The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

what #carfreeclerkship is not January 15, 2017

Filed under: biking,clerkship — excitablescientist @ 12:12 am

Lots of people seem to assume my aversion to car ownership is extreme and I seem to have succeeded in giving the impression that I’m a lot more hardcore than I actually am. So, score! A couple of days ago a random man on the street in Sechelt who saw me cycling proceeded to yell at me, “OVERACHIEVER!” (little did he know I’m a med student!) However, flattering as these assumptions may be, I feel like I should rectify a few misconceptions.


Most importantly: having my bicycle as my primary mode of transportation does not mean that I will ride it 20 kilometres uphill through snow while shards of ice falling from the sky pelt my face and baby cougars nip at my feet. #carfreeclerkship does not mean I am going to bike 100% of the way, 100% of the time. There are other ways to get to work, in this likely scenario and other circumstances, namely: taking the bus, walking, private jet, batting my eyes at people who have cars.


My preferred alternative is public transit. I remember a conversation with a friend of a friend who was headed to Vancouver Island to camp on a weekend that the forecast called for rain. Thinking that rain = misery and slippery roads = scariness, and having heard him say he was going to be short on time, I asked if he’d thought about putting his bike on the bus to get to the Horseshoe Bay ferry, at which he scoffed and said “that would be cheating”.




These performances of self-sufficiency/self-aggrandizement, glorification of individualism and scoffing at a wonderful public service and efficient mode of transportation are tiring a world in which we are all, beyond any argument, interdependent. I wanted to ask him if he also welds his own frames and grows and harvests his own rubber for his tires and tubes. You see, I use single-origin organic steel with a minimum 80% Fe-56 content that I extract by hand from the depths of the Earth. Oh and I only inflate my tires by mouth because bike pumps are cheating too.


On an oppressively hot, sunny Sunday morning last summer, I showed up at a venue across town to help friends clean up after a magnificent party they’d thrown the night before. Of course I didn’t bike there. My nausea and dehydration and my need to listen to Right Round on repeat (because it was a fun evening) were not compatible with cycling 10km up a hill in the heat. One of their helpers, likewise an enthusiastic cyclist, said something to the tune of, “well that must have been a nice treat to take the bus” and I wanted so badly to say that a nice treat that morning would have been to sleep more than 4 hours, preferably while someone administered parenteral fluids and Gravol. Public transit is a public service, and by definition a public service cannot be a luxury. Even for dedicated cyclists. And don’t even get me started on the elitism/ableism in looking down on people who aren’t able to cycle everywhere they need to go, all the time.


I post about my #carfreeclerkship adventures for many reasons including: because I was frustrated with the near-universal expectation that I would own a car, because I want to challenge the assumption that driving is the default. Because it brings me joy that far outweighs the inconveniences (and there is some inconvenience if we’re being honest). Because frankly, I think we all need to be thinking about how to live with greater reliance on each other and less on fossil fuels. Because I needed inspiration and I knew I wasn’t the only one.


If my comment section had any kind of measurable traffic whatsoever I’m sure sooner or later I would hear something like, “well she accepted a ride from a preceptor once because she didn’t feel like riding 20 minutes down an unlit highway at 11 o’clock at night (true story btw) so is the #carfreeclerkship tag really accurate, hmm?” Actually yes it is, in that I still don’t own a car. I know that if I did, I would drive much more than the occasional times I do now by carpooling, or using a carshare, or whatever. All my friends have had this experience; it just becomes too easy. And because they’re so rare, I really relish the rides I do get. My BFF offered me a ride once that was completely out of her way, even though there was a perfectly convenient bus option and I had time, because she could tell I was drained of all energy. Another friend drove me home when I was supposed to be the one helping him, because he wanted to give me a break from the slushy misery of Dec 2016 in Vancouver. These are the things I remember.


In conclusion? I think being flexible about how I get around has made living with my decision to avoid car ownership much easier. I think not giving ourselves options for dealing with extenuating circumstances is a great way to ensure we don’t stick with the decision in the long-term. Most of all, I am hoping that instead of thinking “she’s so hardcore!” people will look at me and think, “she’s not that hardcore but she manages anyway; I bet I could do it too.” 🚲


Porpoise Bay, shíshálh traditional territory, Sechelt, BC


Heavy Load (for a Petite Girl) January 14, 2014

Filed under: biking,life outside the lab — excitablescientist @ 11:24 pm

I purchased a new set of panniers last spring, about twice the size of my previous ones, and my life changed for the better. This purchase, however, was preceded by a pretty strange interaction with one of the bike store sales staff, who mansplained to me that panniers don’t come in sizes greater than the ones I eventually bought because “BC is really hilly and we wouldn’t want a petite girl like [me] to overburden herself”.


I am pleased to report that this ‘petite’ (5’8 and 160lbs, lol) girl is managing just fine, even after figuring out that on dry days her pannier capacity expands to something closer to 60lbs (combined) if they are loosely held together by a clasp at the top instead of rolled down to the advertised 42L. Consequently, I have started carrying only one pannier to work most days, in a vain effort to cut down on steric hindrance (I always feel I need triple the space of a normal person when I’m carrying bike gear). This has added amusement to the somewhat mundane task of grocery shopping, as I am continually surprised by the amount of cargo that can fit into a single pannier. In today’s edition, we have:



Fig. 1. Representative image of pannier contents following a post-work grocery trip. Pannier pictured in top left.


– 1 laptop + charger
– 1 notepad
– 1 daily planner
– 1 set of tire levers
– 1 bike pump
– 1 spare inner tube
– 1 bottle of bike lube
– 1 multi-tool
– 1 loose allen key
– 2 screws of unclear origin
– 2 spare bike lights
– 4 bungee cords
– 1 corkscrew
– 1 package of ibuprofen
– 1 bag of tortilla chips
– 1 jar of pickles
– 2 cucumbers
– 1 kg grapes
– 250g cornmeal
– 1 loaf of bread
– 3 dips: guacamole, sundried tomato pesto, pineapple mango salsa
– 1 glass food container
– 1 block of cheese


All in all, a solid investment, I’d say, and one that will in all likelihood keep my balancing skills sharp for years to come.


Trip report: Gabriola Island May 12, 2013

Filed under: biking,camping — excitablescientist @ 10:45 pm

Hello, readers of my neglected blog! I have been brimming with ideas for scientific blog posts but lacking the energy to write them. Instead, I thought I’d warm up my “creative” muscles by writing about a trip I took with friends this weekend. It is often helpful to read others’ first-hand accounts of destinations I’m thinking of visiting, so here is my attempt at returning the favour to the Internet.


Gabriola Island is one of the Southern Gulf Islands in BC, off the coast of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. I first visited this island a couple of years ago, while on route to Mudge Island, a smaller nearby island reachable only by private boat. This year, I proposed to some friends that we go on a biking trip to Gabriola; this article from Momentum magazine suggested it to be a good destination for beginner cycle tourists, which appealed to our group.


To get to Gabriola Island from Vancouver, one can take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Departure Bay in Nanaimo, bike a few kilometres to the Nanaimo Harbour ferry terminal, and then catch another ferry to Gabriola. The first ferry is 1h40min, the bike ride 15 min (if you know where you’re going; more on this later), and the latter ferry 20min; not the fastest place to get to but definitely worthwhile.


Buses #250 and #257 will take you from downtown Vancouver to the Horseshoe Bay ferry. Like all Metro Vancouver buses, they have bike racks and there is no extra charge for using them. After buying ferry tickets at the Horseshoe Bay terminal, you have to find your way to a narrow, gated and fenced walkway which leads to the ferry entrance for those with pets, bicycles and kayaks (!). There is no signage here. Cyclists are usually allowed to board ahead of vehicles, which is nice; however, there is nowhere convenient on the ferry to park your bike. We were directed to wedge our bikes (no locking possible) between a railing and the ship’s hull, obstructing access to a panel containing controls for opening the bow doors and other useful things; a ferry employee had to climb over our bikes to get at these when the ship was docking in Nanaimo. Not very well thought out. Given the lack of signage and no dedicated or reasonable bike parking space on the ship, we were displeased with the extra $2 charge levied to cyclists on each ferry crossing, and in addition to complaining about it on the Internet, will also be writing letters to the operator.


Getting from Departure Bay to Nanaimo Harbour is an easy 15min bike ride, but be warned: signage is sparse and the left turn from Stewart Ave onto Terminal Ave is confusing. You ride straight off the ferry and onto the Trans-Canada Highway, also called Stewart Avenue. Towards the end of Stewart Ave, you have to stay in the left lane (which I personally found intimidating as a cyclist competing with ferry traffic). At the intersection, turn left onto Terminal Ave. The signage here is not great; it says something like turn left for downtown Nanaimo and right for Victoria, but there is no mention of Nanaimo Harbour or the Gabriola ferry. Once on Terminal Ave, take the first left onto Comox Road, and then the first left after Promenade Drive, into the ferry terminal.


We stayed at Descanso Bay Regional Park, which was quite lovely, and very close to the ferry terminal on the Gabriola side. We arrived around 9pm on Friday, which was getting pretty dark but still light enough that two of us were able to set up tents, while our friend whipped up a delicious stir-fry with potatoes, carrots, onions, tofu, and home-grown kale (obliterating my idea of instant noodles as camping food). We did spot a racoon, so be sure to stow food out of reach; I’ve had racoons raid my pannier overnight for factory-sealed granola bars and have been extra cautious since.



Our Master Chef preparing supper by bicycle light


The following day, we stopped at the well-stocked Village Food Market for lunch and dinner ingredients, and then took North Road across the island to Drumbeg Provincial Park. The road is in great shape and gently undulating, the traffic sparse and the drivers courteous; the only thing worth commenting on is that the approach to the park involves a kilometer or so of gravel, not great for people on ultralight racing bikes but completely fine with us on somewhat loaded hybrid and touring bikes.


After a rather delightful lunch of bread, avocado, and locally made havarti with tomato and basil, we turned back, this time taking South Road. There is a VERY steep (18% grade) hill starting just before the intersection with Wharf road; this is the only hill worth mention that we encountered on the island. All in all, this island loop measures around 30km and is definitely beginner friendly.


On Sunday, we made a quick jaunt to Malaspina Galleries park, which was gorgeous; below are pictures of a pretty viewpoint and dramatic overhanging sandstone cliffs, which we thought would have been a nice respite from the previous day’s torrential rain.



Malaspina Galleris park viewpoint


Malspina Galleris sandstone cliffs


All in all, I would definitely recommend a trip to Gabriola to novice cycle tourists or anyone looking for a quick and transit-accessible escape from the city.