Because my last post was an update about my working experience here in New Mexico, I feel like I should follow that up with some thoughts on the couple weeks following.
Until recently, I haven’t been directly affected, we had some carryover funds to continue operations, and were just cutting back on spending and travel. However, as of next Friday, I will be out of work, on unpaid furlough, in the absence of a budget. Unfortunately, I will also be unlikely to receive retroactive pay as a federal employee, because of the structure of the national labs.
The DOE contracts out the management of the 17 national labs to private companies, so all DOE scientists at these labs are therefore contractors, and not federal employees. Generally we are treated as such, however not in the case of situations like retroactive pay.
This shutdown is heavily affecting R&D in this country, and therefore worldwide, as has been covered by many sources, such as C&EN, Scientific American, Gizmodo, Huffington Post, CNN, Science, and Nature. (Let me know if you want the full text of the Science or Nature articles.)
Upon hearing about the sneaky move of House Resolution 367, passed on 9/30/13, the day before the shutdown, which only allows the House Majority Leader to put forth a vote, I decided to read the text myself. I decided to read the text of Resoultion 59, which gives continuing appropriations to keep the government running in absence of a budget for FY14.
Obviously I’m not entirely fluent in legalese, but my reading doesn’t interpret it in that we can even be furloughed. I decided to email my congressmen:
I am an employee of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who will be furloughed as of close of business on 10/18/13, unless a budget is passed to continue funding. While there are many terrible things about this shutdown, I am particularly concerned about the lack of retroactive pay in the case of a furlough for government contractors, such as me and all of the personnel in the DOE National Lab system. For this, I’m very grateful for your support in the 10/5/13 letter to secretary Moniz.
Upon reading the text of House Resolution 59, section 112, I question the validity of these furloughs at all:
“Sec. 112. Amounts made available under section 101 for civilian personnel compensation and benefits in each department and agency may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to avoid furloughs within such department or agency, consistent with the applicable appropriations Act for fiscal year 2013, except that such authority provided under this section shall not be used until after the department or agency has taken all necessary actions to reduce or defer non-personnel-related administrative expenses.”
Am I misinterpreting this, or does this not imply that the DOE may appropriate funds to contractors running the National Labs, such as LANS, which would enable them to continue working, only with less funding for administrative expenses?
Thank you for your assistance and representation during this awful situation.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t think that through, and when I submitted it to Senator Udall, I was greeted with the following response:
“Thank you for contacting me.
Due to unfortunate brinksmanship in Congress, the federal government has shut down, and federal law requires that my offices close as well. During this time, we will be unable to check and respond to any messages through my website or by e-mail or phone. I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, but I will respond as soon as I can once the government reopens. In the meantime, please know that I will continue to work with my colleagues to find a solution to this senseless shutdown.”
It’s actually been about seven now, but that doesn’t sound as good. I’ve posted a few times since I moved here and grad school and my post-grad school vacation ended, but nothing substantial, or really about being here. So where to start, there’s the lab, Santa Fe, and the commute between.
In short, the lab is really excellent, but very different. It’s one of the biggest labs in the world, with some history that you’ve probably heard of. I ended up in a materials science group, which has some chemists, but many other engineers, etc, and definitely a different feel than a normal chemistry group. It’s been a fun and interesting adjustment, getting to work a lot of different things, but also has moments of “What do you mean there’s no pH paper around, this is no chemistry lab! Oh… right.”
Definitely a great change, being exposed to all sorts of new areas of science, and seemingly no end to new projects. Being a postdoc gives you tons of freedom to more or less research whatever you want.
The size of the lab is different in terms of both number of groups, scientists, and facilities, but also size. There’s almost every possible imaginable resource, if you can figure out who has what. In terms of size, given the origin of the lab, there are a lot of things spread out, so you do a lot of driving just within the lab. There are government vehicles available for use most of the time, so you don’t end up racking up tons of miles of your own gas, which is nice. (Unlike the commute…) My horrendous sense of direction has been getting a good workout; finally starting to not get lost every other day.
Comparing academia to government is interesting. I don’t have any current aspirations of professorship, so the national lab system seems pretty perfect for me right now, giving you lots of research freedom, without the teaching aspects. I could see going to academia someday down the road, but not in the near future. That isn’t to say the research experience is the same as in academia, there’s definitely a significant amount of things which go a lot slower.
Safety culture is huge. If you are not trained and authorized to do it, you’re not doing it. There’s no “oh, I can figure it out”, “oh, he can just show me how then I’ll be fine”, no. This has its ups and downs, in theory being safety/proficiency and slower progress/unnecessary(?) bureaucracy, but overall I can’t argue with it. I’m not without my fair share of grad school accidents, so when I have to sit through hours of training, there’s definitely some moments of, “yeah, I did that, ouch”.
You probably spend your first three weeks doing nothing but various forms of training, and lots of reading. If you weren’t warned about this, you’d probably be really frustrated. I was, so I just pushed through it. It’s really mostly in the beginning, so you just sit through it all once. There’s lots of refreshers along the way, keeping different types of training active, but it seems to be spaced out enough that it’s not bad.
Once you get going, everything picks up with whatever speed you want it to. There will be things which get in the way and take a while to get approval, etc, but remember, you have lots of projects at once, so if you’re without things to do, it’s probably your own fault.
Like I said in the beginning, super fun so far.
That ended up being a lot more than I thought, so I’m breaking this up into a couple parts, next up, New Mexico itself.
“Scientific knowledge grows like the accumulation of bric-a-brac in a vast and disorderly closet in a house kept by a sloven. Few are the attempts at ridding the closet of rusty or obsolete gear, at throwing out redundant equipment, at putting things in order. For example, spurious distinctions are still made between reflection, refraction, scattering, interference, and diffraction despite centuries of accumulated knowledge about the nature of light and matter.”
Craig F. Bohren, Penn State
Handbook of Optics, Vol. 1: Fundamentals, Techniques, & Design, 2nd edition: 1995.
Dr. Ångstrom: You see Bond, I figured it out. Figure out why you are called double 0 7.
Bond: What do you mean?
Dr. Ångstrom: The room is slowly filling with hydrogen.
Bond: You mean to blow me up?
Dr. Ångstrom: Not at all! You see, the floor is nickel and very soon-
Bond: Damn you! You know my weakness.
Dr. Ångstrom: Yes Mr. Bond! As the temperature increase hydrogenation will weaken you!
Bond: Too bad you didn’t try an ozonolysis Dr. Ångstrom!
Dr. Ångstrom: What? How did you get free?!
Bond: Simple Dr. Ångstrom, by reducing me to be a single bond I was capable of rotating and-
Dr. Ångstrom: Why, of course! How could I have been so foolish?
Bond: Still.. so.. weak..
Bond Girl (Asstitine): Bond! Why not let me help you return to your double bond status.
Bond: But how?
Asstitine: Well I was thinking that perhaps a halogenation might help?
Bond: Raises brow suggestively
As of this morning, my 2.5 month vacation finally comes to an end. In about 90 minutes, I report for orientation; my first day of work is finally here.
After defending in November, working through most of December, I took a long needed break. Never took off any time after high school or undergrad, so I realized this is my last chance for a long time to have a real extended vacation like this. It required taking out a loan, but so worth it.
Started with a trip down to Florida, to see my Grandpa, who so kindly gave me his old car, which for the first time makes me a car-owner, about 9 years after most people. Took a short road trip back up to DC, crossing a few states off my list (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina), a trend which continues throughout this vacation.
Went to the Philippines for Chelie’s wedding, had an amazing time being guided around by all the Filipinos in the chemistry program, and got engaged myself. Just taking this “becoming a real person” thing full force.
After my 24 hour flight, and being back in DC for about 3 days to adjust to the 13 hour time difference, I set out on Dr. Will’s Transcontinental Victory Tour (which I still haven’t finished writing about here), spending 99 hours on trains, and seeing tons of new places. (Again crossing more new states off my list: Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas.)
The final part of my vacation ended with a road trip down to New Mexico, taking two doped cats along with us. I’m still not a huge fan of being in the car for long periods, so I agreed to this as long as we could stop along the way, crossing more states off the list (Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma).
At some point I’ll put up a few more posts from vacation, but I’ll actually resume writing about science again (like we just cured HIV? holy shit), since I’ll be back in the lab, seeing how government compares to academia.
I made a vow that when the time came for my next paper, I would try my best to convince my boss to let me aim for TOCROFL. I went so far as to make a Powerpoint, given in group meeting, explaining the urgent need to do this. Thankfully, she gave in to my whims and quest for glory.