I looked at one of my progress tracking graphs for one of my projects right after telling my colleague that Mr E Man had worked on the new Godzilla movie, and what I saw can not be unseen.





Posted in silliness | 8 Comments

Destroying the last shreds of Mr E Man’s anonymity for the sake of a good pun

Me: “Have you seen my bookmark?”

Him: “It’s in your hand”

Me: “…”

Me: “No, not ‘have you seen my book, Mark?’. I meant ‘have you seen my bookmark, Mark?'”

(Mark will continue to be referred to as Mr E Man on this blog, because a) I think it’s funny and b) I like it when he comes with me to meet bloggers and they call him Mr E Man to his face and he gets confused)

Posted in fun with language, silliness | 9 Comments

Where in the world was Cath in November?

Photo quiz time! Can you name the cities in the photos below?

Some of these are easier than others (I’ve tried to put the hardest ones first), so extra points if you can also name the building(s) in the photos!

I’ll send all comments to moderation for a few days, to give everyone a chance to play.

1 – from a train window


2 – ditto, but on a different day


3 – not King’s Landing


4 – if you know the name of this building, you’re one step ahead of me!


5 – featuring Mr E Man and my Dad


6 – taken the day before we started suffering from Golden Dome Fatigue


7 – there were dozens of teenagers dressed as vampires running around, for added atmosphere on this moonlit night


8 – still not King’s Landing, believe it or not. You can tell because a) there are modern vehicles in the shot, and b) King’s Landing is fictional


9 – this was part of the official sight-seeing tour on the first day of the conference that was the reason for this trip


10 – the view from right outside the door of my favourite hotel on the whole trip


11 – one of the most important and influential people in modern history, and some dude on a pedestal


12 – a different part of one of the buildings already pictured


13 – and the view from inside it


14 – two famous sights in one shot


Have fun!

Posted in photos, travel | 14 Comments

Rearranging the desk chairs

Once a fortnight, we have a team meeting in the boardroom of our main research building. It’s a room that’s much in demand, so we often have to wait a few minutes past the hour before we can get in – and this week we then had to tidy up the crackers and crumbs thereof that the group before us had left scattered all over the desks. Fun!

The arrangement of desks and chairs in the room varies quite widely, from a solid block to separate rows to a skinny horseshoe to a chunky horseshoe. However, yesterday was the first time I’d seen this set-up:

New Image

We’re wondering if a PI somewhere in the building just got a grant to study whether you can accurately gauge an academic’s reaction to a presentation by having a team of people study the back of their head… something to do with giving early-career researchers tools to judge whether they should ask a question at a conference or let the bigwigs up front deal with it… any other suggestions?

(I’ll be away for the next three weeks, but there’ll be a “where in the world was Cath this month?” photo challenge when I get back. Our tenant is looking after our house and kitties while we’re away, so I suggest you don’t break in – he’s a big dude. Kthxbai!).

Posted in photos, science, silliness | 1 Comment

Happy Hallowe’en!

From a Teenage Mutant Incompetent Ninja Turtle, and dead-Goose-from-Top-Gun


Yes, that’s a saw blade through my belly – like I said, incompetent ninja. I also had a backpack on under the t-shirt to make a shell, but it didn’t come out in any of the photos


What’s your costume this year?

Posted in photos, silliness | 2 Comments

Untangling the wrangling angle

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D

I’ll wait for the 5.5 year retrospective post to see just how much grant writing you *didn’t* get involved in… ;)

Thus spake the prophet Wintle in the year 2012, upon learning that I was starting a new job that would, in my words, “be somewhat similar to my current one, but with much more emphasis on project management and much less on writing grants”.

Well, he was WRONG! Wrong wrongity wrong.

It took 10 months, not 5.5 years.

Due to some changes in my team, I was asked in April to add “PI support” (grant wrangling, plus management of small- and medium-scale projects) for one of our bioinformatics PIs to my existing duties. I’d just literally that very week thought “I feel like I’m finally on top of things in my new role”, so of course I said yes (actually, I’d also thought “and now that I’m finally on top of things, I feel less busy than I think I should be”, so the change was genuinely welcome).

I’ve said before that I feel like a bit like a freak for actually enjoying grant writing (even some members of my current team think this is weird). However, I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it until I was back in the middle of wrangling my first full application. My supervisor helped me identify part of the reason I like it so much: everyone’s pulling in the same direction, and focusing on the same thing. It can sometimes be hard to get a PI’s or other contributors’ attention on a long-term project, but when there’s a deadline, everyone’s priorities suddenly align. Grant writing also plays to my strengths; I’m better at writing, editing, and proofing than I am at some other aspects of long-term project management (how many errors will you spot in this blog post now that I’ve written that? In my defense, it’s been a long day that started with a 6:30 am teleconference). It helps that I’m working with a PI who’s doing some very cool (and diverse) research, a good writer, appreciative of my contributions, and not averse to having a bit of fun with his science.

Related to the latter point, I am now also the OAG (official acronym generator) for the bioinformatics research group. I seem to have a knack for it, and will share some of my favourites as soon as they’re published or otherwise released into the public domain… hopefully on the CIHR or NIH “funded grants” description page…

Granted (heh), after submitting five full applications between September 15th and (hopefully) tomorrow, the thrill of being back in the grant wrangling saddle has faded a leeetle, but I have a vacation coming up soon to recharge my batteries.

Oh, and the science tamagotchi husbandry effect is once more in play but hey, I’m used to that. And did I mention vacation? Soon?

I have a guest post up on the Research Whisperer site today about grant writing as a career, if you’d like to know more

Posted in blog buddies, career, grant wrangling, science | 3 Comments

Science and society – Vancouver Change Camp 2013

I have a new post up at Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website today, about how non-scientists can (try to) influence the course of scientific research.

As I mentioned over there, the ideas in the post originated and evolved from a session I chaired at this year’s Vancouver Change Camp. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in my first Camp in 2011, and went back this year (with a friend who’d been to the first ever Camp, but missed the 2011 event) expecting the day to unfold in similar style. However, before I knew it, I was pitching and then leading a session…

It’s all a bit of a blur, but from what I remember the idea came to me while the other pitches – many of which had obviously involved a great deal of preparation – were already underway. I whispered to my friend that I thought it might be a good idea if we co-pitched a session about what people in science outreach (her) and scientific research (me) can do to help science fulfill its responsibilities to society, and vice versa. She thought it was a good idea – for next year. But the idea had taken root, and (after making my friend promise that she’d at least attend my session, even if she didn’t want to co-pitch it) I decided it was now or never, and joined the very end of the queue to go on stage. I introduced myself, my career path, and the idea for the session, then scurried back to my seat, heart pounding and face red.

My session was scheduled right after lunch, which gave me some time to jot down a few more ideas. I quickly learned that it’s much easier to meet people when you’ve pitched a session – people approach you to say hi, even when you’re sitting in a corner frantically scribbling in a notebook!

I was worried that I might not get (m)any participants, and indeed I was assigned one of the smallest break-out spaces. But lo and behold, we had about ten to twelve people, including my friend and me! I didn’t really have a detailed plan, so I (oh-so originally) started by getting everyone to introduce themselves. There was one mathematician and one high school student with an interest in science, but no-one else was from a scientific background – there were a couple of people interested in environmental issues, a couple interested in medical research, and the rest just thought the session sounded interesting in general. I then went over some basics – grant funding, low success rates, publish or perish, all that – and introduced some of the ideas in the Guardian post. I then just let the conversation evolve organically.

The key theme that emerged was of the importance of good science education – not just for people interested in science careers, but for the whole population; not just in schools, but in science museums, urban community gardens, and other venues. We talked about connecting young people to working scientists, and harnessing all the activism energy present in schools and universities. Someone raised the idea of having a “scientist in residence” in schools, parks, museums, and other less traditional venues. More ideas were bandied around than I could possibly manage to jot down, and the small group size meant that everyone participated.

I would call the session a success, overall, despite a severe lack of planning and a slightly awkward beginning. I enjoyed the conversation, and have often found myself returning to the ideas people raised over the last few months (hence the post). It was a little stressful on the day, but worth it – although I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the next event from my seat, rather than from the stage!

Posted in activism, communication, conferences, education, environment, personal, politics, science, Vancouver | 7 Comments

Storage space

I found myself waiting alone outside a meeting room at work the other day, while the people in there wrapped up and packed away and the person I was meeting with was fetching a laptop. Looking around me, I noticed a somewhat unexpected label on one of the cupboards over the printer:


I thought that maybe the labels hadn’t been updated for a while, but lo and behold:


I think it’s great that a next-generation sequencing centre with petabytes of storage on site is keeping its options open when it comes to data backup. I just wonder how long it’ll be before we have trainees in the building who have no idea what these things are for…

Posted in photos, technology, the wonders of technology | 14 Comments

Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion

While helping Mr E Man book the final leg of our upcoming vacation yesterday, I realised that it’s been almost a whole year since we went to Puerto Rico and I still haven’t blogged about it. BAD blogger!

We flew to San Juan via Toronto, just a couple of days before the airport closed for Hurricane Sandy. We weren’t at all sure that our connecting flight would be going ahead, as our flight path would skirt the eastern-most edge of the hurricane’s predicted path, but we took off on time and were told by the pilot that we were in for a smooth ride.

This was a lie.

We bounced our way south for the final hour and a half, and could see the huge masses of cloud off to our right. But, after a very steep descent right over the old city and a bit of a hard landing, we were on the ground, sleep deprived after our red-eye flight but otherwise fine.

We spent the first two nights in San Juan, at a hotel called El Convento which, as the name suggests, used to be a convent. It’s a gorgeous building right in the centre of the old town, with old hardwood fittings and an inner courtyard – and all the Sandy-related cancellations meant that we got a free upgrade to a suite!

The old part of the city is very compact, very charming, and feels very safe (there’s one part the guidebook warned us away from, which a bartender we talked to thought was hilarious – he took a photo of the warning text and put it on Facebook. However, he then came back to our table (with some free beers) to say that he got several comments in the first few minutes telling him that yes, it is indeed very dangerous for tourists to go to that part of town). We walked all over – we explored both of the old forts (ducking into the sentry post towers to avoid some brief, but very fierce, tropical showers), and experienced both the worst (everything battered and fried) and the best (ceviche and other seafood) of the local cuisine.




(One of the definite benefits of Puerto Rico over Cuba is that all the food and drinking water are regulated to US federal standards, so you can eat anything that looks good without worrying about it. In contrast, I spent a few days in Cuba feeling pretty rough, probably from ice cubes made of unpurified water).

After our second night, we picked up our rental car from the airport and headed west, to Rincon. (The roads are well maintained all over the island, but the drivers are a bit… adventurous). Our accommodation in this surf town was the Tres Sirenas guesthouse, right on the beach, where we quickly made friends (and had a few drinks with) the owners and some of the other guests. The water was too rough for swimming during our first couple of days there, but we enjoyed the delicious pool-side breakfasts, the sunsets, the nearby beachside bar, and driving through the hills then trekking through the jungle to a nearby waterfall running over a rock face that looked like a giant head.



After watching some of the local kids jump off the rock, Mr E Man decided to follow them up the rocks at the side, then stood on the tiny, sloping, slippery ledge with water rushing over his feet before launching himself off into space.

I stayed at the bottom so I could take a photo. You’re welcome.


We left the pool when we started to hear thunder, and ran back up the hill through the jungle in the pelting rain, reaching the car just before the lightning started. We actually earned our beer that day!

On our final full day in Rincon, we were finally able to swim in the ocean. It was pretty rough surf still, but lots of fun, and I only face-planted in the sand once.

Back into the car again, and on to the Villa Sevilla guesthouse, in the foothills of El Yunque rain forest. This was our longest drive of the trip, especially as we took a detour to follow a Twitter friend’s suggestion to visit Caba Rojo, on the very southwestern tip of the island. It was just as gorgeous as promised – I just wish we’d been able to spend longer there, because the beach looked absolutely amazing!


Luckily, after surviving a near-zero visibility downpour in the mountains and then the outskirts of San Juan during rush hour, Villa Sevilla turned out to be stunning. The owners took us on a tour of the garden and invited us to help ourselves to the passion fruit, Jamaican cherries (which taste like candy floss / cotton candy), and the best avocados I’ve ever eaten.


On our first morning there, we followed the owners’ directions to a swimming hole in the nearby river, where we swam, hung out, and enjoyed the view of the hills. A couple of hours later, it was time to drive back to San Juan to pick up my sister, who was flying in from London to join us for the second week of our trip. We had to drive past the airport to get to the terminal entrance, and were speeding down the road right next to the runway just as the BA jet we could see coming towards us touched down next to us – pretty cool, especially when we confirmed that it was indeed the plane my sister was on!

Now, when my sister and I were growing up, West Side Story was one of the first videos we ever owned, and we watched it over and over again. So when we first started planning our trip over Skype and Mr E Man first suggested Puerto Rico as our destination, my sister and I immediately launched into a spirited rendition of America (which begins with the words from this post’s title). So, after greeting my sister, picking up her luggage, and piling into the car, we had the song cued up and ready to go on the stereo – and blasted it at full volume as we headed back to the chalet.

Much rum was drunk that night.

Over the coming days we explored the local beaches, and went on a couple of very hot and sweaty hikes in El Yunque rainforest national park.




Luckily, the views over the jungle and beyond to the coast were stunning (although the various swimming pools were very crowded), and there was a German beerhaus at the foot of the hill for reasons no-one could satisfactorily explain, complete with bratwurst, oom-pa-pa music, and Puerto Rican waitresses dressed in dirndls.


We also ate lots more delicious pork and seafood, and I coined what is probably my best-ever pun: while trying conch ceviche, Mr E Man asked if I was enjoying it, and I said “not really. I don’t like the texture. I guess I’m a conch-ientious objector”.

After a few days, we moved on to our final destination, Vieques – a small island off the east coast of the main island. (The ferry took about an hour and a half, and cost $2 each. You can’t even get a terrible cup of tea for that price on BC Ferries). This was, hands-down, everyone’s favourite part of the trip. Vieques used to be used as target practice by the US Navy, so it’s only very recently started to be developed (and you do NOT stray off the path – the navy are still clearing up after themselves).


We stayed at Casa La Lanchita, near the ferry terminal on the north side of the island, and rented one of their beaten-up old jeeps – a must, as the roads out to the beaches aren’t paved and are pretty rough in places. The beaches are some of the best I’ve ever seen – clean white sand, clear blue water, and hardly any people. We swam, snorkeled, and generally relaxed. We even went to the beach in the rain (Mr E Man thought the sight of my sister and me spending 10 minutes covering ourselves in factor 30 before snorkelling in the rain was hilarious, for some reason), which was actually very cool indeed.




Vieques inspired my second-best pun of the trip: “I got 99 problems, but a beach ain’t one”.

In the evenings, there was yet more delicious food, and some more spectacular sunsets. We spent one evening watching the results of the US election coming in, which was quite exciting, especially because Puerto Ricans were also voting on the future of their relationship with the US (they voted to apply for statehood).


Our final night was the true highlight of the trip. There are some mangrove-fringed bays on the south coast of Vieques that have some of the highest concentrations of bioluminescent organisms in the world, and we experienced them on a moonlit kayak tour. (You used to be able to swim there, but a) sun screen and bug spray kill the organisms, and b) someone got bitten by a shark last year).

It. was. STUNNING.

Every paddle stroke became a fireworks display. You could scoop up some water, hold it in your hands, and actually see the individual points of light swimming around. You could see fish and manta rays moving under the surface. My only complaint was that the tour was only about an hour long – I could have stayed all night.

It was only with great regret that we packed up the next morning and headed back to the ferry terminal. As our ferry approached, I managed to lighten the mood by turning to my sister and singing “I think I go back to San Juan”; I was so proud when she immediately sang back “I know a boat you can get on”.

We dropped my sister off at the airport for her evening flight, then spent our last night in Puerto Rico in a generic business hotel near the airport. As we flew home the next morning, I couldn’t help but compare our trip to our 2009 vacation in Cuba. As I said, it was great to be able to eat and drink anything without worrying about food poisoning, and it was certainly much, much easier to get around than it was in Cuba; the food was also (in general) much better. The accommodation and the beaches were definitely much better in PR, but on the latter point at least I don’t think we saw the best of what Cuba has to offer. However, Puerto Rico did feel less exotic, less culturally different than Cuba (we did some of our food shopping for Villa Sevilla at the local Wallmart), and I missed the ubiquitous music that characterised our time in Cuba. I would definitely go back to both places, but for different types of vacation – Cuba for a more difficult but more culturally rewarding trip, and Puerto Rico for relaxation, food, and if travelling with anyone with kids. We’re working on making the latter happen… stay tuned! EMERGENCY EDIT – I meant that we are working on persuading some friends of ours who have kids to go back to Puerto Rico with us, NOT that we are working on having kids of our own to take with us to PR, or anywhere else. Thank you though to the reader who messaged me privately with a very nice message of congratulations!

Posted in drunkenness, family, fun with language, personal, photos, travel | 4 Comments

Back by popular demand: Hockey Pool 2013-2014

I just sent out a Rando that may be of interest to some of you:

IMG_4418Yup, it’s that time of year again, and Twitter is abuzz with talk of a new #VWXPool!

We’re using the same pool as last time, on the CBC website. The group name is “Puck Science”, and the password is “VWXYNot?” – all regular readers are very welcome to join! No knowledge of hockey is required, as I think we’ve proven every year since we started.

The deadline for pick submission is Tuesday October 1st at 4pm Pacific time – my apologies for the later notice than usual (and thanks to Lavaland for nudging me on Twitter!). I’m back on the grant application train again, so it’s my busiest time of year at work, combined with an unusually active social life over the last couple of weeks.

A note about updates: during the last two seasons, hosting and coordinating other hosts for the weekly update posts started to feel a bit like a chore, which made it less fun than usual. So, this year, I am decreeing that I will do updates whenever I damn well feel like it, which I think will be much better (for me, anyway, and it’s my pool, so there). There’ll definitely be an end-of-season update, and probably one at the all-star break, but other than that I’m not promising anything! We can always trash-talk on Twitter instead – and if any participants have blogs and would like to post updates more often than I’m managing, you are very welcome to do so, whenever you damn well feel like it!

Posted in hockey pool | 5 Comments