Monthly Archives: December 2010

The joy of data

I wanted to share a bit about what I’m working on right now. (Other than my thesis and imaginative writing project, the things I’m supposed to be doing.) I’ve discovered two wonderful tools for data exploration. First is Google Public Data Explorer, which has been around for a while. It’s really cool and has some nice data sets. I wish it had a better map visualization, though. If I want to compare, say STD rates by state, I’d rather shade the states than have different colored dots on them. Normally, you can embed your graphics, but WordPress is picky about embedding anything so I can’t, and have to settle for a permalink to a graph showing that the number of students in California whose parents did not graduate high school has decreased dramatically since 2005.

The other tool, and I think the better, is IBM’s Many Eyes. For one thing, you can upload your own data. For another, you can get image files of your visualizations. This is nice for people like me, who can’t edit their blog’s html, but still want to show you a map of “bigfoot” “sightings” since 1870.

A map of "bigfoot" "sightings." Apparently people like to drink in the woods on the West Coast.

Why am I playing with these tools when I could be getting drunk on Southern Comfort, cinnamon whiskey, and Kahlua? Well, for one I like data better than hangovers. But I’m also working on a post about secession and the many cultural and political divides in the US. Data is necessary for any argument, but to convince anyone it must be presented clearly, accurately, and in an interesting manner.

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Interruptions

Over the course of the last ten years I’ve learned that it’s generally not a good idea to have a plan. Plans, yes, but every time I don’t have a back up I get screwed. Screw myself. Whatever.

I’ve switched career goals twice since I started college. As I started my freshman year, I was dead set on international law. I declared my double major in biology and rhetoric early on, joking that I would be the first prosecutor at the Hague to call a dolphin as a witness. Two of my high school friends and mock trial teammates half-seriously planned the law firm of Tan, Wertz, and Collins.

Somehow during my first year I changed my mind to medicine. I honestly don’t remember why. I think I might have just burnt out on rhetoric and needed a change. That didn’t last long, though. I had two major back surgeries in nine months. I had to withdraw from one class, and take a leave of absence for an entire semester. I came back too early, and nearly drowned in the course work. The idea of 48-hour shifts as a resident made me vomit. I couldn’t possibly be a doctor, and that made me hate myself.

Thankfully, at the same time I was struggling so hard, I took my first research class. My group’s project was, in retrospect, ill-conceived, unfounded, uninteresting, and likely violated university rules on human experimentation. It still got me hooked. I also went to my first science conference that year, an evolutionary biology meeting in Washington, and that gave me a glimpse of the excitement academia offered me*.

Since then, my goals have never waivered. It’s been over two years and I’ve never considered any options other than getting my Ph.D. and eventually a professorial appointment. Of course, this lack of a plan B has screwed me over. Again.

This semester has sucked. Between fibromyalgia, being on Vicodin, and some weird neuropathic pain that no one’s been able to figure out, I’ve barely been able to attend class, I’ve needed to withdraw from at least one class and take incompletes in others. I’m taking at least a year off before applying to graduate school, and I’m faced with the terrifying prospect of spending more than a few months doing something that doesn’t involve research for the first time in two years.

And of course I’m totally unprepared for it. I haven’t had a “real job” since May. I don’t know how I’ll manage not having a major project on my plate. And if I never end up going to grad school? I have no clue what I’ll do with my life.

*That’s not to say I didn’t, or don’t, have regrets. Even though I love research, and could never imagine abandoning it for practicing medicine, I still have the subconscious resentment at being forcibly shunted away from medicine.