I only wear goggles when swimming May 21, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, physics, research, science, societal commentary, Uncategorized.
Tags: goggles, lab coats, research, Scientists, stereotypes
I was recently chatting with an acquaintance when they mentioned they had seen me in the local paper a while back.
You were wearing goggles, right?
Well, you did have a lab coat…
No, I was actually wearing a sweater.
I have had articles on my work run in the paper a couple times in the past few months. However, only one had a picture, and I cringe every time I think about it. I learned the hard way that it is important to wear solid colors on such occasions.
The picture involved me standing in front of several racks of computers wearing a rather ugly ombré sweater. I find it interesting that this acquaintance knows I’m a scientist and equates that with the goggles and lab coat schtick so heavily that they remember me wearing one even when I was not.
I remember reading about a project where kids drew pictures of scientists, visited some at Fermilab, and then drew pictures after their visit. The contrast was striking.
Having talked with this person on and off during the years, never once while wearing a lab coat (probably because I haven’t worn a lab coat since freshman chem and certainly wouldn’t out in public), I’m very surprised that they still imagine me that way. I guess it goes to show how powerful those stereotypes are.
I think I need to have a “Visit Cherish At Work” day where people can watch me sit at my computer, lab coat free.
Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
Tags: funding, proposals, reviewer comments, soft money
I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review. The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.
I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money. This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year. Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…
I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.” On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.
It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements. For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants. Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work. I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.
But what about people who are in a situation like I am? I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to). Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true). If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year. Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.
Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so. Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.
And I wah-wah-wonder why… May 16, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
Tags: farming, proposals, reviewer comments
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I’ve been getting comments back on proposals I wrote last fall. Most of them are really helpful, but there are a couple major head scratchers.
There was one comment, however, that was just plain funny and managed to make it into the project summary. One of the reviewers simply asked, “Why?!”
As our group was going over the reviews, we came to that one, and the response was, “Obviously, he (or she) must be from a city.”
The project involves developing a product to help with precision agricultural practices. It’s very funny that I’ve discussed this project with several people who have no technical background whatsoever and, because most of the people I’ve discussed this with outside of work have had some ties to farming (it’s pretty easy when you grow up in North Dakota), they immediately understand the implications of the project. If we can make it work, they say, that would be really incredible and help save money for farmers, etc. Given that it’s clear to most people I know without getting into technical details, it should be obvious to everyone, right?
Nope. I suppose the flip side of this is that our group took it for granted that the benefits of this project were obvious and so we didn’t spend as much time justifying it as we could have. I suppose the folks shelling out government funding for projects are pretty likely to be city dwellers…probably in big cities, at that. How many have ever even stepped foot on a farm? I suppose they have a rather simplified view of the whole growing food process. And we obviously didn’t take our audience into account.
I can easily see, though, why some academics get the reputation of being stuck in an ivory tower.
self scrutiny March 25, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
Tags: conference, papers, peer review, reviewer comments
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After spending a considerable amount of time griping about other people’s papers, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t complain about my own once in a while, as well. I’m currently revising a paper that I and a coauthor submitted to a conference. It was accepted, but there were changes requested. I started to work through some of them, but then realized that some of the comments didn’t make sense.
I sat down with a couple people, including the coauthor, and we started trying to figure out what was going on. After reading through each comment with a fine-tooth comb, we came to the realization that the problem was that we took for granted the method we were using and gave a very succinct explanation. It obviously wasn’t enough: we gathered from the comments that they resulted in a complete misunderstanding of what we were showing.
In other words, I screwed up because I didn’t explain clearly enough what we were doing. This lead to some huge misunderstandings by the reviewers, and some of the more…ummm…cynical? Yes, cynical is a good euphemism. Anyway, this explains some of the more cynical comments we got from reviewers.
The good news is that, with more explanation, I think we’ll have a much better paper when we’re done. However, this has made me realize that I really can’t take for granted what my reviewers may or may not know. It’s best to be as explicit and detailed as possible.
Repost: You’re only as washed up as you think you are March 21, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, work.
Tags: awards, career, nobel, recognition, science
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Note: In the course of conversations, I sometimes find myself discussing something that I realize I’ve posted before. Such was the case with the false notion that scientific honors go only to those who are brilliant in their youth, and so I’m republishing a post from the old blog which addresses this point.
I was listening to a speaker talk about success in grad school. This person said something that has bugged me to this day, particularly since I was 28 at the time. The person sitting next to me was 45…someone who’d worked in industry for over 20 years and decided to get a PhD. Both of us, of course, were parents. He said:
“You want to get through grad school as fast as you can. You want to do your masters in 1 1/2 year, PhD in 3 to 4. You want to do this because you’re young and don’t have families to distract you. Most of the greatest scientists made their great discoveries before they were 25, and you don’t want to be washed up.”
Needless to say, my fellow attendee and I sat slack-jawed after this most definitive pronouncement. We never heard the rest of the talk. We were too stunned to hear anything aside from the fact that were hopeless.
I wonder if this is the whole reason that so many academics feel you can’t succeed unless you put in 80+ hrs./week.
Look at it this way:
1 – The only reason to do science (or engineering) is to win great prizes in your field and endear you to humanity. (You see, you can’t do a job like that simply because you enjoy it. Never mind that most average people have no clue about the majority of Nobel prize winners.)
2 – You must make a brilliant breakthrough early in life to set the tone of your entire career.
3 – If you don’t manage to pull off #2, in order to achieve #1, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after the people who do manage to pull off #2. In that case, you must spend every waking minute focusing on your career and everything else is a distraction. (See FSP’s post on monomania, as well as the follow-up on Women in Science).
All I can say is, “Dudes, get over yourselves.“
If you check out this paper (sorry about it being locked, but the NDSU library was nice enough to let me see it), there’s a lot of info that says how whacked out this view is.
It does some nice statistical analysis of Nobel Prize Winners in Physics for the period 1901-2000. Keep in mind that, unlike many professional society awards (the highest of which are usually given for career achievements), the Nobel Prize is a one shot deal. You may be a bright and highly productive person, but unless you make the one great discovery being considered most important to humanity, you aren’t eligible.
It says that Nobel prize winners, at the time of their great discovery, ranged in age from 22 to 64. The average age of the physicist at the time of discovery is 37.4 years with a standard deviation of 8.1 years. (That means that about 2/3 of the people make their discoveries between the ages of 29ish and 45ish.) On average, they get their awards 15 years after their discovery…but the range was 1 year to 53 years later. They did say that the trend seemed to be moving toward the laureates being older when they received their awards.
So the most compelling reason I can see to try to make that prize-winning discovery before you’re 25 is so that you aren’t awarded the damned thing post-humously!
(Keep in mind that your chances of actually winning something like the Nobel prize are probably not quite as bad as winning a lottery, but the chances still aren’t all that great. The max they can award is 30 per decade.)
As a counter to the three “thought points” above, I think these make more sense:
1 – Your best discoveries can happen any time between the time you initially become brilliant at something to when you’ve been brilliant at it for decades. If you are going to win a Nobel, chances are you’ll probably have been at it between one and two decades.
2 – A researcher with a good work ethic who has the time to enjoy his or her life may be less prone to burnout and may actually be able to accomplish something later in life. How many profs get tenure, take a sigh of relief, and just sit there because they’ve had the life sucked out of them as a grad student and assistant prof?
3 – You don’t have to spend the rest of your life playing catch up. Richard Hamming actually suggested that you change (sub)fields every 7-10 years so that your ideas don’t get stale. I’ve often wondered if having a very diverse background (which can take a while to accumulate) may in fact serve the purpose of coming at new fields with fresh ideas…rather than taking the single-minded, monomania approach that seems to be so often revered in science. Maybe, possibly, that approach is more suited to beating a dead horse. (Not always, of course.)
If you’d like more examples of how not to be washed up, I suggest reading R.W.P. King’s Obit. Pay close attention to this paragraph:
His scientific contributions were prodigious. He was the author of 12 books, many of them treatises; many book and encyclopedia chapters; and more than 300 journal papers. Most amazing, he never seemed to slow down. He published his latest book at age 97 and published his latest journal paper at age 98. He received numerous honors. King was a Life Fellow of IEEE and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
If I win the Nobel prize, I want my discovery to happen when I’m older than 37.4 years. That way, when I do it, I’ll be above average…even for a Nobel prize winner. But in all honesty, I think I’d prefer to still be publishing papers when I’m 98.
Lost in translation March 18, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, research.
Tags: fortran, matlab, programming
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I took my first class in Fortran in the fall semester of 1992, while I was still in high school. I was taking some classes at the university as an early entry student, and the teacher of the course was a grad student. He was trying to explain something and kept getting the syntax wrong. I was getting horribly frustrated, as were the rest of us. He probably noticed as his response was to say, “I know three operating systems, which means I’ve become completely useless in all of them.”
I didn’t understand how he could confuse things like that as I was taking German and Spanish simultaneously and never seemed to have a problem with mixing things. I had no idea how different it was to learn spoken language versus coding language. That was before I’d learned to use a handful of programming languages and started using matlab commands in my fortran code. Debugging is even more of a pain because it looks right…and it is, but for another language.
Review me, critique me, pan me, print me March 14, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
Tags: computers, engineering research, papers, research, simulations
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One of the first things I remember asking my MS advisor was how much detail should I include in a paper for publication. He said to make sure there was enough for someone else to replicate the work. When reviewing papers myself, I also look at this as one of the major criteria for publication.
I have tried very hard to stick with this rule of thumb, though there are things I overlook. Given most of my work is simulation, I sometimes forget that there are certain things which I tend to always do in my work, and not everyone does. Or maybe there’s a setting I never use and so the default stays in place. However, someone else may have a different default for that particular setting. And on and on. Regardless, I do my best.
The past couple weeks, I’ve been working on a new set of simulations. I’m basically taking widgets that other people have designed and seeing if I can use them for a particular, and somewhat unusual, application. I think it’s a rather interesting approach to the problem, but I keep getting mucked up. The reason is that several of the widgets I wanted to use are not described adequately in the papers. I’m not talking about some esoteric setting: some of these papers show widgets that don’t give physical dimensions of any of the parts! I have come across three different papers, all suffering the same problem.
I have decided that these papers are going in the round file. I was, at first, inclined to write to some of the authors of these papers and see if I could get some clarification. However, after encountering the third one, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort and decided to use papers from people who are more careful. I’m lucky in that there are several approaches to making these widgets, so I can be picky. That isn’t always the case, however.
I’m sitting here wondering first why the authors didn’t think to include this information and, second, what were the reviewers doing?! It’s not like these are complicated widgets with a million parts. Is it just my field of research? Am I the only one who replicates other people’s work? As much as I think peer review is awesome, I kind of feel like some people have fallen down on the job. It makes me appreciate those third reviewers that much more.
Tags: education, gifted, gifted education, homeschooling, research
A very long time ago, I was asked to teach a workshop for the Homeschool Association of California annual conference. It had to do with computers, though I don’t remember what. What I do remember, however, was expecting that I’d be dealing with a bunch of antisocial technophobes.
I couldn’t have been more off the mark than I was. I only had a handful of kids, but they were definitely not technophobes. Admittedly this is probably a self-selecting group because, after all, no one was forcing them to go to the workshop. But what surprised me even more was that they were very sociable. Unlike other high school kids I’d worked with, they didn’t seem intimidated by me or afraid to ask questions. I remember coming out of that workshop and feeling like I’d been slapped upside the head.
The thing I realized from that is my assumption that children schooled at home were anti-social was due strictly to my lack of imagination. I had assumed that if you didn’t spend all day in a room with other kids that you wouldn’t learn to interact at all. It’s not that I’d ever met many homeschoolers. In fact, it was probably my lack of exposure to the culture that made me construct my own version of how they must behave.
Interestingly enough, I find that it’s the one thing that most non-homeschoolers key on: in order to be ‘properly’ socialized, you have to go to school. After spending time around homeschoolers, and recounting my own school experience, I have always been extremely skeptical of that argument. It didn’t help when my older son spent a year going to middle school full time only to come out of it incredibly angry because of the horrid bullying, by students and teachers alike, that he’d encountered.
It’s interesting to me that this question also brought up in response to doing anything different for gifted children in normal schools. That is, there is the argument that grouping children by ability or accelerating their academic curriculum means that kids won’t learn to appreciate diversity and get along with other people. Most people assume that putting gifted kids in different groups or classrooms is bad for everyone.
I hate assumptions, though. I have, over time, come across studies here and there saying that, in general, these assumptions were wrong. I can only think of one study that said ability grouping had negative consequences, and one study on homeschooling that showed a neutral outcome on homeschooling. The topic came up in a discussion with someone, and I thought it was high time for me to make sure I wasn’t blowing smoke.
Unfortunately, the research on both groups is relatively sparse. I suppose it’s not a compelling interest for the majority of the population, so not a lot of resources are put toward it. I am kind of a fan of summary papers, mostly because they save a lot of time by summarizing the results from several different studies while noting the drawbacks of each. In that vein, I managed to come across one for each group, although both are rather ‘old’ by my standards. The paper on gifted socialization was from 1993, while the one on homeschooling was from 2000. (Social science progresses far too slowly for my tastes.)
For the gifted group, Karen Rogers wrote a synopsis of a paper which talks about several different forms of grouping and acceleration. The paper looks at 13 different studies on gifted accelerations methods. She found that academically, almost all methods had positive effects. If you look the psychological and social effects, the were probably neutral. Some forms of acceleration resulted in positive outcomes, some in negative. Her conclusion was:
What seems evident about the spotty research on socialization and psychological effects when grouping by ability is that no pattern of improvement or decline can be established. It is likely that there are many personal, environmental, family, and other extraneous variables that affect self-esteem and socialization more directly than the practice of grouping itself.
The studies that discussed homeschooling were covered in a paper by Medlin. Surprisingly, there were a lot more studies covered in this paper than on gifted education. Medlin broke down the studies into three groups, each addressing a different question. First, do homeschool children participate in the daily activities in the communities? The results indicated that they encountered just as many people as public schooled children, often of a more diverse background, and were more active in extra-curriculars than their public school counterparts. The second question was whether homeschooled children acquired the rules of behavior and systems of beliefs and attitudes they needed. (I keep feeling like there’s a comma missing in that…) While detractors may be pretty upset at this, the conclusion was that, in most cases, homeschool children actually fared better in these studies. Admittedly, though, the studies were hardly taking large numbers of students into consideration. There was speculation on this set of results:
Smedley speculated that the family “more accurately mirrors the outside society” than does the traditional school environment, with its “unnatural” age segregation.
This particular view stands out because it’s a view I see reflected a lot in analysis of gifted education, too: age grouping is unnatural and ability grouping is more likely to occur in real life.
Finally, Medlin asks whether homeschooled students end up doing okay as adults. There are very few studies in this section, but the conclusion from those studies was that they not only do fine, but tend to take on a lot of leadership roles. (I do know there was a study commissioned by the HSLDA a few years ago that came to similar conclusions, but I find a bit of conflict of interest in that one given who paid for it.)
If there’s anything people should be taking out of these studies, it’s that our adherence to age-based grouping of random kids really doesn’t provide the beneficial socialization we think it does and may, in fact, have some pretty negative impacts. In fact, I recently came across and article called, “Why you truly never leave high school,” that talks about those negative effects and how they may actually be carried with us into our adult lives. (Yes, I do realize some of the conclusions make the title a stretch, but it’s food for thought.) Given the presence of issues like bullying that have gotten more air play over the past few years, I’m very surprised people haven’t realized that it could, in fact, be detrimental.
Florida or bust February 18, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
Tags: conference, Florida, harry potter, presentations
After my lamentation that I had nothing to write about, I realized I was actually wrong. This week, I have to write up an abstract for a talk I was invited to give at one of the primary conferences in my field. Amazingly, I’ve never been to the conference. This is because the conference is always held in Orlando, and on top of the fact that I don’t tend to go to a lot of conferences, this one is particularly expensive. I consider it every year and decide against it despite the fact that I’ve never been to that part of the country before.
However, I was invited this time. Or I should say, both Mike and I were invited. The project was mine, however, so I get to be the
unlucky one to give the talk. I’m not one that relishes giving talks. Teaching is fine, but it’s a whole different ball of wax to give talks in front of peers. I know I can’t be the only one that feels this way.
The up side is that the Minion will hopefully be there, and there are apparently plans afoot to hit Harry Potter World. I may get to accompany him so that he doesn’t look like a creeper around all the kids. Is it horrible to admit that might be more fun than a conference?