Thursday, October 29, 2015

Everyone Loves the First Day of School!

 There's a normal kid's first day of school- new, oversized Spider Man backpack, peanut butter and jelly sandwich courtesy of mom (or chocolate sandwich with chumus for Israeli school children), a super exciting ride to school on the cool yellow school bus (or the green Egged bus mowing down slow moving pedestrians for Israeli school children).
Then there's Natania's first day of school. To be fair, I counted and this is the 13th time I'm starting a new semester. No, I'm not going for a record, though if they wanted to give me a prize for being an extremely slow academic developer I wouldn't object. So obviously the excitement has warn off by now. It wore off about 10 semesters ago. Regardless, there are constants that one comes to expect on his first day of class. For example, class. However, my experience has taught me never to take anything for granted.
I arrived to my first and only class of Sunday to find a notice that the course had been canceled due to not having enough participants. It wasn't even a printed out sign. They passed this critical information on to us via a chalk message written on the board.
As I wandered back downstairs to the secretaries' office to figure out what I was supposed to do now that I was down 2 of the 9 credits I had left, someone approached me and asked if I knew where room 506 was. I answered, “it's upstairs but don't bother going since they canceled the course.” He must have gotten the same memo about it as I did judging by his face.
Apparently they had in fact sent us an email that morning, but like most non-morning people I wake up at the last possible moment, shuffle off to the bathroom, shove something in my mouth for nutritional purposes, and shamble out to the bus stop. I don't stop to read my emails, sniff the flowers, or to glory in the ceaseless wonders of the universe. There's time for all that after coffee consumption.
As the secretary looked over the courses I'd taken, she noticed that I was missing 8 credits worth of electives and 2 labs. One lab I had permission not to take, but I didn't even realize that I was missing the other one. And I knew nothing about electives, no one ever having mentioned them before that moment. So on my first day of school, not only did I not have the class I was supposed to have, but I had suddenly had another semester added to my eternal degree, every semester of which brings me closer to breaking a world record.
I immediately went to the library to rearrange my schedule and sign up for all these courses I now had to take. Signing up for 8 credits worth of electives was difficult since they had to be courses offered in the humanities or social sciences. The few potentially interesting ones were already full. I tried to sign up for “Mummies, Pyramids, & Redemption- an Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Religion,” “Homo Sapiens- from the Agricultural Revolution to the Scientific Revolution,” “An Introduction to the History of Christianity,” and a course on Islam, but all of them were full. This left such fascinating courses such as “An Introduction to Israeli Thought,” (though this would probably have answered a few questions I have about Israelis and their thought processes) “An introduction to the Bible,” (I think I'm a bit past that stage) and “Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy (clearly relevant to my life).” I ended up signing up for Microeconomics this semester, which incidentally I took about a decade ago at Ithaca College with a senile professor, and Urban Geography next semester. Still not sure what that course is about, unless it's a course about navigating your way to the supermarket.
The Microeconomics course is a bit worrying. The first day of class, which takes place twice a week at 8:00 in the morning- not my favorite time of day, the professor started telling us about the final. It went something like this:
“The class isn't very hard. The final is hard though. Quite difficult. In fact, it's sort of meant to make you fail. Last year's average was a 48. We couldn't even tell the difference between who understood the material and who was just guessing. We did give a curve, which raised the average to a 77. We didn't want to give too much of a factor though.”

He didn't seem to think there was anything upsetting about this statement either. He looked perplexed by the fact that the entire class was crying.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Job I Don't Work At

 When I was hired to work at my job, I understood it was a part time job. That was fine with me since I had finals at the time and I'll have time for school whenever it starts (I haven't bothered to check when. I just know that like everything else, it will start “after the holidays.”). I didn't quite realize how part time the job is. For the first 2 weeks I came in every day for 3 or 4 hours, except when I had a final. I had plenty of time to study, but I also had a routine, which is important for me. Especially since I'm physically incapable of sitting at home. I need to have somewhere to go or I start going out of my dishes (this is a direct translation from the Hebrew expression for “to lose one's mind.” It is a strange expression whose origin is unknown to me.). This usually entails reorganizing drawers, boxes, and various rooms in the house. After that's done, the baking commences. This is ok until we run out of room in the freezer.
At the end of these two weeks, the 2 masters students that apparently also work in the lab (surprise, you have colleagues!) returned to work. Up to then I'd been working alone with the doctoral student. The professor was still out of the country, so it had basically been just us 2 (and the 6 or so other people who have temporarily moved into our lab while theirs goes through renovation). In point of fact we were greatly outnumbered 3:1 before the other students returned. This would have been the ideal time for a coup but fortunately the other researchers seemed not to be very ambitious or have any interest in the expropriation of biological equipment.
The last I heard at the end of those 2 weeks was, “we'll call you when there's work.” The other two girls were adequate for whatever daily tasks there were except for entering the animal unit, due to a little mishap involving expired permission forms. As long as there were no new mice, I was not required. Two weeks later, I finally got word that the woman I'd been working with wanted me to come in on Tuesday, the day that also happened to be the day of the mouse course. Apparently the professor was coming back to work that day so she figured he might have some work for us all to do. I told her I'd come in after the course ended at 11:00 or so, which I did.
We had to go check on the mice and take more DNA samples but she kept saying, “I hope we have enough time.” I wasn't sure what we didn't have enough time for but figured she was in a hurry to go...somewhere. As it turns out, they were having a welcome back party for the professor at 12:00 in his office (which I was finally made privy to after a parade of fruit platters sailed by the lab). That was a particularly awkward party for me, as most parties are when you don't know the guest of honor and there are only 6 people in attendance, all squashed into a small office. It was made even more awkward by the fact that I walked in 15 minutes late after finishing up with the mice upstairs and there was nowhere to sit. I had to drag a chair down the hall after finally being introduced to the professor, and sit through first the small talk, and then what basically turned into a work meeting. Seeing as I'd only worked there for a grand total of 2 weeks, I had no idea what they were talking about. I may have dozed off for a few minutes but probably no one noticed. Scientists are not known for being particularly observant of anything not under a microscope.
I worked the next day as well but was then once again told that they'd call me when there was work. It's always nice to know that my work schedule is determined by mice.
After 3 weeks and no word, I was beginning to think that maybe they'd fired me but forgotten to tell me. It felt like one of those breakups that occurs when one party just stops answering the other's calls. I had sent a few text messages but after the first one I didn't even get responses so I stopped trying. Everyone kept telling me to call them or go in and discuss things and bla bla bla, but I didn't really feel like it. If there's no work, there's no work. Why bother having a discussion about it? I started looking for alternative jobs and even contacted a few people.
People kept asking me what I was doing over the summer and my response was that I have a job I don't work at. Then they would say, “well as long as you're getting a paycheck, I guess it doesn't really matter.” Getting a paycheck? I just raised my eyebrows and looked at them until they realized that what they'd just said was quite ridiculous. In point of fact, I haven't yet received my paycheck from July. Maybe the mice take care of the salaries as well.
I finally decided at the end of 3 weeks that I would call them up and ask them if everyone was still alive and kicking (imagine how bad I'd feel if everyone had died of the plague, and while I'd been spared I was badmouthing them all not knowing that they were all piled in a shallow grave outside the hospital). If they answered that there was just no work or that they'd only need me once or twice a month, I would tell them it was unreasonable of them to expect me to work that infrequently and that they certainly never mentioned how little work there would be when they hired me. I would then bid them farewell, after thanking them for giving me the opportunity to jump through the flaming hoops of bureaucracy in vain. I was getting all hyped up to tell them where they could go and what they could do with their mice.
I finally called the woman I'd been working with, and she picked up and said “oh, Natania, we were just talking about you. We have work for you on Sunday. Can you come in?”

My figurative balloon deflated and I just stammered out, “oh, uh, sure. I guess so.” I've since reclassified my job as “a job I work at sometimes.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Of Mice and Paperwork pt. 2

 The date of the mouse course was approaching and I still had no idea where it was being held. I figured it was someplace in Ein Kerem but that's like giving someone directions to your apartment and telling them what apartment complex you live in but not the building or apartment number. Are they supposed to knock on every door in the place in order to drop off your sweater? No, they're going to leave your sweater hanging from one of the bushes in the parking lot. They're not going to look too hard for you.
So I asked the woman I work with if she knew where it was. She had no idea so she tried calling the number given to her by the vets' office in the animal unit, which was for the woman in charge of all the animal courses. No answer. So she gave me the number to try later. I had her email address as well from the form I filled in and emailed to her, so I sent her an email asking her where the course on July 20th was being held, since I will always choose the method of communication which involves the least amount of actual communication with the person. She responded that because of all the emails she was getting she wasn't sure which course I was talking about. So I sent her another email with additional details to which she never responded. I sent her a slightly more urgent one a few days later, to which she still did not respond. I decided that the situation was dire enough to warrant a phone call, which she did not answer multiple times. I even left messages for this woman, but she was obviously on vacation, either literally or figuratively. (If you're asking how someone can figuratively be on vacation, just take a glance at the postal workers in the post office next time you pass by. If at least 2 of them aren't on their phones, chatting with friends that dropped in to show off their babies, or reading the paper with a cup of coffee in hand, then I want to know where you live so I can go to your post office).
When the day of the course finally rolled around, I still had no idea where it was. My plan was to get there early and wander the halls until I ran into someone that knew something. Not the greatest plan, but the only one I could come up with. I started with the animal unit on the 7th floor. There was no one else congregated there but since I was 20 minutes or so early, I figured maybe I was just the first one there (as unlikely as that sounded to myself). When I walked into the first office I saw, I found everyone in the middle of a meeting, staring at me. I backed out slowly and decided to go down to the second floor where I work and ask the secretary if maybe she had any idea where the course was usually held. She didn't know but she tried to call a few people who either didn't know or didn't answer the phone. So I thanked her and went back up to the 7th floor.
It was 2 minutes before the course was supposed to start and all I found was another woman wandering around looking just as lost and confused as me. However, she knew the way to the vets' office through the double doors on the left after the elevator, at the end of the hall, through another short hallway, at the back of the large room where they appear to wash large things, and then in the office to the right. I'm sure I would have found it by myself eventually (like in a month or so). Now that I think about it, maybe it's not that Israelis are bad at giving directions, maybe it's just that it's so complicated to get anywhere that directions are just too confusing to give. You will inevitably forget a hallway or a right turn somewhere. We found some dude standing in the office sipping coffee but he knew where the course was. Turns out it was on the ground floor (floor -2) in the first room before the library. Incidentally, that happens to be a few meters away from the entrance to the building, where I had entered half an hour before.
When we finally got there 15 minutes after it had started, the woman giving the course turned to us and said “you're late.” I spent the rest of the course glaring at her. It was a 2 part course, one a lecture given in broken English (because of all the foreigners working at the labs there) about not losing the mice or smuggling them out of the animal unit in your pockets, etc. The second part was a tour of the animal unit most of us had already been working in “unofficially.” This is where we learned what we were actually supposed to be doing in there. Turns out the process of importing office supplies is more complicated then just giving 'em a shake and wiping them off with your shirt first. It's a sterile unit, meaning entry necessitates the use of lab coats, gloves, booties, and sandwich baggies for phones. Sneezing on mice is frowned upon and pens must be properly irradiated and heated before being allowed in. Obviously, this requires filling out many forms specifying exactly what you need sterilized, and the items are left in a large box at the entrance. You will probably get the stuff you need a week or so later (or not), assuming they can match the right forms to the right items. This is clearly a more efficient system than just having a bunch of pre-sterilized supplies already in there.
At the end of the tour, we were supposed to get palm printed. In order to prevent people without the proper security clearance from making off with all the mice in the dead of night, they give you a personal ethics code plus take your palm print (fingerprints are obviously not secure enough for a department full of mice), which you need in order to enter the unit. Unless someone happens to open the door while you're standing there, but hey, every system has its flaw.
They asked someone to volunteer to go first and since no one else moved, I volunteered. When they didn't find me in the system, I just sighed in resignation. They told me that I obviously hadn't been entered into the system yet and didn't have a temporary ethics number but that they'd hurry the process along so I could get printed as soon as possible.
            A few days later, the woman who is in charge of both the temporary ethics numbers and all the animal courses (whom I'd sent the filled out form to and whom I'd been stalking for a week to find out where the course was being given), and who is obviously very good at her job, got back to me about the matter. Apparently the form requesting a temporary ethics number had not been adequately filled out and she was obviously too busy to get back to me about at at any point in the month between when I filled it out and the day of the course. She was probably too busy mumbling to herself and bumping into things while roaming the halls where she “works.” The confusion seemed to lie in the section where you mark off your status at the university. Since I am both a student and a lab worker, I had to choose one of these options. I chose the wrong one. I was thus doomed to live my life as a leper and an outcast from the system.
Once that minor matter was cleared up (a month and a half after having checked the wrong box), I got a temporary ethics number and was finally able to get my palm printed. I found my way back to the vets' office (back through the double doors on the left after the elevator, at the end of the hall, through another short hallway, at the back of the large room where they appear to wash large things, and then in the office to the right) by some beacon of desperation. Of course there was no one in the office when I got there. Just 3 empty desks. I think it should be allowed to loot office supplies when people are inexplicably not at their desks (especially if there are more than 2 people who are supposed to be working in the office). Just like it should be allowed for the light rail drivers to run over anyone not smart enough to get off the tracks when the train honks at them. That right there should be an entrance exam into the gene pool.
Luckily there was someone in the office next door. I went to her and asked if there was anyone at all around who could take my prints. She confirmed that I had taken the animal unit course and then looked me up in the computer. She couldn't find me in the system (surprise!) so she made a phone call to yell at the person who was supposed to have entered me into the excel spreadsheet 2 weeks ago. She took me to this person's office where she rifled through the papers on the desk until she found the appropriate handwritten list. Then we went back to the vets' office where the computer went down for a few minutes, and finally printed me when it came back online.

She assured me that I should be able to get into the animal unit from that moment on and I immediately went to test it (excuse me for being skeptical at this point). I was in! I cried a bit out of happiness and relief and then went to throw myself a celebratory party at the bar down the street with the mice (after smuggling them out in my pockets).

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Of Mice and Paperwork

 Seeing as I'm getting close to the end of my degree, I decided that I would need to get a real “adult” job (i.e. not serving gullible tourists overpriced steak) this summer that I could continue to do next semester, since I only have 9 credits to make up, or the equivalent of 3 classes.
So I got a job at a lab at the Hebrew University Campus in Ein Kerem. This was sort of a friend of a friend type networking and they must have been pretty desperate because I was hired immediately at the interview and started the next day. The job involves genotyping mice, and my previous experience with animals was obviously a plus here since the doctoral student who interviewed me and with whom I'd be working is afraid of mice. She's ok with them as long as they're not moving (in other words dead) and I prefer them alive and with all their organs intact so we complement each other perfectly. I did a lot of nodding and tried not to say anything too stupid but I think it was the fact that I can look at animals without having a nervous breakdown that decided her.
The next day I was given the “grand” tour and taken to the secretaries' office, where I was told that I couldn't technically start working there until the woman who deals with the paperwork came back the next week and could process me. This surprised me not at all because I have run up against HU's bureaucracy more than once and the bureaucracy always wins. So I took the stack of forms (yes, I said stack) to fill out later and unofficially worked until the next week when the one person who could process me came back from maternity leave (which begs the question, what did they do for 4 months without the only person who could process new employees?).
In addition, I had to receive temporary permission to work in the animal unit with the mice until attending the proper courses. Permission to work in the animal unit with the doctoral student present at all times was attained by the veterinarian in the elevator on the way up, the form officially requesting a temporary ethics number until the animal unit course a month later was filled out and sent in, as was registration for the course itself. I received no actual confirmation about the form, besides an email response saying, “got it, thanks” or any information whatsoever about the course (including details about where it would be held).
When the secretary finally came back the next week, I handed her my forms, my ID to photocopy, and a passport photo to be used for my work ID, which she assured me would arrive in a few days (by that she clearly meant a month later, which is when it actually came). In the meantime she asked me how many hours I was planning on working a week so I could get paid. I told her I really didn't know yet and she informed me that if I told her more hours than I would actually be working I would get paid for the numbers of hours I actually worked but if I underestimated the number of hours a week and ended up working more, I could only get paid for the estimated number of hours. This is possibly one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard uttered. Why in G-d's name must this be complicated?! You know how it works in every other place on earth? You tell them how many hours you worked and then they pay you. End of story, no guessing or estimation necessary. This is when I realized that there must be a whole bunch of devious, sadistic bureaucrats wringing their hands and cackling to themselves while a Persian cat sits on their lap wandering the halls of HU. There is no other explanation for this system of salary payment.
The professor I was working for (whom I'd never actually met since he was on sabbatical at Harvard until August, and can only assume is a real person) sent me an email requesting that I fill out an additional form for the “summer program” which he explained was a program that encouraged researchers to hire first degree students in their labs by paying the students' salary for 2 months. It essentially makes absolutely no difference to me because I get paid by someone regardless (assuming I don't underestimate the number of hours I'll be working that month). Obviously he was interested in saving the money from his own budget though, so he sent me to the secretary to fill out this form. She sent me to the dean's secretary, where they handed me another stack of forms to fill out (to my dismay). Ten minutes and halfway through the forms later, she decided to look up my records on the computer and informed me that I don't even qualify for the program since my average isn't high enough. It would have been nice had she informed me of this before I started filling out a billion forms with questions I couldn't answer (like my army ID number- who remembers their army ID number 5 years later?! I'm lucky I can remember my current phone number). She was very sorry about the whole thing and I had to comfort her by telling her that it wasn't my idea to sign up for the program anyway and I hadn't even known about it 2 days before. Apparently only good students are worthy of work experience and jobs after their degree. The rest of us are thrown under the number 68 bus (after our tuition is fully paid of course). I don't even bother looking at all the “opportunities” the school publishes since I know they don't apply to my moron self anyway.
I was a little bit afraid that they would fire me and hire someone with a higher average just so they wouldn't have to dig into their own budget, but when I informed the professor, he just responded, “oh well, that's how it goes.” So I continued to follow the doctoral student around, learning to hole punch mouse ears (turns out I have a hidden talent for this), and run DNA through PCR and gel electrophoresis to determine whether they carry the gene for a specific brain protein they're investigating. 95% percent of people will have no idea what I just wrote, which is why you should never ask a scientist what he does. Another reason is the following conversation which took place between my dad and me. He learned this lesson the hard way.
My dad: so what did you do at work today?
Me: we chopped up mouse brains and put them in a test tube.
*He turns green*

Me: yeah, you should probably not ask me about work anymore.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

One Semester Left 'Til the Finish Line...

Freedom at last! I've finally finished the semester (including all tests and make up tests) and have enough time to do... whatever it is that I do. Actually I have no idea what to do with myself. I technically have a job but it's a very part time job and very unsteady work. This past semester was an extremely full semester, with little time to do things that required leaving the library (sometimes I can't remember what the outside world is like, though it must be a wonderful place). So now that I have nothing to do... well... I have nothing to do.
I had 6 courses this past semester, 4 of them with regular homework to hand in, one of them a chemistry lab with all the requisite lab reports, and my seminarion- the final project and culmination of one's 3 year degree. Not in my case obviously, seeing as I still have another semester left and have technically done 3 and a half years so far. Regardless, I worked really hard those two weeks before it was due (the last Tuesday of the semester), and presented it in front of real live people even though public speaking is my biggest fear. That's actually the only normal phobia I have. Snakes are cool, flying's fine (I have no idea what Samuel L. Jackson's issue was with all those snakes on that plane), I work with mice and regularly liberate insects from our human domains, I roam the streets freely with no fear of being mugged, but show me a puppet or a mime and my fight-or-flight instinct will immediately be triggered. Usually fleeing is the better option since I don't think anyone's ever won a fight with a puppet.
I honestly tried to work on my project before the last minute crept up, but between all the homework and lab reports, I was left with the option of sleeping or reading scientific publications. Since both of those options would have lead very quickly to sleeping anyway, I did not bother with the pretense of advancing my knowledge of non-coding RNAs. Unlike my mother, who regularly falls asleep with newspapers on her face Friday night because she's going to “read the news,” even though we all know that means reading one headline before slipping into a deep slumber. If the cat's lucky, the newspaper will land on her and not on him. He does not appreciate being covered in newspapers as he does not read nor does he concern himself with our trivial human affairs.
My chemistry lab was basically a black hole of time. An entire week went in and I never saw that week again. It wasn't just lab reports either. We had to prepare an entire pre-lab report, then we had a quiz at the beginning of every lab, and then a “colloquium” after the quiz (I kid you not, that's the exact word they used) where they asked us more questions and talked a lot and made sure we knew what we were supposed to be doing with all those chemicals they were reluctantly handing us (a successful Thursday was one in which I did not blow up the chem lab. An awesome Thursday would have been one in which someone else blew up the chem lab, but unfortunately this did not occur at any point during the semester, to my disappointment). We only started the actual lab an hour or so later, by which time I was just about ready to drink acid (no, not that kind of acid) to make the talking stop. After the lab, we had a week to do the lab report and prepare the next pre-lab report. The worst part of the lab was realizing that 2 of the lab teachers were students I'd started my degree with 4 years ago, who had started masters degrees, and were now grading my lab reports. Awwwwwkwaaaard. One of the guys remembered me and asked, “weren't we in class together?” I was like, “hey look, something green is bubbling onto the floor over there!”
Thankfully the lab was over two weeks before the end of the semester, so I was able to work on my seminarion then. Otherwise I'd have had to blow up the chemistry lab to gain some time. I didn't mind the research and the subject was interesting (to me anyway- those who made the mistake of asking what my project was about very quickly regretted it). It was presenting in front of the entire class, the supervisor of the class, and my project supervisor that was the problem. 90% of the other presenters in the class memorized their entire lecture while simultaneously giving a power point presentation. I do not have the mental capacity to a) remember b) think using my brain, while standing in front of more than a few people. My memory is notoriously short, and I've been known to start laughing maniacally and uncontrollably in the middle of a presentation. I decided instead, to write down my presentation and just read it out loud. I even signaled to myself when to move on to the next slide because my brain can't even handle that much. I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that no one would be listening or paying attention anyway since my presentation was in English and happened to be the second to last presentation of the semester. The only one listening would be my supervisor and I was hoping he'd feel guilty enough for not being in the country most of the semester to give me extra points for that.
The presentation was supposed to be 25 to 30 minutes with 5 minutes or so for questions afterwards. I wanted to practice my presentation before I had to do it in front of everyone, so I volunteered my parents to be my captive audience (yes, I actually locked them in a room with barred windows so they couldn't make a break for it). The cat joined of her own free will and a friend of my mother happened to be staying over so she got volunteered as well. This was a mistake. Actually, the mistake was in not duct taping everyone's mouth shut before I started talking. My purpose in going through a practice run was to time the presentation and to read over the material at least once while explaining the graphs and tables on my PowerPoint slide. The point was NOT in having them critique the material because I knew they had no idea what the hell I was talking about anyway. I knew this because the first question asked was, “What is DNA exactly?” All I wanted was for them to sit there and pretend to listen. They could've taken a nap for all I care as long as their bodies were still in a vertical position on the couch so that I could pretend that I had a real audience.
I asked them to hold their questions until the end since I didn't really care if they understood or not but my mother and her friend proceeded to ignore my request and bombard me with questions anyway like, “wait, what does that stuff do again?” and “Are you sure people are going to understand what you're talking about?” while my father yelled at them to let me speak. My mother's friend is a professor, and I'm sure she's a wonderful professor, but they all get an F as students. At one point my mother was in the bathroom, my dad was petting the cat, and my mom's friend was off to the side doing lunges. It took me an hour and a half to finish the presentation and I was left with no real idea how long it would take to present in front of a group of students who'd be either indiscreetly playing Candy Crush on their phones or slumped over their desks, drooling.

In the end it took 45 minutes (15 minutes over schedule). I'm pretty sure 3 people left to seek medical treatment afterwards because they never returned. I sure hope they're ok. I'd hate to be the presenter that lectured 3 students into irreversible comas.