Posted By Caulimovirus on March 17, 2009
“Baylor Faces Some Competition”
.: I find it amusing that some hotels offer both wake up calls and programmable alarm clocks. The phones in the Marriott went a step further and offered an automated wake up service right there on the phone. Neither seemed any easier to use than the other, so really it came down to my preference for ringing phones or beeping clocks, which to me was like asking to choose between slow painful ringing death or slow painful beeping death. Lured by the novelty, I programmed the automated service to wake me at 7:45 am. The next morning, in groggy semi-consciousness, I conversed a full ten seconds with the robot secretary on the other end.
.: Consciousness fully regained, but no less groggy, I surveyed my situation. My mouth tasted like fermented last night, and I was still without toothpaste. In desperation, I brushed my teeth with a naked toothbrush and water, making do with the minty residue of a previous brushing. I wouldn’t pass the kissing portion of the interview, but this would get me through the day.
.: Having successfully scouted the rail lines and schedules yesterday, I was confident that today’s navigational demands would be no different. I purchased another ticket to New Brunswick and scuttled down to track five. A middle-aged man paced quietly back and forth in the waiting area with his mouth agape and a bicycle tire in hand. I wanted to know his story, but I felt safer not asking.
.: Only after I boarded the train did I realize there could be more than one line sharing track five. The map in the cabin confirmed that there were in fact two lines, but nothing around me indicated which one I was on, although an LED above the door did helpfully display “NJ Tranist.” I asked, or started to ask, the ticket collector if I was on the right train. I got as far as “Exs-” before he said, “Tranrerratrahray.” The older couple in the car translated for me: “Transfer at Rahway.”
.: I think I would have to live in New Jersey several years before I could begin to comprehend their railway’s ticketing system. As near as I can tell, you buy a ticket which, depending on the station, may or may not allow you access to the waiting area. Then, on the train, you present this ticket to the nice man with the hole puncher, and he either takes it from you, throws it back in your face, gives you a second ticket and takes the original from you, or gives you a second ticket and throws the original back in your face. Regarding this strange new second ticket, he will either leave it pristine or lacerate it at random with his hole punch. The indecipherable markings on the second ticket is the most mysterious part of this system. My current hypothesis is that the confusion is deliberate and built in to prevent people from using the same ticket twice, since by design they will not know if it is still legitimate. One advantage of this explanation is that I do not have to expend additional effort understanding the actual mechanics behind the system.
.: I eventually transferred at Rahway and finished the rest of way to New Brunswick on the correct line. Walking down George Street again I made a second note of places to stop on the return trip: the fancy-looking 7-11 (for toothpaste and razors), the Starbucks (to recharge my phone), and Douglas Pizza & Grill (sorry Rick, didn’t have a chance to look for Stuff Yer Face). Growing up in Texas I was accustomed to everything being accessible only by car. Here in New Brunswick, however, an area the span of a Wal-Mart parking lot could hold a dozen or so interesting shops. And if faster transportation were required, you would not have to wait an hour before a bus would find you. What’s more, I discovered the bus stops were veritable repositories of well-structured philosophical arguments.
.: I arrived early to my interview, so I looked around the building for interesting things to photograph. I had to make sure I didn’t walk into the women’s restroom because the goofy-looking urinals in there resembled these failed experiments.
.: With thirty minutes left before go time, I found a spot to sit and finished the rest of my reading material, “Biology and evolution of beneficial and detrimental viruses of animals, plants, and fungi.” (It never occurred to me that picornaviruses are so named because they are small — pico — and have RNA genomes.)
“Are you Coby?”
.: I corrected him. He was the second person in the long process of grad school applications to confuse my name with that backwards-d-having asshole. The thing is, I’ve met several other Codys in my life (and distrusted them all — there can be only one), but I’ve never come across a Coby. How is this name more popular than Cody in the minds of others when not in actual fact?
.: The first interview went well. The professor had quite a few projects that all looked interesting, and one even had to do with VIGS, my current research area! A long-term project he’d been working on involved using viruses to curb the spread of a parasitic fungus in order to save a certain species of trees — precisely the crazy kind of science that most attracts me. Several textbooks on the shelves were familiar titles. I took that as a good sign.
.: After the sit-down interview he gave me a tour of his lab. It was messy without being disorganized, spacious enough to twirl without breaking something, and full of a science. He introduced me to one of his grad students who laughed when I asked if grad school was the 24 hour party they say it is.
.: Already twenty minutes late, we then strolled over to the recruitment luncheon in no hurry. I asked him what the deal was with state laws mandating full-service gas stations, and he said that someone once explained to him why it made sense, but that he had since forgotten all but the argument’s conclusion.
.: When we arrived all the tables were full save for one. We claimed it for ourselves and were soon approached by additional faculty.
“So how come you two get this table to yourself?” inquired a friendly prof.
“Simple,” my interviewer explained, “there weren’t two adjacent seats available.”
.: Up until this point I had been rather intimidated and anxious by the interview process, giving them a skewed presentation of who I really am. Without consulting my prefrontal cortex, I decided to loosen up.
“Alternatively, it could be the case that we are of such exceptional character and quality that we deserve our own table at the exclusion of all others present.”
.: I took their light, somewhat bemused chuckles as a positive sign and continued in that vein for the entire evening. I started to relax.
.: The prof that joined us (he, too, must have been of exceptional character) asked me where I was from (“Baylor!”) and followed with, “Do you like basketball?”
“No,” I said, “if it has a ball and competition of any sort I am generally disinclined to watch it. This character defect has alienated me from members of my family, interfered with making friends, and made me a pariah among my peers.” I might have played it too strongly. At any rate, he asked because apparently Baylor did something noteworthy.
.: As I liberally shoveled food onto my plate from the dessert line (“Blackberries!”), a lady informed me that my second interviewer was ready to meet me. His delightfully infectious laugh helped put me at even greater ease from any lingering anxiety. Though not involved with viruses, he sold me on his areas of research.
.: For all you biology and biochemistry majors reading this out there, your years of metazoan-biased education is depriving you of the some of the more fascinating aspects of biology. I speak, of course, of plants. Take a look at the amazing properties duckweed, a subfamily of flowering plants. They grow on the surface of waste water, double their biomass in as little as two days, and hold the record for the smallest known flowers. One species of Wolffia produces flowers that are only 300 micrometers long — smaller than some prokaryotes!
.: My interview with this professor was scheduled to occur immediately after the luncheon, but he explained his conundrum to me, “My wife was supposed to pick up my daughter from preschool, but she has an appointment right now. So, we could either do the interview here and now, or you could come along for the ride.” I chose the latter. That showed spontaneity and flexibility on my part — both desirable qualities in this most industrious of graduate school recruits.
.: The car ride, in addition to its express purpose of retrieving his daughter, gave this professor a chance to show me around the city and other parts of campus. I saw both the building that houses his second-generation sequencing facility as well as his house, around which he hopes to erect thickets of bamboo to obstruct the view of his neighbor’s home (the local wildlife, I’m told, has been most unhelpful in this endeavor).
.: During the tour, his daughter would sporadically interrupt our conversation to announce that she knows all about DNA.
“It’s inside you!”
“Very good. And what else is it inside?”
“And plants. Don’t forget plants!”
(Way to go, Dad! Disabuse her of the rampant metazoan focus that’s crippling her schooling!)
.: After dropping her off, he took me to see the plant sciences library in the Foran building. We found many prominent plant science journals devoted to wolves, fish, and butterflies because why not? I also glimpsed a view of the Nabisco Food Science Building, where I’m told they synthesize delicious.
.: I parted ways with my second interviewer and wandered upstairs to the previous professor’s lab. Earlier he invited me to sit in on one of the grad student’s lab meeting presentation. The professor was no where to be found, so I introduced myself to another grad student. While doing so, I lost my stride so firmly established at lunch and reverted to a mealy-mouthed mumble bum. I couldn’t think of interesting or pertinent questions to ask and just stood uncomfortably in a corner while they worked on their business.
.: Finally, possibly to diffuse the awkwardness, one of the grad students sat with me and explained a few basic facts of the program. I learned that there are 53 students, the professors are great, and most students shoot for a fellowship or GA instead of a TA. I tried to make a joke, failed, asked her where the lab meeting was going to take place (“You’re going to that?”), thanked her for her answers, and left.
.: Time was killed for thirty minutes, and I returned. The professor introduced me to more people and mentioned that one of the professors slated to attend had started his career working on Potato Virus X, a potexvirus closely related to my current obsession, foxtail mosaic virus.
.: The first student’s presentation progressed smoothly — nice pictures of lysobacter infecting hyphae and everything — although there was some almost comical back-and-forthing over whether the small black dots in the pictures were vacuoles or not.
“They didn’t stain red, but that’s because the hyphae were dead.”
“How do you know they didn’t stain red because of a pH shift?”
“Because look at them — the hyphae are dead.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because they didn’t stain red!”
.: Repeat for 20 minutes. I saw myself fitting in quite nicely with this group, though the only time I ventured a remark I wound up saying something stupid.
.: When the meeting adjourned I left the remaining professors and grad students as they enjoyed a particularly unBaylor treat. With my schedule exhausted and my phone’s battery dying, I boarded a train back to the hotel.
.: Two girls sitting across the cabin — friendly, talkative types — introduced themselves to me and demanded my story. I explained my aspirations as they related to the field of plant biology (“You want to be a botanist?” “I prefer plant biologist.” “Botanist sounds cooler.”) and answered their questions concerning the relative safety of certain plant-derived recreational compounds. I later learned that Kasia and Fedora were biology and biomedical engineering majors, respectively. The forty minute train ride to Newark was not long enough, but it’s nice knowing that, if I choose Rutgers, I’ll have people to contact.