Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eating well - budgeting and time

I know every graduate students main concern  with cooking "from scratch" and generally eating well must be the time it takes, followed by the cost.  I thought it would take me too much time to prepare meals if I removed all processed foods from the grocery list, but to my surprise even when cooking more elaborate meals from scratch on the weekend it rarely takes me more than an hour from start of cooking, to meals eaten and dishes washed.  Many days it's a lot less time because I incorporate left over side dishes (or main dishes) into the meal, which shortens prep time.  And there are always lots of leftovers for tomorrows lunch box, eliminating all top ramen consumption. 

Three investments that save lot of time and money, if you can afford them:

1. Crock pot.  

How to use: add meat or veggies or beans, add seasonings and water, turn on and ignore for hours.  Beans are the ultimate  graduate  student food. I know that amanda has mentioned it over at A Lady Scientist but it can always be said again.  Beans are an excellent food source and can be purchased very cheaply from a number of places including in bulk at many grocery stores.  You can't beat the crock pot for good bean soup (don't forget the split peas if you like that creamy stew texture.)  Beyond the beans, start buying meat whole when possible (ie buy the whole chicken, not chicken breast one night and drumsticks 3 nights later) and toss all the bones and leftovers bits in the crock pot with a wedge of onion and few bay leaves and a few hours later you've go the start of a really great soup.  A post doc  in my lab told me you can also use your crock pot to make to-die-for hot breakfast cereal (start it before you go to bed, eat in morning).  I tried this last week and it rocks!

2. Bread Maker.

How to use: Toss in all ingredients (maker usually has it's own specific order for adding these) hit the start button and ignore until the smell of fresh baked bread becomes distracting.  A lot of people would argue that bread is so cheap that this is pointless.  I disagree.  I grew up strong and healthy on homemade bread and you really can't beat whole grain bread with no preservatives for taste and healthiness.  Humans have survived on bread longer than any of us can remember, and it wasn't until modern food industry pumped it full of preservatives and removed all the healthy benefits of whole grain that we started thinking bread was bad for you.  I just got a new bread maker to replace the used one I wore out (after 9 years!) and haven't calculated the cost of any of the new recipes I've been trying, but I did once calculate the cost for a rye loaf I used to make all the time.  It cost $0.40 to make a large loaf of rye bread, 40 cents!  and took me 2-3 mins to set up and toss the ingredients in.  I don't know of any place you can buy good rye bread that cheap!


How to use:  Keep as full as possible for energy savings.  Avoid cheap to free ancient models advertised in the paper because your electric bills will sky rocket!  We have a small chest freezer (5.3 cu ft.) and we keep it full year round.  This is especially good for meat-eaters, and enables you to buy large quantities of meat from local farmers when it's in season, then enjoy for months to come.  If you don't have any farmer friends you can buy from, go to the local farmers market and meet them.  I can tell you that the meat you can buy at the local grocery is not the same in taste or healthiness.  I would categorize a lot of meat for sale at our local chain grocery as processed food, which doesn't fit the food culture I'm adopting.  But if you're of the vegetarian persuasion, fill it with the over abundance of summer harvest.  Cooked squash can be scooped into a ziplock freezer bag and frozen flat, same goes for fresh summer salsa, steamed spinach, and a number of other items.  And if you like to forage (like me) try the same trick with steamed nettles or field greens, acorns can also be frozen whole for later processing.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Thesis writing, what's your method?

I've asked a few people lately about the status of their thesis or if they've already received their degree how the attacked writing their masters thesis.  I've gotten wildly different answers that seem to have no correlation to the achievements or prowess of the student.  I'm wondering is the writing method (by this I mean when you begin, how often you ask for editing, what the timing of reading lit and writing related chapters was, and so on) typically dictated by a persons professor or by personal motivation? And does the writing method reflect a persons dedication or work ethic?  

It may seem trivial to some, but I don't think it is.  Even though few grad students would admit it we are in constant pursuit of approval from our professors and academic mentors, and writing (quality and quantity) is the one standard that all academics are judged by.  Is it much of a stretch to assume that graduate students are also judged by their writing method in addition to the quality of the end product?

I had to laugh when a post-doc who is widely recognized as exceptional told me they wrote their entire masters thesis in the last three months of their program.  Many other people I talk to seem to approach it by reading for 6-10 months, a period of time that overlaps with the beginning of the research project, and then beginning writing after they feel comfortable in their level of knowledge.  This seems logical.  It's not the method I've used (more on that later) but very logical and less time consuming in the long run.

Some people might say there is no wrong way to approach writing a thesis, by I don't agree.  Others might suggest that it depends on the writer and what method is best for their work habits and individual program.  This seems plausible, but I think there is another factor being ignored, and that is the writing method of our advisor.  I think this has the greatest effect on how we approach the writing of our thesis.  And it's funny that our advisors to some degree control our writing method and also judge us on that method.  I can see how for some people this could create conflict and stress, and that should be recognised by the student and advisor so that a compromise on writing method can be reached. 

The writing method that I've been guided to use has actually suited me very well.  I think it may be a bit unusual, but I began writing my thesis the very first day of grad school.  I've been in a constant state of revision since then, and I have to say it feels really good to have so much written, even though most of it will need to be re-written before I am done.  That is definitely the biggest draw-back of this method, writing takes a lot longer, because you are constant re-writing after you've modified methodology or refined your understanding.

But from all my discussions and thinking about thesis writing I have come up with five basic rules for writing a masters thesis (I'm not really qualified to comment on writing a dissertation)
  1. Read first.  Start reading your first day and never stop. 
  2. Go by the guidelines. Get the graduate school guidelines for thesis format your first week (and read them thoroughly)
  3. Write early. Begin writing your thesis before the end of the 3rd month (even if it's just outlining research questions and methods)
  4. Make deadlines. After you've gotten into the writing groove (say 4-5 months into your degree) start making yourself deadlines for chapter drafts (and hold yourself to them even if it means putting in extra hours or putting off other work).
  5. Edit often. Have your drafts edited by your professor as often as you can.  This may be the most difficult of all due to the busy schedule of all professors.   A professor should never take on so many students or extra responsibilities that they can't assist each student in thesis draft editing.  Sometimes a thorough edit (by someone other than the author) is the only thing that can move a draft forward.  Make it worth their time by working hard on your draft and workout the deadlines with them a head of time so that you aren't giving them a draft when they are to stressed to give it proper attention.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Can a graduate student have a healthy diet?

We have a little science experiment going on at my house right now.  It’s a simple enough experiment, the question of interest is: can a graduate student have a healthy (and satisfying) diet?  (or alternatively - Can I kick the top ramen habit cold turkey?)

A few definitions:

 "Healthy diet" - for the purpose of this experiment a healthy diet will consist of whole food products prepared mostly at home (so I can be assured of the ingredients) most of the diet consisting of plants and limiting meat consumption to a side dish status.

"Satisfying" - for the purpose of this experiment I will rate how satisfying this diet is by how easy it is to ignore the grilled cheeseburger smell emanating from the fast food joint I ride past each day.

I never thought it was possible for someone like me (limited budget and over booked schedule) to change my western ways and reject the convenience culture.  I do little things, like shop at the local natural foods store and the farmers market, and I've been raising my own garden since I was 19 years old, but I've never before actively tried to alter my way of eating.  

Attempting to do so while I'm a graduate student seemed like a very dumb idea at first. Economics being what they are this really started as an endeavor to save money, and one of the best ways I've found to do this is buy whole foods and cook from scratch.  Funny enough this is way healthier that eating top ramen everyday, and fits nicely with goals of producing (or foraging for) your own food or buying it locally.  Doing this eliminates processed foods and "food-like-products" from your diet and saves a ton of money in the long run.

This is week two of the experiment, and surprisingly it hasn’t been hard to stick to.  I haven’t had to commit any extra time to cooking or eating, just a little forethought.  I’m much more satisfied after eating, and I haven’t been craving processed foods.  The ease of this type of eating has been a real delight, and actually makes me think that changing my food culture (because that is what I feel I'm doing with this experiment) may be possible.

As an after thought…….

A few good food related things I’ve been reading lately

(I'm sort of always reading this, when I finish, I just start it again.  Yes, it's that good.)

(An unusual book, but well written, scientific and short.  Worth getting from the library.)

(Michael Pollan is always good, not so scientific in this one.  But more logical than any diet, nutrition, or lifestyle book I've ever browsed.  And a good motivator if that's what you need.)

(A short and fascinating article by the widely read Jared Diamond.  This was assigned reading for a biotech class, and I throughly enjoyed it.  I thought it complimented my other current books well, especially "In Defense of Food".)