Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Who put the "fun" in funds?

It's a universal dilemma: science costs money. It's my new f-word: funding. Several funding agencies set up to support geoscience research exist, but many are of the "small potatoes" variety. Others seem more like some secret society, where golden tickets are kept in vaults for the enlightened few. Industry may also be a source of cash, but even with some sort of economic impact, it seems that the people holding the purse strings are not the same as the people who can appreciate the value of potential scientific results. Alas, the National Science Foundation seems to be the breadbasket for most academicians in science.

The NSF is, in its own words:
an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…
It may be hard for the nongeologist to imagine ways that geoscience advance our health, prosperity, welfare and defense but take arsenic, climate change, water and uranium (or hydrocarbons) as respective examples. Because natural resources and natural systems profoundly impact and often form the basis basis for our standard of living, NSF supports scientific research to improve our understanding of earth processes.

The catch: getting NSF to give you money basically requires Jedi skills. Their budget (including operations) of about $6 billion seems like a lot-though it is roughly 1.5% of the Dept. of Defense - but there are always more good proposals than there are funds. In fact, there are increasingly more good proposals than there are funds. Word on the street is "excellent" proposals writteny by Yoda himself (is Yoda a he?) would still get the boot. However, some say that NSF now favors frontier science and supposedly funding frontier science favors young investigators who are more likely to propose high-risk science. The only problem though, is if you crash-and-burn early on, your chances for future funding drops substantially below the current 22% funding rate.

It does seem, however, that getting the faucet turned on is the tricky part. But once it is on, funding begets funding, and considering you don't pull a Kaczynski, the cup should remain at least half-full with only a few mind tricks along the way.

Monday, March 19, 2007

If you care about anything at all

If you care about:
-the earth
-your self
-your family
-future generations

Then check out Al Gore's website: http://www.algore.com/cards.html He will tell your rep. what you think.

Al says:
Tell Congress:Now is the time to act on global warming! Sign the postcard to your representative demanding real action on global warming below and I’ll personally deliver it to Washington in March. I’ll keep you up to date on how things are going by email.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Move over oil...

Come on in sand! Does your investment portfolio include enough shares in the sand trade? Are you more interested in junk litharenite bonds or do you want to go for the big time, the cadillac of sands, the quartz arenite?

Yes, sand is finally the hot commodity ... in Singapore!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why geology is the whitest science on the planet:

In an ill-conceived and totally unnecessary sidetrack, today I attempted to track down geology departments in historically black colleges and universities, and came away completely discouraged. There were a couple that had marine science programs that deal with ecology and sediment transport (though sadly not the University of the Virgin Islands- no collaboration there... drats!) with Ph.D. faculty >2, and a couple where geology was a required class for an environmental/natural resources degree. Only one- UTEP, that is University of Texas - El Paso which apparently is a HBCU, has a legitimate geology department.

Part of what spurred this search was that I'd like to recruit a diverse student group for potential graduate studies here. You'd think there'd be plenty of diversity on a campus like Southern Football U., but there isn't. So I looked elsewhere. It's not there either.

Another part of what spurred this was Act IV in Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke: A requiem in four acts". It shows in devastating detail how the citizens of New Orleans (dominantly not white/caucasian) put their trust in a system (i.e., government) that failed them repeatedly and in many ways. Their ability to trust, in my humble opinion, was rooted their lack of education and understanding of extremely pertinent and basic earth science principles regarding their hometown. I'd be devastated too if I had lived with a false sense of security that came crashing down with no one in sight to help in my time of greatest need. But, and I am not blaming the NOLA residents when I say this, a little education would have gone a long way in that situation. That scenario was going to happen- in fact, it had already happened, multiple times, prior to settlement of NOLA. And it was going to happen again, the only question was when. Hurricanes will hit New Orleans directly sometime, someday. That's why now is the time to call in the Dutch!

Will it take natural disasters affecting different segments of our society to get some diversity into the geosciences? I'm not sure even Katrina will impact that. To be honest, I'm not sure what the answer is.

Maybe the answer is large buckets of $$. I could certainly test that solution out!

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Sometimes things just work out. Sometimes, things only work out after they don't work out. I went on a search for a fossil site I had learned about with the hopes of taking a class trip there. Instead, I found beautiful scenery tagged with "No trespassing" signs and unfurled Confederate flags blowing in the breeze. But on the way I found Plan B- a roadside outcropping of rock that looked pretty good as I drove by at 55 mph in the dark.

The drive out with the class was one of nervous trepidation - what in the world was I really taking them to see? Had there been anything truly noteworthy there to show the class once we got there? The miles ticked by.

It turned out to be quite a nifty geospot. I'll show a couple highlights below:

My personal favorite. Notice the fan-like patterns in the middle of the photo:

Here's a closeup:

This is a fossilized feeding structure known as Zoophycus. It is produced by a type of worm-like organisims that "mines" fine-grained sediments for nutrients. It is characterized by concave-upward traces with whorled peaks and fans out across a plane horiziontal to somewhat oblique to bedding. Preservation of these types of feeding structures began approximately 500 million years ago and are found in deposits on the modern sea floor today. This type of feeding trace is common in reduced (anoxic) environments.

We took a few slabs that were chock full of Zoophycus, but didn't get any picts of those. I displayed effusive excitment that either inspired my students to appreciate the mysteries you can unlock through intimate knowledge of sedimentary geology, or I convinced them I was a total weirdo, albeit an amusing wierdo. My early conclusion is that either case can lead to effective teaching, as long as you snag their attention one way or another. I can update on my tests of this theory later on.

Another exciting find came through the hard-bodied fossils we saw:

A student went hog-wild when we came across a bed loaded with these bivalve fossils. He spent most of the time excavating this bed for samples, and worked up quite a sweat beating the crap out of the outcrop with a hammer. These are quite well preserved and look MAH-velous for their age (300 million years old or so). I have a paper that goes through the paleontology of the unit we were looking at and I plan to shamelessly exploit this students excitment by having him sort some of these out and get names on them. I'll update once he gets that done!

Saturday, March 3, 2007


Whew- what a week! On Monday, I thought, oh maybe this would be a good week to blog about the typical goings-on of a scientist in academia. That's about all I can remember about Monday... but if I think back hard on it the week went something like this:

-worked all day like a maniac on paper that was submitted 9 months ago, after which I heard nothing for seven months, then days before Christmas "its going out for review" to which I replied, that old manuscript is last year's news and requested to rewrite it (??? what was I thinking?!?), then sought to find time between the holidays, starting a new job/life to rewrite, finally drew line in the sand... got it sent off, went home and tried to prep for class and grade exams, but instead collaped

-morning = harried exam grading and class prep then class- did a short informal "feedback" exercise that was at first nerve-wracking but then extremely helpful, an interesting outcome being that even though overall perception of actual learning was moderate, everyone would recommend the class to a friend...
-courted the idea of scoping field trip site for Thurs, but checked weather (outlook: not so good) and found out there were ZERO vehicles available from the motorpool... say wah? Zero? Field trip effectively cancelled
-instead I must have done other stuff, but I can't really recall what that may have been, and so was likely a combination of digging out from pile of crap on desk, assorted emails, trying to spend start up and the like

-submitted conference payment (shouldn't be note worthy, but conference is in China, so the default is noteworthyness= length of conference title plus the number of people in the organizing committee multplied by all the tea in China)
-went to noon seminar
-spent an hour digging through mineral drawers for a science "Event" on Sat
-spoke with a wayward senior undergrad seeking to avoid having to get a job by doing a master's degree... exerpt of conversation went like this:
Student: I couldn't really decide before, but I graduate in Aug (need to retake science class) and think I want to do a master's degree
Me: What do you want to do?
Student: Well I liked these classes and I like to be outside.
Me: What kind of rocks are you interested in?
Student: I'm not sure really, but I like to be outside.
Me: Do you like to write? Because Master's thesis have lots of pages.
Student: Well, no, but I like to be outside. This one time, I was outside, and I found a cool rock. Want to see it?
-was rescued from this conversation by an apointment to ferry samples for the "Event"
-attended info seminar on weekend science "Event", a timely two days before actual event
-an afternoon seminar

-morning class prep then class, who were mainly interested in whether or not lab would be cancelled because of "severe weather"
-Had brief chat with student who had missed getting-the-test-back day in class, got to hear about procrastination problems and how student actually anticipated scoring worse than the D- they made
-nabbed free lunch with prospective grad student visit (lure of the free lunch is irresistable to current and former graduate students... some things just never change)
-spent afternoon attempting to write activity for science "Event" while periodically ducking tornados and trying to cross-paths with visiting candidate for faculty position

-worked on writing science "Event"
-observed visiting candidate teach intro Geo class, which was most valuable as a chance to observe what intro Geo students do with themselves during class (general break down 33% note taking, 16.5% sleeping/checking out other students, 16.5% reading other non-class related materials, 33% sudoku, and 1% actually responding to instructor queries). Also experienced flash-back and Post-Traumatic Stress (complete with sweaty palms) over my experience as interviewing candidate teaching an unknown sea of intro Geo students
-managed to meet the Mr. "A'int" for lunch (though was late due to on-slaught of door-knockers that usually never happens)
-Attempted to square away activity for the "Event", somehow very little got done between students, phone calls, start-up business etc.
-attended research talk by visiting job candidate, had similar PST nausea as when watching candidate teach

-Today was the "Event" and I'm glad it is over. No major trainwrecks for the equivalent of a librarian running a little league tournament. But it took all day and I suffered a post-adrenaline crash once the results were turned in and it was all over.
-Tomorrow we look at the insides of houses we may want to buy. This marks a true transition from the hypothetical to getting into the ring. Homeownership is just a hop, skip, and mammoth debt acquisition away! Hooray!