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A compilation of stories, telescopes, internship resources, and other things radio astronomy.

¿Qué pasa[dena]?

Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

¿Qué pasa[dena]?

Olivia Wilkins

It's been ten days since we arrived in Pasadena, and so far, we love it here! Today marks the start of graduate student orientation, so I'm taking some time to share my first impressions of southern California before convocation begins.

The weather

Perhaps the most notable thing about southern California is the beautiful weather. It is hot, but unlike Pennsylvania, it is not very humid. As I write this, the outside temperature is a whopping 104°F, and yet, we don't have the air conditioner on. Our apartment doesn't get much direct sunlight (we're on the eastern end of the building), and at 22% humidity, there isn't much need for it.

Since getting here, most days have been in the high-80s to mid-90s by late afternoon, with temperatures dropping down into the high-50s and 60s overnight. Every day—except one—has been sunny, making Pasadena a great place to take walks to Trader Joe's with the stroller.


And speaking of Trader Joe's, I love that store. Some of my undergraduate professors raved about Trader Joe's, and now I know why. The groceries there are a lot more affordable than what I expected (i.e. they aren't much more than what groceries were in PA, but they are heartbreaking after living in Germany), and they have a decent selection without being overwhelming in size.

Sure you can't get super soft, totally unhealthy white sandwich bread at TJ's, but they have an excellent alcohol selection (including German wines at not-much-more-than-German prices) and the store is less than ten minutes from our apartment by foot. The produce is weird in the sense that you pay for bananas and apples by the piece rather than by the pound, but the stuff seems fresh and sure is delicious.

So far, the only other grocery establishment we've visited is Vons, which is owned by the same company that owns Safeway. Some stuff there is really cheap, other stuff is really expensive. We got a gallon of milk for $2.29 on sale (milk can go on sale? Bye-bye, PA living!) and enough cheese to last us until December. We also got super soft white sandwich bread and way too much lunch meat. Vons will be a great place to stock up, but TJ's will be our favorite way to reminisce about Germany and shopping trips every other day. Hopefully, keeping up with that European lifestyle will also keep us from wasting food by preventing us from letting it pile up in the fridge (although that was much easier with our mini-fridge of a kitchen appliance in Köln).

Pasadena parrots

While I have yet to see a parrot, I have sure heard them! Just about every morning around 7:00, you can hear the parrots squawking on Sout Wilson Avenue.

Parrot in a backyard in Sierra Madre
Photograph by Dixie Coutant, via Scott's LA

There are conflicting accounts about how these tropical birds got to the desert, the most prominent of which is that an aviary caught fire about half-a-century ago, and the birds escaped (either through a hole in the building or because they were set free to escape imminent death). Pasadena is home to several species of naturalized parrots, and the San Gabriel Valley even has its very own breed, the result of different species mating.

Palm trees

Most pictures I've seen of southern California show a street lined with extremely tall, leaning, skinny palm trees. This is real imagery. Palm trees are everywhere! It is hard to believe I am in Pasadena for grad school and not for vacation.


The traffic here has been the most pleasant surprise. Yes, there is traffic, but the way it was described to me (including by a former LA county resident living in Oklahoma City) is bumper-to-bumper, all the time; what should take 30 minutes will take at least two hours. Thankfully, this has not been the case (although perhaps further west near downtown LA it is actually a nightmare).

But it isn't the quantity of traffic that has surprised me; its the quality. I expected really aggressive city drivers here and, while there are a couple of jerks on the road, drivers overall seem really friendly... like, actually let you merge onto the freeway friendly. Maybe its the four- to five-lane highways, but people go out of their way to give you plenty of space when changing lanes or merging off of the ramp.

And even more surprising: the speed with which people walk. Oh my gosh, people walk so slowly. Pedestrian in the crosswalk when you are turning right on red? Just wait for the green... they might as well be crawling across the street. Again, maybe downtown LA is a different story, but Pasadenans are in no rush (and I'm okay with that).

One last impression before I head off to convocation: Caltech's campus is beautiful; I cannot wait to share it with you.

For now, farewell. Next time I communicate, I will officially be a graduate student.