I know that many gardeners enjoy spring the best, but my favorite season, hands down, is autumn. I enjoyed it growing up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, during my undergraduate days spent on the plateau of southwest Virginia, and then during graduate school in central Michigan. After Michigan, when I moved south - the fall became the season when the air felt good again, when the breeze was refreshing and not sultry, when the sun was warm but not harsh. So far in the lowcountry, September has been kinder than usual - the dogs are friskier (even the Ancient Wonder Beagle was witnessed sprinting across the yard today!), I'm happier, and the garden is again exploding - the first sign: the abundance of rosebuds and fresh growth on the antique roses. Soon the air will be filled again with the blossoms of the hybrid perpetual Marchesa Boccella - and many others. Next, the fall-blooming salvias - their butter yellows, deep blues, and rose-pinks...and it's even time to start planting the fall vegetable garden.
I was thinking this evening while I was outside with the Ancient Wonder Beagle about some of the events of the week. One thing I struggle with in my job is graduate student mentoring. It's something that I take very seriously, but in today's stressful research environment - with everyone busy writing grants and manuscripts and trying to keep their laboratories afloat - students often get the shaft. I spend alot of time with my students - it's not them that I spent the week worrying about. As one of the few female faculty in our program, and with an increasing percentage of female graduate students (someone mentioned to me today that the incoming doctoral student class this year was about 80% female!) - I'm finding that many of these students come and talk with me when they are having problems. I keep my door open - and students know that. Now, I generally have a student ask to meet with me - just needing someone to listen, or on ocassion it's a bigger problem, like a conflict with their adviser - but for the most part just listening and imparting a bit of advice works fine. But I've felt recently like students are beginning to knock on my door more frequently, and I wonder if this is perhaps a reflection of the increasing number of female students in our program. I'm thinking it is.
This week two female graduate students walked through my office door. One having serious problems with her doctoral research project, and feeling like she doesn't have anyone to turn to. Another student is struggling with her selection of a laboratory. In both cases, someone in a position of power in our program (a male) has been working with these students to 'help' them secure a positive environment and project for the degree program - but I seriously question the persons approach. Granted, this may just be an individuals lack of skill when dealing with people (in this case, students) - but in both cases, there is evidence that the person is not listening to the students concerns, and has their own agenda in mind. With respect to listening - I don't mean the kind of 'nod-your-head' listening that anybody can do - I'm talking about the kind of listening where you try, for a bit, to put yourself in that person's shoes, and really try to understand what their concerns are. Regarding their agenda - I've seen a number of instances where this person is setting up situations where there is an obvious conflict-of-interest that is detrimental to the student. And, although I apologize for generalizing, I often find male faculty act as if they 'know what's best' for their female students, in the absence of any input from the student. Again - the importance of listening, paying attention, and trained observations.
Both of the female graduate students left my office declaring their dedication to pursuing their PhDs in science. Their commitment was evident. That will help during the challenging times ahead for them. But they need more than commitment - they need an advocate, someone who really listens and who has more power than they do.
Being someone who always feels that "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"...what do I do today but go talk to someone in a position higher than all of us, and express my concerns. I have no reason not to trust this individual - he's always approached students with respect and level-headedness. But it's always a risk to do this. However, I haven't enjoyed my evenings this week: reflecting on the vulnerability of these two graduate students, the differential power issues involved, and the importance of ethics in how we conduct our science (it starts with how we treat our students, doesn't it?). I also wonder how an increasing number of female students, with a still predominantly male faculty, is going to play out in the weeks, months - and years to come.
Expressing concerns about potentially unethical behavior should never be risky. But we all know that it is. It's risky for anybody - regardless of gender.
The issues we face as women in science are evident in the posts of Science+Professor+Woman=Me and Thus Spake Zuska and many others that I'm finding as I become more familiar with the blogosphere. These sites have been helpful to me - not as places to rant (and yes, I have ranted a few times - I'm not immuned to frustration-driven ranting) - but as places where I am finding women having similar experiences in their own scientific life.
Did you happen to catch the segment yesterday on NPR about Bonnie Bassler? She's a Professor at Princeton whose done some amazing work focused on bacterial communication aka quorum sensing. Go take a look/listen. I particularly like this quote:
"The goal of scientists is you hope that the thing you're working on is bigger than the thing you're pipetting into that tube at that moment," Bassler says. "We always knew we were working on something bigger than bioluminescence, but we didn't think it would be what it turned out to be. It's just been so much better."
She's not kidding there.
A Blog Around the Clock has had some interesting posts lately focused on bacterial 'clocks' - go take a look at one of them here. He's got a number of other interesting posts on bacterial 'clocks' as well - you can search his site to find the others in the series. The posts are an interesting blend of science...and reality (in this case, politics!). I couldn't help but snag the text (and figure below) from one of his first posts on the subject - I've added the red highlights...
"It is no suprise that nobody looked at microorganisms back then - it was just technically too hard. The fact is that most of the pioneers in the field came in from vertebrate physiology, ethology or ecology. It is easy for us, large mammals, to forget that we are not among the dominant life-forms on the planet - that title goes to bacteria, in terms of numbers of individuals, in terms of biodiversity, and in terms of total biomass. See if you can find mammals, or even all animals on the Tree of Life:"
Yeah, large mammals...bacteria are dominant life forms! Love it.
Take a look at this - a report about finding Prozac in the environment. While I could say something here like 'things are looking up for marine life, eh?' (okay, the article already used 'happy as a clam') - a local NIST scientist (from the Hollings Marine Laboratory) along with folks at North Carolina State University have shown:
"The study, one of the first to examine the ecotoxicological effects of Prozac (fluoxetine) on native freshwater mussels, found that the drug caused females to prematurely release their larvae, essentially dooming them. The findings were presented today at the 232nd national meeting of the American Chemical Society."
From what I've been hearing - scientists are finding all sorts of pharmacueticals in the water - compounds that aren't being effectively treated by wastewater treatment plants.
Garden Rant made it to Charleston recently. I'm hoping they came for something else, not just the gardens - because it's definitely not our best season. August...in Charleston...in the garden? Hopefully they'll return during a more generous season...perhaps when the camellias are in bloom, or the azaleas and hydrangeas (...and is it just me? Or is anyone else sick of the whole Gone with the Wind thing? Am I the only person that didn't like the book? Will folks always associate Charleston with it? I certainly hope not - because as they say, it had little (to nothing) to do with Charleston!). Anyway, go leave them a message inviting them back during a better time of the year!
Well, I've come across more interesting stuff - but once I get started doing this, I have trouble stopping - and I really need to work. I've got a stack of about 25 proposals that I have to start reviewing - and if I don't get started soon, things are really going to suck in a few weeks...
What can you say about the first Sunday in August in the Lowcountry? That it's hot. Period. No descriptors are needed, no further discussions. Folks are cranky, confused and crusty. Nonetheless, I dragged myself out to the garden to assess the state of THE TOMATOES. These aren't just any tomatoes, they are tomatoes entered in Dr. Charles' Tomato Contest. He's requesting our First Sunday in August update (where he has a pretty snazzy video of his own entries) - and amidst the crankiness and the confusion and the crustiness of the past few days, I almost forgot about it. The mind is the first thing to go in the heat.
I posted an update in June and July, and here's a list of the tomatoes I'm growing, with some updated observational commentary:
Matt's Wild Cherry: indeterminate, prolific wild cherry. This variety is still growing strong in the heat - even when I forget to water it. While the tomatoes are small, they're abundant in number. A highly sophisticated study of the carbon dioxide levels surrounding this beauty, using my prize-winning-carbon-dioxide-sniffing-dog, Stanley, has resulted in extremely for sure most likely probably preliminary data suggesting that maybe perhaps it could be that there are lower levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in a 1 mm zone surrounding the plant. This is top-secret data that I'm sharing with my two loyal readers for the first time here today.
Sungold Cherry: golden yellow, very sweet, can reach 10'. The 10' thing isn't happening this year - but it has in the past. Could be that the Keeper-of-the-Tomato has been a slacker when it comes to watering. But here in the south, there's plenty of time yet for tomato redemption...so I'm optimistic that a few more feet will happen, and a bunch more tomatoes. It was doing great up until the last week or so of July, but the last two weeks (something about lows in the low 80s) hasn't helped things out. Still the tastiest tomato I've got growing - but according to Stanley, there is no evidence of a reduction in carbon dioxide levels. Could be that Stanley tends to simultaneously sniff and eat this variety - so there could be interference with his normally very accurate for the most part nose. Outcome still pending.
Viva Italia: high-yielding paste. I've yet to see proof. If anything, this variety is contributing to global warming, and I expect to see a press release soon (reporters are hanging out beyond the garden's gate already) - followed by intense debate in the public arena. Much of the debate will be centered around the accuracy of Stanley's very handsome nose (it is handsome, don't you think?).
Ildi: yellow grape-shaped fruits in huge clusters, indeterminate. The tomato jury is still out on this variety. Early in the season it produced these pretty spectacular flower clusters, but I think due to poor pollination, only a few of the flowers produced fruit. Now I've got lots of mexican sunflowers and zinnias in flower around the plants, attracting a variety of pollinators, so the new flower clusters (that are just forming) might be more prolific. If so, this variety will be hard to beat - and if early indicators of carbon dioxide levels mean anything (well, as much as data generated from a poorly trained carbon-dioxide-sniffing-dog can mean on a good day) - then - need I say more?
Thai Pink Egg: egg-shaped sweet. I'm not sure what to say here. This tomato has me perplexed. It produces these lovely small pink egg-shaped fruit - but I'm having trouble considering it a viable crop. There are a number of pink-colored heirloom tomatoes that I just love (so I'm not anti-pink, except for when it comes to women's shoes) - and I have no gripe with the humble egg. But it's something about putting these two together that I can't get a handle on. Stanley has even refused to sniff this one. We'll keep you posted.
Well, that's it for the update. As for my future tomato-growing goals...I plan to plant a few rooted slips of the Matt's Cherry (in case you aren't aware of this and you live in the cranky, confused and crusty south, you can just break off a branch of your tomato in July and stick it in some water, and it will root - and you can then plant it in the ground or in a pot for a fall crop). Also, my lab's poet laureate gave me a tomato she had planted from seed - it's terribly root-bound and unhappy - so I might plop it into the ground and see what happens. It's a more normal variety, so who knows - by late fall I might actually have a tomato I could slice and put on a sandwich. By then, Stanley might catch on that I'm taking advantage of his nose and that I'm using him as free labor, and the whole experiment will be over anyway. Bratty dog. Someone forgot to train him when he was a puppy.
PS Dr. Charles: I can't leave a comment at your website. I have trouble with a few other ScienceBloggers as well. I tried troubleshooting it, but didn't get very far. Loved the video!