Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pass the Latkes!

Lighting the candles
 In between the end of the semester and millions of dollars of corporate advertising, it's easy to be distracted from the rest of the holidays during this time of the year.  The night before my 48-hour escape from Troy, I went to my first Hanukkah party since I was in Mrs. Hunter's pre-school class. The party was one of the most multicultural affairs I've ever been too.  Chinese, Korean, Thai, Irish, South African, and American, everyone showed up to eat latkes and light the Hanukiah on the third night of Hanukkah.  Our hosts were the newly wedded Israeli scholar from my lab and his blushing bride.  Eyal started us off with the picture book version of the story of Hanukkah. 
To summarize, the Greeks had conquered Jerusalem and taken control of the Second Temple.  The Hebrews rallied and reclaimed their temple.  The Temple was cleaned and repaired but there was only enough oil for the Menorah (lamp) to burn for one day.  The lamp oil took eight days to prepare so the victorious Hebrews were still in a predicament.  Miraculously, one-day's worth of oil continued to burn for the full eight days required to procure more oil.  Eyal made us all chuckle when he went on the quip that every Jewish holiday can be summarized as 'We were few. They were many. We defeated them. Let's eat.' The last part crosses every culture I've encountered.  Even holidays that begin with fasting end with a really good meal. 

B'tey a'von - Hebrew for "Bon Appetit"
We each got a dreidel to take home
We definitely had a good meal..  There were piles of latkes, scalloped corn, and spreads for crackers and latkes.  Dessert featured cookies and cupcakes.  With everyone well fed and watered, everyone started sharing their personal holiday traditions and trying to play dreidel.  Interesting but of Hanukkah trivia: the symbols on the dreidel are an acronym to acknowledge the roots of Hanukkah in the Temple of Jerusalem.  Dreidels in Israel say "a great miracle happened here" and dreidels outside of Israel read "a great miracle happened there."  It's surprisingly difficult to get them spinning correctly. At one point one of the girls was trying to play jacks with the dreidels.  I remember learning how to play the game in school years ago but all I could remember was there's a symbol for putting all your pieces in the pot and one for putting half your pieces in.  What those symbols were or what the other two indicate were beyond me. We stayed out later than anyone was expecting but everyone left full and happy. I personally believe that the best part of the winter holiday season is sharing traditions and becoming a closer community.

Photo Credit: All photos are courtesy of Ang. Thank you!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Keeping in Classy: The Nutcracker Ballet

 2011 Proctors Nutcracker Commercial

I can still remember the day when my mother and grandmother took me to see The Nutcracker Ballet as a little girl.  For over a decade, when the holiday football games started I would go in the other room and bust out our VHS copy of the New York City Ballet performance.  The last few holiday seasons I've wanted to see the ballet in theater again.  Last year I tried to get tickets in early November but all of the performances were already sold out.  So when Proctors theater released its schedule over the summer, I quickly sent out a message looking for someone to accompany me.  My friend Erica had never seen the ballet and volunteered to come along.  I bought our tickets in August and I was still pressed to find tickets in the sections I wanted.

Right before opening curtain
Two weeks before Christmas, we put on our nice clothes and set off for the theater.  This was one of the reasons I was psyched to go to the ballet.  With my lack of natural grace I avoid wearing clothes I like to lab for risk of acid stains, and make-up is a big no-no in the clean room (rouge and lithography don't go together).  As nice as we looked, we had nothing on the young girls in their Christmas dresses.  It's really hard to beat the excitement of a girl in a velvet dress with a big ribbon at her first ballet.

Theater draped in garlands
Proctors is an ornate old 1920s theater which vividly reminds me of the Auditorium theater in Rochester, NY. The walls and balconies are decorated with red seats reminiscent of skinnier days.  We had awesome seats in center orchestra about half way back (buy holiday show tickets during the summer!).  We had a perfect view of the stage but we weren't going anywhere quickly.  The Northeast Ballet Company with Wendy Whelan and Charles Askegard  from the New York City Ballet preformed the classic childhood tale.  It took me a minute to adjust to the director's vision of the ballet which differed from the 1993 VHS of the NYCB I grew up watching. The Nutcracker character played a fairly minor role, compared to other versions I've seen, and only appeared during the opening scenes.  One especially nostalgic thing for me was watching Wendy Whelan as the Sugar Plum Fairy.  She was Arabian Coffee in my trusting recording and one of my favorite dancers.  To see her preform live after all of these years was a really treat.  The kids throughout the performance were adorable. This one little boy, who couldn't be more than 4 years old, was completely adorable.  He was tiny compared to the rest of the kids and always appeared the be where he was supposed to be but in that clumsy grace of very small child.  He easily could have stolen the show.
Keepsake from the Ballet with my Grandma
After a two hour ballet highlighting the sweets of the holidays, the only logical thing to do was go to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner. It's like of law of the Cheesecake Factory that if you eat there you much order cheesecake.  So after a decent-sized meals, we both ordered chocolatey cheesecake and managed to take about two bites before admitting defeat and wrapping up the rest. At the end of the day we felt like happy, well-sugared munchkins excited for the Christmas season which is all I could ask for on a Sunday two weeks before Christmas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lights in the Park

Every businesses in the Capital Region sponsor an all-out display of Christmas lights in Albany's Washington Park.  The week before Christmas, my old roommate, Gracie, and I wet for a  boost of "good will" after several frustrating work days.  Two peppermint hot chocolates and a few dollars later, we driving down the enchanted trail with the rest of the minivans, SUVs, and a party bus(!?!) admiring the giant displays.  During the weekend the line of traffic is bumper to bumper.  However, things were moving along at a good clip making it really difficult to photography the displays. Here are some of my favorite shots that came out - ish:

Santa's workshop
Horton helping to pass out presents

Friendly Dragon

Snow Palace

Demonic Hockey Players

Life Lessons in multicolored LEDs

Saturday, December 24, 2011

12 trees of Christmas

Chemist-tree, C60 Christmas Social 2008
Hall Hall 212 Tree, Freshman Year RPI (2006)

Christmas tree at Brighton Pier, 2008
De Delftse Pauw Christmas Ornament tree, Delft 2008
Dam Square, Amsterdam 2008
Trafalgar Square Tree, London 2008

Delft City Hall, Netherlands 2008
My first real Christmas tree, 2011

Pantheon, Paris, Christmas Day 2008

Christmas in the Alps, Geneva 2008
Piazza del Duomo, Milan 2008
Notre Dame, Paris, Christmas Eve 2008

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree!!

After a quick cost/benefit analysis, I decided it was a better choice to get a real Christmas tree for the next couple years than an artificial tree.  Immediately around the holidays I'm flitting from one city to the next in an effort to see the family so I decided to get the tree set up early for maximum holiday enjoyment.

When I was growing up, going to cut down the Christmas tree meant a five minute ride and loading the tree in a full-size pickup truck and any required tools available in the garage. I should have known I was getting myself into trouble when the closest Christmas tree farm I could find was 30 minutes away. Nevertheless, Saturday afternoon the Dave and I set out on the Northway in my Toyota Corolla to retrieve my Christmas tree. The drive to Ellm's tree farm was uneventful save the encouraging sight of minivans and SUVs (you know cars with roof racks) carrying their prize evergreens away from the direction we were headed.  Did I mention I have a corolla?  At this point, I was mildly concerned by how we were going to transport this tree to my apartment with reenacting an Allstate Mayhem commercial.  I'm hoping an engineer and a Ph.D. candidate can figure something out.

Committing to the Tree
 The farm was much busier than I was expecting for the first weekend of December.  The tree farm was humming like a well-oiled machine.  Hayrides shuttled tree hunters twenty tree-hunters to and from the lots.  We hopped on the trolley and set-off to find the perfect Fraser fir.  I may have dragged Dave around half of the tree farm to look at every Fraser fir I could find.  Too tall.  Too fat.  Crooked trunk.  Too short.  Not enough branches.  Too many dead needles.  Finally, as the sun was setting, we found THE tree.  Not too tall with plenty of strong branches.  Dave kindly cut it while I was distracted by the golden retriever puppy in the next row.  I did help get the tree over to the trolley stop where the fluffy puppy was trying to trying to kill a stick larger than it.  It was so cute barking and jumping at the stick as it tried to pick it up but it was too big.

The farmhands were great. An assembly line unloaded the trees, shook off the loose needles and leaves, measured, tagged, and baled the trees within minutes of the trolleys arriving.  I was so charmed by being away from Troy and being helped by people in worn Carhartts and Timberlands that I did a double take when the girl had me use a cash register app on an iPad to pay for the tree.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised that enough a rustic looking tree farm is online these days.

Complimentary hot chocolate was part of the tree package and it was chilly.  We decided to put the tree in the car and then go after our refreshments.  Walking to the car I noticed my keys weren't in the pocket I usually stick them in.  I stepped aside to properly dig through my purse when I glanced in the driver-side window and say my lanyard.  Not only had I left my car unlocked...I had left the keys in the ignition.  Good thing we weren't in Troy.  Feeling a little foolish, the next question was how to get the tree home.  Thankfully I erred on the side of short and the baled tree fit inside the car, stretching from boot to gear-shifter but inside.  (It still smells like Christmas tree.)

At my apartment, we needed to shorten the trunk a little bit more.  I don't own a saw.  I did manage to borrow one, a dulling hacksaw.  Not the ideal tool for the job. With a little teamwork and trading off at sawing, we were able to cut through the massive four inch trunk. Dave had the idea to put the tree in the stand before taking it inside.  At least we didn't have to deal with the ceiling for that part.  I cut the baling twine and the tree sprung open.  I also didn't have clippers to trim the top for the star, so we improvised with kitchen shears. Putting on the lights was probably the easiest they will ever be since they came straight out of the box.  Dave and I decorated the tree with ornaments from my childhood to ornaments I made special for this tree.  When we finished, Dave put the star up.  

Finished Product
Adding the Final Touches
I plugged in the lights and we gazed at our handy work for a minute before half of the string of blinking lights stopped blinking.  At that point I didn't care.  Everything was finally on the tree and staying there.  Now, every once in a while, the whole strand will blink for a minute before the one half gives up again.  I'm still so glad we ventured out to get a real tree.  It makes the apartment feel so much more festive and homey.  The technical difficulties just makes the story that much more memorable.

Happy with Our Tree

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Adventure Bucket List

The next chapter of my life is quickly approaching.  To most people, a year and a half sounds like a while but anyone who's worked in scientific research knows that it's quicker than you think. I'm a list person so I'd count this as an attempt to put some order to things I can control. This is the first version, of many I'm sure, in no particular order:
  • Learn to SCUBA dive
  • Learn to shoot good photos with manual settings
  • Visit NYC during the Christmas season
  • Visit the Grand Canyon
  • Visit the pyramids and Petra
  • Visit Manchu Pichu
  • Speak Spanish Fluently (Pass DELE Certification)
  • Visit the Far East
  • Learn at least one other language to proficiency
  • See the Big 5 on an African Safari
  • SCUBA dive in Australia, SE Asia, and Central America
  • Volunteer overseas
  • Visit all 50 US states
  • Live Overseas
  • Visit EVERY continent
My full bucket list is a computer file with over 200 items but I would consider these the heavy hitters; at least for now.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What's next? The Question

For those of you keeping score at home, I am approaching the 18 month mark to my expected graduation date.  In an ideal world this would mean about a year of new experiments, followed by five months of frantic writing leading up to my defense, and then several weeks of tying up loose ends.  I've never actually seen that happen but grad school legend says it's the best way to do it.  

After the fiasco of the year leading up to my candidacy, I'm beginning to feel the heat already.  I would really like to get a couple quality papers out before those 18 months pass which means I need a lot of high quality data before then.  The challenge of putting together a comprehensive thesis out of a list of experiments is intimidating and stressful.  However, as scary as writing a 100+ pages document is, I'm far more anxious about the idea of finding a job.

Normally after graduation you go from grad life to postdoc life.  I am bound and determined to take my 6 month vacation immediately post-graduation.  Twenty years of school including the last several summers and winter breaks means Julie needs some time to recharge.  I will likely be graduating in May and looking for a January start date for the next working chapter in my life. Unfortunately when I'd like all of this to happen is the easy part.  The less predictable part is where: academic or industry?, April 2, 2007
For years industrial research has been viewed as sub-par to academic research.  The Office of Graduate Education did a half-day workshop earlier this month to help disprove the stereotype.  They brought in 8 PhDs who work in industry to tell us about their experiences.  I enjoyed the panel discussion and the Q&A session afterward.  The panelists were eager to answer questions and give advise when they could.  When I compared notes with some friends afterwards we all agreed that we hadn't heard anything especially new but it was good just to hear it from people who had actually gone that route. My one complaint was they only had one woman on the panel who had already retired from industry.  She was very easy to talk to and I had a great conversation with her about the pros and cons of changing your last name as a scientist. Just the same, it would have been nice to have another woman there with a smaller age gap.  While hearing the quality science can happen in industry was reassuring, I don't feel any closer to deciding what path I want to go down.  Both directions are littered with laboratory and funding politics.  I have been told that some research questions are inherently suited for academia or industry.  I haven't figured out the difference yet but I'm willing to believe it.

I recently read a story about 5 things that can trip up your standard overachiever.  Number 4 was too many options.  Going through university I never bought that argument.  How could having choices be a bad thing?  In the last month, many of the older students in my lab have been looking at employment options.  Now we're all starting to see how have a lot of possible directions can be a hang up.  I think it's hard to focus your efforts when you have many equally good and different possibilities to go after. 

How do you choose a proverbial crossroad when they all appear equally sunny?