My first invited seminar!

It's pretty darn exciting--I've been invited to give a seminar at a SLAC with a strong chemistry program, by somebody I don't even know yet! I'm really looking forward to it--my undergrad degree is from a really similar institution and I value that kind of education. They've encouraged me to bring recruitment materials, which I will definitely be doing. Describing my work to undergraduates and connecting it to relevant things they have been learning is one of my favorite types of communication, so it will really be a fun talk to give.

I did a little happy dance when I got the email. Hopefully it means my lab webpage is working its magic, if people have taken a look at what we're doing and have been getting interested!


Why DO we do this to ourselves?

Al Anine asked "What if I work hard and do well but still don't wind up with a decent faculty position?"

I can't give you any good answer--nor can anybody, which is what I am sure you are finding! There's no magic formula to success as a Ph.D. scientist. I think the best strategy is to go with everything you've got for whatever it is you want, but be ready to explore other options at all times. Learn more about 'alternative careers' (which really just means the huge range of other Ph.D.-level jobs outside of being a professor). It's funny that those are considered the "alternative," because there are a HELLUVA lot more of those jobs than there are faculty positions, and they are much more enjoyable and natural for most people in the world, as well. There are, what, like a few hundred faculty position openings a year in America? And in bad economic times, that shrinks considerably.

When I was looking for faculty jobs (and found it REALLY hard, it took me almost two years of applying), I thought a lot about 1) if I really wanted to do it, and 2) if it was worth the crazytrain I knew I would be stepping onto. I did thought experiments where I explored how happy I might be able to be in other jobs that used my Ph.D. skills, and the answer was overwhelmingly "VERY HAPPY." In the end, the exact right faculty job DID come along for me. But I wasn't waiting to bank on that: right about at the same time as I found this job and applied for it, I was also setting myself a deadline of the following spring. That if I didn't get a position in that round of a few applications I sent out, and/or if I did not get awarded my final try at the K99/R00, I was done trying to make it in academia. I would start applying for industry and other types of jobs instead.

I love writing, I love planning, I love communicating about science. I love translating complex concepts for people who need to be able to understand them (like my family who has been working so hard to understand my cousin's cancer and her treatments). There are SO many other things I could do that would let me do that. I think it's always good to just keep an open mind and be ready to maybe not keep on hanging on to that dream if the practicalities are killing its joy and severely impacting its attainability. When I let go of the stress and desperation of being so monomaniacal about that dream, I was finally able to think on a level about it that was more realistic and made it more achievable.

But just like relationships, it was all about right place-right time for each of us. I could have been perfectly happy with other job fish in the Ph.D. sea, I'm sure. Just like how breaking up with your first "true love" can be the wake up call you need to find out enough about yourself to actually WORK in a relationship, having to change your perspective on a dream can help you wake up to what you're really capable of doing and enjoying, and leave you open to other possibilities. Once I was much more comfortable in my applications (for the job and the grant), I was able to just show them who I was and see if that was what they were looking for. And it was.

Course evaluations are awesome.

So, I got my first set of evaluations from the course I helped teach this past semester. It's a big organic chemistry course required for entrance into the professional school, so the students are pretty driven to succeed (which can be a good thing and a bad thing when teaching them such a difficult beginner subject). There were ~280-300 students in the class, and about 260 of them responded to the course evaluation survey (we give a little bit of extra credit for participation in that, it seems to work). Overall, I got a good grade from the students. Most of them strongly agreed or agreed with positive statements about me, and most of them gave me an A or a B when asked to grade my teaching performance. So quantitatively, I did okay for my first experience teaching a subject I have never had a class in to 300 people!

The written comments were the best though. Overall the most common response to "What was the best feature of Dr. X's teaching?" was something along the lines of "She went at a good pace, was easy to follow, explained things well and her notes were really helpful." However, my most favorite responses were:

  • "Her facial features. She is probably the most beautiful teacher I have ever had."
  • "HER HOTTNESS (two T's)" **(sic--"two T's" was NOT added by me, lol)
  • "She's much better looking than Dr. Y. She also goes slower"
  • "she's pretty damn hot"
  • I was not a student in her lab **(I did not teach lab--I lectured to them in class for about three weeks)
  • "Honestly I do not really remember"
  • "meh"
  • "I really liked how she taught in lecture. I felt she taught the class like we were stupid and had no clue about what she was saying, which really helped me make sense of what I had read before class." **(is this a good thing or a bad thing??)

It was also amusing how even though the positive comments tended towards the "pace and explaining were good" theme, the negative comments were overwhelmingly about how I would take the overhead away before everyone was done copying it down and "pace was too fast and you should explain things better" (even though we barely made it through my allotted set of subjects, and even had to skip a few things, because I was going pretty dang slowly in reality). I think what I really need to do (and that some of them noticed and suggested) is to balance the lecture topics better, to not drag through the beginning stuff so that we have to fly through other things at the end.

Having such a big class can be really hard, but it also makes for much more amusing evaluation responses because everyone feels more anonymous. I had a really good time reading these, and I think I did learn a lot from them--I'll have to see how the themes change over the years, and hopefully I'll always get a few reinforcing my own inner belief in my "HOTTNESS."

What does a Ph.D. mean, anyway?

I was inspired by the January Scientiae theme, which is "as one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes." I myself have encountered many such doorway choices that I won't go into now. But I recently had to be ultimately responsible for a choice like this for someone else, and I was/am extremely uncomfortable with having to make this decision at this stage in my experience--however, I do think it ended up as the right thing for the person, and hopefully this post will help me flesh out why I can trust this for myself.

I have no idea what I really know about any of this, other than having gone through grad school and watched a few other people do it. On the near-eve of my first real year of helping people through this process I have been pensive. Pensive about what a Ph.D. is really all about and how I can presume to have any idea of how to make decisions about whether someone should be doing a Ph.D. or not. It's not a complete crisis of confidence, because when I really think about it I think I DO have a pretty good idea of what it should be about, and I have some reasonably mature perceptive skills that I think will allow me to get to know people deeply enough to help them find their path. (BTW: We'll all laugh at my hubris whenever I come back to this saying "OMFG, what the hell was I thinking? I have no idea what I am doing..." right?)

But really, as intangible as it is (besides the heaviness of a thesis), I do think there is a way to describe what a Ph.D. is really all about. It's about more than being smart (brilliant even), being good in the lab, being able to plan and perform experiments--it's even about more than being dedicated and wanting it (or thinking you do) more than anything else. All of these things are required, but there's something else that comes together in the full process of a Ph.D. and it needs to encompass all of them plus a special quality of independence and leadership that must emerge from the way you put together all the parts:

Notice how the Ph.D. is brown, because of all the crap you go through to get it.

Yes, it is a special thing. It is a desirable thing, this degree. It's an exceptional thing, that not just anybody should be able to do. That is what makes it a valuable degree, and why people put themselves through some hell to get there. BUT it is not the only way to personal and professional success, in science or the rest of the world.

It also does not necessarily groom and point someone right in the direction of leading an academic lab. There are many, many other productive, constructive, amazingly enjoyable, high-pressure, cutting-edge ways to use a Ph.D--but that's a topic for another blog and another time.

Nope, a Ph.D. (even for somebody who has been working on getting one) is not necessarily the best way to go. There are things you can only find out about yourself during a process like graduate school, and so it is almost always still worth the experience. But not "making it" through DOES NOT have to be a failure. It should be an opportunity to find out what your true skills and strengths are, and how to maximize them and strategize around your weaknesses. The door should open to learning what you do and do not enjoy about your work, and do and do not feel are the "real you" and what you can really do. Sometimes that means you end up opening the subsequent door that takes you through to what a Ph.D. can offer you in your future, but sometimes that means you need to decide to leave the Ph.D. door closed and try one of the other ones in that foyer. So many grad students never even know those other doors are there! They miss them because of the blinders they have on for the track in front of them. But that track means NOTHING if it doesn't make you truly happy (in some part of your body/heart) and doesn't lead to something that fits your skills.

It's true that you close that door, that maybe was kind of left half open by your PI/department before you were really ready (and maybe irresponsibly, since they really are supposed to help guide people to the right doors not just try to push them all through the same one... or open it and leave, and see who of the people dropped in the shark pit make it to the other side...). But you open up a lot of other doors that lead to doors and doors. The philosphical opportunity given to every grad student is to get trained in some science and look closely at themselves, and the next part has to come from the student her/himself: to decide honestly and candidly if they can really put together all the parts of that Venn diagram I made, and if those things would really get them to a place where they would USE them to their full advantage and cosmically justify all the investment put into developing them (by themselves and their mentors). So, deciding not to go through that door and letting it close can be the most important, liberating chance that ever came along (other than the chance to learn that much about yourself in the first place). It does NOT need to be a failure--it should be able to become an opportunity.

I hope that if there is ANYTHING useful I can offer to my students beyond a space in the lab and some money to do stuff, it can be a realistic and honest outlook on how to find where you can add value to your own life and the world in ways that don't necessarily mean following "the track." While still maintaining my desire and responsibility to promote excellence in training graduate students, and inspiring people to find the joy in being a Ph.D. scientist (I know that will make a lot of you laugh).

Also: Science proves it--beer goggles are REAL!


Effects of Acute Alcohol Consumption on Ratings of Attractiveness of Facial Stimuli: Evidence of Long-Term Encoding
Author(s): Parker LLC (Parker, Lycia L. C.)1, Penton-Voak IS (Penton-Voak, Ian S.)1, Attwood AS (Attwood, Angela S.)1, Munafo MR (Munafo, Marcus R.)1
Source: ALCOHOL AND ALCOHOLISM Volume: 43 Issue: 6 Pages: 636-640 Published: NOV-DEC 2008

Abstract: Aim: A strongly held popular belief is that alcohol increases the perceived attractiveness of members of the opposite sex. Despite this, there are no experimental data that investigate this possibility. We therefore explored the relationship between acute alcohol consumption and ratings of attractiveness of facial stimuli. Methods: We investigated male and female participants (n = 84), using male and female facial stimuli, in order to investigate possible sex differences, and whether any effects of alcohol are selective for opposite-sex facial stimuli. We tested participants immediately following consumption of alcohol or placebo and one day later, in order to investigate whether any effects of alcohol persist beyond acute effects. Results: Attractiveness ratings were higher in the alcohol compared to the placebo group (F[1, 80] = 4.35, P = 0.040), but there was no evidence that this differed between males and females or was selective for opposite-sex faces. We did not observe marked effects of alcohol on self-reported measures of mood, suggesting that the effects on ratings of attractiveness were not due simply to global hedonic effects or reporting biases. Conclusions: Alcohol consumption increases ratings of attractiveness of facial stimuli, and this effect is not selective for opposite-sex faces. In addition, the effects of alcohol consumption on ratings of attractiveness persist for up to 24 h after consumption, but only in male participants when rating female (i.e. opposite-sex) faces.

Thank you

It's a little early for an introspective New Year's post, but I'm still thinking a lot about this semester and how things have gone and how much I've grown up. And on my way in this morning, I was contemplating how much blogging has affected this (and my processing of it). I started reading blogs right around the time I accepted my faculty position, beginning with Female Science Professor (suggested by happycat: thank you happycat!), doodling along to Drugmonkey from there, and eventually troodling (I made that word up) through into a whole array of interesting, thoughtful, insightful and moving writers (some of whom are on my blogroll but there are others I have forgotten to list). It opened a new world for me, where people were talking about exactly what I was worrying and angsting about, where I felt a stylistic resonance and an inspiration to start recording my own thoughts and experiences. I never knew I would want to be a blogger, and I never thought I would find blogs that are so right-on that I care about reading and want to keep up with.

So much of this is directly or indirectly because of all of you. My enjoyment of this experience, and the birth of my awareness of what is going on with my job and transition, have been actively and advantageously affected by my readers and commenters, and those who write about this crazy world of science. I just want to thank you all for that.

One more first semester lesson

So, if you're at an institution that gives TA support for grad students (i.e. almost every institution), make sure you know the procedures and timing for requesting your people get put into the TA support pool.

I realized today (when the TA assignments got emailed around) that in our department, PIs have to request that first-year students get put on the list before they've even officially joined a lab, just before the end of their final rotations... so somewhere along the line I was supposed to know that! But I never asked, I kind of just assumed they were magically supported by TAships or somehow during their first year while their status in a lab was still kind of in limbo. Luckily for me, some administrative scrambling has ensued to rescue my screwup and make sure my student will be supported next semester, but this is not the kind of mistake it is a good idea to make too many times before you come up for tenure.

So LESSON OF THE DAY/SEMESTER: Don't assume anything about TA support, it makes an ass out of (pretty much just) you.

First semester roundup

So, this is the last week of my first semester as an assistant professor. I seem to have ended up in situations where I learned a whole bunch of the lessons of this job in the first few months, including the usual normal stuff, but also some early lessons on the hard stuff.

I had to learn how to hire people with little guidance, and as a result ended up hiring someone who didn't work out and having to learn how to terminate someone.

I had to learn how to handle a grant deadline happening during the same three week timeframe as lecturing/teaching responsibilities, and how to (barely, knife's-edge) balance those two incredibly time-consuming processes day by day, one step at a time.

I had to learn how to keep being the teacher and the motivator in situations where everybody is frustrated and confused, and things aren't working that you KNOW should work and have worked before.

I had to learn how to mentor a more advanced student through a last chance, and the final decision (from the committee and myself) that a Ph.D. is just not going to happen. That just finalized this week, and has been an immensely emotion-wracking, stressful experience. Ultimately I had to make a decision for the futures of both the student and the lab, and it was really hard. I'll probably write more about it sometime, but not now.

I have yet to learn many, many many things. I am sure I hardly know the 0.1% of it. It sure seems like an awful lot to add into the normal stressful process of starting a new TT position--but what is EVER normal about this job, anyway? Hah.

I already feel worlds beyond where I was three months ago. The difference between talking and thinking about it, and living it and looking people in the face and having to BE a leader, have made a pretty major impression in me. My perspectives on myself, what I can do and how to make myself do it, have changed. There's still really far to go, but I feel like I am in the right place. So far I haven't had to anywhere near kill myself or ruin my marriage to do it, either, so I am cautiously (blindly) optimistic that I have set myself on the right trajectory.

We'll see what lessons come from second semester!

Frameworks for science communication

Well, I did it again: flurry of posting followed by week of silence. This assistant professor gig is pretty crazy, y'all. I am in love with it though, so I don't mind.

I've been ruminating on communication of scientific ideas. I've been watching a number of people at various levels struggle with and/or succeed/fail at communicating about science. I think there haven't been many good ways to teach the philosophy of science communication, and as a result most students have to kind of learn it piecemeal by having their work critiqued obliquely by others (oblique critique!) without a lot of discussion of HOW to build a scientific argument either in writing or in an oral presentation (for funding, for presentation, for teaching, for publication or other description of work done).

How do I know what I know about how to put together these things? How can I pass that along to my students and mentees? How can I get them to improve their work products in a way that also improves their abilities (and doesn't just mean I do their damn jobs for them)? How do I help them build their own mental framework from which to better communicate their understanding of, use of and work in science?

On my long drive in this morning, I drew this picture in my head of how I do this:

This so-called 'fiction' is not really a fiction exactly. It's more a communicative, rhetorical-type device related to the "strawman" strategy. Here's the deal: you build an argument by assembling a bunch of parts. These parts need to cover certain bases:

  • the whats: what is the problem?
  • The whys and wherefores: importance, difficulty.
  • The hows: how do people do it and how will I do it?

The key strategic issue is to lay those parts out smoothly and creatively. You always want to start with the whats, whys and wherefores--the description of the issue and why people should care about it. Then you want to describe what is known about it and how that knowledge was obtained.

If you line these pieces up right, you should leave a hole in the middle that you, and your reader/listener, can CLEARLY see the shape of: this makes your hypothesis/aim/goal jump right out for you and them! Now, you describe the shape of that hypothesis/aim/goal (which remains the hole), describe YOUR approach to it and show how your approach will perfectly fit that hole, highlighting all the unique, novel features of what YOU have to bring to it. BINGO: instant solid argument.

You can emphasize things like "Look at this special dent my approach makes into that missing piece on its importance to humanity!" and "My novel technology/model system will fill SIGNIFICANT gaps left by others and the problems with how people have been doing this!" These are those little touches that make you more special, that make people go "Wow, this person knows what they are talking about and has a cool idea!" rather than, "Huh?" or "Who even cares about this kind of widget?"

You can use the same framework to describe work in the past tense, too--rather than what you WILL bring to the hypothesis hole, you describe what you DID bring to it. You always leave room for little bumps you missed and spaces that aren't QUITE filled in your shape (future work, caveats, etc.) because NOBODY'S PERFECT AND NO QUESTION EVER GETS FULLY ANSWERED. That's science, you're not god(s).

Not only that, but this framework structure works at all the layers of the document/presentation you are putting together: you can map the whole shape of the overall argument this way, and you can break down each little sub-argument, section and paragraph into this kind of a puzzle. IT'S JUST LIKE FRACTALS!!! My favorite thing. If you know how to mini-ify your concepts and arguments as communication modules, you can build ANY kind of argument you want by just knowing where to go get some parts!! VOILA!