Lit Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m probably one of the last one of my friends to read this one. When it was first published, my hipster-foodie friends gushed…Kingsolver was brilliant….there should be a national movement. Everyone should read this book. This naturally led to a discussion of the behavior of each of their crops over the past week. Sarah was going to have tomatoes any day now, and Margaret had an over-abundance of peppers.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think the acolytes weren’t right. I just didn’t really care much for the smug, greener-than-thou attitude that came along with it.  And the worshipping of what is, essentially, a well-documented stunt.

I wouldn’t recommend it to those who are new to the idea of eating locally.  There’s not much here for a how to get started, or integrate her ideas for yourself. The life described in these pages is a lofty goal from your average locavore perspective.  Kingsolver and her family had the opportunity to make this sort of commitment, and have the knowledge to be successful. Kingsolver mentions that she grew up on a farm, learned how to hunt mushrooms from her father, and had backyard gardens for years. The land, complete with turn-of-the-century farmhouse, was inherited and waiting to be used.  I think that it gives the impression to eat locally, you have to move halfway across a country and start your own farm, bake your own bread, and make your own cheese.

Needless to say, I didn’t go in with high expectations—even as someone batting on the same environmental team as Kingsolver. But somewhere in the middle, I found myself liking the book. There was a warmth and charm in reading about the vegetables as they came up, and I found myself remembering childhood summers that involved shucking corn and shelling peas in the summer.  The part about animal husbandry made me chuckle. I found myself missing the Durham farmer’s market, my CSA box, acorn squash, and my friend Anne’s garden tales and strawberry jam.

Finally, it made me glad that spring is here and asparagus is, once again, in season.

I’d also like to try to make cheese.

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“How do I land a gig like that?”

I’m the first to admit that when it comes to grad school programs, I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve got nice advisors who are also known and respected in their field, I get to live in cities other people visit on holidays, and my field site is a tropical paradise. (This is it. Really.)

I’m at a conference this week, and so far, the question I’ve heard most about my work is “So how do I land a gig like that?”

First, a bit about what this gig is: it’s a joint PhD. In short, it’s splitting your time between two different institutions, leading to a single degree issued by both institutions. It’s a variant of the French concept of a co-tutelle.  My two advisors cooked up my project, and the universities already had a formal agreement in place and encourage collaborations of this sort. It is possible to come up with your own project and forge the agreements yourself, but it takes a lot more time and effort.

Now, how to get it. I wish I had something in-depth to offer here, but the trick seems to be “be exactly what is needed”. At least, that’s what worked for me. I’ve developed an odd combination of skills over my career. A little fieldwork here, a little advanced mathematics there. Heck, even the knot-tying I picked up in Girl Scouts has been useful.

In the end, though, it came down to the luck of having an opportunity come up. My part is this: I studied things that interested me (even when they got hard),  I choose projects (and jobs) that gave me the chance to learn something, and I keep my eyes peeled for opportunities.

That’s how you land a gig like this.

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PhD “Aha” moment: I am the expert

So I’m feeling mighty cheerful for a girl who currently has no data. On the other hand, I do have a bit of a mystery to solve, so that’s probably covering up what should be feelings of frustration.

The mystery is a two-parter: first, the power supply to the instrument is failing for no discernible reason, and with an uninterrupted power supply (UPS, or battery backup) supporting the whole thing. The second part of the mystery is that a pump failed around the time of the most recent power outage-within 30 minutes. Are these two things related? Did one cause the other? Was the pump failure a physical problem or an electrical one? The data doesn’t leave much in the way of clues, and there were no witnesses.

I’ve shared this mystery with a few people, hoping for a bit of enlightenment on the first part-why is the power failing. I haven’t heard any reasons that sound plausible yet, but the responses I’ve gotten have been fascinating, and led me to the “Aha” moment in the title of this post.  I heard “Well, the service technicians will be able to tell you what happened,” and someone else said “Your advisor will be able to help you.”

Neither of these things are true. There is no service tech; the instrument is hand-built by an individual in the U.S. He’s quite helpful in these situations (and is a very nice guy), but he’s not exactly a service tech. In many ways, he’s much more than that, but he can’t tell me what happened. Nor can he fix it for me. I have to take a wrench to it myself. Second, as helpful as my advisor is, I know my instrument better than anyone else in the lab. And since it’s a new instrument, purchased specifically for my project, I’m pretty much the only one who knows anything about it. There’s no one (local) to consult.

When it comes down to it, I am the expert on this machine. In the project, in the lab, at the University. Isn’t that part of the process though? To become the expert about my project, my little corner of the academic universe?

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Think you know how to lose weight? Not so fast…

If you’re one of the 1.4 billion adults who are overweight or obese, chances are you’ve looked for ways to trim the waistline. According to a new review published the New England Journal of Medicine, some of the things we have all heard as keys to weight loss are not only unfounded, they are also untrue.

A team of researchers from across the globe scoured the academic literature to determine what popular ideas about diet, obesity, and weight loss were myths, which were presumptions, and which were facts–things that actually carried the weight of scientific evidence behind them. The results were surprising.

The researchers started by debunking seven weight loss “myths”. These were defined as beliefs about weight loss taken as true despite contradictory scientific evidence. Among them:

  • Small, sustained changes resulted in large, long-term changes in weight
  • Realistic goals were necessary because dieters become frustrated and give up otherwise
  • Breast feeding is protective against obesity later in life

These changes, the research team asserted, are simply not true. In debunking these myths, there are studies showing how individual variability affects changes in body composition, and therefore, rates of loss, how ambitious goals are sometimes associated with better outcomes, and there is no correlation between breast-feeding and obesity in adulthood. However, the researchers did not discount other potentially important benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and infant.

Next on the block were presumptions about weight loss. These were defined to be things that were widely held to be true, but had neither been proven or disproven in the literature, or, at best, studies yielded inconclusive results. Among these presumptions were:

  • Eating breakfast is protective against obesity
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables, regardless of other behavioural or lifestyle changes, leads to weight loss or preventing weight gain
  • Snacking contributes to weight gain

These, they said, showed mixed results. The breakfast studies showed no effect to whether or not an individual was obese or gained weight; the participants weight loss was more dependent on which group they were assigned to (eaters vs. skippers) in comparison to their usual habits. The fruit/veg and snacking presumptions simply had no merit–while consumption of fruits and vegetables is healthy and provides important minerals, neither habit was indicative of weight loss.

Despite the debunking going on, the researchers were also able to dig up a few facts regarding weight loss, and these were perhaps the most enlightening to me, as they went against a few things I had always been taught.  Among the facts:

  • While genetics plays a large role, your genes do not determine your destiny.
  • For overweight children, school programs are not enough. Healthy eating and exercise habits must also occur at home.
  • Some pharmaceutical agents can help an individual lose weight, so long as those agents are used.

And, my favourite:

“Obesity is perhaps best conceptualised as a chronic condition, requiring ongoing management to maintain long-term weight loss.”

The upshot of all this is that, despite what the media, your neighbour, or perhaps even a doctor might tell you, there is not one way to go about losing weight, maintaining weight loss, or even preventing weight gain. The things that work for an individual may not work for a population. In short, we all have to muddle through and make changes that fit us, fit our lives, and are effective.

The full article is available for free at the NEJM website.

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Awfully Convenient Timing

Thanks to Al Gore, I will always have a job. His 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth,  transformed my meteorology degree from an obscure corner of science into a hot commodity.

Poster Art for An Inconvenient Truth

One thing I always appreciated about the film was that it made some of what I studied accessible to the general public (It also made me a hit at parties for a while, as people sought my opinion of the film).  That is something that scientists sometimes don’t do very well-make their work easy for the lay person to understand.

This lack of understanding is something that has always frustrated me, because I don’t think it helps anyone. Scientists sometimes do a poor job of explaining themselves to those who don’t share their background or training, and, at least in the case of climate change, you can see the effects playing out. Unscrupulous, or perhaps ignorant, media personnel and politicians misread and misinterpret what’s being said, transforming a scientific discussion into a political argument, and the general public is left in the dark because nothing was clearly explained in the first place.

This leads me to what I intended to be the point of this blog–a bit of science education. Not necessarily about global warming, or even climate change. I’m not wading into that. Not yet anyway. One of the things that I’d like to do here is fill in some of the holes that I think are ignored. I want to give a more complete picture of what’s being said in scientific discussions that have societal implications, so that you, my readers, can participate in the discussions in a meaningful way.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

The end of the year is one of those natural times of reflection: what did I do? Did I do what I wanted to do? Did I make any effort at those resolutions from last year? What about next year?

A couple of years ago, I happened upon this e-book about finding direction, and how to go about building the life you want. The author was geared toward travel, but one of the ideas he presented stuck with me. It was this: New Year’s resolutions never work. They’re usually too vague, too long of a time frame, and usually don’t reflect growth toward the kind of person you want to be. To that end, the author suggested doing quarterly goals. One to three goals, broken down by category (career, physical, creative, emotional/spiritual, etc). These goals are smaller, and given the shorter timeframe, usually more achievable. Then, at the end of the quarter, you review the goals and set new ones.

I did this during the last part of 2010, 2011, and the first part of 2012, and, as a list person, I liked it. My inner list fiend was quite satisfied by scratching off things like “Save $1000” and “Make 3 garments to wear”, and the results reflected things that I wanted to be doing. When I found out I was moving to Australia, my lists went pretty much out the window, and I didn’t really develop a new one when I got here, but now that I more or less have my feet under me, I feel like I can get back to my routine a bit more. So, without further ado, here’s the goal list for the first quarter of 2013 (Jan-Mar):


1. Get the FIS out into the field (this needs to happen in Jan.-early Feb.)
2. Finish proposal/lit review (I think the deadline for this is late Feb.)
3. Learn Python
4. Finish Carbon Capture Paper (needs to happen in Jan.)

A lot of front-heavy deadlines. If March is fairly open, I think I’d be fine with that. Other things will probably come along and be added to this list.


1. Keep up the gym routine
2. Get (back) on Primal/Paleo/zero carb diet
3. Lose 5 kg.

I expect number 3 to be a natural consequence of #s 1 and 2.


1. Learn 3 songs on the guitar well enough that I’d be willing to play them outside my bedroom.
2. Re-learn the drum solo I learned in Emily’s class. Find a hafla or dance festival and perform it. (There’s one in May I have my eye on so far)
3. Learn the first half of Brahms Requiem. (since I’m performing in ChorusOz, this has to be done)

Social/Emotional/Mental Balance:

1. Go on 3 dates.
2. Do yoga 1x a week.
3. Get back on a budget.

The first might be amended to “go on 3 dates with the same person”, since it’s a lot easier to find people to date around here. Still, it’s good to have the reminder to get out and socialise and build a network of friends. And who knows, if I’m swept off my feet in the next 3 months, I can always pull it off the list. As far as the last item goes, I used to be fairly strict about my budget, and I fell out of the habit when I moved here. But I’ve learned what things cost, and what I want to spend my money on, so I need to get back to planning again.

And there you have it, everyone–my plan for the first quarter of 2013! What’s on your to-do list?

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I’m going to put “Playground Management” on my resume

I never cease to be impressed at how well my previous job prepared me to go back to school.  No, my coworkers didn’t drive me here, but the “soft” skills I picked up working as a contractor have come in handy on more than one occasion. Like, as my boss called it, “playground management”.

Since I’m doing a joint phd, I have not one primary supervisor, but two. One is down the hall, the other is half a world away. In a year, their positions will switch. This is certainly a great experience–I get to see how two labs operate, and be exposed to very different sets of ideas, it’s not without cost.

One cost is logistics. Having an advisor half a world away means that advising is done via conference call, and someone is staying up late to do it. Participation in group activities (such as meetings) requires cooperation and patience from the entire group. It requires extra effort on everyone’s part, and both the professor and the student have to be committed to making it work. How does one manage from 10,000 miles away? The other person has to be willing to be managed.

The other cost is expectations. More people in the kitchen means that more personalities are involved, and with someone on the outside (or in this case, on another continent), it’s easy to feel left out of the loop. This means that everyone is pretty much forced to communicate for the project to be successful. Everyone also has to give a little. Sometimes, decisions that involve you or your project have to be made without your input because either the process doesn’t allow it, or you’re simply too far away–immediate action is called for, and you can’t be immediately available all the time.

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