Category Archives: science

Stick a fork in me, I’m done!

The last few weeks have been an endurance test for me… by the time I got to mid-afternoon today I was completely shot. My job is difficult even in the best of circumstances, but when it decides to really force me into a corner it can be remarkably difficult. That’s fine, I knew that when I signed up for this life. But I can still be happy when I see a bit of a break coming up on the horizon. As of late this afternoon, things are supposed to be easier for me for the next six months, as I’ve been stripped of some of my administrative responsibilities until October and allowed time to think and reflect and hopefully to get things done.

This is much needed for reasons that I will not bother to go into and bore whatever few readers I have left after a couple of months of near silence. I am back-logged on laundry. There are few clean dishes in my kitchen. The bathroom is a disgrace and needs cleaning badly. The sheets need changing on the bed. These are the usual things that fall down when all-day work takes over and work moves from all-day to all-day and all night long. I desperately need a wife. These are the days when living alone and having no one with whom to share the household tasks really starts to grate on me. So maybe I need to break down and hire a cleaner. We’ll see.

But I will survive. I have the next ten days to recoup and recover. And then I’m off to the states for a few weeks of R&R; mostly to do with work but with a strange little family vacation thrown in. When my mother visited last summer, we discussed the family dynamic a great deal and I suggested that we should all hang out somewhere that is not Minnesota. As a result, we have crazy family vacation planned–the parentals and the two grown daughters, both in our thirties, both with PhD degrees and tough jobs but no husbands and certainly no kids, and we’re all heading together to Las Vegas for foodie adventures and to visit the Grand Canyon, which none of us have seen. In the same US trip, I (being me) am visiting a number of places for work (Denver, Boston, NYC, Miami) so it will not exactly be a relaxing trip overall but it should be a good one. And when I return from this trip I have a nearly-blank calendar for May, which is precisely what I need right now.

The schedule of work things that I am going to do while in the states is a good indication of the internal struggle that I am constantly facing between relaxing and trying to advance my career. It’s not an easy balance to make. I am keen to take interesting opportunities for interactions with others in my field and I do not easily or readily slow down. But I’ve been doing too much of this, and not enough quiet and considered working. When I was a PhD student, I had a very memorable Russian professor who cornered me in his office once and yelled at me that I had potential but I was not concentrating. I feel like the last 18 months have really been the picture of this problem, that I have been functioning and getting things done and mostly keeping people happy (mostly, not perfectly) but never shutting the world out to concentrate on any one thing, and I am getting excited now to think about what might happen if I actually concentrated on something for a while.

There have been times in the past when I have done so. When I was finishing my PhD in the US and was getting frustrated by the job market, I did in fact really buckle down and focus on fixing the biggest gap in my CV and this got me to where I am today. It’s time now to do this again, to stop rushing from mad crisis to mad crisis and from deadline to deadline and to seriously concentrate on the next big task at hand. I know I can do it. I just need to stop faffing about and to spend some time on the tough stuff until I can break it and start to make forward progress. It’s not going to be easy, but it is potentially going to be fun. Watch this space.

Not quite six degrees of Kevin Bacon

As an American working in Engineering in the UK, I am often asked if I was a student at MIT. Although I attended some very good engineering institutions in the US, I was never registered at MIT. It was a childhood dream of mine (geek confession, I had an MIT sweatshirt aged 10 and I thought my life plan was set) but it never happened formally. However, when I was in the last months of finishing my PhD, through a collaboration I had a chance to spend 11 days at MIT. In visiting Singapore, I have found that my life boils down to two, maybe three, degrees of MIT. Not six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Eleven days does not sound like much in terms of building a career. But I have found that, when I attend conferences of the sort that I am at now, in Singapore, the people with whom I hang out are people that I met during those eleven days at MIT. Or, at very worst, people who I met through one person that I met during that time. I can sort my entire professional life into either two or three degrees of separation from MIT.

Clearly those who attend MIT are more likely to exist in my world of research, compared with those people I know from my own undergraduate or graduate days at Big-10 schools in the midwest. I could guess this based simply on the number of my MN high school facebook friends who are still in Minnesota, compared with my work friends who are from everywhere. My MIT friends are from all over the world and have been willing to travel all over the world for employment, which is similar to my own circumstance.

But, I have to admit, I never thought those eleven days at MIT would play such a strong role in my life over five years later. In the end, the collaboration for which I was there did not even yield a publication (critical in my world of science), but just a Master’s thesis. I now enter into collaborations with other universities more aware of the potential results of the long-term benefits from having been associated with each other, although I honestly think MIT is an island unto itself and not following any pattern or mould associated with other engineering institutions.

I have one more very full day of work to do before I leave on the near-midnight flight back to the UK tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed this Singapore trip more than my previous two, if only because I’ve had so many interesting meals with interesting people (all who I know through my MIT connections). I’ve talked on this blog before about professional friends , and the longer I am in my job, the more convinced I am by the need to attend out-of-town events either with someone from my own group or in serious meeting-up-with-professional-friends mode. I’ve had a great time this trip, because I had three different friends (who did not necessarily know each other, despite the MIT connections) to have food and drinks and conversations with. So I leave Singapore knowing that this trip was worth it, and that the worth was mostly in the connections I’ve strengthened through our common interests in science and in which we might all have just managed to mentioned MIT in passing. I have no degrees from MIT, but I do have a strange connection. And I adore my “professional friends” in their second and third degrees of separation from a marvelous institution.

The blogosphere abuzz

Actually it was probably more the Twitterverse. Regardless, either way the breaking news earlier this week was that sex-blogger and author ‘Belle du Jour’ was a PhD scientist about my age. Not a professional writer. Suddenly the lines about how it was so well-written make sense–in this business, doing science or research is only a small piece of the pie, we have to communicate our results both in person and in print. So I’m not terribly surprised that she is an academic type in the sciences, we have to be able to construct sentences.

Overall, my interest in the story should be obvious: blogger, female, PhD, similarly-aged, in the UK, etc. Although I confess now, I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a sex-blogger OR a prostitute. There we go, you’ve heard it first. I promise that my semi-anonymity on this blog has nothing to do with a secret life as a lady of the night.

What interested me most about the ‘breaking news’ was the apparent contradiction that I saw in how Belle du Jour, now Dr Brooke Magnanti, was described. In the above-linked article, she was in one paragraph “an obscure research scientist” and a few paragraphs later “a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology in a hospital research group in Bristol.” Surely there’s a contradiction in being both obscure and respected? In order to be respected, someone must know of your work (and I mean the science kind, not the other thing) and thus by definition one could not be obscure,

relatively unknown: as a : remote, secluded b : not prominent or famous

Although when I entered her name into the search engine for finding academic publications (the mark of respect vs. obscurity in the research world) alas there were only a few, which tends towards ‘obscure’ in the general community (although perhaps respected by immediate colleagues).

The obvious mind-game that an expat in this situation must play is to imagine what would happen had the same thing transpired in your own country. Here in the UK we saw lots of press and a great deal of publicity for bit-players related to Dr. Magnanti (her father was apparently not happy, but I don’t link the story here as it reeked of spotlight-gathering). Other ousted sex bloggers took to the ether in the form of twitter, blogs, and daytime chat shows. There was commentary about the glamorization of prostitution. Apparently Dr. Magnanti is supported by her employer and work colleagues. And here is where we see the big difference between England and America.

If anyone, as a PhD and engineer/scientist with a good job in research, were to come out as a former prostitute while living in America, they would not be in the position of Dr. Magnanti. They would be in hiding. They would not have supportive colleagues or a job anymore. They would most likely have ruined their professional careers for life. Now some time will have to pass before we can ascertain whether Dr. Magnanti does or does not go on to have a fulfilling and productive career in research (and given the leaky pipeline we can guess that the odds are against her). Regardless, the fact that this is even an option is what makes England different from America, and makes me happy to be here in the UK as this story unfolds.

Expats and Creativity

Since I travel quite a bit for my job, I like to follow a couple of travel blogs including Gulliver from the Economist. This week Gulliver reported on an article in the main Economist about a link between expat life and creativity. Now I take issue immediately with the statement that follows:

ANECDOTAL evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad. Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link.

I can assure you that no one has proved anything. Some statistical model has been used to show a connection in a small study population in which confounding factors have also been taken into account. That is not proof. (Sorry, geeky science girl hat goes on whenever I see things like this extracted from the academic literature… best not to get me started down that path!) However, it is an intriguing concept. And one of the confounding factors that has supposedly been eliminated in the study was the idea that more creative people choose to be expats in the first place. Not sure if I truly believe the statistical model that says that was clearly excluded, especially based on the small study population. Regardless, the conclusion from the study is something to make an expat smile:

It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to “think outside the box” but also the capacity to realize that the box is more than a simple square, more than its simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities.

So for all the rants about two-tap sinks, lacking closet space, and bewildering cultural customs, this little adventure might be taking me down the road to self improvement.

Oh the indignity

The scene: I’m in my office on a Saturday afternoon, getting on towards evening. I’m wearing Saturday clothes: faded blue jeans with a hole in one knee, that really needed a belt to stay in place, a gray t-shirt with a green LLBean fleece with a toothpaste stain on it. Hey, I’m living in borrowed accommodations, I didn’t have my full wardrobe at my disposal and truly didn’t plan on seeing anyone.

6 pm: I’m walking down the hallway towards my office, coming back from the lab. I run into a colleague. I address him, trying to be friendly.

Me: “hey, what are you doing here on a Saturday night?”

Him: “what are you doing here? (pauses) More importantly, what are you planning on doing the rest of the evening? I don’t suppose you have a 45 minute general interest seminar you could give for a group of 100 high school science teachers?”

Me: stunned silence. “Um, I can look, I’m really working hard tonight, trying to finish my book before the end of the year.”

Him: “I’m really desperate, the keynote speaker for tonight is really sick and we have no one to fill, you can come to the nice dinner afterwards…”

Me: “Um, okay, let me see what I have on my computer. Can you come by in ten minutes?”

Him: “How about 5? We’re really desperate here.”

Me: “Um, okay, let me see.”

6:10 pm. In my office, checking my computer. Colleague comes in.

Him: “Anything?”

Me: “yes, actually, I have something that might work, but I really was trying to get some work done tonight.”

Him: “Please, we need this so badly.”

Me: “Oh what the heck, I can try. I’m not sure about dinner though, I really should get some more work done.”

Him: “No problem, you can duck out after the talk. Oh, and do you have a laptop you can project from? We were expecting the speaker to bring one.”

Me: (relieved) “Yes, I have this (Asus Eee pc in my desk drawer) and can pdf the file to project”

Him: “Brilliant, let’s head there and get set up”

Me: “I’m really not dressed appropriately”

Him: “Oh, it’s casual, don’t worry.”

7:00 pm. I am introduced to a room full of science teachers who are expecting someone else, and a very different topic. I’m nervous as heck, not remembering the precise order of the slides since I didn’t have time to look through them. I do the best I can. Some of the assembled audience are in suits and ties (or dresses) and I’m still in my torn blue jeans and stained shirt.

7:55 pm. The talk is over, lots of questions have been asked, and I’ve probably gotten the strongest applause I’ve ever had from a talk (I’m feeling totally chuffed). I’m packing away the tiny and trusty machine. I’m swarmed with further comments and questions.

Him: “You’re coming to dinner, right? You can answer more questions then.”

Me: “Um, I guess.” (there is no real choice)

9:55 pm. The three course dinner is done, I’ve sat through it in my torn jeans and my toothpaste-stained fleece. I tell my host I really must be going.

Moral of the story 1: It does get worse than giving a seminar at MIT in your pajamas

Moral of the story 2: I was justified in buying a second Asus Eee pc (one for the office and one for home) because if I had not had this one in my office tonight, it would have been a disaster. (See me try to excuse my penchant for gadgetry…)

Moral of the story 3: If you’re called at the last moment (and make sure the audience knows it!) you are not actually persecuted for being dressed totally inappropriately at a work event.

Epilogue 1: The speaker who I was replacing was a very good friend of mine, and I knew he was ill as he had cancelled a meeting we had on Friday. So to him, get better soon!

Epilogue 2: Tomorrow is going to be damned busy trying to finish the things I was doing in my office at 6 pm when this whole adventure started!

Rant from ‘home’

I’m back in the UK now, having survived a mildly unpleasant flight back from the US (I just could not sleep, something was odd with the normally quite good Indian vegetarian food, and it was one of the old fashioned, not-on-demand movie systems that plays a movie every 2.5 hours thus making it difficult to catch an entire film once).  I then had the far more unpleasant experience of coming into Heathrow on the long-haul overnight flight only to have them park the plane in the middle of a tarmac, make us walk down stairs and onto buses, and then get transported back to the terminal building.  I know Heathrow is undergoing major renovations right now, but I still find this outrageous.  Yes it’s expected behavior when you get off an EasyJet flight from Munich at Stansted, but not coming off a long-haul flight at the “flagship” London airport with the “flagship” national carrier, BA.  Sigh.

Furthermore, I ran out of reading material once they turned the dumb movies off, and was glancing at the continual bleating about climate change and carbon burdens in the back of the BA magazine.  Here’s an idea: reduce your carbon burden by not making every single flight circle London for 20 minutes before landing at Heathrow!  Just think of the fuel saved.  It’s not just me, right?  I may do a bit more long-haul flying than the average consumer, but in the years since I have been travelling between London and the US regularly, I don’t know that I have EVER been on a flight that did not circle over London for a significant period of time before landing.  Sometimes you can even watch the loops on the moving map image.  Always the pilot comes on with the same droning voice about how we’re in a holding pattern for landing at Heathrow.  It actually makes me start to wonder if the additional runway might be justifiable on environmental grounds–not exactly an argument I’ve heard before.   (For an interesting take on current environmental politics and policy see this from Slate on Friedman’s new book.  Why IS it that the environmental crusaders live in palaces_ALGORE_?)

That’s the news from UK-home, which is that I have arrived, I’m cranky, the movies I saw in both directions on this trip had only some mildly redeeming qualities, one more than the other, and my nose is still sniffly which might indicate the start of a cold instead of allergies.  And of course, with the CERN beast launching tomorrow, in search of the likely non-existent Higgs boson, there is at least some possibility that we are all going to go up in a puff of smoke.  In which case, why did I leave America yesterday?  I could have lived out my last 48 hours in peace and happiness without long-haul air misery or the need to open two weeks worth of mail and buy all new groceries…

Ding dong the…

Well, okay, there is no witch and certainly no dead witch.  However, I did manage to live through a day I had been anticipating for about a year, the biggest conference talk I have ever done in front of the scariest and most intimidating audience I have ever had to stand up in front of.  It appears as though it was not WOMBAT since the feedback has been pleasant.  And most importantly, I made it through.  Anything that doesn’t kill you…  Funny thing is that now, having gotten through that, I am having a really hard time getting on with doing anything else, I feel like I deserve a big vacation and not a big deadline tomorrow…  And I can say that it does not even seem to be registering that I am in the US since I am stuck in a closed conference site with all the catering and accommodations included, and a large EU contingent represented.  I could be anywhere.