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A tale of two kittens Part Two July 18, 2011

Filed under: Cat fostering — sjoconnor @ 1:54 pm

The first few weeks with the kittens, they were terrified of me. I would sit in the room with them for hours, watching movies, working or reading, but they’d still panic if I got too close. I had tie the curtains up to stop them from climbing them, I took the legs off the bed so they couldn’t hide under it. I was constantly finding new hiding spots and having move/remove furniture to block said spots.

Completely abusing the "cat cave" bed

I knew food was my greatest weapon, so I bought them canned food and only let them eat when I was in the room. I also discovered via the Tough Love videos that kittens LOVE baby food. That is, actual baby food for human babies! I found a brand that had a variety of meat flavours, and even in their most feral state I could get both kittens licking the baby food off my fingers. It’s like crack cocaine.

There were really tough days. Days when neither of them had eaten and I would be in tears worrying that they would starve. But they didn’t. They won’t. Domestication is better than starvation, but some days I felt like a terrible person for not feeding them.

Maverick was the first to come around. She was always a guts when it came to food, so she’d always be the first to crack and come to me for a meal. In late February we had a huge earthquake in Christchurch, so I was stuck at home for a few weeks while the university was closed. I used the time to work even harder on the kittens. By now I could pick them up (sometimes with thick welding gloves, provided by none other than the Engineer). Maverick scruffed easily, so I could pick her up and sit her on my lap. Goose, however, would twist and squirm so he could still scratch me. Ouch.

Maverick with her new collar

Goose with his new bling














Because I was able to handle them, around this time I managed to worm Maverick, plus flea-treat and collar both of them. They looked gorgeous in their new collars, and how can you be angry at kittens that jingle as they run about the room? I started feeding them only when they were on my lap; once again Maverick took to it quicker than Goose. In fact, I think she kinda liked her cuddles.

My cat likes to hide in boxes

Maverik with legs akimbo














The time had come to take them on their first vet’s visit. One morning I packaged them both into a carry cage (they were unimpressed) and took them to the vet to be desexed. They were only there for an hour before I got the phone call to collect them because they were “freaking out”. The lovely vet had done my babies first so that they could go home quickly; I had them back recuperating by lunchtime. All said it was fairly uneventful. Maverick had dissolvable stitches so she didn’t have to go back again, and Goose didn’t need stitches at all.

After the big earthquake in February, sadly a bunch of animals went missing. The SPCA’s response was to provide free microchipping for all animals. Too late for those that went missing, but perhaps some insurance for those of us who still had pets. I took both kittens in for free chipping, plus another cat I was fostering at the time (Beast, an adult torti whose family had lost their home after the Februrary ‘quake). Maverick, again, did well but Goose ran around the vet’s room and I had to catch him with the welding gloves on to get him to sit still long enough for the chip to be inserted.

But then they do this, and everything is okay again…

Maverick sunbathing

Now they were both desexed and microchipped, I could start thinking about letting them outside. And add about ten years to my life….coming up next post.


A tale of two kittens Part One July 11, 2011

Filed under: Cat fostering — sjoconnor @ 12:15 pm

Between January and June I was sharing my home with two kittens, Goose and Maverick. I caught them running feral outside my department and spent months turning them around to a domesticated lifestyle.

When I first brought them home I had a hell of a time finding information about what to do with them. Now that their life with me is coming to an end, I thought I’d write up their story in case anyone stumbles across this one day and can use some camaraderie. Plus I get to show off their glamour shots and tell cute stories.

Yes, their names come from Top Gun; although Maverick turned out to be a girl. Female ginger cats are unusual, I assume this is because the gene for ginger coats is recessive, so a female would have to have two copies of the recessive gene in order to be ginger. Males, meanwhile, only need one copy because coat colour in cats is derived from a gene on the X chromosome. Males only have one X chromosome, so they only get one coat colour gene. Ta da! Science 🙂

A very feral Maverick

The twins were approximately four months old when I brought them home, though of this I can’t be sure. They were definitely weaned and the mother wasn’t in sight, so four months is I think the lowest age. I read around online and much of what I found was disheartening. “Some cats can never be tamed”. “Over four months of age the likelihood of taming decreases rapidly”.

A few weeks in and they were crazy. My hands were covered with bites and scratches, the spare room I housed them in stunk of cat pee. What on earth had I gotten myself into? I tell you what, bites from kittens HURT. I haven’t seen myself bleed that much since I copped a branch in the nose while out on field work a few years back. They’d clamp down and hold, it was all I could do not to shake them off and send them flying across the room.

There were many teary phone calls and texts to the Engineer in this time period. I was convinced I’d gotten in over my head, that it was too late for them to be tamed, that they weren’t making progress fast enough. My hands hurt and it broke my heart to see them so terrified of me. Luckily the Engineer is far more steadfast than I am and managed to talk me off the ledge every time.


I had no idea what to do with them to start with. The most useful resource I found were a series of videos from the Urban Cat League in NYC. The aptly titled “Tough Love” videos were the sole reason I kept going with the twin terrors. Right to the point where they say there will be discouraging days, but don’t worry the kittens will not starve themselves.

Next post: what brought them round.


Welcome to postgrad June 2, 2011

Filed under: PhD - Research — sjoconnor @ 9:38 pm

I’ve had an exciting day. For the past few months I’ve been acting president of our postgraduate students’ association on campus. Right when I was feeling unmotivated and unappreciated I got a much needed boost. An impromptu meeting led to an hour of excited chatter about what postgrads need and how we can provide it. There’s something so energising about meeting someone on the same wavelength as you; perhaps it’s just having someone agreeing with you!

This week I’ve been frustrated at people who are all talk and no “do”. I far prefer to shut my mouth and get things done. So I went into this meeting with the attitude of “what can I do for you right now?” When one of us came up with a good idea, I asked “so what do we have to do to get this started?” Both of us left knowing what we needed to do and I’m pleased to say my side of things are already underway.

The postgrad association has been offered a great opportunity to put together a welcome presentation for incoming international postgraduates. When an idea bites me, it bites me so hard I can’t think of anything else. So now I’m committed to putting together a welcome package that can be adapted and used after I’m gone.

All afternoon I’ve been reading other university websites, checking in on student services, and pulling up resources that will be useful to postgraduates.

Not sure who’s reading this at the moment, but if you have any ideas on what information you wanted when you first started postgraduate studies, I’d love to hear them. I’m sure I’ll stumble across some interesting information that I’ll post and discuss here.


Research etiquette May 31, 2011

Filed under: PhD - Research,Science — sjoconnor @ 11:31 am

It’s taken me a few goes to get this post written. I’ve tried to get to the core of last week’s issues without pointing the finger at anyone else. I may have failed, but I promise I did try.

Human lab rats are a special kind of researcher; by lab rat I mean those of us who spend our time working in the lab, pipetting, centrifuging, and checking facebook. Within our ecology field group, we largely share interests and research subjects. But a lab group can comprise of a wide array of students. I generally stick out as a sore thumb, the ecologist who turns up every now and then to run genetics work.

In the genetics laboratory we have to work with people from all sorts of research backgrounds. We’re all working on different topics, even if we use the same techniques, and we have to find a way to co-exist and get our research done. I see it as similar to flatting. You move in with a bunch of people, you’ve all got different interests and priorities, and you need to find a way to co-habit. You can be the flatmate who never replaces the toilet paper, leaves dirty dishes in the sink, and uses up all the hot water. Or you can pick up after yourself, be responsible and courteous. I’ve lived with all sorts, and now I live alone. There’s a reason for that…

Since my last post I’ve encountered a major issue in our lab. A problematic chemical was left sitting out on the bench where I was blithely using it and consequently messing up my results. It seems everyone else knew of the problem except me. No finger pointing, but the situation did remind me of the flatmate who leaves the empty toilet paper roll in the bathroom for the next person to deal with.

Luckily this is a case of all’s well that ends well; because I’d been anally retentive about saving my samples it only took about a day and a half to re-run said samples with good results. But it’s still frustrating, and I’ve been trying to work out what to do to avoid the situation coming up again.

It’s a little sad that it probably comes down to looking out for yourself. In my experience, the bad flatmate doesn’t change their colours very quickly so instead you have to adapt.

I’ve been thinking pretty hard lately about why the lab work seems to be such a sticking point for me, and I think it was highlighted this week. When I’m working on my own – in the field, writing, reading, data analysis – I get to control all the aspects of my research. If something goes wrong, it’s my fault and it’s easy enough to back-track and work out what happened. The same is not necessarily true within the laboratory, with this particular issue I had already gone back and checked everything only to find out the problem was something else entirely.

In this situation, I’m the more senior person in the lab. So I’m doing my best to lead by example, being responsible, tidy and courteous. I’m also not above a little bit of bossing around. But I think it comes down to having to look after myself. I can’t assume things have been left the way I expect it. A shame, but probably a lesson better learnt than unknown.

I like to believe there’s a silver lining if you’re willing to look, and in this case I have vastly improved some of my lab techniques. So I found it interesting when I stumbled across the same sentiment in a Glamour article on scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon. (Wolfe-Simon is the first author on the eyebrow-raising research claiming to have found an arsenic-based life form). I decline to comment on the arsenic thing, but one of Wolfe-Simon’s four tips was: “Ask yourself: what’s the part of my job I like the least, and why? If it’s because you’re not good at it, practice”. I’d already been doing that, by checking and improving my lab methods. Now I’m seeing the results and once again I’m enjoying being a lab rat.



Planning for de-motivation May 23, 2011

Filed under: PhD - Research,Science — sjoconnor @ 6:17 pm

Monday again so here goes for a weekly post. Last week I was working in the genetics lab, but it feels like I’ve got nothing to show for all the hours I did. A couple of weeks ago I tried extracting DNA from seed coats for the first time. I get DNA out of it, but it’s contaminated and low concentration. I figured I’d try running them through a PCR anyway, but late Wednesday I got results that weren’t encouraging.

For a few days now I’ve had a word document open on my laptop with a lab to-do list; I’ve yet to do anything on it. Ending a day with discouraging results makes getting motivated the following day near impossible. So now four days have passed since I’ve been in the lab and I can’t be bothered picking it up and trying again.

Perhaps I should be looking ahead to avoid those discouraging results coming at bad times? I knew I was going to be busy half of Thursday and all day Friday, and that it takes special motivation to get into uni on a weekend. So last thing on Wednesday, when I was rushing off to dinner with the Engineer, probably wasn’t the smartest time to find out I’ve got to redo work.

Looking at the to-do list, I can do two of the three things today. The third I’d really like to do today, since I have to leave the resulting sample over night before I can test it. But let’s start easier first, and focus on those first two. I know I’ve got most of this week to focus on lab work, so I don’t need to look ahead to avoid the same bad timing as occurred last week.

In non-PhD life, the Engineer “set me up” with a woman he met who owns the same kind of motorbike as I do. I wasn’t thinking too much of it because I’ve tried to set up rides with other women before and they never pan out. But she contacted me first thing yesterday and we ended up going out for a ride and coffee. It was fun riding with another female! I love the boys I ride with but riding with her was a nice break from their antics.

Update: Forgot to post this before I left in the morning, I got 1.5 things done off my list – the remaining 0.5 was out of my control. Tomorrow!


Back into the fray May 16, 2011

Filed under: PhD - Research — sjoconnor @ 10:48 am

It’s been a while! I think it’s somewhat appropriate that my last post was about the stress of PhD work. Life pretty much went down the toilet since I wrote that. Briefly: genetics work failed, my father died, we shifted into a new research building, we had two massive earthquakes, I got depressed, PhD work was non-existent.

That said life is pretty good right now. I’ve finally got some perspective to look back on the past year and think that I might have some things to say that could be useful to other people. There’s been a lot of pain and self-growth in the past year; it’s easy to forget the progress.

So I’m coming back to this blog for two reasons. First, to share some of the hurdles and lessons relating primarily to the PhD. Second, because I need focus and accountability. It’s easy to let entire weeks go by where very little gets done, so I had the idea to write here weekly updating on PhD work. We’ll see how I go…

But first, a state of the union. Though I say I haven’t been working on my thesis, actually I have got some stuff done. Almost all of chapter one is written, plus a few sections for other chapters. I’m still struggling with the genetics work I spoke about last time, but I’ve doubled the number of loci I’m working on and will have an idea soon what I can use them for. Analysis takes me forever and I keep getting sidetracked, so at some point I have to set myself some goals to just finish the damn stats.

Wish me luck!

Thesis word count: 15,400


A doctorate in panic April 26, 2010

Filed under: PhD - Research — sjoconnor @ 7:21 pm
Tags: , ,

I might have just experienced my first panic attack this afternoon. Tomorrow I will finally put a first lot of samples through to be genotyped and it’s a really big deal. I’ve been working towards this for at least the last year, and particularly over the past few months. This week I will find out if it had worked, or of it’s all been for naught. I really hope it’s the first!

Today, in between rushing around to seminars, I was getting the samples ready for tomorrow’s run. I broke into a sweat while I was doing this, so much that I could barely pull my gloves off when I was finished due to my soaking wet hands. I convinced myself that everything that I could possibly mess up, I had. Once they were all done and in the fridge to wait, I sent myself home early. There was nothing else I could do, and if I stayed I was only going to fret about what happens if it doesn’t work.

Driving home I had the shakes, stomach pains and couldn’t think straight. Even after I got home my hands were shaking and I couldn’t eat. Wow, I thought, is this what panic really feels like?

I thought it might be cathartic to put it down in words and think it through. Yes, it’s a really big deal if tomorrow’s run turns up problems, but at least I’ve gotten this far at last. A real problem means a delayed finish time for my thesis. An issue given I’m already making plans to go over-time. But should I have to go back to the start and repeat the process, at least I already know how to do it and theoretically I would be faster the second time around.

It’s still not a nice feeling though. Research can be fickle like that sometimes. I’ve talked to several other students over the past few days who have similar research problems. They can be collecting samples, sorting and preparing them, and it can be months before they know if they’ve collected the right thing, or will have any data at the end. Some students do safer projects. They do things that are guaranteed to work, and consequently they’re the students who finish on time and get nice easy grades.

The rest of us, well we take the harder route. We do things a little more unknown, a little scarier, and apparently we pay for it with the odd panic attack. But it should in the long run mean more exciting research, more important results, and you would hope a better all round thesis.

I figured I had a few choices to calm myself down once I got home. I chose the tub of chocolate ice cream, since I figured that was the best bet to both calm nerves and ensure I’m in a state to work tomorrow (if you catch my drift). I’ve been knitting and listening to music: the knitting pattern I’m working on at the moment is fairly complex, and I find the concentration takes my mind off other things. Plus there’s this post, which I hoped would put things in perspective.

What do you do to calm down and regroup when you’ve had a day? Have you ever had a panic attack, or similar, and how did you cope with it? I’ll take any tips, since the week might just get worse from here!