Pacte civil de solidarité, olé!

•October 13, 2011 • 3 Comments

September 30th was the 1-year anniversary of our domestic partnership. This year has been filled with many memorable events including the purchase of an apartment in Massy (suburb of Paris) and the acquisition of a tax number. I am still working on the French driver’s license. Also, I recently had to sell my soul to Thomas to gain health insurance coverage through him but otherwise things are relatively calm. Oh and I left the position in Germany for a complexity of reasons not to be shared here.

 We took advantage of one of my last trips to Spain by  planning an anniversary weekend in Andalucia. First, we  made an early morning trip to see the view of Sevilla from  the “setas” and had a traditional breakfast of jamón,  bread, coffee, and orange juice in the market de la  Encarnación below. Thomas has an aceituna addiction  and so we bought two types of olives at the market (1.40  euros/half pound). We joined my good friend Shawn for  lunch at an excellent restaurant where we ate tapas until we were bursting (see flushed cheeks in picture above). We  then rushed off to pick up our rental car and get on the  road.

Our first night was spent in Zahara de Los Atunes. It is a beach town that is crowded and expensive during the summer but quiet and relatively cheap during the off-season. The night we spent there was a bit busy as there was a tapas festival going on. Before dinner, we strolled down to the moonlit beach. Thomas surprised me with a heartfelt little gift. I told him that I would leave him should he ever take me on a date to McDonald’s. He bought me a plastic Big Mac dog toy wrapped in an authentic Big Mac box; hidden inside was a beautiful necklace of simple elegance. I love him for his sense of humor, as well as his impeccable imitations of Enrique Iglesias.

Shawn had highly recommended having bariga de atún at a particular restaurant with the humorous  name of Ramon Pipi but we found it closed. After searching, we found another spot that served it but  waited an eternity to eat. It was worth it in the end as the tuna belly seemed to melt in our mouths. The  next morning, in an act completely atypical of us, we woke up before dawn to see the sun rise. It was a  boon as we were able to get on the road earlier and stop at the Roman ruins of Bolonia and the beach of  Tarifa before making it to Granada. As a  sidenote, the Málaga area seems like a touristy hellhole from the freeway, with vacation residence piled  upon vacation residence. Such the contrast to the impression I had when staying with Shawn in the historic center. I suspect the Brits and Germans keep largely to their communities and restaurants, like in Algarve, Portugal.

We had been told by the pensión and I knew from experience that parking in Granada was going to be a challenge. We followed the GPS directions into the city, with Thomas driving with his Jedi instincts. I am ashamed to admit that I offered to drive earlier in the day so that I could ask him to do the later, city driving. We ended up in the winding streets just around La Plaza Nueva, with the Arab stores spilling their goods into non-existent sidewalks and intoxicated university students ambling alongside and in front of us. When we found the pensión, which was located in a side street removed from the noise, the owner had saved a parking spot in front for us! Over the next two days, we saw a plethora of parked cars with scraped bodies and broken side mirrors, a consequence of drivers squeezing past each other in the narrow streets. There are tiny buses, no bigger than school vans, that serve these areas. During our stay we relaxed at the Hammam (which is smaller and less impressive than in Sevilla) and visited the Alhambra. It was extremely disappointing the degree to which people automatically spoke to us in English. Even in the most heavily visited parts of Sevilla, I never had that experience. I would continue in Spanish anyway (and request the Spanish menu) and eventually they would give in. We ate delicious queso de cabra a la plancha, migas, and North African pastries. The mint tea was excellent, the best we have had outside of Morocco. The Alhambra beer was a step above Cruzcampo in quality. All too quickly, it came to an end. The full album of photos is here!


•June 14, 2011 • 10 Comments

I realized that many of you probably have not heard the news that I am soon to leave Sevilla, España for Mainz, Deutschland. I am actually in Mainz for the month of June, getting some preliminaries out of the way and fulfilling teaching responsibilities, before starting more formally in September. In November of 2010, I interviewed for a longer term contract at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Susanne Foitzik, who heads an evolutionary biology research group (with a special emphasis on patterns of behavioral ecology), was looking for three “assistant professors” for her team. I had met Susanne inArizona, during my thesis work, and was impressed by her energy. I applied, thinking that my chances were slim. However, I was offered one of the positions in December and, after talking it over with Thomas, decided to accept. It will involve teaching and, particularly, teaching in German. I was granted a partial reprieve this time (the slides are written in German although I will be speaking in English) but I am going to need to intense brushing-up.

On the one hand, it is an amazing opportunity to work with a research group that seems really dynamic, forge new collaborations on topics new to me, and get back into teaching, which is a practice that I believe forms part of our duties as scientists. We are supposed to communicate and educate! I will also have the chance to get my own funding and hire a postdoc and/or graduate student as well as eventually qualify as a professor, which I can then use to find a job in France, with luck. It is a little frightening to see this level of responsibility looming, even when I know it is the natural next step. On the other hand, it means maintaining two separate lives: one in Paris, with Thomas, that I can live on weekends (and I can work one day a week from Paris) and one in Mainz, where my professional life will unfold over the next 4-6 years. While I would prefer that we be able to have more of a life in common, many of us are facing a new relationship reality, especially in the sciences. This was recently highlighted again in Nature: Maybe part of coming to peace with this reality is redefining what a relationship can be – lived with a certain amount of autonomy but nonetheless characterized by a strong, shared bond and sustained contact and communication. Since I first left the U.S. in June 2008, I have had to grow tremendously. I will be remaking my life for the third time, in a new place and in a new language (if we don’t count Utah as its own special country) and I feel so much stronger than I did that very first time. I spent my first week in Montpellier unable to sleep, wrought by nausea, and often in tears. I spent my first week in Germany with only slight stomach pangs. I also know that I am lucky to be with a partner who understands my need to pursue new challenges and experiences, just as I understand and respect his.

Breaking news…

•March 8, 2011 • 3 Comments

In December, the purchase of our apartment in Massy, a suburb of Paris, finally went through. We had signed the initial contract agreeing to purchase the 70 sq m, 2-bedroom/1 bathroom place in late August and it took three months for all of the paperwork to go through. We are pretty happy because we are a 10-min walk from a train station that is on both B and C RER lines, making it easy to get to Paris and the two airports, as well as a high-speed train station (Massy TGV). The B line especially, which has a stop not far from the Gare de l’Est, will make my commute to Germany over the next few years much easier.


Over the last months, we have slowly been unpacking and working a bit on updating our bedroom. This included stripping moldy wallpaper, which was making me sneeze constantly, and recovering the walls with a different insulating paper, which we then painted over. We also painted one wall using a special “effects” paint, like a colored plaster.

Over the last five days, Thomas’ parents came for an extended visit and helped us power through a few big jobs, notably bringing the electricity up to code and breaking the wall between our kitchen and living room. On Day 1, we immediately got to work breaking the wall and hauled the pieces to the junkyard. The kitchen/living room is now a lot more luminous and pleasant, even if only half-finished. Thomas’ mother, Evelyne, focused on stripping wallpaper in the second bedroom and hallway. Philippe, his father, then got to work on the electrical panel and planning the wire-running strategy. The big change that had to be made was to add a voltage surge suppressor to the panel and run new cable to all of the outlets as they did not have ground wires. On Day 2, we continued with the wallpaper stripping, electricity, and we purchased a large load of flooring at Castorama with a 20%-off coupon. On Day 3, we made a lot of trips to the local Leroy Merlin for more supplies. It is amazing how much time the trips can eat up, even as we get more efficient at finding goods. In particular, I purchased my first power tools, namely a circular saw and a miter saw. Evelyne created pockets in the wall plaster for us to run electrical cable and add wall sockets. On Day 4, Thomas and I learned to use power tools as we redid the flooring in our bedroom. While I had helped Jason redo the living room in our Salt Lake house, he tended to be macho about the saws. It was previously PVC tiles fixed with glue containing asbestos and we covered it over with floating wood flooring. Evelyne covered over the holes created by the wall-breaking in our kitchen ceiling, wall, and floor with plaster. On Day 5, we finished adding wall sockets in our bedroom and running the wires from the living room to the bedroom, through lengths of plastic protection that runs along the top of the baseboard.

The apartment remains in chaos for now and probably will for some time as I head back to do fieldwork and other professional tasks. However, we will make a bit of progress as weekends and nights allow. We were so exhausted last night we could barely move, us from the work and Chloe from the noise and wonder.

Here is the full photo album.

Why science sometimes sucks…

•December 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I know that I have not written a blog post for some time, however, I want to write one today, even if just for myself…

I am trying to qualify for university positions in France. This involves a huge amount of repetitive paperwork that will probably only be given a cursory look anyway. I will send my application to two reviewers, who will then decide if I am good enough to be able to actually apply for associate professorships, as they become available. Because I need to list students I have mentored and I was missing some of those names, I went to the website of my first research lab, hoping to fish some out.

Many of us know the feeling of seeing work published by other groups that mirrors our own. We have all certainly had moments of conflict over authorship. I got a double punch to the stomach to see, on the lab’s website, the title of a 2009 paper published by a graduate student with whom I had previously worked. My first Ph.D. project dealt with the ecology of hantavirus prevalence in natural populations of rodents. In particular, I wanted to understand how resource availability affected deer mouse density and virus seroprevalence, via the mechanism of contact rates between mice. This idea, and the specific methodology by which to test it, was laid out in my prelim proposal, which I defended to my committee in 2003. I even ordered an initial batch of materials (fluorescent powder…). Shortly thereafter, however, following conflict with my advisor that originated with the aforementioned graduate student, I was asked to leave the lab. The 2009 paper tests the hypothesis that I had explicitly laid out when I was still a member of the lab. I did not realize that, when forced to leave, I automatically lost rights to intellectual recognition and I was so distraught by the experience that I did not think to negotiate to retain them. Big mistake. I recognize that there is debate surrounding authorship. However, I tend to feel strongly about this because the idea to look at contact rates in nature was truly my own, not from my advisor, and it was a cornerstone of my first thesis proposal, developed after thinking about and working in the system for 1 ½ years, half the length of a French Ph.D. Authorship is offered for much, much less.

This experience is unfortunately commonplace in science and the worst part is that it often takes place within research groups. As graduate students and perhaps even as postdocs, we are more likely to become victims because we, in our naiveté, believe that contributions will be fairly recognized, as we are taught to fairly recognize the work of others. We also keep quiet when abuses happen because we are the ones who will ultimately get hurt, potentially being ostracized for fomenting conflict. I kept my mouth shut when I left my first lab, to avoid generating bad feelings and, really, there is not much I can say now either. Instead, I am just going to try to focus on all of the great interactions I have had with most people. Really, it is not science that sucks but rather certain scientists…

The Story of J, Part 2

•July 22, 2010 • 2 Comments

It has been eternity since I last blogged. However, here goes an update in the story of Josephine.

Josephine got her appointment with the DRIRE, the French agency that approves foreign cars, in April. Thomas got the letter in the mail and immediately contacted me. I was in Donana, doing fieldwork. Since the appointment was in a week’s time, I immediately booked a flight. There was only the little problem of a volcano erupting in Iceland and all air traffic being paralyzed. I checked my airline’s website and the web in every spare minute for updates. The day was the day I flew out. The appointment went fairly well. Josephine is so pretty that the engineer examining her made little comments about such American cars and people that bring them over to “faire le keke sur les Champs-Elysees” [showing off (slang) on one of the most posh streets in Paris – also the street where French soccer players hung with underage escorts]. He become more friendly after we explained that I came from the U.S., had had Josephine for years, and I was a field biologist who used a 4×4 for my work. I have to say that I was a little proud to have passed unnoticed as an American, such is my now minimal accent in French. He nonetheless wanted Josephine to remove her extra seatbelts (the middle front seat and rear jumpseats cannot be used) and change around her blinkers.

The next step was scheduling an appointment with UTAC, the agency that checks the mechanistics of the vehicle to conform that they meet French standards. The DRIRE agent said to do it asap since “ils ont souvent un peu de retard, surtout l’ete” [they often are running a bit behind, especially in the summer]. I guess that by French standards, un peu equals 3 months. My appointment was set for july. Remember how the guy at Versailles said Josephine absolutely could not be driven? And that, in theory, the customs people said she could only be driven four months on her old plats? Hah!

Thomas and I arrived early for the UTAC appointment since they threaten to charge you fees if you arrive late. However, the guard at the gate gave me a nasty look and finished her text messaging before telling me that I absolutely could not enter the complex before 1 pm (it was 10 mins ‘til). We waited and passed exactly at 1 pm. The appointment started badly because she failed the parking brake test – they load her at her maximum allowable weight and put her on a 20% grade with just her parking brake to hold her. And the parking brake cannot be pushed all the way in. They gave us a chance to try to tighten the tension, if possible (it wasn’t – I had brought the Ford Ranger manual just in case of such problems). We did try but to do it right involved taking apart the rear brakes. I gave stink eye to the man who had an appointment at the same time as me – clearly a middle-aged Frenchman who had treated himself to a sweet little Corvette. Bastard. I had to reschedule – next available appointment: Oct. 1. Even the engineers were trying to convince the secretary to squeeze me in sooner because it is only a 10-min test. She would not budge. I think it gave her pleasure.

Finding someone to look at the brake was a pain. First, I called Ford dealerships in the area and they gave me numbers for other Ford dealerships. One said they could look at it (I was very clear it was an American version because apparently Fords in France are not U.S.-made). I braved crazy traffic to arrive at a dealership at the edge of Paris proper, where I had to double-park in front of the dealership. They took one look at her and said, “Nope, we cannot do anything because she is American.” !!!!!! Bastards. Then I took her to a specialist in American cars on a different edge of Paris. It took me 2.5 hours to drive 20 miles because of traffic and road work. They were able to fix it in a day.

What remains: homologation, repass UTAC, safety and emissions test, going back to the Prefecture with all the signed documents in hand and pleading for my registration. Predicted end date? 2012.

A Very Cheesy Post

•May 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Those French. They hate us, they smoke, they have a whole relationship with dairy products I don’t understand.

– Meg Ryan, French Kiss

How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?

– Charles de Gaulle

Being half-French and having spent a significant amount of time in France (first on vacation and now as a resident), I have a long standing appreciation of dairy products. Yogurts, milk, crème fraiche, and, of course, cheese. Anyone who likes cheese and has been to France knows how heavenly French cheeses can be. A supermarket typically has at least two aisles filled with cheeses.

I got a new peek into French cheese psychology last night, however, at the movie theater. We went to see Certified Copy, which is a rather mysterious movie that reminded me of Cache in the style of filming and the unspoken undercurrents of meaning. And both star Juliette Binoche. However, Cache is far more brutal (Hanaeke being the confrontational director he is). They played commercials before the movie started, mostly for McDonald’s but also for cheeses. I probably would have seen such commercials earlier except that I rarely watch television.

Sex is used to sell all sorts of products in the commercial world. However, in the U.S., I don’t recall ever seeing sex being used to sell cheese. In France, the two become intimately intertwined. This is the commercial that we saw at the theater.

I especially enjoyed the added touch of the woman pushing the button at the end, a little invitation to visit seventh heaven with her (which is the name of the commercial). The cheese is called “Caprice des Dieux”, which means impulse or whim of the gods. Caprice can take on a range of connotations, depending on the context. In the context of the commercials, when one actor asks the other if they want to do a caprice, it has the connotation of fulfilling an urgent desire beyond any rational control (thanks Thomas for this translation!).

In the dialogue, “On se fait un petit caprice? [Should we be naughty?]…Ici, nous deux? [Here, the two of us?]”, They play on the fact that this could mean making love…or eating cheese.

This company is known for this approach to selling its cheese. Here is a commercial from 1987 that seems even more risqué than the more recent ones.

However, this is not a unique phenomenon or company-specific gimmick. The link between sex and dairy products is more pervasive. Here is a commercial advertising dairy products in general.

It puts a new spin on the phrase “Got Milk?” used in the ad campaign by the Dairy Farmers of America. Unlike in France, the relationship between Americans and milk remains strictly platonic. On a related sidenote, I thought Thomas was teasing me about the special feelings between people and cows from his region (Franche-Comte, where they make Comte cheese) until I was there for Christmas. I saw for myself the posters advertising cow beauty contests: one of the most valued honors is to have your cow crowned the belle of the village.

A day in the field

•May 9, 2010 • 1 Comment

I thought I would write a blog to describe a typical day in the field for me. Since some of my readers are not in science, I thought it might be interesting to let you know what keeps me so behind in communicating with the outside world.

My postdoctoral project in Spain is aimed at examining the discovery of food resources in ant communities. I am working in Donana National Park with communities that contain between five and ten species. They are not extremely rich in numbers of species but that actually makes it easier to deal with them. This project arose from work I did during my thesis, which was focused on the dominance-discovery trade-off in ant species. To explain it simply, some ant species are better at finding food first and others are better at controlling it and taking it over from others, although they arrive at it later. This difference in abilities is thought to allow species to coexist with one another, without driving any one to extinction.

Soldier of the genus Pheidole - can easily bite off head of Monomorium next to her

Generally, a lot more attention has been paid to species that are good dominators; they are a lot cooler because they tend to have traits like acid sprays and specialized soldier ants that can bite off an enemy’s head in one chomp.We know a lot less about the more “discrete” discoverers and it is the goal of my project to further characterize discovery. Namely, I have sites where I am adding food resources and where I have removed the species that is the best at discovery (Aphaenogaster senilis), with the intention of seeing how these treatments change discovery dynamics.

On the typical day, I get up at dawn to open pitfall traps on my sites. This is around 6:45 am at this time of year. Pitfall traps are plastic cups placed flush with the ground that are filled with soapy water. Ants trundling along, foraging, will fall into them and drown, thus giving me a sample of species presence and abundance on a plot. The soap is necessary to break the surface tension of the water, otherwise they could survive by walking on the water’s surface. If I have time after opening the traps, I nap in the car for a half hour or so. It is hard to nap at the field station because the cleaning ladies bustle in to make the beds early in the morning. (In this way, they also know if you have been sleeping in your bed or not. One made a comment last week that I had left my bed unoccupied last Monday night, which was frowned upon. Having worked Saturday, I had spent Sunday and Monday in Portugal. No comment is made if one leaves on the weekend proper!)

When the soil temperatures start getting warm enough, I start my observations. For a period of five minutes, I note the species identity and abundance of ants present in my survey area. I then place a bait in the center of the area and await its discovery. I do this at a total of sixteen stations per plot, a process which can take between 2.5 and 4 hours. Since I have 16 plots in total and I perform the observations in the morning and afternoon on each plot, it takes

Able to lift up abdomen over head, scorpion-like, and spray enemies with acid

me a total of 16 days to complete my sampling. Rainy weather has forced a prolongation of this sampling; I have now been in Donana over a month. After the morning sampling, I eat lunch at the typical Spanish time of 3 pm. I almost immediately begin the afternoon sampling afterward. Since it is hard to spend 8 hours a day for so many days living in one’s head, I have downloaded tons of mp3 books that help me pass the time: free audio books in the public domain – I find that I concentrate better on the ants when I am listening to a book, although one might think the book could be distracting.

The pitfall traps need to be closed at dusk. Either I am just finishing up my observations at this time or I am able to sneak in a nap and/or shower before doing this. All told, I get back to the field station around 9:30 pm and have dinner at 10:30 pm with everyone else.

Sometimes, for a change, I will drive into town to eat at a café. I think I am in love with gazpacho and often get cravings for it. It probably does not help that I mostly eat sandwiches at the field station since one is not allowed to cook food for one’s self. They have a bizarre system whereby they prepare certain meals each day (Monday = omelette). You can buy specified ingredients and give them to the station cooks, who will prepare the meal for you. However, if you make a mistake in what you buy, they will refuse to use it. Two visitors bought the wrong type of hamburger meat, which was in slightly larger chunks than preferred, and the cooks left it to go bad on the counter.

On other days, I have other tasks to take care of – generating maps of nest sites on certain plots, adding food to (cat food soaked in vegetable oil and mealworms), removing Aphaenogaster nests that have re-established themselves on the treatment plots, etc.  However, even when I am tired, I find a real pleasure in observing the behavior of ants. They are fascinating creatures, occupying a world of their own.

Good at finding food first


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