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Dear Leonard Nimoy, February 28, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, science fiction, societal commentary.
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I don’t write fan mail very often.  (The only other time was when I emailed Wil Wheaton, and he stuck a link to my old blog on his page.  Really.)  This time is a little different, however, and I wanted to make sure I got this one right.

I know you were a very talented and intelligent man in so many areas, and I don’t want to downplay that at all.  The wonderful thing about the internet is that your passing has made me aware of how many other talents you had beside acting as well as your wonderful ethical compass.  That being said, I mostly knew you as Spock, and so that’s what I am going to speak to.

Thank you for being Spock.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who might have opted for that spot, if it had been offered, but I’m very glad it was you.  Spock was what made Star Trek for me, and you were what made Spock who he was.

As a kid, occasionally my dad would flip through the channels and come upon a rerun of Star Trek.  We didn’t often like to watch the same things (he preferred football and action while I preferred comedies), but Star Trek was one of the things we really both enjoyed together.  The reason I enjoyed Star Trek was Spock.  As a kid, I didn’t really enjoy Kirk’s swagger and found McCoy’s temper a little bothersome.  I adored Uhura, but she was, unfortunately, an under-utilized character with whom I didn’t feel I had much in common.  Spock, however, was someone I could identify with.  He didn’t have a temper, just an even manner.  He always explained his reasoning, and he never talked down to anyone (well, except McCoy now and again).  He made sense to me.  Very few people explain things to kids, and I loved that watching Spock made me feel like, maybe somewhere, there would be calm, rational adults in the world…or at least on another one.  Considering most of my teachers talked down and weren’t terribly nice to me, it gave me hope.  I wondered if I would’ve happier growing up on Vulcan.

As I got older, I saw the movies as they came out.  Thank you for directing the fourth movie.  That has always been my favorite for far too many reasons to list.  I can only say it really reinforced many things I felt were important about the world.

Now, as an adult and parent, I have been sharing my love of Star Trek with my kids.  A couple years ago, we began watching the original Star Trek series.  We talk over the plots and stories, the characters, the themes.  My younger son says that Spock is his favorite.  He cried at the end of Wrath of Khan.  He hasn’t seen The Search for Spock yet, but I’m looking forward to watching it with him, even though it is an odd-numbered movie.  It was still a huge relief not to lose Spock after all.

Humans don’t have katras exactly like Vulcans, but a human version is that we can be remembered through the memories of those we care about and our visible works.  While I can’t speak to any personal memories, I can say that Leonard Nimoy’s works are varied and profound.  There is a lot to remember him by.  For me, that work will primarily be about Spock, which is about as good a katra as anyone, human or Vulcan, could hope to have.  I am very grateful that, unlike a katra, I can also share those works with my children.

Thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for giving us Spock, and for being both the best human and Vulcan you could be.  Thank you for acting out a character whose calm rationality and intelligence is something worth aspiring to.  Thank you for being a role model, both in real life and on-screen.  Thank you for giving everyone so much of yourself.

We will remember.

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Wordless Wednesday: There is no Macrocat, only Zuul February 25, 2015

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Partial perfectionism February 19, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, teaching, younger son.
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The younger son had forgotten a text book which he needed to do an assignment, so I told him that he should get done what he could and try to finish it up in the morning.

But mom…she doesn’t accept work unless it’s completely done.

She may not, I told him, but your future teachers probably will, so it’s a good habit.  At least she’ll see you made some effort on it.

There were several classes I’ve had throughout college where I didn’t complete the entire assignment.  Frankly, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or maybe I was short on time.  However, handing in 8 out of 9 problems, even if it didn’t earn me a perfect grade, certainly earned me enough to get a very high grade in almost all of my classes.

I really don’t like this policy of “it has to be completely done, and I won’t accept anything late.”  I totally get not accepting anything late, but I think the “completely done” thing is bunk.  I would rather a student put it in a thoughtful, partial attempt than not do anything at all.  The feedback I would provide as a teacher may be helpful to the student, too.

The notion of “all or nothing” feeds into perfectionism, particularly the kind that leads to paralysis and lack of motivation.  “It’s not worth it to do anything if she won’t accept incomplete work,” is the kind of mindset I grew up with.  Now that I teach, I know that every effort you make on your homework or on learning something will not be wasted effort.  Few people ever get any topic 100%, but putting in time and effort will get you closer.

I would always tell my students to put the best effort you can into your homework and then go to the teacher for help on the rest.  Teachers would rather see an effort or an attempt to solve something rather than a student who shows up empty-handed and saying, “I don’t understand.”  It’s very hard to understand how to help the student unless you can see where they’re struggling.

This is a good life skill to have, too.  Is it better to wait to clean the kitchen fully or should you at least take 10 minutes to do what you can?  Personally, I try to do what I can because I seldom have blocks of time to allow me to do things with the full depth and effort I would like.  You can make progress doing it a bit at a time.  It’ll never be as fast as you want, but it’s better to keep doing it than forget it because you can’t do it ‘right’.  Once it’s done, it doesn’t always matter how quickly you did it.

It also dissuades people from trying new things.  “Oh gee…I can’t cook crepes perfectly the first time out, so there’s really no point in trying.”  Honestly, a mangled crepe is almost always better than no crepe at all.  More importantly, you’ll learn from the experience.

I am therefore doing my best to teach my son that some effort is far better than no effort.  There are few things in life that we can do as well and fully as we like, so I want to disavow him of the notion of “all or nothing” right away.

Wordless Wednesday: You’re not going to eat all of that, are you? February 18, 2015

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Time equals food February 17, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in food/cooking.
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One of the most frustrating aspects of having Celiac disease is the amount of time it takes away from…everything.  It shouldn’t be that bad…I just have to stay away from gluten.  However, it seems that I’m basically stuck making everything from scratch now.

It’s amazing how many things contain gluten.  I can’t even buy many types of frozen vegetable mixes (!) without running into gluten.  (They use it to thicken the sauces.)  It’s a bit nerve-wracking buying anything that doesn’t have a ‘certified gluten-free’ symbol on it, and even then you have to be careful.  (It turns out that there are limits to the test, and I’ve found I react to anything that has gluten-ingredients, even if it is certified gluten free.  Apparently it’s just too hard to get rid of all of those nasty epitopes in things like vinegar.)

Of course, there are boxed alternatives to most foods that are gluten-free, but you’re paying 2 to 3 times the price for those items.  When we switched over to a gluten-free diet, our eating out expenses pretty much dried up, but the grocery bill jumped enough to make up for it and then some…and I don’t even buy that much processed food.

There is the option of taking a tax deduction at the end of the year to feed into your medical deduction. In order to do this, you have to keep every receipt, denote the items that are gluten-free, find a comparable item that contains wheat, determine the difference, and keep track of the differences.  The problem is that if you don’t hit the minimum on your medical deduction, you can’t use all this anyway.  We seriously considered doing this until we realized that we probably would not exceed the necessary amount to do anything but the standard deduction, and it would take a LOT of time and research to begin with.  Therefore, it seemed like a big waste of time.

Now I’m down to trying to make most things from scratch to keep expenses down, but this is certainly not helping with the time issue.  One example is (decent) bread.  If you buy gluten-free bread, it generally tastes unpleasant, though some brands are more tolerable than others, and you’re easily paying twice the amount of money for a loaf that is a 1/3 to 1/4 the size of your average wheat loaf.  At least.  I used to buy the fancy artisan bread from the local baker and it was probably the same amount as the gluten-free stuff, but it had a LOT more bread.  If you’re used to the grocery store stuff, it’s even more dramatic.  And the choices are pretty limited, too.  If I want a loaf of sourdough, I have to make it myself because there just simply isn’t any premade available.  (And seriously…who doesn’t love fresh sourdough bread?!)  This is not a quick and easy process.

This whole issue wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t enjoy food so much.  As much as not needing to eat would be convenient, I don’t think it’s in the cards.

Cale Anger, 1985-2015 February 8, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in geology, grad school, research, science.
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A good friend passed away a week and a half ago, and while it seemed somewhat personal to blog about it, I want to tell a bit of his story and acknowledge the loss.

I met Cale during departmental orientation at University of Minnesota, where I’m working on my PhD and he got his first master’s degree.  Within fifteen minutes of our first one-on-one conversation, we were pretty much telling each other our life stories as we discovered very quickly we had a lot in common.  One thing we had in common is we both loved food and coffee, so we loved to go places together that involved eating. In fact, almost every memory I have of him involves food as we made virtually daily trips to Starbucks.  The rest of the memories involve walking someplace (sometimes to and from food), but often we walked other places as we both enjoyed hiking.  My first hiking trip to the north shore of Lake Superior was with him and another friend.  The picture above is from a trip I took with him and his wife.  He was just like family, and it helped having him there when my family was back in Fargo.

Cale was a very smart and driven person.  After he finished his MS in geology (his research earned him a Best Student Presentation Award at GSA), he went on to get another MS in civil engineering.  His work focused on finding dioxins derived from triclosan (the antibacterial component of many hand soaps) in lakes around Minnesota.  His thesis won the University of Minnesota Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award and the research resulted Minnesota banning the chemical beginning in 2017.

Cale was an amazing person as well as a bright and hard-working researcher.  It’s rare to find someone who has that combination of brilliance, empathy, humor, and humility…and he somehow managed it all.  He was a very good friend to me personally over the past few years, and he seemed to have this ability to become friends with everyone he met.  He genuinely was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  Beyond that, he managed to make a positive impact on the world through his work.  The world seems a bit emptier without him, but letting others know about him and his contributions helps to fill that space.

Update: The Department of Civil Engineering and Geo-Engineering at the University of Minnesota has renamed their departmental thesis award after Cale.  They are attempting to create an endowment to fund a cash prize for the winners.  If you would care to donate, please go to http://give.umn.edu/giveto/caleanger .

Wordless Wednesday: Where’s dinner? January 21, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in pets, photography.
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Wordless Wednesday: Away from my treasure, ya scurvy two-legged land lubbers! (or cats laying on things) January 14, 2015

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Wheel of (PI) Fortune January 13, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science.
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I came across an article in Science from last summer discussing chances of being a PI.  It included a calculator so that you could look at your various inputs (number of publications, first-author publications, etc.) and see what probability you have of becoming a PI.  (I’m going to state the caveat that this probably is most accurate for biological sciences given that’s where the algorithm is presented, but I didn’t see that stated specifically.)  Apparently, the dependency is most heavily weighted on two factors: number of first-author publications you have as well as highest number of citations on a first-author paper.

One interesting thing to note is that the chances of becoming a PI are better for men than women.  When I was going through the various examples, it seemed like men generally had about a 12% better chance than women but it seemed to range from about 12% at the greatest and decreased with additional qualifications.  The lowest difference I saw for people with the same qualifications was about 8%, but that was with the very highest qualifications.

Being of a somewhat practical bent, I decided to take this for a test run using both myself and my husband’s publication records.  The thing that was a bit shocking for both of us is that the heavy weighting on first authors and citations on first author papers meant that, despite the fact that he has more publications than I do, my publication record actually is better in terms of chances at a PI than his.  I have more first-author publications, and I also have more citations on one of my first-author papers.  For most people who know us both professionally, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they would expect.

Despite my ‘better’ publication record, his chances at being a PI were still better than mine…by 8%.  Given that delta seems to be close to the delta in general between men and women, it indicates to me that bias could be pretty significant factor in getting funding, especially early on in someone’s career when they’re low on some of those first-author publications.

Fortunately, I can happily write this off as a thought exercise given both of us have been PIs on our own projects.  I’m glad I didn’t know the odds going in, however.

Wordless Wednesday: Squirrel! January 6, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in photography.
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