Don’t panic!

We were up on Mount Rainier last weekend, doing some snowshoeing up at Paradise and hiking a bit lower down. There is a lot less snow than usual, both a thinner snowpack and a higher snowline. And around here, snow = drinking water…. So back home today I took a look into the SNOTEL data and it’s pretty bleak:

SNOTEL snowpack mapWow, the central Cascades have only nine percent as much snow as “normal” for this time of year. Last winter, when drought seemed to be on everyone’s radar, a wet February brought conditions back up to normal. But we’ve had a warmer winter, and that hasn’t happened this year. So why is nobody panicking?

The WA Department of Ecology’s current drought watch is a bit confusing. They’ve requested drought-emergency funds be set aside, the forecasts predict a warm and dry spring that will exacerbate the problem, and yet they say “Ecology and [the Water Supply Availability Committee] at this time are not anticipating widespread water shortages in Washington in 2015.”

Farmers will know more in the next couple of weeks as determinations are made regarding irrigation uses. Here in the city, though, we’re actually in really good shape. There’s been a decent amount of precipitation this winter — just mostly as rain, not snow — and Seattle’s main municipal reservoirs are filling nicely (I haven’t found quantitative data yet). Unlike some parts of the West where the snowpack itself is the primary reservoir storing water, Seattle has dam-and-lake reservoirs so we’re not directly dependent on snowpack.

So the bottom line is: Don’t panic! Yes, we have very little snow — but plenty of drinking water.


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The costs of being green

It’s not easy being green — and it turns out it’s not cheap, either. This certainly isn’t what I expected to find when I started looking into the costs of waste disposal in Seattle.

Trash and organics picked up throughout the city are first taken to one of two transfer stations, North (in the Fremont neighborhood) or South (in the South Park neighborhood). The North Station is temporarily closed and being reconstructed, so as of this writing everything is going via the South Transfer Station. From there, Seattle’s trash travels over 300 miles, by train, to the Columbia Ridge Landfill in Eastern Oregon (view map). Organics are split between two composting companies, Lenz in Stanwood, WA (60mi from the South Transfer Station, or 50mi from the North Transfer Station; view map), and PacifiClean outside Cle Elum (98mi from either transfer station; view map). Recycling is taken directly to Rabanco, in SODO (the neighborhood SOuth of DOwntown), which for much of the city is a shorter haul than the South Transfer Station. Continue reading

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Heating with electricity vs. gas?

Here in Seattle, we have some of the cheapest and cleanest electricity in the country (hydroelectric dams cause their share of environmental problems, but don’t produce greenhouse gases). This got us thinking about the common wisdom, which says that it’s more efficient to heat your home with natural gas than electricity. But does that still hold for the Pacific Northwest?

I started digging around for data (no surprise to anyone who knows me…) and was able to calculate the cost and greenhouse-gas emissions of these two heat sources. Continue reading

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Civic Ecology

I usually describe myself as an “urban ecosystem ecologist” to convey, 1) that I’m an ecosystem ecologist, focusing on the large-scale picture of how nutrients, water, and energy move within and between ecosystems, and 2) I mostly work in cities and other human-inhabited landscapes.At first I resisted tagging my work as “urban,” because many of the questions that motivate me took hold while I was living and working in a rural area. It’s not about the big-city big-infrastructure components so much as the integrated social and ecological systems, and those are found in any of the ecosystems where people live.

Lately, I’ve been drawn to the term “civic ecology,” because it also speaks to an important dimension of my work — that it’s in service to the public good, working to benefit the community. I work with households, neighborhoods, and local governments, looking for ways to increase nutrient sustainability and overall well-being. My work spans the boundary between fundamental ecological research (learning more about what makes the world tick) and practical decision-making (choosing ways to make it run “better”). Right now I’m on the academic side of that boundary, but I could easily see myself going back into government work in the future.

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Notes to my younger self

I recently found myself articulating something I wish I could have told my younger grad-student self: Go to your advisor even with problems you know she can’t solve.  I went through some rough patches in my first couple of years of grad school, so much self-doubt that I’ve since learned to file away under “impostor syndrome.”  And in those times when I wasn’t sure if I could make it, it was painfully hard to look around me and not see any gay science faculty.  It’s like my worst fears were suddenly being proven.  With empirical data.

I’ll leave for another post the importance of role models.  For now, this is about being an advisee.  I can’t say this advice is for everyone, but I happen to have the world’s best advisor (and yes, I’ve told her so).  In retrospect, I wish I’d had the courage (and common sense?) to bring some of my struggles to her.  For starters, it would have forced me to wrap words around my fears.  In order to tell her about them, I’d have to shrink the bogeyman in the shadows into something I could actually name and describe.  I think it would have made it a little less large and scary, facing it squarely like that.

Even more importantly, my advisor would have empathized and, in some fashion, understood.  She certainly would have cared that I was struggling.  I wonder what it would have been like to have that sort of validation, to have her hold a little space for me to wrestle with things instead of it all just taking place in my own head.  I wonder what it would have meant to me to know, to be told, that it’s OK to be struggling and scared.  To know that even if she can’t fix things for me, she’ll support me through it.

I know this is sounding like big deep scary emotional stuff — and remember that my advisor is, first and foremost, a scientist.  And yes, I have a really good support network of friends I turn to.  But turning to friends doesn’t break down the compartmentalizaton that was part of the problem.  I could really have used some way of feeling like all these parts of me were OK to have as a scientist.  I needed some validation in my professional life.  The conversation wouldn’t have looked this deep on the surface.  But small simple things can still carry an immense weight.  Just a small acceptance to make me recognize that I’m OK, warts and all.

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Favorite commute of the year!

Yesterday I taught a scientific-presentations workshop up at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve for the summer interns.  Many of the interns do an independent research project, usually in small groups, and this is the second year in a row I’ve gone up there to help them with preparing their presentations for the end-of-summer symposium.  (and a brief shameless plug:  I’m starting to put some of the resource sheets and such up here, too, in the Science Communication pages)

It’s also the second year I’ve biked up to Cedar Creek (40-some miles each way).  I don’t go up there very often, and usually when I do I’m hauling samples,  equipment, or undergrads, or whatever I’m going up there for starts bright and early.  So this is my one opportunity when I need only to slip my thumb drive and my remote into my pocket and go on two wheels!  That makes it my favorite commute of the whole year.

Last week I biked the Red Ribbon Ride, a 300mi/4day ride to raise funds and awareness for eight Minnesota HIV/AIDS service and advocacy organizations — and I’ve been a bit in biking withdrawl since.  It felt rather odd to bike all day without a couple hundred other amazing cyclists (I saw only a handful of other cyclists all day), but good to just go and go and go!  The part of the route up through Blaine is nothing special, but north of there it’s on really pretty rural roads.  I took a slightly longer route on the way home for a change of scenery, and if you add in my short hop to campus in the morning, it was an 89mi day.  The weather forecast had called for 7-10mph winds from the west….and instead I got what I’d estimate as 20+mph winds from the NW, which made for a stiff headwind the Whole Way there.  The winds died down in the evening as I was heading home, but even a bit of a breeze at my back was a verrrry welcome change.

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When I don’t know what I’m doing

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”   — Wernher von Braun

Yep, it’s been one of those days with novel mistakes and general fumbling-about-ness.  I can’t even claim that I was doing anything new and exciting — ti should have been routine but wasn’t.  Ah well, that’s science.

The quote from von Braun sometimes feels like my theme song for grad school.  It’s a good reminder that I’m no more incompetent than the next researcher.  So much of my research is using techniques that my lab isn’t familiar with or set up well for, protocols I have to alter significantly for my needs, and quite frankly stuff I’m making up as I go along.  There’s a fair bit of feeling stupid involved.  I’m just glad it’s mostly the sort of stupid that comes because I’m venturing into unknown territory.

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The thinking chair

One of the other professors on my floor has been looking for space to put a visiting grad student who’ll be working with his lab for the next two and a half months.  Our office is a bit deeper than the others on the floor, since we’re at the center of the outward-curved wall, so even though we’ve already got four grad students in the office the Powers that Be decreed that we make room for the visitor.

I said no.  Repeatedly.  I don’t want our office to get crowded. But the prof put his foot down and, quite simply, I lost that territory battle.

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Moose tracks

Here’s a guest post from my friend and (un-indicted) co-conspirator, Moose, as part of the Diversity in Science PRIDE Carnival:

I’m not really sure what topic to cover for the Diversity in Science PRIDE carnival, but I’m writing this anyways. My visibility is more important than my what-do-I-say silence, so count me in and I’ll tell you a bit about my experiences. Another queer STEM graduate student, working to make STEM fields a more welcoming place (and trying to do kick-ass research, that too). On a linguistic note, I’m going to use “queer” and “LGBTQ” interchangeably here. I intend for all identities to be encompassed by these terms.

I’ve been able to be cautiously out for much of my undergraduate and graduate school experience. From where I sit, life doesn’t have enough LGBTQ people in STEM but it’s still pretty good. I hope (let’s make this the hypothesis) that STEM fields, academia, and broader culture in the United States are all becoming more welcoming and safer for members of the LGBTQ community. National press coverage of trans and queer issues in high schools post-dates my high school career, but I’m still on the younger end of the academic track and I’ve had pretty good experiences as a queer student in STEM. Continue reading

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What if we stopped apologizing?

Among GLBTQ scientists, we often talk about when is best to come out in the job search.  Opinions range widely, from the first in-person interview to the post-offer negotiations.  We need to come out at some point, maybe because we’re trying to assess the climate in our potential new department, maybe because it’s time to negotiate support for a trailing partner.  But we fear possible biases and bigotries, and we try to minimize the risk by managing who knows what when.

If you stop and think about it for a minute, that entire conversation is built on a paradigm that being gay can only be a negative thing.  If you’re lucky, they’ll be neutral and it won’t be relevant; if not, you won’t even get an interview.  That’s a pretty defeatist attitude to take.  In moments like this we’re still basically apologizing for being gay and asking people not to hate us for it.

What would it look like if, instead, we saw being queer as one of the selling points in our application package? Continue reading


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