02 November 2009

2009-11-02: Fellowship quest


I meant to go to Makoka and continue litterfall quadrats, but I ended up spending the entire afternoon at the Internet cafe looking up information on fellowships (application deadlines are often in late fall, and I didn't want to miss any). I found a few new possibilities, and wavered between optimism and pessimism about the whole fellowship application process.

Main text:

Finally, I got up early today! My alarm rang at 6:40, and I gladly obeyed it, because I had a personal video-conference call at 8 and I didn't want to be late.

If I want to talk on Skype (to have a video call instead of just a normal phone call), I can't use a regular Internet cafe. Those computers don't have the necessary hardware or software (or privacy - I'd drive the other patrons to distraction). For Skype I need to use my own computer, so I go to one of the few places in Zomba that has decent wireless access: Annie's Lodge, a nice hotel in the foothills of Zomba Plateau. It's a fifteen-minute walk uphill from my flat. They sell one-hour wireless access cards for K900 (US $6.50).

Since I was going to be seen on video, I put more thought than usual into deciding what to wear. (More than none, that is.) My two best shirts were drying on the clothesline, so I wore my third best shirt, a red T-shirt with a collar. "Best" is a relative term - it is laughably faded and has developed a small hole near the shoulder. I trust the people around me not to judge me by my attire. I'm a farmer, after all.

* * * * *

I was out the door at seven-thirty. The day was already hot, and the streets were bustling with pedestrians and cars; this is when most Malawians go to work.

I always enjoy the walk up to Annie's Lodge; the northern suburbs of Zomba are the oldest part of town, and the most gracious. Tucked amongst shady trees are government offices, Chancellor College administration buildings, big old houses, and several upscale hotels. Annie's Lodge is one of these; it's a sprawling complex set in manicured garden terraces.

A moment after I arrived at the reception desk and bought my access card, the power went out. This was very poorly timed, because when the power goes out, the Internet goes out also. I'd have to walk all the way back down the hill and miss my video call.

But I decided to wait around and see if the power returned; morning power outages are usually briefer than evening ones. While I waited, one of the staff members (who remembered me from last year) talked to me for a little while. Last year, when I mentioned I wanted to find a Chichewa tutor, he said his wife might be interested in the job, and he wanted to let me know she was still interested. I am still interested too, so I gave him my new phone number. It sure would be nice to make some more progress in Chichewa.

Fortunately, the power came back after about ten minutes. I took my laptop and sat at my usual outdoor table under a shade umbrella. The login worked, and the connection was fast enough, and soon I was on the call. It's always a relief when information technology works properly in Zomba - that is not to be taken for granted!

When my alloted sixty minutes were drawing to an end, I wrapped up the phone call and headed back down the hill. Time to start the day's work...

* * * * *

My plan, of course, was to go to Makoka and continue the litterfall quadrats from yesterday. But first I had to go home and drop off my laptop. And since I was at home - well, I might as well cook a quick brunch (scrambled eggs and potatoes, toast and jam, and instant coffee). And if I was going to eat brunch, I might as well type some emails to send in the meantime. And if I was going to sit around writing emails, I might as well finish my next blog entry too.

So it was almost noon by the time I got out the door, and I still had to stop by the Internet cafe. Even when the day starts at 6:40, it's amazing how quickly it can be frittered into nothing!

The Internet cafe wasn't going to be a very quick stop, either. I wanted to spend an hour or so looking up information on more fellowships for which I might apply; I didn't feel as though I had enough options so far. My department at Berkeley had compiled a list of potential fellowships for PhD students, and I wanted to go through the list and see which ones fit me.

This turned out to take a lot more than an hour. The connection was slow, and the list was outdated, and I kept thinking of more things I needed to do - email professors about recommendation letters; order transcripts; and so on. I felt the afternoon inexorably slipping away, and realised that I was not going to make it to Makoka today after all. Well, hopefully this day would prove to be well spent, if I actually did get any of these fellowships.

* * * * *

I didn't budge from my seat at All Seasons until 6 PM, closing time. Whew. That was a lot of hours in front of the computer, and I was thirsty, hungry, stiff, and somewhat dazed. At least I had chased up some new possibilites that I hadn't been aware of last year:

1. Josephine de Karman Fellowship
2. Resources for the Future: Fisher Dissertation Fellowship
3. UC Dissertation Year Fellowship

None of these were quite perfect for me, but at least I was eligible for all of them, so it was worth a shot.

I had also spent a long time exploring the National Science Foundation webpage, and learned that the deadline is approaching for the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) in Biological Sciences. November 20 is the stated deadline, but these grants have to be submitted by the university, so the deadline for the student applicant is much sooner. I wondered if I'd still have time to apply?

I was disappointed to visit the START webpage and discover that their Call for Proposals for African climate adaptation projects had already come and gone over the summer. How frustrating! This spring I'd emailed the organiser several times asking when the Call for Proposals would be announced, but I didn't get a reply. And the deadline had come and gone over the summer when I was busy with other things. Now I wished I'd checked back.

The START funding would not have been for me; I had wanted to write a proposal with Festus to get funding for a Malawian student to work on the rainfall experiment at Makoka. Well, maybe we can apply for this grant next year, to fund a student who will take over from me and continue this project another few years. There's lots of life in those rain shelters yet!

* * * * *

After paying my final bill at the Internet cafe (K2450, probably a new record), I stopped by People's Supermarket for brown sugar and margerine, and headed home. I walked into the kitchen and found that one of my roommates had bought a cake, which was a nice surprise. So my dinner was Vegemite on toast, yoghurt and fruit, and of course a piece of cake for dessert.

While eating, I sat at my desk and organised all the fellowship information that I'd collected today. Tomorrow, another round of emails will be in order, to clear up some questions I have about these new applications.

Argh, how is a scientist supposed to get research done and go begging for money all the time? This was a day I could've spent measuring Tephrosia litterfall! Time will tell whether my efforts today were worthwhile.

Chichewa word of the day: chenjelani = look out; beware. Chenjelani ndi agalu = beware of dogs.


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