Once I nearly suffocated because I wanted to see this dude wearing a KFC chicken bucket on his head play fancy guitar.

Guns N’ Roses will always be one of my favorite bands. I grew up on Guns and Roses – my mom rode bitch in the Chosen Few, the largest US biker gang after the Hell’s Angels. And if you are remotely affiliated with a biker gang, you figuratively eat Guns N’ Roses for breakfast. And after you settle down to raise a family, you figuratively feed Guns N’ Roses to your children, apparently.

I didn’t have the chance to see the original G&R myself, but guitar virtuoso Brian Patrick Carroll (aka Buckethead) went on tour with them from 2000 to 2004 and did the original music serious justice. Music experts herald Buckethead as one of the most talented electric guitarists of our time, and I was super excited when my friend Robert invited me along to see Buckethead do his solo act live.Buckethead

The night of the show we got to the venue, Neumos, a little early. We waited until well past the time the show was supposed to start, when someone finally made an announcement that the tour bus had been in an accident. Luckily everybody was OK, but the show was going to be delayed for even longer while a new vehicle was acquired.

Meanwhile, someone on staff thought it was a good idea to let some young woman inexplicably wearing a *cow costume* with an acoustic guitar attempt to please the crowd for a while. Cow Lady admitted straight off the bat that she was no guitar expert, and had in fact only recently begun actually *learning* how to play the guitar.

She was incredibly brave, but also incredibly terrible at playing guitar.

Cow Lady knew no more than three chords. The guy that got famous covering La Bamba got away with only playing three chords, but to a crowd of people excited to see Buckethead completely wow us with his profound guitar knowledge and ability to do amazing things with said instrument, such an act is simply not OK. Cow Lady did not please the crowd. Cow Lady made the crowd Angry.

She finally stopped, and then we all stood around getting increasingly antsy.  An hour or so later, the guy who was actually scheduled to open for Buckethead got on stage.

Thankfully, this guy actually knew what he was doing.  Opening Act Guy did admittedly interesting things with a looper pedal, but as Robert said, Opening Act Guy was still “somehow extremely unlikable.” After six or seven songs, he got off the stage and we waited some more.

But then Opening Act Guy did something more unforgivable than Cow Lady. He came back on stage and re-played some of the SAME SONGS HE HAD JUST PLAYED.

At this point the crowd was LIVID. That is like first rule of concerts! You don’t repeat songs! He was more or less Booed off the stage and into oblivion.

Finally after another hour or so, past midnight at this point, Buckethead finally entered the stage all in a rush and *immediately* began wowing us with his amazing guitar skills. With his music, Buckethead took the fuel of five hours of anticipation, let down, anger, and frustration and ignited a fire in the minds of those gathered.

The crowd lost its collective shit and became violent.

Now, I’ve seen violent mosh pits before. Take the time I saw Nile: the mosh pit was so violent and unpredictable that one of my friends, fearing for his life, turned around to leave and was promptly punched in the face, breaking his glasses.

No, the scariest part about the Buckethead mosh pit is that everyone was pressing So. Hard. Forward that tiny people like me were perma-plastered against the sweaty backs of the people in front of us, unable to breathe.

When you can’t breathe, it doesn’t take long before the panic sets in and you become convinced you will perish while a man wearing a creepy mask and fried chicken bucket serenades your ignoble death. Periodically, I was able to get my hands in front of myself and push back to gasp in a mouthful of air, but I half-suffocated for some time. Days, it felt like. It was probably more like five or ten minutes, but however long it was, my oxygen levels depleted to worryingly low levels.

Eventually, the people in the back of crowd stopped feeling the need to pulverize the people in the front of the crowd into Mashed People and released their death grip. I was able to flee to the back of the room, and proceeded to lean against the back wall so no one could sneak up on me.

Buckethead did play some really amazing guitar. The guy knows how to shred, and even did some pop and lock breakdancing with Nunchucks. I had forgotten about that tidbit – Robert had to remind me.

My near-death aside, boy did Buckethead put on a good show. 100% would see again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want a Heavy Metal Music Chelator to exist.

From Wikipedia: “The chelate effect describes the enhanced affinity of chelating ligands for a metal ion compared to the affinity of a collection of similar nonchelating (monodentate) ligands for the same metal.”

In other words, chelators bond to the metal atoms in various compounds and keep them from doing things.

How cool would it be if there was an app that could take heavy metal music and take all the heaviness and brutality out of it?

Until someone that’s not in grad school has time to turn this dream into reality, I’d settle for this lady doing more piano covers of different types of metal. Maybe a little Obituary before their concert here next month?!

Hopefully none of them end up in coffins before I get to risk my life in their mosh pit. Photo credit this awesomely ridiculous website: http://gunshyassassin.com/news/obituary-sign-with-relapse-records/

Obituary. Hopefully none of them permanently end up in coffins before I get to risk my life in their mosh pit. The image is from their 2008 Best Of album, photo credit this awesomely ridiculous website: http://gunshyassassin.com/news/obituary-sign-with-relapse-records/

 

Grad school for me didn’t exactly go according to plan.

It started out as awesome as grad school gets, really. I was accepted to all my top favorite schools, with guaranteed full funding. I had the luxury and privilege of getting to choose from a number of rockstar advisers, but finally picked the school I did to work with one truly badass mycologist and the awesome people she brings into her lab.

Our grad office featured a Mycorrhizae Powered Winter Season Tree!

I even entered my first year at Harvard with a National Science Foundation Gradate Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards a grad student can win.

I loved grad school. My adviser was the perfect combination of hands-off and motivational/guiding, plus she’s one of those generous people with amazing work-life balance that all the grad students want to be like. All my labmates were crazy smart, fun and encouraging. The science in the lab was interesting and broad, ranging from social scientists examining how people relate to mushrooms to physicists studying spore dispersal. My cohort of fellow first-years was equally full of fantastic and dedicated people. I took a great class on paleobotany from Curiosity Rover scientist Andy Knoll and got to explore Harvard’s amazing plant fossil collections.

That first summer, I was starting some really awesome research with the Death Cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, when one of the most brutal things that can possibly happen to an academic happened.

My adviser was denied tenure.

This came as a total shock to almost everyone involved. Our department had unanimously voted to keep her, but ultimately, the decision came down from the university’s president. There is no good reason why she was denied tenure, either. She had loads of high-quality publications, plenty of grant money, lots of news coverage, and is extremely well respected among fellow mycologists. There was such a campus-wide uproar, one other associate professor in our department quit shortly after, not wanting to go through the same crapshoot process.

But my favorite example of how ludicrous the President’s decision was is that at the same time some Harvard Higher Ups decided my adviser wasn’t a good fit for the school, other Harvard Higher Ups bestowed her with Harvard’s most prestigious teaching award, and a big pile of money to go with it. Clearly having stellar teachers can’t be that important to Harvard, but I will save the trash-talking for the emphatic letter I’m slowly writing to the Chronicle.

I remember being irrationally upset that my whole Five Year Plan was ruined. Above, you see the Hot Guys with Baby Animals calendar, a Must for every grad office.

I remember being irrationally upset that my whole Five Year Plan was ruined. Above, you see the Hot Guys with Baby Animals calendar, a Must for every grad office.

So, back to me. In a year, my adviser would turn into a Cinderella-like Adviser Pumpkin and leave the school, and there was no one else there I wanted as my main adviser. She didn’t know which school she was moving to yet, so simply following her was not on the table.

It was utterly, thoroughly devastating. But as my ever-optimistic adviser would say, no one died. We weren’t living in a war zone. Yes, we were going to have to disperse and close up shop, but it turns out it really wasn’t the end of the world.

One year into my PhD program, I applied to grad school. Again.

Meanwhile, I switched my research focus back to the model system I worked in as a lab manager at UW and threw together a Master’s sized project so I could at least put the big H on my resume.

I plated out fungi on so many Petri dishes you don't even KNOW

I plated out fungi on so many Petri dishes you don’t even KNOW

And here’s the craziest part: it all worked out really, really well. I probably wouldn’t have done the experiment I did if my adviser hadn’t been denied tenure, and I discovered some really interesting things about how fungal pathogens cope with capsaicin. Lo and behold, my findings were even statistically significant! I’m still working on tidying up the paper for submission, but we’re aiming for a pretty solid journal. I’m excited.

I was accepted to all three schools I applied to, and again had the luxury of choosing where I wanted to go. I’m now at Berkeley, in the very same lab where my old adviser developed the Death Cap system. I can easily continue the Death Cap work I started at Harvard, plus there are more nearby field sites for collecting mushrooms. The school even threw another two year fellowship at me, so, with all three years of my GRF stipend to spend still, I have *literally* more funding than I can spend in the next four years.

Proof of the fun times had during Flip Cup! Photo: M. F.

Proof of the fun times had during Flip Cup! Photo: M. F.

I’m super happy with my new choice. Everyone is awesome – in my lab, and in the rest of the department. There is a lot more inter-departmental communication and collaboration here than at Harvard, too. Plus I much prefer the weather here over Boston, and I get to live with old friends from Seattle in a swank house with a lemon tree in the backyard.

My old adviser is also sitting pretty, and has a bunch of job offers from great schools. No matter which school she picks to settle down in, she’ll keep doing awesome science.

Life goes on.

Last week during Orientation, the other grad students here taught me how to play Flip Cup! My team never lost. They called me the Chosen One.

 

 

 

 

 

The popularity of mushroom cocktails is rising faster than Iron Maiden’s album Number of the Beast rode the music charts in 1982.

My badass undergrad assistant sent me this link recently, which documents how mushroom cocktails are rapidly becoming crowd-pleasers across the US. And, as Maiden’s album was somewhat controversial here for its religious lyrics, the idea of adding fungus to one’s booze puts a few people on edge.  Naturally, I had to try a few.

This last weekend while I was in NYC to visit a friend, I met up with Paul Adams for a Mushroom Themed Bar Crawl. Paul was a restaurant reviewer for years prior to landing the sweet gig of Senior Editor of Popular Science‘s website. He knew a great first place to start our epic tasting journey.

We met up at Booker and Dax, a pretty swanky bar in the Lower East Side.  This is the place to go if you’re not shy about jumping straight into the circle pit of mushroom flavor. The ‘Champion Justino’ is like drinking liquid shiitake: cognac, chocolate molé bitters, shiitake mushroom elixir, and two drops of saline. The saline makes the flavor really pop, like just the right amount of gain on a guitar track. I highly recommend it.

Next we hit up the speak-easy-esque Experimental Cocktail Club and settled in at the bar. Their featured mushroom drink was called ‘Take is Going Back to Japan.’ Despite the awkward name, the drink was pretty tasty: shittake infused scotch, cocoa nibs infused maple syrup, sherry, and black walnut bitters.

Because mushrooms have such a savory, umami taste, most mushroom cocktails are paired with sweeter flavors like chocolate. Just like pairing metal music with basically anything else, mushrooms and chocolate can be a pretty killer combination. The ‘Take’ is a good drink for someone that wants to try a mushroom-inspired cocktail but doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with the taste of decomposers.

Our third and final stop for the night was Neta, a high-end sushi bar a bit further west. Props to Neta for being the only place we found to use truffles instead of shiitakes.  The ‘Ki No Kawa’ was cognac gently infused with black truffles, gin, créme de cacao and molé bitters. I just wish they’d been less gentle with their infusion – the drink smelled strongly of truffles but the taste was fairly mild. It was still a great combination of flavors.

Overall, Booker and Dax get the Full Devil Horn Salute for  embracing the taste of mushrooms. The bartenders also put on a good show, chilling their glasses with liquid nitrogen, and even using N2 to flash freeze herbs and spices for some of their drinks. They answered all my 1001 questions and clearly knew their stuff. I would definitely order the ‘Champion Justino’ again.

The next time I go on a Culinary Adventure I might have to try the next fungi-inspired fine dining ingredient: lichen from the stomachs of freshly slaughtered reindeer.

So. Brutal.

 

Think back for a minute. Think back to, say, junior high, and try to remember what horrible music you listened to.

Posters: Orgy (the band), and lots of Trent Reznor pictures I printed off the internet and taped on the wall.

Posters: Orgy (the band), and lots of Trent Reznor pictures I printed off the internet and taped on the wall.

When I think back to junior high, my cd player was usually blaring some pretty awful nu-metal like Nine Inch Nails and KoRn. It took me a while to discover real death and black metal, and then only later in college to appreciate happier prog/power metal. In recent years, I have tried to listen to bands such as Slipknot again, and while I somehow remember an embarrassing amount of lyrics, and there’s plenty of nostalgia value, I just can’t enjoy it like I once did. Maybe it’s because I don’t wear ridiculous outfits like the one at right anymore. A friend’s dad said those pants made it look like I’d gotten into a fight with a lawn mower. And lost.

Or maybe, if I had remained completely ignorant of all higher metal music, I might still be derping out to Linkin Park, oblivious to better quality music out there. But when we learn something, new connections are made between our neurons, or brain cells. As a result, a person can’t ever truly remember what it was like to not know something. You’ve learned it. The fundamental structure of your brain has changed as a result of your learning, and you can’t willfully undo that.

As a grad student, I apparently couldn’t willfully trick myself into pretending that I was an undergraduate in the classes I had to take last semester. I already got into grad school – the best grad school – so my grades don’t matter anymore. Only my research does. No one is ever (probably) going to look at my transcript again.

So, when it came time to study for midterms or practice a presentation for these classes, I just couldn’t make myself care to the degree that all the undergraduate around me did. I flat out couldn’t do it. I know my grades are basically my lowest priority now, and so I just couldn’t force myself back into that No-Nonsense-Ultra-Focus that had come so easily as an undergraduate.

And before you think it, I’m not just getting old, either. My ability to focus is extremely situationally-dependent, because if I’m learning something that is relevant to my research, I have my Ultra Focus again. So, undergraduate classes are apparently the KoRn of graduate school: I enjoyed them once, and they seemed really important at the time, but grad school is epic Dragonforce. Grad school is Dream Theater. It is Rhapsody of Fire, who do admittedly have some pretty cheesy tracks, but the song Dawn of Victory still gets me as pumped up for tests now as it did as an undergraduate. You can’t listen to that song and not get exhilarated. Even the live version; they’re that good. You can bet serious money I will be playing Dawn of Victory before my Qualifying Exam and my Dissertation Defense. And victory will be had \m/

A lot of great bands have made great music since Day 1, and continue to produce amazing music as they mature. My personal favorite, Children of Bodom, is a prime example.

Other bands start off sort of rocky, but quickly get their act together and become legends: think Ozzy Osbourne. You might think the first stuff he made is OK, but if you do, you’re wrong.

Yet other bands are one-hit-wonders, making an impression on the world with one single awesome song, that quickly becomes lost amidst the other noise pollution that is their attempt at a decent album.

This week, April 15th-19th 2013, began on the worst notes possible with the bombings at the Boston Marathon, witnessed a horrible explosion in Waco, Texas, and even as I write this the manhunt for the second Boston bombing suspect continues with less and less hope of finding the guy. And let’s not forget about CISPA passing in the House.

For me personally, this Worst Week Ever did have one mostly good day, so I’m classifying the week as a One Hit Wonder. Yesterday had been – right up until the shooting started at MIT – a pretty awesome day. And so from the comfort of my locked-down Cambridge apartment just a mile up the street from Watertown, I’d like to tell you about the mostly good day I had yesterday.

The day started at the allergy clinic, which at first might not seem like an awesome place to be. However, despite my sleeping in and arriving 15 minutes late, the nurse still gave me my allergy shots. In a few months I’ll be able to sniff as many cats, dogs, and molds as I want and not sneeze myself into a fit. Allergy desensitizing shots are awesome!

After that, I went to Ecology Journal Club, which is always one of the highlights of my week. I’m really lucky to be in grad school with such clever, thoughtful people. I always learn something from the reading and the group discussion, plus this week’s paper was about microbial ecology, which is one of my favorite topics. Scientists barely know anything about microbial communities outside of say, sheep rumens. And even that shit is crazy.

It was fun, but I had to duck out early because myself and a small group of graduate students were having lunch with renowned cosmologist and science writer, Lawrence Krauss(!!!). As we were sitting around the table with our food, he saw me pull out my laptop, and noticed I’d written out a list of questions I wanted to ask him. Though him and Radcliffe Facilitator Dude teased me about it, I still got to ask the first question. Being a hyper-organized crazy person pays off sometimes.

His response to my question was really interesting, and the topic deserves a post of its own (TBA). His answer also addressed some of my other questions, so I was more than happy to sit back and listen to other peoples’ questions and Lawrence’s responses. I even made some new friends that are interested in blogging about science policy, so it was all sorts of win.

AND THEN a few hours later, I headed down to Kendall Square because my lab was participating in the Cambridge Science Festival‘s Science by the Pint. My PI introduced herself and us students briefly, and then we each went around and mingled with tables full of science enthusiasts and talked about our research. I was really impressed by peoples’ questions and insight. One table even gave me some new ideas to pursue in my chili research, and another table gave me tasty onion rings and chicken. Everybody wants to be a gangster scientist.

I was still riding that happy high when I biked home around 10 pm, just half an hour before all the shooting started and the rest of the week gave up any sense of decency and sold out worse than Metallica.

Whatever, Worst Week Ever. I’ll cling to the high notes of yesterday and read about plant-fungal evolution while I listen to good Ozzy. Because even if life is really, really shitty for a while, we have to remember it can get better. Life, like even our favorite bands, sometimes forgets itself and puts out a really awful album like this week. Remember life’s good songs, and things will work themselves out eventually.

Much like a high-energy thrash metal song, my first semester of grad school was over before I really understood what was happening.

There was a lot to do. At home, I was still setting up my living space, so a lot of my spare time at the beginning was spent on mundane things like unpacking or cruising for free dishes and furniture. That, and spending a lot of time with my shell-shocked cat, who spent the first few days of his new East Coast Life under the bed, refusing to emerge for any reason other than tuna.

Getting set up in a new lab takes a while, too. There’s paperwork that has to be filled out and turned in just to get access to various buildings and rooms. I didn’t know where anything was, so I spent an awful lot of time just wandering around my lab, campus, and Cambridge, trying to get my bearings or locate simple things like lab tape. I also had to meet and re-meet a thousand professors and fellow students, and attempt to memorize all their names in a timely fashion. I’m terrible at names. Better if we all just went by our SS numbers; I can remember numbers much easier. When I rule the world…

I had classes! It had been so long since I took classes!

I did homework!

I’ve been out of school for several years, so I enjoyed every minute of my assignments. It’s like when you forget about a band you like for a few years, and you suddenly come across them again to discover the band has FOUR NEW AMAZING ALBUMS and you completely lose yourself in listening to their new music. After a while the shiny wears off, but for a little while there the world could have ended and you wouldn’t even hear it over all that double bass pedaling.

That’s how this first semester of grad school was for me. I ignored the fact that I probably should have spent some time making friends, and instead donned the noise-canceling headphones of the following: classes, reading the primary literature, hiring an awesome undergrad minion, picking out a new computer and figuring out how to use my new funds to buy it, writing a news article for my school’s Science Newsletter, attending seminars, a little bit of hands-on lab and field work, making a display case about one of my old research projects, slowly finishing the write up for a different old project, completing the ethics course for my Graduate Research Fellowship, and getting to know the campus, my lab mates, fellow students, and professors.

I adore Children of Bodom as much as the next Norwegian, but after six years of Hate Crew Deathtoll blaring on repeat, I think even the most ardent of fans would lose their shit.

I adore Children of Bodom as much as the next Norwegian, but after six years of Hate Crew Deathtoll blaring on repeat, I think even the most ardent of fans would lose their shit. (photo credit: http://www.blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=157648)

It was like the years I spent after undergrad were the crappy opening bands – some high notes for sure, but mostly just impatient anticipation for the headliner that is Finally Being in Grad School. And if that first set wasn’t phenomenal, I think Linkin Park is hardcore.

But I have 5-6 more years of this PhD program ahead of me, and I’m pretty sure my committee isn’t going to let me turn down the volume and slack off. By the end of this epic concert, I reckon I won’t be nearly as excited and motivated as I was this semester. My head and body will be aching from the never-ending moshing and grant proposals, and my ears will likely be bleeding from the proximity to those wicked Marshall stacks (read: teaching psychotic pre-meds). In six years, I’ll likely hate grad school.

So for this second half of my first year, I’ll try to regain some sense of myself outside of work and school, and spend a bit more time on R&R, and finally actually scoping out the Boston hardcore scene.

And I’ll put aside more free time for this blog, because I’ve got more than a 3-Disk set’s worth of things I want to talk about, both about what it’s like to be a scientist, and especially about metal music. As long as there’s people fighting to teach Intelligent Design in schools and One Direction has any fans whatsoever, I’ll be writing.

It’s winter break now. My first semester of grad school: Complete.

I got so wrapped up in grad school that I didn’t make any posts my first semester. My apologies, dear readers: I let myself get so completely engrossed in Grad school that I didn’t have time for A. Single. Post.

‘Woah!’ you might be saying. ‘That’s so hardcore!’ What can the first semester of grad school possibly entail that she didn’t make a single post?

To give you a better idea of how ridiculously busy grad school can be, please first allow me to elaborate on the process leading UP to grad school. I’d never moved out of state as an adult, and had to move my cat and all my stuff all the way from Seattle to Boston. This entire process was about as stress-inducing as painful as being forced to listen to Nickelback – loud but low quality, acoustic Nickelback, and you have a migraine. And you just got fired. Did I mention it’s Nickelback?

The Geneva Convention is mere months away from officially declaring Forced Nickelback Listening as Inhumane Torture. (photo credit: http://www.bhmpics.com)

While still working full time at a tech job for extra monies, I had to find a place to live in Boston, without leaving Seattle. I didn’t have time or money to lurk around Boston and search leisurely for housing. I’d spent all of my savings (and then some) on grad school applications and visits, so I had to spend an inordinate amount of time writing and replying to housing ads, with the two caveats that a) my future roommates wouldn’t meet me ‘til I move there and b) I have a giant Maine Coon cat that needs his own space, because I’m allergic to other cats. Finding a place took FOREVER, but I finally found a great space with fellow rock stars. One of my new roommates is a physicist. Very metal.

Meanwhile, I also had to pack all my stuff so I could ship it via Amtrak, since I don’t own or want a car. Amtrak is also the cheapest way to send stuff, as long as you’re willing to part with all your furniture and appliances. I sure was. And I shipped all my books via USPD Media Mail, which PS, is the cheapest way to send books. Save that hard-earned cash for rock shows, my friends.

On top of my full time tech job, I was also working 10-20 hours a week in the lab so I could get all my SCIENCE ready to ship from my old lab to my new lab. This took a ridiculous amount of time. Friends stayed with me until the wee hours of the morning, helping to wrap stuff in parafilm and put labels on tubes. Much like our hero Ronnie James Dio, before his tragic death from stomach cancer, I was barely sleeping and probably looked like hell.

Because on top of all that, I also had to receive a last minute physical, acquire proof of immunizations, AND purchase things and pack a different set of clothing, food, and equipment for Burning Man, which I attended up until the day before classes started. I’m apparently too metal for grad school orientation; I was playing poker on a sunken pirate ship while my fellow students were learning about degree requirements.

I put in my last day at Giant Tech Company, then the two weeks leading up to Burning Man went like this:
- post a million Craigslist & Freecycle ads to get rid of all my unwanted appliances, furniture, books, etc. Write replies as needed.
- pack all the rest of my belongings to be ready ready to ship before Burning Man.
- for Burning Man, pack costumes, a week’s worth of food and water, and everything else one needs to survive in the hyper alkaline desert.
- get extremely angry at the nurses at New University that won’t accept the fact that MMR’s in Washington state ALWAYS INCLUDE mumps and rubella vaccines so my measles titer IS actually proof of my mumps and rubella vaccines AHH I HATE YOU I CAN TELL YOU LISTEN TO TERRIBLE COUNTRY MUSIC
- locate and send appropriate paperwork to my new school so I can, you know, get paid.
- in the lab, duplicate several hundred cultures so I could send a complete set to my new lab. This requires the following for each individual accession: autoclave pda and pour plates and slants, label plates, use sterile technique to transfer a plug of the culture from slants to plates, parafilm, wait 3-5 days, label slants, make duplicates in slants, parafilm, wait 3-5 days, put in fridge, remove labels on old tubes, autoclave old plates and tubes, wash out tubes, repeat.
- try to spend as much time as possible with all my friends that I was leaving behind. The best theme of the moving away parties was King Kong Ping Pong Ding Dong Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong Singalong, because that’s just how I roll.
- freak the hell out because I was starting grad school the day after I got back from Burning Man.

Then I went to Burning Man, and it was amazing, and I got to camp within viewing distance of Death Guild’s Thunderdome:

Two Men Enter! One Man Leaves! (Photo credit: Don Louv)

Death Guild is clearly the most metal camp at Burning Man, and though I haven’t applied to be in their camp yet I figure it’s probably only a matter of time. I was part of a Barbershop Quartet of Quartets the year before that performed “Take Me Out to the Death Guild.” They loved it so much, THEY gave US free beer.

When you finally get to the front of the line, they strap you into a bungee harness and give you a padded bludgeoning stick. Last man standing wins (more or less). (Photo credit: Don Louv)

If you’re not a Burner, you should know that this is practically unheard of from Death Guild, who are the meanest, darkest bunch of Burners around. Death Guilders blatantly accept alcohol bribes from contestants that want to cut to the front of line to fight in Thunderdome. Like I said, only a matter of time.

On Sunday, the day the Temple burned, we packed up our camp so we were ready to drive out as soon as the structure fell. We drove for 17 hours back from Utah, with only one near-catastrophe when the breaks went out in the RV. I had just enough time to take my first shower in 9 days, then I grabbed my cat from my now-old house and hitched a ride to the airport for my red-eye flight to Boston.

On the way to the airport, my cat Max peed on me. Thus on the plane, I got to be the girl that still had playa in her hair and smelled like cat pee, trying desperately to shove Max in his carrier under the seat in front of me. It technically didn’t fit because I was on some cheapo airline with sub-standard seat sizes. The attendant reminded me 30 times that he wasn’t allowed out of his carrier and that the carrier had to fit under the seat, but finally noticed I had Exhausted Crazy Eyes and finally gave in, allowing the carrier to extend slightly into my feet room. I hadn’t been expecting my vet to have no openings in the last 4 days I was in town, so Max didn’t have any tranquilizers. He was upset, but surprisingly quiet, and I went to sleep.

While I slept, my restless cat had been shimmying the lock from inside his carrier.

Max sometimes expresses his displeasure by bringing giant live rats into my home. My friend’s hand for scale.

A few hours later, around 3 am, I woke up with a jolt as Max finally unzipped the lid and leaped from the carrier and into my lap. I was shocked that he had managed to actually undo the locking mechanism and pry both sides of lid-zippers open blind, from INSIDE HIS CARRIER. And so exhausted, in the dark, unable to find the light switch buttons in my cheap undersized seat, I spent upwards of 15 minutes wrestling my panicked, 17 pound cat back into his carrier.

My neighbors did not wake for this. Thankfully, no Angry Flight Attendants noticed either.

Now too paranoid to go back to sleep, I spent the rest of the flight re-reading journal articles that my new PI had written until the plane landed Tuesday morning. I took the subway to my new house, met my roommates, and spent what was technically the first day of classes buying cat food, litter box, toilet paper, me food, etc. I went to sleep on a futon that my new roommates had put out for me, since my stuff wouldn’t be there for two weeks.

Welcome to your new place. You have no furniture and only a week’s worth of clothing, but an incredible amount of unused closet space.

My first day of actual class was Wednesday, the following day. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

GRAD SCHOOL IS SO METAL JUST STARTING IT REQUIRES MULTIPLE ENTRIES. Stay tuned.

The following is a prime example of the type of crazy-ass ordeal people will endure for the sake of science.

I have been to Bolivia four times, collecting chili samples and conducting various in-field experiments. That first trip will always stand out in my mind, because I saw so many bizarre, terrifying things for the first time. Take, for example, the “sketchy bridge.”

For days, as we’d been surveying different populations in the Gran Chaco, one of the more senior scientists had been gleefully warning me about the bridge we had to cross soon. I, in my naivety, was imagining some kind of wooden plank bridge, maybe the kind that are fastened together with metal bands, that has small gaps between the boards so you can see whatever it is you’re driving over.

What I was not expecting was that the were about to drive the field truck across a train bridge – a bridge with no railings that is just wide enough for a train, because there are no bridges built for cars within an eight-hour drive to cross over the river several stories below.

We just drive really slowly and hope the winds don’t pick up.

Steady does it.

But what about the trains, you ask? OF COURSE TRAINS ARE ALSO USING THE BRIDGE. A train crosses the bridge in each direction twice a day, around noon and midnight each day. Unless it gets delayed, which happens often in a country where one of the only ways the people can get the government’s attention is by blockading the roads and stopping traffic.

Driving across the bridge is especially thrilling at night, because you can’t even see the half-meter of water that the truck would plummet into if it veered off the edge. There’s just darkness, and the ability with flash to see just how not-well-made the bridge is.

Photo credit all goes to DH for this post!

Happy sampling!

Any scientist that does field work in Bolivia is metal, no questions asked.

Bolivia is a third world country run by military police, full of diseases like yellow fever and Chagas, wherein people will rob your stuff from your moving field truck and the local police who surely witnessed it will not even help you. Bolivia is dangerous. Bolivia is beautiful. Bolivia is totally fucking metal.

When you first fly into one of the big cities, like Santa Cruz, there’s a lot going on. I personally like walking around at night when it’s a bit cooler. And because big churches look especially epic:

Creepy Church!

Driving around the cities is a brutal task not fit for the lighthearted. Stop signs are merely suggestions. The way to “safely” pass through an interaction with stop signs is to honk the horn as you approach the stop sign. This signifies to other drivers that you are coming – whoever is going slowest has to yield. And yet despite the crazy mix of run down cars from the US and quirky Japanese vans that can’t pass emissions tests, there’s still old ladies trying to sell you EVERYTHING amidst all the traffic:

"¡Tres bolivianos!"

But good science rarely takes place in relatively calm places like that. At least for this project, we have to travel through pretty awesome mountain passes….

…that have been blown out of the mountains with dynamite, leaving only a few feet between your vehicle and the edge of a sometimes-abysmal cliff:

I’ve never fallen off a cliff yet, but I have certainly gotten very, very stuck on horrible muddy roads.

I’m not sure if the idle spinning is worse than the local Menninites just watching you, scoffing your failing technology from their horse-drawn buggy.

But let’s say we finally get to the field site. Ready to gather some data?! BEWARE ALL THE POKY THINGS!


If the plants don’t embed themselves into your skin, the ticks surely will:

¿Garrapata para ti?

Or a poisonous caterpillar!

Let’s say you survive the field and manage to make it back to the hotel to catch some much needed shut eye. Sweet dreams:

Who needs a Hilton?

The restroom situation is often less-than-sanitary. There’s a reason our euphemism for a bathroom break is “Necesito un arból (I need a tree).”

"...I think I can hold it."

Feel like washing the stink off you yet? For some reason, any hotel that has the option of hot water has the following kind of set up. Once the water is already running, one must, while standing in the the puddle of electricity-conducting water, flip the switch that heats the water. I have never managed to do this without getting mildly electrocuted.

How badly do you want heated water, really?

Assuming you survive your brush with death-by-shower, and make it around to all the field sites successfully, once you’re back in the city you have to finish processing all the data. Often, this means embarrassing yourself horribly in front of all the other hotel guests. Everyone else will be using the kitchen to cook tasty foods in normal appliances like an oven or microwave. You’ll have set up a ghetto camp stove on a stove burner to maintain a very constant temperature, and a fellow hotel patron will ask what you’re “cooking.”

“Oh,” you’ll say, sheepishly opening the door to stir and re-distribute the samples. “Just uh… cooking my envelopes.”

Not exactly culinary cuisine, but it does pack quite the punch.

Whatever, though. You don’t need the approval of plebeian non-scientists. You’re doing science in Bolivia. You’re more metal than they’ll ever be.