Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Two years in: funding and data analysis

I'm two years into my PhD, which started officially on October the 1st 2013. This time last year, I had completed the following:

Completed my proposal and seminar
Collected female specimens from throughout NZ
Been handed some males from the public, and pinpointed good places to set pitfall traps
2 conferences with presentations
Begun sequencing for phylogeny
Found someone to help me with genetic and ecology fieldwork early next year.

I was a bit sad that I hadn't completed my objectives, and that real life got in the way of me devising my perfect routine. Over the past year, I got used to this. Everything takes longer than I think, and my initial objectives were rather unrealistic. Money, friends, and hobbies are all things that get in the way of doing my PhD, but they are also things that keep me sane, which is quite important. But instead of trying to cut them out of my life, which I have been trying to do but failing miserably, I have decided to live with them and take them into consideration when planning things. That has been much kinder to my blood pressure. Every day, I prioritise my PhD above everything else, but after I have done a bit of work I can do the other things that are screaming for my attention. I'm on track, I think, so it seems to be working. I have, however, become really bad at time management and answering my emails, because I have periods during the day when I want to work on my PhD and the rest of the world be damned. Plus I have discovered that one can "flag" one's emails to prioritise dealing with them. I can do the flagging part fine; it's the dealing with them that I usually forget.

My project went over its funding allocation for this year, which has meant that I had to stop lab work. It was good in a way, because I needed to stop anyway. It was getting to the point where I was trying crazy and superstitious ways to squeeze sequences out of extracts that probably can be sequenced using some method somewhere, but weren't worth trying every possible combination of every parameter and ingredient. After completing my last 96 sequencing attempts (as usual, most didn't work), I helped out on a field trip with some undergrads. While out there, we caught some male trapdoor spiders which would be really good to sequence. I still have them. I really hope I get enough money to sequence them before October next year. They are from an island and would be a really interesting piece to add to the puzzle. I completed my environmental data collection too (I think). So the only data I have left to collect is morphological.

Now I am doing DNA data analysis, which involves downloading programs which don't work, and trying to get them to work. I just cracked one yesterday, and went to use one that I have used since my honours project and know really well, but it needs downloading again, and it won't install, and it requires Java, and Java won't install. This used to really stress me out but now I feel weirdly zen about it all because it's familiar. The feeling when something finally works is incredible. I think when this PhD is over I'd like to write a book on basic molecular techniques and analysis for people like me. I get this feeling that everyone instinctively knows how to work these programs except for me, and then someone comes up to me and asks how to do something basic and I realise it isn't just me.

All I have to do is phylogenetic and niche modelling data analysis, then finish my thesis. A year's work, easily, hopefully?

Anyway, here's to the next and final year. Cheers!


I'm visiting the UK soon; one of my oldest friends is getting married, and another friend from China wants me to show her around Britain. I said I would if she would show me around Shanghai. So on the way back, we'll be stopping off for Chinese New Year.

So people have started to ask me "When are you going home?" "You're going home soon, aren't you?", and so on, as if I'm just here for a holiday and will finally be returning to the UK. That's not it at all. The UK isn't my home. It's a nice place, but we never really fit into each other. I loved living in Scotland, and to start with that felt like home, but the underlying Anglophobia from ancient resentment wore through over the years.

I think people assume the UK is my home because I was born there and I have an English accent. I guess if that's what makes a place your home then it is, but then "homely" would also have a different meaning if it wasn't to be disembodied from its mother word. Since leaving home in 2007, I haven't lived in England and I haven't wanted to. I lived in Wales, then Scotland, then New Zealand, then Scotland again, then back to New Zealand. Each of those places was home, and now I can make myself at home pretty much wherever I am. New Zealand is now most definitely my home. I'm comfortable here, most of my friends, responsibilities, and possessions are here, I have a way of life and I feel like myself. I can talk with people who are like me, and have the freedom to direct my life. If I'm having a bad day I can hop in the car and drive somewhere remote. New Zealand has its problems, of course, but it feels like I belong. I'm really happy here!

Not to say that I don't miss things about the UK. I come from Rodborough Common, an ancient tract of wind-blown meadow land where farmers have grazed their cattle since before anyone can remember. Rodborough Fort was built in 1764, 76 years before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in New Zealand. It's still a private dwelling. I miss the oldness of buildings and traditions, the feeling of gravity that surrounds them. I miss seasonal festivals being in the right season. I really miss the seasons. Weather was always quite important, but I only really recognised how important it was when I moved here. There's no autumn, and the winters are dull and wet rather than crisp and snowy (although really it is Scottish weather that I miss).

I suppose these are first-world international student problems. They aren't problems really. But I get a bit tired of people assuming I'm going to go back to the UK one day and stay there, because that would really be quite bad for me. I'd much rather stay wherever I can do science, live relatively peacefully, make friends and control the direction of my own life. Isn't that what everyone in my position wants?