so far so good

I’ve been at my new job—research fellow at RMIT University—just over a month, and I have to say it’s exceeded my expectations in every possible way.

Research isn’t normally a 9 to 5 job. You’re generally expected to work over 8 hours a day, and if you don’t go to work on the weekends, at the very least you should be working from home. But my boss didn’t tell me what time to come in on my first day. So I arrived at about 8:45, eager to get started, but….no boss. She didn’t even show up until after 10:00. And when she brought me into her office to discuss my project, she also mentioned that I can come and go whenever I please, and the only important thing is that I produce results. In fact, she usually comes in around 10:00, leaves around 5:00, and doesn’t even come in at all on Fridays.

So apparently research is a 9 to 5 job. At least here, anyway. I’ve been coming in at around 9 and leaving at around 6 because I’m still trying to make a good first impression, but even those hours are less than what I did during my PhD or my first postdoc. And what I’m finding is that when I actually take breaks, it’s so much easier to come back with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm. In fact, I look forward to going to work every day.

Of course, it’s only been a month.

Despite the lack of long hours, my boss does produce results. She has multiple collaborations with other research groups in both universities and private companies, and she has multiple papers published every year. Which is the most basic, albeit sometimes inaccurate, way to judge the quality of a research group.

My project is part of a larger plan to develop a material that can be put over reservoirs to minimize evaporation. Another research group is making the materials, and my job is to run computer simulations on them and find out how they work at the molecular level. The best part about this is that there’s no wrong answer. Whatever results I get, those are the ones I share with my collaborators. And publish. And since I’m coming into this project after it’s already been underway for a while, all the hard stuff has already been done. Basically, all I need to do is modify and fine-tune some things, and everything will go forward smoothly.

Which is pretty awesome.

Another thing that I particularly like is that there are two other people working on this project with me—a PhD student and another postdoc. I felt pretty intimidated at first because they’re both thoroughly familiar with the work and I’m coming in as an outsider, so I wondered what I could possibly add. But to my surprise, being an outsider actually helps. I’m looking at the project with fresh eyes and from a different perspective, and while I may not be as familiar with the details as they are, I can suggest alternatives that might not have ever occurred to them.

Plus, it’s nice to be part of a team. My colleagues really love what they’re doing, and their enthusiasm is contagious. The other postdoc and I often spend our days separating problems into chunks, and then working individually to come to a solution. And it’s just so great to have that feeling of accomplishment when something we’ve worked hard on to put together succeeds beyond our expectations.

Honestly? I mostly took this job because I needed the money. After all, I make more now in a week than I did in a month in China. But I never could have predicted that it would end up essentially being my dream job.

taking my ball and going back to research

I moved to Australia with $13,000 in savings and the delusion that I could become a commercially successful writer within a year.

That didn’t work out.

For starters, Australia is more expensive than I anticipated. Even though I live in the cheapest place I could find and I hardly ever go out and do anything, I’m still spending well over $1,000 a month. Which means my plan to live here for a year and do nothing but write is not a feasible one. Plus, starting in February I have to make payments on the student loans I took out for graduate school.

As far as the writing itself, I admit that I got sucked in by the Indie hype. The advantage of being an Indie writer is that you can put out as many books as you want as fast as you want. I thought, with a little revision on the stuff I’ve already written, I could put out a new novel every 3-4 weeks. And within six months, I’d be making at least a few hundred dollars per month. Maybe even more.

But that only works if your books are good. Fortunately, I met a group of writers, editors, and book reviewers who were willing to take a look at my stuff. Even more fortunately, they were not afraid to tell me that my “masterpieces” are not ready to be published. Self-published or otherwise.

Writers (and their well-intentioned friends and family) are generally not great judges of when a book is ready to be published. I’m extremely grateful to the people who gave me the honest feedback I needed. Yes, it hurt to hear that my books aren’t good enough (yet), but I would never want to put a book up for sale if it’s not ready for general consumption. That just seems like it would be a huge disservice to readers. And to my career as a writer.

So much for my plan to become an awesomely famous writer in less than 12 months. And so much for my savings, which are almost gone now. And yeah, I could get a part-time job to pay the bills so I could keep my focus on writing. But to be honest, I’d rather not. I need to start paying off my student loans before the interest consumes me like a rabid wildebeest.

When I left China I swore that I was done with research for good. I love science, but I get bogged down by the day-to-day monotony of running calculations and trying to figure out why the fuck things aren’t working. On the other hand, I did spend $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry. And it’s something I’m good at, so at least there’s that.

I knew from the start it was kind of a long shot, but I applied for a research position at RMIT University here in Melbourne. And somehow, I got the job. I start in January, and my boss seems cool. Plus, the pay is like six times more than I’ve ever made in my life. So that’s nice.

And just in the past few months, my outlook has changed. Maybe it was the Vipassana meditation, or maybe I’m just being more realistic, but the thought of going back to research doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing completely though. I’ll still write in the evenings and on the weekends as much as I can, but now I’m not looking for the instant gratification. If it takes me ten years to produce a good novel, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry.

Research actually is pretty cool.

attack of the cassowary

I must admit that I expected traveling in Australia for a month with my parents to be interesting, but not necessarily exciting. Although ‘exciting’ may not be the most appropriate way to describe being attacked by a wild animal. I’ll get to that shortly.

The trip started off innocuously enough. My parents flew into Melbourne, took one look at my place that I share with three housemates, and decided to drive to Sydney—where I would meet them after my job interview.  Yes, the house is generally in a disgusting state, but it’s also one of the cheapest places in Melbourne. I can’t complain about that, but I also can’t blame my parents for not wanting to stay here.

So I met up with my parent in Sydney and we did some sightseeing. Then we hopped on an overnight train to Brisbane. Overnight trains are supposed to be like getting travel and lodging together in one convenient package, but the reality isn’t that pleasant. Especially when oblivious parents won’t control their obnoxious children. Although my mom did get me a new Amazon Kindle, so that kept me occupied for a while.

And I wasn’t being that obnoxious, really.

Brisbane was cool. Taking the ferry downtown every day wasn’t necessary, but we did it just for fun. We also went to a game reserve where they had koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats.

Koalas are pretty stupid animals. No, seriously. Most of their energy goes to detoxifying the eucalyptus leaves they eat, and not much is left over for higher mental functioning. Much like some people I know back in Montana—except with beer instead of eucalyptus.

a squinty-eyed koala bear

See those vacant eyes? Yeah.

Kangaroos are cool though. The reason they’re built the way they are—and why they hop—is that’s the most energy-efficient way to travel moderate distances. I tried it myself, but couldn’t really get the hang of it. Then again, I’m not built like a kangaroo. Still, the way they pivot their bodies forward for optimal balance just before they start hopping is pretty fun to watch.


Australian animal physics should be a required science course

Next, we drove north to Cairns. This was not….the best plan we could’ve had. We thought the road would be right next to the ocean like it appeared on the map, but it actually was quite far inland. And not scenic. As my dad put it, “We could’ve just driven back and forth on the same stretch of road every day, and we would’ve seen the exact same thing.”

Dad walking back from the beach

This spot was cool though.

At Cairns, we went snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef, which was incredible. But my most interesting animal encounter happened just after that.

The cassowary is an extremely rare bird native to the forests of northwestern Australia. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that the first time we saw one (it walked right next to our car), so we didn’t bother to take any picture. In fact, I mocked the people getting so close to a dangerous wild animal just for a picture.

Then I found out just how rare it is to see one in the wild. Needless to say, I became determined to get a good picture if we ever encountered another one.


This is the only shot we got of the first one.

I got the chance sooner than I expected. Heading out from the parking lot after another hike, I spotted movement in the bushes. I grabbed my dad’s camera (which I’d never used before) and dashed off with some Italians who also wanted pictures of it.

The cassowary headed away from us as we crashed into the forest after it. I pointed the camera and pressed the button, but for some reason it wasn’t working. I stopped to see what was wrong with it when I heard one of the Italians shout, “It’s coming right for us!”

Sure enough, it was charging us. I read that if attacked by a cassowary you should 1) not run, 2) get behind a tree, and 3) if there are no convenient trees, pick something up and hold it between you and the cassowary. There were no convenient trees around, so while everyone else ran, I did the only thing I could. I took off my sandal and waved it threateningly at the cassowary. Apparently this worked (or it just lost interest), because it turned and walked off into the forest. Much to my relief. After all, I didn’t relish the choice between getting maimed by a freaky dinosaur-looking bird and assaulting an endangered species with my sandal.

And my dad’s camera? As it turns out, it was set on ‘video’. And I was holding it backwards.

The video is hilarious.