Women in Science at my university.

Everyone brought up such good points and examples from personal experience, that I couldn’t let all that good information go to waste.  So, I present to you a summary of our awesome key points (that I remember).  Share with any undergrads you know, or comment if you think there’s something important we missed!

In every point listed here, there is always a general course you probably should follow. But, there is also always someone whose specific case requires something quite different. Keep an open mind and consider your situation as you read.

Important points to remember when considering graduate school (in the sciences):

Email potential advisors ahead of time.  The general consensus (with one anomaly) is that you should tailor your graduate school search to specific advisors.  Find experts in the subject you are interested in researching and reach out to them through email to see if they have a place for you.  Include all your information, resume, transcripts, test scores, etc…, but take the time to make the email easy to read, not just an information dump.  Make sure they know within the first two sentences who you are, why you are emailing them, and why you think they are awesome.  You can elaborate on those points in the body of the email.  Also be aware that many professors will just not respond.  They may be busy, they may forget, or they may be out of town on field work or a sabbatical.  Give them at least a week or two to respond, then send a follow-up email (never more than two).  You want to gently remind them you exist, not come across as a spammy, annoying undergrad.

The one anomaly to this case was when you are switching fields between undergrad and graduate school.  (Namely, me.)  I had the appropriate background for my field, but no experience with it and not enough knowledge of the technical language to choose based on advisor alone.  In this case, I applied to various universities, and once accepted with funding, talked to the potential advisors about their open projects and choose the most interesting.

Our Q&A panel for undergraduates

Never settle for an unfunded position.  As long as you plan to go into the sciences, you should never, ever settle for a position that is unfunded.  There are enough funded opportunities out there that you should never even consider an unfunded position.  If you are dead set on a certain advisor who has no funding, try to fund yourself by an outside scholarship, or by being a teaching assistant.

Not only is it a huge hassle and not worth your time to be unpaid, but a department and faculty that cannot scrape together enough money (even in this funding climate) to support one graduate student is a red flag.  Also be wary of labs that take you on and expect you to work so many hours in the lab, but pay you by other means, like a TA-ship.  You essentially end up working 2 jobs on one salary and it’s a quick path to burn-out.  If you are doing work that is not your own in any sort of lab, you should be getting paid as a research assistant.

Once you do find funding, try to ensure that it will last the entire time you are a student.  Ask if the department funds students as TAs for the entire time, or a limited number of years.  Ask your potential advisor how long the research project will last, and if you will be paid from another project after the first runs out.  You will always have opportunities to apply for scholarships, but they can be very competitive and sometimes have strict criteria.  Unless you already have a scholarship, don’t count on that as a funding source.

Meet with your potential advisor to ensure his/her style will help you learn.  The majority of panelists mentioned the advisor-student relationship.  It is vital that you choose an advisor who will support you in the way that you need to succeed.  You need to relate to them well enough to feel comfortable approaching them frequently with questions and issues you may have.

There seem to be two major advising styles (with numerous variations) – hands-off and hands-on.  If you like to figure things out on your own with your own timing and don’t need a lot of direction, you would work well with a hands-off advisor.  If you would rather be guided through a project and have someone around to question frequently, you would probably fit better with a hands-on advisor.  One panelist suggested that anyone starting research for the first time, typically as a masters student, would do best to have a hands-on advisor until they learned the research process.  One type is not necessarily better than the other, just analyze your own working and learning style to determine which would work best for you.

Talk with other graduate students, and look for red flags.  No matter how much you research your future advisor and talk to them, you won’t know everything.  The best bet is to talk to their current and former graduate students.  Keep in mind that there will be students who simply chose the wrong advisor, so ignore one-off bad experiences. Instead, look for consistent red flags.  Two major examples are students who consistently take a long time to finish their degree, or to reach certain benchmarks, and complaints in the form of jokes about the lab or the advisor.  Use common sense too.  Complaints about eating ramen everyday may just be a reflection of the fact that graduate students don’t make much no matter where you go, while jokes about an advisor always being busy may mean they don’t have time for students or don’t care enough about them.

Limitations from family and partners is common.  Every single panelist had a complication from family and partners on choosing where to go to graduate school.  It ranged from long term partners and spouses to needing to be close to family to military partners and planning for kids to the academic two-body problem.  My conclusion here is that very few people are “free” to go wherever they want.  Accept the limitations of your situation and do what it takes to work with them.  (Also make sure your chosen university/advisor is supportive of whatever limitations you have.)  Consider that graduate school comes at a time when life changes (partner, babies, aging parents, etc…) are common, and make sure you have space to live.  Don’t just put your life on hold for school.

Be sure to read the fine print and get everything in writing before you agree.  None of the arrangements you make while preparing for graduate school mean anything unless you get them in writing!  Ask for an official letter with salary, benefits, and other arrangements spelled out.  Save any and all emails until you are sure things are working out how you expected.  A common problem is that academic turnover, whether in the administration or in the department, means all the verbal promises the last person in the position made mean absolutely nothing.  But, if you get it in writing, they are obligated to keep those promises.

Good luck on choosing an advisor and university that fits your goals and learning style!  Let me know how things worked out for you, and if you did anything differently in your search.